Source of the Photo: https://www.farsnews.ir/
“I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself.”[i]
The above quote belongs to the well-known Simone de Beauvoir, French writer and essayist, a leading figure of existentialism and feminism, who needs no introduction for those who are interested in the condition, the role of women in society and especially concerned to find an answer to the question “What is woman?”
Given the way the recent protests in Iran have been interpreted and exploited, for many Westerners this association of Simone de Beauvoir with the projection of the Iranian woman, disenfranchised, forced by a patriarchal society to wear the veil, etc., may seem blasphemous, considering the “image” that has been excessively and aggressively conveyed in the mainstream, especially once with the unfortunate case of the young Iranian woman of Kurdish origin, Mahsa Amini.
But would be an association between the woman described by Beauvoir in the above quote and the new contemporary Iranian woman, a wrong one, indeed? And how and where does this association come from?
First trip to Tehran
In the mid of January 2023, I was packing my luggage to travel to a great, distant country with a history as complex and long as history itself; a country about which I had read much, heard much, and which represented for me a mixture of magic, attraction, reverence, fear and safety in equal measure, feelings. I did not know how to explain to myself at that very moment. I was going to travel with stopovers, crossing several countries and many mountains at a time when the weather was not exactly friendly to either flights or temperatures. And although I was hesitant at first to travel there invoking the above-mentioned reasons, the desire to know, to feel and connect history with the present, to see and connect facts between what was said and what was in fact, and especially to understand why Iran has been resisting for so long under the Western sanctions, is so vilified and yet considered and labelled a feared adversary by i.e., Israel, mattered more.
And yet I could not help but wonder when I set out on the road: is my scarf and attire decent enough and in line with the demands of the authorities in Tehran?
I must confess that I am a frequent traveler to various parts of the world – including countries from the Arab-Muslim space – but this was my first trip to Iran. I have to add that I am also an active person on social networks due to my profession, therefore I was expected to see starting with the boarding gate to Tehran, the typology of people travelling to the capital of Iran, despite the fact I consider myself an objective person. Meaning, I was expecting to recognize that image projected by the main media entities used to (dis)inform that segment of international opinion made up of several categories of people with above average education and who hold positions from which they can influence political, security decisions at the international level.
As the time was passing by at the boarding gate gathered various categories of people, both women and men, yet most of them were hardly to be religiously categorized in other than the standard category of ordinary people at an international airport.
Moreover, a preliminary conclusion I had drawn by using passive observation of travelers to Iran was that, with the exception of a few women who wore various forms of hijab, in fact, one of the most important characteristics of most of the women who were about to board was that they were very careful about how they looked, how they dressed and that they were up to date with trends in cosmetics, hairstyles, hair shades, cosmetic operations and clothing, and were not wearing any hijab (here with the sense of head covering), except a (regular) scarf on their shoulders.
Therefore, the (subjective) expectations of a woman invited to Tehran for “The 1st International Congress for the Women of Influence” had been shaken and dashed right from the airport.
Also, I have to admit that a dose of confusion took hold of my logic; I could not understand why the number of women not wearing hijab was impressive and why I felt like I was on a path I no longer understood. Because in my heart I was comparing the typology of people at the boarding gate to Tehran with those at other gates at the same major international airport to Erbil, Amman or Cairo, for example. Because from my experience on various flights to the destinations mentioned above, the number of women wearing hijab generally exceeds 50% of the number of female passengers. This was moment number 1 in a series of moments I experienced on my trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran, moments that helped transform my initial perception of Iran and especially regarding the women of this particularly vibrant, beautiful, colorful and history-rich country.
Geography and people of the Islamic Republic of Iran: first impressions
The flight to Tehran was a quiet one, not very long, yet full of excitement only at the beginning, because the researcher’s curiosity and boldness with which I had set off seemed to begin to fade as the time until landing, dwindled. But the geographical conditions of landing in Tehran brought me “back down to earth” when I realized at what altitude the Iranian capital was, how those few degrees at the freezing threshold felt in Tehran when I first stepped out of the plane, and especially when I saw the attitude of the staff of the State Protocol of the Iranian Presidency, one characterized by professionalism and kindness, although the first attribute would have been enough considering the context. I was there for a congress and although one held at a very high level was still only an official event. Yet the respect, attention and care given to the various and colorful delegations who arrived approximatively at the same time with me at the Imam Khomeini International Airport in a cold night in January 19, 2023, led me inexplicably to associate them to some extent with the mountains in the vicinity of Tehran: bold, resilient, seemingly tough and yet friendly in a natural way. So, the first feeling I got from my very first moment on Iranian soil was that there is a special relationship between people and geography, that they resemble, accept and support each other under the protective embrace of time.
