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Shoulder Pads and Scarves

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In “Selections from Reading Lolita in Tehran”, the author, Azar Nafisi, describes two pictures. These two pictures showed a group of women, however, one picture depicted what they were forced to show to the world, “dressed in black clothes and head scarves,” while the other depicted the identity their world forced them to hide. The colorful clothes each woman wore in the second photo gave her an individuality she was unable to show because of the strict laws of the Iranian regime. The pressures on femininity in the patriarchy of Iran and the regimented life at the United States Military Academy forces a duality among women and a loss in their individuality and means of self-expression; these two cultures force women into very strict roles, with limited opportunities of self expression.

The duality these Iranian women face forces them to hide their femininity and individuality in public, but, in the privacy of closed doors and all-female environments, they can express what they are forced to hide on a daily basis. At the United States Military Academy, female cadets live with this same sense of duality that the Tehran women highlight in the two pictures. Similar to the scarves that Iranian women wear, the uniform every cadet wears at the military academy does not allow for self expression. The traditional uniforms West Point is known for, named Full Dress and Dress Gray, take away the physical attributes that make a woman a woman. Both uniforms have bulky shoulder pads, giving the women the unnatural look of broad shoulders. According to regulation, uniforms are not allowed to fit tight, so issued skirts do not even modestly hug any curve. The women in Tehran are draped with dark, drab clothing and forced to hide their hair underneath scarves in order to appear modest in front of men. In the movie Persepolis, which follows the true story of a young girl growing up during the height of the Iranian revolution, the main character, Marjane Satrapi, learns as a little girl in 1982 that, “A woman who is virtuous is a woman who hides herself from the eyes of men.” When she is a preteen, she is called a slut by a pair of older women for wearing her scarf so that it shows an indecent amount of hair. As a college student, she is stopped by the police and told to stop running because when she runs her “bum jiggles” and that is immodest.

West Point’s Class of 1980 was the first to include women and these women were confronted with this confusing duality. These women strived to be accepted; some went so far as to talk with deeper voices (Milwaukee). In the Corps, past and present, many female cadets shy away from wearing the issued skirts, not just because of the distasteful look, but because pants do not leave them subject to criticism or unwanted attention. Gail Dwyer, West Point Class of 2002, remembers:

“[W]e did not want to be thought of as "female" cadets; we just wanted to be "cadets"… I never wore my cadet skirt; I never wore make-up in uniform. We didn't want to stick out. We didn't want any undue attention that made the male cadets think that we were trying to be "feminine". [W]hen I was a plebe, there were roughly 200 females in the Corps. And there was a great number of cadets and faculty who didn't want women at the academies. To me, it made sense to try to just do what we were supposed to do in a quiet, professional, almost subdued manner (Email, 2 Nov 2013).”

