This article appeared in The New York Times on June 8, 2015. By THOMAS ERDBRINK
With Backpacks and Exposed Skin, European Officials Roil Iranians
TEHRAN — The woman wore form-fitting clothes and a scarf wrapped around her head that revealed a few of her blond tresses. The men carried backpacks to official meetings. Nothing all that unusual in most places, but enough to touch off a firestorm of criticism this weekend from Iranian lawmakers, who accused their visitors of flouting Islamic law by, as one put it, wearing “extremely weird clothing.”
Two worlds collided when the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament met with the head of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, a top power broker whose idea of a wild outfit is wearing a blue vest under his dark suit in winter.
When a Dutch legislator, Marietje Schaake, entered the room, all eyes were on her Islamic dress, a self-chosen creation consisting of a pair of leggings, a tight coat with a zip-up front topped off with a blue head scarf, carefully draped on top of her head.
Iranian officials do not shake hands with women, so Ms. Schaake, a member of the liberal faction, can be seen in one photograph placing her hand on her chest as a gesture of respect for Mr. Larijani. He bows slightly in return.
In another, Ms. Schaake walks next to a Foreign Ministry official who is wearing the traditional black chador, covering everything but her face and hands.
That was too much for Iranian lawmakers. “It is as if she is wearing underwear,” a prominent conservative, Mahdi Kouchakzadeh, wrote on his Instagram page, noting that Ms. Schaake’s neck and ears were also not covered. He criticized Mr. Larijani, the conservative son of a prominent ayatollah, asking why he had allowed “human and Islamic rights to be violated in his presence.”
A string of conservative websites joined the chorus, attacking the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is also leading the nuclear negotiations with world powers, for allowing the European “carnival” into the country.
One outlet, Nasimonline, also angrily noted that a sturdy Austrian delegate named Josef Weidenholzer had casually swung his backpack over his left shoulder while shaking hands with Mr. Larijani. His act, seen as disrespectful by some in Iran, “shocked observers and the media,” the website proclaimed.
Ms. Schaake, now back in Strasbourg, France, the current European Parliament headquarters, said in an interview that she had taken inspiration for her outfit from the streets of Iran, where she says women wear all sorts of variations of the obligatory Islamic scarf and long coat.
She said she was surprised by the ruckus. “At another meeting, with Foreign Minister Zarif, one of the translators asked me to adjust my scarf and I did,” she said. “I didn’t come to Iran to create a controversy, but to keep a direct line of communications.”
Ms. Schaake wrote a report on the visit in which she said: “It would be a shame to let this ‘controversy’ overshadow the rest of the visit. But it would have been better for critics to notify me personally when they were in the same room with me, instead of via the media.”
In recent years, almost all visits by women who are foreign dignitaries have created a stir among Iranian hard-liners. In 2014, the Italian foreign minister, Emma Bonino, refused to leave her plane when she was told she had to wear a scarf, emerging veiled only after a talk with Mr. Zarif. In April, the Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, got away with wearing a hat instead of a scarf, drawing complaints from lawmakers afterward.
Iran is a staunch opponent of the French ban on head scarves, and often calls out the West for double standards when it comes to freedom and curtailing what Iran says is the right to religious freedom.
“The way we dress is not the only difference between us,” Ms. Schaake said. “Why not give people the choice to decide for themselves?”
Please also read Schaake’s blog on her visit to Iran.