Black Tents

Çagla Hadimioglu

A shadow passes against the playful colors and intricate pattern of a faience portal of Safavid Isfahan. The shadow is echoed in form by many more: large black triangles with feet that carry them across the scene. Not a shadow, but a black screen, a surface that has been swept around a woman’s body to form what is not simply an item of clothing but an extended skin, a tent, an architecture. This is the chador: a large semi-circle of black cloth designed to cover a woman’s body, held at her chin with one hand, leaving a small triangle of her – face invisible.
The chador is one manifestation of hijab in women’s clothing. Hijab has come to be equated with an Islamic dress code and is often rendered in English as »veiling«.1 In Iran women wear the chador in mosques and in state buildings. Although a less inhibiting form of covering such as a scarf and long loose coat is considered acceptable outside such buildings, many women choose to wear the chador in all spaces outside the home – even in the home: wherever forbidden eyes are present.2 This extends to the presence of the camera eye that might distribute a woman’s image to others outside the space.
Etymologically, the Persian »chador« is derived from the Turkish word »chadir«, which in Turkish still means »tent«. The chador is thus conceptualized as a mobile home that facilitates a woman’s movement around the city and her dealings with men. It essentially describes an extended boundary that assures that she always occupies a private space. In Iran this black tent may be identified not only as architecture but perhaps also as a monumental architecture that supports a multiplicity of inscriptions. The chador is a politically and historically defined surface, one that yields alternate readings dependent on the political position of the reader. It attracts voyeuristic attention from the West, where it is viewed as exotic. Yet, within the particular Islamic society in which it is worn, the chador aims to act as a foil to the masculine visual regard. A woman inhabiting this screen, upon which not only ideology but also desire is projected, is politicized within a global context despite, or because of, the original local objective that the chador renders her neutralized.
The correlation of the Safavid building entered from that faience portal, and the moving black tent lies in their operation as sites of memory and political intent. As maintained by Henri Lefebvre, »Monumentality... always embodies and imposes a clearly intelligible message. It says what it wants to say – yet it hides a good deal more: being political, military and ultimately fascist in character, monumental buildings mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath signs and surfaces which claim to express collective will and collective thought«.3 The chador operates as such a surface, fluidly masking multiple »wills of power« that have tramped the stages of Iranian history, although not all Iranians subscribe to the clerics’ claims that the chador expresses collective will. Collective memories, however, are woven into the black of the fabric of the tent, spanning a few hundred years.
The chador is an urban phenomenon that appeared in Iran as a result of women’s removal from the public realm »with the transition from tribal and feudal communities into expanded urbanism caused by... capitalism«.4 With the establishment of Pahlavi rule in 1925, Iran engaged in a process of westernization equated with modernisation, within which the adoption of western clothing was a central symbolic and practical component. The urban work force would be increased be enabling women to participate, her hands liberated from the task of holding her chador. Debate on the hijab burgeoned; anti-clerical intellectuals ridiculed the chador as un-modern,5 while an equally virulent opposing voice argued for its necessity. Women expressed opinion on both sides of the debate: some despised it as a form of oppression; others found in it a source of pride and an index of identity.
In 1936 Reza Shah outlawed the chador, ordering soldiers to tear them from the bodies of women who insisted on wearing them. Ayatollah Khomeini would later call this action »the movement of bayonets«.6 When the Shah abdicated in 1941, his edict war rescinded, at which point »women who had felt humiliated by the Shah’s dress code put on black chadors and flaunted them in the streets, reveling in the freedom to wear what they whished«.7 The chador had become, and would remain, a political emblem.8
During the late sixties and seventies, inhabiting the chador became a form of personal expression and protest against the Shah and what was seen as western cultural contamination. The chador was assumed by many previously unveiled women; theirs was a political and cultural occupation, in some cases not even remotely religious. Yet despite these decades of proveiling activity, upon the victory of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini was not immediately able to enforce the wearing of the chador. His institution of the Islamic Dress Code in 1983 was the culmination of a four-year incremental process, accompanied by the protests of many women. Many continue to fight against it, wearing hijab out of necessity and fully aware that it is a politicized occupation. Some inhabit the chador as another type of architecture, a prison: »... the veil is literally a mobile prison, a terrifying form of solitary confinement for life«.9 The various occupations of hijab by women in Teheran, such as the shortening and tightening of their rupushes (coats) and the invention of attractive and revealing ways to tie a headscarf, may constitute resistance.
