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Childhood’s end

Kaveh Basmenji
16 June 2005

In the scorching heat of August, the pavements of Vali-e Asr Avenue, lined with magnificent plane trees, were suddenly overrun by a stampede of thousands of people, mostly young men and women, who were dashing into side streets. Boutique owners and attendants were hurriedly closing their shops. Young girls were busy pulling their headscarves forward to cover coiffeurs of dyed blonde hair or wiping deep purple lipstick from their lips. Shouts and screams echoed through the summer dusk. “Moral Police” had stormed Vali-e Asr, aided and abetted by Ansar-e Hezbollah thugs.

Under the watchful gaze of officers in olive-coloured uniforms, female police agents clad in black chadors stopped young women, barking at them, questioning them and dragging the more defiant ones towards buses waiting in line. Members of Ansar-e Hezbollah were busy chanting Marg bar Badhejab (“death to those with improper hijab”), breaking with stones the windows of shops displaying lingerie or short robes, and beating up whomever happened to be in their way. Pedestrians were looking on in desperation.

Kaveh Basmenji
Kaveh Basmenji’s book Tehran Blues: Youth Culture in Iran , including new material written after the 17 June presidential election in Iran, will be published by Saqi books in September 2005

Next to a florists’ shop, one of the “sisters” had cornered a young woman wearing a tight, thin, sky-blue tunic, tight jean pants, high-heeled white sandals and a pink triangular headscarf.

“Aren’t you ashamed of the martyrs’ families?” the sister snarled.

“What have I done?” the young girl retorted.

“Quiet! Take this!” She handed a paper tissue to the girl. “Wipe it off. Now!”

The girl started wiping the make-up off her face. A mixture of black mascara and tears smeared her cheeks. “Okay, okay, whatever you say. Just don’t take me away. My parents will have a heart attack.”

“Quiet! Just get into the bus!”

“No, please no. See, I’ve wiped off all my make-up!”

“How about these?” The sister pointed angrily at the young girl’s fingernails and toenails, painted the colour of oxblood. “Will you get into the bus quietly or shall I call the brothers?” And with the help of another sister, she finally forced the sobbing girl into the bus.

According to the law, appearing in public without proper hijab can be punishable by imprisonment of up to two months. This, however, happens very seldom, if at all, perhaps for the simple reason that prisons are not able to accommodate the millions of such “offenders”.

Every summer, the streets of Tehran and other large cities turn into battlefields of sorts. These are battles that, unlike their appearance, in essence bear a close resemblance to crusades: zealous believers trying to reclaim the “holy land” from the “infidel”. Only, in this case, it is the minds of the young people that the zealous try to conquer. And although Iran’s ruling theocracy has so far succeeded in suppressing its political foes, this is one protracted battle in which it has failed to triumph. The “hijab wars” are but one manifestation of the clash between tradition and modernity that has dominated Iran over the past century or so.

Once the uproar was over in Vali-e Asr, I approached Mehrnoush, a young woman who had managed to evade the storming moral police. She had freshened up her make-up and was now joined by her boyfriend Kasra. He had longish curly black hair and was wearing a black Iron Maiden t-shirt, black jeans and Timberland boots. They were relieved and furious at the same time.

“Dirty-minded dogs! They’ve taken away everything from us, and they don’t seem to get enough of that!” Mehrnoush said.

Kasra was trying to calm her down. “Easy now, cheer up. This is not new to any of us. We’ve got a party to go to. Cheer up! Don’t think about the blockheads! They won’t be around for much longer.”

An hour later, with the Moral Police and the Ansar-e Hezbollah no more around, Vali-e Asr was once again a public catwalk crowded with flamboyant boys and girls.

As the long hot season – beginning as early as late April and going on till late September in many parts of Iran – approaches, hardline authorities start issuing stern warnings against women who flout the strict Islamic dress codes. But the hardline authorities have been increasingly losing control and have often found it difficult – if not impossible – to enforce such measures.

Notwithstanding the frequent crackdowns, the situation goes back to where it was shortly afterwards: bustling streets, squares, parks and shopping centres in large cities swarm with women wearing heavy make-up, dresses that grow ever tighter, brighter, shorter and thinner, and headscarves that grow ever smaller and more colourful. In the face of repeated laments by traditionalist clerics, the more pragmatic authorities hope that turning a blind eye to such minor acts of defiance will relieve pressure for major change.

Harsh language begins to soften whenever election time approaches and the conservative politicians try to win the potentially multi-million-strong votes of the youth, or at least not to lose the votes of their parents. In the few months preceding the June 2005 presidential elections, even the most hardline candidates chose not to address directly the issue of personal appearance.

