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Hijab: An Iranian Metamorphosis

January 29, 2020
IranWire Citizen Journalist
14 min read
In the early days after the Islamic Revolution, designers were tasked with making clothes to cover women's bodies as much as possible
In the early days after the Islamic Revolution, designers were tasked with making clothes to cover women's bodies as much as possible
Women wearing hijab during the revolution
Women wearing hijab during the revolution
In the 1960s, headscarves became more common
In the 1960s, headscarves became more common
By the 1970s, styles began to change, with long manteaux or overcoats and scarves that fully covered the head becoming the norm
By the 1970s, styles began to change, with long manteaux or overcoats and scarves that fully covered the head becoming the norm
By law, women must wear a hijab in public. But since the late 1990s, women and designers have taken a creative approach to Islamic dress codes, and brought greater variety to Iranian fashion
By law, women must wear a hijab in public. But since the late 1990s, women and designers have taken a creative approach to Islamic dress codes, and brought greater variety to Iranian fashion
Iranian women are consistently finding new ways to mix traditional dress with the latest fashion
Iranian women are consistently finding new ways to mix traditional dress with the latest fashion
The Palladium Shopping Center sells foreign brands, and also offers discounts so it is more affordable for the middle-class shopper
The Palladium Shopping Center sells foreign brands, and also offers discounts so it is more affordable for the middle-class shopper

This article was written by a citizen journalist based in Iran, who uses an alias to protect her identity


Most women, and particularly those of us from a certain generation, have photos, perhaps kept in a family album or in a disc drive somewhere, showing us wearing loose manteaux — the long-sleeved dark overcoats with straight shoulders and long sleeves that have come to be associated with women in Iran — and wearing full headscarves, all of it covering up school uniforms of the 1960s and 1970s. These are the clothes that Iranian girls and women wore in public in response to the policy of mandatory hijabs. 

However, what the compulsory hijab looks like has gradually changed over the years. Today, those clothes we once wore are old memories, reminiscent of the days when everything was grey, brown, and dark blue. 

So how has the Islamic headscarf and dress code changed for women in Iran? What was it like just after the revolution, and how does it differ with the present day?

During the last two or three decades, although the hijab has been integrated into women's outerwear because of the law and the Morality Police's enforcement of it, whether it is a manteau, raincoat, coat, or suit, there has increasingly been a great variety in style on offer.

Today, collections of green, red and blue dresses, manteaux, and raincoats in store windows attract the eyes of passersby. This year's winter fashion is all about shiny fabrics, with raincoats both short and long on offer in a huge range of colors: glossy silver, gold, magenta, carbon blue and phosphorus green.

Faezeh, 33, has gone out to buy a raincoat. As part of her job working for a private company she deals with major domestic and foreign clients, and she wants to buy something that is both affordable and at the same time appropriate for her age and job. She has set out to look through the clothes shops and markets in different parts of Tehran to find her perfect coat.

The designs Faezeh saw in Haft-Tir Street offer just a few examples of how things have changed since those photographs of the past. Shiny raincoats in flashy colors can be found in the shops in the big Tehran shopping centers such as Big Market, Champs-Elysee, and Haft-Tir, and the haute couture fashion districts of Vanak and Vali-e Asr offer raincoats and coats in mohair — available in multiple colors but also in dark, muted tones. Long sleeveless coats can also be seen in shopfronts.

In luxury shopping malls, most of them in northern Tehran, it’s easier to see the influence of Western fashion. "Most of the brands here are foreign brands or chic boutiques which — as they themselves state — have designers trained in Europe and the United States who produce clothing according to the world's latest fashion and tailored to taste of their customers,” Faezeh says. “Their clothes, coats and raincoats are often produced in light, sophisticated colors.”

Faezeh goes to the Palladium Shopping Center in Zafaraniyeh Street. "Palladium has all the foreign brands such as Mango, Jenifer, and Springfield, but also offers some good discounts so that middle-class shoppers can also benefit from them," she says.

Eventually, in one of these shops, she manages to find her raincoat at an Iranian boutique, which advertises its expertise in "unique fashion,” as she puts it. "The owner says most of her customers are actresses and celebrities. It offers 2018 styles with a 40 percent discount, and so can be bought at a fairly reasonable price."

And, as Faezeh has experienced, Iran’s fashion has something quite unique to offer the modern era of fashion and beauty. While still bearing the influence of the Islamic veil, it has changed dramatically over the last two decades, and actually blends modern trends with a nod to the fashion growing out of hijabs in the early years following the Islamic Revolution.


How Have the Compulsory Hijab Policy and Fashion Coexisted? 

"It was only 24 days after the revolution that the issue of the veil and hijab was raised among the revolutionaries,” says Nahid, a doctoral student in sociology who has worked for the education sector for nearly 30 years. Speaking at a Refah School, the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini, declared in 1979, “Women must go to Islamic ministries, but wearing hijabs.” Nahid says this was why women were banned from government offices from July 1980. In those early months, women's clothing and hijab were still not the required “uniform,” and women dressed in much the same way as they had before the revolution, albeit a little more covered up, wearing blouses and skirts or blouses and trousers together with a headscarf.

