Postcards from Iran
Iranian law requires that all women, including non-Muslims and tourists, cover our hair and all skin except that on the face and hands when in the presence of men other than close relatives. The law applies to females age nine and up, although some parents cover even their younger daughters.
The most conservative option is a chador. This one-piece garment covers a woman’s head and body, while leaving the face uncovered. The word means literally “tent”. There are no fasteners and you have to hold it at the chin either with one hand or with your teeth. To avoid tripping, I was taught to hold part of the cloth up under one arm. Some variations, more like capes, allow greater freedom for the hands.
The other choice is a “manteau” and head-scarf, which is more comfortable and allows for more style and self-expression. Originally the manteau was a long shapeless coat. Now a wide variety of garments can be seen, from jackets to long-sleeved dresses worn over pants. In large cities women push the edges of the dress code further with smaller scarves and tight clothing, whereas in some smaller places I didn’t see any women who were not wearing chadors.
I’m surprised at how many preconceptions I brought with me. One was that women wearing chadors when not required, as opposed to manteau and scarf, would be dour and unfriendly. I tested the waters by smiling and saying “salām”. A few women glowered but most smiled and replied.
Snapshot memories include these: One chador-wearer was in running shoes, jogging in Mashhad. Another was climbing over the median fence while crossing a big freeway on foot. (Yes, a lot of people do this, even children.) Some were passengers on motorcycles, while others were eating gelato and wearing high heels. It was three women in chadors who directed us to the street in Yazd where we would surely find a lightweight dress for me to wear in hot weather. Inside one of the shrines, a young woman in a chador was using the mirrored wall to adjust her make-up. Two elderly women in chadors were sitting on the curb opposite the entrance to the Hāfez tomb and garden when Hossein pulled up and parked in front of them. They chuckled heartily as they mock-scolded him for blocking their view.
Gradually I stopped being shocked. These were women with faces, living ordinary lives.
Black chadors are worn when leaving the house, whereas many wear other colors inside the home and in mosques. Nowadays we see prints and lighter colors on the street as well, especially in hot weather. Chadors are required at certain schools and many places of employment. Some women choose to wear them because of their own religious beliefs and/or those of their families.
Fleur tells me that black is not a traditionally Persian color. They have usually preferred brighter shades, similar to the Indian palate. Under Arab influence black has been enforced. Since the Arabs invaded Persia in the 7th century, this memory shows something about the strength of Persian identity. As we approached the kaluts, Homā pointed out to Minā that her stylish black clothing was not the best choice for a desert. Certainly true!
Fashions worn at home are hugely different from those worn in public. This reflects the way many aspects of private and public lives differ, as they have down through the ages. For centuries houses have had walled gardens, and the large houses of wealthy had whole separate courtyards for family and for “outsiders”. A major purpose of this was keeping the women hidden from male eyes. Today many Iranian women dress up at home and for women-only parties to a much greater degree than most of my Canadian friends. It’s understandable, given the compulsory veiling outside the home, but it has a long cultural history as well.
We went to visit one of Fleur’s brothers in Tehran. She had told me the family was quite religious but I had forgotten that by the time we arrived at their house for dinner. The door opened and there stood Farzād, his wife Mitrā, and their two daughters. Mitrā wore a diaphanous green chador and the two girls were in head-scarves and tight tee shirts. Undoubtedly they were covered because Hossein is not in the very small category of male relatives with whom a Muslim woman can be uncovered. By the end of the evening I felt the unfairness of it strongly. Why is there no time limit on this requirement? After all, these girls have known Hossein all their lives.
This was one of very few households I visited where women wore hejab (modest dress) inside the home, and I was quite surprised by it. They welcomed us enthusiastically and were not at all concerned when my own scarf fell off. I was surprised to realize I still held a stereotypical idea of religious people being very judgmental and gloomy. This family smashed that preconception!
They had just been on pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq, the third most important pilgrimage for Shia Muslims. They had glossy brochures to show and talked about what a good time they had there.
In the background a wide-screen TV played continually, although with the sound turned down. An American movie was coming in over satellite. Full of the usual violence, uncovered women and advertising.
The number of satellite dishes in Iran is huge, although most of them are in urban areas. Rumor has it that they are being sold by the Revolutionary Guards, a part of Iran’s military whose official job is to guard the Islamic system within the country. According to some outside observers, another part of this immensely powerful and wealthy organization’s job is also to prevent internal dissident and military uprisings. I’ve also heard that it has something in common with the mafia. (For more information see this article.)
