Fundamentalist Iran

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November 10th 2009
Published: November 10th 2009
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For more of my blogs about Iran, please visit The Real Iran and
Tourist Iran

To label Iranian people as ‘fundamentalist’ would be an absurd generalization. It carries as much truth as the flipside proclamation; that western culture is inherently evil and immoral. The governments and media of the nations in question are content to propagate these stereotypes, given that from an authoritarian perspective it is highly desirable and useful to establish a created enemy. For the West this serves to vilify Iran and justify murderous sanctions, financially motivated military conquests and corporate intrusions; and for Iran it serves to justify archaic and oppressive restrictions under the pretense of preserving Islam.

However, like many generalizations, the characterization of Iran as a fundamentalist nation is grounded in at least some elements of truth, and I would like to share my observations upon visiting the nation that both support and contradict it, and to conclude I would like to try to give the reader some insight into the Iranian perspective as I encountered it.

The images of bold, anti-American painted murals that accompany this article are not representative of common opinion in Iran. But a simple understanding of Iranian history and the 1979 Islamic Revolution is essential in order to understand why they exist in the country today.

For 2500 years, the Persian Empire had been ruled by a monarchy of Shahs. The last two Shahs were reformers bent on modernizing the nation into the 20th century. The last Shah in particular was very pro-western and sought to minimize the power of the Shiite Muslim clergy in Iran (Shiites are a minority branch of Islam, which differ from the majority Sunnis in a few minor practices and an ancient disagreement over the descent of the leadership of Islam following the death of Mohammad). During the last Shah’s rule, Iran was a liberal and prosperous nation, and was also a popular travel destination for hippy backpackers in the 1970’s.

However, rampant materialism, corruption, and a brutal undercover police militia resulted in mass disenchantment and a return to core Muslim values. Revolution stirred and was fueled by the ravings of Ayatollah Khomeini (the term Ayatollah is a designated title for an enlightened Muslim teachers), an increasingly popular and extremely conservative Muslim preacher who sought to topple the Shah regime from his position in exile. Revolution ensued, Khomeini returned to rule Iran, and he instituted a theocratic government in which all dissidents were executed, women were forced into purdah, or seclusion under the veil, and cinemas, clubs, western music, and alcohol were banned.

The murals you see on this page are mostly from the former US embassy in Tehran, where 52 Americans were held hostage for over a year during the Islamic Revolution. Following their release the embassy was renamed the US Den of Espionage, and the ravings of Khomeini continue to decorate the streetside walls of the complex to this day.

Khomeini died in 1989 but his ultra-conservative policies live on in Iran. Recently the country is making international headlines again with the election and re-election of Ahmadinejad, another lunatic of sorts infamous for his bold calls for the destruction of Israel and death of America.

During my visit in Iran, I took the time to visit Qom, an hour south of Tehran, which is the conservation core of the nation and the center from which Khomeini spent most of his life teaching and then ruling the nation. I found the city to be the most unwelcoming in the nation, and I was not allowed to take any pictures
Qom, the core of Conservative IranQom, the core of Conservative IranQom, the core of Conservative Iran

The 1979 Muslim Revolution was based here
inside the spectacular complex of mosques. In fact, non-Muslims are not even allowed to enter, though I did manage to.

Aside from finding the murals you see on this page, I did not encounter a single incident or even opinion of anti-Americanism during my travels in Iran. While social conservativism is firmly ingrained in their society, I sensed a strong push lying just barely under the visible surface towards liberalization of restrictions. I doubt that any nightclubs will be opening up any time soon, but in Tehran there is a developing scene of underground parties with drugs and alcohol, and during my visit local men bragged to me about the drugs and homemade booze they could get if they really wanted to.

Women in particular are pushing the limits of what they can and cannot wear in public. Contrary to almost every other country in the Middle East, I did not see a single woman in Iran wearing the full chador, which covers most of the face. A simple hijab or headscarf is the norm, and local women have developed the ability to arrange it in a manner so that it just barely covers the back of their head and that’s it, allowing them to show off their bleach blond and funky hairstyles. Iranian women are human, and they find ways to be beautiful within the constraints that are forced upon them.

I also sensed that women in Iran, if I may be permitted a generalization of my own, are the more intellectually advanced gender. I was approached for conversation practice more-so by women than men, and it was women only who asked me questions about my opinions on politics and gender issues, while men tended to prefer menial conversation. One can only hope, perhaps dream, that Iran could undergo a sort of post-Islamic sexual revolution, but the reality is that change is and will continue to be gradual.