That was the moment no. 2. in terms of whatever opinions or views I had about Iran before decided to travel to Tehran, I had to forget them and start (again) to learn about it.
A glance of capital City of Tehran
I left the airport protocol area a little after midnight, after enjoying the aroma of a well-timed cup of tea and a pleasant, enjoyable conversation with an official from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, a gentleman who seemed to have a lot of diplomatic experience, inspiring respect, trust and admiration with his speaking tone, his knowledge and the way he communicated with the members of the delegations, whether they came from Europe, South America or Africa.
I noticed the professionalism felt in the organization of the event down to the smallest details, including the attention paid to the logo and the selection of the colors representing the congress that I kept encountering in different places during my participation in the event.
By the time I arrived in Tehran at the hotel, I noticed the infrastructure linking the airport to the city; one that reminded me partially of the highways in Germany, as well as the one linking the Queen Alia International Airport to Jordan’s capital, Amman, while the multi-storey hotel that seemed to straddle the city spoke of the relationship between people, nature, history and present through color, design, symbolism and elegance.
The Day of the Congress
Although very tired, I got up very early to get ready for the Congress and spent the first few minutes enjoying the view from my room on the 17th floor of the beautiful Espinas Palace Hotel (5*), sipping my coffee. I felt like I was in another world, far away from all the craziness of my usual day, a world where I felt I could rest and think because on the one hand Tehran and its climate make you feel like you can stop the time, and as well as the outside temperatures, and on the other hand, the landscape, the architecture of the buildings, the type of cars on the street and the way of being of the local people were talking about a world that is hard to decipher, therefore hard to conquer or control in a western way.
Going down to the lobby of the hotel, I noticed that I could already feel the atmosphere of an important event for women from all over the world; different languages could be heard, women dressed in costumes specific to the countries they were coming from, or simply in dresses, or very elegant deux-pieces. Suddenly I realized that the size of the event was far beyond what I had approximated; the number of women was impressive, but their diversity was astonishing.
The first stop we (the participants at the Congress) made during the first part of the day – by VIP buses that picked us up in an organized fashion from our hotel – was the International Exhibition of Tehran. On the way, I found that on the same bus with me were women of different professions, from university professors, political advisors, and ombudsmen to ministers.
Eager to discover, to know, and to observe Tehran, I sat by the window to take pictures and capture memories. It is impossible to say that the pressure of sanctions is not felt in everyday life captured from a bus on the run, but neither can it be said that Iran is on its knees. On the contrary, it looks like a society that has found its way and its balance despite the enormous economic and social pressures as a result of over 40 years of dire sanctions. Looking at the people on the street, their clothes, the buildings, and the streets, again I was reminded of the relationship between man and nature and resembled the life of Iranians under sanctions to that of spring water that in order to reach the surface has to make its way through stone and granite rocks most of the time. The more resistance it encounters and the more filters has to pass through, the water becomes purer and of better quality; but how it makes it through all of nature’s trials and tribulations to reach the surface only the spring water knows.
International Exhibition Center of Tehran: visiting the exhibition of Iranian woman’s abilities
Arriving at the international exhibition center, I noticed that the number of buses bringing congress participants to visit the exhibition dedicated to Iranian women’s skills, was higher than what I had seen leaving the hotel. At the entrance to the exhibition dedicated to the event, there was a substantial number of reporters, photographers, and cameramen and women, which was quite natural considering the size and historical importance of the congress – which I would become aware of only a bit later in the evening.
The exhibition dedicated to the skills of Iranian women was multi-floored and in various fields: at the booths were women professionals presenting their products or services using fluent technical English regardless of whether they were explaining the use of UAVs in agriculture or how companies could preserve the expertise of employees who had left the company, among others. On the spiral steps of the building were displayed many placards of Iranian women who have made or are making outstanding history in various domains having two colours on the background: bright blue and dark pink, i.e., the two distinct colors of the Congress.
