19th Century Iranian Reactions to the Phenomenon of Unveiling

Critiques against the hijab in Muslim countries all occurred subsequent to Muslims getting introduced and exposed to Western culture and civilization. The first time Muslims saw uncovered women was when they travelled to Europe or on their own lands when these women would be accompanying Europeans. This is how the Egyptians first saw such women on their lands due to the presence of the French officials. Others also eventually became familiar with this phenomenon through similar means. Observing this phenomenon and discussing it with Westerners, as well as studying their lives and history, led some Muslims to the conclusion that in order to achieve betterment of society, it was necessary for women to come out of their veils and participate in society, by which they will be able to play their role as educators better.[1]

Many historical works have been written on this subject, be it in the context of Egypt, Afghanistan, Turkey, or Iran – although many important primary works still remain in Arabic or Farsi. In Iran, debate and discourse on hijab were already very prevalent by the mid-19th century, which only grew through the Constitutional Revolution and then during the reign of Rezā Khan (r. 1925 – 1941) where forced-hijab removal was officially made into law by 1936. Hearing about the women of Turkey in 1923 only further fueled this debate in Iran, even leading to the talk of forming an anti-hijab organization in Tehran in 1924.[2] In 1928 news about Afghan women also reached Iran and tendencies towards unveiling became more widespread. By 1936, unveiling had become much more common in Iran due to the enforced law and a lot of propaganda was done to make this decision acceptable by the greater society.

In 1350 AH (1931), when explaining the reason for why he wrote his book Kashf al-Ghurūr, Dhabīḥullah Maḥallātī (1892 – 1985) says that all gossip and conversations about the removal of hijab are a new death for Islam and the Muslims.[3] During this period, many male and female poets wrote poetry defending the hijab removal law, foremost of them being Sediqeh Dowlatabadi (1882 – 1961) – sister of Yaḥya Dowlatabadi. She studied in Sorbonne and when she returned to Iran, in 1926 – ten years before the enforced law of unveiling – she made a public appearance in the bazār of Tehran without a veil. She was so adamant about this decision, that she wrote in her will: I will not forgive women who visit my grave while wearing the hijab.[4]

Critiques against the hijab in the earlier days were very casual and only presented in limited contexts, but over time they began to grow. In this post, I have translated a few passages from a couple of travelogues and treatises written by Iranian politicians or scholars before the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911) regarding women in Europe and on the general topic of hijab. All of these passages below were written in defence of the hijab and in response to the various critiques that were being put forth during those days.

Some of these passages have been collected in the work Rasā’il Ḥijābīyyeh by Rasul Jafariyan, an invaluable 2-volume has gathered numerous papers written during the period of roughly 60 years (from 1911 to 1969) on the topic of hijab. I had translated a passage from one of the articles published in this work written by Muḥsin Faqīh Shīrāzī for another post when he is responding to an anti-hijab treatise where the author argues that the hijab makes marriage near impossible for the youth.

A. Rezāqullī Mīrzā and his Safarnāmeh

Rezāqulli Mīrzā was one of the 588 grandchildren of the Qajar king Fatḥ-Ali Shāh (1772 – 1834). He has a travelogue in which he describes the details of his visits to different countries, including descriptions of his journey to London, England in 1836. From discussing the parliamentary system to the phenomenon of insurance, to the creation of life-vests, plumbing systems to even foreshadowing the power of America,[5] he eventually begins describing how Londoners enjoy their day to day lives. He writes:

In those countries, instruments of entertainment and relationships are available for all without any limits. Wherever you go and whatever you want is spontaneously available. As long as you have some money, whatever product you want from any country is readily available. Sin, fornication and adultery are not detested in those countries and are very common.

It has been recorded and documented that 180,000 women of the city openly express their love and seek love, regardless of what is truly in their hearts and apparently conceal it. Those 180,000 women beautify themselves in the best of manners and come out of their homes onto the streets, wearing jewelry. They introduce themselves to whoever they see. Up until three hours after sunset, these women select strangers and people of that nation like chickens picking up seeds, carrying them back to the house or room of their choice.