Changes are in fact taking place though. I was told that ten years ago, a man and woman alone together in public would be stopped by the police and if they could not prove that they were married, they would be arrested. Nowadays, I saw young couples holding hands (one in a while, not often), and local women seemed to have no fear in approaching me or inviting me to walk around with them, despite the odd
Wedding in TehranWedding in TehranWedding in Tehran

Weddings in Iran are sex segregated, and I had to get special persion to see the bride, but not her face of course...
and sometimes disapproving looks and comments we got from local men. A fellow traveler even told me of being hit on by a local school girl, who took him to a park and insisted it was ok for them to hold hands because the morality police were not watching.

However, there is still a long, long way to go. As a westerner in Iran, and a liberal minded one at that, there were many practices that were shocking for me to witness or hear about. The obvious and above-mentioned ones were the enforced headscarf, lack of drinking and nightlife, and even as a male I was not allowed to wear shorts in public.

As a strictly personal observation, I find the hijab nearly comical in that it basically only covers a part of the woman’s head, under the pretense of making her less visible or appealing to men, but is a woman really that much less ‘sexy’ if part of her head is covered? And I couldn’t help but notice how awkwardly women are constantly fidgeting with their scarves, and public activities like exercise or work become huge strains so that many women just opt to stay at
Different door knockers for men and womenDifferent door knockers for men and womenDifferent door knockers for men and women

So the women inside know if they need to put on their veil or not
home. In one instance I visited a family home and when I entered I accidentally saw their university-aged daughter without her hijab. She was so embarrassed that she ran away and never came out for the duration of my visit, even with her parents trying to convince her to come practice her English with me. As a foreign observer, this all seemed a little ridiculous to me, as much as I believe in cultural relativism, the idea that all practices make sense when examined within the framework of their local culture.

But the main curiosities for me were the inventive ways in which gender segregation is put into practice; seating assignments on buses, lack of women’s shops in public (they mostly make their own clothing), different door handles for men and women (so women inside know if a man is knocking and therefore they need to veil), and the complete segregation of the sexes at weddings, which I found extremely awkward when I was invited to a local wedding and did not even see any women for two nights (though I did acquire special permission to photograph the bride and the groom together; the majority of the attendees did not even get to see this). Also more disturbing was to learn that since women are expected to be virgins at marriage, the mother of the bride physically checks for evidence after consummation and if there is none then the consequences are drastic.

There were a few surprises for me too. In Tehran for the first time ever I heard a woman chanting prayer call. Women are seen behind the wheel just about as much as men, which is certainly not the case in other Middle Eastern countries. Women are seen in public and hold service positions more than you might expect, and as I mentioned above, clothing restrictions are, despite the legal enforcement, pushed to the limit.

In terms of local opinion, I couldn’t possibly generalize because every person I spoke to had a different opinion. Some women told me straight up that they disagreed with enforced dress code and believed that clothing restrictions should be optional. Others told me that given the choice (or if they left Iran) they would still wear the hijab. The Iranians that I spoke with seemed to universally believe that Ahmadinejad is, as they put it, crazy, and were basically apologetic on the matter (in the same way that many Americans might have reacted on the topic of George Bush a few years ago), though I did also meet a few supporters. The general belief among them was that while he does like to make controversial (crazy) statements to the world press, he at least has the balls to stand up to America, something that few world leaders do.

A suggestion I would make when debating the Iran issue is to consider the perspective of a person born and raised in a country like Iran. If you grew up in a culture where drinking was not even an option, and was actually contrary to your religion, a religion which every single person you know practices and so you don’t even question it, then you might not feel like you are missing out on so much, and stories of alcoholism, drunk driving, street crime, fighting, vomiting, and belligerent behavior might naturally and quite convincingly lead you to conclude that drinking alcohol is evil or immoral, whereas the westerner values the ‘freedom’ or option to do these 'immoral' things. Likewise on the subject of sexuality, for a culture that holds purity as such an important ideal, to view western sexuality as it is presented in TV shows and Hollywood movies would be nothing short of shocking and offensive.

