That is until Maryam Roohani, 34, emerges from under the hood of a car at a maintenance shop in northeast Tehran, her grease-stained uniform pulled over black jeans and long hair tucked into a baseball cap – which in his work replaces that of Iran. Mandatory Islamic headscarf for women or hijab.
Polishing a blue BMW sedan in the shop until it sparkles, she couldn’t be further from the farms of her childhood. In the rural and tribal village of Agh Mazar, near Iran’s northeastern border with Turkmenistan, girls marry after reaching puberty and dedicate their lives to raising children.
“I have some sort of broken taboos,” Roohani said at the garage, where he carefully coats the cars with attention-grabbing glows and scrapes the dirt off their engines. “I faced opposition when I chose this path.”
The auto industry remains male-dominated around the world, let alone in the tradition-bound Islamic Republic. Yet Iranian women, especially in cities, have made their way over the years. They now account for over half of all college graduates and a sizeable portion of the workforce.
Daughter of a farmer, Roohani grew up working on the land like most of the other children of Agh Mazar. But unlike his five siblings, he had his eyes on his father’s tractor and developed an extraordinary ability to drive it at an early age.
Although she worked as a hairdresser and studied to become a make-up artist in Bojnurd, the provincial capital, a greater passion attracted her: applying finishes to cars.
To the contempt of the villagers and some family members, she traded used cars for extra money and dreamed of working as a car polisher and detailer. Although a relative turned on her and cut off contact, her father took a more liberal attitude, supporting her despite being pushed back and letting her postpone marriage to pursue her love of polishing.
There were no international automobile polishing training programs that he could find in the undulating wheat and barley fields of North Khorasan province, nor anywhere else in the country at the time. So she flew to Turkey, where she fought male skeptics to get the car polishing certificate.
Armed with credentials, she opened a shop in a small rented space in a Tehran garage. Customers flocked to admire the area’s first female car detailer, snapping photos and sharing footage on social media. Her Instagram account and online persona as Iranian “Miss Detailer” have grown.
But her early successes sparked resentment from male colleagues and, at times, even sabotage.
Some have contaminated his polishing pads with acid to burn the paint on his customers’ cars, he said. Others tampered with his machines and tore up the expensive pads he bought with his life savings, he said. Complaints to the garage owner went nowhere and without hard evidence, not even the police could help.
Roohani wanted to cut and run after that. But her reputation had attracted the attention of a major Tehran auto shop, which suddenly offered her a job. In recent years she has realized her dream as a professional car polisher, designer and washing machine.
Roohani even now trains and inspires other women to do the same despite obstacles. His online videos include his hard work polishing a vintage Chevrolet Chevelle or smiling on the hood of a jet-black BMW, so smooth that a plastic cup slides down.
“I got excited the first time I saw (Roohani) because in Iran, with its limitations for women, you don’t usually rely on doing these jobs,” said Farahnaz Deravi, one of Roohani’s interns.
Interest in auto repair work has exploded in Iran since former President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s historic nuclear deal with world powers and imposed sharp sanctions. To preserve its foreign currency, Iran banned the import of Asian and European-made cars, causing vehicle prices to quadruple. Iranians who have the means to own expensive cars adore them more than ever and pay large sums to maintain the status symbol.
Although Roohani’s business is active, the Iranian economy is struggling with a series of escalating crises, including international isolation and a raging pandemic. Roohani now envisions her future as a professional designer abroad and hopes to one day start her own business somewhere in Europe.
“The Iranian ‘Miss Detailer’ has to shine out there,” he said with a smile.
Follow Mohammad Nasiri on Twitter at www.twitter.com/moenasiri.