TEHRAN -- The sign at Imam Khomeini International Airport urges "Respected Ladies: Please Observe Islamic Dress Code."
Not that they have a choice: Under Iranian law imposed after the Islamic revolution, all women — visitors included — must cover their heads and dress modestly.
Officially, that means either a full-length chador (a shapeless, tentlike cloth, usually black) or a headscarf, trousers and long-sleeved, lightweight coat called a manteau. But as foreign tourists chafing beneath their unaccustomed garb discover, the country's shifting interpretations of acceptable attire illustrate the complex realities of Iranian women themselves.
On the streets of modern neighborhoods in cities such as Tehran and Shiraz, young fashionistas wear thigh-high, figure-hugging manteaus, their peroxided tresses spilling out of skimpy silk scarves, while visitors push the envelope with ball caps and gauzy Indian tunics.
Yet elsewhere, particularly in conservative Mashhad and Yazd, the black chador and maqna-e (a nunlike, one-piece garment that covers the head and shoulders) are ubiquitous. According to recent news reports, Iran's "morality police" have stepped up their sweeps, shutting down stores that sell provocative manteaus and detaining women who have committed such offenses as wearing bright nail polish. A few weeks ago, Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani ignited a heated controversy when she attended the New York premiere for her new Ridley Scott movie, Body of Lies, with bare head and arms.
In the ladies' room of a restaurant in Isfahan, a treasure-trove of Persian architecture that's a top draw for Iranian and foreign visitors, a trio of drop-dead-gorgeous women shed their scarves and snap photos of one another. When they meet an American, they do a double take and ask why in the world she came.
"How can you put up with this?" they say, pointing to their temporarily discarded headgear. (Like other Iranians, they would not give their names for fear of reprisal.) "We hate it."
But a few days later, a tourist asks a young salesclerk in Kerman whether she resents being forced to cover up whenever she leaves the house. Not at all, she responds: "It makes me feel more relaxed."
Iranian women may literally travel at the back of the bus. (In Tehran, they also can use women-only subway cars, taxis and a public park.) At the same time, they drive cars, own businesses, serve in the country's parliament and make up more than half the university population.
In October, a United Nations report on Iran noted discriminatory laws and "widespread" gender-based violence — the same month an American-Iranian student was arrested in Tehran while researching a film intended to show the progress of women's rights.
In 1935, when Iran's ruler issued an edict banning chadors and other traditional dress in public, "many Iranian women didn't leave the house for six months," says Iran Riahi. The Zurich travel agent left the country 25 years ago and now leads tours back to her homeland.
Today, the pendulum has "swung from one extreme to another," she adds. "But there are much bigger issues than the hijab (scarf), like women not being able to keep their children after they divorce."
Like Iran itself, it's enough to make a traveler's head spin.