By Raha Izadi, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)
I stop and take a look at a sign in a shop window on Valiasr Square that reads, "National chadors, made from Japanese black silk, 32,000 tomans each (about 32 US dollars)." A woman wearing a long, dark dress and a tightly tied headscarf tells me why she is interested in buying one. "I want it for parties during Norouz time. It is smart and it gives you more mobility," she said.
Photo from Haleh Anvari's Chador Dadar exhibition
The "national" or "student" chador, with its decorated sleeves, is not only a more elegant take on the traditional garment, but is also cut to allow greater freedom of movement. There are other advantages, too.
For example, it is possible to wear long boots underneath, which you could not normally do without the morality police noticing.
The shopkeeper says that around the time of Iranian New Year, he sells one every couple of days.
Najmeh Babaee, who is from Tehran, is wearing a national chador, a long bright green dress and a white shawl and is carrying a folder of papers. She explains why the style appeals to her.
"I personally do not believe in wearing the chador, but my father would not want me to leave home without one. That is why I bought the national chador. It is comfortable to wear and you do not look prudish," she said.
The chador is part of a culture that wants women to be protected and hidden, a culture that is uncomfortable with women being easily visible in the public arena. However, clothes which offer greater freedom of movement - such as the manteau - have that women appear more in public and allowed them to do jobs that were previously monopolised by men.
Fattaneh Jenabi, the original designer of the national chador, explains the problems women face when wearing a traditional chador.
"We usually use our hands to secure the chador around our waists when we are getting into a car or climbing stairs, revealing our figures and the curves of our bodies, which is something women do not like to do," she said.
"At other times, many women have to keep their chador in place with their teeth when they are returning from shopping so that they can hold their bags with their hands. It's also a problem when a woman wearing a chador has to carry her baby's things as well as her own and has to manage a chador which is loose on all sides."
Her version, she says, has dealt with these drawbacks.
"It is not a new fashion. It is the same normal chador, but it does not have the problems of the previous design. The front of this chador is completely closed with hidden buttons. That means you can wear it without a long dress underneath, so it is very good in the summer," she went on.
"On the other hand, the sleeve design gives women more freedom so that they can ... carry on with their normal activities."
She also filmed in the streets to research how women wear chadors.
"According to my figures, 93 per cent of women who wear the chador do not have a complete hijab and in fact it is their dress and scarf which keeps their chador in place," she said.
Before Jenabi came up with her national chador in 2004, some young women, especially students, wore an Arabic chador - smarter than the traditional Iranian version and easier to move in. Jenabi's design is along the same lines, but less "posh" than the Arabic style.
According to figures from Iranian domestic news agencies, 17,000 national chadors had been sold by 2007. However, Jenabi admits that women aged between 30 and 45 have been less keen to adopt her design.
"One of the main reasons is that it is difficult for these women to let go of the habit of holding the chador with their hands," she said.
Before the Islamic Revolution when wearing the hijab was not compulsory, many Iranian mothers and grandmothers in religious families used to wear the traditional or "baggy" chador.
Whether a woman wears a chador in Iran often depends more on her age and educational status than on her social status. Usually, older women in smaller towns wear a chador, while in larger cities younger women have for many years opted for a scarf and a long dress instead. But it is not only poorer women who wear a chador - wealthy women in Tehran also wear one at religious ceremonies and family funerals.
Now the chador is making a comeback as a fashion item, girls might be more enthusiastic about Islamic dress.
However, looking at how some girls in Tehran wear the national chador, it is clear they have not chosen it because of their strict beliefs.
As well as a tight-fitting chador, these girls might wear coloured scarves, shorter dresses or jeans. The idea is to give the impression that they have become less accessible - and therefore more attractive.
Monireh Moin al-Islam, the manager of a women's cultural centre, worries about this, saying the national chador does not cover women's body properly - despite what its supporters might claim.
"In practice it reveals all the curves of the body and has turned into a tight dress with sleeves. These garments emphasise beauty - under the pretext of Islamic hijab - and this is against what is in the Koran," she said.
However, Fatemeh Sadeghi, a researcher on women's issues, believes the national chador should be welcomed in Iran.
"The traditional chador had a sort of solemnity about it. It told the observer not to mess around with a woman wearing one, not to make indecent proposals, not to flirt. No one could even tease these women.
You had to observe certain limits," she explained.
"The national chador, despite being a chador, does not have that solemn, detached and desexualised - or, as I believe, anti-feminist - identity that the black chadors had about them."
The national chador, she hopes, represents a response to the needs of a society that is fast evolving.
"There is no doubt that [traditional chadors] are no longer desirable
either for the Islamic regime or for today's young girls who are tired of hiding themselves. There is no doubt that they are all after beauty. And what is wrong with that?" she said.
When the focus on beauty and sexual attraction is so great, simply suppressing "indecent dress" or "bad hijab" will not work, she explained.
"The Islamic Republic has come to the conclusion in recent years that it has not done enough ... The solution is to invent a new fashion, which is compatible with religion and can incorporate aesthetics within traditional patriarchal norms.
"When society is, on the whole, trying to embrace and develop fashion, this is a rare opportunity for the state to support it. Wouldn't it be better for Iranian women to express and satisfy themselves at the same time as respecting religious norms?"
Raha Izadi is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tehran.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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