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Society, Politics & Law

Make-up as entertainment: Cosmetics in modern Iran

Updated Monday 9th June 2014

New research suggests that in Iran - the seventh largest cosmetics market in the world - make-up is neither seen neither as decadent, nor rebellious, but more about entertainment.

Laurie Taylor (over soundtrack of a demo in Iran):
We're on the streets of Tehran… there's a demonstration in progress… but this demonstration doesn't sound quite like most other demonstrations:

'We didn't make a revolution in order to go backwards'. One of the chants used by thousands of Iranian women marking International Women's Day in March 1979 with a nationwide protest against Ayatollah Khomeini's proposed enforcement of the veil or hijab as well as his repealing of women's property and custody rights.

Well arguments about the wearing of the hijab have a long, long history in Iran. Back in 1936, the Shah actually banned the wearing of the veil… but so many women violated the ban that it was lifted in 1941. And the next major legislative move was the one that prompted that 1979 demonstration – the revolutionary decree by Ayatollah Khomeini that required among other restrictions women to wear the chador – a black or dark-coloured garment that covers the top of a woman's head and stretches down to her feet…

Well that decree still stands and its violation can lead to prosecutions, heavy fines and even the threat of corporal punishment.

But a new research paper draws our attention to a rather surprising piece of consumer news. According to albeit somewhat old official estimates, Iran is now ranked seventh in the global market for women's cosmetics and other more recent statistics show Iran, after Saudi Arabia, to be the highest consumer of make-up in the whole of the Middle East. Well how might this be reconciled with everything else we know about the emphasis in Iran upon female modesty?

Well, I can now have some answers because I'm joined in the studio by Aliakbar Jafari who is senior lecturer in Marketing at the University of Strathclyde and the author of a paper in the Sociological Review called 'Escaping into the world of make-up routines in Iran'. And also with me is legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a professorial research associate at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Law at the University of London. Let me come to you first Aliakbar. Ali, can I ask you – tell me about how people have sought to explain what’s going on here. By the way these figures a little bit out of date, have you got anything more recent on these?

Aliakbar Jafari:
Yes that’s right. Actually the figures that you mentioned are mostly based on income per capita and also per capita expenditure. So if we compare Saudi Arabia and Iran actually Iran might be the first country in the Middle East given the difference in per capita expenditure and also income per capita.

Laurie Taylor:
So even more surprising. Lips wearing various shades of lipstick Creative commons image Icon Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Aliakbar Jafari:
That’s right, yeah.

Laurie Taylor:
So how have people sought to explain this in the past?

Aliakbar Jafari:
I have to mention here that Iran has historically been a context in which consumption of cosmetics has been a dominant thing. If you look at historical things at least as we have data it shows that at least for the past 7,000 years consumption of cosmetics in Iran has been a big issue, it has been historically there.

Laurie Taylor:
So traditionally it’s been…

Aliakbar Jafari:
Traditionally yes it has been there.

Laurie Taylor:
But you wanted to go and look for some other answers than mere tradition. Tell me a little bit about the study you did, I mean it was quite a small sample but you picked your people very carefully, who were they?

Aliakbar Jafari:
Before going there I would say that we have two issues here that are related to interpretations. How consumption of cosmetics has been interpreted in the context of Iran. We’re dealing with two issues of orientalism and self-orientalism, we have two streams, one stream says that what is happening in Iran is actually a kind of silent rebellion against the state policies and on the other hand we have a stream which says that consumption of cosmetics in Iran is a sign of Western decadence and cultural invasion. So my research actually shows that it’s neither of these.

Laurie Taylor:
Because I mean the people you talked to – I mean you talked to, you did some in depth interviews with women, single women, in Iran who were heavy makeup users, what do you mean by heavy makeup users?

Aliakbar Jafari:
It’s actually something that is not according to women themselves is not natural, it is more emphasis, accentuation, of eye shadow, lipstick, face powder and these people who do not – are not really fussy about wearing chador or showing their hair, so these are the kind of practices. And in terms of people I talked to 15 people who were either married or single, most educated from middle class backgrounds living in urban spaces in Tehran and Karaj and people who do not have enough facilities for entertainment.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, well let’s hear the words used by one of your people. Here is Mastaneh talking about what makeup means in Iranian women’s lives:

Mastaneh (Reading):
Compare foreign women with us, they have a lot of things to do – they sing, ride on bicycle, go swimming – they have the same entertainment as men do. But what about here? What should a woman do? Makeup has become like an entertainment, so that if you don’t wear makeup every morning you feel like you haven’t fulfilled an obligation.

The idea it’s entertainment, it’s almost a hobby, how does that – how does that seem to you as an explanation?

