Covering up. Uncovering. The irony of censoring a woman’s body is unveiled during a climbing trip to Iran.
By Jean Weiss
Six months before I left to climb covered up in Iran, I had an urge to dance at a topless bar. Before we get too far into this, let me say that I didn’t. This wasn’t a Demi Moore-inspired lark. I’m not into drugs. I don’t need the money. The desire stemmed from a place of curiosity. The process fascinates me. Naked women getting rich because men they don’t know love to watch them move their bodies. What would that be like?
That women in Iran must cover themselves from head to toe in black swaths of cloth is the flip side of the same scenario. The Muslim culture acknowledges the power of a woman’s sexual appeal and reacts by hiding the source. I’m fascinated my first morning in Tehran watching these mysterious, covered silhouettes move down sidewalks, into shops, across streets. Many are wearing a chador, a black bolt of material which literally translated means tent. Picture clusters of tents moving swiftly across shopping malls, stopping to admire the display in a store window, then continuing to sweep onward toward a tea house. Some of the women instead wear a menteau, or tunic, a more modern version of covering up which resembles a lightweight housecoat. Paired with this is a scarf—silk, if you’re stylish, plain cotton if you’re practical. It’s sweltering beneath these clothes.
I’m in Iran because Al Read, the vice president of Geographic Expeditions called to see if I’d like to write about a climbing trip in the Alborz Mountains, just south of the Caspian Sea. Hooman Aprin, a friend and mountain guide from Jackson, Wyoming who grew up in Iran would lead the trek along with Abbas Jafari, one of Iran’s best alpinists. Al’s company has offered tours to Iran since 1993, but this trip is a first. Since 1979 when the US embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranians and Americans were held hostage for more than a year, our governments have hated each other. There is no US embassy in Iran and a long-standing travel warning has been issued. Only recently under the rule of their new president Hojjat-ol-Eslam Seyed Mohammed Khatami have Iran and the US begun to heal their wounds through sports. First hockey, then soccer, now adventure travel. Iran needs to stimulate its economy. Adventure tourism is a smart way to do it. It takes no more than a few seconds for me to answer Al, “Yes, I’ll go.”
The next two weeks are spent rushing to prepare my visa, update shots and pack. I give little thought to anti-American sentiment, terrorism or how the laws of Islam effect women until I’m changing into a long trench coat in the bathroom at the Amsterdam airport. “This is the start of being hot,” I write in my journal. My discomfort is shared. A teenage American girl traveling to Iran to visit her mother’s family stands in front of me as we board the plane. “I have to wear a scarf?” she says dramatically to her mother. “But on the plane? On the plane I have to wear a scarf? Mom, I so not match.”
Climbing and covering up don’t match either. Nevertheless, as Al, Hooman, Abbas and I hike through the 400 year old village of Pas Ghaleh, the approach to our first climb, 12,995-foot Mount Tochal I’m cloaked. When Abbas takes me sport climbing on the boulders above Tehran, I’m cloaked, when we hike into the Alborz, I’m covered, too. This is what I wear: a T-shirt, a long sleeved trekking shirt, long baggy khaki’s, knee highs to prevent exposing my ankles and hiking boots. Over this I’m wearing a menteau. I’ve draped a cotton scarf around my neck. At our base camp high in the Alborz Mountains enjoying a preserve formerly owned by the Shah that we are the first American to see, I may take off the menteau and instead cover my head with a ballcap or pile hat.
A few months ago a buddy of mine who’s 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds agreed to accompany me to a topless bar called Shotgun Willy’s, so I can see for myself what goes on in there. We sit next to men at a table watching near-naked ladies bump and grind to poorly-selected music, then pick up folded $1 bills we’ve left for them on the table’s edge. The dancers have no fat on their bottoms, taut, fake breasts and smooth skin the color of cardboard boxes. Some of them have tattoos and pierced body parts—mainly nipples and tongues. I watch the women, then watch the men watch the women. The dancers are sweet to me. When they walk onto the table, they offer a nod or say hello, glad a sister is there to admire their work. Still, everything seems unreal, as if too much exposure has diffused the natural appeal of a naked woman. My friend and I leave soon, oversaturated with skin.
The women in Iran smile sweetly at me too, as our group stops for lunch or dinner at a restaurant. We are curious about each other. They want to know about me, a fair skinned, fair haired woman wearing a lavender tunic. I can’t help but wonder about these Persian jewels, that must be tremendously beautiful to warrant hiding them from others. I am curious about their hair, the shapes of their bodies, the way they’d express themselves through fashion if they could publicly show their style. Under the rule of the Shah, the women in Iran wore modern clothes like the rest of the world. Iran’s current dress codes came with the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini who died 8 years ago. The laws are in place to protect both men and women from the appeal of women. A woman is held responsible when a man finds her attractive. In Iran I am told that rapists are put to death, unless a rapist can prove that his victim was in some way inappropriately uncovered. If she showed her hair, or her legs, or some body part that is illegal to show, he will be flogged, but not killed. It is partially her fault for luring him to her. I do feel safe here, covered up. No man dares to look me in the eye. It’s not like in Mexico or Italy where you have to fight away the locals. Walking back down through Pas Galeh after climbing Mount Tochal, a friend tells me that when women aren’t around, all the men talk about is sex.
Each person who’s heard me tell of my climbing trip to Iran has responded the same way. “You’re focusing too much on the difficulties of covering up, and not enough on the country or the climbing,” is the way one friend recently put it. I confess I’m remiss: If you go to Iran to climb, you’ll hike through groves of walnut, mulberry and black cherry trees into highlands where Alpine buttercups, snow tulips and wild rhubarb are just beginning to bloom. You’ll boulder and sport climb with Iranians on the hillsides above Tehran, sharing techniques and gear. You’ll climb new routes up mountains and camp beneath the stars in the area folklore has placed the courtship between the King of Solomon and the Queen of Sheeba. You’ll feast daily on fresh cucumber, tomatoes, onions and apricots, savor lamb kabobs and rice seasoned with saffron, enjoy garlic-flavored yogurt, local honey and dried dates. You’ll stop for black tea and sugar cubes nearly every hour when you can, and sit in tea houses drinking Doogh, fermented yogurt and mineral water. You won’t get sick traveling there and can drink the water. You’ll be delighted to hear the Iranians ask, “Where are you from?” and see their faces light up when you answered, “America.”
Still, even though I encourage you to go and would go again myself, I’m alarmed that on the other side of the world, there’s an entire country of women who during the sixties and early seventies wore miniskirts, but now by law must cover up. After traveling there I no longer have the urge to dance at a topless bar, but I’m glad I have the right to. Dancing nude may oppress women. What about denying a woman her right to be seen? Using women’s nudity as a commodity, and shaming women to cover up are one and the same. Underexposed, overexposed—both equally objectify. Thus the irony of censorship. Getting less makes people want more.