Mahsa Khalilifar

IRVINE, Calif.(WOMENSENEWS)–When she caught her flight to Iran out of Los Angeles, 21-year-old Mahsa Khalilifar was wearing cargo pants and a sweat shirt, her wet hair drawn back in a bun.

By the time her plane touched down 24 hours later, the college student from Irvine, Calif., had transformed herself. She wore a shawl around her head and a manteau, a long-sleeved, knee-length jacket required of women outside their homes in Iran. It was June 2004 when she emerged from the plane to face the oppressive heat of Tehran in summer.

Relatives greeted Khalilifar and her mother with hugs and a bouquet of flowers, leading the two visitors to their car. Once in the back seat, her cousin gently tugged Khalilifar’s shawl back to reveal her hairline, explaining that this more liberal style was now permitted. Also, it was possible to wear colorful manteaus, not just the dowdy, loose-fitting black styles once required.

“Are you excited to be here?” Khalilifar’s cousin asked as they drove along the streets of sprawling Tehran. She was.

She had come to see the land of her birth and to get to know the cousins, aunts and uncles from whom she’d been exiled for most of her life. As many as 600,000 Iranians live in Southern California–where Los Angeles has been nicknamed Irangeles–and Khalilifar was reared to speak Farsi and savor Persian cuisine.

She had lived in the U.S. since she was a year and a half old and was used to wearing whatever she wanted. While she knew that visiting Iran would subject her to dress restrictions, she still found them unbearable.

Dress Code Can Be Vexing

Adhering to a dress code is no small matter for exiles and their children–who often prefer the term Persian over Iranian to describe themselves–when they visit their cultural homeland. Even inside the home, where a woman can discard head cover and long jacket, these items are never too far from reach. If a man from outside the family enters the residence, it’s customary for a woman to cover herself.

One 21-year-old college student from Anaheim, Calif., recalls such a moment during her visit to Iran last summer. Taraneh, who withheld her last name to preserve the anonymity of her relatives in Iran, explains that she and her mother were lounging in sweats one morning at her grandfather’s house in Tehran when someone came to the door. Both women had their hair uncovered, putting the male visitors, who happened to be devout, ill at ease to the point of incivility.

“They wouldn’t say hello. They wouldn’t look at us and I got upset,” Taraneh says, remembering that she felt similarly insulted during a visit to Iran at age 15, when a soldier ordered her to cover her hair more completely.

However, on her latest trip back last summer, she was stunned by young women’s defiance of the dress code. In addition to showing a few inches of hair, they were wearing makeup and perfume, once forbidden. Taraneh even saw a woman with a low-cut manteau and no shirt or bra underneath. Was this political protest, female empowerment or simply old-fashioned exhibitionism? She didn’t always know.

Women’s Rules, Roles

Iranian law requires women in public to cover their hair and entire bodies, except for face and hands, and to wear loose-fitting clothes that conceal body shape to the knee. Dress code violations have met with a variety of sanctions, including reprimand, flogging, arrest and imprisonment. In recent years, however, the government has tolerated minor lapses in compliance. Last June’s election of a new, more conservative president is expected to roll back many of the reforms of the previous administration.

But it’s not just Iran’s dress code that disturbs some Persian American women. It’s also seeing their counterparts–female family members–with few opportunities for their own career, apartment or any kind of economic self-sufficiency. Dating is generally kept secret. Men and women who are not married are forbidden by law to express affection to each other publicly. In fact, they can’t even sit together on a bus.

The first time Khalilifar boarded a bus in Iran, she had no idea that seating was segregated. Clueless, she began making her way up to the front, when her mother yelled in a worried voice for her to stop. She returned to the back. Her mother explained in English that the front was for men only. Khalilifar couldn’t help herself: She burst into laughter amid the stony silence of her fellow bus riders and their obvious disapproval.

After a lifetime of being perceived as Iranian, she was now instantly and unmistakably recognized as American.

Personal Identity and World Conflict

Immigrants and their children commonly wrestle with the problems of cultural identity. Female Iranian Americans, however, face special complications because their gender and national identity dilemmas play out in the highly public context of global conflict.

In 2002, President Bush identified Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil.” The next year, as Taraneh planned her trip to Iran, she worried about her return home. Would U.S. border officials suspect her as a terrorist sympathizer? After all, an Iranian friend’s father who had been living in the U.S. for 15 years was detained by American authorities while leaving for a trip to Mexico. He was held for three months.

Like Taraneh, Khalilifar knew that U.S.-Iran hostilities were building as she planned her visit. She wondered what would happen if a military attack should occur during her stay. Given her two passports, who would claim her and who would label her an enemy?

Since then, U.S.-Iranian relations have further deteriorated. This week, five world powers, including the U.S., referred the issue of Iran’s nuclear operations to the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons.

These tensions might be enough to keep even the most intrepid Iranian exiles and their children from attempting future visits.

Asal Mizahossein, 22, of San Diego, went to her parents’ homeland only once, when she was 7. She treasures her memories of extended family, neighborhood parties and scampering about her grandfather’s cherry orchard. She vividly recalls her visit to the ancient city of Esfahan, famous for its historical monuments, bridges and Islamic architecture.

Fifteen years later, she’s not thinking about making a trip anytime soon and she’s not too optimistic about the new regime.

“I don’t want to go now . . . maybe in four or five years,” she says. “We had a wonderful time, but I’m not in a hurry to go back.”

Amy DePaul writes for newspapers, Web sites and magazines.

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For more information:

Reflection of Reality–Mahsa Khalilifar:

Iran Chamber Society–Iranian Women and Contemporary Memoirs:

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