By Laura Ulatowski, Analyst KEDISA
The human body functions as a frontier of power as the conception of the modern nation-state arises from the notion ‘that the body of the citizenry is the source and subject of political authority’ (Nozimova 2016:96). In this context, the ‘women question’ plays a decisive role in governmental rhetorics focusing on the dress and behaviour of women and has become the target of subsequent nation-building policies (Miles 2015:368). Women’s roles shape the social and political order as they are seen as the holders of culture and national identity, which renders the bodies of women a political terrain (Terman 2010:294). In the subsequent securitisation practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Tajikistan women frequently are depicted as security threats in governmental rhetorics. However, in this narrative the body of women figures more as a metaphor, as the female body is only partly the matter of concern, and it is rather what women ‘embody’ that is a matter of concern for these governments. These narratives in both regimes imply a causal relationship between the way women dress and politics where, put crudely, an increase or decrease in public displays of religiosity is associated with alleged negative foreign influence that might lead to a rebellion against the state.
Tajik state discourses
In Tajikistan the hegemonic state discourse focuses heavily on the perceived dangers of radical Islam, where the government emphasises the threats posed by ‘bad’, ‘foreign’, ‘extremist’ Islam, which is considered to be inherently alien to Tajik culture and put into contrast with ‘good’, ‘secularized’, ‘moderate’ Islam, promoted by state authorities (Lemon&Thibault 2017:2). In this discourse the Tajik government views veiled Muslim woman as a danger to the imagined national identity and state rhetoric concentrates intensively on the dresses and behaviour of women (Miles 2015:367). The government’s rhetorical fight against hijab frames veiled women as the precursor for foreign religious extremism that threatens the country’s peace and unity (Nozimova 2016:99). Women wearing Islamic clothing are viewed as trying to change the current power structure by introducing a competing social system that is in opposition to the regime and thus seen as a threat to the security of the Tajik state as they are perceived by the government to facilitate and propagate ‘alien’ extremist ideas (Miles 2015:383). President Emomali Rahmon reiterated the Tajik government’s position on women’s dresses, arguing that ‘since ancient times our people have had beautiful women’s dresses, our girls have never worn black clothes. Traditionally, black clothes are not welcome. (…) Strangers are using these clothes in their drive to promote obtrusive ideas and want to create another new extremist trend in our country’ (Emomali Rahmon, 2015). As a result, the Tajik government focuses on the promotion of ‘national’ dresses which are supposed to have ancient roots, such as colourful clothes like the Atlas dress and the Tajik headscarf, known as Rumol (Miles 2015). In this respect, the Tajik government constructs a specific discourse of ‘traditional’, ‘good’ and ‘secular’ female dresses to fit the imagined national culture and lifestyle and further promote the nationalist and secular policy of the government.
Iranian state discourses
In a similar way does the government of Iran target women’s dress and links governmental non-compliant ways of female dressing with the penetration of ‘foreign’ culture into the Iranian islamic society that threatens its values and cultures and thus poses an existential threat to the governing regime (Golkar 2011:209). However, in contrast to Tajikistan the Iranian government constructs the dichotomies in relation to woman with clothing deemed ‘un-islamic’ and ‘foreign’, seen as a threat to Iranian cultural and social domains and thus a national security matter (Golkar 2011). In Iran the figure of ‘the woman’ represents the social body and pillar of the nation itself and is thus the target of nation-building policies that uses discourses of women to define the boundaries of the nation (Terman 2010:293). Women out of line with the imagined nations image are considered to be those who wear the hijab incorrectly and clothes that are inconsistent with the Islamic code and ‘infiltrated’ by Western culture (Golkar 2011:209). This narrative focuses on the concept of gharbzadegi (westoxification), shaping todays political discourse that already emerged in the 1970s (Terman 2010:296). Women who were deemed ‘gharbzadeh’ were seen as embodiments of imperialism and corruption that needed to be eliminated from society with the rigorous veiling enforcement policies demonstrating that women’s bodies were constructed as a matter of national security (ibid). As a result, the Islamic regime intended to create an Islamic civic body that would ensure the governments legitimacy through regulating the ‘bad’ and ‘gharbzadeh’ dressing practices and promoting instead the ‘good’ ways of Islamic womanhood that were shaped by discourses of authenticity, anti-imperialism and revolutionary populism (Terman 2010:305). Ultimately, and in a similar vein to the Tajik case, women wearing un-Islamic clothing are viewed as trying to change the current power structure by introducing a competing social, moral and value system that is in opposition to the regime and thus seen as a threat to the security of the Iranian state.
