While the Iranian economy appears to be heading for recession, one sector may have some reason for optimism. That sector is the garment industry and the reason for hopefulness is a law passed by the Islamic Majlis (parliament) on Monday.
The law mandates the government to make sure that all Iranians wear "standard Islamic garments" designed to remove ethnic and class distinctions reflected in clothing, and to eliminate "the influence of the infidel" on the way Iranians, especially, the young dress. It also envisages separate dress codes for religious minorities, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, who will have to adopt distinct colour schemes to make them identifiable in public. The new codes would enable Muslims to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake, and thus becoming najis (unclean).
The new law, drafted during the presidency of Muhammad Khatami in 2004, had been blocked within the Majlis. That blockage, however, has been removed under pressure from Khatami's successor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The new law replaces the one passed in 1982 dealing with women's clothes. That law imposed the hijab and focused on the need to force women to cover their hair in public. The emphasis on the hijab was based on the belief that women's hair emanates an "evil ray" that drives men "into lustful irrationality" and thus causes harm to Islam. The new law cannot come into effect until consensus is reached on what constitutes "authentic Islamic attire."
The world's estimated 1.3 billion Muslims live in more than 180 different countries and dress in a bewilderingly large number of styles reflecting national, tribal, ethnic and folkloric traditions. The Ethnological Museum in Tehran shows that Iran itself is home to hundreds of different styles of clothing for men and women.
According to Ahmadinejad, the new Islamic uniforms will establish "visual equality" for Iranians as they prepare for the return of the Hidden Imam.
A committee that consists of members from the Ministry of Islamic Orientation, the Ministry of Commerce and the Cultural Subcommittee of the Islamic Majlis is scheduled to propose the new uniforms by next autumn. These would then have to be approved by the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei before being imposed by law.
Although the final shape of the uniforms is yet to be established, there is consensus on a number of points. The idea of adopting an Arab-style robe (known as dishdash) for men has been rejected along with a proposal that men wear a form of turban.
"Iranians have always worn trousers," says Mostafa Pourhardani, Minister of Islamic Orientation. "Even when the ancient Greeks wore woman-style dresses with skirts, the Persians had trousers. We are not going to force Iranian men to do away with trousers although they predate Islam."
What men will wear on top is not clear yet.
Some Islamic experts want a kind of long, almost European-style, jacket known as "sardari" and used in Iran for centuries. Others propose only a waistcoat.
On colour schemes, however, there seems to be consensus.
Islamic legislators are unanimous that Islam is incompatible with "gay, wild, provocative colours" such as red, yellow, and light blue, which are supposed to be favoured by Satan. The colours to be imposed by law are expected to be black, brown, dark blue and dark grey.
Some Majlis members have been trying to lift the ban on green, which is, after all, the colour of the Bani Hashem, the family of the Prophet Muhammad, and thus regarded as the colour of Islam. The majority view, however, is that green is not "serious enough" to underline the gravity of a Muslim man's position.
Religious minorities would have their own colour schemes. They will also have to wear special insignia, known as zonnar, to indicate their non-Islamic faiths. Jews would be marked out with a yellow strip of cloth sewn in front of their clothes while Christians will be assigned the colour red. Zoroastrians end up with Persian blue as the colour of their zonnar. It is not clear what will happen to followers of other religions, including Hindus, Bahais and Buddhists, not to mention plain agnostics and atheists, whose very existence is denied by the Islamic Republic.
The new law imposes a total ban on wearing neckties and bow-ties which are regarded as "symbols of the Cross." Will Iranian Christians be allowed to wear them, nevertheless? No one knows.
The law also mandates the government to wage a campaign against "expensive attire" without defining it. Some mullahs, for example, wear robes made of pure hand-woven silk that costs several thousands dollars. Nor is it clear whether or not the kind of blouson (long shirt) that Ahmadinejad often wears would be deemed Islamic. (Shops in Tehran are selling the so-called "presidential" blouson for US$3 apiece.)
One aim of the new law is to impose a total ban on imports of clothes and dress designs from the West. The Majlis hopes that all jeans will disappear from the Iranian scene within five years. The boutiques selling haute couture Western gear for men and women will also be closed over the next few years. A total ban on designer items, marked by logos, will come into force by the end of the year.
"There is no sense in a Muslim man or woman wearing something that is, in fact, an advertisement for an infidel designer or clothing merchant," says Pourharandi.
Another aim of the new law is to abolish the chador, the overall piece of cloth that Iranian women have tucked themselves in for centuries. The reason is that the chador existed before the Khomeinist revolution and thus cannot be regarded as "properly Islamic." Women must wear clothes that would, in fact, transform them into advertising billboards for the regime's ideology.
One remaining problem is to decide the age at which girls should wear the uniforms. At present the hijab is mandatory from the age of six. But some of Ahmadinejad's advisers want to reduce that to four.
During the committee debates on the new law, some Majlis members tried to include articles determining the shape and size of men's beards and mustaches and impose an Islamic standard for male facial hair. But it was agreed that the issue be tackled in another bill to be presented to the Majlis next year.
By September the Majlis is expected to approve an initial budget of US$800-million to help "the poor and the needy" to adopt the new uniforms. All public sector workers, estimated to number 4.5 million, will be in uniform by 2009 at the latest.
What is already labelled "the Islamic clothes revolution" will not be limited to Iran. Tehran has already sent a team to Lebanon to inform the Hezbollah of the new law and train cadres to impose it on Lebanese Shiites.
"Our aim is to make sure that every Muslim, wherever he or she happens to be on this Earth, is a living and walking symbol of Islam," says Pourharandi.
- Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.
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