The start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 and the establishment of new Islamic values ​​(and with them new struggles) provided a more favorable ground for hardline revolutionaries to insist women fully cover their bodies and observe the Islamic veil, presenting it as one of the goals of the Islamic warriors in their fight against Iraqi forces to defend the homeland. They claimed that not wearing the veil amounted to disrespect for the blood of martyrs — people who had lost their lives during the war — making it not only anti-religion, but even contrary to national customs. So the veil was at that time presented as a manifestation of resistance and a sign of standing against the enemy.

Nahid believes that with the emergence of Islamic State organizations such as the Islamic Revolutionary Committees and the move to ensure that women's appearance adhered to Islamic values, women's bodies became more politicized. "Manteaux and the veil entered the scene — clothing designed mostly based on simplicity that considered modernism to be an aberration going against Islamic values. In the early days of the Islamic Revolution, clothing designers increasingly sought to cover women's bodies more. Therefore, the shape of the clothes was quite loose and long to the knee, with dense folds on the shoulder, sleeves and wrists. Most of the clothes came in dark colors like black, dark blue, brown, and grey."

According to Nahid, at the beginning of the 1980s and as part of the political stabilization in the country, the government first tried to establish the compulsory hijab in schools and government departments, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Finally, the law of compulsory hijab was passed in 1983 in the Islamic parliament (Majles), and all women were required to abide by it; any violation in this regard was responded to in the Islamic Penal Code, and punishment included detention, flogging, imprisonment, and a possible ban on employment.


The Law — And Enforcement

Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code, ratified in 1997, is the most important law regarding the compulsory nature of wearing hijab in the Islamic Republic. According to this article: "Whoever, in public places and in streets, engages in haram conduct, shall be punished accordingly for the act and sentenced to imprisonment from 10 days to two months or up to 74 lashes, and if commits an act which has no punishment but injures the public chastity, the person will only be sentenced to 10 days to two months imprisonment or up to 74 lashes."

Shahla, an employee for the Isfahan Steel Company's accounting department, was forced to resign a few months after the law was reinforced because she did not observe the practice of wearing hijab and due to non-compliance with Islamic traditions.

"In those years, the fire of the revolutionaries was very hot, as if the Islamic Republic had no concept of women without a veil,” she says. “Therefore, the law was rigidly reinforced and anything that concerned women [’s appearance] in public, such as make-up, haircuts, showing even a small amount of hair outside the headscarf, sleeves short enough to make wrists or feet ankles visible, were fiercely fought and treated as a crime."

Born in a religious family in 1976, Mahnaz recalls the early years of being forced to observe the Islamic veil very strictly. When she was in elementary school, she had to wear a long black veil up to her chin with a dark blue loose manteaux and trousers; it was forbidden to wear light-colored socks or shoes and sneakers; they were required to wear dark colors and very simple shoes.

"Even during sports days, we had to wear dark shoes; we took our white sneakers to school and only used them during sports time," she says.

After the enactment of the Compulsory Hijab Law in 1984, the law was enforced fully and with severity, and the Islamic Revolutionary Committees had strict control over its implementation.

Since that time, the policy of the mandatory hijab has been promoted and enforced, with the hijab being the preferred Islamic headscarf for women to wear. Most TV presenters wore black veils fully covering their heads and around their chins — the chin being covered as in the wimples seen in paintings from Medieval Europe. In movies and soap operas, a character dressed in a modest hijab implied that she was wholesome, while looser scarves and manteaux were used to portray negative characters. In government agencies such as the education department, it was mandatory to wear hijab, and in other organizations, although it was not mandatory, it was one of the criteria for selecting and assessing personnel, and if a woman was wearing it, she would have priority over other candidates.

According to sociologist Nahid, this uniformity in covering up and adopting relatively uniform patterns in women’s veils was almost commonplace among the general public across different social classes, and women adhered to these codes in public spaces and outside private circles until the war ended in 1990. Then Ali-Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's Reconstruction Government came to power and forged a new path in the country's cultural and social life — a path that challenged the concepts of forced hijab and allowed women to wear more varieties of veil and to gradually move towards modernism, an idea that radical revolutionaries refer to as "cultural aggression."

In 1993, questions around hijab and manteaux again emerged in various circles, and a more personalized approach to styles and diversity of tastes in Islamic clothing, including women wearing shorter manteaux and less tightly-fitting headscarves, was introduced and became common.

In those years, when there was a reduction in women observing strict guidance regarding hijab, so those who supported the more conservative headscarf were forced to present hijab as traditional Iranian clothing. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei introduced hijab as the national dress in 1995, saying: "The veil is Iranian dress rather than Islamic clothing."