On the left side of the entrance was a huge panel with data talking about – Achievements, Employment, Sports & Women in Iran, of which I am just reproducing a few:
- literacy rate for girls aged 7and over 99%;
- the percentage of female college students overall 56%;
- the percentage of women in senior leadership positions in the Environment Organizations 56%;
- the number of female Championships Athletes +930,000;
- the number of female doctors +30,000;
- the number of female faculty members +25,000;
- the numbers of female members of the city and village Islamic Councils 4,000;
- the number of female active in the Cinema industry 2,000;
- the number of female CEOs of knowledge based and Creative Enterprises 1,200;
- the number of female drivers of Heavy Vehicles 570, etc.
The number of booths as well as the number of female exhibitors in this center was very high; I wish I had had more time to spend in this center because I would have had a lot to learn about the role of women in the advancement of Iranian society; maybe that’s why the time left to visit the next exhibition hall was very limited. Meaning the one where many Iranian women were participating with stands where one could see the wonders of handcrafted products, dresses, bags, and scarves mostly representative of a diverse society like Iran’s. That exhibition hall was characterized by a unique interplay of colors, and products made with a particular craftsmanship, while at the booths there were Iranian women who looked at me gently, curious and with kindness and frankness hard to be described. That was my moment no. 3 of my trip when I realized that once again Iran is hard to define, categorize, comprehend, or explain easily; because Iran is also a mix of colors, of flavors, and of people as diverse and unique as its hills, valleys, rivers and mountains.
The 1st International Congress for the Women of Influence
The Congress itself started on Friday, around 18:30-19:00 hours on 20 January 2023, at the International Congress Center, an impressive building in terms of size, elegance, and technical and design facilities. When I arrived at the venue, it was confirmed once again what I had noticed when I arrived in Iran: impeccable and a very well-thought-out organization considering the size of the event. I must say that I was impressed when I entered the venue and noticed what it means to organize a very unique Congress in the history of events of its kind at a global level. Against a background of Iranian music, the organizers, scattered around the room, were helping guests find their seats. The beautifully arranged scene and floral decorations made from natural roses in front of it, impressed from a distance, while the play of lights in predominantly blue and purple-pink colours on the screens in the venue prepared the delegates for what was to be considered a global historic moment in a speech delivered by one of the First Ladies.
A series of addresses followed; by ministers, First Ladies, or women in key positions within the Iranian society, or from other countries. From the content of the ladies’ speeches, it was evident that each one said what she deemed appropriate to be conveyed at such a congress, obviously, each discourse filtered through the lens of the interests of the women of the countries they represented – and very importantly – which were identified as needs, aspirations or goals with universal potential.
After the official speeches, seven women from different countries who had distinguished themselves through outstanding professional or scientific work were awarded prizes. Thus, I saw women from Thailand, China, Argentina, Russian Federation and Iran being awarded. The prizes were handed over by First Ladies, as well as by outstanding, internationally known female personalities. Also, of particular note was the fact that a number of women who have made a special professional contribution to a better society, including Shereen Abu Akleh and Marwa el-Sherbini, were remembered and honored post-mortem.
In between the speeches and the awarding of prizes, the organizers enchanted the all-female audience with videos of historically and religiously significant places, as well as traditional dances of great sensitivity and beauty.
The Congress ended with conclusions and closing remarks addressed by The Honorable Iranian President’s spouse Mrs Dr. Jamileh ALMOLHODA. This marked the end after a marathon of intense activities of The 1st International Congress for the Women of Influence, an event that I attended with great honor, with interest and joy.
A few hours later after the end of the event, I left Tehran behind and headed to the airport from where I took off with the regret that I could not stay to visit Qom, where the delegations were going the day after the Congress, and especially that I did not have enough time to learn more about Iran and its people who captivated me during the two, three days I was there. I left with a yearning for a country I had not yet departed from, and about which although I knew so little and almost nothing upon arrival, by the time I left had started to open the eyes of my mind and soul in a manner that rarely happens to me, in order to be able to understand it. And that was the moment number 4 of my trip; when I realized that in order to understand and to value something (better) one needs to open his/her heart first.
