When the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met his Indian counterpart Pratibha Patil, covered from head to toe in a beautiful silk sari, I sat intently watching his facial expressions on television. There was no reason for his discomfort as India’s first woman President’s public dressing is akin to what Ahmadinejad forces women in his own country to wear or bear with — rarely does her hairline show and her arms are always covered in full sleeves. It reminded me of some informal directions issued to me as the only woman delegate in former external affairs minister Natwar Singh’s delegation, soon after Ahmadinejad had taken over. I was told to cover my head and arms, which I religiously did with my dupatta, though one much more transparent compared to their standards.
Apparently, Ahmadinejad’s focus on dress code had diluted after assuming the reins of the country. As such the coats had become tighter and shorter — the hairline visible despite the scarf. The female literacy rate is higher in Iran as compared to Muslim women in India. Their college campuses had more girls than boys. While in India we are still bogged down with the triple talaq issue, Iranian woman, I was told, can claim half the property acquired during their married years if the man pushes for divorce for no fault of hers. And she can also obtain a divorce if her husband suffers from an addiction or if he fails in his conjugal obligations. Is this possible in India?
The dress code has not suppressed women in Iran. The high literacy levels has pushed their participation in Iran’s 1979 revolution as well as for the ongoing one million-signature campaign in support of their petition to the government for equal rights in the Iranian law. And they are ready to go to jail too against what they once described as ‘gender apartheid.’
Perhaps it’s time we admit that the equal status of women is not determined by the dress she wears. A woman in a bikini can be more suppressed than one covered from head to toe. It’s time Iran and India realised this.