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Iran 1st-Hand: Fashion and Politics --- Defiance Through Hijab (Egherman)

Earlier this week we carried a story of a woman beating up a cleric after he complained about her "immoral" dress. As that story spread across mainstream media, we note a commentary of subtler forms of defiance --- Tori Egherman, reflecting on her years in Iran, writes for Tehran Bureau about the fashion and politics of hijab:

....Iranian women had co-opted the oppression of the hejab, transforming it into fashion and personal expression.

For the young, hejab was just a fact of life. It was theater, unimportant. For the women who came of age before the Revolution, however, the hejab was a daily reminder of all they'd lost.

"It's humiliating," one woman told me. "At first many of us wore it in solidarity with our observant sisters whose families kept them at home during the time of the Shah because they felt Iran was too secular and immodest. Now those observant women hold every decent job in the country, sometimes two or three jobs at a time. They can't even handle the responsibilities of one job! The rest of us have had to become yoga teachers or aerobics teachers. Our education doesn't matter. Our skills don't matter. That's the only work left for us."

It wasn't just relatively secular women who complained. Many of the observant women I met chafed at the dress restrictions. "Hejab is my choice," my sister-in-law, an observant Muslim, told me, echoing what I heard from others. "What gives some beardless boy the right to tell me that my hair is showing?" She would talk to her friends about her trip to visit us in Amsterdam. "There are plenty of women in hejab there. Is the government forcing them? No. It's their choice, just like it's mine."

To me, the scarf was the manifestation of mistrust and coercion. There was no pact between me and God, no choice. The regulations felt arbitrary and insulting. I could only guess that the morality police riding up and down busy streets on motorbikes harassed women based on some nefarious measure such as how stimulated they got at the sight of an exposed ankle or a lock of hair. A little wiggle and it's "Fix that scarf." A big wiggle and "We are taking you in for reeducation."

"I had to bring my parents to this big auditorium where we listened to lectures and watched films on the benefits of modesty," a young woman I knew told me. She dreamt of being a model even though she was barely five-foot-two and missed her eyeteeth. Despite her run-ins with the morality police, she still wore a tight little manteau and let her scarf rest on the nub of her ponytail. She dyed her hair a light brown and before leaving the house each day painted her lips a shimmering pink. "I will never change," she told me.

In the streets, my sisters-in-law applauded each breach of hejab. The most observant among them, Forough, applauded the loudest. When a woman approached us to reproach me for my slack covering, Forough said to her, "When I go visit her no one asks me to take my scarf off. I'm not asking her to fix hers."

As I acquired a more nuanced reading of the hejab, I understood that pushing the border of what was permissible was my responsibility. I should dare to wear shorter jackets, show more hair, even, God forbid, wear makeup and get my eyebrows done despite the pain. Looking good in hejab was a much more effective way of addressing the coercive laws governing dress than looking like a slob. Reading the hemlines, the sparkle in the scarves, the arch of the eyebrow can yield surprises. In a country where the definition of dissent is so broad it can be accidental, a little lipstick and a fashionable hejab can be as much a political statement as a fashion statement. During the four years I spent in Iran, I was determined to wear the shortest possible hejab, the most colorful scarf, to let it fall to my shoulders instead of pinning it too my head. I even had my eyebrows shaped in order to make my protest even more apparent. If I couldn't be an expert in beauty, I could at least be literate.

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