If anybody looks through some photos of this travel it will be automatically obvious to her that I love scarves. The one item that will never be missing from my backpack is a piece of fabric to be wrapped, hanged, folded, spread and shifted around in a million shapes. Maybe because of that, and because when it comes to clothing I am usually happy with long and loose stuff, I had not thought it would be great deal the fact that in Iran I would need to wear hijab. In fact, it wasn’t a great deal most of the time.
What is exactly hijab? Do I need to cover face and hands?
Hijab is not just a scarf but a whole set of clothing, which generally establishes that most of the body should be covered. For muslim women around the world it takes on a variety of definitions, like “any other fashion” I was once told. Women take on hijab mostly for religious reasons, but culture and identity play its role too and, in some places, like Iran, it’s the law that rules. Hijab varies from place to place and from one woman to the next, but usually these are the garments that cover female bodies in the Islamic Republic:
Rusari is the famous head scarf. It should cover one’s head, ears and neck, although generally bits of hair are allowed to frame the face. Girls in schools, women at uni or in any public sector work, wear a specific sort of scarf, tight and dark in colour. But the rest of time they skilfully match their clothes with colourful scarves that are often not as tight as the law would like.
Manteau. Is an overcoat, long enough to cover one’s bump, and according to the rules non-transparent and loose-fitting. It’s worn over long trousers, often jeans. And I have to admit the fabrics, patterns, colours, embroideries and details of Iranian female fashion kept me busy looking around in the cities. One of the things Iranians love is beauty, and their clothes make it evident.
Chador. The well-known long black cloak that foreigners often associate the country with is a common sight but not compulsory. It is often wore in conservative towns, by most religious women or in any mosque. But it’s not only black. I was greatly surprised by the paradise colours of women in Bandar Abbas. And also slightly amused with the white chador I was handed in to wear at mosques and mausoleums, which, excuse my ignorance, but had the soft and comfy touch I would have liked to sleep within.
For female foreigners, it does not mean you need to change your wardrobe (a.k.a. backpack) as you enter the country. But you will need to choose the most conservative items, the longest sleeves and anything that can cover at least your butt (if you have nothing of the sort, take the chance to stroll around any pretty bazaar). Regarding the head scarf, any one you have will do, not need for it to be black. The challenge is to keep it fixed to your hair and prevent it from slipping back all the time, for that seems to be the nature of scarves, that they want to flee from your head. When one goes to visit mosques or holy shrines, a chador is usually provided at the entrance, so there is no need to worry about that beforehand (or carry one in the backpack).
But clothing regulations do not only apply to women. Foreign men should also dress conservatively, avoid wearing short pants and would be definitely told off if walking around bare-chested or anything like that. A guy with a bunch of dreadlocks approached Boris on the street, gave him a gift and disappeared in a rush, not before taking the chance to greet him like a brother, for according to him it was illegal to walk around with such hairstyle. In any case, we are not sure about the veracity of his statement, and Boris never encountered any problems because of his hair, maybe because just like with female clothing, a great deal of transgression seems to be forgiven to foreign visitors anyway.
Hitchhiking with hijab.
I will be sincere and say that hitchhiking with the scarf felt pretty convenient. While in other countries where women use the veil I would sometimes have to worry about whether I was showing too much skin for the local taste, the compulsory long clothes and scarf left no room for doubt. It might sound like a conservative stand, but it’s true that when hitchhiking I prefer and advice to avoid mini-shirts or revealing t-shirts, specially in places where they are not often seen, simply to save ourselves the trouble of intense gaze, unrequested proposals or anything worse that we could be considered to be “calling attention” for. So I thought it was convenient, at least at the start, to follow a well-marked path.
Did you need to wear a scarf all the time?
No, not at all. It was not needed to keep the scarf all day and definitely not at night When sleeping outdoors I would take the scarf off inside the tent. And when hiking or in nature, out of sight, I would usually wrap it the way I do anywhere else, or just let it drop for a while. In almost every Iranian home I was immediately and simultaneously offered a cup of tea and “freedom” to take my scarf off. Iranians are extremely careful and delicate hosts that try hard to make you feel at home, and are aware that the obligatory clothing is not always easy for us. In many cases the women we were with would get rid of it as they crossed the door, but even when all women were veiled around they would insist that since I was not muslim I had no need to remain covered at their home.
