Two days in Iran and already I have a love-hate attitude towards the chador.
Love, you may ask, love? Well, it’s complicated.
On the one hand, they are hot and frustrating. On the other hand they make women anonymous (not invisible) and I could filter through the crowd as one of the many, rather than draw stares as an infidel tourist.
The first Iranian city I landed in was Mashad, one of the most religious places in the country, second only to the mullah-factory Qom, and with one of the biggest Islamic shrines in the world, second only to Mecca.
To visit the Shrine of Imam Reza, women must be appropriately shrouded (it says so on a sign out the front, above the no smoking and no cameras pictures), which means a chador, literally ‘tent’ in Farsi.
A chador is basically a bed sheet with a piece of elastic in the middle of the long side that goes behind your neck.
It’s uncomfortable, painful and difficult to negotiate at the best of times because as gravity drags it backwards, individual strands of hair go with it as the weight pulls the tightest pony tail or strongest hair clip from its anchorage.
The trick is to hold it tight under your chin and pull down to stop it from sliding out of control – but that hand soon gets cramp and you’ve only got one left to fend off the women pilgrims, most of whom turn into rabid beasts in the presence of a holy shrine, a famous altar, or sacred water fountain.
I visited the shrine twice, the second time with a guide, Shahida, who told me that if I thought a chador was frustrating in the heat, it’s diabolical in the wet.
On my first visit to the shrine was on a Friday with two backpackers and their new Iranian friends.
It was 10pm (the shrine is open 24/7) and the atmosphere sparkled with religious fervour. It was impossible to remain untouched by the strange vibe generated by the combination of late night worship on the holiest day of the week (Friday is the Muslim Sunday).
Wearing a chador alongside the thousands of female pilgrims made us Westerners anonymous and we were included in the pantomime. We gained admittance to the squares that are usually off-limits to non-Muslim infidels, and to the shrine itself, which is always off-limits to non-Muslim infidels.
What I found most interesting was the range of chador fashion: they don’t have to be black.
Many are black, however, but are covered in patterns or diamantés which at night twinkle like small, moveable milky ways.
The risqué ladies wear sheer drapery that barely hides their platform heels, skin tight jeans and couture tops. The smart ones have chadors with the front sewn up to create face and arm holes, circumventing the hair-rippage, self-defence problem.
My favourite are the ones that look like they’ve been ripped from a child’s single bed: white or pastel with flower patterns.
My second visit was during the day when I spent five hours alternately annoying and entertaining my guide Shahida.
It was well over 35 degrees in the shade and no amount of twitching and reapplying could stop the chador from ripping hairs from my skull while simultaneously letting the short fluffy ones escape to tickle my face.
Eventually I gave up and sorely tested Shahida’s Muslim patience (similar to Christian patience) by redoing the whole thing inside one of the museums.
I escaped soon after, thankful not for friends, good health or family, but for the fact that I don’t have to wear that thing in my daily life.