I have always been fascinated by the fact that how dress codes are such an important part of our life in Iran. We make so many different statements with them sometimes without even knowing it. We get arrested for them, get promoted because of them, get warnings, attract or repel people with them.
I remember back in high school when I had to write an essay for my Persian literature class on the subject of "shoes talk to us" and basically back then what I could come up with was, "well they can tell us certain psychological and social characteristics of the person who is wearing them, if the person is very rich or poor economically or if he or she prioritizes convenience or fashion and beauty. It can also say if s/he walks a lot ...", but at the same time I remember how even I was using dress codes as ways of measuring the ideological opinions.
In my experience, in Iranian society people get divided more or less according to their ideologies and although dress codes can still be representative of the social classes of people, this role has become secondary to their role as an ideological measure. The funny thing is that if you are wearing a sort of hijab that is not on either extreme sides, like a manteau* and maghnae people may make a lot of wrong assumptions about you.
I remember, for example, that the kind of Maghnaes that could cover the chin (and were used only by more religious people before that) became the number one in fashion rankings so if you were a very up-to-fashion girl, you would wear them while your hair was showing, but if you were more religious you would cover your forehead. That year they were so fashionable that I could not find any other type to buy. Despite that, in school, the principal started to give warnings to me that I either had to get rid of the chin cover or I had to cover my forehead as well! In fact, this was a regular and frustrating game they liked to play with me every year. They would find something wrong with my outfit from my shoes and socks to my manteau and maghnae and then would blame me and threaten me until I would find a way to change it. So, that year, I decided to put a headband underneath the top part of the Maghnae so that it would cover my forehead and would satisfy the principal. Then I realized some of the students had become suspicious and even afraid of me and later one of them asked me why all of a sudden I had become such an extremist?!
Another time, I woke up very late in the morning and ran to school, forgetting to change my pajama pants which I thought would not be important anyway, as my manteau was really long and my pants couldn't be easily seen . Then a friend noticed it while I was sitting in the classroom and told me: "Isn't it better to be a simple good girl and wear simple pants rather than caring so much about fashion and wearing such pants? What is it that you are trying to prove?"
I thought it was wise to be part of the quiet crowd who didn't play the game open-handed, those who didn't have to pay a higher price for being outsiders to either the people or the government. One of the irritating memories I have is the story of a friend whose parents were both killed during the hajj in 1987 when Saudi security forces killed about 400 Iranians during a rally because "it was illegal and they had chanted anti-American slogans", a secret (being a child of a martyr) that she actually tried to hide in the beginning but was revealed later by the school principal. As if this tragedy by itself was not enough to break a 10-year-old girl, she had to struggle for the next 7 years with many other social issues. Her older sister had to give up both medical school and getting married, in order to take care of her younger brothers and sisters, while our dear government and their representatives like our school authorities, instead of helping them with their problems and taking care of them, would push her to their own definition of a "child of a martyr" and also would violate other students' rights to do her a favor which would actually exclude her even more from most of the students, who with or without hijab were both scared of and mad at her. When we went to Tehran to university she left her Chador in Esfahan, I guess to bury all those memories, but unfortunately the curse wasn’t the Chador and it wasn’t over... .
Something that I noticed after moving from Esfahan to Tehran was that the dress classification was a more dominant feature of people’s life in Tehran and more effective in dividing people. I concluded that it is probably due to the fact that chador and in general hijab is still more of a tradition in Esfahan and also social bonds among people and traditional family structures in Esfahan are still stronger, while in Tehran hijab is more of a political statement and also that the social bonds between people are weaker. I also found out that as the city and its population had grown, each division had developed a lot of subgroups, which of course seemed like a natural phenomenon but for me it was really confusing as there wasn't any simple prescription to follow. For example there were girls who would wear a lot of makeup and their hair was done very well, sticking out of their scarves all the time and even had boyfriends but still actually believed in hijab and would wear a scarf in front of "stranger" men even in their own homes, something that I had never seen in Esfahan.
In Esfahan, I could divide people into three or four main groups according to their political, traditional and religious tendencies and each group had its own social rules. After living there for almost 18 years I could more or less recognize the classes and it was actually possible to get along with everyone. I had been to weddings where some Pasdars (revolutionary guards) and women with chadors were sitting in one corner and women wearing mini skirts and men drinking alcohol were dancing together in the other corner. I don't want to say that there was more freedom in Esfahan or people respected each other more. In fact, streets and traditions were much stricter but there was much more trust and respect among the people with whom you had some bonds. For example If your friend is getting married and you are a person who observes hijab, you would still go to her wedding even if it is a mixed party. It didn't seem to be such a problem but most of my friends in Tehran wouldn't even consider such an act. I also saw the same Esfahani pattern among my friends from Mashhad or Qazvin and other cities of Iran.
Over the years I could make a lot of good friends from either side of this spectrum of dress codes and I would have really regretted it if I had missed any single of them just because of the way they were dressing.
I had the opportunity to have friends from so many different backgrounds and with different views. I had a friend who would wear a rousari even in the restroom and also a friend who couldn’t keep dating the same guy for more than a month, both actually being good students at Sharif University and coming from a high school for talented students. To be honest, I did find such behaviors strange and even teased them because of it but I didn’t find any of them stupid and indeed my friends would find many of my own behaviors strange too.
I think dress can tell us something relevant about people but Iranian women have so many complex aspects that I have come to believe I'd better not count on this method very seriously, as a measuring device!
*Let me explain to those readers who are not familiar with Iranian temporary life what the existing elements for hijab are. Since according to the law in Iran, we should cover the whole body in public except hands and the face in a non-exotic way, Iranians have come up with these measures: