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Chapter 20

Persian women--Their anatomy--Their eyes--Surmah--Age of
puberty--The descendants of
Mohammed--Infanticide--Circumcision--Deformities and
abnormalities--The ear--The teeth and dentistry--The nose--A
Persian woman's indoor dress--The yel--The tadji and other
jewels--Out-of-door dress--The Chakchur--The ruh-band--The

Persia, they say, is the country of the loveliest women in the world. It probably has that reputation because few foreign male judges have ever seen them. The Persians themselves certainly would prefer them to any other women. Still, there is no doubt, from what little one sees of the Persian woman, that she often possesses very beautiful languid eyes, with a good deal of animal magnetism in them. Her skin is extremely fair--as white as that of an Italian or a French woman--with a slight yellowish tint which is attractive. They possess when young very well modelled arms and legs, the only fault to be found among the majority of them being the frequent thickness of the wrists and ankles, which rather takes away from their refinement. In the very highest classes this is not so accentuated. The women are usually of a fair height, not too small, and carry themselves fairly well, particularly the women of the lower classes who are accustomed to carry weights on their head. The better-off women walk badly, with long steps and a consequent stoop forward; whereas the poorer ones walk more firmly with a movement of the hips and with the spine well arched inwards. The neck lacks length, but is nicely rounded, and the head well set on the shoulders.

Anatomically, the body is not striking either for its beauty or its strength or suppleness. The breasts, except with girls of a very tender age, become deformed, and very pendant, and the great tendency to fatness rather interferes with the artistic beauty of their outlines.

The skeleton frame of a Persian woman is curiously constructed, the hip-bones being extremely developed and broad, whereas the shoulder blades and shoulders altogether are very narrow and undeveloped. The hands and feet are generally good, particularly the hand, which is less developed and not so coarse as the lower limbs generally and the feet in particular. The fingers are usually long and quite supple, with well-proportioned nails. The thumb is, nevertheless, hardly ever in good proportion with the rest of the hand. It generally lacks length and character. The feet bear the same characteristics as the hands except, as I have said, that they are infinitely coarser. Why this should be I cannot explain, except that intermarriage with different races and social requirements may be the cause of it.

The head I have left to the last, because it is from an artist's point of view the most picturesque part of a Persian woman's anatomy. It may possibly lack fine chiselled features and angularity; and the first impression one receives on looking at a Persian woman's face is that it wants strength and character--all the lines of the face being broad, uninterrupted curves. The nose is broad and rounded, the cheeks round, the chin round, the lips large, voluptuous and round--very seldom tightly closed; in fact, the lower lip is frequently drooping. But when it comes to eyes, eyelashes and eyebrows, there are few women in the world who can compete with the Persian. There is exuberant fire and expression in the Persian feminine organs of vision, large and almond-shaped, well-cut, and softened by eyelashes of abnormal length, both on the upper and lower lid. The powerful, gracefully-curved eyebrows extend far into the temples, where they end into a fine point, from the nose, over which they are very frequently joined. The iris of the eye is abnormally large, of very rich dark velvety brown, with jet black pupils, and the so-called "white of the eye" is of a much darker tinge than with Europeans--almost a light bluish grey. The women seem to have wonderful control over the muscles of the eyelids and brows, which render the eyes dangerously expressive. The habit of artificially blackening the under lid with Surmah, too, adds, to no mean extent, to the luminosity and vivid power of the eyes in contrast to the alabaster-like, really beautiful skin of the younger Persian women.

I said "younger," for owing to racial and climatic conditions the Persian female is a full-grown woman in every way at the age of ten or twelve, sometimes even younger. They generally keep in good compact condition until they are about twenty or twenty-five, when the fast expanding process begins, deforming even the most beautiful into shapeless masses of flesh and fat. They are said, however, to be capable of bearing children till the mature age of forty to forty-five, although from my own observation thirty-five to forty I should take to be the more common average at which Persian women are in full possession of prolific powers.

In the case of Sayids, the descendants of Mahommed, both sexes of whom are reputed for their extraordinary powers and vitality, women are said not to become sterile till after the age of fifty.

Whether this is a fact or not, I cannot say, but it is certain that the Sayids are a superior race altogether, more wiry and less given to orgies--drinking and smoking,--which may account for their natural powers being preserved to a later age than with most other natives of Persia. Their women are very prolific. Sayid men and women are noticeable even from a tender age for their robustness and handsome features. They are dignified and serious in their demeanour, honest and trustworthy, and are a fine race altogether.

