This curtain of cloth
Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I value it
By Gelareh Asayesh
December 5, 2001
Gelareh Asayesh is the author of Saffron
Sky: A Life Between Iran and America.She grew up in Iran and lives
in St. Petersburg, Florida. This article first appeared in The New York
Times ("Shrouded in contradition" November 25, 2001).
I grew up wearing the miniskirt to school, the veil to the mosque. In
the Tehran of my childhood, women in bright sundresses shared the sidewalk
with women swathed in black. The tension between the two ways of life was
As a schoolgirl, I often cringed when my bare legs got leering or contemptuous
glances. Yet, at times, I long for the days when I could walk the streets
of my country with the wind in my hair. When clothes were clothes.
In today's Iran, whatever I wear sends a message. If it's a chador, it
embarrasses my Westernized relatives. If it's a skimpy scarf, I risk being
accused of stepping on the blood of the martyrs who died in the war with
Each time I return to Tehran, I wait until the last possible moment,
when my plane lands on the tarmac, to don the scarf and long jacket that
many Iranian women wear in lieu of a veil. To wear hijab -- Islamic covering
-- is to invite contradiction. Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I value it.
Most of the time, I don't even notice it. It's annoying, but so is wearing
pantyhose to work. It ruins my hair, but so does the humidity in Florida,
where I live.
For many women, the veil is neither a symbol nor a statement. It's simply
what they wear, as their mothers did before them. Something to dry your
face with after your ablutions before prayer. A place for a toddler to hide
when he's feeling shy. Even for a woman like me, who wears it with a hint
of rebellion, hijab is just not that big a deal.
Except when it is.
''Sister, what kind of get-up is this?'' a woman in black, one of a pair,
asks me one summer day on the Caspian shore. I am standing in line to ride
a gondola up a mountain, where I'll savor some ice cream along with vistas
of sea and forest. Women in chadors stand wilting in the heat, faces gleaming
with sweat. Women in makeup and clunky heels wear knee-length jackets with
pants, their hair daringly exposed beneath sheer scarves.
None have been more daring than I. I've wound my scarf into a turban,
leaving my neck bare to the breeze. The woman in black is a government employee
paid to police public morals. ''Fix your scarf at once!'' she snaps.
''But I'm hot,'' I say.
''You're hot?'' she exclaims. ''Don't you think we all are?''
I start unwinding my makeshift turban. ''The men aren't hot,'' I mutter.
Her companion looks at me in shocked reproach. ''Sister, this isn't about
men and women,'' she says, shaking her head. ''This is about Islam.''
I want to argue. I feel like a child. Defiant, but powerless. Burning
with injustice, but also with a hint of shame. I do as I am told, feeling
acutely conscious of the bare skin I am covering. In policing my sexuality,
these women have made me more aware of it.
The veil masks erotic freedom, but its advocates believe hijab transcends
the erotic -- or expands it. In the West, we think of passion as a fever
of the body, not the soul. In the East, Sufi poets used earthly passion
as a metaphor; the beloved they celebrated was God. Where I come from, people
are more likely to find delirious passion in the mosque than in the bedroom.
There are times when I feel a hint of this passion. A few years after
my encounter on the Caspian, I go to the wake of a family friend. Sitting
in a mosque in Mashhad, I grip a slippery black veil with one hand and a
prayer book with the other. In the center of the hall, there's a stack of
Koranic texts decorated with green-and-black calligraphy, a vase of white
gladioluses and a large photograph of the dearly departed. Along the walls,
women wait quietly.
From the men's side of the mosque, the mullah's voice rises in lament.
His voice is deep and plaintive, oddly compelling. I bow my head, sequestered
in my veil while at my side a community of women pray and weep with increasing
abandon. I remember from girlhood this sense of being exquisitely alone
in the company of others. Sometimes I have cried as well, free to weep without
having to offer an explanation.
Perhaps they are right, those mystics who believe that physical love
is an obstacle to spiritual love; those architects of mosques who abstained
from images of earthly life, decorating their work with geometric shapes
that they believed freed the soul to slip from its worldly moorings. I do
not aspire to such lofty sentiments. All I know is that such moments of
passionate abandon, within the circle of invisibility created by the veil,
offer an emotional catharsis every bit as potent as any sexual release.
Outside, the rain pours from a sullen sky. I make my farewells and walk
toward the car, where my driver waits. My veil is wicking muddy water from
the sidewalk. I gather up the wet and grimy folds with distaste, longing
to be home, where I can cast off this curtain of cloth that gives with one
hand, takes away with the other.