Thursday, December 11, 2008
We’re Not In Kansas (or California) Anymore
When we arrived in Tehran all the women pulled scarves from their luggage and covered their heads as the doors were opened. I’d expected all heavy, dark scarves, but many were very sheer and it looked like many women preserved a “puff” (as our group came to call it) in front. The woman next to me on the plane also pulled on a pair of gloves to cover her fingernail polish. One young woman kept her scarf on her shoulders until she reached the door of the plane.
There seemed to b a huge variety of approaches to the hijab, or headscarf. The official reason for the head covering is to protect feminine modesty, and prevent arousing men to sexual temptation. I wonder, are our western sensibilities are too dulled to find hair all that titillating? Head covering is serious business in Iran. There is a squad of morals police who go around from time to time “cracking down” on carelessly worn hijabs (especially I understand in springtime). There were published reports of women being warned or fined. I must say, however, my survey of Iranian women reveals many women wearing their hijab way back on their head. They seem to wear it with all the skill of Catherine Deneuve. I was reminded how some of the girls at the all girl high school where I was once chaplain managed to make Campbell dress plaid uniforms look sexy. Compliance is compliance, and enforcement may be powered by other considerations behind the political scenes.
The women in our group were fairly scrupulous about keeping their heads fully covered. They reported it was hot, itchy and annoying—yet some managed to see it as a way to share in the culture. I heard some comments that they really enjoyed not being stared at or whistled at or otherwise harassed as they walked down the streets.
The men in the group had no analogous experiences. I felt completely free to dress and act as I normally would except for an absolute taboo against touching women—no handshaking, shoulder patting or affectionate hugs!
One evening in Isafan we visited some lovely bridges. I noticed two men on the steps overlooking the water. One man was sitting and his friend was standing in front of him, gently running his hands up and down his friend’s inner thighs. Maybe that is normal macho behavior in Iran, but I read it as gay and beautiful: and more than a little daring.
Homosexuality is a capital crime. The Ayatollah Bojnourdi casually mentioned it as proof of the infrequency of capital punishment: “only murderers and homosexuals” are put to death. Iran has one of the highest rates of sex change operations in the world. I thought it was sickening. If you have homosexual feelings a quick cut and stitch will sew your closet shut for life.
But then they can wear the hijab and claim the freedom of their sisters.