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Swedish politicians' veiled let-down of Iranian feminists

Azadeh Davachi |  15 February 2017


Sweden's feminist Trade Minister Ann Linde has come under sharp criticism from some Iranian women's rights activists, not to mention Swedish centrist and left wing lawmakers, after she and her colleagues wore hijab and long coats in their meetings with the Iranian president and other delegations in Tehran.

Swedish Trade Minister Ann Linde in the hijabLater Linde maintained she did not want to violate the law in Iran where it has been mandatory for women to wear headdress since 1979.

This flies in the face of the Swedish government's position on women's rights. Previously Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin, in an opinion piece published in the Guardian, contrasted Swedish policy with that of President Donald Trump, saying the world 'needs strong leadership for women's rights', that 'Sweden will have an increasingly important role to play in this', and that 'many countries could learn an important lesson from this'.

The way these women acted in Iran contradicts this message. If these Swedish women are concerned about Donald Trump's cabinet and his views toward women, surely it follows that they have to consider women's rights in Iran by choosing to not wear the hijab.

Visiting female politicians could, for example, choose to attend meetings in a third country and announce that they are doing so because they don't want to wear the hijab. This would demonstrate clear solidarity with women's rights activists in Iran who say wearing the veil means legitimising discriminatory laws against women. 

In recent years campaigns such as My Stealthy Freedom have increasingly amplified the voices of Iranian women's rights activists and emboldened them in their demands. The page allows women inside Iran to post photos of themselves not wearing the hijab. Their message is clear: Compulsory veiling is not about culture. It is a form of female oppression.

It is a law that allows the state to have control over females' bodies within a variety of patriarchal social structures. Many women inside Iran have been arrested and harassed in the streets because of the form of their clothes.

Some Iranian women show their objection to compulsory veiling by not following Islamic dress codes. They have shifted in color, version and forms of their clothing to show that they do not like the state's control over their bodies.


"It is important for foreign politicians, especially women who claim to be supporters of women's rights, to show their solidarity with the women of Iran who are oppressed by these laws."


Visiting female politicians such as the delegation from Sweden should understand therefore that when they accept the wearing of the hijab, they are not merely respecting the culture, they are legitimising this discriminatory practice and contradicting progressive movements like My Stealthy Freedom. It is important for foreign politicians, especially women who claim to be supporters of women's rights, to show their solidarity with the women of Iran who are oppressed by these laws.

For this reason some Iranian feminists ask female politicians not to wear the hijab during their visits, and to stand their ground on this issue. This might raise objections from Iranian conservatives and hardliners, and could conceivably in the short-term marginalise more Iranian women from the country's political and social institutions. Nonetheless I believe it would ultimately be a powerful emancipative and supportive gesture for the women of Iran.


Azadeh DavachiAzadeh Davachi is an Iranian academic, feminist and writer, currently living in Australia and working as a research assistant at Deakin university.


Azadeh Davachi


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Submitted comments

From Al-Monitor.com’s “Controversy surrounds hijab during Swedish visit to Iran”: Hossein Shariatmadari, chief editor of “the hard-line Kayhan” wrote, “In an unexpected and questionable occurrence the ceremony for signing trade contracts between Iran and Sweden was held at the residence of the Swedish ambassador and not our country’s official institutions. Pictures of the mentioned ceremony indicate that the female members of the Swedish prime minister’s delegation were in attendance without [wearing] hijabs. It has been said that the Swedish prime minister and the ambassador had insisted that the ceremony be held at the Swedish ambassador’s residence so that these women could attend without [observing the] hijab.” The website says hijabs are not mandatory at embassies or diplomatic residences and that “Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs Majid Ravanchi and other senior Iranian officials were in attendance at the Swedish ambassador’s residence.” A little give and take by Iran when money is to be made: if we sign these deals on your territory so your feminists can remain feminists, would you mind, Mr Prime Minister, if the leader of our delegation is a full two levels junior to you? And we promise our press secretary won’t mispronounce your name?

Roy Chen Yee 16 February 2017

Perhaps, Azadeh, it is not the place of foreign visitors to a sovereign country to take up a position of protest in support of some groups (women's rights advocates in Iran). It is certainly their obligation, however, to show courtesy and to respect that country's laws by, in this case, wearing head dress. Its up to Iran to respond to protesters in its midst, not foreign visitors. It would be refreshing if some feminists regarded themselves primarily as human beings unconfined by gender, in recognition of the equality of all human beings regardless of gender. In societies where such does not exist change has to date proved highly unsuccessful - those who see the injustice of it all leave for more accepting pastures, sometimes in their millions as we have seen in recent times - and good on them!. Pity the world is unable to accommodate such an exodus in practical terms.

john frawley 20 February 2017

Iranian women have been wearing hijab for 38 years. It is one of the rules and rules must be obeyed. They did not wear vail or chador. They covered their hair partially and put a long coat on. What is wrong with it? Iran has Islamic republic and it is part of the rules of the country. I do not like wearing hijab either. But whenever, I go to Iran I am obliged to obey the rules and wear hijab and believe me I wear hijab and respect the rules. Please do not be narrow minded and make it difficult. There are lots of opportunities for Iran to establish and maintain trade with Sweden.

Punteha Karian 20 February 2017

It is interesting that, under the Shah, women's rights were strongly enforced. There was no question of women being forced to wear the chador. Under the theocratic rule of the mullahs this is no longer the case. I cannot see women's rights being given any prominence under the present regime which appears like it is going to be in power for a long time.

Edward Fido 23 February 2017

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