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What lies beneath the veil

Was the latest uprising in Iran partly fuelled by a clampdown on youth fashion? Street wisdom from Tehran and Mashhad seems to suggest so, examines Haidar Naqvi.

india Updated: Sep 13, 2009 00:35 IST
Haidar Naqvi

Samaira has a tough time balancing life and work on Tehran’s streets everyday. She is one of the several women taxi drivers in the Iranian Capital. Her workday, that entails ferrying passengers in her cheap Iranian Paykan car, begins at 7 am. And when she’s not working, she is studying to earn her computer degree at the university.

What bothers Samaira the most is not her work-life balance, but her all-black, all-enveloping chador (burqa). She has to wear it under her country’s laws. When it comes in the way of her driving, she blurts out: “What shall I concentrate on — my chador or the highway?” With a wry smile, she manages her extra-long chador on way to the Boostan shopping mall in the tony north Tehran. Samaira is not just scared of the driving difficulties; she’s also weary of being caught wearing the chador ‘improperly’ by the establishment’s shock troops, the Baseej.

If caught, she would’ve to pay a fine or serve out two months’ imprisonment. “If they have allowed us to earn and show the world how liberal Iran is to women, they should exempt working women from the chador,” she says.

Voices that have choices

The chador in Iran — banned by former ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi and brought back by the Ayatollahs following the Islamic revolution — has come a full circle. Today, after three decades under the Ayatollahs, the country’s women are again voicing their opinion on their sartorial choices.

Even as the working middle classes continue to mind the dress code, women in the swanky north Tehran have long shunned it. There, one is more likely to find a woman strolling around in hugging Montaus (traditional jackets), a fitting pair of tight pants, and a token scarf perched back on heavily streaked hair. Fashion studios advertise glamorous strapless dresses and low-cut beaded tops for the women the establishment calls ‘Western dolls’.

Yassen Babak, a fashionably dressed scholar who prefers heavy metal music on his car audio, says, “Iran is a land of contrasts. And the contrast is the greatest in women’s fashion. The chador doesn’t gel at all with the idea of fashion. That’s why the number of chador wearers is thinning in Tehran and the scarves are getting smaller.

One interesting place for observing a range of Iranian fashion is the Bagh-e-Azari, the resting place of Ayatollah Khomeini, he who ushered in the Islamic revolution in 1979. The chador is almost a non-entity here, being replaced by scarves that reveal blonde-streaked hair. Many are munching on hotdogs, pizzas and are drinking the Delster fruit beer at the market.

Like in India, the youth forms a substantial chunk of the population in Iran. The government, ever concerned about keeping its finger on the generation’s pulse, looks kindly upon the sort of fast food the young crave. An official working at the Qom municipality, who requests anonymity, says, “They (the young people) say, ‘Let the Ayatollahs scramble on their own frontiers; we are young and will enjoy our lives’.”

Mirror on the wall

The country’s young women play a large part in forming such opinion. After all, they comprise 63 per cent of the country’s university students. And they are pushing back the veil and ringing in new fashion.

This sort of demand has led to a cluster of some 50 designer shops cropping in the deeply religious city of Mashhad. Haniyeh, the saleswoman at Poshak 2000, a shop in the cluster that’s barely 10 minutes’ walk from the Sheikh Tabarisi square, has a clear sight of the evolution. “Middle-aged and young girls are gung-ho for tight fits. The Mantous are meant to cover the shapes as well as accentuate them,” she reveals. “Their length has moved up from the knees, and the neck is getting wider and wider… And they'll pay any price for noodle-strap and strapless dresses.”

Naseem Abilehi, owner of another boutique that serves the crème de la crème, plays down the chador issue. “Iranian women are more educated than the men. They are responsible and want to look beautiful,” she says.

It may not be that simple. Just before the controversial elections, the establishment was cracking down on fashion stores. The all-powerful Baseej, the purveyors of internal intelligence and moral policing, enforced this with other policemen. Several women were humiliated, fined and imprisoned.

Many believe that the public harshness added momentum to anti-Ahmedinejad campaign. Calling for a change, the women, who had played a proactive role in the 1979 revolution, thronged the streets.

“You could say they joined the protests to reject the strict codes imposed on them,” says Samaira. Under tremendous pressure, the authorities seem to have relented for now. And Iranian women are enjoying every bit of the ‘freedom’ — even though it may be temporary.