A Media Artist's Response To Failing Diplomacy

When BriAnna Olson's pacifist views were confronted by an adamant American couple, she decided to heed their challenge and head to Tehran-- the epicenter of the Axis of Evil nation.

Amongst a landscape of failed diplomacy and media smear campaigns, she and fellow artist Michael Pope found a society far more alive and hospitable than they'd ever been led to believe.

Like jesters of a modern-day Magellan, they've returned with stories and insights to a culture few American's have seen first hand.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Hijab, scarves, modesty, oppression

"Hijab" is the name for modest dress-- I've been using the term to mean 'headscarf' but thats incorrect. Because a few verses of the Quran calls for it, and Iran is an Islamic Republic, a woman must cover her head and hide her figure in Iran. Only her hands, feet, and face can be seen. (Score one for foot fetishists). Standard is the manteau (jacket) very similar to any H&M, Anne Taylor, or whathaveyou spring jacket. It is usual to see muted colors-- tan, black, navy. There is also the chador-- (literally: tent) a giant piece of fabric, usually black, which is sort of like a cape. Women will wear either a manteau, a chador, or both.

Variation is found in head coverings-- but never once did I see a woman with her face covered.

There is a clear narrative in the covering of my head over the course of the trip. I had already purchased my robe and headpiece in the Islamic part of Brooklyn. The (muslim) guy who worked there clearly knew nothing about Iran- he told Michael that he needed to buy a long robe (long robes are a Sunni Muslim thing, Iran is a Shiite country).

When I first got there, the whole thing was a novelty, but over the course of the first day I began to feel terribly unhappy. It was only a few women that made me the most uncomfortable-- the ones in all black, looking me up and down, not even cracking a smile. I had posed as a Muslim but not acted like one. My body language was slightly open, my camera was in my hands, I was casually strolling through the bazaar. This was my first experience of how a society polices itself- if I were Iranian and had to deal with this daily, my spirit would be bruised a bit and I would likely start avoiding eye contact and keep my gaze down... eventually I'd be so bitter that I'd start scowling at anyone I thought was enjoying life more than me. And the cycle continues...

Fortunately, I understand that the key to letting the world know that I'm not Iranian (therefore shouldn't be judged by the same rules) is a different outfit. I start with a shiny scarf. Continue with a lush, pearl one. And finish with a new manteau and pashmina. My outlook shifted with every change in attire.

My penultimate experience with hijab was at a "cultural center" where chadors are required. This 'chador' was little more than a bed sheet that I was to hold closed with one arm. I was quite tired from running around all day, but this was our chance to have tea with a Mullah so I stuck with it. As we were leaving we posed for group photos-- after the first two photos, the Mullah's assistant asked me (very politely) to close my chador as my manteau was showing. I almost started laughing/crying at the display of clownishness. My respect for the whole thing was lost in that instant.


  1. Sorry you had a bad experience! I wish someone would have let you in on comfortable ways to have worn the manteau when you were prompted to :/ My MIL gave me a chador for instance which she tied beneath my chin for me so my arms would be free, and of course there are other means to do this, although I figure many Iranians are simply used to holding the whole piece.
    As for the women looking you up and down, tsk tsk! Unfortunately some women, dressed up a "religious" as possible somehow think this automatically makes them religious. They're sadly forgetting how unIslamic it is to be judgemental. I mean, there you are, already going out of your way to wear hijab, and they're casting scornful looks at you! This is wrong. They realize your action is "open" and therefore not exactly in line with hijab perhaps in their opinion, yet their actions of dislike get no hijab? Hmm.
    Well anyway, I hope you find many more things you enjoy than dislike!! I love your blog :)

  2. Batool s. HashimJuly 31, 2009 at 6:12 PM

    Ummm...I'm an arbian.. I live in Arbian gulf...
    let me tell U something..!

    we have lots of Iranian people in bahrain, and they make our life moe harder..
    U know.. rules are to cover all your head and hair with the scarf.. we call it "hejab"
    but infact the Iranian woman there the put it just beacuse it's make them.. (let say) more style..so lots of the girls in my country (Bahrain) started to act like them..and it's so wrong...!

    So if any wonam there make U feel the u felt..
    just tell them to cover there hair not just but the scarf on half of it...and they will leave U alone...

    soory i'm just 16 so my English is not so good,,!

    and i hope U don't have a bad imression about Islam or the Iranian themselves.. cause not all of them are like this..they are a good people.. but the bad are just more,,,!!!!