Now, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is stepping into the dispute. He wants to settle it by promoting government-approved apparel for women, garments intended to introduce an array of clothes that are “Islamic and beautiful” at the same time.
Hard-liners are not amused. They say that the new designs encourage “Western values.” But at a recent government-sponsored fashion show, young women and their mothers gazed approvingly at the plastic mannequins showcasing the new coats and scarves.
Shoukoufeh Arabpour, 23, coveted a velvet blue “manteau,” as women’s coats are called here, borrowing from the French word. The design was called “peacock” and clearly marked a world of difference from the black chador that Arabpour had wrapped around herself.
“I adore it,” said Arabpour, a student of fashion design. Around her, other women took photos of the 110 designs, which were entered in a competition for the best Islamic dress.
Followed by television cameras, a team of judges — mostly men — circled the halls, grading the coats on their functionality, design and “Islamic-ness.”
Arabpour wasn’t interested in the contest, explaining that if it were up to her, she would be wearing something like the peacock coat instead of the chador, which covers everything except her face.
“I wear that because my family wants me to,” Arabpour said. “Unfortunately, compared to other nations, we face restrictions in the choice of our clothes.”
Those restrictions are heartily supported by many hard-liners, who say that the “culture” of covering up protects women and prevents them from becoming sex objects. They often denounce Western advertising as abusing women’s bodies to sell products.
But with young adults making up the majority of the population — nearly 70 percent of Iran’s more than 72 million people are younger than 35 — religious conservatives have been waging an uphill battle to prevent young urban women from dressing the way they want, even within the framework of the laws that mandate coats and scarves.
Change and resistance
With demographics fueling rapid changes in Iranian society, many women nowadays — even conservative ones — watch Western video clips, post their thoughts on Facebook and travel to the beaches of Turkey and Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, on holidays.
On any given day, women in the streets of Tehran can be seen wearing combinations of wide-open coats, heavy makeup and towering platinum blond hairdos held in place by large hair clips and minimally covered by brightly colored scarves. Technically, they are not violating the dress code, but they can still be arrested.
The hard-liners’ answer to the changes has been an effort to enforce the dress code even more strictly. Besides an ongoing campaign by Iran’s morality police, who harangue and sometimes arrest women dressed in clothing deemed indecent, 70 fashion designers were rounded up in November, and more than 400 shops selling “improper” dresses were closed.