From Irish Political Review: October 2007

A Visit To Iran: Part 3

In a recent article Desmond Fennell described the women on his plane donning the hijab as it began its descent into Teheran airport. In practice this means putting on any old scarf at all. That fulfils the requirements for women in Iran. In the three weeks that I was there I only once came upon a woman wearing a veil and she was a pilgrim from one of the Gulf States. Below is the 'line' on dress.

" Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty ; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof. " (Quran : 24.31)

" Say to the believing man that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty ; that will make for greater purity for them, and God is well acquainted with all they do." (Quran : 24.30)

"Clothing must cover the entire body, only the hands and face may remain visible (According to some Fiqh Schools). The material must not be so thin that one can see through it. The clothing must hang loose so that the shape / form of the body is not apparent. The female clothing must not resemble the man's clothing. The design of the clothing must not resemble the clothing of the non-believing women. The design must not consist of bold designs which attract attention. Clothing should not be worn for the sole purpose of gaining reputation or increasing one's status in society" (from the Muslim Boutique).

It is seldom adhered to and the main thing seems to be a gesture endorsing the basic moral character of the Islamic State. The normal dress for Iranian women is a headscarf which may or may not cover all the hair. A tunic or kind of mini-dress over trousers or jeans. Socks seem to be optional. These clothes are certainly not loose and bust and bottom are, if anything, emphasised. Clothes come in all varieties of colours. But black is usually worn in offices dealing with the public, sometimes with a long outer cloak—in much the way that men in such places are expected to wear suits.

Long coverall black clothes were mainly worn by pilgrim women and in places where such garments are traditional. I can remember when they were traditional in West Cork. 'Islamic' garments are most often the traditional garb of the area. Damascus is a major centre for Islamic schools and for the teaching of Arabic. When I was there last year I came across many Western men, and some, women, dressed up in all the gear. They looked completely stupid and out of place. It was not their traditional form of dress and it didn't suit them.

(One thing that did strike me after the plane landed in Tehran was the overpowering smell of booze on the airport bus and the number of visitors who just about staggered up to the passport control. This amused the police more than anything else. The ban on alcohol is pretty well total—though wine is available to Christian priests for religious ceremonies.)

Iranian women tend to be big boned with very full lips and large eyes. They are distinctly beautiful and are not at all averse to the attentions of men, provided they are not simply leered at. They will also begin conversations with totally strange men. This is in contrast to the only Western woman I met in Iran. It was in Tehran airport and I offered to let her ahead of me as we arrived at a snack bar at the same time. I got a mouthful of feminist abuse for my troubles. Living in Spain for the last eight years, I was quite unprepared for this.

Now the get-up of the men was altogether another matter. In Teheran or Abadan or other places I'd noticed that many young men were done up to the nines and gave particular attention to their hair. But it was in Mashhad that things really struck me.

Mashhad is the religious centre of Iran. It is also the centre of the perfume industry. There is mile after mile of perfume shops. Most of them are full of young men trying various scents and then sniffing at each other. It all seemed very peculiar. But the thing that really knocked me sideways was the hairstyles. Masses of hair done up in shapes that would do credit to 1960s models. Think of the character Wayne in "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" and you're only beginning to get the picture.

My first thought was that this lot were not exactly kitted out to repel the American hordes should they invade the country. But a friend of mine who has spent some time in Iran tells me that homosexual relationships among young men are quite usual before marriage. Maybe this is what President Ahmadinejad meant when he said that there were no homosexuals in Iran in the way that there were in America. Even if he was wrong about that.

The religious ethos is probably so all-pervasive in Iran that you hardly notice it. It is not, as they say, in your face. I came across the Islamic Study Centre by accident when looking for something else. They took me to a photographic exhibition about women. The idea seemed to be to concentrate on the character in the faces. Their explanation of the dress code, something about looking different outside to how women looked in the home, didn't make a lot of sense to me, and seemed to be a bit off the top of their heads for an unbeliever.

I asked them why I never heard calls to prayer from the Mosques, even on Fridays. Did they not do that? In Sunni Jerusalem or Damascus they'd almost deafen you. The head man, a Professor of English at the University, said there were calls to prayer in Shia Islam also. But these had to be at such a low volume that they didn't annoy the local community. Otherwise they would have the local authorities down on their heads!

There was one moment, however, when the thing did get on my nerves, and that had to do with my own background. Pilgrims visit Mashhad to see the tomb of the Imam Raza. He is believed to be the man in charge on the day of judgement and it's as well to keep in with him. Muslims also believe that he will be accompanied by Jesus, who can presumably grass up the likes of me!

I decided to visit the shrine. The crowds weren't great and were very orderly—mostly families. But lay officials insisted on ordering everyone about by shouting and waving feather dusters (for some reason) at us. They reminded me of some men from my childhood who tried to make themselves indispensable in one or two of the churches in Cork. "Bigging themselves up" as they say these days. I didn't like those pretend holy men. And I didn't like this lot now. I decided to leave before I took it into my head to shove one of those feather dusters where the sun don't shine.

I'd wondered what Friday would be like in a Shia society. Well it also reminded me of my childhood—but in the best of ways. People troupe off to the Mosque at various times. Otherwise they have a lie-in. Slowly, around 11am, the shops start to open. Families and courting couples take to the parks, go for walks in the countryside and play games. Friday, like Sunday in Ireland, is the big day for sport. Football and other games dominate the TV. Offices and factories are closed. But some building work goes on, as well as repairs to public services. Transport runs with reduced services, except for those travelling long distances or to places of entertainment.

The "rules" for segregating men and women on public transport are little short of the bizarre. On buses there are separate entrances, with the women's door normally in the middle so that they sit at the rear. In taxis there is a lot of changing seats to sort out who sits where. On the Teheran Metro there is a women-only carriage on all trains. But women can also sit in any of the other carriages, where men and women sit where they like. Then on long-distance sleeper trains there is no segregation at all!

There is also no segregation on planes. There is a flat rate of about $22 on all internal flights, though some travel agencies will add a sometimes hefty charge. But only tourists fall for that one. And then only once.

The flight always includes a very good meal, free newspapers and constant top-ups of cold water. There are special trucks for the disabled with lifts that reach up to a separate entrance on the plane. Not the precarious way that disabled people are hauled up the steps in the rest of the world.

It was on one such flight that I experienced one particular attitude to religion. The group of passengers around me were clearly scared of flying. A lot of praying and feeling beads was going on. Gestures were made in my direction to get involved. Finally some of my fellow passengers started making the sign of the cross at me. I made the sign of the cross in reply and everyone relaxed. I was now playing my part in assuring that the plane would not land prematurely.

To be concluded

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