When Dolce & Gabbana unveiled its new hijab range for the Middle East “in a neutral colour palette of luxe black and sandy beige” last month, it no doubt had one eye on the Iranian market. Trade with one of the region’s most populous nations has been greatly boosted by the easing of sanctions that followed the nuclear deal with international powers.
The new line is yet to appear at the fashion chain’s branch in Tehran, however, and Homa Soroush rather doubts that it will be much of a seller. “Maybe it would do well in the Gulf States, but here? I don’t think so, clothing is much freer here,” she said, shaking her head only just covered by a pink scarf she had bought while visiting the Indian state of Rajasthan.
The 28-year-old wife of a businessman based in the US was examining a red coat with gold buttons but concluded that, with its price tag in rials equivalent to £2,400, it was something for which she would have to save up.
Ms Soroush was among a small crowd of shoppers in the Sam Centre in Fereshteh Street, a shopping mall filled with luxury stores. A sign outside announced that other brands were arriving imminently, Gianfranco Ferré being one. Roberto Cavalli, another fashion house, has opened a store in the nearby Zafaraniyeh district.
Even while sanctions were still biting over the past two years, top-end items trickled through. The Dolce & Gabbana store had goods impounded by Iranian customs. “They said we didn’t have permission to import such expensive things,” said a shop assistant. “But we got it through after paying a ‘special tax’.
“The problem was that people did not have money to buy much. Now, we hope, with foreign businesses coming in the economy will improve – there will be liberalisation and the ladies can take advantage.”
Apart from brief purges, Iran under religious rule has been more relaxed about the need for modest female attire than some other states. But liberalisation has been extremely slow in the sphere of politics. The country faces defining elections on Friday, but the number of women candidates remains woefully small.
This is not due to lack of female political ambition or interest in the two polls, one of which is for Parliament, the other for the Council of Experts which from time to time is called upon to select Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Rather, it reflects the attitude of the Guardian Council, another body that vets all candidates for every election, and that refused hundreds of women the right to run. Of the 12,000 Iranians who hoped to stand for parliament, some 1,400 were women; but only 584 were approved. All 16 of the women who wanted to stand for the Council of Experts, among 801 applicants, were rejected.
Ms Soroush was “very disappointed” by that decision. “These elections are meant to show the outside world how Iran is changing. But this sends a weak signal,” she said. “A lot of my friends are not into politics, they are more keen to see what new fashions are coming in.”
A friend, Assieh Mahmoudieh, interrupted. “We are not just into Western fashion, there are some very good new Iranian designers as well, like Neda Sadeghi and Orchid Ganji. But it is true, we have lost interest in politics.” Ms Soroush continued: “But I am interested in politics and I will be voting. Of course we should have more women in parliament. They have been there for a long time, but progress has been very slow.”
A few miles away at Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, Fatemeh Rahbar, was describing her work as chair of the Observational Committee, which liaises with the public. There were very few female MPs when she first won her seat 12 years ago, and the situation has changed little since.
What female MPs have neglected to do, critics say, is to fight hard enough for women’s rights. “They could have done a lot more, that is one of the reasons young women are disillusioned about politics,” said Asa Ozarpour, a 30-year-old activist.
Fatemeh Rakei, an equality campaigner, added: “Most of the women MPs in the current parliament have not only failed to achieve anything remarkable in the field of women’s rights, but they have supported anti-women ideas. They either remained silent about such things or they approved them.”
A bill introduced in Parliament which would have freed men from the requirement to register “temporary marriages”, or to obtain the consent of their first wife to marry a second one, was supported by several conservative women MPs. One, Laleh Eftekhari, declared: “Based on God’s order and sharia, a man doesn’t need his wife’s consent to marry again.”
Another, Zohre Elahian, called the bill “progressive” and echoed Ms Eftekhari’s call not to succumb to international pressure to end gender discrimination.
Ms Rahbar, herself a conservative who wears a black abaya to work, rejected any suggestion that she ignored women’s welfare. If re-elected, she said, she would put forward a bill to guarantee government loans for housewives. She would also press for female civil servants to be allowed to go to work and leave 40 minutes earlier than their male colleagues so that they could look after their children.
A campaign was launched last autumn to raise the number of female MPs from the current nine. President Hassan Rouhani, the reformist President, has spoken about empowering women in politics but has done little to make this a reality.
Indeed, reformist figure Ali Motahhari summoned the interior minister to the Majlis to complain about women wearing leggings in public.
He castigated the Rouhani government for sliding into the same level of laxity on women’s dress as did that of the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is one of the dichotomies of Iran that the great foe of political liberalism took a relaxed view of the need to wear the hijab head covering, and of men and women appearing together in public. “Let the people be happy,” the hardline president would tell his critics.
The Dolce & Gabbana store was only opened after Mr Ahmadinejad had lost the presidency, however. “His name just brings back bad memories – there was a lot of violence when he was re-elected”, Ms Soroush said. “We managed to get away to Europe until things calmed down.”
A group of teenagers, three girls and two boys, were standing outside the Sam Centre, smoking furiously. They were not that interested in the elections, or in the number of women MPs they said.
One girl, Nilufer, gave their collective view. “You cannot trust politicians, it does not matter what party or whether they are men or women, they are all the same.” They were more interested in a current Instagram hit, part of an international genre in which affluent young people in cities around the world flaunt their wealth – “The Rich Kids of Tehran”.
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