Having been to Syria, and then spent a few days in the Gulf, coming to Iran was certainly set up as not too great a culture shock. After all, parts of Syria are fairly conservative, religiously, and men in the Gulf uniformly wear traditional (Arab) dress, compared to the modern western (though tieless) look of Iranian men, as evidenced by Iran’s president. A few thoughts captured in my first couple days on the ground, before they mature and grow stale:
– People here are just as friendly as Syrians, but speak a lot more English. This can be somewhat tricky because in some cases people are so eager to speak with us, and since they speak English it is harder to turn them down, even if we really do have something to do or some place to go (or can’t really understand their English efforts). We already have had one dinner invitation that we were not able to accept, and have felt compelled to participate in somewhat strange, rather long conversations. Oh, to have such problems!
– As you may have read, Americans are required to be guided in Iran, and we had been somewhat anxious about what this aspect of our Iran trip was going to be like. Everything is going great with Pars Tourist Agency so far. But we have to change guides tomorrow (our first guide, who was excellent, was unavailable for our whole time), and so we’ll see. The mandatory guide is not so cumbersome–we have evenings to ourselves and, being our own two-person group, can move at our own pace.
– The role of “traditional” dress is different here than in Syria because there are religious laws enforced against women–it is compulsory and shows. In Syria, not all women wore head scarves and those that did looked very much like they were doing so by choice (even if I imagine in many families it is expected of them). In Iran, cover is required by law (in the form of a headscarf or chador–Iranian women do not wear burkas like Arabs or Afghanis). We’ve seen saw a couple of women from Tehran take their scarves off when not in the presence of Iranian men, only to cover their head quickly when a man entered the room, and a lot of younger women here in liberal Shiraz wear their scarves in a manner that just barely satisfies the legal requirements (actually, likely does not), revealing half of their sometimes significant hairdo, with their highlights and occasionally heavy makeup.
– We had a conversation with a couple of young women studying at a university in Shiraz and took the opportunity to ask them some questions about women’s issues. When asked whether they liked or disliked the hejab (the Islamic dress code), one answered that it didn’t matter to her while the other was emphatic in her negative response, “No… I hate it.” The second answer came so quickly and firmly, it was as if she had been waiting a long time to tell exactly that to someone. When asked what they believe most Iranian women think about the law, the first woman thought that they favored the law while the second thought that they resented it. When asked whether they felt that they had a wide range of career opportunities (by law, a few are not open to women), the first answered with a yes, while the second thought that her choices were severely limited. It was astonishing how different their answers were, although they were friends. A man we spoke to took a somewhat intermediate point of view, defending the dress code based on the custom of the people (and implausibly justifying it on reduction of sex crimes and harassment, as if Iranian men were totally incapable of self-control), but taking the long-term perspective that things should and will change eventually.
The “liberal” woman we spoke to went on to ask us questions about the American system, and what it was like. She asked if we were happy with the laws in the U.S. We gave her a brief summary of the principles of the First Amendment and our personal views. She was somewhat surprised to hear that we were not religious at all, but very much approved of all of the personal liberties available in America. On dressing and living as she pleases, she said, “It is my dream.” One (perhaps obvious) conclusion: Whether dress is enforced socially or legally makes a big difference. In Syria, a woman (assuming she has some education and means) can choose to move to a big city and take off her veil. Here, refusing to comply with the hejab means that you will be a criminal, and potentially serve jail time with repeat offenses.
– Apostasy, or renouncing Islam, is a capital offense. You’re allowed to be Christian or Jewish or Zoroastrian, but if you are a Muslim, you must remain one on penalty of death. I imagine people don’t generally get executed for breaking this law (after all, unless you’re out to be a martyr it’s easy to pass as a faithful), but it is a stark reminder of what theocracy means.
– Finally, to show you that life goes on in Iran, despite the laws: We were walking innocently around the town of Shiraz, our first evening, and came upon a wholly unexpected experience (and honestly something we haven’t encountered anywhere else)–aggressive gay cruising. Crossing across a 50 meter stretch of a public square in the middle of town, we came across three different men, with each of whom we struck up conversations, before we knew exactly what was on their minds. The first had an extremely high feminine voice (although he was like 6’2″) and showed Derek a (straight) porn video that was on his mobile phone, suggesting that we walk over to his house. The second started with polite conversation and then moved quickly to repeatedly asking Derek the size of his, um, ****. Both were persistent and the latter quite explicit about what he wanted (although to be fair I guess we could have stopped it by just walking away–we were freaked out but also intensely curious at what was going on in the middle of an Iranian city since given as is infamous the penalty for gay sex in Iran is death). Passing through the same square on the way back from dinner, another man told us that he loved America and George Bush and said that George Bush was gay. All of this, happening on our first full night in Iran, was totally surreal. [A man we met elsewhere told us that a considerable percentage of people in Iran, especially the younger ones, participate in the usual vices (alcohol, nonmarital sex, pornography), albeit discreetly. Shiraz was after all famous for its wine, and people still make and consume it in private.]