And don’t wear white after Labor Day

FashionPoliceThe intersection of religion and dress is most fascinating to me. I grew up with a mother who was far and away the most fashionable pastor’s wife I knew. And then I also had acquaintances and neighbors involved in the Christian modesty movement, which required women to wear large pieces of fabric that covered them extensively.

As I prepare to have my daughter here in the next month, I don’t know much about what my parenting style will be. But I do know that she will not be wearing track pants with the words “juicy” emblazoned on her derriere.

Now that fashion reporters win Pulitzers for their hard-hitting reporting, I would hope to see better coverage of how religious beliefs affect fashion choices. In the meantime, some nameless reporter with Agence France-Presse had a fascinating look at the fashion police in Iran. The reporter went on patrol with the women officers who enforce Islamic dress restrictions on women in Tehran:

It all starts with one simple sentence, spoken almost in a whisper, but which has a thunderous effect.

A female police officer deployed in Tehran’s latest moral crackdown tells a woman that her manto (overcoat) is too short and infringes Iranian Islamic dress rules.

“Azizam (my dear), good afternoon, if possible could we have a friendly chat, please allow us to have a small chat,” the officer, a graduate of Tehran’s police academy, tells the young woman.

“My dear there is a problem with your manto. Please do not wear this kind of manto. Please wear a longer manto from now on.”

A manto is normally knee-length and long-sleeved. The story describes how some women are let go with a warning while others are arrested and taken to a minibus with dark black tinted window panes. The reporter describes how a woman in a short white manto whose hair tumbled out the front of her headscarf was arrested. Another woman already arrested cries out that she will be better in the future before the doors slam shut. The reporter explains the approach of the police:

Tehran’s police have said they are operating a three stage process in implementing the new wave of a crackdown on dress deemed to be unIslamic, which started with some intensity on Monday afternoon.

First, women are given a verbal warning on the street. If the problem is not resolved there, they are taken to the police station for “guidance” and to sign a vow not to repeat the offence. Should this be unsuccessful, their case is handed to the judiciary.

The women are sent to a center for combating vice. One of the interesting things about the story is that not one of the women in the story — whether an offender or officer — is named. A police officer, who by law isn’t allowed to give her name, defends the actions of the fashion patrol and says they operate mostly through guidance rather than force.

“I am doing this it as it is my duty and my job is supported by the religious teachings,” another women clad in the black chador uniform of Tehran’s female police added.

A girl confronted by the female police for having overly short trousers and transparent stockings apologizes.

“I am wearing stockings but, sorry, they are too light. Sorry I will change them, definitely I will change them. Now can I go?”

We’ve seen stories about the suppression of women’s fashion choices in Muslim countries, but this one actually showed what it would be like to be a woman on the streets of Tehran. The story also includes the voices of critics who say the police have better things to do than crack down on women’s clothing.

Seems like this type of story could get some more coverage. I’m also interested in the debates in Islam over how much modesty the religion mandates. Muslims aren’t monolithic on their views about female dress, and this story didn’t really get into the theological debates at play.

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  • Chris Duckworth

    There was a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer a few weeks ago about African-American Muslim women who wear the abaya (long robe) and niqab (head covering) (What Lies Beneath Head-to-Toe Clothing – July 13, 2007). Somehow the column – which is written very respectfully about the practice of full-dress for Muslim women – doesn’t mention God/Allah and uses the word faith only once and without any clarification or explanation (probably reflecting the columnist’s discomfort or ambivalence about religion – I sent her an email, but got no reply).

    I do recall reading (or hearing on NPR) some coverage of the change in women’s dress in post-invasion Iraq, where the role of (so-called) Islamic rules for fashion and other social issues is rising. I’ve also heard that a similar trend towards full-coverings is rising in Gaza, where Hamas is now politically and militarily dominant.

  • David Kearns

    I am Muslim, and this sort of story really bugs me. Not only is this such a minor issue, and there are far more important things for the State to be enforcing, but the obligations of Muslim women and the way they choose to dress are not so black and white. Although I’m not completely educated about the Shi’a tradition (I would be classified as Sunni), I see nothing in Islamic literature but the requirement to dress conservatively, with the likelihood of covering a woman’s head is a sign of piety. The important thing to me is that it is a choice, once the choice is taken away so is the beauty of the deed, Iran and a few Arab states seem to think it is the government’s responsibility to force their citizen’s to be good Muslims by their definition which in my opinion (and that of some Muslims scholars) is contrary to the spirit (and laws) of Islam. Not to mention it certainly doesn’t show Islam in a good light. I should also mention that stories like this are why I am glad to live in the United States where we do our best to stay out of decisions like this.

  • Lee Anne Millinger

    I wish the article would have said what sort of “guidance” the women are given at the police station.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    From the other side of the communion rail.

    I know it gets very hot and humid in the summer. And maybe the congregation should consider air conditioning. But when the young ladies keel for communion, and I’m standing well above them, and they have very loose blouses on, well, looking down is quite a distraction.

    Once I dropped a host. Where it went I wasn’t going. Let’s say the communicant would have a very personal relationship with her Lord.

    I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “decorum.” When I was growing up my sisters might be allowed a miniskirt on Friday night–but over mom’s dead body on Sunday morning. Now the skirts barely cover butt.

    Of course it works the other way, too. Can one really be comfortable in coat and tie when it’s 95 degrees with 100% humidity?

    At our church the Evangelism committee made it a point to never wear a tie. Someone mentioned to a guest that we wear coats and ties at our church.

    James Taranto reported on the Guidance Police on his OpinionJournal (Wall Street Journal) blog. He then linked to a feminist group called “Breasts not Bombs” and wondered how the Guidance Police would handle these ladies–or what the ladies’ reaction would be.