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Iran Considering National Dress Code

by Golnaz Esfandiari

Barbie, Symbol of The Next Iran Revolution

Ayatollah Khamenei made the suggestion for a national dress last year in a speech warning against what he called a "cultural invasion" from the West.

He said other countries around the world have their own national dress and are proud of it, so why not Iran.

Traditional costumes already exist among ethnic minorities, but this latest proposal would be for a national dress for all Iranians.

It's not clear what the designs would look like, but the head of the parliament's cultural commission says they would redefine Iranian identity while respecting religious and cultural identities. He said people would not be forced to wear the clothes but the designs would be appealing.

The proposal is already encountering skepticism. Thirty-five year old Shirin from Tehran says she believes a new national address would not be accepted.

"In my opinion, each individual should decide for himself what to wear and what not to wear. A national dress that is imposed [from above] is not going to be welcome. It would be better if they would let people decide. If everyone puts on something adequate, it would be much better than the authorities enforcing and adopting [a dress code]," Shirin says.

Saeed Paivandi is a sociology professor in Paris and an Iran expert. He sees the proposal as more than an attempt to counter Western influences. He says conservatives may be moving toward imposing tighter controls on personal freedoms.

"I think this is an astonishing bill because it is similar to steps taken in the first decade following the [1979] Iranian revolution. There was a tendency then by the state and government to shape people's behavior and actions and to retain tight control in the name of revolution or ideology. I think the first social meaning of this move is a kind of interference in personal matters and an attempt to limit the most basic freedoms of citizens recognized all over the world," Paivandi says.

Iranians already face restrictions on the way they dress. Women must keep their hair covered and wear loose-fitting clothing that covers their body. Men generally have fewer prohibitions, but are not allowed to wear short pants, for example.

But enforcing these measures has been increasingly difficult -- especially among young people. In recent years, women and girls are wearing shorter and tighter coats and smaller headscarves.

The trend is causing concern among the country's conservatives and hard-liners.

Paivandi says he thinks the measures are aimed primarily at women.

"They mostly do this with an eye toward women. There has been a real breakthrough among Iranian women from their widespread presence in universities and other spheres, and it has led to more active participation of women in the workforce and education and this has created new social opportunities for women," Paivandi says.

He adds though that previous attempts to control how people dress have generally failed.

"In the past there were similar attempts regarding women. For example, [officials] said the chador was a 'superior hijab' in order to make people wear it, without making wearing the chador compulsory. But despite the widespread campaign, today we see that women did not follow the model. [Instead] they created their own behavioral models. I think there is enough past experiences to tell us that this latest attempt will not be successful either," Paivandi says.

The parliament's cultural commission looks set to press ahead. Mohammad Taghi Rahmani, a commission member, was recently quoted as saying if we pass the bill then people who walk around in "short-sleeved shirts and skimpy skirts" will face legal action. He warned that the government should not be negligent otherwise he said "girls in the villages would learn from the violators."

© 2004 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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