Evoking Sophia Loren in Iran

by Farideh Farhi

When I was a teenager in the 1960s growing up in Tehran, Hollywood had not yet monopolized stardom. We had a number of European stars to swoon and argue over. I myself was a Jean-Paul Belmondo fan. Other boys and girls couldn’t get enough of Alain Delon and Marcello Mastroianni. Unfortunately, Delon’s straight hair didn’t match the curls of the many Iranian teenagers who tried the Delon look anyway. We also had our opinions regarding a whole gamut of female stars including Brigitte Bardot, Claudia Cardinale, Catherine Deneuve, and, yes, Sophia Loren, who was my favorite for reasons that I no longer remember.

So, my ears perked up when I heard cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda—the hardline Friday Prayer Leader of the holy city of Mashhad, the seat of Imam Reza Shrine—mention Sophia Loren in his Friday speech. The occasion for remembering Loren was a Women’s Day performance of Iranian folklore dance by eight and nine year olds in front of the mayor of Tehran. Alamolhoda was offended and saw the performance as an insult to the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, Fatemeh aka Zahra, who lived in the seventh century and is considered the model of perfection for her devotion to god and as a daughter, wife, and mother. Alamolhoda is convinced that Iran’s enemies planned the program and intended the young dancing girls to signal that between apparently only two available models for Iranian women, Sophia Loren is to be chosen over Fatemeh.

His lament worked. Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi immediately opened a judicial case against the mayor of Tehran—chosen after the reformists swept Tehran city council elections in 2017—for putting together the “vulgar program.” The mayor has since offered his resignation.

The partisan nature of the feigned hue and cry is clear. But I couldn’t let go of Sophia Loren’s mention. Loren has not been part of stardom lexicon for years. In fact, according to BBC Persian, the number of people searching on Google for her name spiked significantly in Iran after Alamolhoda’s mention. Younger folks were probably wondering who she was.

So, why did Alamolhoda mention Sophia Loren as a model for Iranian women? Does he, like me, remember her from his youth? Is it possible that he was watching the same movies I was? True, Loren had a higher number of dancing scenes than the usual coterie of Western stars at the time. Alamolhoda must have been watching, if only to deeply grasp what’s wrong with her image as a dancing woman.

I tease, of course. I have no idea why Sophia Loren has become for Alamolhoda the archetype of Western permissiveness, corruption, and nakedness (since being without a headscarf to him automatically implies nudity). But I do know that the guardians of cultural purity in the Islamic Republic have had a hard time talking about the most recent challenge to their imposition of a particular way of public life on Iran’s diverse population.

Dealing with Protest

In recent months, a number of individual women have protested compulsory veiling by taking off their veils in public. Although the first woman who took off her veil did so before the December-January protests that engulfed many of the smaller cities in Iran, others continued the practice after the protests. After all, no less than Leader Ali Khamenei had declared that peaceful protests were fine. Yet several of these women have been arrested, most have been released on bail, and this week one was slapped with a two-year sentence, which will probably be appealed. The government probably hopes to manage the tide at the outset without much violence by threatening harsh prison sentences.

But after a video surfaced showing a protesting woman being physically and harshly pushed down from the pedestal on which she was standing—likely by the touch of a non-intimate male hand (a no no)—the question of how to treat these non-violent protests became part of the public conversation. Several members of parliament questioned the harshness. Others proposed that women police deal with the protests. Still others questioned the wisdom of compulsory hijab while confirming their own choice in wearing it. This conversation did not stop the police from attacking and arresting approximately 20 women and men protestors calling for wage and economic equality on March 8 (the women have since been released but not yet the men). It did not take long for the police to figure out that Leader Khamenei’s toleration of peaceful protest was only in jest.

But the issue is not going to go away. On March 8, Ayatollah Khamenei himself engaged in an act of jujitsu in front of a mostly male audience of lay preachers. On the one hand, he called the move by “a few individuals” to protest the compulsory veil as “insignificant and trivial,” performed by a few “ignorant,” “duped,” or “paid” individuals. On the other hand, instead of ignoring the “triviality,” he spent a good part of his 42-minute speech talking about his concern about all the talk against compulsory hijab finding its way into the minds and words of the Iranian post-revolution elite. This concerns him, not the “trivial” act of the women who took off their veil in public, he stated. But his words belie this statement. He is right that there have so far been only a handful of protesting women. But this handful has touched a nerve to the point that compulsory hijab became the topic of Friday prayers this week throughout the country. Since then, the judiciary chief Sadeq Amoli Larijani and the chair of both the Guardian Council and Assembly of Expediency Council, the nonagenarian Ahmad Jannati, have stepped into the fray and equated the public unveilings with promotion of prostitution and debauchery.

Ayatollah Khamenei has been talking about the creeping influence of enemies on the minds of government authorities since he shifted his language a few years ago from warning against Western cultural invasion (tahajom-e farhangi) to infiltration (nofuz). In using the former, he expressed his general concerns regarding the import of consumerism, objectification of women’s bodies, nudity, and so on.