Similarly, the common western perspective regards enforced seclusion of women as oppressive, but in Iran there is a real sense that these rules are made for the benefit of women, to ward off harassment from men, and on multiple occasions in Iran I witnessed men going out of their way to assist women, to offer them seats, to give them extra space, and to treat them with respect. Of course most women in the west would prefer equal over preferential or special treatment, but the point I am making is that people on both sides need to consider perspective when making judgment calls. Of course I am not without my own biases as well, and ultimately I will always support the option of choice.

I hope that my observations serve to dispel at least some common notions in the west of Iranian people as homogenously fundamentalist and conservatively minded people. And to elaborate further, I urge the reader to see my upcoming entry titled “The Real Iran”, where I develop more on the Iranian personality, which is characterized by immense hospitality, kindness and intrigue with foreigners, as I encountered it in this fascinating country.

For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit

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10th November 2009

Thank you, Nick! A true pleasure to read! Can't wait for "The Real Iran." This post should be published. Everyone should read it. Your photographs and written voice put a lot into perspective in a peaceful and thought-provoking way. I'm always happy to receive your thoughtful updates! All the best (From Calgary AB!) Julie P.
10th November 2009

A really bold and mature blog. I look forward to "The Real Iran"....
10th November 2009

Thank you
Thanks for this well-written, balanced report. I plan to visit Iran soon and it's been very interesting to read this.
10th November 2009

Thanks for the insights into Iran.
Very interesting photographs.
12th November 2009

226 viewings already! :) Congratulations! If you have time, would you share your secret and maybe some tips and tricks.
12th November 2009

Changes are taking place
It is good to hear that changes are taking place in Iran to allow a little more freedom for the women. I found some of your comments interesting, too. Personally, I have no problem with the hijab and have many students in my English classes (I am an English language teacher for adults in Australia) who wear them. They turn them into a real fashion item, wearing beautiful fabrics and changing them every day, often to match their outfits. Unlike the women you mentioned who barely cover their heads, they do cover their hair completely, however, if they wear one (not all do here, of course). I really don't like the chador, though, as I hate to see women peering through the "pillar box". I find it extremely demeaning to women and was very shocked last year when I was in London to see some areas where there were a lot of women wearing them. Also on holiday in Jordan, recently, I saw a few women who even had a black net across the little slit in the chador so you couldn't even see their eyes. As you say, our attitudes are often dictated by our upbringing but I find it hard to believe that many women would want to be so completely hidden away from view.
13th November 2009

Articulate, diplomatic, -- wonderful blog entry
Nick, wow, this is a beautifully written, articulate, diplomatic blog entry. Really, you did a superb job on capturing and expressing your thoughts on Iran. Kudos.
8th December 2009

A thread for you. :)
10th December 2009

Nice one mate. I'm heading to Iran in about a week (after crossing the eccentricity that is Turkmenistan) and am really looking forward to seeing the other side of the coin there. It was interesting for me to see some parallels that Iran has with Central Asia, where I have been living and travelling in for about 8 months now. E.g. the virgin-at-marriage thing (in Kyrgyzstan modern women are shrugging off Islamic piety and engaging in pre-marital sex, and simply prick their fingers on their wedding night so that the sheet has a blood stain, which "proves" to the mother the next morning that yes she was kept pure for her husband), in the more conservative Uzbekistan I stayed with families sometimes and the women did everything the men just sat and watched TV (one my guests wives didnt say a single word to me, even though I could speak to her in Uzbek), in Tajikistan there is a small town that is planning to punish by embarrassment couples for holding hands in the main park by recording them doing so with secret spy cameras and broadcasting it on a big screen. It's all crazy! :)
2nd September 2010
Wedding in Tehran

To nickkembel Nick Kembel
Hey bro, Where have you found them? How could you find so religious friends in Iran? Are you a fundamental Muslim like your friends? If not then i suggest you to find normal people to attend their party. Go and make friends with young people in Iran. Don't look for specials I am an Iranian too, and I would say, well its very hard to find such kind off marriage party in Iran unless in a poor and low level part of city. sometimes. If you were in Iran you may know what am I talking about.
4th September 2010

Dear friend, I could not choose who will talk to me in Iran and invite me to their wedding. I was on the train in Tehran and a very friendly man approached who was a teacher. He invited me to his house to stay with his family for many days, and this was his close friend's wedding. I know that this was a very traditional wedding, but for me, that is more interesting to see! No, I am not even Muslim, but my mind is open to travel and observe anything interesting or different that I can find

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