I was walking at the contagious, rushed pace particular to pedestrians in large cities. The headphones in my ears, which streamed my chosen soundtrack of the moment, had created an illusory sensation of privacy and insularity between me and the busy street of Tehran. Suddenly a tap on my shoulder disturbed this boundary. I turned around to a twenty–five–year old cop dressed in dark green uniform, motioning me to follow him. His words were overpowered by the guitar solo of “Comfortably Numb,” which had not been interrupted by the tap and was still playing in my ears. Too startled to turn off the music, I took the headphones out of my ears. My mind replaced the song with an internal slew of profanity. Hoping that an oblivious yet honest innocence would convince the cop that I wasn’t breaching his interpretation of Islamic moral standards, I exaggerated my American accent, while simultaneously feigning an ignorance of Iranian dress–code laws. “Bebaksheed, man taz–e as America oomadam baraye deedan–e madar bozorgam. I apologize; I just recently arrived from the United States to visit my grandmother. Nemeedoonestam ke lebas–e man bad–e. I didn’t realize that my outfit was inappropriate.” I was hoping that stressing my family values might convince the officer that I certainly was not the type of person he would normally confront on the street. Unmoved by my explanation, he curtly motioned me into the parked van.
Apparently, I was the butt of a popular Iranian joke—being stopped by the cultural police because of indecent dress that did not meet “Islamic” standards. The van stood proud with brand new leather upholstery. I was relieved to see that I was not the first person in the van. A short woman in her thirties had heard my frivolous excuse and was excited to hear that I lived abroad. “You’re like me then!” she said in Farsi, between pathetic tears and sobs. “I just came from Germany.” I was embarrassed; despite our foreign education, we members of the Iranian diaspora aren’t very street smart in Tehran. Although her coat was a bit short, barely reaching midway down her thighs, neither she nor I were dressed nearly as offensively as so many girls walking the streets of the city. I was frustrated—I wore no make–up, my pants were loose, and my hair was covered by a heavy winter shawl. Why had they stopped me? The law requires that women cover their hair, and wear a loose fitting, long jacket. In big cities like Tehran, however, women have turned vanity into civil disobedience by converting the dress code into a chic style. Young women wear coats that struggle to reach the bottom of their pant zippers. Tight pants pinch unnaturally skinny legs. Recently these pants are tucked into stiletto leather boots, a fad which has inspired a new law forbidding the tucking of pants into boots. Girls bury their faces under multiple layers of makeup and coronate the display with colorful silk headscarves, flirtatiously tied around highlighted and blow–dried coiffures.
“Bebaksheed, I’m sorry, where are you taking us?” I asked a female cop sitting in the front seat.
“The police station,” replied the rigid monolith, without turning to face me.
“As soon as this van fills up.”
My mind started extrapolating different ways that my day could end. I did not know how long this process of police detainment would take, nor how worried I should be about the extent to which I would be harassed. I felt infantile in my lack of understanding my situation. The next girl thrust into the van fit the criteria better. She was yelling at the officer as she entered the van:
“This is how I dress in my university in Mahshad! And you’re telling me that I can’t dress like this on the streets of Tehran?!”
Universities are notorious for being strict on women’s dress. Mahshad is one of Iran’s most religious cities, a pilgrimage site which hosts the shrine of one of Shi’ism’s imams. Tehran, on the other hand, is the Los Angeles of Iran and unofficially hosts a freedom of dress unparalleled by any other city in the country.
The new detainee was seated next to me, and I was impressed by her brazen attitude. After a series of screams which were returned with a firm silence, she accepted that her screeching was in vain, and quietly began deleting the pictures she had on her cell phone—it looked like internet photographs of Jennifer Lopez.
She was taking precautionary measures because sometimes these cops search cell phones for illegal content, including pornographic photographs of government officials that are circulated around the country via text message. Photoshop has made possible an especially popular montage of the Ayatollah engaged in bestiality.
The next catch was a fifty–year old woman wearing faint blue mascara. She had a deep voice and a sarcastic grin on her face. “This is so stupid,” she said aloud in a gruff manner that belied her age. I liked her immediately. “I should have just kept walking.”
“Could you have done that?” I wanted to befriend her.
“Sure, why not? I should have pretended I didn’t hear him.”
