The rules are designed to protect women from men, and to help prevent men from having sinful thoughts when they see the shapely body of a woman.
To this end, women’s clothing should be shapeless and most of the body should be covered. Iranian women in the countryside generally wear a black sheet called a Chador (Farsi for Tent) whenever they are outside the house.
Most younger women wear a headscarf and a shorter more fashionable black top called a ‘Manteau’ which covers their bottom and thighs. Inside the home most people wear ‘western’ clothing although in the countryside the women may well keep their head scarf on while guest men are in the home.
The woman in the Chador is the often shown image of women in Iran, but in the cities this style of dress is fading out fast as young women everywhere push the boundaries of what is allowed, by wearing shirts or stylish dresses over trousers, which are most commonly jeans, and wearing coloured manteaus with belts around their waist, and head scarves with patterned designs of every colour.
Heads are still covered but the percentage of hair covered reduces to a token scarf hanging on the back of the head in cities like Tehran or Shiraz and the more affluent areas of most towns and cities in Iran. Women still cover their heads but great pains are taken to have the most fantastic hairstyles showing but still covered in a way that will not get them into trouble.
Tourists are given a lot more leeway and to be honest most tourists just wear trousers, shirt and a head scarf so that they are still respecting the local rules.
It is easy to buy a manteau and many of them are made of light material and look really good.
We saw women with maybe 10% of the hair covered, half length sleeves and 3/4 length trousers, and many young couples holding hands as they walked down the street in Shiraz. We met one Irani woman who posed as a tourist in Yazd so that she could wear a shirt rather than a manteau. She said it was great but she still felt like she was taking a risk.
In the religious cities such as Esfahan, Mashhad and Qom, clothing is a bit more conservative in some areas, although if you Couch Surf, most people live in areas where clothing is indistinguishable from Tehran and Shiraz.
Some advice from Isabelle for cycling / travelling:
A black manteau is ridiculously hot in sunny weather and it is also difficult to organise yourself as the temperature changes throughout the day. On hot days it’s impossible to remove a lower layer so most Irani women just have to suffer if a restaurant is too hot.
I would recommend a man’s shirt or top that would allow you to wear only a bra underneath it when it is too hot. No-one seems to mind about the colour of this top so make it light coloured to keep you cool when cycling on really sunny days. I have a $1 shirt made in India and it works perfectly.
The head scarf can also become unbearable, so try to get a natural fibre one, or one with loads of holes in it, easily available in the bazaars of every city (ignore the Lonely Planet warnings..things have changed)
For cycling you would be much better with a bandana or a ‘buff', a tube of material which can be used in many different ways, from relaxed and groovy to positively pious (good for mosques) – see the pictures.
You will need photographs for your visa (2) or visa extension (2) with all your hair covered.
Some tourists also said that it was really hard to find hair clips to hold your head scarf on, so bring plenty of them from home
Wear exactly what you feel like while cycling, t-shirt and shorts are fine. Iran’s dress code is great for men.
I’ve stayed nice and cool throughout the desert, I don’t know what all the fuss is about.
Iran’s a great country to travel in and I’ve had no problem regulating my temperature.
Wind-stopper cycling leggings can be useful in very rural areas…just pull them up and women will be able to take their eyes of your legs.
We both thoroughly applaud the attempts of the government to help prevent men having sinful thoughts by covering up so much of a woman’s body, but both of us really worry about the poor women who can see men everywhere wearing body-hugging little t-shirts and tight jeans yet get no help avoiding those same sinful thoughts.
There’s only one solution….all men should wear a Chador as well, then everyone could remain pure.