In 1995 Ayatollah Khomeini stated that »there is no doubt that the chador is a desirable cover and among Iranian costumes is considered the best hijab, but religiously no specific dress has been designed as necessary cover for women, and making the chador mandatory has no ground«.10 His comment reveals the Iranian clerics’ awareness that they cannot justify the chador (or veiling of any sort) on a Qur’anic basis.11 Nevertheless, the chador is retained and considered »the best hijab«. Since Islam does not prescribe the chador, the rationale for its continued enforcement in Iran must be found elsewhere – in its function as a site of memory and symbolism. It had become, with the revolution, a form of mobil monument.
As elaborated by Paidar, the position of women in society and thus their legal rights and appearance, constituted a central issue in the formation of an identity for the Islamic State.12 Recognozing this, even the more liberal clerics, while opposing enforced Islamization, nevertheless supported Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for the chador. Pro-democracy cleric Ayatollah Taleghani maintained that the chador should be embraced voluntarily since »we want to show that there has been a revolution, a profound change«.13 The message of a profound change was directed not just to the citizens of the new state, but also to those outside who had provided the model against which the change had taken place.
The West has twice been implicated in the politicizing of the chador. In the discourse of cultural imperialism, the chador was marked first as a negative symbol of backwardness against modern Europe, and then as a positive nationalist symbol of vulnerable tradition. Since 1983 western media has condemned the revolution’s enforcement of the veil, seldom venturing beyond a superficial critique of veiling as a mode of women’s opression.14 Furthermore, the chador maintains an exoticizing tendency – emphasizing a difference between an »us«, the West, and a »them«, Iranians. It is this function of the chador as an index of difference, representing an identity in a polarized environment that constitutes the operative motivation behind the Iranian clerics’ continued call for its use, as demonstrated by Ajatollah Taleghani’s justification.
The discourse that analyzes and supports the need for the chador is typically centered on vision. Covering is necessary, as men have eyes. »Eyes are considered not to be passive organs like ears which merely gather information... eyes are active, even invasive organs, whose gaze is also construed to be inherently aggressive.«15 Hijab can therefore be primarily considered a visual prophylactic. Yet such a model does not fully explain the chador. Hijab is manifested in various forms in different societies, and the chador is not the most conservative. Photographs taken at the beginning of the twentieth century by Gatian de Clérambault document, for example, the more extensive covering of Moroccan women’s hijab, which was also far more articulated, ironically increasing the effects of those apparently seductive voluptuous curves or folds. The Iranian Dress Code demands black, a dictate that departs from the lively colors and patterns still worn by women in rural Iran. The effect of this black is shadow; it creates negation. In photographs, women appear as holes.


The feience of that Safavid portal in Isfahan, before which a black shadow sits, bears the words of the Qur’an and testifies to the greatness of a particular patron Shah. The script is articulated in a decorative configuration, rendering it difficult to decipher. For those who untangle the dates and phrases, both religious and secular, the epiphany provides clues to the monument’s purpose and period: political, religious and functional. Before operating as a historical document, these same clues established the monument as »a collective mirror more faithful than any personal one«.16
Considered not as a void but as the result of an accumulation of inscriptions or projections so dense that they become solid – an ostensible black hole that is in fact saturated with intention, memory and meaning. The Women of Allah photographs of Shirin Neshat support this interpretation. White sheets cloak a woman, the artist herself, sometimes with her son or with a gun. Upon the photographs, within the boundaries of the sheet, poems of Forugh Farokhzad are written in black script. The script follows the simple folds of the sheet, suggesting that the words have been applied onto the sheet itself rather than onto the surface of the photograph. The gun sometimes shown at the side of the figure is perhaps the instrument or qualam that writes this inscription. Such an instrument evokes stories wrought by the women of the revolution, stories of violence in the name of Islam. The chador, more than just a uniform, was their site of resistance and remains the slate of their struggle, bearing the marks of their beliefs manifested in action.
One photograph depicts the face of a child peering from within a white sheet, the script circling the child’s face in two different scales. The limited area of dense script suggests that the text is incomplete, that the writing will grow, will spread upon the whiteness that covers the child’s body. In other photographs the sheet is black, a chador. The words have crawled beyond the confines of the now-black sheet onto the skin of the artist. In some of these images the script wanders with the logic of the bends of limb or fold of skin as it also conforms to the shape of the white sheet. In other photographs, the script is flat upon Neshat’s face as a layer unattached to the skin. Only her eyes remain without inscription. The text appears to be a projection, yet the woman’s mouth is closed shut, sealed with what has been projected.