Some say that the guards periodically confiscate the dishes, and then sell people new ones. There is also a kind of computer chip that makes it possible to bypass the government blocks on foreign websites. These too are said to be available from the guards. The chips have to be replaced monthly. The family in Tehran broke another stereotype for me. I had the idea that in a very religious family the man would dominate and the women submit. I’ve certainly known it to be true of certain Christian fundamentalists and others. But here there was clearly mutual respect and pleasure, as father and teenage daughter debated hotly about books and poetry. Accompanied by gales of laughter all around. Clearly the females in this house were not silenced. Mitrā laughed, seeing me enjoying the conversation’s energy, even if my Farsi was inadequate to get the details. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and I was happy to be proved wrong in my preconceptions.
It was distressing to see young girls in chadors, out with school groups, eager to say hello in English and to take pictures with the foreigner. Many of them have colorful scarves showing beneath their chadors.
We often remark, about this and other restrictions, “You just can’t stop people from expressing themselves,” and that is true. But how will these young women’s lives be impacted by the restrictions? A dress code is just a symbol, with much more behind it. Marriage and working life in Iran are full of inequalities that defy international standards of human rights. For details see this article, also this film on women’s participation in the UN Commission on the Status of women.
We visited another warm and welcoming family, Farhād, his wife Beheshte and their four children. They took us on a hike to a marvellous cave full of phosphorescent stalactites. On the way back Farhād and Hossein went into a storefront in a neighbouring town. Fleur and I took a walk with Beheshte, who had dressed for our very sunny hike in a long black coat, conservative black headgear, and hiking boots.
We went up the long main street, sat in the park, ate ice cream, and then walked back when it started to rain. The men’s business was not yet complete so we sat in the car. At last I learned that they were negotiating Farhād’s purchase of land where he plans to build a summer house. (Hossein was included because he is well-known to be expert at bargaining.) There was much celebration when the two men finally returned saying the deal was successfully closed. It was only later that I wondered why his wife was not there with him. I’ve since learned that although married women may own land in their own names, men usually control a couple’s joint finances. It often happens that property is held in one name or the other, rather than jointly, although of course families do consult each other about their plans.
Chadors are required at certain mosques and shrines. If you don’t have one, they will loan you a freshly laundered one. What was it like to put it on? It is difficult to keep it from slipping, and I was distracted by having to hold it closed. In fact, it’s crippling. When the weather is hot, a chador becomes even more uncomfortable.
There were times when I felt I really didn’t mind wearing the scarf and manteau at all. But when the weather got warmer, I changed my tune. My hands would reach automatically to undo buttons and to remove my head scarf. And then I’d remember and stop myself. One more thing women are deprived of is this simple means of body temperature regulation. I also minded sitting fully covered in a very hot restaurant, wondering how other women managed to eat without dipping their scarf-tails in the soup. Men sitting nearby wore short-sleeved tee shirts. It was still hot, but they were not as uncomfortable as we were.
It could be worse. A woman came into our hotel restaurant in Shirāz, her face covered entirely except for her eyes. I wondered how she would eat. She filled her plate at the buffet and her husband guided her to a table where she could sit facing the wall. I never found out how she managed the logistics of eating.
I’m disturbed by its being such a man’s world. They take great pleasure in their public lives, bargaining, chatting. I certainly don’t begrudge them that pleasure and enjoy seeing it. But there’s a much more restricted feel to women in public places, so different from the way they are in their homes.
Are there health hazards to wearing the chador? I’ve heard that a large number of women are found to have severe vitamin D deficiencies from the lack of sunlight getting to their skin.
While changing planes at the Doha airport on my way home, I took an escalator. A woman was ahead of me, with her husband ahead of her — and one other man was behind me. Then suddenly the woman was falling, head over heels hurtling down towards me. While I was trying to think how to break her fall, the escalator shut down. Her fall slowed enough to allow her to stop herself. Fortunately she had not hit her head, and got away with a few scrapes. But how did it happen? I’m quite sure that either she tripped or else her chador got caught in the moving steps. A chador certainly requires constant vigilance.
An interesting footnote to this story is that the man who was behind me on the escalator, as a good Muslim, did not touch the woman or try to help her up, although of course her husband did. This other man simply stood rapidly reciting prayers. I too had not known how to be helpful and was standing there sending healing energy in my own way. I may be imagining this, but it felt as if he and I were basically doing the same thing. While feeling culturally foreign to the situation, I appreciated the commonality of our response.
Continue the journey as I discuss the role of religion of Iran
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