I will never know how long we sat in that van, waiting for it to fill. My strange mixture of anxiety and amused emotions had disabled my sense of time. Sometime between twenty minutes and an hour–and–a–half later, the van reached maximum capacity and we were on our way to the police station. During the ride I wondered if I had done the right thing to speak Farsi. I had practiced with my cousins that if I were ever stopped, I’d only speak English in hope that Persian hospitality would work in benefit of a foreigner. The previous year, I had taken Farsi reading and writing classes at a language institute full of foreigners from all over the world. Many foreign women would wear regular hip–length jackets, which always angered me. I saw their carelessness as flaunting their birth–given freedom. Since they were born in another country, they didn’t have to abide by the laws that oppressed Iranian women; but, at the same time, they weren’t doing anything wrong.
We arrived at the station and were led to a room bordered with chairs; some were already occupied by “guilty women.” Everyone looked calm. In one corner a woman was taking individual photographs of each detainee. She would write a name on a white board that each woman held as her mug shot was taken. This process could not have been more than a theatrical act—bureaucracy in Iran is far too disorganized and congested to have those photographs end up anywhere meaningful. At this point, I was pretty confident that I would leave the police station unharmed— seeing that I was in good company relieved my paranoid imagination.
We were given forms to fill out our information. I’m not good at writing in Farsi. A chadori woman in her early thirties with a well–groomed and deliberate unibrow was sitting at a desk next to me, texting on her cell phone. She was clearly a government official who worked at the station. “Excuse me,” I said, “I can’t write in Farsi, can you please help me?” She looked up at me, her eyebrow condensed at the center of her forehead, pinching together each of her arches.
“What do you mean you can’t write?”
“I grew up America. I’m just here visiting.”
“You never learned to read and write?” she was dismayed, her brow rigid in tension.
“I’m trying to learn.”
She looked at my outfit.
I obeyed. Her tightened eyebrow focused on the bottom of my jacket.
“They took you for wearing this?”
“And you told them you were from over there?”
“Yes.” Her empathy was shocking and exciting to me.
“Give me your paper. I’ll fill it out for you.” Eager to relinquish my responsibility and relieved that I had an authority figure as a supporter, I handed her the paper and recited to her my personal information. After we had completed the form, I sought her insight on my predicament. “So you think that they should have been more lenient on me since I’m foreign?” My tension had melted, and I was hoping that she could give me concrete details on her colleagues’ capricious methods. “I hear sometimes they’re harder on foreigners, saying that we shouldn’t try to impose an outside culture on Iran.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she replied, “but don’t worry, everything will be fine.” This woman, with a chador tucked tightly around her head, was the headache of Iranian women’s social lives. Of course, most chadori women are normal people, and their garb is no more than a display of their piety. Someone like this woman, however, who works in the government, does not wear the chador to express her religious devotion, but, rather, to assert her despotic power. I always heard stories about chadori government officials who would harass my female cousins in universities for wearing nail–polish or makeup. Despite this inculcated knowledge, I liked this chadori, and felt guilty for doing so. I was betraying all the women she and her kind (class?) had tormented.
My turn to have my picture taken was fast approaching and, like a true tourist, I wanted the moment to be documented on my personal camera as well. “Do you think they would let me take a mug shot with my camera as well,” I asked the chadori lady, “so I can have a copy of my own?”
“Yeah, let me ask!” She understood my humor. She yelled across the room to the woman taking the photographs. “Arezoo, she wants a picture with her camera as well. Will you take one with hers too?”
Arezoo, whom I had not had time chat up, was appalled. “No, absolutely not.”
“But she wants it to keep as a souvenir.” Arezoo was irritated and furious—the kind of behavior I had expected of these women, and I was terrified. “If she does that, I’ll have her spend the night here. Is that what she wants?” I turned to my friend—I didn’t want further trouble, now that I was so close to leaving without any.
“It’s okay,” I said, “thanks for trying. And thanks for your help. Take care.”
I told Arezoo my name. She ferociously scribbled it on her white board, and I held it up, ready for my picture.
“Don’t smile!” she barked. Not realizing that I was smiling, I quickly erased my instinctual camera grin, and the lens snapped. I wonder if there was even film in the camera.
AIDA SADR is a sophomore in Columbia College studying economics and sustainable development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.