The young seek a freer, less clerical Iran

When young Alireza Mahfouzian stops mid-schuss and bends his head to steal a kiss from his girlfriend, he quickly looks up - like a child caught stealing sweets - to see if anyone is watching.

Holding hands in public is rare enough, because it risks rebuke from watchful morality police. But open flirting in the Islamic Republic? Well, that's nearly revolutionary.

"There is more freedom here than anywhere else," says Mr. Mahfouzian, a teenager with gelled hair and dark sunglasses who looks as at home here on the pristine slopes north of Tehran as he would on any in Colorado.

"Don't worry, this is my wife," he jokes, introducing his Western-looking girlfriend, Golnar Akasheh.

The pair and their circle of young friends are apt symbols of the powerful social forces that are transforming Iran - the ones that delivered a crushing blow to hard-line conservatives in elections on Friday, and handed control of parliament to reformists for the first time.

The United States - estranged from Iran for two decades - declared the election result "historic." But the growing demands for freedom and tolerance - manifest in the unexpected victory of President Mohamad Khatami in 1997 - first germinated in places like Dizin, in the Alborz mountains north of Tehran.

From the summit, Mahfouzian slices down the mountain, the sun and bright blue sky glinting off the spray of snow crystals as he slaloms back and forth. Miss Akasheh follows, her long, light brown hair - completely covered by a headscarf anywhere but here - flowing with little restraint out from under her dark beret. Her dark blue spandex leggings and matching fleece jacket appear to redefine Iran's social code for acceptable length.

Mahfouzian stops on a hillside knoll. Akasheh bumps into him playfully, and then swings an arm around his neck. With other skiers whooshing past, they steal a kiss. As time goes by here, inhibitions seem to disappear as quickly as snowflakes on a warm spring day.

Like most of Iran's youths - 60 percent of the population is below the age of 25 - they didn't live through the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And well aware of the outside world by watching satellite TV, bootleg Western films, and being Internet savvy, the children of Iran's revolution don't feel especially bound by its most stringent social restrictions.

On Friday, dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reforms - Mr. Khatami's efforts at change until now have been blocked often by conservatives in parliament - was translated into a transfer of power in Iran.

The gap that caused this seismic change is evident at Dizin. "Tehran is really controlled, and you can't wear these clothes there," says Shadi Peyda, a student wearing a loose, white scarf. "Here it is different - everyone is happy, everything is good, the colors are so bright."

Skiing was once the province of the rich and powerful during the era of the pro-West Shah Reza Pahlavi, whose personal resort complex is nestled on a mountainside facing the Dizin ski area. But today anyone can buy a pass and rent skis for the equivalent of $6.

And skiing has powerful sanction. A billboard near the parking lot shows a picture of Iran's spiritual "supreme leader," Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, smiling, next to these words: "I consider sport as a necessity for the health of everyone's mind and body, and I agree with it."

In keeping with rules elsewhere, Dizin was divided until a few years ago into men's and women's ski runs. But even as free-wheeling teenagers and amorous couples take advantage of the lure of fun on the slopes these days, risks still exist.

Just 1-1/2 weeks ago, 30 to 40 uniformed Basijis - security forces - took to the slopes in a major crackdown. They ensured compliance with Islamic rules and harassed unmarried couples.

"If they catch you, they take you away and say your coat is too short, your hair is out, and you wear too much make-up," recalls Mehnaz, a teenage student.

About 10 men and 10 women were arrested. Mahfouzian was there with Akasheh, and they say they were given a hard time - but finally let go because, by chance, they were also there with Mahfouzian's sister, who served as a chaperone to the couple in accordance with Iran's Islamic law.

On most days, though, the Basijis keep a low profile, and Iran's youths are left to themselves in the high mountain air.

"Look: girls, girls, girls!" shouts Milad, a baby-faced friend of Mahfouzian, while banging his ski pole on the inside of the plastic gondola, pointing toward a pair of lady skiers going up on another lift.

He says he has been "very successful" meeting girl skiers, and exchanges phone numbers with them. One in five, he says, see him again in Tehran. He thanks President Khatami for hearing the message of the youths and women, and for making such openness possible.

And so does the lift operator, who volunteers: "He's made this country blossom."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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