There was one time, though, when we were taken to someone’s home, by a most kind and wonderful family but also a very conservative one; even the youngest daughter under six played sat and played around us with a tiny chador for her size. And that time I woke up in the middle of the night to find out in surprise than one of the men in the house was peeping through a crack in the door of the room I slept in. I have to confess that night I wrapped by hair and slept with the scarf on. Why? Why would I do that?, I think now. A response to the male gaze with the prescribed answer, to the uncomfortable feeling of being watched with hiding. I did not know why, I just did it in an automated reflex and slept well that night.
How comfortable is it to travel with hijab?
It all depends. If you are waiting by the roadside in the desert, clouds of dust swirling around you, the scorching sun over your head for more than an hour….well, then it is pretty convenient, nobody needs to tell you how wise it is to cover every inch of your body in the desert. In Bandar-Abbas we met a thousand masked women. They wore beautifully embroidered red and black masks, covered their mouths, foreheads and sometimes even hands. When asked about their clothing they pointed at the sun, and I initially thought “yeah, what a brilliant excuse to justify hijab”, but a 30 km walk around the island of Hormoz and the two days of fever and chills that followed the long exposure to the sun made me reconsider the wise advice of a lady in the market, who vehemently adviced me to cover well, and put on a mask. There is a reason behind each human invention.
But one does not walk in the desert every day of her travel in Iran. Most of the times you will wander around crowded cities, sneak through tiny alleys in bazaar, sight at the view of gorgeous palaces, museums, gardens and archeological sites. And as you bend over to take the best shot of any impressive Persian monument your headscarf will slip away, your long dress may show more than it should, and you may unconsciously reveal in your photographer’s contortions unpious shapes or postures. It is extremely difficult to be thrown into a new place with a bunch of new rules and try to follow them all, it’s hard to change the way one sits around, walks, talks, so that one might not be offensive, misunderstood or disrespectful towards the culture and people who are our temporary kind hosts. It’s the travellers job and I would say responsibility to look around, understand and adapt, but it’s more easy said than done. I mentioned that most of the times wearing hijab (long clothes plus the scarf) was not that hard, but that was not the case all the time, for this piece of cloth means much more than a fashion style, and a great deal of beliefs, identity politics and individual personalities hide behind.
The beauty of modesty
“Don’t you think that women look more beautiful with hijab?”- says R. while pointing at his wife. Boris and I look at each other and respond at unison that women are beautiful no matter what they wear (purposely omitting that they – we – look amazing also when no wearing anything at all). His young wife smiles shyly at the compliment and we agree that indeed her beauty shines, with no make up, no visible hair and no more fashion than a black head scarf. There is something interesting in the austerity of her garments, that sometimes seems to defy an ever-imposing concept of beauty, that well-known western artificial Barbi ideal that not for being outdated is not in vogue.
On the way to Shiraz, M. and her friends pick us up. They travel in a tiny and packed car, driving with joy to the loud disco beat of music from the radio. Do you prefer Jennifer Lopez or Iranian stuff? We choose the second, anything to avoid western pop if we can. M. pulls my scarf back with a casual move “take that off, this car is freedom” – and raises her hands from the wheel in a wild dance to show the kind of freedom she speaks about. We chat with little words, take selfies, stop here and there for sisha and rum. M. owns a small cosmetics shop in Isfahan and assures me that I should definitely pop by. With fixed eyebrows and a bit of make up I will “look beautiful” – she says invitingly, while the rest of women assent with smiles. Another sort of beauty, native to the cities, where scarves curve themselves to the limits, revealing more than hiding, as if there could be something like head cleavages. A beauty exposed while hiding under layers of make up, decorated by all the shades of lipstick, enhanced by fringes raising up to the sky. Another kind of beauty to be found in the streets of Iran. M. And her friends laugh our loud, flirt and dance. Then, in a second, the music is cut low with a sharp move, the scarves pulled to the front of the foreheads, the necklines adjusted and a frown drawn on the face of the joyful driver. “Police” someone whispers, signalling that I should cover as well, for the freedom of the car is under watch.
Many other sorts of beauty came along the way as we hitchhiked across the country. As many shades of female charm as there are women in Iran. The beauty of simplicity, the beauty of intellectual minds, the beauty of shiny smiles, the appearance of perfected noses, the magic of wrinkled faces or working hands, and the traditional beauty of those ones adorned with regional clothes– lores, baluch, bandari, azeri… reminded us that there is not one kind of beauty at all.
