My lemon yellow roosari
My hejab had to say something about me
By Dokhi Fassihian
December 29, 1999
First part of an article on personal experiences with women's public
appearance in Iran.
I braved Tehran's summer heat one day after work and went shopping near
the crowded Vali Asr Square. I was having an all-linen summer manteau sown
and wanted the perfect buttons for it. At the time, I only had a black
manteau I bought in the spring when the weather was still cool. When summer
came to Tehran, I endured a magnificent sauna inside the polyester garb.
When I took off the manteau, steam would rise off my body.
It was almost impossible to find plain medium-sized bone-colored buttons,
even in Tehran's button district! Everything was hideously gaudy, just
like the ready-made manteaus I was trying to avoid. Near the meydoon, I
saw a store with bright fabric beaming from its window. Wow, a roosari
Roosari shopping was one of my favorite things to do in Tehran. I wasn't
sure why, it just was. Perhaps since wearing the head scarf was such a
new experience, I had to experiment, find my niche, my style. I could have
spent hours in that store. I had never seen so many head scarves in my
life. I was dehydrated and tired, but the store was beautiful, by far the
best roosari shop I had seen.
There were thousands of scarves, every size, every shade, every pattern.
I wanted a light summery color this time. I hurriedly tried them on, putting
one scarf over another before clumsily pulling the other from beneath it
in an effort keep my hair covered. It was useless, at times my hair was
sticking straight up.
Two teenage male sales attendants -- skate boarder types with haircuts
and brand names to match -- became impatient. Obliged to wait on me, they
refolded, reached and refolded again as I pointed at new choices and kept
wrapping the cloths around my head. The scene reminded me of the Gap or
Benetton. Finally, I narrowed it down to two small sheer head scarves:
a deep honey mustard and a light lemon yellow. Then, I asked their advice.
It was unanimous. Lemon yellow it was and I wore it all summer.
"You bought another Roosari!" exclaimed my aunt, laughing
loudly. "What will you do with all of them when you leave?" I
knew it was weird but I couldn't help it. I had been in Tehran only four
months and had a serious collection of styles and colors. I had a silk
black one, a slightly larger black one with a light yellow stripe on the
border, a dark brown patterned one, a dark blue pattern, a red and beige,
a blue-green, and a plain brown. I told her I would take them with me and
bring them back whenever I visited Iran, and hopefully, I wouldn't need
"Women in Iran consider the manteau-roosari an outer uniform and
don't care if they wear worn and tattered ones," explained my aunt.
"They care and spend money on clothes they wear under them."
But I looked at it differently. In Iran, most people just see what's
on the outside anyway, and besides, I wanted to like how I looked even
when I wore the manteau-roosari. By choosing to live in Iran, I had accepted
that I was forced to cover against my will. But I still had a say -- my
hejab had to say something about me and my style and I wanted it to look
I found out later that the salesperson at the fabric store lied to me.
What I thought was pure linen was mixed with a little wool. I had gone
from store to store to store on Zartosht Street, Tehran's fabric district,
and none had linen! Finally, one store owner showed me a fabric he claimed
was 100% linen from France. "It's so thick though, do you have a lighter
linen?" I asked. He explained that anything lighter would be somewhat
see-through and he didn't order it because Iranian women wouldn't buy it.
So that's the reason no one carried linen? I was dumbfounded.
"It's 100 degrees! Women won't buy linen for their manteaux because
it might be a bit see-through and the slight shadow of their clothes underneath
might show?!" I challenged. "Perhaps you should let them make
"Where do you think you are, it's an Islamic Republic," he
I bought the thick "French" linen. A week later, it shrank,
just a hair, but it was tight. What better reason I thought than to leave
my buttons open. Sometimes I would leave two buttons open, sometimes three,
other times, and more rarely, I wore the manteau completely open. People
stared, not always disapprovingly, surprised, sometimes pleasantly, other
times over-enthused. A few times I got comments from passersby.
Once it exploded into an argument when a young man in the street made
a crude come-on. I raged. Stunned that I didn't just ignore his comment,
he fearfully backed down and apologized. Another time, as I was leaving
a shrine in Shiraz, a militant-looking man walked up and said in a serious
tone, "Your top button is unbuttoned." "Thanks, I know,"
I replied. Shocked at my reply, or at the fact that I replied at all, he
headed towards me for a nasty confrontation. I sped up and called out to
my father walking ahead. The next time I turned back, he was gone. My teenage
cousins were flabbergasted at my defiance.
I wore makeup, more than I usually do in the States. During the day,
a bit lighter and at night, much bolder. Even when I worked in the Islamic
Republic News Agency (IRNA) building, I wore powder, blush, mascara, and
a light frosty pink lipstick my father picked out for me before I left
the States. I remember him saying to the saleslady at the Shisheido counter
at Macy's that I was going to a "conservative society." He definitely
needed to visit Iran and see the shades on the street.
But the lipstick was perfect for IRNA. I reapplied after lunch in the
restroom. One day, I even wore this tacky royal blue mascara to work, just
for fun. When I blinked, a flash of blue dizzied a person looking but when
my eyes were open, it was barely visible. I bought chic taupe nail polish
and painted my nails; it was enough to make people notice my perfect nails,
but not enough to criticize. I made regular appointments at the beauty
salon for facials, manicures and pedicures, eye-brow shaping, highlights.
This was definitely a different me.
At United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offices, female employees
were not required to wear the hejab unless meeting with government officials.
Iranian women staff wore miniskirts, high heels, tight shirts, sheer shirts,
two-piece suits, perfect makeup. They were amazingly fashionable. The men
were well-groomed and wore stylish Western-style professional attire.
One day, I even wore bright red nail polish during a meeting with the
powerful head of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce. I was informed of the
meeting at the last minute -- no nail polish remover in sight. My light
yellow scarf, tight off-white colored manteau, and painted nails were not
exactly appropriate. I even wore purplish lipstick. My boss, a modern beauty
in her forties, wore all black and no makeup. She brushed off my concern
with an air of arrogance and the two of us forced the government men to
tolerate my appearance as we discussed private sector development.
It didn't always work that way. Arriving at a meeting at the Iran Fisheries
Company, Shilat, in downtown Tehran, the front-desk guards asked my male
colleague to inform me that a few strands of hair were showing from under
my yellow scarf. I tucked them under, but nonetheless, my fitted, light-colored
hejab screamed for attention in the rigid government office. That week,
students were protesting nearby Shilat's offices; the crackdown that followed
lent to the strictness. (Go to part