B. Mīrzā Fattāḥ-Khān Garmrūdī

Mīrzā Fattāḥ-Khān Garmrūdī travelled to Europe in 1838 as a member of an Iranian delegation. In his travelogue, he highlights the sexual debauchery of British women – though some academics have argued that the negative tone to his words was due to the treatment his delegation received from Queen Victoria. He writes:[6]

In this land of diverse persuasions, women and girls are generally pantless and without a veil [chador] and have a constant desire for able pummelers. Covered women are rare and unacceptable. Women are masterful in the realization of the wishes of men. They are addicted to pleasure and play, and are free from suffering and toil. In actualizing the demands of their partners, they are always daring and exquisite. But they are incompetent and frail in preserving their own honour.

A common characteristic of women is their extreme desire for sexual intercourse. They have escaped from the trap of chastity into freedom and have masterly leapt from the snare of purity. They have an extreme desire for union with men and are endless, coquettish and flirtatious. They glorify freedom and appreciate self-reliance.

In this land, due to the enormity of a woman’s lust, a man does not have the strength to satisfy and realize her wishes promptly. Consequently, if a woman has an affair with another man and receives from him a payment, or due to her nobility and magnanimity, doesn’t receive anything, according to the law of the nation the poor husband has no right to punish her. Under such a condition the zealous husband is thankful that the dog has done the job for her instead of a neighbour or an ignorant rogue in the street. To be just and fair, the poor husband cannot be blamed.

C. Ḥāj Muḥammad Karīm Khān Kirmānī and the Risālah Nāṣirīyyah[7]

Ḥāj Muḥammad Karīm Khān Kirmānī (1225 – 1288 AH) was a scholar from Kerman and a prolific author. In 1273 AH (1236 SH / 1857 CE), for the first time as a religious scholar and intellectual, he wrote about the role of women in Europe. In his treatise called Nāṣirīyyah[8]– which was primarily concerned with the attack by the British on the south of Iran and specifically regarding the Siege of Herat (1837 – 1838) by the Iranian army – he begins to talk about the notion of disbelievers gaining power over the Muslims. He titled his work to be about the religious and worldly harms that occur for Muslims due to the power of the disbelievers over their country. When pointing out the fact that this authority is mixed with polytheism, and that polytheism is a great oppression, writes that “it is more polytheistic and oppressive than the Europeans.”

Hence, “anyone who takes them as friends, has left the folds of Islam and has entered the religion of the Europeans.” He then writes, “I heard from one of the seniors who had visited London, and had taken refuge under the English government that as soon as we reached London, they took an oath from us that you must be friends with our friends and enemies with our enemies – we gave this oath and they allocated a stipend for us. We seek refuge from the anger of Allah – if everyone on the face of Earth were to give such an oath, all would become disbelievers and would eternally burn in the fire of hell.”

After explaining this a bit further, he writes, “The point is that developing an affinity towards the Europeans is very bad, whether it is by giving room to their practices or whether they are given a way into the Islamic lands.” He expresses his fear over the fact that some Iranians receive stipends from the English government and feels the threat of disbelievers having gained control over the Islamic lands and having turned them into a European colony. Part of this fear has to do with the status of women and their control over them, in the name of seeking freedom which the Westerners would claim:

The whim of those nefarious individuals is a whim which is fearful of gatherings and congregations, and after their gaining authority, they will prohibit congregations in the mosques, mourning gatherings and so on. Can any Muslim allow incompetent women to manage their own affairs so that they could go wherever they choose, sit with whomever they desire, leave the house whenever they wish? They have not yet gained firm control of Iran but they are already ordering our women not to cover themselves from men.