Infanticide after birth is not very common in Persia, but abortion artificially procured has, particularly of late, become frequent for the prevention of large families that cannot be supported. This is done by primitive methods, not dissimilar to those used in European countries. Medicine is occasionally also administered internally. These cases are naturally illegal, and although the law of the country is lenient--or, rather, short-sighted--in such matters, any palpable case, if discovered, would be severely punished.

The umbilicus of newly-born children is inevitably tied by a doctor and not by a member of the family, as with some nations. Circumcision is practised on male children when at the age of forty days. It is merely performed as a sanitary precaution, and is not undergone for religion's sake.

There are few countries where deformities and abnormalities are as common as they are in Persia. In women less than in men; still, they too are afflicted with a good share of Nature's freaks. The harelip is probably the most common abnormality. Webbed and additional fingers and toes come next. Birth-marks are very common--especially very large black moles on the face and body.

Persian ears are very seldom beautiful. They are generally more or less malformed and somewhat coarse in modelling, although they seem to answer pretty well the purpose for which they are created. But although the hearing is very good in a general sense, I found that the Persian, of either sex, had great difficulty in differentiating very fine modulations of sounds, and this is probably due to the under-development or degeneration of the auricular organ, just the same as in the ears of purely Anglo-Saxon races.

To an observant eye, to my mind, there is no part of people's anatomy that shows character and refinement more plainly than the ear. Much more delicate in texture than the hands or feet, the ear is, on the other hand, less subject to misleading modifications by artificial causes which are bound to affect the other extremities.

The ear of a Persian is, in the greater percentage of cases, the ear of a degenerate. It is coarse and lumpy, and somewhat shapeless, with animal qualities strongly marked in it. Occasionally one does come across a good ear in Persia, but very rarely.

Similar remarks might apply to teeth. When young, men and women have good teeth, of fairly good shape and length, and frequently so very firmly set in their sockets as to allow their possessors to lift heavy weights with them, pulling ropes tight, etc., when the strength of the hands is not sufficient. One frequently notices, however, irregularity, or additional teeth--caused again by intermixture of race--the upper teeth not fitting properly the lower ones, and causing undue friction, early injury to the enamel, and consequent decay. This is also greatly intensified by the unhealthy state of Persian blood, especially in people inhabiting the cities, where the worst of venereal complaints has crept in a more or less virulent form into the greater part of the population. Add to this, a disorganized digestion, coloration by constant smoking, and the injury to the enamel brought on by the great consumption of sugary stuff; and if one marvels at all it is that Persian teeth are as good and serviceable as they are to a fair age.

Native Persian dentistry is not in a very advanced stage. With the exception of extraction by primitive and painful methods, nothing efficient is done to arrest the progress of decay.

The Persian nose is well shaped--but it is not perfection, mind you--and generally does not perform its duties in a creditable manner. It has nearly all the drawbacks of civilised noses. Partly owing to defective digestive organs and the escaping fumes of decayed teeth, the nose, really very well shaped in young children, generally alters its shape as they get older, and it becomes blocked up with mucous matter, causing it unduly to expand at the bridge, and giving it rather a stumpy, fat appearance. The nostrils are not very sharply and powerfully cut in most cases, and are rounded up and undecided, a sign of pliant character.

Women have better cut and healthier noses than men, as they lead a more wholesome life. In children and young people, however, very handsome noses are to be seen in Persia. The sense of odour is not very keen in either sex; in fact, it is probably the dullest of all Persian senses, which is not unfortunate for them in a country where potent smells abound. In experimenting upon healthy specimens, it was found that only comparatively strong odours could be detected by them, nor could they distinguish the difference between two different scents, when they did succeed in smelling them at all!

A Persian woman is not seen at her best when she is dressed. This sounds very shocking, but it is quite true. Of all the ugly, inartistic, clumsy, uncomfortable, tasteless, absurd female attires, that of the Persian lady ranks first.

Let us see a Persian lady indoors, and describe her various garments in the order in which they strike the observer. First of all one's eye is caught by a "bundle" of short skirts--usually of very bright colours--sticking out at the hips, and not unlike the familiar attire of our ballet girls--only shorter. These skirts are made of cotton, silk or satin, according to the lady's wealth and position.

