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How Iran's Young Women Are Using Fashion To Influence Politics

Want to know about Iran? Pay attention to fashion trends.

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This is the stereotypical image of women in Iran / Via Wikimedia Commons

Since the 1979 revolution, women have struggled to regain lost rights and win a larger role in society, despite a regime that is generally unfriendly to women’s issues.

"The 1979 revolution politicized the mass of Iranian women," says Iran expert Haleh Esfandiari. "But women’s expectations were not realized. The new theocracy systematically rolled back five decades of progress in women’s rights. Women were purged from government positions. All females, including girls in first grade, were forced to observe the hejab, or Islamic dress code. Family laws were scraped. For the next three decades, however, the energy Iranian women displayed during the revolution propelled them deeper into the public arena to regain their rights. The result is one of the most dynamic women’s movements in the Islamic world, and female activists who have won international recognition in a wide array of professions."

There are many types of hijabs / Via Wikimedia Commons

Hijab literally means "covering," which has wildly different interpretations around the world. You can check out a full list here.

The most common type of covering for women in Iran is likely the chador, seen above.

Fashion designers are turning the classic hijab into something more chic / Via

Designer Naghmeh Kiumarsi has led the way, transforming items like the manteau — a long, loose coat — into fashionable jackets that would pass as top-line fashion in the Western world. Kiumarsi’s work is unique for its use of traditional Iranian textiles and Persian poetry (her scarves carry decorative calligraphy and images from some of the most popular Iranian poems).

“The ideas in my designs come directly from the experiences of my life combined with the courage to express them through the textures and forms,” Kiumarsi said. “’Remember to Fly,’ my latest collection, conveys the positive message that the sky is the limit. If we want to kiss the sky, we should remember to fly and not be afraid.”

These new styles are even becoming issues in Iran's elections – and these young women have found an ally in Iran's new president

Twitter: @HassanRouhani / Via Twitter

Hassan Rouhani is seen as a moderate and reformer – which makes him pretty different from Iran's recent leadership. In June, he won Iran's presidential election with large support from more progressive-minded young and female voters, with a woman's so-called "right to wear" emerging as a theme in this summer's presidential election.

"In Rowhani the people found a man willing to be outspoken about the grave problems of rampant unemployment, a depreciating currency, and lack of government accountability," notes Iran expert Haleh Esfandiari. "Rowhani also spoke openly about the discrimination against women and the pervasive presence of the morals police and the security agencies in the lives of Iranians."

"A woman’s right-to-wear was an implicit theme in the election," writes Maral Noori of the US Institute of Peace. Rouhani "acknowledged demands for greater individual freedoms."

One example of this is Rouhani's post-election July 3rd tweet (image above), "If some1 doesn't comply with rules for clothing, person's virtue shudn't come under question. Our emphasis shud b on virtue."

To be sure, women have a long way to go in Iran until they're treated equally

"The revolution was a rejection of Westernization, including its mini-skirts and make-up," says Maral Noori. "Many women then still clung to tradition—at a time that literacy among women was just over 40 percent, according to the World Bank. Now, it's just the reverse, a reflection of the growing dynamism – and education -- among Iran's women. More than 95 percent of females between 15 and 24 are now literate, over double the number who could read and write in the mid-1970s.

"They accounted for more than 60 percent of all university students until 2012, when ultraconservatives under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad restricted women from studying 77 subjects--including engineering, education, and counseling—at 36 universities. The subjects were reportedly too 'manly.'"