In My Birth Country, Putting On the Wrong Outfit Can Kill You

behnaz sarafpour
In Iran, Putting On the Wrong Outfit Can Kill YouCourtesy of Behnaz Sarafpour

On September 16, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, died after being detained by Iran’s so-called morality police. Her death ignited a long-simmering anger in the people of Iran and sparked a revolution, largely led by young women, demanding an end to the Islamic regime. For the past six weeks, they’ve faced brutal government crackdowns, but they remain undaunted, adopting the Kurdish rallying cry: "Woman. Life. Freedom."

Harper’s BAZAAR has asked celebrated Iranian writers, artists, journalists, and more to help make sense of this moment when so much is at stake. Their stories are collected here, with more to come.

I was born in Iran before the Islamic Revolution, and in 1977, I started first grade at a private Iranian American school. I vividly remember a day, after my family and I had just gotten back from vacationing in Europe and the United States, when I was so excited to show off my new bell-bottom denim suit from New York City at school. Although the school had a mandatory uniform (a navy jumper worn over a blue-and-white gingham shirt), I managed to convince my mother to let me wear my cool outfit. Of course, that led to me being escorted to the principal’s office as soon as I set foot on the school grounds.

But those were the easy days.

By the time I reached third grade, the secular monarchy of Iran was out and the new Islamic Republic ran by the all-male clergy had taken control. I was told I had to transfer to an all-girls school and start wearing a hijab. No more bell-bottom suits, no more short jumpers with knee socks, no more freedom. The new uniform was drab, but the most striking thing was that on the playground, all you saw was a sea of dark figures, like a flock of black crows. My stylish aunt, who up until then would go to work in Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, also had to start dressing like a black crow. Any show of individuality was now out of the question, and the act of dressing became not only political, but dangerous.

When my parents moved us to the United States in the early ’80s, I was enrolled in a public school for the first time and took great pleasure in the fact that I once again had the freedom to wear what I wanted. I have since grown up here as an American woman, a fashion designer, and a New Yorker. I see my ability to dress how I want and design what I want as an extension of my constitutional right to free speech—it’s such a basic freedom here that it’s hard to explain what it feels like to be forced to live without it.

Today, women around Iran are burning their hijabs and chopping off their hair in protest to the country’s oppressive government—partly as a response to the death of Mahsa Amini (a 22-year-old who died three days after being arrested by Iran’s morality police for not following the strict dress code), and partly because it’s been a long time coming.

These courageous women did not just start a revolution because they don’t enjoy wearing headscarves. The hijab is the starkest symbol of the extreme gender inequality that women suffer under the Islamic Republic.

Under the law, women who appear in public without a proper hijab can be imprisoned from 10 days to two months, or pay a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 ryal. But in recent years, the country’s morality police have taken it upon themselves to punish those women who do not follow the rules. And during the recent protests, police have reportedly killed strings of women in an attempt to silence the movement.

The hijab is also part of a long list of Islamic laws enforced over the last 43 years designed to take away a woman’s individuality, voice, and role in society. Today, women are not able to participate in competitive sports on the world stage or in many performing arts, such as song and dance. They can’t enroll in the military (before the revolution, Persian women fought in combat alongside men), and female judges are not allowed to preside over high court and in cases of divorce, child custody, and inheritance laws. The law consistently favors men, and women do not even have a say in their own reproductive rights.

It’s also important to note that Iran is and has long been home to a population that is not only Muslim, but also Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian (the original religion of Iranian people), Buddhist, agnostic, and composed of a variety of different ethnicities; but under the current government, all must all adhere to Islamic law, even if its mandates do not align with one’s individual beliefs. This has driven millions of people—forced to pursue their individual freedoms elsewhere—out of their homeland, resulting in a huge Iranian diaspora.

Because of these restrictions, the context behind fashion in Iran is a complicated one. For us in the West, the act of dressing is often a fun, creative way of self-expression; even if clothing is not of interest to you, choosing what to wear in the morning is rarely a life-or-death decision. We talk about standing up to the patriarchy, but when the patriarchy also happens to be a theocracy that will not hesitate to use military force to enforce its values on you, you come to the realization that speaking your mind could very well kill you.

I have never worked in Iran; I cannot imagine living with that level of oppression on a daily basis. But my culture inspires everything I do. It’s ironic, really, that a country that will not allow me to dress myself is the backbone of my women-first fashion brand, but prior to the revolution, art had always been such an integral part of Persian culture. Many things we consider classic in fashion today were invented by Persians: the paisley pattern, seersucker fabric, and pajamas, to name a few.

Seeing what has happened to my birth country has changed the way I see my craft and my womanhood in so many ways. Fashion is so much more than clothes. It is a visual language; it tells the world where you come from and what your interests and values are. You use it to show the people you meet who you are and who you want to be and how you want them to regard you. In the West, I know fashion can often be seen as superficial, but for the women of Iran, it has the potential to be a step toward gender equality, and a road to freedom.

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