While living in 1979-80 Revolutionary Iran, I was an American feminist who scorned veiling, not so much from contempt as ignorance. I felt that Americans should have the right to go wherever they liked and be whoever they wanted to be. I expected others to accept me as I was rather than attempt to fit in with the prescribed code of conduct. I was not alone; there were other Iranian women like me. And there also were those who wore the veil or another form of public covering, some happily and others reluctantly. Yet, my Iranian family members and friends put their safety on the line to grant me the freedom to choose. Eventually, I came to appreciate their sacrifice, and in time, I took up first a head covering, and later, the veil.
European and American stereotypes depict Iranian women as victims of domineering and abusive men as well as of a repressive fundamentalist society. Yet, what does the West really understand about the veiled women of Iran? Having lived among Islamic women and enjoying the privileges of Iranian citizenship, I became acquainted with many types of veiled females who wore their coverings for a variety of reasons.
Muslim women wear the veil in compliance with Islamic guidelines for females’ public appearance. The general concept is to protect women from unwanted male attention, to guard their reputations and their husbands’ honor, and to preclude the Westernized fashion consciousness that breeds materialism. Veiling is not unique to Islam. In many European countries, women wear headscarves and sometimes shawls to project an image of piety. Veiling can represent 1) spiritual submission, 2) feminine modesty, and 3) social equality, where sex roles cannot differentiate between an attractive versus a plain appearance.
Throughout history, female hair has been considered a sexual symbol. Unbound, flowing hair can become dangerously suggestive. Until a few generations ago in the United States, women wore their hair long and pinned up especially while in public, under some sort of head covering for propriety. Both of my grandmothers, who died in 1961 and 1974 respectively, wore their hair long and bound up. Their peers wore long hair as well. In the first half of the 20th century, women commonly did not go “bare-headed” in public.
Iran stumbled into modern times a step or two behind Western nations. Following the government coup by Reza Khan in the early 1900s who established the Pahlavi dynasty, a wave of modernization was ushered into Iran as he pushed his country to catch up with other nations. He passed legislation through the Majlis that encouraged women to wear Western dress and put off the veil. His son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who came to power in the 1940s upheld these rulings, helped in part by the parade of Westerners who established company branches in Iran and claimed stakes in the booming oil industry. Conservatives continued to dress modestly and wear veils, while the more progressive adopted Western attire.
From mantilla to headscarf or head-to-shoulder drapery that forms part of women’s Islamic uniform, partial veils offer “lip service” in compliance with spiritual mandates. Another use of head coverings is to reflect symbolic respect and submission. The Roman Catholic Church used to require women to cover their hair with a lacy chaplet during services, although women could discard the coverings outside of church.
Full-body veils, called “chadors,” take various forms in Iran. Fabrics like cotton, wool, or synthetic blends can be used. Colors range from solid black to pastel prints. Styles resemble heavy drapery or sheer accents to a fashionable ensemble. The most severe veils give the appearance of a nun’s habit, while the lightest in weight and color convey a sensual impression. My sister-in-law purchased one for me for Christmas. Though she is Muslim and Christmas is a Christian holiday, she bought this gift to commemorate our family’s celebration and provide me with what might become a life-saving gift.
In the fall of 1979, as political events intensified, I held a teaching assistantship at Shiraz University and was married to an Iranian man I had met in the U.S. Our sons were two and six years old. At first, I sensed few cultural changes since our 1977 residence in Iran under the Pahlavi regime. But as news stories of uprisings and demonstrations around the country multiplied, I grew uneasy. Some Westerners, who like me, had citizenship via their marriages, assimilated completely, taking Iranian names and converting to Islam. Others had no strong political or religious convictions and mostly stayed out of the public eye. I was so trusting of the country and its people that I did not take precautions that seemed to be unnecessary. I dressed in jeans and jacket, shoulder-length hair pulled back in a bun or ponytail, with little makeup or jewelry, always my style. I wasn’t trying to make a public statement with my appearance, nor did I expect anyone to notice.
But notice they did. The first criticism came from three women in heavy dark chadors that got off the bus in our suburb. Trailing me a block or so, one finally called in Farsi, “Mrs., go home and put on a veil!”
“Why should I,” I replied, “when I’m not Islamic?”
The trio muttered and scurried into a side street. I quickly made my way past more streets to our brick duplex and hurriedly let myself in