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Iran: Behind Closed Doors

Iranian university students.

Two university students outside Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. More than 63 percent of university students in Iran are women.

"You can take off your headscarf now," Seema says with a wide smile as she welcomes me into her world and offers me some tea.

A friend of a friend who'd lived in Iran for a few months introduced me to Seema, a 24-year-old film editor. She's part of a crowd of twenty- and thirty-somethings I saw in Tehran's lively galleries and cafes. They're artistic, literary and highly educated young people from middle class families.

Seema lives with her parents and her brother in a three-bedroom apartment in central Tehran. She sits on her bed and chain-smokes. Her room is almost like a little apartment. She has everything she loves here -- her books and movie posters. This is where she and her friends gather to watch films by Martin Scorsese or Richard Linklater.

Seema insists she isn't an activist, but I think she's engaged in a quiet battle for the soul of her nation. She'd like to see a secular government in power here, and she knows she has a long struggle ahead of her. She doesn't think change can come quickly.

"What we need is time," she said. "Step by step is much better than an overnight change. It can't happen overnight."

If there were another revolution in Iran, you probably wouldn't see Seema and her friends marching in the streets. It's through art and literature that they believe they can change their country.

If there were another revolution in Iran, you probably wouldn't see Seema and her friends marching in the streets. It's through art and literature that they believe they can change their country. And so they gather in galleries and cafes that are springing up around Tehran. They pass around dog-eared copies of banned books. They wear casual cotton headscarves and loose, bohemian clothes -- rejecting the tight-fitting high-fashion overcoats favored by North Tehran's wealthy elite. Being more concerned with literature than their physical appearance can be a bold statement in a city where post-nose job bandages are badges of honor for young men and women alike.

More than 70 percent of Iran's population is under the age of 30, and Seema's vision of her country's present and future might be the key to understanding just a little bit about Iran.

Seema was born four years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She comes from a secular family. Her mother is a tennis pro at a local health club and her father is a lawyer. Her parents were about her age during the revolution. They weren't activists, but like many university students at the time, they were hopeful about the new Iran.

"Our parents, sometimes they feel guilty," she says. "They were the ones who took part in the revolution. It's like, they've done this to us."

Young Iranians sit at a cafe in Tehran.

Students sip coffee, tea and non-alcoholic beer at Cafe Godot. It's one of a growing number of literary coffee houses in Tehran, and portraits of Samuel Beckett decorate the walls.

Seema still lives with her parents because she doesn't feel safe when she's away from them. When she steps out onto the street, there's always a chance that she could be arrested for showing too much hair or too much ankle. She sometimes forgets to put her headscarf on when she leaves her office. So there's a big split between who she is at home and who she is outside.

"After all these years, I am still not used to my scarf," she says, "because I don't have an explanation of why I should wear it."

But Seema says wearing a headscarf and long coat -- known together as hijab -- is the least of her problems. She's more concerned about censorship and the fact that few people in Iran buy or read books, despite high literacy rates.

"I think books are more important than scarves. I'd prefer to wear a hijab all my life if it means at least seeing people reading books in the metro," she says.

Seema has a friend who is a translator. He specializes in Latin American literature. But lately, she says, he's rarely able to get the required permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to publish his books. And when he is able to get permission from the ministry, he's forced to excise the sex scenes. Seema thinks this kind of censorship is "like omitting part of a human being."

"I think books are more important than scarves. I'd prefer to wear a hijab all my life if at least it means seeing people reading books in the metro," she says.

As we talk, Seema smokes cigarette after cigarette. She has big brown eyes, shoulder-skimming brown hair, wide lips and a solid body. She pauses often in mid-sentence. It's late and she's getting tired, but she also seems to be thinking carefully about what to say and what to leave out.

She stops short of telling me on tape how she's been affected by the recent government crackdown on dissent. Human rights groups say university students, labor leaders, women's rights activists and Iranian-Americans have been rounded up and jailed in recent months. According to the Iranian government, police and militia members arrested more than 150,000 men and women this spring for failing to comply with Islamic dress codes. Most of those arrested were later released. But the overall result is that Iranians are more cautious than usual about what they wear, who they talk to and what they say.

Seema starts to compare the current situation in Iran with a scene from a Milos Forman film she's just seen, Goya's Ghost. In the movie, Natalie Portman plays a character who is imprisoned and tortured for heresy during the Spanish Inquisition.

"It reminded me of..." Seema starts to say. But she ends the story there. "I don't want to talk about this anymore," she says abruptly. "I don't want to go there."

iranian women visit the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Religious young women visit the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini on the 18th anniversary of his death.

She studied drama at university, but she says when it comes to talking about human rights in her country she doesn't want to be dramatic. She doesn't think Iranians should air their dirty laundry, especially in the American press.

"If I say all these things, it will look like we need help from outside. But I don't think that. I don't think that we need any help from outside or anyone could solve our problems," she says. "If I tell you about all of these cruel things, what could you do about it? There's nothing you can do about it."