Several candidates went to great lengths to convince the young population that they understood them and cared for them. As a commander in the Revolutionary Guards, and later police chief, Baqer-Qalibaf used to sport the trademark appearance and outfit of all devoted revolutionaries: long beard, shabby clothes and pistol holster. As soon as he became an election hopeful, he went through a metamorphosis, trimming his beard and wearing designer suits with the latest style sunglasses.

Mostafa Moin, former higher education minister and reformist candidate in the 2005 presidential elections, appointed a woman – former majlis deputy Elaheh Koolaei – as his spokesperson. Koolaei then appeared in her first press conference not only without a chador, but wearing a colourful headscarf. And Hashemi Rafsanjani’s campaign was highlighted by a “carnival” of young boys and girls in blue jeans riding fancy cars and brandishing headbands with his name on them in Latin letters. In the words of satirist Ebrahim Nabavi, “we have succeeded in imposing other ways of thinking on the regime. It would suffice to take a look at the election campaigns to see how far we have succeeded.”

Ski resorts and cyberspace

Since the victory of the Islamic revolution, which, among other lofty ideals, promised to release the deprived masses of the burden of poverty, the issue of the class gap has been overshadowed by the general demand for personal liberties. This, however, does not mean that such a gap has not widened under the clerical rule. While some university students resort to selling their kidneys to subsist, affluent youths can afford almost every luxury that can – or cannot – be enjoyed in the Islamic Republic, from in-house saunas and jacuzzis, to scuba-diving and skiing.

Dizin is perhaps Iran’s most famous ski resort. In the heart of the towering Alborz mountains and covered with fresh snow sometimes until July, it was developed under the personal attention of the Shah, a ski buff whose favourite resort after Dizin was St Mauritz in Switzerland.

At weekends, Dizin represents the very epitome of what the Islamic Republic’s founders despised most. Young men and women from wealthy families in state-of-the-art ski outfits and sunglasses mixing freely, laughing loudly and having fun. Despite the fact that alcohol is forbidden in Dizin, as in any other place in Iran, many skiers candidly bring in their booze and share it none too secretly.

This relaxation could not happen without the knowledge of the country’s hard-line religious leaders. Many at the resort told ABC News privately they believe the government is trying to distract them from continuing restrictions on political reform. It wasn’t always so. Just after Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, many ski resorts were closed. Skiing was believed to be un-Islamic. When they reopened in the 1990s, skiers had to follow strict Islamic rules on the slopes.

The young Iranians who go to Dizin belong to a very select group. Skiing is expensive. And the relative freedom allowed at the resort is available almost exclusively to the wealthy.

The oasis of Dizin seems to be a world away from the Islamic Republic. So does Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, where there remains no more than a crust of the strict rules implemented by the authorities. Just like Dizin, this picturesque coral island was a favourite resort of the Shah.

Kish Island has now become a busy shopping hub, as well as a refuge from the restrictions of the mainland. Hijab is almost non-existent, live pop music is played in cafes and restaurants, alcohol and opium are much more easily accessible, and no-one stops couples on the beach, or in the malls and coffee shops, to inquire if they are relatives. Beaches are still segregated for the sexes, though.

A few years ago in Kish, a travel agent told me about a new solution that young women and men had come up with to meet each other: they would book separate tours to Kish, but once they were on the island they would cautiously visit each other’s bungalows.

For most Iranian youngsters who cannot afford the luxury of having fun in places such as Dizin or Kish, the internet opens a gateway to the outside world. In 2004, there were nearly 5 million internet users in Iran, compared to 250,000 just four years before. Blogging has had an exponential growth, and Persian is currently the third most commonly used language on the internet, after English and Chinese.

However, cyberspace has not been spared the crackdowns of the hardline conservatives. In 2004, several Iranian online journalists and web technicians were arrested. After months in solitary confinement, several of the web journalists appeared “confessing” on TV, saying they were brainwashed by “foreigners and counter-revolutionaries” into writing articles critical of Iran’s Islamic Republic. Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch, however, said the confessions were extracted under extreme duress from Iran’s hard-line judiciary.

The wave of arrests began in autumn 2004. Shahram Rafizadeh, cultural editor of the daily Ehtemad, was arrested on 7 September. A day later, Hanif Mazrui, who wrote for several reformist newspapers and is the son of a former reformist majlis deputy, was also arrested. Including non-journalists such as technicians, some twenty people were arrested in connection with independent or reformist websites, many of which have been blocked.

