Sixth Edition December 2002 - Azar 1381 
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Women’s Best Friend


School Counselors: Clichéd and Useless?




The Practice of Control

Nina Farnia

I have recently returned from a two-month stay in Iran. This was my first visit, as I am an Iranian born in the United States, the hyphenated identity known to most as Iranian-American. Having never visited, I was not shocked like many others by their first post-Revolutionary visit. I have no memories of Iran.

What struck me most about Iran were the sexual politics that governed family life and the streets. Sexual politics seemed to be constantly in my face. I recently graduated from college and am not married. In Iran, these two aspects of my identity make me ripe for marriage, as I am educated, but not too educated, young, but not so young as to be unsuitable, and not so old that I’m torshideh. And I had just arrived from the U.S.- presumably unversed in life’s harsh ways and therefore in constant need of guidance and supervision. Though I had spent the last four years of my life away from my parents, in Chicago and Paris, my extended family was convinced that I was in need of supervision. When I or my parents explained that I can take care of myself, the response would be, “Well, but that’s America. This is Tehran. It has gotten much more dangerous here after the Revolution.” I don’t know if this is actually true, but they seemed to believe it. As a result, in the two months that I was there, I was constantly being told what to do, what not to do, and virtually everything in between.

Examples: (from family) “A young woman should not be out alone past 9PM, particularly if you don’t have a car and are forced to ride in cabs. God knows what the driver could do to you…”; (from a male friend) “You shouldn’t hang your arm outside the car window, people will think you’re, well, a slut…”; (everyone) “You shouldn’t smoke while walking on the street. People think women who smoke on the street are whores…”; (everyone) “Don’t laugh too much, people might think you’re easy…”; “The younger you get married, the better. Don’t you think it’s time?...” (the mother of a son who was hoping he would want me as his wife, as if it was solely his choice); “So, girls who grow up in the United States, they have no problems having sex before they get married, do they?...” (random cab driver who upon discovering I was an American, gave me his phone number, because, of course, American girls are easy. Just so you know, I didn’t call him.)   

The list goes on and on. This of course, all came out once my parents departed and I was left alone. Once they had me to themselves, I discovered how worried my extended family was that I’m not married, not very interested in marriage at the moment, and not making the husband search a first priority. Most of their concern came from a sense of my vulnerability. A woman with a man by her side is always perceived to be safer, whether walking on the street or sitting home at night. And a man could provide the protection my life was seemingly lacking. Smoking in public, being on the streets at night, laughing unself-consciously- if done alone, these are things that might lead people to think a woman is a prostitute or a slut, and which lessen her safety. Of course, I don’t want to make Tehran seem like some sort of madhouse of sex and violence. It’s no different than any other big city around the world. In Paris my home was burglarized and I was followed on multiple occasions; and in Chicago, muggings are a part of life. Tehran is just another big city.  

The protection that was offered me felt in many ways like ownership, as it was meant to dictate the way I lived my life. Womanhood is to some extent defined by ownership. People gave me advice because I’m not married and without protection. It is interesting to note that once they found out I was seeing someone, the fretting lessened. I am not saying that the advice is wrong, as some of it is true. Tehran is a very open and vibrant city, alive around the clock, and women spend a great deal of time outside the home and are vulnerable to potential violence. Yet at the same time that many women work outside the home, they must strike a delicate balance, as I soon experienced. I went to Tehran to work, and after the initial three weeks with family, the majority of my time was meant for research and writing. To my family however, my work was only legitimate so long as it did not demand that I overstep the boundaries set for girls/women in Iranian life, i.e. staying out late, not telling people where I was, not offering a phone number where I could be reached. This is one of the contradictions in Iran. Women are not nearly as limited as foreigners think. More than half of university students are women and there are many women employed outside the home. But there is a sense that the more independent they become, the more anxiety is induced. I received more preaching and this-is-what-you-should-do-no-questions than I ever have from my parents, and from people I had never seen before this visit.   

And to be honest, I didn’t know how to deal with it. What I felt as sexist control and reactionary protection, was in Iran and to my family a way of life. Every society has rules, social norms, and my way of life was shattering for them. I felt most conflicted when I heard the following statement: “When you go to a foreign country, you must abide by the cultural and social norms of that society, not only for your own safety, and not only out of respect to those values, but also to truly understand how that society governs itself.” Who can argue with that?! I myself have tried to explain this to some of my own friends; and yet, here I was, feeling an incredible urge to ignore everyone, regardless of why they said it. In the end, I did not get much work done, and when I was working I was agonizing about my family. 

It’s a blurry line, and I don’t know what is right. It is true that a woman on the street smoking may lead people to think she’s a prostitute. It is true that to be a woman out alone at night is dangerous. What else is new? I wonder if the world weren’t so dangerous for women, would these limits be placed upon our lives? Or is the world dangerous for women so these limits can be placed upon our lives? Regardless of the answer, in both cases my body is being controlled in ways that my male counterpart’s is not. And so I have to ask: Should I change my life so as not to accommodate the rapists and misogynists out there? Should I change my habits, my ways of life, because people “think things”? Is culture and heritage so important to our lives that it should govern our decisions, even when we disagree? Is violence so prevalent? 

In the United States, it’s all different. Just as in Iran, a girl is either easy, a slut, a whore, a prostitute, a nice girl, a tease, a virgin, a prude, etc. But different from Iran, these images and words are produced by television, the internet, movies, pornography. In Iran, the prominent image of the girl/woman is that of a nice, demure lady, protected either by her father or her husband. In the United States, the prominent image of the girl/woman is highly sexual: bouncing breasts in MTV videos, long-lasting makeup in Revlon commercials, plastic surgery ads in our newspapers, and let’s not forget, porn. These images often give the impression that this is how women want to be. I often had discussions with my male peers at college who seemed to think that women in porn videos enjoy what they do. But it is hard to believe that a woman would want to be partnered with an animal, or have a dick in every orifice in her body.

As in Iran, in the United States I feel beholden to a set of rules and value systems that I did not create.  And it feels like control, just in a completely different way. I wonder how much, as women in the United States, our physical appearances affect the jobs we get. An attractive woman is never smart, but a smart woman is never fun. And how often do we hear that the woman who is raped brought it upon herself because of the way she was dressed, the things she probably said. And finally, how many mothers feel guilty for working outside of the home? How many fathers? I personally don’t know any guilty-feeling dads. In Iran, control of my body harnesses itself by way of tradition, in the United States it harnesses itself by way of images that induce certain feelings. After all, isn’t that what advertising is for?  

These are the two extremes of course, but as women and girls, this is what we are receiving from our societies. And there is crossover between these two images and countries. The makeup and the objectification are manifested in Iran, just in forms other than MTV and Revlon, and in the United States, the chaste/ najeeb woman is manifested in forms other than the woman under the hejab.  

Now would be a good time to make a call to action or change, something like, “the system should change, not me.” I could make academic claims about the role of global capitalism, the role of the woman in our religious texts, militarization and its impacts on daily life, territorialization and ownership of the body. But I’m not going to. It’s been said many times before. And frankly, I’m tired of discussing why we have these problems.  Maybe eventually we’ll learn to solve our problems through our discourse.  For now though, let’s just make this a testimonial of sorts and leave it at that.

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