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If Jane Austen Lived in Tehran

4 minute read
Azadeh Moaveni/Tehran

The other day, a friend came to visit me with her five year-old daughter. We drank tea, ate apple pie with saffron crust, and discussed the marriages of our mutual acquaintances. As they prepared to leave, the little girl proudly pulled out a cherry-red veil from her purse and tied it on with an innocent flourish. Only the most religiously extreme families force girls that young to wear hejab (as the veil is known in Iran), and I looked at my friend inquiringly. The little girl insists on wearing it, my friend told me; she thinks it makes her look like her mommy. The girl beamed beneath her scarf, imagining herself quite grown-up. You can’t really explain to a five-year-old that mommy wears hejab because it is mandatory, and that if given the choice, she would prefer otherwise.

Watching my friend with her daughter, I found the reality of parenting in Iran — the futility of trying to instill values when you’re not free to model them — deeply disturbing. I assumed that little girl would grow up indoctrinated by her environment, doomed to a fate of wearing hejab without having had the chance to truly choose. But living here over the years, observing the girls in my social circle grow from little girls into teenagers, and from teenagers into single women intent on getting married, I’ve concluded this is not necessarily the case. These girls came of age in the same culture as my friend’s little girl, into a society whose middle-class value system was being transformed, where laws forced religious observance, and the lines between an individual’s private values, the force of habit, and social background blurred. But rather than turning out uniformly devout or predictably rebellious, they are more independent than any generation before them, negotiating their way through society, and around hejab, with great competence.

This moral flexibility is most evident when it comes to modern marriage. Like so many seemingly fixed or imposed beliefs, hejab can be tinkered with for the sake of an attractive marriage proposal. In the Iran of today, where marrying “up” to improve one’s social or financial standing is more imperative than in a Jane Austen novel, women commonly adjust their head covering to match their prospective partner’s degree of religiosity.

There’s a distant cousin of mine, born into a secular family, who decided to start wearing hejab to marry a more religious man she deeply loved. Her mother was mortified, and we all reacted a bit snobbishly at first, but with the passing of time it has become very ordinary. Then take the case of a family acquaintance from a very wealthy and devout family in Mashad, Iran’s shrine city; he ended up being snared by a young woman of little religious conviction, who happily assumed greater propriety and more modest dress to cement the match. Most recently, I met the girlfriend of a bohemian but pious painter; she had spent half her life unveiled in London, but donned the full-length black chador to satisfy his expectations. She still says “Ciao!” when leaving the room, and seems at ease in her new reincarnation. The hejab marriage prerogative also works in reverse. When one of my lightly religious relatives married a woman from a traditional family, she downgraded to a simpler headscarf.

These matches would have been unlikely in the Iran of my parents’ generation, where social classes were impermeable, people mostly married within their religious and financial caste, and hejab was an inherited, fixed custom within specific groups. Back then, the daughters of veiled women learned to veil, the daughters of secular women learned to go bare-headed, and both were taught to regard the other, respectively, as backward or immoral. Such attitudes, as you might imagine, were not conducive to peaceful coexistence in a country that is composed of religious traditionalists, Westernized secularists, and everything in between. That these days a woman chooses her life partner from a broader range of candidates, and feels confident enough to tailor her hejab accordingly, suggests an erosion of social boundaries that can only be healthy for a country that had a revolution, in part, over the role of religion in governance and daily life. It is difficult to envision that authoritarian laws have somehow made Iranian society more tolerant. There is a sort of perverse pluralism in today’s Iran, where the moral weight of the family is removed in questions of religiosity, and young people, exposed to the same restrictions, grow up freer to choose and change.

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