After being released on bail, a number of them published open letters expressing repentance and saying they had been “treated well” in prison. But the case took an unexpected turn when some of the freed bloggers met judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and told him the truth about the treatment they had received in prison. In April 2005, a judiciary spokesman announced that all but four of the arrested had been acquitted of their charges.

In the words of Afshin Molavi, it is increasingly apparent that Iran’s young are tuning out a preachy government for an alternative world of personal weblogs, private parties, movies, study, and dreams of emigrating to the west. While young Iranians of an earlier generation once revered Che Guevara and romanticised guerrilla movements, students on today’s college campuses tend to shun politics and embrace practical goals such as getting a job or admission into a foreign graduate school. Some 150,000 Iranian professionals leave the country each year – one of the highest rates of brain drain in the middle east.

“Iran today is at a turning point,” Molavi says. “Either the Islamic revolution must mellow and embrace political change, or face a reckoning down the road when hard-line clerics come into conflict with the secular, democratic ideals of the younger generation.”

“Of course, Iranians who feel that they were let down by the Khatami regime feel discouraged,” wrote Bernard Hourcade in the French journal Le Monde Diplomatique in 2004. “Yet fundamental achievements must not be overlooked. During his two terms in office Khatami and his supporters have allowed new generations that had grown up with the Islamic Republic to learn about political debate and establish a balance of power at local level.” This has been a difficult struggle, especially for women, but it has succeeded because the Khatami government has checked repression and developed the constitutional state.

Hourcade observed that Iran is a country in which people debate, talk, express their views, and protest, notwithstanding repression. “Despite its best efforts,” he wrote, “the theocracy that controls the justice system and police force is no longer able to control access to information or prevent demands being voiced. So repressive acts intended to make an example of people, especially journalists, may be increasingly violent and systematic, but they are also forcefully and effectively condemned, sometimes by members of the government.”

Analysts have been quick to notice the change in the attitude of the Iranian youth. In the words of Jahangir Amuzegar, the government-encouraged baby boom of the early 1980s has now spawned a new generation, called the “third force”, which sees neither the fundamentalists’ concept of Velayat-e faqih, nor Khatami’s “Islamic democracy” as the answer to Iran’s current predicament.

“This highly politicised generation,” writes Amuzegar, “has no recollection of the 1979 revolution and no particular reverence for the eight-year ‘holy war’ between Iran and Iraq. Rather, they focus on their frustrated ambitions for a better future. This group includes almost everyone who is not in power and a few who are, representing a wide swath of Iranian society. The common bond among these disparate groups is their disenchantment with the revolution and its aftermath, and their distrust of the clerics’ ability to cope with Iran’s many problems. The third force, although still lacking resolute leadership and a specific platform, is united by the common goal of an independent, free, and prosperous Iran blessed by the rule of law. Indeed, some members have proposed a new constitution separating mosque and state, to be established by an internationally observed referendum.”

Politics: weapon for the new generation

Along similar lines, many political analysts maintain that the confrontation between the reform movement and the conservative establishment, that has dominated Iranian politics since Mohammad Khatami’s election as president in 1997, has reached a watershed. Mahan Abedin writes, “The refusal of hard-line clerics who control the commanding heights of government to allow further reforms, coupled with Mohammed Khatami’s reluctance to confront the clerical establishment, has led some to predict the rise of a “third force” in Iranian politics – the disaffected public, particularly the youth – and the eventual demise of the regime.”

“One problem with this type of analysis,” Abedin adds, “is that it ignores the essentially elitist nature of the reform movement and exaggerates grassroots pressures for reforms. This so-called ‘third force’ is too amorphous and fractured to buttress even the broadest reform coalition.”

Besides being disorganised, certainly a lack of “ideology” characterizes the younger generation of Iranians. In the words of Akbar Ganji, “There is a drastic difference between the generation of the 1970s and that of the 1980s. More than half of the country’s population was born after the 1979 revolution. Their discourse and lifestyle is much different from the generation of the revolution.”

After Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, called on families to produce children for the defence of Islam and the revolution. But, according to the Guardian’s Dan de Luce, “instead of being disciples of the cause, the generation now coming of age poses a daunting challenge to the survival of his theocracy.”

Many statesmen of the Islamic Republic have in recent years come to acknowledge that the main concern of the youth is changing their lives and not conquering power. They oppose the theocracy because their quest for personal experience is blocked by its imposed restrictions. And since the reformists represented a more relaxed social atmosphere, they voted for Khatami and his fellow-thinkers in 1997 and 1999. This, of course, applies to those who actually did take part in elections. Others found elections just a useless charade, with no practical impact on their lives, except that their votes might be used as a weapon for more repression.