Will any Muslim be satisfied to see his woman come out on the streets with make-up and sit at the stores and visit the auditoriums? Will any Muslim be satisfied that in the bazār of the Muslims numerous alcohol stores are opened, and whoever wishes can openly purchase it and drink it – be it man or woman and that there be no obstacle to this? Or that his wife has the freedom to beautify herself, come out and purchase alcohol from the bazār and then drink it, get drunk, then wander in the bazārs, streets, deserts, gardens, wandering around drunk, sitting with scoundrels and thugs who can do whatever they want to her?

We seek refuge from Allah. Would anyone consent to allowing freedom and losing charge of one’s daughter, wife, male and female slave, such that they can go wherever they want and do whatever they want, and sit with whoever they want, and attend any alcoholic gathering, and sit with any scoundrel, and not be able to protest because an unbeliever has ordered that the state should be free, and that good and bad exists in every state and religious group, therefore in every country one will find a number of bad women.

If these women seek the evils of occupation, is it not that those bad women will find their way among the disbelievers, and since the presumption is to have freedom, no one can speak against them and every night a number of fornications will take place. How many European sperms will inseminate them! See what the end of this affair will be.

And further, these individuals in their excitement due to their youth, ignorance and a deceptive government seek colourful women and a new set of customs, who upon hearing the call of freedom, collectively dress themselves up in the appearance of Europeans. Then they organize gatherings and sessions in the customs of those disbelievers, and imitate their ways of sitting and standing, and all other qualities, and completely do away with Islam and Islamic customs. In addition, they build bureaus and appoint their own administrators, and then rule over the wealth, lives, and honour of the Muslims as per their own customs. Likewise, any excited individual who has an affinity to their colourful or strange women, or seeks them through irreligiosity and apostatizes from Islam, no one would have the right to say anything to them due to freedom. Subsequently, a great number of people will apostatize and no one from the scholars or otherwise will have the courage to say anything.

If they get their hands on the property of Islam, then one will no longer have any say. A Jew who is unable to breathe due to fear, will gain courage under their rule and blaspheme against Islam and the leaders of Islam while no one can say anything since the disbelievers have commanded that the follower of Moses be on their path and the followers of Jesus be on their path – all are like kings, all follow their own religion, and a woman who befriends any Christian, then that Christian can enter your home without informing you beforehand, and spend the night at your home, sit beside your wife and sleep with her because there is freedom and women have this freedom. Muslim women can dress like their deluded women, and like them attend general public gatherings where they are invited to dance and drink. Just like them, they can sit and eat and do what they want, women can sit with men on chairs, and joke around with strange men, drink with them, and in the bathhouses and European men and women can enter the mosques while no one can say anything.

Today it can be said to them, “you are impure”, but tomorrow no one will have the courage to say so. European men and women will enter the houses without permission and without informing and there will be no problem because this prohibition was due to the protection of women, and if there is no protection, why would there be an issue?

Āh, Āh, these delusional Iranians, while nothing significant has happened yet, they seek to become like the Europeans, while some have already become like them, but due to the fear of the sword of Islam they give off a scent of Islam. But the day when freedom is given to them, and the fear of Islam is dispelled, what will they do then? By Allah, the people of Iran will completely become Europeans and openly apostatize from Islam, and no one will be able to breath.[9]

D. ‘Alī Bakhsh Qajār and Risālah Mīzān al-Milal

‘Alī Bakhsh Nawwāb Mīrzāyī Qajār wrote a political treatise in 1305 AH (1887 AD) – approximately 20 years before the Constitutional Revolution – where he attempts to defend Shī’ī theology. While responding to various critiques against the Shī’ī sect, he expounds on the absence of hijab amongst Europeans and that carefree youth have the desire for a similar context to be created in Iran. He expresses his fear regarding this in his work Mīzān al-Milal[10] as follows:

One of the matters that the Islamic nation differs upon with the rest of the existing nations of the world is the hijab and protection [of women]. Without me bringing any evidence, be fair to yourself and say which is better for a woman? Is remaining in hijab and covered from men and lustful youth closer to protection and further from harms way, or is remaining uncovered and without hijab? Until the eyes do not see, the heart will not be tested. If Majnūn was blind, what would he had known about the beauty of Laylī? It is the eyes that tempt the heart and makes the intellect insane. It is famously said, “when was listening ever like seeing.”