Instead of conclusions, a few words at the end of my first trip to Tehran
Probably the reader of these lines, written in the most subjective way possible, will wonder, well, now after this trip, what do you think about the Iranian women? You have been there, you (must) have seen and heard something. Also, you have been to a congress dedicated to the most influential (also Iranian women) among them. So, how oppressed are the Iranian women, and what are the chances that they will have the fate of Mahsa Amini? To all these potential questions I will answer one by one.
Yes, I have been to Iran, and I have seen several categories of women, I have interacted with some of them and in some ways, I have tried to draw some partial conclusions from my observations. So, in Iran as in other countries, there are more than one type of women. Not all of them wear chadors, I have not seen any of them wearing burqas, but this does not exclude that there are women who wear this kind of garment. Moreover, I noticed that many women/ girls on the street wear a scarf tied or loosely tied, without covering the hair entirely, but I also noticed that there are women and girls who wear none. I also observed that in the hotel there is a sign that the hijab is mandatory, as well as its policy – which was brought to my knowledge when I arrived at the hotel, but this does not imply that all the women in the hotel – as far as I could observe while I was there, wore chadors, or that they covered their hair entirely. As for Mahsa Amini’s unfortunate fate, it seems to be an extremely unfortunate case, admitted as such also by the Iranian authorities. Of course, this also does not exclude that there are (a few) women that are looking to renounce at wearing hijab in the public spaces, but in order to support such an idea I need to carry out a scientific study.
As far as the recent protests are concerned, I believe that beyond the fact that they were further externally instigated, one cannot overlook another aspect that contributed to the spread of the protests and which is likely to be much more important for the well-being of the Iranian society: the effects of Western sanctions on Iran as a whole. Therefore, to label some protests only as “we are being told” by PR teams of some foreign entities is a monumental mistake on the part of international public opinion and especially on the part of Western policymakers.
The Iranian woman in general is a professional, highly educated, career-oriented, modern woman with dreams and a desire to excel professionally, to achieve her desired goals. Of course, there are also women who maybe are struggling to make a living. But where do such women not exist? I also notice that the difference between a woman in Iran and a woman in the West is the wearing of the hijab under certain conditions and in certain places. However, Iran, as its official name indicates, is an Islamic country with specific rules and laws. Nonetheless, beyond these rules that to be changed must be negotiated, and discussed between members of the same communities, I wonder how many in the West are wondering: What does a (Iranian) woman really want? This a question that not only Iranian but also Western society should consider when thinking about the woman, mother, sister, friend or co-worker. Because Simone de Beauvoir’s question mentioned at the beginning of this opinion “what is woman” is not enough for the contemporary woman, the Iranian woman or the woman globally to find balance, harmony in the family and contentment with herself. And here I want to draw attention to those that pretend they “want to help the Iranian women to win their rights”: not all women are wearing the same size in shoes – remember the Cinderella story – as not all women like the same outfit, no matter the brand, while a change of a certain magnitude cannot happen overnight, as you cannot change only rules concerning women without changing a man’s mentality and or society’s mentality. And in order to initiate a change, what is offered has to be better than what exists and equally compatible with the values, principles and traditions that have governed the respective Iranian society for centuries. Equally what is offered must have substance and must not be forced to be implemented. Because the results might be surprising.
And the association between the woman described by Beauvoir in the quote from the beginning of this paper and the new contemporary Iranian woman is not a wrong one. Because I had met in Iran women that wore chador and were – indeed – strong, even stronger than woman described by the French existentialist and essayist.
And this is my 5th and the final moment of my trip; because at the end of it I had realized that the Iranian woman is very much able to take care of herself, of her family and of her country.
[i] AnOther. “‘What Is Woman?”: Ten Searing Quotes from Simone De Beauvoir.” AnOther, 9 January 2018, https://www.anothermag.com/design-living/10480/what-is-woman-ten-searing-quotes-from-simone-de-beauvoir. Accessed 03 February 2023.
About the author:
She is Program Director at Middle East Political and Economic Institute. Her areas of expertise and interests are: National Security, Middle Eastern Studies, SSR in Post-Saddam Iraq, Disinformation, Cultures and civilizations; The Military in 20th Century Middle East Politics; Geopolitics of the Persian Gulf region and Nuclear policies in MENA. Prof. MAŢOI is also a devoted researcher and a volunteer trainer on different issues related to her fields of expertise.