Like many people, I had a memorable first day of school. Not because it was the first time going to a new place. Nor because my otherwise amazing parents forgot to tell me that I’d be starting school on that day. No, it was neither the fear nor the shock that made the day memorable, but the fact that I had to wear a headscarf!
Of course, growing up in Tehran, Iran, I knew that when girls reached a certain age, they had to cover their hair in public. For me, like most other Iranian girls, the age was six. That was the age I started first grade and was ‘required’ by school, under government and Islamic laws, to cover my hair.
I remember the day vividly. I was sitting at the breakfast table, eating my usual breakfast of buttered toast and honey, when my dad told me to hurry up and finish because I had to go to school. Before I had a chance to say anything, my mom came toward me with a neatly folded navy-colored scarf. She opened it and put it over my head. My puffy curly hair did not fit in it. She gently pushed my hair inside the scarf. The curls sprang out. In an effort to cover all my hair, she pulled the scarf down my forehead, almost all the way toward my eyebrows. Still, my hair was unruly and didn’t want to stay in. My hair didn’t like the scarf, I thought. It repelled it. I felt the same way, but I didn’t tell her.
My mom spent a good amount of time fixing my scarf and the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about a cartoon I had recently seen. I don’t remember the details, but it had something to do with a dog that got leashed by his owner shortly before going out for a walk. The walk was lovely, but the dog was sad because he wasn’t free to move around.
After my scarf was fixed, I was handed to my dad. He took me to the car and as I sat in the back seat, I saw my reflection in the front mirror. My halo of curls was replaced by a dark veil. I looked ridiculous and sad at the same time. But I didn’t complain to my dad either. I just sat there, thinking of the cartoon.
After that uncomfortable first day of school, and throughout the next several elementary school years in Tehran, I got used to wearing a head scarf. It became a routine; the usual. Yet, whenever I saw my older brother go to school, scarf-free of course, I wondered how it would feel to leave the house without having to ‘hide’ your hair. I was sure that all that running, jumping and chasing in the school yard was even more fun without a scarf. Plus, he didn’t have to worry about getting punished if his scarf accidentally slipped. How unfair, I would think to myself, that girls had to wear scarves.
But it wasn’t about the scarf. And it wasn’t about the hair. It was about being controlled and forced into doing something. It was about the leash, disguised as a head scarf. And the leash, as harmless as it may have looked, was nothing but a passive form of violence.