With the latter, however, Khamenei reveals a fear that his comrades may be changing their minds regarding how to govern Iran by loosening social controls. The only way he knows how to blunt their changing attitudes is to use the good and tested revolutionary technique of charging those with different views of being the knowing or unknowing agents of Iran’s enemies. Notwithstanding the charge, his worry about changing attitudes regarding compulsory hijab is well placed. Even in Qom, there are younger clerics who believe in hijab but argue that the policy of compulsory hijab has been wrong-headed. They point out that its implementation has in fact reduced the preference for the hijab as well undermined the clerics’ standing in society.

To answer such arguments, in his March 8 speech, the Supreme Leader even went back to the revolution itself and invoked the name of the revolution’s founding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his mandate in favor of compulsory veil. To do so, Khamenei usefully ignored the possibility that after 40 years even Khomeini might have changed his mind in the same way that he changed his mind about women’s right to vote in less than two decades between early 1960s and 1979. Furthermore, in a slight shift of argument, instead of only talking about it as protection against societal sin, Khamenei tied veiling to revolutionary slogans of freedom and independence, that only through the maintenance of “authentic” cultural identity can “true” freedom and independence be assured.

Of course, there is nothing authentic about even the most authentic of Iranian veils— the long black cloth covering the entire body called the chador. Iran is such a diverse country culturally that not even the black chador can be considered universally home-grown. This is even truer of the uniform of a long overcoat and a separate hood-like contraption that continues to be imposed on government workers. This is entirely made up and modern and has nothing to do with authentic Iranian attire (if there ever was such a thing).

It’s quite interesting to listen to, not just read, Ayatollah Khamenei. In his interactions with the crowd, he again reveals himself as up-to-date with events outside of Iran. He made references to the #MeToo Movement revelations about violence against women and offered hijab as an alternative. Listening to him, I even wondered whether he had watched the red-carpet spectacle at the Oscars since he amusingly pointed to the fact that in formal ceremonies Western men have to show up fully covered while women compete in showing more of their bodies. That’s certainly an accurate observation as appearances go.

A Changed Iran

But Khamenei is totally oblivious or indifferent to the shifting sands in his own country. His words are for his followers, young and old, who no doubt still constitute a good chunk of Iran’s population and do not find hijab an imposition. But another good part of the population does and, if the Islamic Republic’s own surveys are to be taken seriously, increasingly so.

In a recent interview with an Iranian daily, no less than Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, the conservative minister of interior, discussed the result of the Interior Ministry’s investigation of recent protests in December and January and rejected their cause as merely economic. He stated that the Interior Ministry has concluded that the protests reflected near-term economic, social, and political discontent while the deeper term roots could be found in “generational change, change of lifestyle, and technological change.” Rahmani Fazli went on to say that “their tastes and choices call into question our logic” and that “we can see these changes in our own family and among our own children.”

So, how does the Supreme Leader choose to connect to this changing and changed Iran? He doesn’t. He displays no interest or acumen in leading Iran in its entirety. His language, after 40 years of ineffective policies regarding hijab, is to equate not donning it with nudity, impurity, propagation of prostitution, and, more recently, inauthenticity.

Yet Khamenei must know that a good part of the population does not believe in compulsory hijab and has completely transformed the concept into an accessory that frames and beguiles rather than covers and hides. If he doesn’t know, he should consult with his appointed Friday Prayer Leader in the holy city of Mashhad, Ahmad Alamolhoda, who can tell him how in Iran, almost 40 years into the rule of the guardians of purity and authenticity, Sophia Loren is winning the battle of archetypes.

Photo: Ahmad Alamolhoda (Wikimedia Commons)

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.



  1. Esferag mikonam rou in martikeye vatanforoush dosde binamous eslami ke chepech fessad as richech miad bala.

  2. What do you expect? Iran has cultural-social-generational conflicts as do other countries. This is a generational shift in Iran but it should not be underestimated nor simply attributed to the regime. Female demonstrators of the Green Movement complained that fellow male demonstrators were saying offensive things to them; this chauvinism is a social phenomenon. After all, It was only about 1 generation ago that half of the people of Iran were simply illiterate. In that time period there has been a massive improvement in material living standards (including 22 years added lifespans, drop in fertility, and huge improvements in educational attainment especially for women) but mentalities take longer to change. It should be kept in mind that the veil was not simply imposed from above by “the mullahs” in 1979; it was an assertion of class and cultural identity by the revolutionary masses in the face of the Shah’s superficial efforts at Westernization — Sophia Loren came to Iran, as did Farah Fawcett later. Women were the enforcers. The upper classes lived the best of the disco era, mini-skirts and Farrah Fawcett inspired hair for women and and shaggy-haired bell bottom trousers wearing men… The rest of society resented all of that. The schizophrenia has to be resolved, and now perhaps slowly is starting to be, ironically because of the improved living standards gained by women since 1979.

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