Nina Siakhali Moradi was disqualified after being elected on the Qazvincity council for being 'too sexy'.

Nina Siakhali Moradi was disqualified after being elected on the Qazvincity council for being 'too sexy'.

Last week, 27-year-old Iranian architect Nina Siahkali Moradi made global headlines when she was denied a seat in Qazvin City Council in Iran because, according to global headlines, she was deemed "too attractive" for office. 

Moradi received a total of 10,000 votes in the elections and was set to take up a council seat that was vacated by a newly chosen mayor. That is, until she was disqualified by the review board. “We don't want a catwalk model on the council,” a senior official reportedly said.  

As the world gasped at the seemingly bizarre decision, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of vitriol. What many news outlets failed to mention, however, is that she was technically ousted because of a breach in dress code - specifically, she wasn't wearing a full-length chador in her election campaign poster. 

For many of us, it’s difficult to comprehend (or tolerate) this kind of discrimination, particularly since Moradi was already dressed very modestly in a veil in the poster.

There’s definitely a problem here, though much of the mainstream coverage seems to be missing the point. In fact, all this puffed-up media outrage would be more meaningful if it wasn’t sniffing of condescension. 

Headlines like “Woman ‘too sexy’ for Iranians, banned from council” (International Business Times) and “Councillor too sexy for Iranian regime” (The Times) read like gossip columns, hinting at the 'backwardness' of Iranians. 

As Iranian-American author of Lipstick Jihad Azadeh Moaveni points out, it’s a common narrative that Iranians are barbarians who treat their women like chattel. “But didn't the West produce Robin Thicke?” 

Moaveni believes Iranian women certainly face enormous barriers, and she thinks Moradi's voters are people who are thirsty for change. These are “young people, women [ and] progressives from across the system who are sick of the corrupt, klepto politics of greying men”. 

“Nina Moradi's disqualification reflects how the state, and Iranian officials, feel empowered to toss women out of their way when they feel their legitimately won rights and accomplishments are a challenge to their dominance.”

However, she adds, it's important to remember that unlike in Saudi Arabia, women are a major force in public life, and the recent reports are missing crucial context.  

“It's easy to focus on the “sexy” girl who got kicked off the city council, but who takes the time to write a thoughtful piece on all the Iranian women who are managing to thrive in their various fields, despite all the obstacles?”

In 2010, Iranian academic Dr Ansia Khaz Ali wrote about the rising participation of Iranian women, noting incredible growth in literacy, education and career.  

“Thirty years after the revolution, we can now look at the achievements made in Iran regardless of whether media outlets are pro- or against the government. The statistics indicate high level of women’s education in Iran in all fields, particularly in the field of medicine human sciences and art.”

But despite Iranian women actively participating in the country's grassroots politics, the numbers in government remain small. According to website UN Data, women occupy just 3.1 per cent of the national parliament. 

Arguably, the law could be on Moradi's side. As lawyer Mohammed Olaiyehfard told Iran Wire, "[I]t is illegal for the election review board to disqualify someone who had initially been qualified to run and then later won the election."

There’s no denying women are active participants in public life, but is it time to re-examine the strict (and in this case, career-limiting) female dress code? 

As Iran ploughed its way through immense upheaval numerous times over the last century, the country went from a compulsion to unveil, to being forced to cover up for women. 

From the early 20th century Shah government’s fierce westernisation of Iran, and even a ban on hijab in 1935, to the hijab becoming what Ansia Khaz Ali calls “a shining example of resistance” during the revolution in the 1970s, it seems the way women dress isn’t a choice for them to make.

That the Moradi situation has happened following statements about the restoration of women’s rights from new president Hassan Rohani is ironic. 

“He is a pragmatist, a creature almost entirely of calculation,” says Moaveni. “He realises women vote en masse, and that it behooves him to take forward that agenda. But I do think at heart, he probably does prefer women to be treated with respect and equality.” 

As for the change it might precipitate, Moaveni doesn’t foresee movement for now. But she acknowledges that global attention can have an impact.

“It has caught the world's attention, in the way a minor local council election in a distant country rarely does. That in itself accomplishes a lot, and makes Iranian officials realise they are accountable to both Iranian and international opinion. 

“The world is a fish bowl now, and next time around they might remember that they are being watched.”