Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Many journalists writing about Iran focus on the obvious problems in this country -- the human rights violations, the restrictions on freedom of expression, the need for women to cover up in public.

All are real – and with up to 70% of Iranians under the age of 30 there’s a huge number of young Iranians yearning for change.

I’ve already experienced, in a very minor way, the petty rules that are an everyday fact of life in Iran.

After dinner in a Persian restaurant a few nights ago I asked for a ghalyan -- a water pipe known in other parts of the Middle East as a shisha or nargila or to westerners as a hubbly-bubbly.

I was told I couldn’t have one – they’ve been banned in public places.

It seems the authorities were worried that young people were having too much of a good time sitting around, chatting and smoking. There was particular concern about the mixing of the sexes. Women were spending too much time lounging around on cushions tooting away on pipes in the company of men. Something had to be done.

About six months ago the Amaken -- the government body which regulates restaurants, hotels, cinemas and the like – banned women from smoking a ghalyan. Then, a few weeks ago, they were outlawed completely and indefinitely.

But over dinner last night, I spoke to two Iranian women who gave me a very different perspective on life in modern Iran.

Both are in their 30s and so can remember the early days after the revolution in 1979. Both are well travelled, well educated and internationalist in outlook.

“Things are not perfect now,” one told me, “But they’re a million times better than they were just after the revolution.”

“I remember in the early 1980s, I was out with my sister one day. She climbed over a wall and as she did a tiny strip of her ankle showed beneath her trousers.

“One of the police officers who guards Islamic values immediately came over to her and ordered her to cover up – but she’d only displayed a tiny, tiny bit of flesh – and only for a second.

“That’s what life was like in the early days of the revolution.

“I was living abroad for ten years and finally came back to Iran in 1999. I couldn’t believe how much things had changed. When I left all women wore the full black chador – and all the men had beards.

“When I returned things were much more relaxed. Women only had to wear a hejab – a headscarf – and I was amazed to see clean shaven men.

“People say Iranian society is terrible now – but they should have been here a decade ago.”

My friends pinpointed the start of the relaxation in Iranian society to the election of Mohammed Khatami, the reformist president who came to power in 1997.

But with the reformists beaten in the general election, and Khatami looking increasingly isolated, surely there’ll be another crackdown, I said. On the eve of the elections another two newspapers were shut down by the hardliners – won’t others follow?

“The Conservatives know they can’t go back,” they told me.

“Even some of the hardliners are much more relaxed than they were a few years ago.

“Anyway, they know that if they try to take away the freedoms that we have there’ll be an outcry.”

I hope they’re right.


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