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Published: November 10th 2009
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 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 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 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 www.nickkembel.com
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