Greater Freedoms and a Growth in Fashion as a Profession

With the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami in 1998 came public calls for civil liberties to be observed, as well as conditions for a greater presence of women in political and social circles to be put in place. In this climate, fashionable manteaux and designed hijabs became popular, and more and more of them were being produced.

School uniforms also changed. In girls' schools, which had only tolerated grey, dark blue, brown, and black, new colors such as jade green and sky blue became popular.

The schoolgirls' dress code was revised again in 2001, and they were allowed to wear colored manteaux and headscarves. The expansion into using a more diverse palette of colors was widely embraced, and led to more diverse designs, all of which were seen often in public spaces more and more. Then the dress code for girls’ school uniforms changed again, and students went to school wearing pink, crimson, and more cheerful colors, and the manteaux and pants were designed according to the fashion of the day.

Since the early 2000s, attention to modern fashion has been on the increase in Iran. And fashion and clothing design as an area of study or training, as well as a profession, has also been on the increase since that time.

Maryam, a fashion and clothing designer, points to the launch of the non-governmental Association of Textile and Clothes Designers in 2004 and the formation of the Fashion and Clothing Organization Task Force at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in 2001. "The war, the changing social and political space, and the expansion of international communication with the help of the internet and satellite networks have made people more inclined toward fashion and modern life, thereby necessitating the formation of governmental and non-governmental institutions to determine the necessary policies to help match people's tastes with Islamic values."

According to the designer, Iranian clothing was initially influenced by what was worn in Arab countries, especially manteux, coats, scarves and shawls, or based on what was women were wearing in Turkey and Malaysia, but this gradually changed. With more young women and men studying fashion or learning how to make clothes, and as competition grew among Iranian designers, the use of Iranian and Islamic cultural symbols from Iran, along with Western styles, had influence in the design and production of clothing.

She points the limitation of hijab in fashion, but says designers have done their best to find a way to serve today's generation and its thirst for the latest trends. But she acknowledges that it’s a complicated balancing act, making sure what designers produce combines the traditional values of the hijab with the modern fashion so many Iranian women want — and it’s crucial, of course, that the product that results works from a marketing and sales perspective.

Maryam also highlights restrictions set by government agencies: "Although open-front manteaux and thin and short sleeves are popular among young girls, especially in big cities, their production and sale are very difficult, and this type of clothing is mainly sold in boutiques [in people’s homes].”

In the face of these developments and challenges, the term "bad hijab" also came into the political and social lexicon at the same time that the concept and practical application of hijab was being transformed by authorities that wanted to instil it as a key part of Iranian society and remind women it was compulsory. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution adopted a plan called "Development of Hijab and Chastity" in 2004, and the Law on Development of Chastity and Hijab in December 2005, aimed at reviving the observance of Islamic covering or veiling in public and in non-governmental places.

Proponents of the compulsory hijab had expected the principlist government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to restrain society and ensure it did not go in what they considered to be a modern direction. But in Ahmadinejad’s eight-year government and later in the administration of Hassan Rouhani, the trend of trying to change or shape the concept of hijab continued. Although every year acts of intimidation and detention carried out by Iran’s Morality Police, especially during the summer, applied immense pressure on women to wear “proper,” Islamic clothing, the majority of people, especially in big cities, wear fashionable clothing, popular colors — and loose, flowing scarves that cover only part of the hair, head and neck.

Thirty-six years have passed since the compulsory veil law was enacted, but today, many women are still fighting the law, and the movement against it has grown, with internationally-known campaigns like My Stealthy Freedom and White Wednesdays leading the way — initiatives that encourage women to to appear in public not wearing a hijab or veil. Another well-known recent movement was the Girls of Enghelab Street or the Revolution Women, which grew to prominence in 2018 when women staged lone protests against the mandatory hijab policy by hanging their scarves out in front of them on sticks. Many of them faced imprisonment and flogging for their civil disobedience. And despite this, they and many others have continued their protest, demonstrating that, after 40 years, the Islamic Republic has failed to convince Iranian women to wear the veil, unless it is what they choose to do. 

The best description of this was given by Parvaneh Salahshuri, reformist representative for Tehran in the tenth parliament (which comes to an end in February 2020, when new elections will be held).

In a speech on the issue of hijab given at Shahid Beheshti University, Salahshuri criticized cultural institutions’ role in enforcing the issue of hijab: "The question is, have we been able to make our girls and women believe after 40 years of revolution? The policymakers and executives have made mistakes that not only failed to institutionalize the hijab for the sake of society, but sometimes our teachings had the opposite effect."

Salahshuri’s own belief is that women wearing a full hijab does not necessarily achieve what authorities hope it will. “Some women wear make-up that undermines the value of the veil,” she said. “I must say, not only does our youth not believe in the veil, but it has caused many of them to shun away from many of our teachings."


Venus Omidvar, Citizen journalist



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