When hijab does not exist, girls and young beautiful women beautify themselves and come into the company of young men, casually joking around with them in gatherings, holding hands and dancing together. The poor old husband sits in the corner drunk, while his young beautiful wife is busy flirting around with other young men.

He can neither prevent his wife nor say anything to the other men. The poor soul keeps his sadness to himself and bears through it! Even for argument’s sake if he were to know that his wife has a secret affair with a certain man, how will go about proving it?

For example, in the morning the man goes out to for work and returns back at night or during the day. He sees his wife all beautified casually joking and flirting with a young man in a room all alone, drinking wine in glasses, drunkenly romanticizing with one another. If the husband says to the man, what are you doing here, he will respond back without a pause, Monsieur! I came to see Madame – your wife is very beloved and respected, mashā-allah. She really knows how to play the piano and guitar well and is unique when it comes to her dance skills. We danced arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder at eight o’clock at a certain ballroom.

Monsieur, we are also meeting up at a certain park tonight, then we will go to the theatre from there. I have specially rented a cabin and have brought a covered carriage for her. I would be honoured Monsieur if we could all have a glass of wine together for your and your wife’s wellbeing. If you aren’t tired, you can also come along with us, or else we will take your leave.

The poor husband has to serve his wife’s guest with the utmost respect. If he shows even a little laziness towards him or gives a cold-hearted response, the guest’s condition will change and he will say: Monsieur! Such a strange foolish man you are! I am giving so much respect to your wife and you do not seem to give me any care. Meet me tomorrow at a such-and-such location and let us duel it out with our pistols, or with our swords. The husband will have no choice but to accept the duel in this case.

Or else the old poor man would have to hold on to his dear life, and expressing his utmost happiness, grab the glass of wine from his guest’s hands and say: I am so grateful of your respect towards my wife, and at how much you like my wife, and we shall all drink for the wellbeing of our guest.

He continues on to say:

When thousands of young good-looking men and thousands of young beautiful women connect with one another in ballrooms, theatres, parks, deserts, and there is no hijab between them either, as they dance together, drink together, play musical instruments, and have access to private rooms, no matter what type of oath they take, they will engage in intercourse. Is one of them going to be pious and infallible at that time? No way.

May my self and soul be ransomed for such a Prophet who by mentioning one law and commanding us towards it, was able to protect so many lives, wealth, and families of the nation. He restrained the youth from such spasms and bloodshed and raised the level of knowledge, civilization and rationality.

Most definitely these words will leave a bitter taste for some foolish youth. However, if they sincerely pay attention, they will know that this is all for their benefit, not for their harm. Imagine, you with your good looks are able to charm a number of girls and enjoy your time with them, but there will be a more good-looking man than you who will do the exact same with your wife and children. If you have a heart and your wife also has the same heart, she will also do the exact same thing as you.

E. Shaykh al-Ra’īs Qājār and the Risālah Ittiḥād al-Islām

Abū al-Ḥasan Mīrzā Qājār (1848 – 1920), famously known as Shaykh al-Ra’īs, was also one of the grandsons of Fatḥ ‘Alī Shāh (d. 1834). He was a prince, a scholar, an advocate of Islamic unity, a constitutionalist, and a heterodox in his religious affiliations. He wrote a treatise in 1312 AH (1894 AD) Risālah Ittiḥād al-Islām. In this treatise he proposes the union of Iran and the Ottoman Empire under the Sultan, recalling that ‘Umar and ‘Alī (a) had also maintained a similar relationship. He said similar cooperation was necessary again to save Islam, whose survival seemed to be in question. In this treatise, he also addresses the concept of ḥijāb and women’s education.

