Iran — Behind the Veil

Is there more to the veil than its use as a simple cover for a woman’s face?

June 1, 2001

Is there more to the veil than its use as a simple cover for a woman's face?

For the Islamic Republic, the rules about dress are laid out in Koran: “Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze guard their modesty…They should draw their veils over their bosom and not display their ornaments.”

They can go bareheaded only in front of other women, their husbands, fathers, sons, nephews, servants and children small enough to “have no sense of the shame of sex.”

A rule requiring all women to appear in public in Islamic dress was written into the country’s penal code, but the Koranic verse that defines it is subject to interpretatation.

The Islamic Republic didn’t invent the veil, of course. Even before the advent of Islam, the practice of veiling probably existed among the Zoroastrians. From the 16th century on, a kind of all-enveloping Islamic veil was worn, although it was not black and its style varied according to region.

Eventually, well-to-do women of the cities and the court — certainly not a majority of women — took up veiling and secluding themselves from public view. The black “chador” seen on the streets today probably made its entry in the late 18th century — among the upper classes.

In the countryside, women have always worn veils, usually lively prints that protect their heads from dust. They often wear scarves with veils over them, wrapping and gathering them at their waists to free up their arms and to make the garments less cumbersome.

In fact, the consensus among modern and traditional, secular and religious women in Iran is that if women were given a choice, the majority would probably choose to cover their heads in public in some way.

Choice — to wear or not to wear the veil — has been an issue for decades. In 1935, going even further than Turkey’s secular modernizers, Reza Shah issued an edict that declared the wearing of traditional dress (for both women and men) an offense punishable by a prison term.

The army and police roamed through villages to enforce the law, tearing chadors off women and handing out free Western-style suits to men. Reza Shah also banned men from wearing turbans. Mustaches were allowed but beards were forbidden, even for clerics.

To reinforce his message, Reza Shah brought the Queen Mother and royal princesses, unveiled, to a graduation ceremony at the Women’s Teacher Training College in Tehran in 1936. The king told all Iranian women to follow their example and “cast their veils, this symbol of injustice and shame, into the fires of oblivion.”

Not all Iranian women saw it that way. To many, the veil was a source ot protection, respect, and virtue. In her 1992 memoir, Daughter of Persia, Sattareh Farman Farmaian, the daughter of a Qajar prince, recalled her mother’s bitter reaction to Reza Shah’s edict: “He is trying to destroy religion. He doesn’t fear God, this evil Shah-may God curse him for it!”

Some women refused to leave their homes, some because they didn’t want to be seen bareheaded in public, others to protest the decree. One of those women was Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife, Khadija Saqafi, who, according to relatives, went without a bath for a year rather than venture to the public bathhouse unveiled.

But that was only one view. The elderly mother of a close friend of mine called the announcement of Reza Shah’s edict “one of the best days of my life.” During the revolution in February 1979, women could go bareheaded in Iran, but within a month, Khomeini ordered all women to wear Islamic dress.

At first, Iran’s women resisted. I walked through the streets of Tehran as thousands of women marched — bareheaded — to protest Khomeini’s order. Men hurled stones, bottles and insults. Soldiers fired shots in the air.

Still, Khomeini was politically supple enough to sense the strong opposition to his sweeping dictum. He had called the floor-length chador, the garment that covers all but a woman’s face, “the flag of the revolution.” But then he backed down, saying he had meant only to suggest how women should dress. Eventually, however, head covering prevailed.

The hejab — or covering — was undeniably a symbol of the forced will of the Islamic state. So resistance to it became part of everyday life. Since the revolution, there have been degrees of acceptable coverage. It took a while for me to figure out that what an Iranian woman wears often defines her politics and her level of piety.

Iran’s women, being subtle and adaptable, came to think of the veil as something more complicated than just an imprisoning garment.

For many women, the Islamic dress became a tool to be used to their advantage, a way into public spaces. It gave them the right to be present in public spaces-to work in offices, to attend college, to drive, to walk on the streets. “The veil gives women the license to do things,” my friend Farideh Farhi, the political scientist, once told me. “They can cross borders with it.”