When I first started living in Iran, I was a kind of an illiterate, exotic creature who had to learn the alphabet from scratch and could have meaningful conversations only with toddlers. I was tolerated and coddled in equal measures, which made life easier for me. My mistakes were cute and lovable instead of breaches of protocol that could cause catastrophic rifts in the delicate political balance of the family.
It wasn't just language that messed with me. I was a fashion disaster, ill-mannered and coarse. I must have seemed an oaf to people who'd practiced good manners for millennia.
Nothing made me feel more oafish than the women surrounding me. Most wouldn't dream of leaving the house looking less than perfect. Their nails were exactingly manicured, their hair straightened and dyed, their bracelets gold, their eyes carefully outlined. At parties they wore low-cut, form-fitting dresses. They danced with flair as though their hips were unhinged, while my moves had been learned in proto-mosh pits. I could slam with the best of them, but anything more refined required concentration.
On top of that, my eyebrows had never been trimmed and my hair was unruly. I had never quite outgrown my tomboy phase and the longest time I'd spent in heels was about two hours: long enough to dance at a friend's wedding.
In the cafés in North Tehran, women let the obligatory headscarves slip to their shoulders, making a great show of lifting them up over exquisitely coiffed hair. They balanced on heels high enough to make me dizzy, navigating the uneven pavement with grace.
My first trip to a beauty salon in Iran was in the desert city of Ahvaz. At sunset, my niece led me through the streets to a pinkish concrete building whose windows were completely shuttered. No light leaked through to the darkening streets. We rang the buzzer and the door opened onto a heavy black curtain, concealing the salon inside. The owner, a tallish Pakistani woman with hennaed auburn hair cut in a simple bob, peeked through the curtain and then waved us in. She did the cuts, while a short, curvy woman with long black curly hair and oversized, outlined eyes busily shaped eyebrows.
There must have been about ten women quietly sitting on wooden folding chairs. Big-haired blondes with feathered bangs and brightly colored eyes looked sideways at us from the posters on the walls. There was a kind of dentist's waiting room feel to the whole thing. The women sat quietly, anticipating the pain of having their entire faces threaded clean of unwanted hair. It was a powerful reminder of what my sister-in-law Forough told me, "We have a saying here in Iran: Kill me, just make me beautiful."
As we waited, the women warmed to my presence.
"Kharigi?" they asked Elnaz. "Foreigner." I heard this word where ever I went and could pick it out of the most abstruse conversations. Elnaz explained that I was her uncle's wife. An American. "Oh, an American! Amrikaee!" The women bubbled. "We love Americans."
"Is Iran better or America better?"
"Do you like our food?"
"Do Americans have a lot of problems with diabetes?"
"Can you help my father get medication for his heart?"
"Why are your eyebrows so bushy?"
Could I help them decipher lab results? What did I know about the medication they were taking? It was as though the country that made TV series like ER must be filled with people who could diagnose medical conditions.
The Pakistani woman told me how much nicer Iranian men were. "My mother told me to find a nice Iranian man to marry. Pakistani men go crazy with jealousy. Iranian men are gentler."
"Iranian men are spoiled babies," another woman offered. "Why would anyone marry an Iranian man?" She looked at me and laughed as though I were the butt of some kind of joke I didn't quite understand.
The big-eyed hair plucker urged me to let her shape my eyebrows.
I explained my aversion to pain, paraphrasing my favorite Daffy Duck line: "I'm not like you. I can't stand pain; it hurts me."
"The more pain, the more beauty," niece Elnaz told me.
Yeah, yeah. Not without novocaine or nitrous oxide.
My only requirement for the evening was a haircut that didn't make me look like a sheep. I probably should have gotten my eyebrows plucked instead. I'm sure that would have led to more successful results. Looking like a sheep is my birthright. My hair is as curly as one and the wrong cut gives me an uncontrollable urge to start bleating.
At least I knew I could wear a scarf until my hair grew out. I didn't have the skills to wear one with the panache of the women around me. Like many foreign women, I resisted learning how to wear a scarf elegantly or look good in my Islamic dress, operating under the mistaken notion that this displayed my disdain for the regulations.
In fact, it just made me look like some hick cousin who had never ridden an escalator before. My misguided protest simply made people feel sorry for me. It brought out their inner stylist. Sales clerks recommended form-fitting jackets to replace my baggy outerwear. My sisters-in-law patiently showed me how to tell which side of the scarf was the right one to display. Even taxi drivers commented about my slovenly hejab. "Your wife doesn't know how to wear a scarf, does she?" one driver asked after eyeing me in the rearview mirror.
I looked at myself in the same mirror and saw myself the way he did: pink faced, with the tags of the scarf showing, inside out, falling off my head, the knot creeping up to my cheek, my curls pushing out like the tentacles of an unruly squid. The women around me seemed to be born knowing just how to wrap a scarf around their heads so that it looked more like a fashion accessory than an obligation. I, however, looked as though I'd never worn one before or even seen an Audrey Hepburn film.
