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This was written by Sakina and originally published at Ruined by Reading.
I recently finished Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni, which is a memoir of an Iranian girl who grew up in California and has moved to Tehran as a BBC correspondent in an effort to find a place where she belongs. She spent her entire adolescence feeling out of place, believing that if she were to just reconnect with her “Iranianness”, she would find a home and she would be complete. Unfortunately, once she gets to Tehran, she realizes that she feels like an outsider and a foreigner there as well. While she tries to find her place, she learns about modern day Iranian society and gives the reader an insight into Iran that is about more than harems and suicide bombers.
One thing that is constantly discussed is gender relations, and the way women are treated and expected to act and dress. Amidst all the claims that hijab is meant to protect women from men, and is meant to keep sexual desires out of the public sphere, Moaveni contradicts this by asserting that it does the opposite. At least in modern day Iran it does. And it makes sense. This is also an idea touched upon by Louise Brown in The Dancing Girls of Lahore – if you keep something from the public eye, then it will become more desired by society, more scandalous when it is actually seen, and on the minds of the public even more. In this case, that something is a woman’s body. According to Moaveni, many men are perverts who take simple things, such as smiling or even smoking in public, as an invitation to invite a woman to bed. Even the clerics ask women for their numbers, which is experienced by Moaveni herself in a particularly shocking and comical detailing of the time a cleric asked if he could get her number and visit her, alone, when he visited Cairo. Sex is on the minds of men and women alike, and the same women who walk the streets in a chador spend their nights engaging in erotic conversations in internet chatrooms. Even though the state forces women to cover to an extent, in an effort to control society, the opposite is achieved and the product is a society that craves sex and desires to talk about it and experience it.
Maoveni treats hijab and modest dress flippantly. But I can’t really blame her. Her only real experiences with Islam are in an unreligious community in California, and in a country where Islam is corrupted and forced down the throats of every citizen. The way Islam is described in Lipstick Jihad seems as though it would only serve to make the reader, uneducated on Islam, think that it really is inherently oppressive to women. But I can’t really hold that against the author, since this is her memoir and the purpose is not to educate Western readers on Islam – something which seems to be almost as foreign to herself as it is to many of those who will read this book. It isn’t her fault that her experiences with it have been mostly negative when it comes to the treatment of women.
I will say though that, although I agree with the idea that hijab can serve to do the opposite of it’s intended purpose, it is not inherently bad or corrupted. If the state had not enforced it, and society had raised and socialized men to believe that they can control their desires and are not wild animals, and that society’s virtue and honor does not rest solely upon a woman’s chastity, the Iran that Moaveni stepped into would have probably be vastly different. If only those ideas were applied to the entirety of the Muslim community.
Moaveni (pictured left) is an intriguing author and I enjoyed her memoir. Iranian politics and history are, to me, complicated and I have pretty much no knowledge of them except for my undying love for Ahmadinejad (you think I’m joking, but I’m almost serious). I realize that her memoir is hardly representative to the experiences of Iranians as a whole. She only really represents the privileged class, which is usually a class that is often exempted from the rules of society and can get away with a lot more. I would really love to read a memoir from someone who was from the poorer, working class. Someone from southern Tehran. I would love to read a woman’s story of her time serving in the Morality Police, though I doubt anything of that sort will be hitting the bookstore shelves anytime soon.