August 19, 1999
Lipstick Politics in Iran
By FARZANEH MILANI
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
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
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.