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 shop!
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 them anymore.
“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 good.
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 that choice.”
“Where do you think you are, it's an Islamic Republic,” he snapped back.
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 )