As a female, I was intimidated to travel to Iran. My perceptions of the country had been shaped by Iran’s political standoff with the West and the bellicose pronouncements of its hardline president. I came cautiously prepared for an austere Islamic society where secret police roamed the streets, aggressively enforcing the mandatory veiling of women. My head and neck would need to be covered in public, and I would need to be dressed in loose-fitted clothing, with a manteau that reached at least to my knees. This didn’t seem that much different from the traditional clothing I grew up with in the Malay community of Singapore--yet the bleak images I saw of Iranian women seemed much more foreboding than the Malay penchant for flowery hijabs.
With this in mind, I cautiously wrapped my black headscarf tightly around my head while my plane landed at Mehrabad Airport. When Ziba greeted me at the airport, she wasted no time in pulling me right up to Persian standards of dress. “What’s with the headscarf?” she scorned, “You look too Arab.” Her tone of voice left me to accept that looking Arab--or, indeed, looking anything other than Iranian--is not a good thing in this fiercely proud nation. She quickly proceeded to unwrap my headscarf and taught me how to wear it like most women do in northern Tehran--loosely hanging from the crown of the head, with the excess tossed over the shoulders, or bundled beneath the chin.
It wasn’t just the loose hijab that was different than I expected. Walking through the streets and bazaars of the capital, I saw some women fully covered in black, while others--“muhajababes”--pushed the interpretation of Islamic dress to the maximum. These particular women tend to be young and are terrifically easy to spot in public: They’re the ones who stuff their big hair under headscarves, cake on excessive eye makeup under oversized sunglasses, and tuck skinny jeans into knee-high leather boots. They call it “Audrey Hepburn chic” in Tehran.
I also observed, rather surprisingly, a large number of women and men with nose bandages walking the streets. In fact, before I had arrived, Ziba and two of her male cousins had put their noses under the knife. Cosmetic surgery is commonplace in Iran, where the number of nose jobs performed each year is about the highest in the world. As Azadeh Moaveni notes in Lipstick Jihad, “To live in Tehran and not surgically enhance something would be like going to a designer sample sale and walking out empty handed.” Interestingly, the nose bandage is a status symbol in Tehran and some even wear a nose bandage purely for social credit, when really no operation had been performed.
Why the Iranian obsession with appearance? In the case of nose jobs, there’s a fairly straightforward answer: Since the Revolution, in 1979, the face has been the only part of the female body others could see, so fixating on it makes sense. But an emphasis on beauty also has deep historical roots in Iran. As one local told me, “Traditionally, Iranians believed that by taming and beautifying ‘rough,’ ‘savage,’ and ‘uncontrolled’ nature, it would lead to a higher level of godliness and spirituality. The word 'paradise' comes from the ancient Farsi for 'garden' and is a symbol of this consciousness.” Indeed, a popular Persian carpet motif is a microcosm of this: It is a bird’s eye view of a garden--walls around the edges, a fountain in the middle--a symbol of perfection brought into the house. Another Arab friend of mine had a cruder, but related thought about why Iranians obsess over appearance. “They have a superiority complex,” he said--in other words, beauty is a way to show that they’re a superior, more civilized people.
Later in the week, Ziba, her grandmother, her aunt, and I drove to a back alley in Central Tehran and walked into an apartment that had been converted into a makeshift beauty salon. The parlor was full of Iranian women primping for the Iranian New Year, Novruz. Unlike beauty salons back home, this one had an equal mix of younger and older women, who were pushing 70, 80 even. In Iran, it seems there is no age limit for primping.
The beautician threading my eyebrows seemed truly comfortable, as did most of the women there. In contrast to feminine fashion on the street, she had a spaghetti-strapped tank top on, revealing her midriff every time she leaned over for more thread. While I was being worked on, a coiffured lady in her 60s started commenting on the cultural differences between London and Tehran. “In London, one can get away with anything, but not in Tehran,” she explained. “Here, appearances are incredibly important, as every detail of one's self is scrutinized by others.”
Ziba agreed with her. “Ever since I was young,” she said, “my father was always very conscious of how I looked when I left the house--my hair had to be perfect, my clothes ironed, my shoes shining. This is typical; it is a reflection of social status, of class and standing.” In a society where so much is left unsaid, she continued, physical appearances must speak for who you are, what you do, where you studied, how much you earn, and what social tolerance you have. You can immediately tell someone’s politics by their clothes, their make-up, their shoes.
After my beautician had finished threading, she started to vigorously (and painfully) brush my eyebrows with a hard-bristled toothbrush. "You must do this every morning and every night so that you will have obedient eyebrows," she advised.
“How exhausting,” I thought. “And this was just my eyebrows; what about the rest of me?” Walking out of the salon, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wondered if my nose was too big. By the time I returned home, I realized that I was more relieved to be free of the need to be perfectly groomed than I was of being free of the dress laws.
Diyana Ishak is the Program Administrator for the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She has previously contributed to Foreign Policy and the BBC Persian Service.
By Diyana Ishak