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, locking the door after me. Pulling a dresser scarf over my head, I looked in the mirror. It wasn’t me! My identity was obscured by a piece of fabric. I couldn’t make myself give in to someone else’s opinion of who I should become. Dangerous thinking, I know, but I was young and idealistic, and perhaps a little arrogant.
The second warning came soon afterward. Again on my way home from the University, I passed an orchard wall near our street. Spray-painted in blood-red letters were the words (in Farsi): “Women who don’t wear veils are whores. Men who don’t make them are pigs.”
Shaken, I decided to bend, but I would not break. Thereafter when I went out in public unescorted, I usually wore a headscarf or knit cap—my concession to the culture that was trying to forcefully mold me. When we took the car to visit friends, I went unveiled. But in public I began covering my head in a nod to Islamic expectations.
The third warning came weeks later, after militants had overrun the American Embassy and the hostages had been taken into hiding. Unaware that my sister-in-law did not come to pick me up at the University because she had been involved in a minor car accident, I began walking toward the bus stop, thinking she must have forgotten. Somehow I took a wrong turn and ended up in an isolated area with a few houses and scattered shrubs. A man on a bike approached and circled me, grabbing at my behind repeatedly, saying in Farsi, “You are American, yes?” He considered me morally loose because I was in public alone, unescorted by other females or family members. As he circled closer and closer, grabbing more aggressively, I panicked, fearing he would push me into a nearby shrub. It was literally a miracle that my husband’s truck appeared a block down and I was able to hail him—he had come looking for me. The man on the bike sped off. Although I was wearing my knit hat that day, it did me no good. I knew it was time to “graduate” to the veil.
I pulled my sister-in-law’s gift of veil from my wardrobe. Cumbersome, it was hard to manage and it was too large; I never really mastered the art of self-drapery. But I began to wear it when alone in public, though I tried to go with other people when I went shopping or on errands. Finally I realized the dangerous game I had been playing. I had brought scorn on my dear in-laws when I visited their house at noon just as a shaikh was leaving. Passing him, unveiled, I gave the customary greeting in a polite voice. He did not even glance my way but kept his eyes focused straight ahead while Mamanbozorg blushed and saw him to the gate, and then hurriedly returned to reassure me the clergyman hadn’t seen me, which we both knew was not true. I felt guilty for putting them in a bad position.
In taking up the veil, I learned as much about myself as I did about Islamic society. I identified a stubborn element that needed to learn respect and practice compliance. I found that being female, educated, and American made no difference to Iranians, nor should these things matter. The equalizing experience of facing my own shortcomings instead of focusing on those of Islam provided a growth opportunity for my character. I will always keep my veil as a reminder of who I was and what I became. And someday I may wear it again if I return to Iran for a visit.
Today we like to think of Middle Eastern veils as anachronistic and restrictive. Many Western women unveil themselves to display body parts that a few years ago were considered private. In disrobing, we reveal our character as well as our bodies. As you scan your appearance, reflect on what you have removed to reveal yourself to others, or what you have covered to hide. What do you want others to see?
All of us veil in a variety of ways. Notice the jewelry you wear, the tattoos and piercing you have purchased, and the clothes you’ve put on. Why these choices? Are you projecting or covering your innermost self?
Before we judge others for an unfamiliar mode of dress, let’s examine ourselves to decipher public body language of which we may be unaware.
Some people veil themselves in ideologies, while others assume physical public personas. We hide behind a disdainful attitude or assert self-confidence to hide inner fear. The next time you see someone dressed in an unorthodox manner, ask the person about the mode of dress instead of privately mocking. The answer might surprise you.