Soaps, Rock, and Democracy Dished to Iranians

IN the privacy of their homes, Iranian women have always shed their head scarves. These days, many are also clicking on their TVs to catch the latest on Lisa's love life in ''As The World Turns.''

Watching foreign programs, beamed down from satellites to small rooftop dishes, has become a symbol of defiance for Iranians fed up with the imposition of strict Islamic law. Despite government restrictions, Western movies and music, soft drinks, and cosmetics are showing up in cleric-ruled Iran.

The latest foreign-culture crackdown is on satellite dishes. But many Iranians are refusing to cooperate with the ban. One reason is that many senior officials and influential businessmen heavily rely on CNN news and other broadcasts, mainly from the West.

Samira, a 15-year-old student, wears the required hijab, or head scarf, outside her home. But inside, her long, black hair flows freely over a chic shirt, which is tucked into bell-bottomed jeans.

Samira's favorite pastime is watching banned videos of Madonna and Michael Jackson.

Iran's traditional music -- popular before the 1979 Islamic revolution -- has been sanitized by the clergy; no mention of love or romance is allowed. For example, the music of Gogoush, a popular sultry singer during the '70s, has been banned.

For most Iranians, the government's promotion of Islamically correct culture and restrictions on foreign culture has forced them -- especially teenagers -- to turn to illegal products from the West.

No 'I'll be back' movies

Not all current Iranian culture is rejected, however.

While the government restricts showing sex and violence in movies, current Iranian films have a national appeal, and even an international audience. Iranian producers, such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf -- whose films have won dozens of awards at European film festivals -- concentrate on themes about human relations.

One recent film challenges the rural prohibition on women working. Another by Mr. Makhmalbaf -- once an ardent religious militant -- shows how the underprivileged in Iran continue to suffer. His message: No political system that has evolved in Iran -- including the Islamic revolution -- has been able to solve the problems of the poor.

The state, however, has shown flexibility on accepting some Western influences.

In 1989, Iran embarked on a program to promote birth control. Officials were alarmed that the country's population had doubled from 30 million to 60 million in less than 15 years.

Government-owned centers in urban and rural areas now provide birth-control pills and other forms of contraception. Between 1989 and 1993, Iran claims to have cut the population rate from 4 percent annually to 2.8 percent.

Many analysts, including those close to the government, believe that the trend toward cultural openness is irreversible. And the scope of outside cultural influence is widening as Iran increases its trade not only with the West, but with Asia and Russia.

But like many developing countries, Iran has deep concerns about keeping the country's religious and cultural traditions while accepting modern ones.

Conservative clerics, however, are not the only ones who resent the overwhelming influence of Western pop culture that pervades Iran.

Iranians talk about a new generation of depoliticized young people who are unaware of either Iranian culture or the deeper universal values of international culture.

''I am bored with all of the talk about history and revolution; it does not mean anything to me,'' Samira says.

''We have a new generation oblivious to its history and ignorant of great classic international works of art and literature,'' says a prominent lawyer who requested anonymity.

Universities embrace West

The situation is changing at university levels, where a new generation of Western and some Iranian-educated professors are exposing students to the latest international philosophical and intellectual works and writings.

Iranian intellectuals say that cultural debate is key to changing Iran toward a model based both on the best of modern culture and Iran's rich heritage.

That heritage means more than Islamic traditions, many Iranians say. The country also has a tradition of living under authoritarian regimes -- for some 4,000 years. Importing Western-style democratic culture is difficult, they say.

''Democracy is a body without a head in Iran,'' says Mohammed Shams, editor of Tehran's Keyan quarterly.

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