Majnoun

Submitted by on 27 April, 2004 - 12:00

by Mehrdad Seyf, performed recently at the Riverside Studios

The 'majnoun' of the title is mad with love, and refers to an Iranian story something like 'Romeo and Juliet'. The play is about an Iranian woman living in Britain who has to make up her mind who to marry, her English fiancé or an Iranian friend. The play would appeal most to British and Iranian people who are in a British-Iranian relationship: regrettably, of limited appeal then!

The principal interest of the play is in references to a period in Iranian history, the regime of Reza Shah, father of the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who was forced out of power in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution.

Reza Shah ruled from 1925 to 1941. Growing revenues from oil enabled him to build a powerful and oppressive state; to carry out some industrialisation; and to embark on schemes to 'modernise' Iran, inspired by a sort of nationalistic pride combined with shame at 'backward' aspects of Iranian culture, including women wearing the chador to go out in public.

The most bizarre and draconian of Reza Shah's schemes was the decision to make Iranians give up their accustomed clothing and wear European dress.

Readers might be surprised to learn that Reza Shah began not with the veil, but with male head-dress. First, in 1927, men were ordered to take off their various traditional hats and to wear a French military-style képi peaked cap, which they called a 'pahlavi'.

Pahlavi was the surname Reza Shah had chosen for himself, the name of an ancient language that evoked pre-Islamic Iranian glories. (One strand of the rhetoric surrounding the modernisation drive - a view that persists in Iran today - was an anti-Arabism that blamed Iran's 'backwardness' on the Arab conquest, on the influence of the Arabic language - Persian is written in Arabic script, etc - and sometimes on the influence of Islam.)

Later, men were forced to dress completely in European style and to wear trilby-type hats.

In the late 1930s, women were ordered not to wear the chador or any headscarf: they could wear hats but only European-style ones.

These rules were enforced not by arrest and prosecution of malefactors, but in the streets, with forced unveiling of any woman trying to go about her business covered up (foreshadowing attacks in the streets, post-Islamic revolution, on women dressed 'immodestly'.)

Many women responded to Reza Shah's pseudo-liberation not with gratitude but by withdrawing completely from public life, hiding indoors for years.

The veil, chador, etc, do belong to cultures that, first, discriminate between the sexes, and, second, oppress women. But liberation must be self-liberation or, for those who are being liberated by an outside agency, it must feel like liberation. Otherwise it simply becomes a new oppression - in the case of the Reza Shah unveiling, a sort of violation of women by the state.

It would be false, of course, to pretend that the situation in Iran in the early 20th century is the same as that in France in the early 21st century, and automatically deduce one's attitude in the current "headscarf debate". But it is extremely important to look at the headscarf question from as many angles as one can find, precisely because what we are being asked to decide is just who should make the decisions about what women can and can't wear.

Reviewer: Vicki Morris

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