Veiling (Hijab) and segregation of sexes in Iran
By: Massoume Price, 2002
Both veiling and segregation of sexes are fundamental principles in Islam and have been vigorously applied and implemented in Muslim countries for centuries and it is only as of 20th century that major changes have been introduced in such practices. The two are related and reinforce each other and recently have become subject of debate amongst some Muslims. Modern Iranians do not practice either and with the traditional and religious families though veiling is observed but most people do not practice segregation of sexes at its most rigid form, which involves no contact between unrelated males and females. Both have primarily been an urban phenomenon and occasionally under very strict Muslim rulers such as Taliban in Afghanistan they have been enforced in the rural areas as well.
They started with the conquest of Islam in the area and there has been no precedence for total veiling or segregation of sexes before Islam except with Christian nuns who voluntarily adopted covering their hair and body after taking a vow of chastity. Veiling was originally applied to Prophet's wives and throughout his life the practice was followed by them, but not his slaves and war captives. The early texts do not distinguish between veiling and seclusion but use the term hijab interchangeably. Other verses instruct women to guard their private parts and cover their bosoms. It is not known how the new ruling was imposed to all or how it spread to other areas. It was not a common practice in Arabia. Sura 33:29-35 in Quran, instructs Prophet's wives to be completely obedient to Allah and His Messenger and also not to show themselves in the manner of the women of the days of ignorance (Arabia before Islam).
Later on the concept of veiling was expanded into other aspects of life and eventually resulted into segregation of sexes. Islamic architecture created inner courtyards and women's quarters inaccessible to unrelated males and women became socially isolated and confined to their homes. Segregation culture was imposed, by creating codes of behavior and ethical values that stressed the virtuosity of veiling and segregation. Hadith and other religious literature are full of recommendations about such matters and condemn any deviations.
The late 19th century saw the beginning of modernization processes in the whole area including Iran. The reformists of the period introduced new ideas of government, leadership, law, human rights and the emancipation of women. The first actual changes occurred in early 20th century after the Constitutional Revolution of the 1906. The first Pahlavi Monarch in 1936 introduced compulsory unveiling of women and reforms such as universal rights of all for schooling, education and employment opened many opportunities for women and emancipated the modern classes. Though the compulsory unveiling was later cancelled and many still observed loose Islamic codes desegregation of sexes became commonplace and succeeded in Iran.
The Islamic Republic's leadership reversed changes introduced by the Pahlavi and introduced compulsory veiling and tried to impose segregation of sexes. Though veiling has been successfully implemented and there are severe penalties for not following Islamic dress codes, segregation polices have failed in large cosmopolitan cities such as Tehran. Currently all females past puberty even visitors and non Muslims in Iran will have to observe the current dress code by covering their hair and neck, wearing a loose long coat, trousers and socks to cover feet. Some government institutions require women to wear a chadoor (a long loose cape) on top of the prescribed dress code once inside their compounds. Dark colors are recommended, make up is discouraged but many women in large cities use make up, loose and colorful head scarves and defy the codes. In fact make up industry and cosmetic surgery is booming in Iran right now. Segregation of sexes could not be fully imposed by the new régime despite many measures such as banning co education and restricting public spaces were the two sexes could freely mix. It is not a common practice amongst Iranians in western countries including North America.
Segregation of the sexes if observed is enforced after puberty, however it is encouraged from early ages before puberty. In such cases single sex education is preferable and the sexes must be segregated in any activity where the body is only partly covered, i.e. swimming. Dating and pre-marital relations are totally prohibited amongst such families. Men and women do not normally shake hands. They may sit separately, even in the same room they may not sit on the same sofa. Outside the family men and women may usually socialize separately. At the hospitals they might ask for nurses or doctors from the same sex.
Iranians who have remained practicing Muslims in western countries will normally observe segregation codes while in Mosques and other religious ceremonies and rituals. Same sexes might cluster together at parties and weddings but on the whole they do not observe very strict segregation codes. Muslim women are very active in Mosque activities and are in constant contact with other males during their many happenings and meetings. However some have remained faithful to veiling practices and encourage their daughters to practice modest veiling by mainly covering their hair. Iranians do not practice total veiling where the whole face will be covered. Such strict veiling is not even common in Iran; there are few groups who may practice it voluntarily but it is not part of the official dress code. Majority of Iranians in western countries do not practice either and in fact many are totally against both practices.