You Can't Judge an Iranian Woman by Her Cover

Women in Iran are allowed to vote at the age of 15. They hold 4 percent of the seats in Parliament, and more than half the university students are women.

Women make up more than 30 percent of Iran's work force.

"There is no hindrances as far as I am concerned for any woman to do anything she wants as long as she is capable of doing it," said an Iranian woman, Goli Emami, a book publisher.

Yet Westerners are fixated on the law that requires every woman, including foreigners, to wear a hijab, or head scarf, in public.

In the streets, women also cover up to the knees, though the hemlines vary, creeping higher in the city.

Every single woman said it was a tradition they didn't mind.

One young woman said it made her feel safe, confident and modest.

Under the Hijab

The tradition stretches back centuries through Muslim and Judeo-Christian religions. The Bible says women should cover their heads.

Yet if you've read Azar Nafisi's novel "Reading Lolita in Tehran," you know that beneath those veils women wear painted fingernails, dyed hair and Western-style clothes. In store windows, you can find the latest fashions, even racy lingerie.

"People … in the West being fed this media crap think that we are imprisoned, we are not allowed to leave the house, we have to cover ourselves, only our eyes should be out. We are not allowed to go anywhere -- you know, wrong pictures," Emami said.

Make no mistake, though, strong as they are, Iranian women have a battle to wage.

Human rights groups say, that especially in the countryside, a woman can be publicly stoned to death if she is thought to be unfaithful to her husband.

"A woman is half of a man. Women cannot have guardianship of her children. A women does not have right to divorce equal to men. A woman cannot leave the country without permission of her husband -- all of these and many, many others," said Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the Women's Learning Partnership and Foundation.

Parisa, 29, belongs to an underground activist group in Tehran. She is going door to door and to cafes, collecting 1 million signatures for women's rights.

"They are so very modern and so very connected to the rest of the world and so anxious for rights and so conscious of the importance of achieving those rights, and the two are just worlds apart, what they have and what they wish for," Afkhami said.

One thing is certain in Iran: You cannot judge a woman here by her cover. In the bazaar, a woman dressed in full chador, a large, square cloth worn as a shawl, spoke English and said she had traveled to New Jersey.

She said she preferred Iran to New Jersey because television was much more wholesome for children in Iran.

In Tehran, a complicated city of about 12 million people, where women run businesses, the truth of a culture does not travel a straight line, especially the truth as the West sees it, some Iranians say.

"Please by all means come to Iran and stay here for a while, and learn for yourself how it is," Emami said.