Shaped as a half circle with a radius of the woman’s height plus four inches (ten centimeters), it covers the whole figure from head to toe and is usually clutched from underneath the chin with one hand. This simple outer garment, indigenous to the country and worn for centuries, has become a symbolic image of contemporary Iran, especially after the Islamic Revolution. Just walk into any bookshop that stocks books on Iran and count the covers showing women in black chadors.
Because it is so different from anything Western societies are used to, the chador is often the subject of misunderstanding and prejudice (I know this first hand, from my Greek relatives’ not very flattering comments). Such prejudice takes different forms: some think that all women are forced to wear it and feel repressed, others think that only the militant, revolutionary, ultra-conservative, very religious women wear it.
Very few outsiders realize that the chador is very common all over Iran and in Tehran, and also that another type, the patterned chador (châdor rangi) is also widespread throughout Iran, in both rural and urban settings. Women can choose from a wide variety of patterns and colors that reflect seasonal fashions and personal tastes. White fabrics with small, pastel-colored flowers are favored by young or newly married women, while beiges, greens, and darker colors such as browns and navy blues, all patterned with flowers or abstract shapes, are suitable for middleaged and older women.Sewn of a lighter, cooler fabric, the patterned chador stays in place more easily than the black one. In cities the patterned chador is only worn indoors by some women when nâmahrams are present. Rural women wear the patterned chador outdoors over blouses and slacks or a skirt, or over a traditional outfit. Near Hosseiniyeh Ershad, toward the north of Tehran, a new business enterprise has recently opened: Laleh Chador Gallery. Housed in a flat, only women are allowed in during the working week, while men accompanied by a female relative can visit on Friday mornings.All sorts of different chador fabrics are stocked here: formal black of various thicknesses and weights, for outdoor wear; semitransparent lacy black, often with flower patterns, for prayer meetings (now also worn outside); opaque or semitransparent colorful, silky chadors for weddings and formal gatherings; white opaque or semitransparent for the bride’s journey from the hairdresser’s to the reception hall; colorful thin cotton or voile for everyday use; pastel-colored or white thick cotton for prayer use and (the latter) to wear while on the pilgrimage. Before I become familiar with Iranians, I could never imagine there would be so many different kinds of chadors; I thought it was just a plain black covering.