Hejab, or Islamic dress, is the most obvious manifestation of the regime's Islamic leanings. Every female over the age of nine is required to cover her hair with a scarf. Teens and adult women have to cover arms and ass as well. Hejab has become iconic of Islamic repression and expansionism inside and outside Iran. What says victim more than hejab? What says terrorist more than a woman in chador raising a Kalashnikov above her head?
That scarf, that simple symbol of modesty, has, in Iran, become a symbol of conquest. Close the eyes and there is a bearded man standing on a pile of women with a green flag representing the purity of Islam held high above his head. Look at me! I'm the power. Now the world will be perfect! We will no longer lust! We will no longer lie! Our government will care for us instead of cheating us. Our place in heaven is secured by millions of women in headscarves!
It turned out that hejab did not end corruption. Daily prayers did not end exploitation. Lies continued. The government still ignored the needs of its citizens. Islamic? Royal? Secular? The only difference, many people I met in Iran told me, was whose hand was in your pocket.
It turned out hejab didn't even do much to curb lust. Instead it provided millions with a new fetish. The wrapper of modesty simply created a frame for the face. It meant the eyes had to be perfectly painted, the brows carefully coaxed into arches, the lips outlined and highlighted, the nose fixed.
"It would be more modest if women just walked around naked," my brother-in-law commented. Hejab is the outer layer of an elaborate striptease that begins with Islam and ends who knows where?
Iranian women had co-opted the oppression of the hejab, transforming it into fashion and personal expression.
For the young, hejab was just a fact of life. It was theater, unimportant. For the women who came of age before the Revolution, however, the hejab was a daily reminder of all they'd lost.
"It's humiliating," one woman told me. "At first many of us wore it in solidarity with our observant sisters whose families kept them at home during the time of the Shah because they felt Iran was too secular and immodest. Now those observant women hold every decent job in the country, sometimes two or three jobs at a time. They can't even handle the responsibilities of one job! The rest of us have had to become yoga teachers or aerobics teachers. Our education doesn't matter. Our skills don't matter. That's the only work left for us."
It wasn't just relatively secular women who complained. Many of the observant women I met chafed at the dress restrictions. "Hejab is my choice," my sister-in-law, an observant Muslim, told me, echoing what I heard from others. "What gives some beardless boy the right to tell me that my hair is showing?" She would talk to her friends about her trip to visit us in Amsterdam. "There are plenty of women in hejab there. Is the government forcing them? No. It's their choice, just like it's mine."
To me, the scarf was the manifestation of mistrust and coercion. There was no pact between me and God, no choice. The regulations felt arbitrary and insulting. I could only guess that the morality police riding up and down busy streets on motorbikes harassed women based on some nefarious measure such as how stimulated they got at the sight of an exposed ankle or a lock of hair. A little wiggle and it's "Fix that scarf." A big wiggle and "We are taking you in for reeducation."
"I had to bring my parents to this big auditorium where we listened to lectures and watched films on the benefits of modesty," a young woman I knew told me. She dreamt of being a model even though she was barely five-foot-two and missed her eyeteeth. Despite her run-ins with the morality police, she still wore a tight little manteau and let her scarf rest on the nub of her ponytail. She dyed her hair a light brown and before leaving the house each day painted her lips a shimmering pink. "I will never change," she told me.
In the streets, my sisters-in-law applauded each breach of hejab. The most observant among them, Forough, applauded the loudest. When a woman approached us to reproach me for my slack covering, Forough said to her, "When I go visit her no one asks me to take my scarf off. I'm not asking her to fix hers."
As I acquired a more nuanced reading of the hejab, I understood that pushing the border of what was permissible was my responsibility. I should dare to wear shorter jackets, show more hair, even, God forbid, wear makeup and get my eyebrows done despite the pain. Looking good in hejab was a much more effective way of addressing the coercive laws governing dress than looking like a slob. Reading the hemlines, the sparkle in the scarves, the arch of the eyebrow can yield surprises. In a country where the definition of dissent is so broad it can be accidental, a little lipstick and a fashionable hejab can be as much a political statement as a fashion statement. During the four years I spent in Iran, I was determined to wear the shortest possible hejab, the most colorful scarf, to let it fall to my shoulders instead of pinning it too my head. I even had my eyebrows shaped in order to make my protest even more apparent. If I couldn't be an expert in beauty, I could at least be literate.
by the same author | Too Much Is Never Enough: Making Ghelye Mahi
related reading | Paint it Black: The Hejab Hype and the Force of Fear | Your Veil is a Battleground 1 | Your Veil is a Battleground 2
Via Tehran Bureau