Part of a set of two objects along with another face mask in the collection from the same area of Iran (ZI2006.500330 ASIA).
This (burqa) belonging to Mariyam Taj Ahmed was donated to Dr. Reem Tariq El Mutwalli by Mariam Matar Hamadi of Maqam, Iran in 2006 to be added to The Zay Initiative collection to enhance it.
This is an (indigo) dyed stiff cotton burqa with possibly a tinsel cord fastener (shbuch). Made and used in the southern region of Iran, this burqa has a strong resemblance to those used in the countries across the Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula, especially the UAE.
Traditionally the design and overall shape (gardhah) of such a face mask adhere to the aesthetical harmony of the wearer’s facial features accentuating certain characteristics and conversely concealing flaws at the same time. Often newly married young women from the Arabian Peninsula are seen wearing the daintier more revealing versions while the elderly and the widows wear the boxier and more concealing ones.
The masks are often identified by their shape, location, or function. This piece is a typical example of a (myani) style, where its overall size and shape are proportionately medium in nature.
Traditionally, in the Arabian Peninsula wearing a burqa symbolises a woman’s coming–of–age and is primarily a social rather than a religious practice and obligation. Since marriage in the past often coincided and was closer to when a woman reached puberty, this practice automatically came to signify a married woman.
With urbanisation and modernisation, the practice of marrying at a younger age eventually became obsolete, thus confining the practice of wearing the burqa to the older generation.
Traditionally, these burqas were made from stiff cotton that was imported from India. It was dyed in indigo and was available in grades of bluish to purple, which is commonly rubbed and pounded to produce a metallic lustre ranging from yellow to brown to reddish gold which was usually maintained by polishing them with oyster shells. Today, readymade sheets of different lusters are bought commercially, from which a certain number of masks can be cutout.
The indigo dye would stain the wearer’s face after repeated wear which made a cloth lining imperative. This lining was usually made from cotton, which was stitched to the underside to prevent stains as well as absorb the oil and perspiration. By the 1980s this trend changed to using strips of masking tape. These were superseded at the turn of the century by clear transparent adhesive sheets, cut to the shape of the burqa.
Although pre–Islamic Persian and Assyrian root of veiling was primarily practiced to distinguish social classes which spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula via trade and interaction, some historians believe that the more recent practice of wearing a face mask, especially in the southern Iranian regions of Hormuz and Bandar Abbas was as recent as c. 16th century with the Portuguese annexation of the port city of Hormuz. According to a BBC article, the “[…] roots of this tradition is unknown although some say that it started during Portuguese rule when women were trying to avoid recognition by slave masters looking for pretty girls.”
Coastal societies in the Arabian Peninsula were influenced by cultures from across the Gulf and beyond, even though most of the Arabian Peninsula remained almost isolated until the 20th century, with tribal customs and traditions shaping their way of life. The development of the oil industry brought rapid changes.
This form of veiling thus was initially used to protect women from foreigners and later as a symbol of status which also ties with the practice of dyeing one’s clothes in indigo. As a plant believed to be originally native to India indigo had been cultivated over centuries in Egypt, South America, and the Far East. It was traditionally imported and was considered a prized product that could only be afforded by the rich and the affluent. Gradually over centuries and with the rise of globalisation this tradition became a part of national and ethnic identity around the region.
- El Mutwalli, Reem Tariq. Sultani: Traditions Renewed. Changes in Women’s Traditional Dress in the United Arab Emirates During the Reign of the Late Shaykh Zâyid Bin Sultan Âl Nahyân, 1966-2004. 2011.
- BBC Article: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20170106-the-mysterious-masked-women-of-iran