Her experience at the academy highlights the problem with femininity that occurs in both Tehran and West Point. The strict rules take away self expression from women. In these cultures, women shy away from their femininity because there is no place for it. As women in Tehran, Azar Nafisi and Marjane Satrapi refused to fill the traditional subservient role of an Iranian woman. Azar Nafisi focused more on her students than her household. Marjane Satrapi listened to rock and roll in the safety of her home as a teenager. Women at West Point struggle to maintain a small part of their femininity while being in a culture that stresses homogeneity.
These pressures continue because both cultures are based largely on tradition. In Tehran, this stems from the strict theology that rules every aspect of Iranians’ lives and represses the freedoms of females. At West Point, many of the practices remain because it is what has always been done, and to change tradition is to lose a part of the service academy that sets it apart from other undergraduate colleges and other service academies. In Iran, the women are stuck in the traditional gender role set in place by the regime. To be a teacher as a female is considered a liberal profession. Men make all decisions in the society. The living situations of Azar Nafisi in Tehran perfectly highlight her life as a young woman in the regime: her brother lived above her and in the hierarchy of her life he stood above her, trying to control her and rule all her decisions. Her mom lived below her and was a constant reminder of the subordinate role she should be playing in Iranian society. Women in Tehran were supposed to stay inside the home, their only job to rear children and manage the household (Lewis). Nafisi was a failure and disappointment to her mother because she did not fit this role well.
2007 graduate of West Point, Erin Morgan studied masculinity vs. femininity during her firstie (senior) year at the academy. She remarks that while she was a cadet, women were looked upon highly if they chose a branch like Military Police or Engineer; the closest they could get to a combat arms branch. Recently, the Armed Services have begun planning to accept women into combat arms branches, with this new directive, the pressure on female cadets to show their physical and mental aptitude and be alongside men by branching Infantry or Armor will only increase, furthermore embracing masculine ideals. Erin Morgan wrote, “Branches that are considered impressive for either sex all require a greater degree of physical fitness and are more closely related to the actual role of war fighting than support (121).” This same value of masculinity is seen in Iranian society during the revolution. Propaganda filtered to citizens that, “To die a martyr is to pump blood into the veins of society (28:44).” Many young boys went off to fight in what would later be seen as a pointless war. Different from the U.S., women were not allowed to even attempt to fill this role in Iran because it would tarnish their modesty. Erin Morgan writes on the difficulties of balancing masculinity and femininity as a female soldier and cadet:

“[M]asculinity draws on the tradition and lore of soldiership and defines itself in accomplishment and achievement of success within the military system. Femininity, however, reflects the very diverse set of values evident in American culture. An actual clear feminine ideal defining the mannerisms valued and expected of a woman in military service does not exist. The Corps and its members continue to struggle to define for themselves a feminine character that is broadly accepted as consistent with the West Point culture, tradition, and mission (126).”

However, although these women have very little venues to visually show their femininity and are stuck in a paradox where their value is measured by their physical aptitude and mental toughness yet they are subject to intense criticism if they appear too masculine, there is still a way to be feminine. This can be achieved without clothing, make-up, earrings and beautiful hair. If femininity is only defined by what we wear on the outside, then women in Iran and female cadets at West Point definitely do not embrace feminine ideals. However, there is an easier way to show femininity. Gail Dwyer explains perfectly how a female can embrace her femininity no matter where she is:

“Although I wasn't "feminine" in [my appearance], I did try to do things that separated me from the guys. I think your femininity can be defined in your mannerisms, in your attitude [and actions]. And I don't mean flirting. [B]eing feminine in many ways is being gentle and kind and caring and maternal… We can be one of the guys in our attempts to match (or surpass!) performance, but we don't have to be one of the guys in all actions. I didn't cuss. [As a cadet,] I carried my books like a girl, holding them up across my chest (Email, 2 Nov 2013).”

The military institution at West Point has set in place a culture that puts more value on the measure of masculinity rather than femininity in an individual and as a military leader. In Iran, women are valued for their modesty and their success as a housewife. Failure to conform to these roles exposes women to being outcast and brutally criticized by those around them, especially the men who hold the top position in the hierarchy. As a female leader in the military, failure to “lead from the front” causes a loss of respect from subordinates. In Iran, women like Azar Nafisi are protested against and forced out of jobs for their “reckless” behavior.

It is a fact that women at West Point and women in Iran lack the freedom of simple beautification and self expression, however, West Point graduates voluntarily serve their country and fight for freedom and Iranians allow themselves to be repressed to maintain modesty in their beliefs. Some days it may be hard to show emotion in an environment where it may feel like there is no time to feel. A member of the Class of 1980, Kate Gerard, remarked, “There have just been so many things I couldn’t have accomplished without [West Point].” This is a statement that remains true for women like Gail Dwyer and Erin Morgan as well as Azar Nafisi and Marjane Satrapi. The pressures placed on their femininity forced them to embrace and express their femininity and individuality in other ways. In the end, their experiences made them stronger women. The patriarchal and regimented cultures at West Point and Iran fail to extinguish the desires of women to express their femininity.




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