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Middle East Monica Dispatch

The Hejab in Iran: Don't leave home without it...
April 1, 2000

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In the Lonely Planet Guide to Iran, one traveler writes about a Dutch woman who doesn't "cover up" properly when visiting Iran. "People in the street went mad seeing her-the traffic stopped...on two occassions, a soldier bitterly argued with her." By Iranian law any female over the age of seven must observe the hejab: modest dress and a headscarf. Eva, our guide's daughter, turned seven a few months ago, and even she has to "cover up." She wears a white head covering and looks adorable in it. Even though Eva sometimes forgets to wear her headscarf and gets away with it, we women trekkers need to be super-careful about covering up. We were forewarned about the enforcement of the hejab here.

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On our second day in the country, our new friends Maryam, Maral and Reza take us to the market in Khoy, so we can find makne: that's a covering for a woman's head, neck, and shoulders. A string of elastic slides over the neck, then the makne goes over the head. It's easy and comfortable to wear: much better than the long safety-pinned scarves we wore to cross the border.


forewarned - warned in advance
literally - actually
stringent - marked by rigor, strictness, or severity, especially with regard to rule or standard
eye - to watch closely
governing - ruling without sovereign power and usually without having the authority to determine basic policy

At the market, we stick out in the crowd even though we're wearing proper dress. I have a long skirt that I pull on over my pants. Kavitha, Jasmine and Abeja are on a mission to find a suitable roupush (a baggy trench coat, that covers jeans and pants). We decide against searching for chadors, long black capes that swirl around and cover the entire body from head to toe. Chador literally means 'tent' and wearing a chador takes practice. On the street we see women holding them closed all the time. If their hands aren't free, they hold the chador closed in between their teeth! In small cities like Khoy, many women wear the chador, but by the time we arrive in the capital, Tehran, women don't pay as much attention to the stringent rules. With Maryam's help at the market, we find suitable makne and feel ready to blend in with the rest of the Iranian women.

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We're foreigners, so it's not easy for us to fit in. We usually attract attention. People practice speaking their English with us or ask us questions about our jobs and our homes. Sometimes, they want to take a photo or capture a video with us. Iranians seem to feel more comfortable interacting with us when we weare the hejab, even though we look different from other Iranian women.
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The women we've talked to have mixed reactions to the hejab. Some, our friend's mom, wear a version of the hejab inside the house. Others take it off the minute they step inside the privacy of their homes. It seems to be a fashion accessory- women wear it when they are outside or in public. However, sometimes it gets in the way. For example, our guidebook mentions that Iran was represented at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games by 25 men and one woman: Lida Fariman, the first Iranian woman to attend the Olympics since the 1979 revolution. She carried the Iranian flag for the team while dressed in a white hejab, and competed in her shooting event while wearing the heavy head-dress in a stifling indoor arena. The women's canoeing team, however, couldn't attend the Olympics because they couldn't row AND observe the hejab at the same time.

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Let's see what an Iranian man thinks about it. At a hotel in Mashhad, we meet Motazar Ibrahimi, from the Foreign Ministry. He asks us about our makne and wonders if we were told about it or if we wear it by choice. He emphasizes that, according to law, only the headscarf is necessary. In between bites of chocolate cake, we all eye the women in the hotel lobby, who are wearing headscarves of all colors and styles. Motazar explains that the makne is "more severe" than the headscarf. "It's not so much of a hard rule," he says through translation, sipping his coffee. We are completely fascinated by the laws governing the dress code of Iranian women.

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What do you think about the hejab? Unlike women in some other Islamic nations, Iranian women hold jobs and go to school. They have higher literacy rates and more rights than their Pakistani and Afghani neighbors. Is it that important to be focusing on what they wear? The hejab is just one aspect of this fascinating country. Motazar encourages us, saying , "I am hoping that the problem between our governments [The United States and Iran] is solved as soon as possible, and people of both countries can go back and forth with no problem. I hope you enjoy your stay in Iran and everything you see, you share with people in your home country." While the hejab seems an obvious characteristic of Iranian women's life, it is not the only one. I hope you had fun reading about how Iranian women dress- hang in there with us and we'll uncover those parts of Iran that are "covered up" right now, together.

Monica's Observations

We first started noticing the head covering and modest dress on women in Mali. Throughout Morocco, Egypt, Palestine and Turkey we also noticed the hejab, and you can read some reasons why women would wear the head dress in those countries. However, here in Iran the hejab is not optional; it is enforced by law.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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