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In Tehran, two lives redesigned

They were of opposite worlds, one secular and rich, the other pious and poor. But the women built a friendship -- and a mini clothing empire.

December 08, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer


A wealthy, fashionable woman from north Tehran, Sudaveh had no idea how to act when the morality police would show up at her clothing factory in the first years of the Iranian revolution.

Zarir, her young assistant from the pious slums of south Tehran, knew exactly what to do. "Don't go in there!" Zarir would tell the men as Sudaveh rushed to cover up in adherence to strict Islamic dress codes. "Madame doesn't like to be disturbed during her prayers."

Or, "Don't look inside that drawer" where the well-traveled Sudaveh kept foreign design catalogs that would be deemed risque. "She might have pictures of herself without her head scarf!"

While Zarir helped Sudaveh navigate the intricacies of the Islamic Republic, Sudaveh helped Zarir transform herself from a homebound victim of domestic violence to a businesswoman who stood up to her ex-husband and strict traditional family.

Over nearly two decades, the two women from two different Irans became friends. The threads of their lives became interwoven. The fabric of their nation changed. Their clothing business grew into a small empire.

"This is a place where I got to know them," Sudaveh said, referring to Iran's religious poor, "and they got to know us."

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran turned inside out. Streets, once bustling with prostitutes and drunken revelers, became as somber as mosques during afternoon prayers. Homes, once refuges from the revelry and decadence of the city, became impromptu bars and nightclubs.

The revolution also upended Iran's once-inflexible class system. Wealthy families lost status and income, and many moved abroad. Pious and poor families made their way up the social ladder. Economic realities sent women into the workforce.

In this transformed world, Sudaveh and Zarir came together.

Before the revolution, Sudaveh worked as a deputy to the head of Iran's state-owned Agricultural Bank, an elite post she got through connections and a family background that bordered on the aristocratic. But like many of her class, she was pushed out of her job.

A restless and wiry woman then in her mid-30s, she began going through her options. She wanted to earn money for her family, stay busy and keep her distance from the newly empowered class of pious bureaucrats who enforced Islamic codes of behavior.

"I wasn't the type to sit home," she said. "I had to work."

She decided to get into the clothing business, specifically children's outfits, to avoid the troubles that accompany anything to do with women's fashion in Iran.

She sketched T-shirt designs, had them produced cheaply at workshops in downtown Tehran and, along with a friend named Haleh, canvassed vendors.

"My husband considered it a game," said Sudaveh, who asked that neither their last names nor the name of her company be published for fear of jeopardizing the firm and its workers. "He used to make fun of me."

She ran into numerous hassles in the male-dominated business.

"At first, work was very hard," she said. "The stores would try to rip us off. They thought I was some simple rich woman whose husband is letting her doing this to keep her busy. I had to show that they couldn't rip me off, that I knew what I was doing."

Her business grew, and Sudaveh took a chance. She bought some equipment, hired a few workers and began producing the clothes herself. At the time, it was rare for a woman to run a factory, and it immediately aroused the suspicion of the morality police. They started making visits.

The Islamic Republic's restrictions on dress and social behavior barely affected Zarir's south Tehran neighborhood during the 1980s, when almost all women wore black chadors covering everything but their faces and hands, and parents arranged weddings for their children.

Zarir came from a strictly religious family, and even during the secular rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, she was sent to an Islamic school in south Tehran.

At 16, she was married off. Her husband was abusive and divorced her; he won custody of their two children six years later. The divorce was a mark of shame for her and her family. To make matters worse, her former husband refused to let her see her son and daughter.

With no means to look after herself, she persuaded her conservative father to let her look for a job. That's when she met Sudaveh. It was the late 1980s.

"When I came here, I was in a really bad state," said Zarir, now in her early 40s and manager of the workshop. She is the physical opposite of Sudaveh, beefy arms, round cheeks and a booming voice that rises above the workshop's rumble and clatter.

Her reluctant father was impressed with Sudaveh and agreed to let Zarir work at the factory as long as she stayed upstairs and did not go downstairs where the men worked.

Sudaveh soon discovered her new employee's hidden talents.

"Because she understood these religious people, when they came here and I was terrified she would step forward to answer," Sudaveh said.

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