March 16, 2008

TOO MUCH FREEDOM TO BOTHER REVOLTING:

Iran's young women find private path to freedom: A headscarf pushed back to show off a new haircut, a tight jacket worn over traditional dress, expensive make-up ... the challenge to the hardline clerics is taking place in bars and cafes, not in the polling booth, as the youth of Tehran push the boundaries of self-expression (Peter Beaumont, 3/16/08, The Observer)

The rules of the coffee houses - in comparison with the street - reflect the fundamental division in Iran. It is not the divide between the 'Reforms' and the 'Principalists' of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who competed for Iran's parliamentary elections on Friday. For many of the young, including Mehdi and Shareh, those elections represented an increasingly irrelevant distinction in a clerical system they feel is stacked in favour of itself. Instead, the division is between what Iranians do and say in private, or in places where they feel comfortable, and how they are forced to behave in public.

The inevitable tension between the two is defining the boundaries of the country's culture wars. For it is here, rather than in the polling booths, that Iran's most crucial competition is taking place - over the limits of what is acceptable self-expression. It is the struggle to push the boundaries of freedom in Iran.

In Tehran, it is visible in the girls who wear their scarves pushed far back on their heads, hair springing free, faces heavily made up or tight jackets worn over their knee-length mantles in a challenge to the system.

Even those attempting to push the boundaries insist that, despite the image of Iran in the West as virtually a totalitarian regime, Iranians enjoy more freedoms than they are credited with. Two of those are Sohrab Mahdavi, editor of the online Tehranavenue.com, and his friend Ramin Sadighi, a musician and director of a record label, who are involved in a project to bring more music into public places.

'The crucial thing to understand about Iran,' said Mahdavi, 'is that we do have freedoms. The important issue is the separation between public and private space in Iranian life. Since the revolution, public space has been tightly controlled [by the clerical authorities], so people have created their own "public spaces" in private. A consequence is that what is acceptable in private is now constantly in the process of trying to nibble away at the controlled public arena.'

'And you have to bear in mind,' said Sadighi, 'how youthful the population is here. They are the fruits of the system in many respects. But they are going in an opposite direction to it. There is no social movement that is represented by them - and I think that is probably a good thing for the future of Iran - but what is happening is that people have joined together to form small colonies of interest.'

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 16, 2008 11:17 AM
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