Lovers Brace for Summer
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
02 May 2010 14:03
In Tehran the other day, while riding in a taxi, I passed a shopping center. A white minivan with the green markings of the state police force stood at its entrance. One of the other passengers asked the driver, "Have they already started the social security thing this summer?" He was referring to the annual efforts to enforce hejab and the officially defined dress code. The campaign usually gets started around the end of spring, continues through summer, and then fades away when autumn begins. Last year, political turmoil forced the authorities to forget about dress code and other morality enforcement. This year, they are set to return to their old habits.
The driver replied, "No, not yet. They are about to, though. They're gonna chase after women and teenagers like wild animals! Ruining their summer!" Driver and passengers began a lively exchange of opinions on the topic -- the freedom of people to socialize, the changing times and the acceptance of teenage dating. It was one of many such conversations I participated in and overheard in recent weeks on the topic.
True, some are horrified by the trends in fashion and custom, by the shorter, tighter jackets women choose to wear, by the scarves that fail to cover their long, lavish hair, by the liberal manner in which men and women socialize with each other. But these developments, which some might imagine are limited to affluent northern Tehran, are increasingly widespread. A computer salesman who travels frequently to different cities for his job told me, "You think this is a north of Tehran thing now and you are wrong. Everywhere people are opening up, and everywhere the social pattern is changing." Sara, a sociology student at one of the provincial universities, laughed at me when I suggested small cities must be different, still conservative. She said, "Open your eyes. The society is changing, and it has already changed consciously. Look, before the Revolution there were many factors encouraging a Western outlook in fashion here. Now it is our choice to dress like this." She laughed bitterly. "A choice for which we are punished, but nonetheless our choice."
I agree with Sara, social patterns are changing. Iran has one of the youngest populations in the world. Two thirds of Iranians are younger than 30, and a quarter are less than 15. Those who were born in the 1980s are in their twenties now, and they have brought a new dynamic to the streets of Iran. The other day I saw a young girl in a chador with beautiful eyes holding a young man's arm as they walked down Enghelab Street in central Tehran. They talked, giggled, whispered in each other's ears. Ten years ago, such a scene would have been very unusual. In those days, a chadored woman walked a step behind her man, or kept a respectful distance to his side. Holding hands was out of the question. Nowadays, no one minds looking romantic.
When I shared these observation with Ali, a teacher who attended college in the early 1990s, his eyes brightened with a cheerful light. He told me, "When I was in my sophomore year, I was summoned to the college disciplinary committee because I had gone hiking with a mixed group of my male and female classmates. But now schools have hiking clubs where mixed groups go hiking together without being molested by authorities." We were sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Tehran sipping tea and coffee. The tables around us were taken by young couples, students, men employed in nearby shops and offices. They talked and socialized. A couple of tables away, a group of four boys and two girls discussed how useless their school workshop on industrial design was. Ali became nostalgic. With a sigh, he continued: "Look at them -- in my days in school, I dreamt of going out with my classmates like this and being carefree like these guys. When the authorities harassed us in those days, they denied us our youth and its innocent experience. They made a sin out of everything we did. They took away our innocence."
He was right. As I looked around, I imagined how easily this innocent socializing could be made illegal. Gone would be the laughter, the whispers, the feeling secure in the presence of someone of the opposite sex, the natural thought of them as a friend, a colleague, a companion. Indeed, Ali's experience is widely shared. Many of those born in the 1970s still recall how people were prosecuted for just walking with a date, or socializing with a mixed group of friends. For them, having a cup of decent coffee in a café with the boys and girls from their class was an unobtainable dream. Today it is a social norm, widely accepted and perhaps appreciated most by those denied it in their own youth.
Many believe that the suspension of morality patrols last year was due to the political uproar around the election and the unrest that followed. The Ahmadinejad government lacked the resources to enforce the morality code and keep the streets quiet. The regime was also perhaps willing to bribe the people with a little bit of social freedom. Some suggest that the plans to resume enforcement demonstrate the government's belief that it is time to show the people which side emerged victorious from the recent conflict. In this light, the efforts are revealed a show of strength, rather than a campaign motivated by any actual concern for morality.
Still, it seems that many voices are cautioning the government and that some officials are listening. The recent demonstration of ultraradicals asking for the return of morality patrols was held in a remote part of Tehran and received only brief coverage of the most pro forma sort in the official media. Some authorities might want to show their muscles in the streets of Iran's cities, but some others remember the muscle people showed them a year ago. They may still try to strip the innocence out of daily social life, but now it does not look so easy as before.
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