Governmental Regulations of Female Clothing
By securitising women’s appearances, defined as belonging to a domain of security, both the governments of Iran and Tajikistan justify the use of exceptional measures to deal with the discursively created threat, which enables the regimes to use political responses coherent to the chosen discourse (Omelicheva 2016:146). Today, Tajik state agencies control a diverse range of religious practices, that includes women’s appearances and makes it subject to state regulation. The principal agencies involved are the Ministry of Education, the State Committee on National Security, the Council of Ulemo, which institutionalises the ‘legitimiate’ and ‘official’ religious practices and the Committee for Religious Affairs that enforces these policies (Lemon&Thibault 2017:9). The Council of Ulemo issued a decree in 2007, that prohibited wearing Islamic clothing, such as the hijab, in schools and universities and recommended in its decree of 2010 to wear ‘traditional’ and ‘national’ clothes for women instead of Islamic ones that were considered to be ‘alien’ to the Tajik culture and nation (Miles 2015; Nozimova 2016). Since 2017 the police and local authorities were given orders to shutdown shops that sold Islamic clothes for women and prohibit the import of further such ‘alien’ clothes. Furthermore, women wearing the hijab in public started to get threatened by the local police with fines or even dismissal from their jobs unless they took off the veiling (IWPR 2015; Miles 2015). In a similar vein, the Iranian government has expanded its control over its civil society through a variety of mechanisms, including the ‘Department for Social Prevention and Protection’ and the Basij, a paramilitary unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), that functions as a ‘morality police’ force and takes on the most important role in enforcing the Islamic codes of behaviour. The Basij are responsible for the implementation of the Islamic moral law and particularly in the spring time and summer months the ‘moral police’ increases its chastise activities with several thousand of undercover officers, both male and female, looking out for women who don’t follow Islamic codes of dress and behaviour (Kenyon 2016). Another important strategy of enforcing the Islamic moral code is through promoting the Qur’anic commandement of ‘Maruf va Nahy az Monkar’ translated as ‘commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’, that constructs the dichotomies of what is to be seen as ‘good’ and ‘right’ and thus to be encouraged in contrast to what is seen as ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’ and thereby prohibited for all Muslims (Golkar 2011:208). As this principle is perceived to be a fundamental obligation of all Muslims in order to prevent un-Islamic behaviour, it is as well written down under Article 8 of the Iranian constitution and a specific bureau with the same name as the Qur’anic commandment was established.
The competition over the control of women and what they symbolise has been used to demarcate the identity of various societies and in different Islamic contexts (Nozimova 2016:116). However, all these policies and governmental enforcement mechanisms in Iran and Tajikistan have not yielded the intended outcomes of the creation of a pious/secular society, but rather caused even further resistances to the regimes. Resistance to these power structures may take various forms with women in Iran and Tajikistan often taking on exactly these deviant lifestyles the regimes intend to fight as coercive prohibitions never yield the desired outcome but rather lead to social conflict in the long-term. Imposing Islam in every sector of Iranian society has rather proven counterproductive as it encouraged the flourishing of non-Islamic and even anti-Islamic behaviours within Iranian society. This behaviour is often used to express discontent with the regime and symbolise individuals’ resistance to state power (Golkar 2011:219). Similarly, in Tajikistan women who embrace the Islamic dress could be seen as trying to contest the contemporary social and political power structures as a subaltern response to power (Miles 2015:384). Furthermore, creating simplistic dichotomies between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ does not represent reality but rather leads to oversimplification, objectification, and trivialisation of its nature (Omelicheva 2016:159). Seeking to control the religious aspects of female dresses through restrictive policies and discourses, the governments inadvertently, contribute to the emergence of social forces ready to embrace exactly those alternative expressions the regimes tend to fight thus leading to the very instability the governing regimes fear.
Golkar, Saeid (2011) “Politics of Piety: The Basij and Moral Control of Iranian Society”, The Journal of Middle East and Africa, 2:2, 207-219.
Institute for War and Peace Reporting – IWPR (2015) “In Battle With Radical Islam, Tajik Police Attack Beards”, available at https://iwpr.net/global-voices/battle-radical-islam-tajik-police-attack
Kenyon, Peter (2016) “Springtime In Iran Means The ‘Morality Police’ Are Out In Force”, NPR.org; available at http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/05/03/476511439/springtime-in-iran-means-the-morality-police-are-out-in-force
Lemon, Edward & Thibault, Hélène (2017) “Counter-extremism, power and authoritarian governance in Tajikistan”, Central Asian Survey.
Lemon, Edward (2015) “Daesh and Tajikistan: The Regime’s (In)Security Policy”, The RUSI Journal, 160:5, 68-76.
Montgomery, David & Heathershaw, John (2016) “Islam, secularism and danger: a reconsideration of the link between religiosity”, Radicalism and rebellion in Central Asia 44:3, 192-218.
Miles, Marintha (2015) “Switching to Satr: An Ethnography of the Particular in Women’s Choices in Head Coverings in Tajikistan” Central Asian Affairs (2), 367-387.
Nozimova, Shahnoza (2016) “Hijab in a Changing Tajik Society”, Central Asian Affairs (3), 95-116.
Omelicheva, Mariya (2016) “Islam and power legitimisation: instrumentalisation of religion in Central Asian States”, Contemporary Politics Vol.22, No.2, 144-163.
Terman, Rochelle (2010) “ The Piety of Public Participation: The Revolutionary Muslim Woman in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions Vol. 11, Nos. 3-4, 289-310.
Thibault, Helene (2014) “Religious Revival in Tajikistan: The Soviet Legacy Revisited” Thesis for the Doctorate in Philosophy degree in Political Science, School of Political Studies Faculty of Social Sciences University of Ottawa
Torfeh, Massoumeh “ (31 July 2017) “Why is Tajikistan imposing a dress code on its people?” Aljazeera; available at http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/07/tajikistan-imposing-dress-code-people-170728092646033.html