Chador, meaning “large cloth” or “sheet” in modern Persian, refers to a semicircular cloak, usually black, enveloping the head, body, and sometimes the face (like a tent), held in place by the wearer’s hands. It is worn by Muslim women outside or inside the home in front of namahram, men ineligible to be their husbands, in Iran and with modifications elsewhere, including parts of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The chador is closely associated with the Islamic practice of hijab, which comes from the verbal Arabic word “hajaba,” meaning to hide from view or conceal. Hijab stresses modesty based on Koranic passages (Surahs XXXLIL59 and XXTV13) indicating that believing women should cover their hair and cast outer garments over themselves when in public.
Hijab and Politics
The Islamic chador, introduced during the Abbasid Era (750 – 1258) when black was the dynastic color, has been worn by Persian women with slight variations over many centuries. Western sartorial changes began in Iran during the reign of Shah Nasir al-Din (1848 – 1896) who, after visiting Paris in 1873, introduced European-style clothing to his country. The chador, however, was still worn by most Persian women. After World War I, with the government takeover in 1925 by Reza Khan Pahlavi, legislative and social reforms were introduced, including using the modern national state name “Iran.” Influenced by Ataturk’s Westernization clothing programs in the new Republic of Turkey, Reza Shah hoped his people would be treated as equals by Europeans if they wore Western clothing. His Dress Reform Law mandated that Persian men wear coats, suits, and Pahlavi hats, which resulted in compliance by some and protesting riots by others with encouragement from ulema, the group of Islamic clerics known as mullahs. Gradually, the traditional Shari’a, or Islamic Law, was being replaced by French secular codes. Because of emotional and religious opposition to unveiling women, the shah moved slower regarding female dress reforms, but by February 1936, a government ban outlawed the chador throughout Iran. Police were ordered to fine women wearing chadors; doctors could not treat them, and they were not allowed in public places such as movies, baths, or on buses. As modern role models, the shah’s wife and daughters appeared in public unveiled.
In 1941, fearing a Nazi takeover during World War II, British and Soviet troops occupied Iran, whereby Reza Shah abdicated in favor of Mohammed Reza, the crown prince, age twenty-two, who agreed to rule as a constitutional monarch. Attempting to placate both pro- and anti-chador advocates, the young shah removed government restrictions prohibiting wearing chadors, but asked Muslim leaders to call for tolerance toward women who chose to appear publicly unveiled. The chador controversy continued over several decades: some pro-Marxist, anti-Western groups opposed the shah and advocated the chador; pro-Westerners wanted European-style clothing. Ultimately, the chador came to symbolize “rebellion” against the regime, until finally in March 1979, after the shah’s forced departure, the opposition leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, taking over government control. His pro-Islamic revolutionary policies included urging women to resume wearing the chador for modesty reasons. Reacting to large protest marches, government officials clamped down, ordering all women in government employment to wear the chador. By May 1981, legal reforms based on Islamic Shari’a required all women over age nine to observe hijab, wearing either the chador or a long coat with sleeves and a large dark head cloth. These legal regulations were still in effect in the early 2000s.
Baker, Patricia L. “Politics of Dress: The Dress Reform Laws of 1920/30s Iran.” In Languages of Dress in the Middle East. Edited by Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper and Bruce Ingham. Surrey, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1997.
El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford, U.K.: Berg, 1999.
Scarce, Jennifer M. “The Development of Women’s Veils in Persia and Afghanistan.” Costume 9 (1975): 4-14.
Shirazi, Faegheh. The Veil, Unveiled: the Hijab in Modern Culture. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2001.