Obvious as this may seem today, such a suggestion would have caused much uproar within both factions of the government until quite recently, for both have embraced “piety” as a central value. When Christiane Amanpour’s – a programme that included footage of a private party in Tehran – was aired on CNN in 1999, both conservatives and reformists were furious.

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Akbar Ganji, one of the most daring of such “standard bearers of reform”, wrote from his prison cell in 2002 that although there is talk of an “identity crisis” among the youth, the plain truth is that the young generation does not possess a unified identity; it welcomes diverse lifestyles.

“The new generation knows movie stars, pop stars, sportsmen and western thinkers much better than its own cultural and religious heritage …the moral criteria of previous generations have crumbled, without being replaced by a new morality.”

While the major gap in the political arena is one between autocracy and repression on the one hand and freedom and democracy on the other, for the young generation the chief demand is social liberties, Ganji says. Western music and films are more attractive to the youth than all political confrontations.

That is a point stressed by the proponents of an international referendum, in contrast to those who suggest changing the current constitution. The Islamic government intervenes vastly in most social and cultural activities, and even in personal life, imposing all sorts of restrictions on people. State reformers seek to limit the political powers of the Velayat-e Faqih in the constitution, but they fail to propose a concrete idea of the state’s relationship with social and cultural activities.

A minimal state could no longer assume the function of exerting the sharia, and thus, for instance, could no more intervene in such issues as making the Islamic dress code compulsory. In such a case, in Ganji’s words, “the jurisprudential dimensions of the Islamic Republic would be eliminated. And since the state will no more have the duty of implementing the sharia, there would no more be any need for jurisprudents and Velayat-e Faqih”

“I’d rather go to my own hell”

In The Last Great Revolution, Robin Wright wrote that in the near future, Iran was unlikely to witness either revolutions or dramatic democratic breakthroughs. The appeal of the reform movement was in its promise to an economically hard-pressed and socially restive population that change was possible within the confines of the system. Indeed, one of the strengths of the Islamic Republic had been its accommodation of some of the demands of its constituents.

Yet the deepening economic crisis and the growing cultural demands of Iranian youths have outstripped the system’s ability to be responsive. It is not apparent whether Iran’s reformers will be able to make slow but consistent progress in translating their overwhelming popular support into liberalisation of the theocracy.

It has been said by many Iranian historians that Iran’s soil is not fit for reformist leaders, and that the errant iconoclasts of reformist and innovative thought are quickly killed or overthrown by a patriarchal, tribal, traditional culture that fails to appreciate their efforts. But twenty-five centuries of absolute and often despotic rule in Iran have bred a traditional, anti-authoritarian, and sometimes cynical political culture. With governments to be feared, the Iranian everyman would inevitably view politics as a dangerous game played by elites. In this light, it would seem to be asking too much of the Iranian youth to turn its back on its day-to-day life and embark on a spontaneous struggle for a cause that is at best ambiguous.

However, like most young people worldwide, young Iranians want to be part of a consumer society and have access to international culture, but they are also politicised. In 1999, Ayatollah Abolqasem Khazali, an ultra-traditionalist cleric, and at that time a member of the Guardian Council, said that the clergy’s duty was “to prevent young people from becoming prey to hell fire”. Shortly afterwards, I attended a Nowruz party in the house of a relative of mine named Hassan. Since Hassan was an employee at a “revolutionary organisation”, he kept a permanent beard. His wife, Fereshteh, however, did not observe the hijab other than in public. Nor did his daughter. They all prayed five times a day and fasted in Ramadan, though.

On that day, more than a dozen family members had gathered to celebrate Nowruz. All had gathered round the TV set, which showed a performance of the Lambada dance via the VCR. Some of the men were drinking vodka. Soon after dinner, Los Angeles-made Persian pop music was played on the stereo set, and most of the young, together with Hassan, Fereshteh, and their teenage daughter, started dancing. After the party was over, Hassan and his family dutifully said their prayers. Hassan told me: “They want to drag us to heaven by chains. I don’t want to go to their heaven. I’d rather go to my own hell.”

Today’s young generation, the so-called “third force”, seems to have developed characteristics that promise a final break with the closed orbit that is Iran’s past hundred years. They do not subscribe to any ideological dogma. They have lost faith in heroes. They have come to despise violence. They value human life and its pleasures. They want change, but not at any cost.

Childish as they may seem, they may well be experiencing childhood’s end.

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