There's an edge of fierce nationalism in Seema's voice. She may dislike her government, but she's devoted to her country. She has little patience for Iranians who live in the United States and criticize the regime from afar. She's never been to Los Angeles, but she's heard that Iranians who live there are ashamed to speak Farsi. And she resents them for complaining about the conditions back home. After all, they're not even here to suffer along with everyone else.

"The Iranians who live outside, they are not Iranian at all," Seema says. "It's like you're selling your suffering to someone else."

"The Iranians who live outside, they are not Iranian at all," Seema says. "It's like you're selling your suffering to someone else."

Soon, Seema will be joining the Iranian diaspora, at least for a while. She's been accepted to film school in New York. She plans to come back to Iran after she graduates to make changes here, little by little.

"We might have hard times, it might take so long," Seema says. "I might not be alive to see the day that there is freedom of expression in Iran. But I am sure it's going to happen."

Jessie Graham is a radio and print journalist who covers international issues. She traveled to Iran for BBC/PRI's The World and FRONTLINE/World. The trip was supported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Related Links

Iran: The Red Line
Read Jessie Graham's previous dispatch and listen to her corresponding radio story,
Iran clamps down on dissent for PRI's The World.

Iran: Going Nuclear
In this FRONTLINE/World broadcast from 2005, Paul Kenyon travels inside Iran to report on the country's nuclear ambitions.

Forbidden Iran
In this report from 2004, FRONTLINE/World reporter Jane Kokan secretly filmed shocking evidence of the torture and murder of Iranian students and journalists opposed to the regime.


Very interesting overview, we need more people like you in Iran maybe there might as well be a change!

syed muhammad roohullah alhussaini - gilgit, north pakistan
If you think that you are Muslim you should obey its rules. Since the government of Iran (backed by Waliamr) is providing all that you people need then why are you opposing it?

I live in the US. I love it here but I also love Iran. I love Iran for the wonderful people and the great land. I am sorry that the country has come to this. I will pray for every one, even the mulas, so God can work in their hearts. I am so sorry for all the pain and suffering that our people are going through. I pray that God may use President Obama to change things in the world. I am Christian and I believe God has a purpose for everything. I hope the world prays for peace.

This story, like many other reports on Iran, Is not totally true. You just sought someone saying such things, but I assure you 90% of our people agree with the government and are proud of it!

Shapur - Vancouver, BC
Interesting article. Iranians shouldn't bank on the fact that the Islamic regime will incrementally transform into a full democracy. I think, we Iranians should abandon our illusions, and not legitimize this bankrupt - illegal regime ( that supports terrorism, that wants to turn Iranians into Arabs, supports prostitution of 12 year olds, and where mullahs have business deals and drink alcohol themselves while forbidding everyone else to live their lives freely)- we need another revolution, that's the only way to restore Iran's reputation and freedom in the world. It's one thing to say the Shah was repressive, but we had far far more social freedom back then (are you able now to listen to any music freely in Tehran, NO!) and we were respected for our modern ways back then. I think it is also very wrong to claim that Iranians in exile are not patriotic because they left or do not speak Farsi. Some idiots don't, yes- which is bad, but don't generalize - it only shows your ignorance and lack of research, please! Overall, this article still does really highlight the double life Iranians live in Tehran (I guess North Tehran mainly!), and I wonder when my compatriots will wake up from their illusions about the Islamic regime that is suffocating them.

Seema is not my real name. That is a nickname we chose for the report. I went to NYC(I NEVER CHANGED MY NAME!!!). I stayed there for a couple of months. Have fun with your cosmopolitan city, I'm back in Tehran now, and never wish to go back to the US again."The Iranians who live outside, they are not Iranian at all," I didn't say this exactly. All I said was that "I've heard the Iranian community in LA avoid speaking Farsi in public, I don't call them Iranians." The rest of the report sounds accurate compared to other reports from other international reporters!

To Austin, Texas, if traditional Muslims hate the U.S, it's probably got more to do with elements of our foreign policy that you support, and that are in part based on ignorance of their ways, which you seem to exemplify. Secular values emerged precisely because thinking people saw them as right and good and honest, in universal ways, and are our best chance of communicating and understanding others, religious or otherwise.

Herb Schneider - Blacksburg, Va.
Recently I thought about becoming a citizen of another country. But I've decided I'll probably always be a US citizen. What ever happens, I'm here to stay and ideally to help. Maybe we are on the verge of renaissance here. That would be maybe the most potent way to help other countries.

A laudable report.

David Mcrfarae - North Brunswick, NJ
Seema will come to NY and change her name to SeeSi. She'll get married here and never go back to Iran. She'll become one of us. We are American first, Iranian later.

austin, tx
Interesting. The goal is a secular state. And we wonder why traditional Muslims dislike the West? Look what secularism has brought to the US and Europe: There is no universal right and wrong anymore.

Excellent report. Long live Iranians living in Iran.