This summer, when the Iranian regime again declared open season on women less than inclined to follow its strict and arcane dress codes, a surprise lay in store. Women in full hijab and chador also sprang to the defence of less conservatively-dressed compatriots.
The internet is full of newly-issued statements of solidarity, in part in reaction to renewed crackdowns on women’s freedom of expression by the government. In one post on Intagram, a Tehran resident named Nastaran wrote: “I wear hijab but I am opposed to forced hijab. I never support online campaigns but this time I felt I had to draw a line between myself and those who humiliate women for their choices. The treatment of women over hijab, which is a purely personal choice, is really insulting and has led some people to judge me by the type of hijab I wear. They think I side with the Morality Patrol and I think the way they do. I am participating to say I am not one of them.”
Faced with a growing revolt against everything from the ill-fated first “Hijab and Chastity Day” in July (which ended up being re-branded “No Hijab Day” by activists) to individuals policing women’s clothing on public transport, state-aligned media outlets have cast about for a palatable explanation.
On July 9, Fars News Agency alighted on one. The IRGC-owned outlet published a string of women’s reported complaints over the high price of the Islamic Republic’s preferred black chador. The proposition was that this garment wasn’t hated by many, but simply too expensive.
Then on July 16, at the height of the grassroots campaign against forced hijab, Fars published a report entitled “Why Black Chador Isn’t Sold at Government Prices”, which once again claimed that some women who would love to wear the black chador could not afford it.
In fact by doing so, Fars News Agency was resuscitating an old excuse; one that surfaces in state-controlled media from one summer to the next, around the time that morality patrols’ violence against Iranian women reaches its zenith.
“Under a government that rules in the name of Islam,” wrote the newspaper Resalat on July 22, “the Islamic hijab is the most expensive covering, the most difficult to both find and afford. Not only have we failed to manage patterns of consumer behaviour in society, and to lay the appropriate groundwork, but our adversaries have planned how to exploit them, and have directed the garment industry and market towards their own goals.”
Not only are Iranian women being prevented from wearing the shapeless, monochrome expanse of material they would otherwise all desire, then, but this is the fault of “the West”. In reality, though, is black chador out of reach for ordinary women in Iran? And does it matter if it is?
How Much Does a Black Chador Cost?
An Iranian small business owner who makes their own black chadors at home for sale told IranWire about the various grades available and their cost. “High-quality black chador cloth starts at 80,000 tomans [$2.50] per meter when it’s not decorated, and goes up to 130,000 [$4] per meter when it is. An even better-quality one costs 300,000 tomans [$9.50] per meter. A person of average height needs six meters, so a roll comes to around 1.8 million tomans [$57].”
There are plenty of cheaper options, they added: “Ready-made Arabian chador is 400,000 tomans [$12.60]. A corduroy chador, mostly worn by women in the provinces and mainly imported from Indonesia and Malaysia, starts at 800,000 tomans and goes up to a million [$25.50 to $31.50]. Given that on average a chador lasts three times longer than a manteau, the cost of these is competitive with the cheapest manteaux on the market.”
M., a dress and manteau designer, said the same; chadors are far cheaper than the next most “modest” option, the manteau: “You can buy a chador from 220,000 tomans [$7] to over two million tomans [$63] but you cannot find a good manteau at such prices.”
Another source, a textile merchant in Tehran, said the price for extremely expensive chador fabric could reach up to one million tomans ($31.50) per meter, but that had to be ordered specially and was not the standard. Two fabric brands, Elegant and Mitsubishi, both based in Japan, are among the most popular in Iran.
A business journalist based in the country told IranWire the principal buyers of chador were women in parts of the public sector where it is mandatory: in the judiciary, for example, the police, the IRGC or the seminaries.
But they are generally given discount coupons for their clothing, and in any event, he said, the pricing was not unreasonable: “Hair salons charge around three million tomans [$94.50] for trimming and coloring. An ordinary black chador costs less than one million [$31.50]. So any change in women’s behavior is not down to price.”
Each year Iran consumes 60 to 70 million square meters of black chador, around 10 to 12 million rolls. In 2019, a board member of the Iranian Association of Textile Experts reported that Iran imports 100 to 120 million dollars’ worth of black chador each year, making the country the single biggest consumer of the garment in the world. Meanwhile, he said, “at a cost of 20 to 25 million dollars, we could build up a production line to ourselves make 10 million square meters of black chador per year.”
Currently just one Iranian company – in Shahrekord, the capital city of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province – produces its own black chador cloth. It began operating in 2019 and has the capacity to produce 10 million square meters of this textile a year.
Most of the market for black chador is supplied by importers with China as their major source. Companies that import generally turn a profit of 400 to 500 percent, according to industry bosses.
The business journalist told IranWire that those selling hijab and chadors had become “experts in turning government obsessions into business opportunities”.
Although the private sector is allowed to import black chador, customs allows only a select group to do so. So if anything, he said, the fuss over women losing interest in chador “has been instigated by people looking for low-interest loans on the pretext that they want to build textile factories, or might want to get import permits.”
Is Cost the Problem?
Would Iranian women even choose black chador if it became cheaper overnight? After 43 years of public messaging from the Islamic Republic asserting that “chador is the best hijab”, if anything the number of wearers seems to be decreasing.
“History has shown that the time for governments to dictate what people can and cannot wear has passed,” said Nayereh Tohidi, professor of Gender and Women Studies at California State University. “Even in communist China, where for years people were pushed to wear a certain ‘uniform’, they gave up. It goes against human nature and has no result bar hatred, anger and discontent.
“Naturally, the government and many of the clergy describe black chador as ‘better’ but in reality their goal was always to confine women and drive them out of the public sphere. As a result, women have gradually lost interest; even many of those who did wear black chador before have now discarded it.”
The hardline clergy in Iran, Tohidi believes, potentially out of fear of the alternative, wants to restrict the role of women to childbirth, child-rearing and serving men. “These people never worry about the state of Islam if they see women starving and searching in the trash to find food. They do worry about Islam if they encounter opposition to hijab.
“Fortunately, there are now plenty of differences of opinion on this – both between the clergy and among believers. More people are realistic about it and fewer are sexually obsessed. The dream that more women would wear hijab if textiles become cheaper is a sign of mental lethargy.
“This power play in Iran is coming to its last days. Even those who freely choose hijab see the government’s treatment of other women as an insult to their own choice.”
This article was written by a citizen journalist in Tehran under a pseudonym.