“I really like chador”
“I really like chador”, says S. while adjusting her scarf with a tiny peg under her chin. I ask with a hint of sarcasm and surprise if she likes it because it is black. “Chador makes me feel safe”. She is a professor at university, a talented woman and a serious one. With her PhD, successful career, perfect language skills, a bright conversation, S. confronts any ignorant suspicion that all women clad in black might be simple victims of their patriarchal husbands wishes, she dismantles that known topic of how women wearing full hijab are either disguising their true selves in mini-skirts under their long robes or are simply dominated housewives living under patriarchal gaze. She is smart, successful and bright, and defends there is a place for her in social life. We sit around her kitchen table, jumping from topic to topic in the friendly but shallow manner that people chat when they come from too different worlds, when they want to be polite, and enquire without offending or crossing certain lines. Chador makes her feel safe to walk around the street, to be independent, to hide from indiscrete gazes and maintain a position of respect. It is not only a religious choice, but a social one.
For a few days I walk and look around with different eyes; the faces holding the tips of a chador between the lips, the way in which many women seem to inhabit the cloth that so well hides their shapes; the contrast between them and the ones showing their curls and bulky earrings between the folds of their hijab. It’s a matter of choices, I think then, of choices I don’t need to make and I can barely understand, which have nothing to do with my culture, background or beliefs, for I am just passing by. Some women comfortable with their stand within the law and others pushing their choices towards its fringes, all of them trying to inhabit the freedom they understand. But I cannot fail to wonder if indeed they need to cover (so much) to feel safe or earn respect and how that could affect those who chose the freedom to dance bare-headed in their car. I would only have to wait a couple of weeks to feel the words of S. in my own skin.
Segregated genders, defined places
As a foreign woman travelling in Iran it’s not just the clothes that you need to worry about, but rather the gender separation of a conservative society. It all started with a mild “Madam, I’m afraid you are not allowed…” to rent a bike, to sit around shisha bars, to bath on the beach, to play bowling without a (ridiculous) hat, you can sit here but not there and do this but not that. Even transport is divided in male and female sections, and Boris and I need to excuse ourselves if we want to stay around each other in the metro. Slowly slowly it really became too much. If you met me around a year ago in the streets of Tehran you probably thought I was totally mad, a girl out of her mind. I talked to my mother in skype: “Do you remember when as a teenager I would shout to all four winds all the unfairness I encountered in the world?” There was a moment in Iran when I felt the same. The impositions, separations and rules crawled underneath the loose garments and onto my skin, I would feel the pressure of each layer, the heat on my neck, the sweat, the hair, the scarf.
“It is just a kind of dress code, like a tie” – a young guy tells me with his best intention while casually chatting down the stairs of an underground station. “A kind of what? Do I make you wear a tie when you come to my country? I wish I could, and I would pull the knot so hard that you would only be able to spit these words while choking. Just a dress code my ass”. I am angry, tired, outraged that nobody around seems to care about the imposition of clothes that have become so heavy to wear. In a rush we reach the metro platform just on time to jump into the wagon, and unwilling to search for the appropriate female quarters at the tip of the train, I hastily decide it should not be a problem to ride just one stop in the male one. Mistake, gross mistake. This is what the first hand that touches my ass says, it says “you are in the wrong place, Madam”, despite your long skirt and long sleeves and long scarf. The second hand is not even so kind, it reaches me from underneath in an intrusive and gross manner that I do not remember ever a stranger touching me. I shout, scream, kick with mountain boots, and rush out of the crowd as the whistle blows, just before the underground doors shut in front. Behind the glass, three men smile. Nobody comes around to ask why this crazy lady is insulting the shadow of a leaving wagon. Nobody seems to care, for it is probably my fault, for it was me who was standing in the wrong place to start with. Because, let’s face it, it’s common sense that there are places where women simply should avoid to stand, right?
Now, even more desperate and offended, I spit venom while being pulled by Boris to the “right” women’s side, that is the wrong place for him in fact, for in a segregated place there is no room for both at the same time. And I only wish for a world of women, for revenge towards all of you who dare telling us which place to stand in, what to wear, what to say or how many children we should have. But in the heat of the moment I fail to remember that the world of inequalitie and segregation is built by all of us.
