New attitudes color Iranian society, culture

TEHRAN, Iran — In a city that only a few years ago was almost monochromatic — full of women draped head to toe in black — women and girls this winter are sporting pink coats, pink sweaters, pink head scarves, shoes and bags.

Many Iranians are expressing their contempt for their government through clothing.

By Barbara Slavin, USA TODAY

Iran’s Islamic rulers appear to have given up trying to make women observe more than the letter of the hijab, the Koran’s admonition that Muslim women outside their homes should cover everything but their faces, hands and feet. The change has been gradual, but this year coats have gotten shorter, brighter and tighter, heels higher and scarves have slipped farther back to reveal most of women’s hair.

Iran’s “pink revolution” is a silent fashion statement that sends a powerful message. Unable to act overtly against the rigid Islamism that has shaped Iranian political and cultural life since the U.S.-backed shah was overthrown in 1979, many Iranians express their contempt for the government through their clothing.

For women, that means the sexiest, most fashionable attire possible while still covering the requisite body parts. For men, dissatisfaction takes the form of clean shaves — Islam encourages beards — publicly shaking hands with unrelated women and wearing jeans and long hair.

“The more you look at the people in the streets, they don’t look like Iranians any more,” says Goli Emami, a translator of English books into the Iranian language Farsi.

Hard-liners rule

Of the more than 50 Iranians interviewed here during a two-week visit, most were contemptuous of their government and the direction the country is moving. “This life is like death,” says Mohammed Mohammedi, 26, a jeans-clad English teacher in Tehran who works odd jobs to make ends meet

Ever since the 1979 revolution, Iranian hard-liners have retained their grip on political power. A reform movement that began in 1997 with the election of moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami as president was quickly beaten back. Reform-minded journalists and bloggers have been jailed. Hard-liners ejected moderate politicians from the Cabinet and barred them from running in last year’s parliamentary elections. The economy, despite record oil prices, is plagued by chronic inflation, corruption, high unemployment and an official unwillingness to allow the private sector to flourish.

Yet, the country has changed in ways that have contradicted the Islamic tenets on which the revolution was based. For every weblog shut down, two more seem to emerge. New, reform-leaning newspapers regularly challenge government policies. Reformist politicians are hoping for a comeback. And in a society where more than half the population is under the age of 30, young Iranians are staging a non-violent but potent counterrevolution not only through fashion, but also with their music and relations between the sexes that defy the strict Islamism dictated by the ruling mullahs.

Iranian attitudes pose a dilemma for the Bush administration, which is wary of taking steps that could bolster the theocratic government.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush promised Iranians that the United States would help them achieve freedom. “As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you,” he said. In response, many Iranians are asking whether Bush meant what he said, and if so, what is the best way to accelerate a process that is already underway.

A U.S. attack appears unlikely, despite the fact that Bush has pointedly refused to rule out military action against a suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program. The Pentagon is already struggling to keep sufficient troops on hand to battle the insurgency in next-door Iraq.

The challenge of attacking Iran would be formidable: Physically, Iran is nearly four times as large as Iraq, and its population — more than 70 million people — is nearly three times Iraq’s 26 million. If the United States did strike Iran, it would almost certainly have no allies besides Israel, a coalition that would enrage the Muslim world, where emotions are already raw over Iraq. And while some Iranians say they want a U.S. attack, they could quickly change their minds once civilian casualties began to mount.

“I hate war,” says Sahab Morabi, 25, a student of architecture at Behesti University in Tehran. He says fellow Iranians who say they’d welcome a U.S. strike really just want “some kind of catalyst for change.” If war really comes, their attitude will change, he says. “They will express their patriotism.”

Meanwhile, Bush administration officials are pursuing a strategy of economic pressure. They have threatened to seek United Nations sanctions against Iran if the country does not permanently give up its efforts to enrich uranium. Iran says the program is only for energy production, but U.S. and European officials see it as a thinly disguised nuclear bomb program.

Companies back out

The sanctions threat and pressure from Capitol Hill, where an anti-Iran movement is gathering strength, has had an impact. European companies, including a subsidiary of Halliburton, the energy company run by Dick Cheney before 2000, have backed out of new contracts with Iran. General Electric has also said it would bar its foreign subsidiaries from new business here.

Iranian officials, including top nuclear negotiator Hossein Moussavian, suggest the United States could win more goodwill and contribute to the well-being of millions of Iranians by selling Iran spare parts for its decrepit fleet of Boeing airliners. Iranian officials also urge the United States to support Iran’s application to join the World Trade Organization, which the United States has vetoed 20 times.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told reporters in early February that the United States supports WTO membership for Russia in part because it “can have the effect of promoting democratic development.” Asked Monday why the same would not be true for Iran, Rice said that “the WTO can have that effect,” but that Bush had not yet decided whether to stop objecting to Iran’s application. European leaders who met with Bush last week urged him to do so.

Ahmad Montazeri, a cleric and son of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, says the Bush administration should release several billion dollars in Iranian assets frozen since diplomatic relations were severed in 1980. His father was tapped as successor to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini until he broke with the regime over its dictatorial policies and abuse of human rights.

“The United States can easily take the initiative,” Montazeri says. Unfreezing the assets “would be a gesture of goodwill and would deprive the Iranian government of its excuses not to establish ties with the United States. This wall of mistrust would come down.”

Many of those interviewed here advise the Bush administration to keep up the tough talk on human rights, but to bombard Iran with visas and visitors, not missiles.

“The support of human rights groups in the United States is very important for me,” says Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her human rights advocacy. Working within the system with a small staff and using Islamic law against regime actions, Ebadi has managed to expand rights for women and children and press for an end to abuse of political prisoners.

Avenues for dissent

Despite record prices for its enormous oil output — Iran is the world’s fourth-largest producer — the economy is in bad shape, and inflation and youth unemployment both top 15%. A recent poll by Iran’s state-run National Youth Organization of 16,000 young people in all 30 provinces of Iran found that 44% would leave the country if they could.

Apart from telling jokes that mock their aging, clerical leaders, many Iranians have distanced themselves from politics: Only 28% of Tehranis turned out in parliamentary elections last year. Few say they will vote in presidential elections in June unless they were required to because of their government jobs.

The Bush administration characterizes Iran as tyrannical. In her Senate confirmation hearings, Rice called Iran an “outpost of tyranny” along with Burma, Zimbabwe, Belarus, North Korea and Cuba.

While some Iranians enjoy the Bush administration’s harsh words, reformers within the ruling elite say the insults have backfired.

Mohsen Kadivar, a cleric who recently spent a year as a visiting scholar at Harvard University, says the tough talk — especially Bush’s labeling of Iran as a member of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address — has emboldened the government to crack down on those promoting change.

Last year, the Council of Guardians, an appointed body that vets political candidates, disqualified most reform-minded candidates running for parliament, including many incumbents.

“The supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) used Bush’s words against us,” Kadivar says. “Democracy cannot be transplanted from the United States without its social and political background. … We should make it ourselves.”

Iran’s ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, who has also tried to reach out to Americans, agrees. “We need reform inside Iran, not imposed by the United States or other outsiders,” he says. “We have a young experience with democracy and change needs time. Reform is the origin of our Islamic revolution and this process is a continuous one.”

The evidence of that change is obvious to anyone walking on Tehran’s streets. “Two years ago, we all wore red. This year, we’re wearing pink, and next year, who knows?” says Farzaneh Samadian, 21, a computer software engineer whose pink and navy scarf is barely attached to her head. “We love freedom.”

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