Wednesday, May 03, 2006

April 30 – Touch Down in Tehran

I must admit a heightened sense of awareness—not concern or anxiety—as we landed in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite the political tensions between the U.S. and Iran, I had no worry that my stay at Sharif University of Technology would be anything but cordial and interesting.

As a Western woman I was more concerned about observing the gender norms of this Islamic society, particularly with respect to dress and social relations.

Women must observe hejab or modest dress. This means covering the head with a scarf or shawl, and wearing a loose fitting outfit that covers the body. An Iranian friend who had been in Tehran less than a year ago told me to wear pants, socks, a raincoat, any scarf I liked—and no makeup.

Apparently, things have changed in the past few months. The fashionable women deplaning from shopping in Dubai wore sandals and high heels—no socks—and colorful scarves. They wore light coats or manteau (French for coat but really here a knee-length dress worn over pants) and they were not particularly loose. Some were wearing capri pants and showing a bit of leg. They wore makeup.

It was clear that my raincoat while correct would not cut it. I thought that it would do when I was out in public. I would wear it but at Sharif I could wear business clothes. But school is public space and I could not take off my coat. I would die of heatstroke if another solution were not found.

A quick trip to a clothing store and I was outfitted with a black manteau that would be comfortable and unobtrusive. Only one more mistake: while I could shake hands with women my preferred hand was correctly refused by the first man I encountered in a public setting. On the other hand, if it were a private space, men would shake my hand cordially as in the West. I am learning.

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, men have not typically worn ties as they have a Western association and open collared shirts are the norm even with business suits.

Women and girls over the age of nine wore all sorts of head covering. While fashionable women in Tehran wore designer scarves, the everyday choice for most is a solid covered headpiece that stays in place on the head and covers the shoulders. I soon realized why this was popular as I was frequently adjusting my scarves so that they didn't slip and slide.

Women interpret hejab in numerous ways. Religious women wear cape-like swaths of billowing black but do not cover their faces. Young women wear faded jeans with sandals or athletic shoes and manteau in different colors. In some instances, the manteau are tight indeed. These are the public dress habits, but strapless gowns and tank tops in the windows reveal that there is another side to life when in private.

How did I feel about wearing a head covering? I can answer that in different ways. Certainly, my personal values chafe when any class of people is mandated toward rules they do not participate in making. As a sociologist, however, I realize that I can participate best in a social setting when I blend in as much as possible, when my dress and manners do not call attention to themselves.

My visit to Tehran is about making connections with Iranian colleagues and trying to create a linkage that would bring young MBA students from Sharif to UC Davis. My dress is an incidental consideration when I think of the value of introducing my students to the Sharif students at an unstable moment in both nations' history.


Blogger lifeIsNotADressRehearsal said...

In reference to your "Certainly, my personal values chafe when any class of people is mandated toward rules they do not participate in making."
That is exactly how I felt when I was forced into many Indian traditional customs by my husband's family both at my own wedding and other traditional gatherings. Inspite of being an Indian myself but not having been brought up to follow those customs and rules, I had a mix of emotions that no one there could understand. I felt humiliated,angry and most importantly let down by people I thought would see me for who I was and not require me to assimilate for dealing with their own fears of society.

1:07 PM  

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