Many Iranians flaunt their style

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

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.

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."

His shop has been visited in recent days by Vice and Virtue officers. They insisted that neckties be removed from storefront mannequins, and broke a CD playing music by an artist, even though his work had been approvedby the Islamic Guidance Ministry.

Female mannequins are gone from the window. A saleswoman now wears a more conservative head covering - a partial concession. But it is draped over a tight manteau and blue jeans. Her eyes are framed by thick mascara; her rose-colored nails match her glossy lipstick.

"They come here in plain clothes as shoppers, ask for the price of a tie, then go out and bring uniformed officers," the saleswoman says.

The shop stops still for a moment when two men with beards pop in. There is a sigh of relief when they are recognized as friends. "I have my beliefs, and they have their beliefs, and that is all," says the saleswoman. "We're all Muslims, but there are hard-liners, and there are normal people."

Any relaxation of the dress code is "100 percent reversible," she adds. "When people in charge are that powerful, they can tell me: 'Wear this today, and don't wear that tomorrow.' " Iranians do report a broader tolerance in recent months. Hair coverings have been less strictly enforced; young men and women now hold hands publicly - an act that once sparked immediate beatings. And while shops that have been targeted by the authorities now bury their tightest-fitting manteaux on long racks, the shrink-wrap choice has become so prevalent that some women are dieting to improve the fit.

"When they put pressure on people - 'don't drink, don't wear this' - many want to try it, because it's forbidden," says one boyish salesman. "It's chic to buy a tie, and chic to be against them."

Architecture student Somayeh shops with her sisters, sporting plucked eyebrows, makeup, and a revealing head scarf that barely clings to the back of her head. "We fear [hard-liners] because they can make trouble for us with lashings, or put us in prison," says Somayeh, whose face shows a ski-goggle sunburn. Skiing on the slopes near Tehran is often beyond the control of the morality police. "But it is not like it used to be - they can't force us anymore not to go out with boys, or to wear this or that.

"Islam is not just about covering your hair and not drinking alcohol - it's also about not telling lies," Somayeh adds. "Some [hard-liners] are worse than those who don't cover themselves. Islam says: 'Don't deceive each other.' "

"Their Islam and their state are different from the ones we know," says her sister Parisa, who also studies architecture. She says she and her young friends once said their prayers regularly, but no longer do. "Even those who took part in the revolution 25 years ago say that this is not Islam. They are working against Islam."

The current "little bit of freedom" now tolerated, Parisa says, is meant only to "calm people." But for the anonymous shopkeeper, recent months have been marked by a clampdown that he thinks will only worsen if conservatives win parliament.

"Girls and boys coming out like this are only pretending to be free," he says, waving toward flirting couples. "What do you call liberty? Uncovering your hair? This is not freedom. The true liberty is expressing your idea.

"With the Internet and satellite TV, people are understanding more and more every day," he adds. "This is the atomic age, and each person knows better if they are on the right path. I know what is right or wrong.... I don't need anybody else to tell me."

Regardless of the election results, these irreverent Iranians say they wouldn't care how the other half lives, if they were left to live their own lives.

"The conflict is brewing, and one day, one group will win," says Somayeh. "If the conservatives were to win, they would have done so already. In the end, they will lose."

Second of two stories on Iran's reformist-conservative social divide. The first ran Feb. 18.

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