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Iran Under Cover: The Dressing Question

by ALANA SHARARA

27 Apr 2011 06:47Comments
2.1287952264.iranian-wedding-dresses-1.jpgWhat to wear?

[ passport ] A popular Arabic proverb goes, "If someone was to say that there is a wedding ceremony in the clouds, then the women would soon arrive with their ladders."

Everyone loves weddings, and those few women who say they don't have probably gained a few pounds and can't fit into their favorite dress set aside for such an occasion.

In preparation for my first wedding in Iran, I struggled over exactly what to wear. I debated between wearing a skimpy, fashionable dress or the more conservative one I usually wear around aunties and older female members of the family. I wanted to avoid the pit of gossip one of my cousins has fallen into after wearing a short skirt to a family gathering. The skirt kept getting shorter and shorter as it made the rounds of the family and friends' circle.

I have been to at least 42 weddings around the world, and this 43d one for which I was preparing -- between an Iranian groom and an Arab bride -- was to be held just outside the city of Shiraz, in a secluded villa with a huge garden.

The location had been selected "for privacy." I found the logic interesting, as it is the complete opposite of the kind applied in Arab countries: the bigger, the louder, and the more "showy" the wedding location, the better. Wondering about the need for privacy, I asked a mutual friend of the groom and bride. "It is going to be a mixed wedding," she explained.

Mixed weddings, meaning those in which men and women are not physically segregated, are technically not allowed in Iran but, as discreetly as possible, they take place anyway. Periodically, the police and other security forces carry out raids to make sure the rules are being followed and that no alcohol is being served. Offenders face fines or prison, depending on who is involved and which, if any, officials the hosts happen to know.

To avoid any risks, and to hide the weight I'd been putting on from consuming the ubiquitous mounds of saffron rice, I chose the more conservative dress. In public, women wear the head scarf and the chador, so I picked out a relatively glamorous abaya for the occasion -- black, of course, but adorned with wild purple and pink crystals.

Everywhere you go in Iran, regardless of your religion, you have to wear a scarf and clothes that cover the body parts considered awra (private) in Islam, such as the chest and legs. Shops, hotels, and restaurants across the country, particularly in Tehran, have signs requesting women to "kindly" observe the Islamic dress code. Often, when I was out walking, my scarf would slip so it was barely covering my hair, but no one ever said anything; occasionally, a man walking with his wife would gesture toward my head. That surprised me, as I thought it would be women who would be most concerned with making sure others were in the same boat.

After placing a bit of kohl around the eyes, which always has the magical effect of reducing the appearance of dark circles, we headed out to the "secluded" wedding site.

After over an hour of reckless driving, with far too many close calls, we reached the blackened outskirts of the city -- there were few street lights beyond Shiraz's center -- and found the villa where the event was being held. The main door was guarded by a young man in casual clothes who checked that we had been invited and then let us in. Spread out in front of us was a gorgeous garden, decked out with classical touches including white-and-beige ribbons and flowers carefully placed on round tables.

The women were dressed in the latest fashions, but wearing heavy makeup and parading puffy 1980s hairstyles. The men were mainly in suits, many sporting Elvis Presley-style quiffs, gold chains, and rings; some even sent a wink or two in our direction when their wives or partners were not watching.

In one of the corners, the sofreh-ye aghd (wedding spread), derived from the ancient Zoroastrian tradition, was placed next to the chairs of the bride and groom. There were the aayeneh-ye bakht (mirror of fate) and candles to brighten the future of the newlyweds, a tray of spices to protect them against the evil eye, crystallized sugar to sweeten their life, gold coins to bring wealth, and a Qur'an to bless the union. The bride and groom arrived in Western wedding clothes and sat down by the spread, where they observed all the usual customs.

But then the music -- traditional Persian, updated with the latest beats -- started to boom out, and they instantly hit the dance floor, joined by everyone else. It would be an understatement to observe that the Iranians loved to dance and didn't need alcohol to loosen up.

Young men were breakdancing in the center of the floor in their suits, sweat stains seeping through, while others waited on the side for the more traditional music to be played, for which they formed circles and kicked in rhythm. I was kicking away with the best when, all of a sudden, a pair of hands pushed me off the dance floor. Women all around were quickly putting on their scarves and taking their seats.

Within a wink of an eye, the men were in one corner and the women in the other and the host had pulled a curtain across the middle of the garden, separating the sexes. "The police are here, dressed in civilian clothes," explained one of the guests. The bride seemed nervous as she used a white tablecloth to cover her head. After 20 minutes, the curtain was pulled back and everything returned to normal. Not once, though, did the music stop or even lower in volume.

Apparently, this happens all the time. The families hosting the wedding were especially irritated since they had "already paid off the police," but another batch had come and so they had to bribe those too.

People returned to dancing as if nothing had happened. But then the police dropped in again. This time, I reacted faster and was ready for inspection as quickly as the rest.

But the inspector didn't linger in the women's part. He stayed mainly on the men's side, apparently going around checking to see if anyone had been drinking. After a few minutes, the second group of police went away with no trouble.

A lavish dinner was served at one a.m., and the wedding ended with cheers and smiles at five in the morning. I found it remarkable how Iranians found ways around restrictions and enjoyed their time regardless. The only one who really stood out was me. Several guests approached me and suggested that I wear something more fashionable to my next Iranian wedding.

"My mother doesn't even wear dresses like that!" laughed one of the bride's sisters as she appraised my "conservative" garments.

On the other hand, of all the women there, I was perhaps the only one who didn't have to put on anything beside a scarf when the police came calling. I also didn't have to worry about the exposure of any of my "private" parts as I danced the night away under the stars of Shiraz.

That was not the only time the interlocking concerns of fashion and law enforcement arose during my trip to the Islamic Republic. While it might have been no more than my paranoia, it seemed that I was being followed by security agents. Wherever I went, I would see these two men who would "coincidentally" stop and eat at the same restaurants as my group and browse at nearby souvenir shops. They didn't have any particularly distinct features and almost succeeded in blending into the crowd. I might never have noticed them except for one blaring detail -- their jackets.

It was quite hot, and most of the men were walking around in light shirts, except for these two, who never took off their thick gray-green jackets, which we dubbed the "Ahmadinejad" style. Perhaps they were mandatory elements of their uniform. At any rate, no matter how much they sweated, they kept them on. Guess I wasn't the only one overdressed in Iran.

The author writes under a pen name. Photo via TravelPod.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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