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Iran faces pressure for its treatment of women. The president's wife defends it

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president of Iran came to the meeting of the United Nations in New York last week, and so did his wife. Iran's government is under pressure one year after the death of a woman arrested for allegedly not following Iran's dress code. Security forces crushed the resulting protests, arresting thousands. U.N. investigators say Iran executed seven people after hasty trials. But we still hear from people in Iran, like 19-year-old Baran, who said she won't cover her hair as the law requires.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BARAN: No. No way. I prefer to die. We are not wearing that hijab because we are still fighting for Mahsa, Nika, Sarina and everyone killed by Islamic Republic of Iran.

INSKEEP: She named three of the hundreds who have died in the past year. Amid criticism, Iranian authorities offered the president's wife for an interview. Her name is Jamileh Alamolhoda. She's in her 50s and is a scholar who has worked as a university professor. And she met us in a New York City hotel room wearing a chador, a black cloth like a cape that she clutched around her so that it covered her head.

JAMILEH ALAMOLHODA: (Through interpreter) I am mostly representing women and ladies whose voices have not been heard by Americans. Iranian ladies whose voices have most often been heard in the United States are perhaps quite different than the reality of today's women in Iran.

INSKEEP: Iranian officials said Jamileh Alamolhoda's title is not first lady of Iran. She prefers the more modest designation of the president's wife. She spoke through a male interpreter. And she said many Iranian women embrace a role of supporting their husbands.

ALAMOLHODA: (Through interpreter) That is why traditional feminist movements do not tend to be very helpful to them, because their roadmap is quite different. The traditional feminist movements are, in fact, I believe, based on a competition between men and women.

INSKEEP: In her view, American feminism encourages women to focus on financial independence rather than their families.

ALAMOLHODA: (Through interpreter) Now, it's important to note that I do not think nor maintain that all Americans feel this way and behave this way and perceive this way. I only name it as such because it is a modern viewpoint. It is a modern pursuit.

INSKEEP: I think you are correct that Americans have many different views about what it is to be a woman and how one should be as a woman. And they have many choices they can make. It seems that in Iran, the government is denying women that choice, as expressed in the protests of the past year. Why should the government deny women a choice if their views are different than those you have expressed?

ALAMOLHODA: (Through interpreter) If we look at the history of the culture, of these - of our society, we see that women, because they have always been the nucleus or the heartbeat of the immediate and extended family, they have always been receiving keen attention, attention as to what their attire is made of, how is it, what it covers, the level of humility, their comportment throughout domestic as well as external life. But allow me to say this with utmost precision, I deeply believe, based on facts, that this covering is more of a cultural and social issue in Iran rather than a political one.

INSKEEP: And yet it has led to protests and responses to protests that were violent, in which many people have been killed. If it is merely a cultural and social issue, why does the state perceive a woman removing her headscarf as a threat?

ALAMOLHODA: (Through interpreter) If you look at the reality without prejudgment, the reality and the numbers, which often do not lie, show that a great deal - a great majority, if you will - of the population is requesting a stricter enforcement of the hijab laws.

INSKEEP: We shared this interview with a specialist on Iran. Robin Wright has written about the country for half a century. She says Iranian women hold diverse views. Some want more freedom, while others are more conservative, matching the opinions of clerics who've held ultimate power since a 1979 revolution.

ROBIN WRIGHT: There are two symbols that represent the revolution's goals. One is the anti-Americanism that defines its foreign policy and has for 44 years. And the other is the hijab, which is the symbol of imposing Islamic systems and traditions throughout society.

INSKEEP: What would happen to this revolutionary government, as it is styled, if women ceased following instructions on how to dress?

WRIGHT: If the majority of women took off their headscarves or rebelled against the Islamic dress code, that would amount to the unraveling of the revolution.

INSKEEP: On the day we met the president's wife in New York, Iran's Parliament - or Majlis - acted in Tehran. Lawmakers voted for larger fines and longer jail terms for violating the dress code. Jamileh Alamolhoda insists many Iranians want the law to be enforced.

ALAMOLHODA: (Through interpreter) And they keep contacting us expressing preoccupations and concerns, asking if you allow this kind of laxed behavior, are you not worried that in the future, if it continues and it grows, it will not negatively affect the propagation of the family unit, the health of the family unit in society?

INSKEEP: Wait, wait. Not wearing a headscarf would affect the health of the family unit, is that what you're saying?

ALAMOLHODA: (Through interpreter) Yes. Lack of humility in covering leads to increased nakedness, and this causes family issues. It ends up in the destruction of the family unit. It ends in divorces and such social anomalies.

INSKEEP: This is one Iranian view. We asked other Iranian women what questions they would have for the president's wife, and one named Sara sent a voice memo, which we play here. She asked us to disguise the sound so authorities could not track her down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARA: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: Sara asked, what would you say as a mother to the mothers whose daughters, like Mahsa Amini, were killed during the protests? We passed on that question.

ALAMOLHODA: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: She said, "I feel their loss." And then she added something. She said men also lost their lives while defending public order in Iran. Some police were killed during the protests. She said men were supporting what she called the dignity of women.

(SOUNDBITE OF INVISIBLE DESIGN'S "MOONLIGHT JAZZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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