Neshat’s inscriptions of Farokhzad’s poems– rather than the words of the revolution or the Qur’an – complicates a reading that her once-white tent is simply a site of oppression. Farokhzad remains a pioneering figure for women artists in Iran. Her sensual poetry effects an unveiling, an exploration of the inner space of a woman’s thoughts and desires. The juxtaposition of her words with Neshat’s tented figures challenges both a simplistic critique of the Muslim woman as passive, mercilessly bound and gagged by the clerics’ chador, and also the reading that as a self-determined woman she is struggling to escape the tent. While inhabiting the tent, she is inscribed with desires of her own making, and this inscription twists the weave of her chador, altering our perception of it. The chador, a political battlefield and site of resistance, is also a potential site of poetic pleasures.
The epigraphy presented by Neshat supplements the inscriptions commonly found in contemporary Iran. Maintaining some continuity with the Safavid portal, these utilize Qur’anic verse and identify contemporary power with quotes and maxims of the revolution. In an innovative turn, decorative schemes employ the image of Ayatollah Khomeini, the most visible symbol of the revolution. Numerous walls bear the giant faces of martyrs of the revolution, men killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Guns and hands with tulips (the symbol of martyrdom) are also popularly erected. These images and texts, hovering somewhere between graffiti and billboard, constitute a form of decoration independent of its supporting structure. Any surface may be adorned – freestanding wall or building of any function; the architecture is treated as an assemblage of canvases that circumscribes an irrelevant interior.
Functioning as a site of memory and representation of power, these images and texts might constitute a contemporary Iranian monument, articulating a monumentality characterized by surface. Social space in Iran, however, is not equivalent to a western postmodern space, of which the billboard may be a manifestation. A monument both embodies a society’s or a hegemony’s concept of space and also imposes it; in Iran, the chador, not the billboard, meticulously performs these roles.

Spatial Habit

Henri Lefebvre’s triadic structure of space and his discussion of the monument usefully demonstrate the monumental potential of the chador. Lefebvre distinguishes between perceived space (»spatial practice«), conceived space (»representations of space«) and lived space (»representational spaces«).17 Hijab is determined by an Islamic conceptualization of space that is essentially moral, generated by a binary categorization of familial and sexual relations, the mahrem and namahrem.18 Mahrem, meaning »unlawful« or »forbidden«, refers to a consort, an intimate, a family member with whom it is unlawful to marry, but before whom a woman is permitted to appear unveiled; namahrem (not-mahrem) refers to those who may not see her unveiled, strangers. The fundamental moral opposition, mahrem/namahrem, structures a concept of space in terms of who may be present and who may not, describing space conceptually as either forbidden or permitted depending on who is occupying it.19 Hijab provides the curtain of physical separation. Use of the chador effectively limits the forbidden space to the interiour of the tent, liberating all other space for occupation by men who are namahrem. Indicating the monument’s relationship to power, the prescribing/proscribing function of the chador is characteristic of Lefebvre’s monumental space: »Such a space is determined by what may take place there, and consequently by what may not take place there (prescribed/proscribed; scene/obscene).«20
The social practice of separation, the utilization of hijab, is an example of Lefebvre’s spatial practice. »The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction; it produces it slowly as it masters and appropriates it.«21 This interaction is demonstrated well in Iranian society where the moral code of segregation is a spatial construct both in concept and practice. This interaction between the concept and practice of hijab produces a »representional space«, which is also served by the chador.22 As already noted by the clerics who call for its use as a symbol, the chador not only represents the conceived space of a specific moral code but also a particular hegemony.
Moreover, the chador is another skin, a place of inhabitation such as a home. As a »lived space« it is place.23 It is a place of security, a place of liberation and resistance. A place of domesticity, of camouflage. As a place of inhabitation, the chador alters a local geography. The space of the chador is not limited to those who are covered in its folds. The assemblage of black tents constructs a type of sub-city of fluid walls that may be occupied just as is any city constructed of individual stationary buildings. Exterior surfaces congregate and disperse; the exterior spaces circumscribed by these surfaces, although never constant, assert established social regulations for inhabitation. Those who inhabit the interior of the chador perceive the interstice of screen and skin, and those who dwell among the tents perceive their own distance from she who is inside.
