|Photo by Khashayar Alyassi|
Instead, I was in a rather public place: the Shah Abdol Azim Shrine just south of Tehran. As one of Iran’s holiest pilgrimage sites, no woman gets past its iron gates without a chador. My sister-in-law and I arrived chador-less, which turned out to be no problem at all, since you can rent one for just a few cents at the door.
This garment, for those who don’t know, is a voluminous semicircle of fabric that conservative Iranian women drape about their heads and bodies in public or mixed company. It has no buttons, zippers, or even sleeves. While the predominant color is black, chadors come in a variety of patterns, from black-on-black brocading to floral designs, and colors, from navy blue to maroon.
The first challenge came when we stopped at the gate to the shrine’s wide courtyard to put on our rented chadors. Which end goes up? The flat side goes on your head, of course, and the curved hem toward the ground. That should be a no-brainer. Still, I somehow got it wrong and stood there wondering why so much fabric was flopping into my face, while the hem of the chador barely reached my knees.
Fortunately, Iranians have a strong sense of hospitality and are quick to help out—especially when they see a khanoum kharijee (foreign lady) in distress, whose sister-in-law is helplessly dissolving into a fit of giggles. Five women, all wearing chadors with skill and grace, rushed to my rescue and quickly set me straight. Then they gave me a crash course in the proper way to wear a chador.
Step 1: Find the center of the cloth and drape it loosely over your head. “Loosely” being the operative word here, as I quickly discovered once I’d gotten the chador properly in place. It didn’t take long for the garment to shift and settle, tightening until my head felt like it was caught in a vice. Now I understood why Iranian women are forever readjusting their chadors, unwrapping and rewrapping them, loosening the fabric draped over their heads. But when I tried doing that, I only ended up getting hopelessly tangled in the chador’s folds.
Step 2: Wrap one side of the chador under your left arm, pull it across your body and clamp it firmly to your side with your right elbow. Hold the other side of the chador across your chest and clutch it closed at your throat. Huh? Confusing, I know. But with a little practice, it can be accomplished.
Having mastered the basics, I managed to walk across the shrine’s courtyard without tripping and falling flat on my face, only to be confronted by a new problem once we reached the entrance to the inner sanctum. What was I to do with my shoes? I had to take them off, of course. No civilized person would consider trampling their dirty footwear over a shrine’s smooth marble floors and lovely Persian carpets. But how was to I pick up my shoes and carry them when I had only two hands and both were fully occupied keeping my chador from falling off?
Step 3: Cheat. Forget steps 1 and 2. Grasp the chador firmly in both hands and drape it over your head. Hold it closed under your chin with one hand. You’ll look silly and feel like a fool. The chador will fly open and flap against your legs as you walk, and it will threaten to trip you up unless you take small, ladylike steps. But who cares about that? You’re wearing a scarf and manteau (thigh-length tunic) underneath anyway, so you’re decent under Islamic law. The presence of the chador, however artlessly it may be worn, is enough to make you presentable for entering a holy place.
Since that day at the Shah Abdol Azim Shrine, I haven’t been able to watch a chador-clad woman walk down the street without feeling a sense of envy mixed with admiration. She can hold a toddler’s hand while carrying a full load of shopping bags and talking into a cell phone clamped between shoulder and ear, never once missing a step. Maybe I’ll be able to do that someday—after a couple more decades of practice.