Excerpt - From Miniskirt to Hijab - Winner of the Book of the Year Award for Traditional Non-Fiction

By Jacqueline Saper

"Sister, Guard Your Hijab"

      My taxi driver skillfully maneuvered through the maze of honking cars, overloaded minivans, and cyclists. Driving in Tehran was not for the faint of heart. I looked out of the window onto the busy streets of my cosmopolitan hometown. "Sister, guard your hijab" had become a commonplace slogan in the media and wall graffiti. The theory was that the men who were na-mahram (not a close relative) would be looking at them, and hijab will protect the female wearer from their lustful gaze. In this way, hijab will result in a moral society. The implication was that every woman is responsible for her own safety; another was that hijab is an act of defiance against Western values.

     On the radio, a reporter would interview women in the street and ask why they were wearing hijab. The answer was always that by wearing hijab, they are "slapping their fist in the mouth of America." This is the same expression that Khomeini used in his speech at the martyr's cemetery when he arrived in Tehran.

     I stepped out of the taxi and walked along the south side of the street. A young girl in a headscarf offered me a leaflet. She looked nervously side to side while holding tight onto her bag, which apparently held the rest of the flyers. I knew whatever she was handing out was not sanctioned by the administration, and this meant danger and trouble. I recalled Dad's oft-repeated credo that I should not get involved with or challenge authority in this part of the world. The girl shoved the leaflet into my chest as if pleading for me to be quick. I was not interested in anyone's propaganda. My only interest was in staying out of trouble. I knew that if I continued to be a law-abiding citizen, whatever the law, I would be safe. I shook my head no and sped up to pass by her.

     I browsed the bookstores but found nothing of interest. I continued to Farah Park and entered its gates. The park had been renamed "Laleh Park" after the tulip, a symbol of martyrdom. When I was a child, tulips were my favorite spring flower in Dad's garden and Farah Park, a favorite destination with friends and later, during my courtship with my husband Ebi. 

     I wanted to recapture a bit of my past there, to stroll on the tree-lined paths and reflect on my life as a new mother whose husband was serving the country as a medic near the frontlines. Deep in thought, I noticed someone trying to speak with me. I stopped and saw a young woman veiled in a black chador and a man at her side. He stayed in the background, as she approached.

     "Excuse me, Sister. May I please ask you to open the zipper of your tote bag and show me the contents?"

     I had many confused thoughts in the next few seconds. What an odd request. Who did this woman think she was to demand to see the contents of my bag? I recalled my friend, Sima's remarks the last time we met before her hasty departure: "Jacqueline, always have a scarf in your bag. You never know when you may encounter a revolutionary emergency."

     All working women had to wear the Islamic dress code in the workplace, but because of women's initial resistance, the regime had not tried to enforce the complete code of hijab on all women. Some women in the streets dressed as they had in the pre-revolution era—in slacks, shirts, and jackets, albeit more modestly. Women, in general, still had the option to cover or not cover their hair. I chose the latter and wore my hair in a ponytail, but had felt extremely self-conscious when in public. I had heard rumors about the dangers of not covering your hair.

     I had also heard that the authorities created morality police units to roam the city streets and neighborhoods and enforce women of all religious groups to follow the Islamic dress rules in public. This meant that all women and girls had to cover their heads with a scarf and their bodies with loose clothing, except for the roundness of their faces and their hands up to the wrist. Anyone who opposed the morality police would be reprimanded, detained, or taken away. Who knew where the resisters were taken and how they were treated? Were they fined? Jailed?

     The couple who stopped me seemed different. I was impressed by the woman's politeness. I had nothing to hide, relieved that I had refused the leaflet the nervous girl tried to hand me earlier. I confidently held my head up and said, "Of course, you can see inside my bag." I opened the zipper of my tote and handed it to her.

     She rummaged through its contents, including my house keys, my wallet, and my shopping list. Suddenly, her hand emerged from the depths of my bag, holding a light cream, chiffon headscarf. "You bloody whore! You carry a veil in your sack, but don't wear it?"

     How dare she talk to me in such manner. I got defensive and said, "At least I have one with me!"

     "You gharbzadeh [someone who is enamored with the West]. You deserve to be treated as a sex object for men, as the women in the West are. How dare you carry a headscarf and not wear it. It is women like you who cause social corruption on the streets of our city."

     I froze in disbelief, unprepared for the insults. I realized I had made a mistake by confronting authority. Not everyone in the park was wearing a headscarf, so why was she picking on me? I pressed my lips together, ready to give her a mouthful of what I thought about her. I noticed the man behind her move his fingers over something tucked under his jacket. Think, Jacqueline, think! What would Dad do? He always knew how to keep the peace. I needed to apply his diplomacy to tame this wild beast who had power over me.

     "Sister, what you are telling me is correct. I do apologize. A decent woman refrains from showcasing the curves of her body to strange men. My clothing is modest, but as you can see for yourself, the headscarf is a chiffon fabric. I have learned my lesson that this material is not suitable for covering my hair. It is slippery and keeps rolling back. I will need to sew myself a maghnaeh [a head to shoulder upper body covering] in thick cotton so that it will stay put and sufficiently cover all the strands of my hair. I do apologize."

     Her facial expressions softened. My appeasement had worked. She turned around and glanced at the revolutionary soldier, and then back at me. "OK. So, use a cotton scarf."

     "Yes, I will. I know how to sew, and I will sew my maghnaeh today."

     Without saying another word, they walked towards the patrol van parked on the side of the street. Another man was sitting in the driver seat, waiting for his comrades. As I watched them drive away, I knew that my timely response had earned my freedom.

     Soon after, I began to wear a maghnaeh. After a few trial and errors, I could keep it in place without it slipping backward. By now, the shops displayed the manteau in their front windows. The manteau was a long, drab colored, Islamic version of a trench coat, and was the new modesty fashion for women. I also began to wear a manteau to cover the curves of my body. As my hijab (my body covering), I preferred the maghnaeh with manteau instead of the all-encompassing chador. I could no longer go out in public as I had in the past.