There are various versions of how such a fashion was adopted by Persian ladies. It is of comparatively modern importation, and up to fifty or sixty years ago women wore long skirts reaching down to the ankle. The skirts gradually got shorter and shorter as the women got more civilised--so a Persian assures me--and when Nasr-ed-din Shah visited Europe and brought back to his harem the glowing accounts of the ladies' dress--or, rather, undress--at the Empire and Alhambra music-hall ballets, which seem to have much attracted him, the women of his court, in order to compete with their European rivals, and to gain afresh the favour of their sovereign, immediately adopted a similar attire. Scissors were busy, and down (or up) were the skirts reduced to a minimum length.

As in other countries, fashions in men and women are copied from the Court, and so the women from one end of Persia to the other, in the cities, took up the hideous custom. One of the principal points in the fashion is that the skirt must stick out at the sides. These skirts are occasionally very elaborate, with heavy gold braiding round them, richly embroidered, or covered all over with small pearls. The shape of the skirt is the same in all classes of women, but of course the difference lies in the material with which the dress is made.

Under the skirt appear two heavy, shapeless legs, in long foreign stockings with garters, or in tight trousers of cotton or other light material--a most unseemly sight. When only the family are present the latter garments are frequently omitted.

Perhaps the only attractive part of a woman's indoor toilet is the neat zouave jacket with sleeves, breast and back profusely embroidered in gold, or with pearls. It is called the yel. When lady friends are expected to call, some additions are made to the costume. A long veil fastened to the belt and supported on the projecting skirt hangs down to the feet. Sometimes it is left to drag behind. It is quite transparent, and its purposeless use none of my Persian friends could explain. "The women like it, that is all," was the only answer I could elicit, and that was certainly enough to settle the matter.

Persian women are extremely fond of jewellery, diamonds, pearls and precious stones. On the head, the hair being plastered down with a parting in the centre and knot behind on the neck, a diadem is worn by the smarter ladies, the tadji. Those who can afford it have a tadji of diamonds, the shape varying according to fashion; others display sprays of pearls. The tadji is a luxurious, heavy ornament only worn on grand occasions; then there is another more commonly used, the nim tadji, or small diadem, a lighter and handsome feathery jewel worn either in the upper centre of the forehead, or very daintily and in a most coquettish way on one side of the head, where it really looks very pretty indeed against the shiny jet black hair of the wearer.

Heavy necklaces of gold, pearls, turquoises and amber are much in vogue, and also solid and elaborate gold rings and bracelets in profusion on the fingers and wrists.

Out of doors women in the cities look very different to what they do indoors, and cannot be accused of any outward immodesty. One suspects blue or black bag-like phantoms whom one meets in the streets to be women, but there is really nothing to go by to make one sure of it, for the street costume of the Persian lady is as complete a disguise as was ever conceived.

Before going out a huge pair of loose trousers or bloomers--the chakchur--fastened at the waist and pulled in at the ankle, are assumed, and a ruh-band--a thick calico or cotton piece of cloth about a yard wide, hangs in front of the face, a small slit some three to four inches long and one and a half wide, very daintily netted with heavy embroidery, being left for ventilation's sake and as a look-out window. This is fastened by means of a hook behind the head to prevent its falling, and is held down with one hand at the lower part. Over all this the chudder--a black or blue piece of silk or cotton about two yards square and matching the colour of the trousers, covers the whole from head to foot, and just leaves enough room in front for the ventilating parallelogram.

In public places this cloak is held with the spare hand quite close to the chin, so that, with the exception of a mass of black or blue clothing and a tiny bit of white embroidery over the eyes, one sees absolutely nothing of the Persian woman when she promenades about the streets. With sloping shoulders, broad hips, and huge bloomers, her silhouette is not unlike a soda-water bottle.

Her feet are socked in white or blue, and she toddles along on dainty slippers with no back to the heels. A husband himself could not recognise his wife out of doors, nor a brother his sister, unless by some special mark on her clothing, such as a spot of grease or a patch--otherwise, poor and rich, young and old, are all dressed alike. Of course the diadem and other such ornaments are only worn in the house, and the chudder rests directly on the head.

Yet with some good fortune one occasionally gets glimpses of women's faces, for face-screens and chudders and the rest of them have their ways of dropping occasionally, or being blown away by convenient winds, or falling off unexpectedly. But this is only the case with the prettier women, the ugly old ones being most particular not to disillusion and disappoint the male passers-by.

This is possibly another reason why hasty travellers have concluded that Persian women must all be beautiful.