I met my Iraqi grandmother in a spacious room on the inner courtyard of a home in the Kadhmiya section of Baghdad where she lived alone, a widow. Both of her sons had emigrated to the West for their education, and my father, the younger of the two, was there on his only visit home after leaving the country in 1949 to study at University of California, Berkeley. Zahra Mehdi wore a sleeveless summer dress. Her hair was red with henna. She rolled her own cigarettes. But when it was time for us to bring her to the garden gathering where my American mother and sisters eagerly waited to meet her, she put on a long-sleeved, full length dress and pulled on a black abaya — a large, semicircular shawl that covers the body from head to toe — holding it close over her face so that only her eyes showed.
It was the custom, culture and style for Iraqi women at the time, whether wealthy or poor, to cover up when outdoors and to relax when inside among family members. Girls in some families began the practice when they reached puberty, though by the time I visited Iraq in 1976, girls my age were wearing blue jeans and T-shirts instead, inside and out. My grandmother, on the other hand — a woman who emigrated from Esfahan, Iran, to Karbala, Iraq, in the 1920s — would have been mortified to leave home uncovered. So, too, were a majority of Iranian women in 1935 when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi "emancipated" women and made it illegal to wear a chador, the Farsi name for an abaya, in public. In the years that followed the edict, some Iranian women refused to go out at all. When the Islamic Revolution of 1979 broke out some 40 years later, women clad in chadors took to the streets en masse demanding the shah's ouster. Somehow the garment had become a symbol of national emancipation from dictatorship.
Today, another clamor has erupted on the streets of Tehran — only this time, women are protesting the requirement to cover their hair that arose from the revolution. Dozens have been arrested as more and more participants join in a new campaign against the chador and hijab, or headscarf. The protests, and the Iranian authorities' response, highlight the thorny issues of culture, politics and faith that are so often wrapped up with women's dressing habits.
Covering All the Possibilities
Isn't is interesting that there and here since time immemorial, progress, oppression and civilization itself have often been measured by women's control over our bodies and our selves? Our sexuality, professional advancement and pursuit of happiness are a barometer of freedom, stability and social cohesion.
To cover or not to cover? This is neither a binary ultimatum nor a question of fashion. No doubt Muslim women all over the world, with hair tucked away or flowing freely, are proud of U.S. Olympic bronze medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American fencer to compete with a head covering under her mask. Surely many of us appreciate the new lines of "modest" attire that department stores such as Macy's have unveiled. (Capitalizing on headscarves and modesty is hardly a new phenomenon, though; in fact, I researched a surge in Islamic haute couture in Egypt for a proposed "60 Minutes" episode in 1985.) The issue goes beyond what for me is a tired emphasis on women's hair as a defining part of practicing Islam. In 30 years of reporting on religion, I've been overwhelmed by conversations about covering women's heads. This is not an essential tenet of faith. Monotheism may be essential. Gratitude may be essential. Giving charity and seeking justice may be essential. Fasting, prayer and pilgrimage may be essential. Providing the requisite four adult eyewitnesses to verify accounts of adultery may also be essential.
When it comes to men and women dressing modestly, however, the question is not one of religion but one of culture and even environment. Hot climates offer any number of sensible reasons to cover up, irrespective of propriety or faith: Eyes and skin need protection from the perils of too much sun. And then there's the matter of custom. When covering stories in Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, I always dressed carefully so as to keep focus on my subject and not to draw attention to myself. Yet climates and cultures can change with time.
A Matter of Choice
In Iran today, as in Turkey and in Malaysia — where the Ministry of Human Resources has checked in on more than 600 hotels to ensure that female employees face no discrimination for wearing headscarves — the issue has become about choice. "The message is very clear and very specific — that women want to be able to choose if they wear hijab or not," Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human-rights lawyer in Tehran told Robin Wright, a correspondent for The New Yorker, early last month. "This is a civil-disobedience movement. Women know what the laws of the land say about hijab, and, based on that, they chose to protest," she explained. But like so many social pioneers before them, these women are paying a price for their bold actions. When 31-year old Vida Movahed removed her headscarf on Enghelab (Revolution) Street in downtown Tehran on Dec. 27, 2017, police reportedly charged her with "disturbing public order," according to Al-Arabiya. Other women who subsequently joined the protest face charges of "committing a sinful act," "violating public prudency" and "encouraging immorality or prostitution," Wright reports.
Head-covering for Muslim women may be a matter of self-expression or one of oppression. It may be a demonstration of national identity or a cherished custom.
Iran's Constitution provides that "[a]ll citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria." The devil is in the interpretation of that final clause. Let's go straight to the primary source, the Koran. The holy text refers specifically to attire in three places, translated here by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem:
Chapter 7, verse 26: "Children of Adam, We have given you garments to cover your nakedness and as adornment for you; the garment of God-consciousness [alternately translated as "the garment of reverence"] is the best of all garments — this is one of God's signs, so that people may take heed."
Chapter 24, verse 30-31: "O Prophet, tell believing men to lower their glances and guard their private parts: that is purer for them. God is well aware of everything they do. And tell believing women that they should lower their glances, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what is acceptable to reveal; they should let their head-scarves fall to cover their necklines and not reveal their charms except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their womenfolk, their slaves, such men as attend them who have no sexual desire, or children who are not yet aware of women's nakedness; they should not stamp their feet so as to draw attention to any hidden charms. Believers, all of you, turn to God so that you may prosper."
And Chapter 33, verse 59: "Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garments hang low over them (alternately translated as "lengthen their garments") so as to be recognized and not insulted: God is most forgiving, most merciful."
A Thorny Issue
The Koran commands men and women alike to guard "private parts," a practice widely accepted in Muslim and non-Muslim settings. But today an increasing number of interpreters of scripture assert that location and culture must be considered to determine the true meanings of "garment of God-consciousness" and "beyond what is acceptable." Just how low should "outer garments" hang today? Must garments hang the same length everywhere? On everyone? Context matters, they say.
"Let their headscarves fall to cover their necklines" is generally interpreted to mean cover your chest. That makes sense in a world where everyone wears a scarf for protection from the elements. But what if you, unlike the majority of men and women in the times and geographies of the prophets Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, don't regularly wear a headscarf? Common wisdom dictates that you still ought to cover your chest, regardless of sex.
Covering the hair, though, is less clear-cut. A college-age Muslim American woman told me in 1997 that she didn't observe the practice. "It's not right for me. Not yet. And God knows what's in my heart," she said. An Iranian professor I spoke with in 2001, by contrast, proclaimed, "I wear my headscarf for God, and my chador for my country." Head-covering for Muslim women may be a matter of self-expression or one of oppression. It may be a demonstration of national identity or a cherished custom. Either way, it is a manifestation of a religious text whose evolving interpretation varies over time and across diverse cultures. And even with plenty of more important issues hanging in the balance — the future of the Iran nuclear deal, the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel, the plight of refugees and displaced persons, a looming water crisis — the question of how women present themselves in public keeps making headlines.