»For millenia, monumentality took in all the aspects of spatiality that we have identified above: the perceived, the conceived and the representional spaces... Of the social space, which embraced all the above-mentioned aspects while still according each its proper place, everyone partook and partook fully – albeit, naturally, under the conditions of a generally accepted wisdom. The monument thus effected a consensus, and this in the strongest sense of the term, rendering it practical and concrete. The element of repression in it and the element of exaltation could scarcely be disentangled.«24
Women’s clothing still measures the political climate in Iran. The monuments of the revolution, fashioned, as monuments are, on an »effected concensus«, are beginning to peel. The first fashion show since the revolution was recently held in Teheran, and advertisers of the event erected billboards displaying the image of women in fashionable hijab on a scale that evokes Ayatollah Khomeini or the martyrs. These billboards, like the chador two decades ago, signal that there has been a change. Whether it is profound or not remains to be seen.

1 »Hijab« denotes a variety of objects that conceptually participate in a function of separation and/or division: a partition, a veil, a curtain, a membrane. It is also used as an abstract noun – veiling, concealing; also modesty, bashfulness. In the Qur’an the word »hijab« is not used to refer to a woman’s dress code but rather to an earlier, abstract concept of modesty.
2 The presence of men who are not defined as »mahren« – a term that will be elaborated later.
3 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space; Oxford, UK, and Cambridge, USA, 1991; p.143.
4 Hamid Dabashi, The Gun and the Gaze – Shirin Neshat’s Photography; Women of Allah: Shirin Neshat; Torino 1997; unpaginated.
5 Paul Sprachmann, The Poetics of Hijab in the Satire of Iraj Mirza; Iran and Iranian Sudies, Essays in honour of Iraj Afshar; ed. Kambiz Eslami; Princeton 1998; p.341.
6 See Sprachmann, p.345.
7 Memoir of Faman Farmanian quoted in Sprachman, p.347.
8 The relationship of politics and the veil was already demonstrated early in the nineteenth century, when Tahereh Qurral al-Ayn threw off her veil in order to »engage in radical political activities«. See Hamid Dabashi, op. cit.
9 Farzaneh Milani quoted in Anne McCann-Baker, ed.: Stories by Iranian Women since the Revolution; Austin 1991; p.13.
10 Iran News, 14.3.1995, quoted on
11 His statement echoes those made by the revolutionaries in 1979.
12 Parvin Paidar, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran; Cambridge, UK, 1995.
13 See Paidar, op. cit., p.233. Paidar explains how »this profound change was to be marked by the appearance and behaviour of women«.
14 Iranian-American CNN-correspondent Christiane Amanpour donned a headscarf to interview President Khatami in 1996, but in the CNN-documentary Revolutionary Journey two years later, she ripped the scarf from the head of her unsuspecting cousin on camera.
15 Hamid Naficy, Veiled Vision/Powerful Presences: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema, In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran; ed. Afkhami and Friedl; Syracuse 1994; p.141. Ayatollah Ali Meshkini explains it thus: »Looking is rape by means of the eyes... whether the vulva admits or rejects it, that is, whether actual sexual intercourse takes place or not.«
16 Lefebvre, op. cit., p.220.
17 As Lefebvre points out, this triad of spaces will not be cleanly applicable and may interact fluidly in different societies.
18 That is, the representation of space, »the conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and spacial engineers«. Lefebvre, op. cit., p.38. The social engineer in this case is the Iranian cleric, following Iranian tradition and religious law to concretize the concept in practice.
19 Returning to an earlier example: if a camera is used in a harem, the women are likely to put on their chador. The forbidden space, once extended to the bounds of the entire room, is effectively contracted into the space of each woman’s tent.
20 Lefebvre, op. cit., p.224.
21 Ibid., p.38.
22 I am suggesting that the representation of space reflects hijab’s meaning as »modesty« – a modesty grounded in the moral code structured by the familial and sexual relations noted above. Spatial practice is a practice of hijab (modesty) utilizing hijab, this time denoting curtain, physical divider and Islamic dress code.
23 The correlation of »place« and »lived space« is pointed out by Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-And-Imagined Places; Cambridge, USA, and Oxford, UK, 1996.
24 Lefebvre, op. cit., p.220.