The days when the Shah's men boasted that Iranian miniskirts were shorter than those in Paris are clearly long gone. In today's Iran, modesty rules, and the dress and behavior of women are carefully controlled.
While things are casual at home, Iranian women are expected not to show their hair or the shape of their body in public. That means covering everything except the face and hands. There are two key components to traditional dress: The hijab ("hih-JOB") is a head scarf. The chador ("shah-DORE")—often simply called "the veil"—is a head-to-toe black cloak wrapped around the front and over the head. (It also might be accompanied by an actual veil.) All women must wear a hijab, and many older, rural, and traditional women also wear a chador.
In addition to the dress code, Iranian women face other limitations. They're relegated to separate classrooms and sections in mosques. They are not allowed to attend soccer games (for fear that they might overhear some foul language from the impassioned fans). And on public transportation, they ride at the back of the bus, or in a special, separate train car on the subway.
Still not buying it? You're not the only one. Local surveys indicate that about 70 percent of these women would dress less modestly in public, if allowed. Many are already easygoing about their dress. In filming, I found the women's awareness of our camera fascinating—women seemed to sense when it was near, and would adjust their scarves to be sure their hair was properly covered.
Trying to grasp Iran's mandated modesty in Christian terms, I imagine 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?"