One of the critiques he responds to is by those who “appear to be Muslims but far from the meaning of Islam”, who are between disbelief and belief. He says these people agree with the disbelievers who believe that it is due to the hijab Muslim women have been deprived of knowledge and skills, spending their lives in great ignorance. In other words, these group of people say that half of the population is of no practical use, they can be of no assistance to the Muslim community, because they do not know anything about books and schools, they are unfamiliar with mathematics and geometry, and are ignorant of science.

He continues to explain this critique and says, given these women do not mingle with strange men, and do not participate in academic gatherings, nor engage or enjoy the exchange of ideas, they are like vain souls. Since men need to discuss and engage with women for the betterment of their own ethics, etiquette and manner of speech, it can even be said that refraining and distancing one’s self from women is harmful to men.

Shaykh al-Ra’īs responds to this critique as follows:

We respond to this critic gently: We accept your researched conclusion on the actual identification of the illness, in fact, with all due respect, we say, even most Muslim men like their unskilled women, have neither male lions nor female lions.

However, we do not agree with you on the solution to this problem. You say that if official permission is given for Muslim women to come out with their clothes and hair open, having beautified themselves, dancing around with their wings spread out, the abode of Islam will also become the source of innovation and technology like all foreign countries.

This is while without such veiling, nothing will be achieved except the loss of the nation’s chastity and the rigorous resistance will cease to exist, leading to the mixture of corruption and evil – [24:19] those who want indecency to spread among the faithful.

He explains that the solution to this issue is for the well-wishers of the Muslim nation to get together and brainstorm ideas that would help the progress of the public’s general knowledge – including both men and women. He says:

Observing the laws of the religion of the best of creation does not in any way close the path to human progress, rather by observing the boundaries of religion it is possible to develop manufacturing facilities and as well as women-only bazār. There is no doubt that if the religion of the British expected them to keep their women covered, they would have figured out a way for their daughters and womenfolk to benefit and not be deprived of literacy while at the same time not compromising on their veils and covering.

Since a fabricated religion has forced them to get rid of this concept, the Muslims should not be imitating the disbelievers in this. The Sunnah and the Qurān which has brought down the command of covering and contains the verse of hijab, has also encouraged and pushed every single individual in the nation towards science and technology, and has commanded everyone to gain knowledge from the cradle to the grave – “one whose two days are equal has been deceived.”

[1] Mīrzā Abul Ḥasan is a good example of this. At one point he says, “As God is my witness, I wish the women of lran could be more like the women of England. Iranian women are chaste because they are forced to be – they are shut away from men; but the English women are chaste by choice. They are free and independent and responsible only to their husband, whom they look upon as the only man in the world. They do not hide themselves away but appear veil-less in society.”

[2] Khāṭirāt ‘ayn al-Ṣalṭanah, vol. 9, pg. 6837

[3] Kashf al-Ghurūr, pg. 1.

[4] See: The Iranian Constitutional Revolution: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism, by Janet Afary.

[5] On pg. 573-574 he writes how much of America has been populated by Europeans and praises the way they have managed to govern their country and people, without letting anyone else interfere in their processes. In this context, he says, “Soon, due to the goodness of their management, the power of this nation will become greater than any other nation.”

[6] Most of the English translations for Garmrūdī’s writings were taken from the book Refashioning Iran, by Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, chapter 4 titled Imagining European Women.

[7] This specific entry has been completely translated from the work Rasā’il Ḥijābīyeh.

[8] It has been published as Khātimah Nāṣirīyyah, by Sa’ādat Kirmān Publishers, pg. 37

[9] Khātimeh Nāṣirīyyeh, pg. 14-22

[10] These passages are taken from Mīzān al-Milal, by Nawāb ‘Alī Bakhsh Qājār, written in 1305 AH, pgs. 85-88.

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