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Sure, it's very possible
Active resistance to strict hejab rules
(Part 2)

By Dokhi Fassihian
December 30, 1999
The Iranian

Second and last part of an article on personal experiences with women's public appearance in Iran.

In the past year the public atmosphere has been more relaxed regarding women's dress. In fact, women, including myself, pushed the limits of their new social freedoms.

During my nine months in Iran, I went to airports and traveled on domestic flights with sandals, painted toenails, makeup, and a revealing hejab and was questioned only once at Mashad's airport. A female security guard asked me to button my top button and pull forward my head scarf. I ignored her instructions and only acted like

I was readjusting my roosari. As I headed toward the curtain, she called me back.

"Wait, I asked you to close your button."

"Thanks for your concern, but I'm hot and more comfortable this way," I said softly.

"I understand, but it's not possible, is it?"

With a surge of bravery, I smiled sweetly and took her on.

"Sure it is, it is very possible."

I walked through the curtain and into the airport. Luckily, she didn't follow me.

Two years ago, I probably wouldn't have done that. A woman senses her limits within a few months of living in Iran; and, the first lesson is that boundaries are always shifting depending on time and place.

Since Khatami took office, social restrictions had been eased considerably: young women and men were rarely confronted in public and women's dress had ceased to be a priority for security forces unless you were entering a government building or university. It was clear that government officials were starting to throw in the towel on state enforcement of "Islamic morals." Immediately, women began pushing their new, yet still invisible, boundaries.

Once I saw a woman stepping out of a car wearing a stylish pantsuit, the blazer hanging below her hips; it was an outfit I would have seen at Saks Fifth Avenue. I too decided to wear my new fitted hip-length leather jacket with jeans one day during the customary visiting of family during Noruz.

I couldn't wear it over the manteau, nor would it make sense to wear it under. So I brought my manteau and threw it in the car just in case. The few minutes it took to park and walk to our destination gave me an adrenaline rush that comes with dangerous rebellion. Cars slowed down as they drove by. We made four visits that day, and even our hosts were surprised when they opened the door and saw how I was dressed.

I saw a lot of active resistance by women and girls in Iran. The first time I went to the newly-opened Hotel Homa in Mashad was in 1997 with a group of cousins. As we entered the hotel, a "regime woman" standing at the entrance of the lobby whispered firmly in my ear, "Cover your hair and next time wear an appropriate scarf." My hair was visible under the dark brown sheer scarf my sister had bought for me from the Gap.

"Chashm," I said and pulled it over my hair. My 14 year-old cousin Peggy intervened immediately. "Don't listen to her, they can't do a thing!" Peggy pulled back my roosari just three feet from away from the woman. Peggy had long waist-length curly hair that her small headscarf barely covered. She was harassed the whole time we were there, but not once did she cover her hair.

This year there were no "regime women" at the door of Hotel Homa. This time I had come to use their brand new, modern swimming pool and spa center. There was a small indoor pool, two jacuzzis, a sauna, and steam room. There was even a small bar next to the jacuzzis serving sparkling water, coffee, tea, ice cream and other desserts.

The facility was extraordinarily expensive for Iranian standards. I wore my bikini simply because I didn't have another bathing suit. Despite its modern look, the Mashadi women at the spa were not used to seeing a woman in a bikini. It was clear by the stares and whispers I was breaking a norm.

The only places I saw women in bikinis were at private pools. There was one in northern Tehran, a run-down pool owned by an ex-professional athlete, who charged outlandish prices with which profits he didn't invest on the facility. The advantages of the pool for rich Tehranis were sun, proximity, and exclusivity. The owner scheduled mornings for men and afternoons for women. There were many bikinis there.

Also, on the Caspian coast, I saw teenage girls in stylish bikinis at a private pool in an expensive villa community. Bikinis weren't allowed in public-run pools even though they were segregated because according to government authorities, too much exposed skin could lead to lesbian tendencies!

In the beginning of summer, I took a weekend trip to the Caspian coast with a group of unmarried twenty and thirty somethings. We rode in segregated cars only for road checkpoints. One car blasted dance music and the other blared Celine Dion and Cher. It was suffocatingly hot and the air conditioning wasn't working well. I made the mistake of wearing my black manteau and soon after we left, began feeling disoriented and dizzy.

The other women sympathized with my situation and sadly reflected on how accustomed they were to wearing the garments in such excruciating heat. Eventually, we stopped; I borrowed a white long-sleeved man's shirt and wore it with my yellow scarf and jeans the rest of the way. I figured as long as my skin was covered, I would be fine. No one else dared take off their manteaus.

On another trip to the Caspian, to the small town of Ghaem-Shahr in Mazandaran province, my aunt ordered me to go outside and sun my hair. "Your skin, scalp and hair need vitamins from sunlight," she always told me-- at times forcing me upstairs on our rooftop in Tehran. I was soaking up the sun on my black hair when my cousin Amir, followed by my uncle came outside and asked me to cover my hair.

"You're in plain sight, and this isn't Tehran, neighbors here will report you!" they said. It was after lunch, the town was asleep and absolutely no one was around. Besides, what IF someone saw me, that was part of the point. The danger was worth it, and the statement I was making was that I am not afraid and here is an Iranian woman that clearly does not believe in the hejab. But they didn't agree and after a few minutes, to allay their fears, I covered.

Afterwards, my aunt and I took a long walk around the neighborhood's koochehs. "It is always the men who are concerned most about women's dress and who fear retribution," raged my aunt. "We are the ones forced to cover and we are the ones who will be punished. Men clearly don't understand that it is well worth the risk and our right to take it. Iranian men are all sheep."

It reminded me of a time when my friend's mother explained to me why she wore her manteau open and let her head scarf "fall off" as did my aunt.

"The way I look at it," she argued, "is that since in Islam females after puberty are considered sexually tempting to men and are required to cover, it should work in reverse. At menopause, I needn't cover anymore. It has to start somewhere. Let older women lead the charge."

"And also," she continued. "Iranian men are cowards when it come to women's dress."

It was a famous saying in Iran, that men were sheep. Maybe they really weren't though. Maybe they had more to fear because their rebellion was taken more seriously than a woman's in Iran's patriarchal society. Women's complaining was considered mostly a nuisance where men's complaining was deemed far more threatening to the regime.

Not anymore, I thought. The Islamic Republic has created steel magnolias. (Go to part I)

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