Nothing could be more misleading than the stereotyped image of life in Iran, as projected by the western media, as one of bearded men throwing stones at embassies and women peering out of slits in heavy, black veils.
At closer range, the lives of Iranians offer a far more colourful and vivid picture, although the establishment is doing its best to make the public conform to the image that already exists in the minds of foreigners.
“In a totalitarian state that attempts to control even private lives, people live double existences. They wear masks in public to conform and be safe. In private, they lead the lives they wish to live,” says an analyst, asking to remain unidentified for fear of the government’s minders.
“The Islamic state envisaged by Iran’s hardliners and conservatives is a religious state having control over every aspect of people’s lives. What they think and believe, their personal relations, what they watch or read, are all to be approved by the state,” he adds.
There is a historical background to the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ existence that many Iranians have developed over time.
“Shiaism, long suppressed in history, has always preached that at times of suppression when professing one’s religion can put him in danger, one can hide his belief and pretend to adhere to the official religion to save himself. This reasoning has helped justify the split in people’s minds between public and private. But it seems like the younger generation is tired of living double lives and wants to leave that behind,” he says.
“The youth want to be individuals, not one of many, so they try to look different. This is a reaction to the pressure on them to conform to the prescribed image. And they are no longer content to live the way they wish only in the safer confines of their homes, as the older generation did,” says a student activist.
Under the reformist government of former president Mohammad Khatami, the grip on people’s private lives was relaxed. Municipal cultural centres held pop concerts and art exhibitions. Privately-run newspapers and magazines appeared on stands and the use of internet and satellite TV increased. Bans on books and films were lifted and, with encouragement from the government, a large number of non-government organisations (NGOs) were formed.
At the same time, the prescribed dress code began to be overlooked everywhere. Internet cafes and coffee shops, frowned upon by the religious establishment as a western influence that corrupts youth, mushroomed and became young people’s favourite hangouts..
With the acquisition of power by hardliners in June 2005 and pressure from clerics and vigilantes building up again, the grip has tightened. Correcting people’s behaviour has risen to the top of the agenda for the government and various other bodies responsible for public morality like the police, the judiciary and the parliament.
The state recently launched several offensives against personal freedom. A crackdown on satellite dishes, enforcement of dress code, refusal to issue publication permits for books, banning films and plays and internet filtering are some examples.
“The state-run TV is full of programmes showing mullahs preaching or women in black chadors (full-length garb). They are not entertaining at all. I want to be free to choose what to watch, how to dress and what to read,” says Arash (second name withheld), a 19-year-old technician.
“But things are gradually creeping back to how they were in old days. It’s not very noticeable yet. My parents say in the early days of the revolution only classical music and revolutionary songs were permissible. It took quite a few years for pop music to become acceptable to the establishment. I feel we are going to take the same steps, but backwards till we get to the starting point again,” he says.
The Islamic dress code has always been the most obvious and observable sign of ‘conformity’ and hardliners and conservatives are now crying out for enforcement of the code by the police and other responsible bodies. It has begun to be more strictly enforced in government offices, universities and schools again, after many years.
The summer started in Tehran this year with warnings to women to abide by the dress code. Policewomen, wearing long black veils over their uniforms, were stationed in some of the capital’s busy squares to invite women to virtuous behaviour. Women’s clothes manufacturers and retailers were warned about manufacture and sale of short and tight dresses and even two state-run ‘Islamic fashion shows’ were organized to set examples of acceptable dress code to the public.
“During the past month 63,000 people received ‘corrective advice’ and written pledges to abide by the dress code were taken from some of them. Also, more than 1,100 cars were seized from their drivers for playing loud music on the streets or giving rides to improperly dressed women. The cars will be kept in police care from one to three months,” a senior Tehran police official was quoted as saying by the reformist ‘Etemad Melli’ newspaper on Aug. 28.
The state propaganda and control has not been very effective, at least in the way people dress. Walking around streets in Tehran and most other cities, one notices there are fewer ‘conformists’ than ‘non-conformists’. It can be very different in cities like Qom, Iran’s religious capital, where it is impossible to enter many places without a black veil and men in short sleeves are unwelcome.
Girls in colourful body-hugging outfits, dazzling make-up and skimpy headscarves, are a common sight on the streets of larger cities, holiday resorts and to a lesser extent in smaller towns.
Young men with plucked eyebrows and very neatly trimmed beards, or wearing long or unusual hair styles are not a rare sight in trendy places like Golestan shopping centre in western Tehran. And it is also not uncommon to see morality police patrolling the place, specially on weekends, exhorting and sometimes even arresting the off-standard youth.
Iranian society is young. Almost 70 percent of the population is under 30 years. And, interestingly, the number of women studying in universities has now increased to more than 60 percent compared to 34 percent before the Islamic revolution.
Many of Iranian conservatives and hardliners have long realised the demand by the youth for individual freedom, so during his presidency campaign, Iran’s hardliner president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said contrary to accusations against him, his government had no intention of interfering with people’s private lives or the way the youth dressed.
After he became president he even tried to increase his popularity among the youth and women by issuing a directive to open football stadiums to women. Although he had specified in his order to allocate a separate place to them, voices of anger rose even from his hardline supporters.
But Ahmadinejad caved in a day later, after angry protests from “sources of emulation” and other senior clerics in Qom poured in, saying women’s presence in football stadiums was improper and corrupting.
“I believe nowhere in the world should a government have the right to interfere with people’s lives in this way. In our country there may be a lot of people who are religious, want to dress as prescribed by religion, and many others who whether religious or not, find the Islamic dress code undesirable,” says Elnaz, a 23-year-old secretary.
” In the same way that people have different tastes in music, books and TV programmes they like to chose what they wear. Why shouldn’t it be possible to hold democratic polls to find out which group outnumbers the other here?” she asks.
One analyst considers the new crackdown on people’s social and personal freedoms a temporary measure to pacify religious hardliners whose support the administration needs. “The regime has now engaged itself on various fronts, external and domestic. Ahmadinejad’s administration is struggling to cope with economic conditions created by a heavy subsidies while the people’s demands have been increasing,” he says.
“Social repression adds a new dimension to the already existing problems. But Iranian history shows us the recent confrontation is nothing but a war of attrition and eventually the state will cave in under pressure from people. The Islamic state cannot force change on people as long as they are not genuinely ready for that.” he said. IPS – InterPress Service