Aliakbar Jafari:
It’s kind of escapism, we’re dealing with escapism and autotelic consumption, so escapism in the sense that people try to escape from boredom, from lack of entertainment, to find ways of constructing the self, feeling good about themselves. And autotelic in the sense that consumption is for consumption sake, without having ideological political meaning. So people consume things for the sake of consumption. So that’s a kind of creative engagement, it is kind of creativity, it is playful fantasies, so enjoying actually the act of consumption.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me bring in Ziba because I mean the women in Ali’s study, as we were saying, just listening to that, they do seem to see it mostly as a leisure pursuit rather than representing a sort of resistance. What view do you take of it, do you have an alternative interpretation?

Ziba Mir-Hosseini:
Yes I see it actually in terms of resistance. They might not articulate it in that way but you know to wear that amount of makeup and appear – because the makeup that we’re talking about it is extraordinary, it is really making a statement about who we are and this woman…

Laurie Taylor:
Extraordinary in what way, in terms of the amount that’s put on, the colour?

Ziba Mir-Hosseini:
Yes there are no pictures with Ali’s, of course there couldn’t be any picture because it’s a very sensitive topic. But when you look at this woman in Tehran it is – they’re so much made up, some of them, with colour and heavy eye makeup and hair styles and it’s basically to stand out and to be different from others. And it is paradoxical because they do it in a society where wearing hijab, not chador because chador is one form of hijab but hijab is the generic one, is compulsory, it is an offence if you appear in public without head cover or with a form of hijab which goes against what the authorities define as proper hijab. But they do appear in public.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean it is a dangerous thing, I mean we’ve got here – here’s another reading here, this time it’s someone called Zahra talking about the relationship between wearing makeup and sexual harassment.

Zahra (Reading):
Women with more makeup might be more harassed but our society is so ill that our women are subject to this, even women with chador are not immune anymore. So it doesn’t mean that I should sacrifice my own wants for the sake of some narrow minded men.

I mean Ali was this a typical response and what about the relations and other people in the family, how did other people respond?

Aliakbar Jafari:
Sexual harassment is a discourse like many other societies Iran has its own content so the form of sexual harassment changes. So we’re dealing with two issues, on the one hand we have one stream of society which demonises consumption of consumption and as a result of that it creates a stigma and also we have families, so we have society as well in which certain norms are not accepted. So – and sexual harassment is actually obvious in Iranian context. Observations show that people on the street – men harass women in different ways and this is there. So society in terms of family, for example, some family members might think that if their women do not observe the right form of hijab or veiling this might be against the dignity of the family. So we have two issues here – we have society…

Laurie Taylor:
I mean Ziba because this argument – I mean what about this argument because I mean those who support Islamic dress codes from the hijab to even more restrictive forms of covering they want to suggest it is a form of protecting women – stops women being regarded as sexual objects in a Western manner. To what extent is this a persuasive argument?

Ziba Mir-Hosseini:
It’s a patriarchal argument and it’s very clear that it is for the control of women and control of their presence in the public space or defining the terms of the presence. And basically when we look at the old and conservative views they do not recognise that women have the right to be in the public space and hijab is a kind of licence to be in the public space. But women who are now in the public space defy that by now in Iran, especially after 1990s, we have this phenomenon known as bad hijab [indistinct word], which means incorrect veiling, because it is compulsory, since 1983 appearing in public without head cover is an offence. So every women wears something on their head but the extent of it and how much they are showing and I see makeup as part of it is an act of defiance. And what is happening in Iran it is – it’s not organised, women do it on individual basis and in fact it needs no coordination but by doing it they are grinding the system, they are actually making mockery of one of the main ideological stance of the conservatives.

Laurie Taylor:
And I suppose another way in which we’ve seen this of course is in the emergence quite recently isn’t it of this so-called stealthy freedom page on Facebook. Just tell me very briefly what that is.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini:
It all started with an Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad who now lives in London by posting one of her own photos when she was in Iran while driving taking her scarf off and she just wrote something that you know I feel free and this is a kind of freedom that it’s done in hiding. And it received a lot of attention by other Iranian women and women started posting their own photos and became a forum for discussion. Basically what women are doing here are redefining the culture, are really changing the cultural attitudes.

Laurie Taylor:
What was your reaction Ali to that?

Aliakbar Jafari:
I should say that there are many chats going around this topic now which demonstrate lack of understanding of the depth of consumer culture in the theoretical sense, symbolic economy or consumption as a complete way of organising life. About Facebook we cannot really understand a very complicated concept, such as hijab and dress code, in a very complicated context just through Facebook, right? There are lots of people in Iran and around the world who are Muslims and who want to have hijab. And the third point is that there is also a counter movement going on on the internet with Facebook, women who want to have their hijab, they have created the same movement.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay and there we’ll have to stop.

 

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