Twenty-six-year-old Pegah Biglui has an unusual job for a woman in Iran: she is a fashion model. True, there are many dedicated models around the world. But what makes her story unusual is the fact she has chosen the profession in the Islamic Republic, a country that is obsessed with how women are perceived in the public space.
Every year, the Islamic Republic organizes “Chastity and Veil” exhibitions to promote the Islamic hejab, an important concept for the regime, and one that exemplifies how Iranian culture and lifestyles vary from the West. In recent years, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly warned that further efforts need to be made so that people’s lifestyles are “more Islamic" — and wearing the hejab is fundamental to this.
When taking part in the “Chastity and Veil” shows, designers must demonstrate that the clothing they hope to showcase is “Islamic” — in other words, that garments hang loosely and reveal very little of the female form. In most of the exhibitions, models are not permitted to wear the designs in person; visitors have to make do with photographs instead. The few times this has not been the case, the fashion shows have aroused considerable criticism. Those opposed to the practice accuse organizers of promoting a Western lifestyle and assert that Islamic fashion shows make a mockery of the hejab.
To ensure that models behave “appropriately,” modeling workshops have been set up to teach proper “Islamic-Iranian” protocol. IranWire spoke to the director of one of the courses, who said there is “a distinction between Islamic and un-Islamic fashion models.” It is all about their “moral values.” According to him, the Islamic model rejects the types of behavior seen in Western shows, including the way women walk on the catwalk and how they look out at the audience. “They walk straight without superfluous movements and stare ahead,” he says. “We even try to muffle the sound of the models' steps.”
Despite the regime’s open attempts to prevent fashion shows taking place, and the numerous limitations and obstacles Iranian models face, models in Iran regularly participate in fashion shows at dress shops and women-only exhibitions across the country. They continue to take part in Western-style live shows at private residences. This enthusiasm and the underground efforts to satisfy it are a manifestation of the perpetual conflict between what the regime wants people to do and what the people really want.
Occasionally, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture issues permits for shows on the condition that they follow strict Islamic guidelines; for the most part, models are banned from “showing off”, wearing tight outfits and men and women need to work separately from one another.
Pegah Biglui has worked as a model in Iran for seven years and warns that the job carries many hazards. Models must be careful when choosing agencies. “Some might take advantage of you,” she says. “If they publish one picture which violates Islamic standards, your professional future could be in danger.”
Pegah spoke to IranWire about her experience and about the challenges those working in the profession continue to face.
Why did you choose modeling as a profession?
As a teenager I loved fashion channels. I constantly watched models on the catwalk and was mesmerized by how they walked and how they looked. I always thought what a wonderful job models had. I was 16 when my aunt brought me an overcoat from Europe as a souvenir. When I put it on, she had a look and told me, “if you came to Europe you could surely become a model.” My aunt’s words made me think more about it, especially when I grew up to be tall and well-proportioned.
How did you start modeling?
As much as I had thought about it, I started modeling completely by accident. I was 19 when I went with a group of friends to the Young Couples’ Exhibition. At the exhibition, any business that has anything to do with weddings has a booth, from hairdressers and photo studios to bridal shops, wedding organizers and caterers. I was visiting various booths when a photographer asked me to pose for a picture. In the next exhibition the picture was printed on a banner and it was displayed at the entrance to the exhibition. My picture was noticed and I got other offers.
Did you have any training before you started?
No, there were no courses back then. We learned how to pose by watching fashion channels and walked on stage like European models. I studied a lot and watched a lot of fashion shows. I think it's now much easier on those who enter the business. There are many new schools under the supervision of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance that can help them. I've even heard that some of the schools introduce the models to agencies.
Have you taken any of these courses yourself?
I learned by trial and error. The schools don't keep up with international standards. They have their own standards, which are very different from the rest of the world’s.
How are they different?
The first thing that springs to mind is regarding height and weight. I believe that all over the world the basic necessity for a model is being suitably tall and having a well-proportioned body. Unfortunately, many of the schools train models regardless of this criteria. Many of those taking the courses are less than 165 centimeters in height and thickset. Of course, some fashion shops want this. I remember a designer telling me that she wanted thickset models of average height because she was making her dresses for ordinary Iranian women. Maybe these training courses have the same vision. In any case, when the students are selected for these courses, neither bodily proportions or a beautiful face count for much, whereas across the world this is the basic criteria for selecting models.
You mentioned body shape. What is your height and weight and how do you stay fit?
I'm 175 centimeters high and weigh between 60 and 62 kilos. To keep in shape I do an intense workout three days a week and I'm careful about what I eat. I try to completely stay away from high-calorie and fatty foods, which are bad for the body. I read about food ingredients a lot and try to choose a diet that can keep me both in shape and healthy. This is a fundamental guideline that models all around the world must heed to.
Why are so many people interested in modeling?
Wearing various clothes and being photographed in different poses is appealing. Models are often the center of attention and this is also appealing. But in my opinion many people go about it the wrong way. I've heard that many people who want to get into modeling pay photo studios and fashion shops to take their photographs. This is the worst way to enter the modeling world because it expends both money and energy. Besides, it makes it difficult for the professionals. I advise against trying to work indiscriminately with photo studios and wearing all types of dresses. There are individuals who might take advantage of you. Please don't trust everybody. To enter the field, be realistic and if you meet the minimum requirements then work for it and get the advice of experienced models.
Today, there are many people, both men and women, who describe their profession as modeling on Facebook. Are there really that many models in Iran?
There aren't that many professional models but as I said earlier there are people who want to experience it and so pay photo studios to become models. They consider themselves models once they've been professionally photographed. Some let themselves be photographed without pay. This does not make them professional models but since they have pictures, they consider themselves to be.
How much are models paid in Iran?
For a full day’s work, an Iranian model is paid a minimum of 300,000 tomans and at most a million [between $110 and $370]. It makes little difference whether the work is in a photo studio or on the catwalk. It depends on the workload.
Which do you prefer, photo shoots or catwalk modeling?
I'm more at ease on the catwalk. In a live show I'm more myself but in photos everything is better and more beautiful because of Photoshop, but also more artificial.
What's your biggest aspiration for your professional life?
I want to get solid professional training based on International standards.
Read more on fashion in the Islamic Republic on IranWire:
Catwalks, Iranian Style, July 2014.
Halal Fashion on the Catwalk, Photo Blog, June 2014
The Islamic Catwalk, Shima Shahrabi, April 2014
The Metamorphosis of a Cloak, July 2013
Leggings and Their Discontents in Iran, Parvaneh Masoumi, August 2013