The face mask worn by many Bandari women is probably the most striking of all their unusual attire.
Scroll to view the gallery
A jumble of cultures
The people in Hormozagan province on Iran’s southern coast are known as Bandari (Port People). Once an important stop on the Spice Route, the area has been a centre for trading since around BC2000, resulting in a jumble of ethnicities and cultures, including African, Arab, Indian and Persian. Most locals wear different attire from other provinces of Iran, with women often sporting colourful dresses instead of the typical black chador, and men in Arab-style clothing. But the boregheh (masks) worn by many Bandari women, both Sunni and Shia, are probably the most striking of all.
An ancient tradition
Bandari women have been wearing masks for centuries. The roots of the tradition are unknown, although some say that it started during Portuguese rule, when women were trying to avoid recognition by slave masters looking for pretty girls.
Hot Gulf summers
As well as being part of their religion and culture, the masks also protect the eyes and skin from the sun, which can be very strong in the Persian Gulf. In fact, similar masks can be found around the region, in Oman, Kuwait and other parts of Arabian Peninsula.
A myriad designs
Many kinds of masks can be seen across the province. Some cover nearly the whole face, while others are smaller and reveal more of the eye area. Some are made of leather, while others are heavily embroidered fabric. All of them at least partly cover the forehead and nose, and a veil is often used to cover the mouth as well as the head. Local people can recognize the village, status or origins of a woman by the shape and colour of the mask she wears.
A mask for a war
This striking moustache-shaped mask, mainly worn by women in the villages on Qeshm Island, is said to have been designed centuries ago to make local women look tougher and more severe. The island’s strategic position made it very susceptible to invasion; when enemies saw the masked figures, they thought they were male soldiers.
Old habits die hard
But although this young woman doesn’t usually wear a mask, when I asked to photograph her without it, she refused. In this conservative culture, women should not talk to strangers, especially men – and doing so without her face covered clearly felt even more inappropriate.
Life behind the mask
Due to the mysterious mask, the Bandari community is reputed to be closed and inaccessible. However, after just a few days in the area, I found that many women were happy to pose for pictures and willingly share their unique culture and way of life.