August 19, 1999

Lipstick Politics in Iran


C HARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- In Iran, nothing is what it seems to be. There are layers upon layers of meaning attached to every word, to every gesture, to every action.

Take makeup. It is as fraught with political meanings and intentions as it has ever been. Women use it to signal their political ideology or to defy authority. I learned this lesson in July on a visit to Iran, when I found myself caught in the midst of riots in Teheran.

Accompanied by my friend Mariam, I had gone to the main bazaar to purchase a rug. After we finished our shopping, we decided to have a kebab at an old and established restaurant in the heart of the bazaar. We had not even touched our food when the restaurant's owner suddenly snapped off the lights and locked the door. A sense of horror filled the air. The walls of the restaurant were shaking as if there were an earthquake.

"The vigilantes have come to the bazaar; they're here," screamed one woman. Immediately I knew that the self-appointed morals police, ever so obsessed with the dress code for women, had attacked the bazaar.

While I sat paralyzed with fear, Mariam was deftly wiping off her lipstick with a paper napkin. One woman was covering her painted nails with thick, dark gloves. Another was covering her colorful head scarf with a black one she pulled out of her handbag.

A young woman next to me was putting on knee-length socks to hide her impeccably colored toenails, which showed through her sandals. Another middle-aged woman, with highlighted hair showing through her scarf, yelled: "I am sick and tired of all this. We have to free ourselves or die."

At the same time, a fight between supporters of the hard-liners and supporters of the reformers broke out in the men's section of the segregated restaurant. I felt trapped and terrified. Leaving the rug behind, we rushed to the door and persuaded the owner to let us out.

All the shops had closed, turning the beautiful bazaar into a wicked maze. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached a major street, hailed a cab and offered the driver an exorbitant fee.

In the heat of that summer day, covered head to toe in my Islamic garb and drenched in sweat and panic, I found the locked, unair-conditioned cab a safe haven. Once we broke through the traffic gridlock and the bazaar district receded into the background, I sighed with relief and looked over my shoulder at Mariam.

I could not believe my eyes. She was reapplying her lipstick. Only half an hour ago she had frantically wiped off all traces of it. The skill and speed with which she had removed her lipstick and her haste and zeal now in reapplying it were astounding.

"Lipstick is not just lipstick in Iran," Mariam explained. "It transmits political messages. It is a weapon."

My friend was right. In the political history of modern Iran, doubts about modernity, about change, about relations with the West have always been projected upon a woman's body. In 1936, the Shah forced women to unveil themselves, and this was considered a mark of progress. In 1983, the Islamic Republic veiled women, and this signaled the reconstruction of an Islamic-Iranian identity.

Today, women still have to cover themselves, but they have become a vibrant political force. More and more of them are behind steering wheels, on motorcycles, in universities, in mosques, ascending the rungs of government. Their pictures are in newspapers and on television. Their participation in the artistic and literary arena is unprecedented.

Iranian women have successfully invaded male territories, although a a dab of lipstick can still land them in jail. Perhaps the next victory will be ownership of their own bodies.

Farzaneh Milani is an associate professor of Persian and women's studies at the University of Virginia.

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