July 17, 2007

Young and Restless in Tehran

In one of her book's sillier moments, Iranian-American journalist Azadeh Moaveni recounts her attempt to totter home on the streets of Tehran after one too many drinks at a friend's party. Doing so, she explains, was a dangerous proposition: Had she been stopped by the Basiji, the regime's Islamic vigilantes, she might have been sent to the local precinct and subjected to a virginity check. Her friend, aware the situation was potentially disastrous, flags down a passing garbage truck and hauls them both inside. "We occupied the stinking, one-foot gap between the trash and the cabin," she explains. "Do. You. Realize. What. You've. Done? This is garbage! I'm being transported with refuse. This is madness. Why don't you people revolt or something?" But then, as the truck lurches along, she suddenly feels a warm sense of security settle over her. "With someone who knew the gaps in the rules," she muses happily, "there is adventure to be had behind the grim, rigid fa├žade of the Islamic Republic."

Adventure? To the outside eye, Iran looks like a monochromatic palete of law-abiding Islamic citizens, a place where drugs, partying, sex, and even romance appear not to exist. This is particularly the case today, a year and a half after the departure of President Mohammad Khatami from office. Khatami's initial efforts to shift the focus from an "Islamic" to an Iranian national identity, and to dissociate physical appearance from the character of the regime (he once stated that "just because someone shaves his beard does not mean that he is not a practicing Muslim") led in the early years of his presidency to a slackening of certain rules that had once defined the public sphere. For a brief yet buoyant historical moment, couples strolled down the streets hand in hand; hejabs revealed bare ankles, and veils a few inches of hairline; and boys drove their dates home late at night. True, the changes were modest, but many people, both in Iran and in the West, saw in them the first, faint glimmer of democracy to come.
The landslide election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005, however, just one year after the conservatives re-took the Majiles (parliament), revealed the Iran of Khatami to be little more than a prettier cage. On account of the discord and disorganization among the reformists' ranks, the fierce and underestimated determination of the mullahs to retain their grip on the state, and, finally, the United States' designation of Iran as one-third of the "Axis of Evil" after September 11–a move that allowed the regime to crush opposition in the name of "national security" Iran's homegrown democratic movement appears to have been stopped dead in its tracks.
At least, this is how it appears on the surface.


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