April 15, 2005


Iran eases its social strictures: In a political trade-off, leaders loosen harsh rules (Scott Peterson, 4/15/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

Social freedoms have long been a barometer of politics in Iran, and pundits predicted that conservatives would crack down when they regained control of parliament in February 2004.

Hard-liners and undercover morality police have tried to legislate a stricter dress code, and last spring stepped up efforts to crash mixed-sex parties, arrest girls showing too much ankle and wearing make-up, and scold those resting sunglasses on their heads. Mobile flogging units were even reportedly deployed in more laid-back Caspian Coast towns.

Following stiff resistance to the measures, however, the unpopular right wing appears to have shifted tactics. With presidential elections looming in June, hard-liners will take advantage of discontent over the failure of reformist President Mohammed Khatami to deliver fully on promises of freedom, openness, and the rule of law.

But they appear to have made another calculation as well - that social flexibility is a price they must pay for their political survival.

Pushing too hard on social restrictions, estimates political analyst and businessman Saeed Laylaz, is one of the three things that could destabilize Iran - along with a severe drop in oil prices or missteps in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Several years of rising hopes for change, and the subsequent deflation of those hopes, has turned a sizable group of Iranians, more than two-thirds of whom are under 30 years old, away from politics.

Now what many want is simply to be left alone.

"The regime allows people to do what they want, so the army of the people has returned to its bases," says Mr. Laylaz, adding that the "triumph" of Mr. Khatami has been that many freedoms are now irreversible anyway.

"Maybe [people] do not like the regime, but they don't hate it," he continues. "They are home, awaiting a new confrontation, over the economy or culture.... They don't accept totalitarianism anymore, and the regime accepts this."

That equation is clear to Siavash, who asked that a pseudonym be used because he is still serving in the military.

"The conservatives are getting clever - people are free in the street, holding hands and wearing less hijab [hair covering]," says the young man. "[They] want to show that voting for reformists is not going to solve your problems."

Siavash adds that pressure from outside - especially Washington - helps.

"As long as there is a foreign gun to our heads, we feel safe [from harassment] here. The government needs our support, so we will be more free," he says.

The current relaxation could not be more evident, from a bestselling volume that defines coded slang for women used by highway date-hunters like Siavash, to young women in skin-tight, thigh-length "Islamic" manteau jackets who download erotic images from the Internet for their mobile phones.

But there are limits, and the more political realms are as tightly controlled as ever. Internet bloggers have been a particular target of prosecution in the past year. Many of those convicted describe prison time marked by brutal treatment and torture.

Scenes of mixed-sex frolicking in February during the Ashura religious holiday, which mourns the death of Imam Hussein, also brought religious ire against "a handful of hoodlums and promiscuous elements," in the words of the hard-line Jomhuri-e Eslami newspaper.

"In this disgraceful event, which was like a large street party, [girls and boys] mocked Muslims' beliefs and sanctities in the most shameless manner," the newspaper wrote, according to Reuters. "Some long-haired guys would openly cuddle girls creating awful immoral scenes. Fast, provocative music ... nearby gave the street party more steam." Hard-line vigilantes broke up that gathering in affluent north Tehran.

There may not be another nation that needs so few reforms to be a fully functional liberal democracy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2005 5:41 PM
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