- Trying to Look Different: Hijab as the Self-Presentation of Social Distinctions
One of the fundamental problems of modern society is the question not of women’s public presence but of women’s public representation. How should women look, or be looked at, in public (the problem of the gaze)? How should women act or behave (the problem of agency)? Who sets the rules (the problem of propriety and, beyond that, the problem of the law, whether the law is understood as social convention, legal stricture, or phallic authority)? In societies where citizenship is accepted as the basis of the polity, feminism is essentially the struggle over defining women’s citizenship, that is, their role as citizens, and their public participation as members of the polity. Within the historical scope of that definition, feminism is inextricable from the process of democratization.1
Democratization itself is inevitably a modern experience, taking its inspiration from a classical city-state ideal but having evolved as a scattered and stuttering process over the past three hundred or so years. That is a relatively short historical frame, spread across a wide geographical area. Although women’s formal participation as citizens, as members of the public, is habitually initially resisted, it is also almost inevitably eventually granted as part of the local struggle over claiming and defining democratization.2 Democratization opens up the question of citizenship, citizenship opens up the question of women’s civic participation, and women’s civic participation opens up the question of women in (the) public. Once women are citizens, they are members of the public, and as such they cannot unproblematically be excluded from participating in the public sphere, from being in public themselves. Therefore the modern question, the modern argument, is not over women’s public participation, as the conclusion to that is relatively foregone. The question, the argument, the struggle, is over [End Page 225] women’s public (self-)representation: the manner of their presence, the limits to their actions, and the autonomy of their role.3
This article deals with that most superficial of outward appearances, the codes of dress. Particularly in societies in which dress is actually legislated, whether through sumptuary or modesty laws, the codes of self-representation are both publicly explicit and keenly personal.4 Within set limits, I define myself, and I am defined, by my adaptation to the representational code. But whether I efface myself or flaunt my identity depends as much on others’ interpretation of my representation as it does on my intentions themselves. How well have I utilized the codes? And since a code is also a (masked) language, how well have others deciphered its meaning?5
In the contemporary Islamic Republic of Iran, the codes of dress have been most contentiously utilized by women, especially younger women. The most casual visitor to Tehran’s streets has been able to observe the progress in women’s adaptation of state-mandated hijab: more and more visible hair and makeup and shorter and tighter jackets and pants. The ubiquitous Tehran badhijab is usually taken to be a youthful resistance to the regime’s authority, or even an “eroticization” of the public sphere.6 The corollary to this is the assumption that young women who individually insist on modest veiling are the unfashionable remnants of a repressed, premodern element of regime supporters.7 But is this an accurate reading of the (dress) codes of interpretation? If dress is recognized as a form of public self-representation, and if women’s public self-representation is one of the key questions of the local process of democratization (in Iran as it is elsewhere), is it not important to comprehend how local practitioners use the codes? What are young women saying through their dress? Is the language of hijab only a discourse of modesty and eroticization, or [End Page 226] is it also, like other sumptuary codes, a discourse of differential class and of social status?8
I maintain that aspiring young Tehrani women choose their style of hijab as one way of publicly staking their claims to different forms of recognized social capital. Badhijab girls use minor innovations in...