Sunday, 14 October 2012

Day 189 – Hijabs and chadors. (Iran)

Babol Sar is a fairly non-descript town on the Northen Coast of Iran. We took four days to get here from the Turkmen border, exploring bits and pieces in between.
When we stopped in Quchan, the first town after crossing the border, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The first thing that stood out though was of course the women who were all covered head to toe in a black cape. The chador, as we have since found out it is called, is a garment I’ve never come across in another country. I’m familiar with the standard headscarf of all shapes and styles, the burka and the hijab, but the chador is new to me. It’s usually plain black (as I believe it is supposed to be), but sometimes there is a subtle pattern, it might be sheer in places, or it might just be in a colourful pattern. As far as I can see it is basically a large sheet, although I think some of them are shaped either around the head or curved around the bottom, and it is draped over the entire body, held in place usually by the woman’s hands, although I have seen a few older ladies pinning it together with their teeth.
I have never envied women that are forced to wear headscarves, imagining it to be quite uncomfortable and restrictive, and more importantly very hot in a climate such as Iran’s. What I’ve never really been aware of though is the women actually seeming to be uncomfortable. I’ve always assumed that if you’ve done something for your whole life and it’s all you know, then it’s not so bad. Most cultures – including Westerners – are forced into social and cultural restrictions and norms that individuals would prefer not to be part of. Some may be more extreme or overt than others, but we’re all used to what we’re used to. What has shocked me about Iran though is that the vast majority of women look visibly uncomfortable in what they’re forced to wear. I had to don a chador in order to visit a mosque, and not only is it stifling as expected (especially considering you still need to have your full covering underneath, including headscarf), it is incredibly hard to keep in place and is a constant struggle just to hold together. Of course it’s a struggle for me, being a first timer – but they all look as uncomfortable as I felt.
It’s been interesting passing through several different towns and observing the differences in each. It seems that the smaller towns have more women in chadors, and if not, then certainly properly covered in bland colours. A couple of larger cities we’ve visited have been very interesting in that forearm, ankle and almost the whole top of the head has been quite prevalent, and we’ve even spotted the occasional public display of affection (linked arms and hand holding). We stopped at a tiny village in the mountains to buy some supplies, and although the women I saw there were mostly in chadors and certainly fully covered (mind you it was freezing so even I didn’t mind covering up there) it was the first place where I was no more or less goggled at than my male companions.
There isn’t the overt sexism directed towards me that I had expected - the men just ignore me, and quite blatantly so. I actually can’t ask for a bill or fill up petrol, because no one responds to me. Even the 20 year old boy, studying to become an English teacher, who showed us around the town of Gonbad e Kavus and took us to the mosque where I wore a chador never once looked me in the eye. So it was really refreshing to visit this tiny village and be spoken at, gestured to and pointed at just as much as Ben, Tom and Tom.
Now we are in the beach town of Babol Sar on the Caspian Coast. Despite the fact that it’s not mentioned in any Western guide books and is only a small town with nothing particularly significant to visit, it is an ever so interesting place. This is where Iranians go for their holidays, and it’s something really special to witness how the locals let their hair down. After flukily finding an apartment on the beach (on a hunch, we picked up an old man with not a word of English who was standing at the side of the road waving a yellow sign in Farsi), we spent the evening milling around on the beach. Although the girls were still completely covered compared to Western standards, we saw a lot of hair falling out the front of scarves, neck uncovered by loose fitting garments, lots of rolled up sleeves, bare feet, and more colour than we’ve seen in the last four days. “Big hair” – large buns and scrunchies on top of the head, making the head scarf sit high in quite a suggestive position, seems to be the fashion, and we saw some big hair last night that would put Lady Gaga to shame.
I had been led to believe that the older generation – the ladies who remembered how it was in the older days – were quite liberal with their covering, fulfilling the bare minimum requirements and nothing more, the middle generation – the ones brought up in the 80’s – would be the most fundamentalist as it’s really all they’ve known, and the younger generation would by very nature, be more rebellious. What I’ve actually observed though is that the older ladies are more often than not covered in black chadors, the middle generation are often in chadors, or at least modestly dressed, and the younger generation is – as anticipated – more rebellious.

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