A Reflection on the Unveiling Project in Poetry of the Late Qajar Era (1848-1925)

By Zeinab Eskandari
Submitted to Session P6633 (Crises of Representation, Reform, and Recovery in 18th-21st c. France, Iran, & Turkey, 2021 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
This article will analyze the reflection on the unveiling project in poetry of the late 19th and early 20th century Iran. I argue that the unveiling project did not necessarily serve only women’s emancipation. Such underlying factors as controlling the sexual impulsivity of men, preventing homosexuality, anti-Arab sentiment, and modernization also emerged from this project. Mining the contents of primary sources, I will employ a comparative approach by analyzing the mutual influence of poetry and Qajar narratives pertaining to the issue of the veil. This essay will mainly draw upon poetry composed by Iraj Mirza, Abolqasim Lahuti, Mirzadeh Eshghi, Aref Qazvini, and Zhaleh Ghaemmaghami as well as archival sources such as Sih Maktub and Sad Khatabah by Mirza Aqakhan Kirmani, Maktubat by Mirza Fathali Akhundzadah, and, Masael al-Hayat by Abd al-Rahim Ali Talibuf. There are several reasons why poetry is central. First, although the hijab issue was discussed by numerous writers and activists, poetry as a work of literary art in the history of Iran carries a unique and direct tone of language in expressing certain demands. Indeed, poetry, besides its beauty and calming form, reflects the violence occurring around a poet and can be a tool used to protest against injustice. Poetry holds the power of either mitigating the negativity of social taboos or overemphasizing the logic articulated to support social norms. At the apex of its tone, poetry can utterly flip the long-lasting definition of common concepts by redefining them and presenting a fresh perception of them. In other words, poetry can serve as the revolutionary language of opposition. Second, poetry, unlike some other written genres remained influential in terms of breaking boundaries and bridging the elite class to the uneducated. Third, it is significant to observe poets as leading figures, who did not censor their perspectives due to the tense atmosphere surrounding the issue. Those advocating for unveiling explicitly considered the hijab as a visible symbol of internalized patriarchy. Fourth, poets were among the modernist pioneers who began to change their perspectives towards religious rules, by perceiving them as religious obligations and traps. Reevaluating norms, they detached some deep-rooted concepts from their traditional affiliations and attached a new definition and perspective to them. Lastly, I chose to focus on poetry because the first opposition to veiling was by a female poet, Tahereh Qorrat ol-Eyn (1814 or 1817-1852), who removed her veil and called it an obligation.