The great Iranian cover-up

On a spring night five years ago, millions of Iranians tuned in to national television and watched as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a little-known presidential candidate — spoke about a touchy issue: the way young people dress.

“Is really the only problem that our country faces today, the way our young dress?” he asked. “They like to wear their hair they way they do. It’s no business of me and you. We have many more important issues to deal with. Why do we belittle our people?”

They were words many Iranians had been waiting to hear from an Iranian official for years. But they remain simply that: words. In Iran, women are required by law to cover their body and hair in public, though that has rarely stopped many women, especially younger ones, from defying the conservative officials by wearing loose headscarves, tight clothes and make-up.

Since Ahmadinejad’s bold speech, the government has unveiled even stricter rules on the way women dress and occasionally unleashed the so-called morality police to enforce them.

However, as last summer’s post-election civil unrest proved, the power of the authorities to dictate the way people dress can depend heavily on events. During the mass street protests that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, officials admitted that spending resources on “morality” wasn’t a priority.

“If in the previous months we’ve been more easy going on the issue of hijab, it’s because we wanted to crush the troublemakers. But now, the issue of ‘bad hijab’ has gone far enough,” Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, the leader of the clergy faction in the Iranian parliament, told Khabaronline, a Tehran-based news website, recently.

Other officials are also again talking about new, harsher measures to combat “bad hijab.” In May, Mohammad Najjar, the interior minister, warned of a nationwide crackdown on immodest clothing. And in a speech that grabbed worldwide headlines in April, the acting Friday prayer leader, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, foresaw an apocalyptic future for the country because of promiscuous women and unsuitable appearances.

“Women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes,” he said. “What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam’s moral codes.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has also weighed in, ordering morality police to take immediate action on the issue of hijab, which he has deemed to be in an unsatisfactory state.

So familiar with the restrictions of hijab in Iran is 25-year-old Saghar Daeeri, an artist living in Tehran, that she has made the hijab of Tehrani women the topic of her art.

“My paintings are a reflection of what I see in Tehran every day,” she said in an interview. “Everyday, I walk around in town, go to coffee shops and shopping malls and observe the people around me. What I see is women struggling to thrust themselves into modernity in a city that is still deeply attached to its traditional and religious roots.”

Indeed, the young women of Daeeri’s paintings are so engaged in becoming “modern,” that they become exaggerated, almost grotesque caricatures.

They have blonde hair, fake nails, thin eyebrows, Band-Aids from plastic surgery, and are weighed down by bold accessories. They try on skimpy dresses that can only be worn at private parties. They talk on mobile phones and eat ice cream and Mexican corn — a combination of corn, butter, spices and lime juice that is a favorite in Tehran shopping malls.

“My paintings show the reality of Tehran’s society,” Daeeri said. “There is a mind set in Tehran of what beauty is and women follow it religiously regardless of their class.”

Iran is the 7th largest consumer of cosmetics worldwide, according to a market research report published by a Tehran-based company called Tose’e Mohandesi Bazargostran Ati. Women spend $2.1 billion annually on beauty products, accounting for 29 percent of the total usage in the Middle East, the company says. What’s more, Iran is internationally known as a nose-job capital.

“This obsession of physical appeal exists in Iran because of so many pre-set boundaries,” Daeeri said. “Women in Iran are constantly grappling with what is right and what’s wrong. What the past generation considered ‘red-lines’ has become a launch pad for the next. That’s normal. But because of some restrictions, this has caused a clash which is evident in my paintings,” she said.

Reactions to Daeeri’s paintings in Iran were mixed, she said. Some viewers praised them as “modern” and “chic,” while others reacted badly to “a comic reflection of themselves.”

Daeeri said more restriction would add to the intensity of problems in a society already full of paradox.

“In a country where 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old and with the widespread usage of internet, satellite TV and world media, the youth are constantly getting a different idea of what is modern, and inevitably they are compelled to imitate that.”