Iranian feminisms, their fights, their fashions
Where are the feminists? – I ask N. in my rage – “Jailed, silenced, watched”. He speaks of movements I knew nothing about and others that are well-known; a Million Signatures for women’s rights, protests, activists, women, gays and dissidents of all sorts. With the only voice able to soothe my rash N. tells me that the Iranians I had met abroad, those with liberal minds, fighting wills and loud voices, are indeed often abroad, in jail or better at home. We speak of freedom, safety and compromise. I complain that it all feels wrong, even the superficial freedom of painting ones beauty feels shallow and blunt. I cry that all these women deserve to own their cities, the public space, to be safe walking around no matter the clothes they wear. But, wait, wasn’t I the first one who thought the dress code was convenient to hitchhike? And who wrapped her scarf as soon as someone peeped through her door at night? Wasn’t I implicitly supporting then, and even now with my generalizing complains, the conservative stand that women should be kept safe from the gaze and reach of men – separate, segregated and apart for their own good? I can faintly start to see each wink, dance move inside a car, hidden drink, excessive eyeliner or removed scarf as a political act, a rebellion in everyday life, to glimpse that every simple action can be seen a revolt in a country where private life is controlled, even behind thick walls.
“And there is identity” mixed in all that – tells me M. chatting casually while toasting rice. “Would you propose that women of Iran look for their freedom in western ideas and ways of life? That was the Shah’s way, and look at what the revolution brought about in return”. It seems that the hijab regulations established after 1979 responded largely to the restrictions on islamic clothing imposed by the westernized Pahlavi ruler. In between cups of tea each conversation adds a layer to the matter of hijab, and at the end of my two months in the country I can only conclude that there might be as many positions as women in this world. But despite the personal motives and stands, the scarf seems to always carry a touch of politcs attached. If the personal is political, definitely female clothing is at the heart of that.
“In such a religious and conservative society your secular views can cause more harm than bring good”. I am confronted, questioned, agreed with and discussed by those standing in all different political sides. I learn, talking to other S’s and other M’s that this is a land that challenges every certainty I could have. Islamic feminism is, for example, a current proposed by those who believe that a certain interpretation of Sharia can successfully create the right place for women in society, a moderate, fair and safe place in what hey consider is not just a country of men. For many women the embracing of hijab, and other sides of sharia law, is not anti-feminism, but an alternative that merges their cultural values with the construction of a society where women roles have their room. And I can possibly agree with them that our freedom lies well beyond the clothes we dress, and that there are places to hold on to even in the most patriarchal systems of all. But their position crushes frontly with some of the women I meet who would be happy to throw the veil away, to choose their sexual life, and to enhance their rights, those who feel the weight of all injustices. In between them, many others seem to be quite comfortable with their lifestyle, and most women pride in the education or career, crowd the streets, go to work, raise their kids, drive, climb mountains, pray, love; some more religious and others not, they have no major complain about everyday life in Iran (if only the sanctions would be lifted…). I think of many of us who did not fight for the rights we’ve got, but also feel at ease with the place are at, and the (in)equalities we enjoy, preferring not to question what could be beyond.
But, one part of me can’t help to wonder if that is all. Should we, women, sisters, conform to whatever spaces of existence we are offered to inhabit and simply walk the streets safely paved for us? In Iran, and everywhere else in the world, in every sphere of life, from work to family to travel, which impositions and assumptions frame our lives? And how do we match our political ideas with our everyday choices? If I reclaim a growing space for women in my own society and life, why should I give up questioning realities simply because I travel to a place I cannot fully understand? If anything, hitchhiking with hijab gave me, probably, one little right, to discuss a matter that for a short while had become (also) of my own concern.
Spaces of rebellion
Just a few days after we leave Tehran we read in the news of a protest, a conservative one, of women defending what they consider “decent” fashion in the streets, strict hijab under the summer heat. In contrast, another piece of news shows the beginnings of a movement that has grown huge ever since – “My Stealthy Freedom” is a facebook campaign, a space to host photos of “unveiled” women, who claim the absurdity of obligatory hijab and defend their right to dress as they like. I press “like” and I like their disobedience, their little rebellions. I hold all respect for the choices of women who feel good and safe in their scarf or chador or whatever they choose to wear, whether they believe in the power of modest dressing or not – Dress what makes you feel good and forget fashion, it sucks. But I can’t fail to smile at each one of the girls who take on a fight, long for an illusory moment of freedom or simply want to feel the wind in their hair. I must confess that from my probably “westernly” biased, partial and very personal perspective, in the revival of my teenager’s rage, my response to the imposition of hijab was exactly the same.