While things are casual at home, Iranian women are expected not to show their hair or the shape of their body in public. This means that, when out and about, a proper woman covers everything except her face and hands. There are two key components to traditional dress: Hijab (“hih-JOB”) means to be dressed modestly, with the head covered under a scarf. The chador (“shah-DORE”) is a head-to-toe black cloak wrapped around the front and over the head. All women must follow hijab rules, and many older, rural, and traditional women choose to wear a chador.
In addition to the dress code, Iranian women face other limitations. They're relegated to separate classrooms and sections in mosques. While they are welcome at more genteel sports, they are not allowed to attend soccer games (for fear that they might overhear some foul language from the impassioned fans). On the subway, women have two options: Ride with men in the mixed cars, or in a separate, women-only car. (When I questioned an Iranian woman about this, she said, “Perhaps the women of New York wished they had a car only for them to avoid the men on their subway trains.”)
From a Western viewpoint, it's disrespectful (at best) to impose these regulations on women. But from a strict Muslim perspective, it's the opposite: Mandated modesty is a sign of great respect. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, women's bodies are not vehicles for advertising. Having scantily clad babes selling cars at a trade show would be considered unacceptably disrespectful. You don't see sexy magazines. There is almost no public display of affection. In theory, the dress code provides a public “uniform,” allowing men and women to work together without the distractions of sex and flirtation.
Still not buying it? You're not the only one. Local surveys indicate that about 70 percent of these women would dress more freely in public, if allowed. Many push the established bounds of decency — with belts defining the shape of their bodies and scarves pulled back to show voluptuous cascades of hair — when out on the streets. When filming, I found the women's awareness of our camera fascinating — they seemed to sense when it was near, and would adjust their scarves to be sure their hair was properly covered.
In spite of attempts to enforce modesty, vanity is not out of bounds. Women still utilize their feminine charms. In a land where showing any cleavage in public is essentially against the law, a tuft of hair above the forehead becomes the exciting place a man's eye tends to seek out. Cosmetic surgery — especially nose jobs — is big business here among the middle class. Faces are beautifully made up, and — when so much else is covered — can be particularly expressive and mysterious. Throughout Iran, I was impressed by the eye contact.
Trying to grasp Iran's mandated modesty in Christian terms, I imagined living in a society where every woman is forced to dress like a nun. Seeing spunky young Muslim women chafing at their modesty requirements, I kept humming, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
About This Entry
You are reading "Imagine Every Woman's a Nun", an entry posted on 26 March 2010 by Rick Steves.