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Leashing us softly

Like many people, I had a memorable first day of school. Not because it was the first time going to a new place. Nor because my otherwise amazing parents forgot to tell me that I’d be starting school on that day. No, it was neither the fear nor the shock that made the day memorable, but the fact that I had to wear a headscarf!

Of course, growing up in Tehran, Iran, I knew that when girls reached a certain age, they had to cover their hair in public. For me, like most other Iranian girls, the age was six. That was the age I started first grade and was ‘required’ by school, under government and Islamic laws, to cover my hair.

I remember the day vividly. I was sitting at the breakfast table, eating my usual breakfast of buttered toast and honey, when my dad told me to hurry up and finish because I had to go to school. Before I had the chance to say anything, my mom came toward me with a neatly folded navy-colored scarf. She opened it and put it over my head. My puffy curly hair did not fit in it. She gently pushed my hair inside the scarf. The curls sprang out. In an effort to cover all my hair, she pulled the scarf down my forehead, almost all the way toward my eyebrows. Still, my hair was unruly and didn’t want to stay in. My hair didn’t like the scarf, I thought. It repelled it. I felt the same way, but I didn’t tell her.

My mom spent a good amount of time fixing my scarf and the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about a cartoon I had recently seen. I don’t remember the details, but it had something to do with a dog that got leashed by his owner, just before going out for a walk. The walk was lovely, but the dog was sad because he wasn’t free to move around. Anyhow, after my scarf was fixed, I was handed to my dad. He took me to the car and as I sat in the back seat, I saw my reflection in the front mirror. My halo of curls was replaced by a puffy dark veil. I looked ridiculous and sad at the same time. But I didn’t complain to my dad either. I just sat there, thinking of the cartoon.

After that uncomfortable first day of school, and throughout the next several elementary school years in Tehran, I got used to wearing a head scarf. It became a routine; the usual. Yet, whenever I saw my older brother go to school, scarf-free of course, I wondered how it would feel to leave the house without having to ‘hide’ your hair. I was sure that all that running, jumping and chasing in the school yard was even more fun without a scarf. Plus, he didn’t have to worry about getting punished if his scarf accidently slipped. How unfair, I would think to myself, that girls had to wear scarves.

But it wasn’t about the scarf. And it wasn’t about the hair. It was about being controlled and forced into doing something. It was about the leash, disguised as a head scarf. And the leash, as harmless as it may have looked, was nothing but a passive form of violence.

Of course, it’s one thing for women who grow up in certain cultures or have specific faiths, to choose how they want dress or live. My paternal grandmother loved wearing headscarves. For her, it was comforting. She wore a scarf like other women would wear makeup or jewelry. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done arbitrary, with genuine belief and pleasure.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case for secular women living in Iran. They’re forced into wearing headscarves in public and will be severely punished if they don’t. As such, they are subjects to a passive act of violence on daily basis.

Although the topic of covering hair in accordance with the Islamic laws is too complex to discuss here, one simple point should be made: no woman should be forced into doing something against her will, regardless of how important religion, tradition or society makes it. Obviously, forcing someone to do something for someone’s safety and health is quite different. But often times, the rules and traditions that burden women, whether it’s the requirement to cover their hair in public, not be able to get legal abortion or get equal pay for equal work, have nothing to do with their wellbeing and everything to do with limiting their power.

As Gandhi said, "Violence has two children, the physical and passive forms”. A requirement to wear a headscarf may not seem like a violent act- it certainly cannot compare to rape or physical abuse- but it still is a form of violence because it forces one to do something against her will and wish.

As women, we have to be especially vigilant of these “passive forms” of violence. They’re present in many countries. Not just Iran, not just Middle East or Third World countries….but many, many countries. They also come in many forms: sometimes tangible, like scarves, and sometimes intangible, like our rights. We may be exposed to them very young, or later in life. Yet, they have some things in common: they’re the ones that go on discreetly but consistently…….taking away our power and leashing us softly.

This story was written for World Pulse’s Ending Violence Against Women Digital Action Campaign.

World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring an end to gender-based violence. The EVAW Campaign elicits powerful content from women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as vocal grassroots leaders, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
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amymorros's picture

Passive Forms of Violence

Your story was compelling from beginning to end. Thank you for sharing your point of view. This certainly is a much discussed issue and I am often hesitant to give my opinion for fear of being politically incorrect. But I agree with what you have to say about women being forced into doing something regardless of how they feel about it.
For many girls and women here in the US, we often don't even think about how tv and magazines make us feel bad about our bodies, for example. There are things we just accept as being part of our culture without really questioning them.

Thanks again for your thoughts and looking forward to reading more.


fcalafi's picture

Thanks for your kind

Thanks for your kind comments, Amy!

Yes, unfortunately these kinds of violence exists even in this country. Fortunately, we're becoming more conscious of them. That is the first- and best- step forward.

Thanks again for reading my story and sharing your comments.


Farnaz Calafi

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

Magnificent Metaphor

Dear Fcalafi,

Your magnificent metaphor of a head scarf being like a dog's leash will stay with me for a long time. I will use it, and will give you credit for it! (I have a particular love of dogs -- all animals, really -- and so the metaphor is particularly meaningful for me.)

Your testimony is beautifully presented, strong and effective, and I thank you for it. You have put into clear words -- and original ones -- what it feels like to be quietly oppressed, or oppressed in less overt, more 'civilized' ways.

I will share your story with friends and family, and I know they will find it, as I do, food for valuable thought. Perhaps your particular contribution will eventually lead to the end of headscarves for Iranian women! (Let us think big!)

With Respect and Support,

- Sarah

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby

fcalafi's picture

I feel both honored and

I feel both honored and relieved by your comments, Sarah. Honored, since the compliments come from a great writer like yourself, and relieved because I was afraid people will not get this metaphor, or get offended (which was not my intention).

Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

Farnaz Calafi

aimeeknight's picture

Thank you, for sharing such a

Thank you, for sharing such a touching story, while also giving me a new understanding. I was able to see this experience through your eyes. You have excellent writing skills, great work.

"One shoe can change a life" ~ Cinderella

fcalafi's picture

Many thanks for your comments

Many thanks for your comments and compliments, Aimee!

I'm so glad to be able to share my story with people who understand and appreciate it deeply.

All the best,

Farnaz Calafi

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