By: Naimeh Doostar
An Iranian newspaper has published photos of Swedish female diplomats and business executives attending a function at the Swedish embassy in Tehran. The publishing of the photos by a state media is unprecedented as the Islamic Republic has never acknowledged the right of foreign female representatives to choose their own attire while visiting Iran, imposing the veil upon them.
The Swedish government has since defended subjecting female diplomats to veiling laws, expressing that Sweden respects the laws of Islamic Republic of Iran.
Now some Iranian gender equality activists are asking the Swedish government -– is a trade deal with Iran worth ignoring the right of female diplomats (or any other women in Iran) to choose their attire and have control over their bodies?
Do Trade Deals help the Situation of Human Rights?
On 13 Feb, the Swedish diplomats in Tehran hosted the opening ceremony and reception for the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Tehran, in the residence of the Swedish Ambassador.
The function which was attended by the Swedish prime minister and his delegation as well as a number of Iranian ministers, diplomats and business representatives was far from a simple business meeting. The women in Stefan Löfven’s delegation did not wear the Islamic veil on the embassy’s soil.
Respecting the laws of the sovereign country that owns the property of Embassy is not unusual in Iran. However it is not conventional to publish photos of female diplomats and envoys visiting Iran in their western apparels.
The women who were clearly in the majority within the Swedish delegation and who had attended the earlier ceremonies hosted by Iran, covering their hair in compliance with hijab regulations for women under the Islamic Republic laws, attended the reception at the home of the Swedish Ambassador without the Islamic veil.
Tasnim News Agency in Iran, a conservative media outlet funded by the Islamic Republic published the photos of the women delegates with uncovered hair.
Stefan Löfven’s trip to Iran has already been controversial in the Swedish parliament with some representatives questioning the prime minister’s trip to a country that is accused of human rights violations. Löfven’s however dismissed his critics saying establishment of commercial and trade relations will lead to gradual steps toward constructive change including the situation of human rights.
Swedish arm of PEN International urged the Prime Minister not to exclude human rights discussions in his trip, specifically asking him to push for the release of human rights activist Nargess Mohammadi.
The appearance of Swedish delegates in the meeting in Tehran wearing hijab triggered protests from some women’s rights activists who questioned how the Swedish administration reconciled its feminist agenda with the silent compliance of its female representatives to compulsory hijab.
The question remains, if trade agreements are to lead to gradual progress in the areas of women, minority and human rights, then how can this be achieved if women in foreign envoys are not granted equal rights?
The protests were more poignant as earlier this month Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lovin posted on Facebook a direct swipe at Donald Trump’s patriarchy by mocking him in a photo of Lovin surrounded by seven female members of her staff signing a proposal of the country’s new climate law.
Why would a government that cares about gender equality and equity, allow its female representative and diplomats to bow to compulsory hijab in order to sign a trade agreements with Iran? Are we now selling out on the right of women to control their bodies because of some trade agreement?
Iranian Conservatives React to the Photos
The conservatives in Iran on the other hand lashed out at the publishing of female diplomat’s photos as well as the choice of having the ceremony for the opening of the chamber at the Swedish ambassador’s residence.
Hossein Shariatmadari, the ultra conservative editor in chief of the Tehran daily Keyhan, slammed the Iranian ministers, diplomats and bureaucrats attending the ceremony at the ambassador’s residence and called it an affront to the Islamic values of Iran.
He writes that apparently a number of strings had been pulled at the behest of the Swedish Prime Minister and Ambassador to have the ceremony at the ambassador’s residence. Shariatmadari says this was done specifically to have the women attend without hijab and describes it as an “unprecedented violation of international relations and a direct insult to the Iranian officials” and the country’s laws.
Ann Linder, the Swedish trade minister who before this reception appeared in a photograph with a blue shawl on her hair signing documents with an Iranian counterpart, had reportedly expressed her discomfort about covering her hair but said that she did not want to break the laws of her host country.
This line of argument – respect for the host country’s laws- stands in contrast to the claim of “flourishing of trade will bring about gradual change”. The gradual change will never come if western diplomats initiating relations with Iran sell out on pressuring the Iranian state to acknowledge the rights of women.
Challenges to the Compulsory Veil by Female Diplomats
Iran’s compulsory hijab for women has been challenged a number of times by foreign female politicians.
In 2014 Emma Bonino, the Italian foreign minister reportedly protested against the need to cover her hair during a trip to Iran after her plane landed in Tehran. Bonino had reportedly said: “How come Iranian officials do not attend our receptions because we serve alcohol, so I am not willing to give in to this restriction either.”
Bonino ended up bowing to the mores of diplomacy and wearing the hijab while in Iran.
Some believe that establishing trade and political relations after years of sanctions is a positive development for Iran and national interests should take precedence over human rights concerns.
For instance when female Iranian-American chess player Nazi Pakizdeh and some other contenders boycotted Women’s World Chess Championships (2017) in protest to compulsory veiling laws, many claimed that it was a blow to growth of sports opportunities in Iran especially for women. It still is arguable that losing the privilege of hosting the Women’s World Chess Championships could have also created positive ripples of change by forcing the Islamic Republic government to rethink its priorities.
Glimpse of Hope For Change
Swedish opposition has proposed that the signing of the agreements did not necessarily have to take place in Iran and could instead have been done in Sweden with no restrictions on how the women involved in the event should dress.
It is clear that the appearance of Swedish delegates in Iran donning hijab was a blow to the image of Sweden as a country that fights for women’s control over their bodies.
Nevertheless the idea of holding the launch ceremony in the Swedish Ambassador’s residence can also be regarded as gradual feminist step, albeit a small step, to initiate pressure on Iran to respect the rights of women diplomats to choose their clothing.
The Swedish delegation presence in Iran and the choice of having a reception on embassy soil, is an initiative to respect the right of women in these political and economic envoys.
The photos of Swedish female diplomats and bureaucrats at a reception in Tehran has certainly angered the ultra conservative forces and the hardliners in Iran. This can be a start and strategy to be adopted by other female foreign officials visiting Iran.