Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Guide to Hijab in the Islamic Republic

Most of my students are from Middle Eastern/North African countries, so I've seen a range of different kinds of hijab differing from country to country. But even within the same country, female students have varying forms of hijab, from those who wear a niqab (leaving only their eyes exposed), to those who cover just their hair, to those who keep their bodies covered but not their hair. I'm a naturally curious person, so once I got to know them better and formed a bond, I had to know- what's the difference? Is it regional? Is it choice? Does it have to do with marital status? Economic status? Religiousness? Later, I realized I also get these questions regarding hijab in Iran. Most of my co-workers think I wear at worst a burqa and at best a niqab when I go to Iran. 

So I'm here to set the record straight. 

When it comes to the issue of hijab, Iran has gone from extreme to moderate to extreme again. During the time of Reza Shah, women's hijab was viewed as incompatible with modernity; therefore, if women were seen with it, it was forcibly removed from their heads. My grandmother used to tell me that she was so ashamed to be seen in public bee-hijab, without hijab, that she would go to the hamaam, public bathhouse, pre-dawn so that no one would see her. With Mohammed Reza Shah, women had a choice. Whether or not you wore hijab was more of a question of age, where you lived, and how religious you were. If you were older, lived in a more conservative or religious city like Qom or Mashhad, or were religious, you wore a chador. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, hijab became mandatory for all women. Whether it's Iranian leaders dictating how women should dress or U.S. congressmen deciding the laws about women's birth control or abortion, I'm always amazed that men find themselves the authority on issues regarding the female body.

...but I digress. Hijab in Iran has come a long way since the revolution. One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the metamorphosis that women go through as the plane starts making its descent into Tehran's Imam Khomeini Airport. Men have it easy- just don't wear shorts. 

I remember traveling to Iran in the 80s when women were draped in baggy black clothing. Your hair had to be completely tucked away, and the only body parts that could be exposed were your face and hands. Contrary to what many believe, Iranian women do not cover their faces. These days, some of them barely cover their hair. I've seen versions of Islamic hijab that leave me wondering- how do they get away with it? 

**Just to be clear- you only have to wear hijab in public. I get this question all the time. What you wear at home (or what you wear under your hijab, for that matter) is your business.**

Just your average Iranian beauties!


Perhaps the most common type of hijab is the roopoosh-roosari. Roopoosh (also called manteau) is a long jacket-type cover worn over the clothes. They used to be long, formless, and almost down to the ankles. Now they are above the knee or sometimes even a long-sleeve shirt that just covers the rear. Roosari is the scarf that women wear to cover their hair. The roosari is a square cloth that is folded diagonally into a triangle and tied under the chin. More common these days, however, is the shawl just effortlessly thrown on your head. You can wear any color or pattern, though black is the most practical. Cities like Tehran are so polluted that it just makes sense.

Manteau and shawl



Another kind of head covering to wear with the roopoosh is the maghne'e. This is more like a uniform, and it's most common for girls and women to wear it to school or work. If you see a woman wearing it, chances are she's coming or going to one of those places. It's basically a piece of fabric with a whole in the middle for the face. Put your face in it and the rest goes over your head. I was intrigued when I met a Norwegian tourist once in Esfahan who was wearing a maghne'e. She said she preferred it because it didn't keep sliding off her head like the roosari, and she didn't have to keep adjusting it. She had a point. 


University students in the maghne'e (the hat some of them have is a special part of their uniform)

Many images that come out of Iran of women, however, show them covered in the chador, literally tent. This is the most traditional covering and is essentially one large piece of fabric that's kind of in a half moon shape. Women who wear the chador are thought to be more conservative and religious, though this isn't always the case. Some women may simply wear it for work but otherwise wear a roopoosh-roosariIn more conservative or smaller towns, you may see the chador more often. Some of my relatives tend to wear it in their small hometowns, but when they travel to a big city like Tehran, they switch to wear a manteau-roosari. When in Tehran, do as the Tehranis. 

A school teacher in a chador (this is her back!)

If you plan to enter a mosque and/or pray, it's required to wear a chador. If you are a visitor in a mosque and don't have one, many will lend you one. Usually, however, women take a chador with themselves in their purse and put it on over their roosari before entering the mosque. 

When I was young and still wasn't required to wear hijab, I wanted to. My 8-year-old self would don the lovely floral chador my aunt sewed for me and walk down the street to my cousin's house. Kids always want to be older than they are. Now, I personally find chadors extremely difficult to use and quite frankly, a bit of a hazard. There is just too much fabric, and I end up tripping over myself. And I can never find the middle part, so one side always ends up being longer than the other (once again, making me trip). Additionally, no matter how hard I try to hold it closed at my neck, it still slides off so quickly. I'm always fascinated by the women who walk so effortlessly with it. Not only that- when they need their hands, they hold the front closed with their teeth while they search for something in their purse. I will never understand how they do it, but I guess practice makes perfect. 

Keeping the chador closed with her teeth

If you are a foreigner traveling to Iran, you will also have to cover your hair. While there are no exceptions regarding this law, the rules for foreigners are much more relaxed. It's simply asked that foreigners respect the law by covering their hair, but they are not given a hard time. Just be sure to take a scarf with you on the plane. You don't want to walk out with the airline blanket on your head because you forgot it or perhaps packed it in the wrong bag (yes, I've seen that happen before). Once you get to Iran, though, you will find a slew of beautiful, good-quality scarves. What better place to stock up? I know I always do.

(For more information check out his article by Azadeh Moaveni in Iran Wire).



  1. While looking for information about hijab in Iran on the internet, I am so happy I ended up here! There is no doubt in my mind that I will spend much more time in your Persian Corner. As a European with an extreme fascination and love for Persian culture, I have so much to learn here. Khaste nabashid!
    Kind regards,

  2. Wow, so glad to hear that Annick! Thank you so much for your lovely feedback and for reading. I'm so happy that you find my blog helpful. Always happy to answer questions or take suggestions for posts should you have any! Damet garm for reading! :)

  3. I love your blog...you are inspiration for me to show the world the beauty of Islam...thanks bae!!!

  4. Thank you for your great website. I am currently writing my bachelor thesis on the differences between Iranian and American culture and your website has helped a lot with my research.

    1. So glad to hear it! Best of luck to you on your thesis!


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