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Many Iranians flaunt their style

The polarized worlds of reform-minded and conservative Iranians clash at an upscale mall in Tehran.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 2004


As far as Hossein is concerned, his clothing shop for women, in a mall in an upscale district of Tehran, is the front line in Iran's simmering social war.

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Women shopping here are reprimanded or even detained by overzealous morality police for showing too much hair. Hossein has been warned for displaying "too much red" in his window - colors known as "screaming" in Iran because they are so bright and happy.

For various infractions, he was recently forced briefly to shut down.

This mall - home turf for Iran's prosperous and disillusioned social elite - is a place where two worlds collide. On one side are young free-spirited Iranians, radicalized beyond politics against Iran's Islamic revolution and hard-line rulers.

One the other: Feared enforcers of the regime's Department of Vice and Virtue, who routinely target improper garb, pop music, and the peddling of Western influence by selling men's ties.

"I feel so sorry and hateful, to see these very stupid people who are destroying their own country with their own hands," laments Hossein, who wears a silver necklace and long, slicked-back hair. "[Hard-liners] made a very small world for themselves, and have been bombarded with ideas from people above them. The ideology has penetrated their minds. They do not know what the real world is."

Conservatives are likely to gain the advantage at the ballot box on Friday, as many pro-reformists vow to boycott the vote. Iranians under 30 make up two-thirds of the population and have voted enthusiastically for change since 1997.

They elected President Mohammad Khatami and the current reform parliament, or majlis. But the failure of reform in the face of hard-line opposition has turned many Iranians away from politics. One aim of the boycott is to ensure that a new conservative majlis has little popular legitimacy. Even Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi says she won't cast a ballot.

More than 100 reform legislators took the unprecedented step Tuesday of accusing supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a letter of leading a system "in which legitimate freedoms and the rights of the people are being trampled on in the name of Islam."

The social and political fault line in modern Iran has become so pronounced that both sides have taken to protesting the other in the most niggling ways.

At this mall, shoppers push the limits, wearing required long coverings, or manteaux, skin-tight and above the knee. Kerchief-sized headscarves are often accompanied by matching nail polish and lipstick.

Indeed, the secular world in more affluent parts of north Tehran is saturated with the Internet, illegal but tolerated satellite TV, and Western music, and thick with respect and even yearning for Iran's top enemy, America.

It could not be further from the poorer, religious areas of south Tehran, where Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution took root and still commands a faithful following. Indeed, Hossein says that most of the mall's morality enforcers appear to come from less privileged families, "and haven't seen this kind of thing in their lives. It's a different world."

"[Hard-liners] think the same about us as we do about them: that we are animals, imitators stricken by the West, and on the wrong path," he explains. "That is what I think - they are such animals."

In this milieu, Iranians revel in the forbidden. They drink alcohol and increasingly take drugs, attend promiscuous parties pumping with pop music, and even drag-race their cars while intoxicated, shouting: "This is Iran, where anything is possible!"

Among the majority of Iranians who demand reform, these may be extreme examples. But they fear the raw power of the hard-liners, who have used violence and the control of key state and security organs to block their dreams of democratic freedom and less strict social rules.

"There is too much pressure under this tyranny - we can't talk. Even a word, and tomorrow you are not here," says another shopkeeper who sells fashionable clothes smuggled from Turkey, and would not give his name. "They have a gun at our heads. They have the power, and we can do nothing."