Hijab – part of a compulsory dress code for women in Iran

Do you like my chador?

My seat neighbor Esra took me by surprise with this particular question on a bus ride from Tehran to Esfahan. How to give her an honest answer without offending in no respect? Luckily before I even opened my mouth she said: “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” Thus, my perplex nodding would do it!

Obviously not all Persian women would agree with Esra. A less religious and more liberal woman told me once this metaphor: “It’s like putting on your shoes before leaving the house. It’s a formality!”

In Iran women are required to wear loose-fitting clothing and a headscarf in public. The headscarf, also called hijab, has a long tradition in history: Once a status symbol enjoyed by privileged women, it became the standard head dress in urban regions in the 16th century. Some historical sources say that not until not too long ago, Iranians associated not covering their hair as something rural, nomadic and poor. However, in the mid 1930, when pro-Western ruler Reza Shah was in power, a decree prohibited women to cover their hair. Yet the decree didn’t last long: in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini made the hijab compulsory for all women.

This dress code led me in a couple of awkward but memorable and sometimes funny situations during my visit in 2015. I remember my first evening in the country, when the light in my hotel room did not work. I went downstairs to the reception where the manager looked at me in an odd but also amused way. All of a sudden I realised that I had forgotten to put on the headscarf. Before even saying anything, I rushed back to my room, took my hijab and returned to the manager. Luckily, he had mercy with an innocent tourist and eventually helped me to fix the lamp. Not wearing a hijab in Iran is considered as a violation of public prudence. If the “morality police” catches you, you risk being prosecuted for committing a “harām” (sinful) act which can lead to imprisonment or lashes!!

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