Iran eases its social strictures

In a political trade-off, leaders loosen harsh rules

Stuck in traffic, the young driver with goatee, shades, and a roving eye spots his targets - two lanes over. Oozing self-confidence, he rolls down his window and motions to the passenger in the next car to roll down both his windows, so he can deliver his pickup line directly.

The women, coiffed in head scarves, peered across at their suitor. Unmoved, they drive on.

"Oh well, I guess they weren't interested," laments Siavash, ending another attempt at a secret liaison in Iran, where official limits on male-female contact have turned even traffic lanes into passion-laced zones.

Siavash is a college graduate who spends his days fulfilling his military duty. But after hours, he takes full advantage of an unexpected softening of social strictures in the Islamic state - describing quiet streets where young men "park" cars with girlfriends and parties where drugs and alcohol are increasingly common.

Social freedoms have long been a barometer of politics in Iran, and pundits predicted that conservatives would crack down when they regained control of parliament in February 2004.

Hard-liners and undercover morality police have tried to legislate a stricter dress code, and last spring stepped up efforts to crash mixed-sex parties, arrest girls showing too much ankle and wearing make-up, and scold those resting sunglasses on their heads. Mobile flogging units were even reportedly deployed in more laid-back Caspian Coast towns.

Change in tactics

Following stiff resistance to the measures, however, the unpopular right wing appears to have shifted tactics. With presidential elections looming in June, hard-liners will take advantage of discontent over the failure of reformist President Mohammed Khatami to deliver fully on promises of freedom, openness, and the rule of law.

But they appear to have made another calculation as well - that social flexibility is a price they must pay for their political survival.

Pushing too hard on social restrictions, estimates political analyst and businessman Saeed Laylaz, is one of the three things that could destabilize Iran - along with a severe drop in oil prices or missteps in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Several years of rising hopes for change, and the subsequent deflation of those hopes, has turned a sizable group of Iranians, more than two-thirds of whom are under 30 years old, away from politics.

Now what many want is simply to be left alone.

"The regime allows people to do what they want, so the army of the people has returned to its bases," says Mr. Laylaz, adding that the "triumph" of Mr. Khatami has been that many freedoms are now irreversible anyway.

"Maybe [people] do not like the regime, but they don't hate it," he continues. "They are home, awaiting a new confrontation, over the economy or culture.... They don't accept totalitarianism anymore, and the regime accepts this."

That equation is clear to Siavash, who asked that a pseudonym be used because he is still serving in the military.

"The conservatives are getting clever - people are free in the street, holding hands and wearing less hijab [hair covering]," says the young man. "[They] want to show that voting for reformists is not going to solve your problems."

Siavash adds that pressure from outside - especially Washington - helps.

"As long as there is a foreign gun to our heads, we feel safe [from harassment] here. The government needs our support, so we will be more free," he says.

The current relaxation could not be more evident, from a bestselling volume that defines coded slang for women used by highway date-hunters like Siavash, to young women in skin-tight, thigh-length "Islamic" manteau jackets who download erotic images from the Internet for their mobile phones.

But there are limits, and the more political realms are as tightly controlled as ever. Internet bloggers have been a particular target of prosecution in the past year. Many of those convicted describe prison time marked by brutal treatment and torture.

Scenes of mixed-sex frolicking in February during the Ashura religious holiday, which mourns the death of Imam Hussein, also brought religious ire against "a handful of hoodlums and promiscuous elements," in the words of the hard-line Jomhuri-e Eslami newspaper.

"In this disgraceful event, which was like a large street party, [girls and boys] mocked Muslims' beliefs and sanctities in the most shameless manner," the newspaper wrote, according to Reuters. "Some long-haired guys would openly cuddle girls creating awful immoral scenes. Fast, provocative music ... nearby gave the street party more steam." Hard-line vigilantes broke up that gathering in affluent north Tehran.

I need socks?

But the hard line can appear unexpectedly as well. One young woman recalls how she was prevented last fall from flying from Tehran to London because, beneath her long black manteau robe, she was not wearing socks.

The woman, who asked not to be named, usually wears mascara, plucks her eyebrows, and even kisses male friends on the cheek when meeting on the street - an extraordinary risk, even now. But she had taken the precaution of looking as conservative as possible for the airport exit.

"This is the Iran we live in - they are so rude," she says. Female airport officials slapped on handcuffs and took her to a nearby court to sign documents.

"Where does it say in the Koran you must wear socks?" the woman asked, incredulous.

"You're going to say you are sorry, in court," came the uncompromising reply. The young culprit with the bare ankles was given a choice of punishments: $150 fine, 100 lashings, or two months in prison. Her mother arrived to bail her out - uncharacteristically dressed in a full black chador and wearing no makeup - and pleaded that the family (though actually well-to-do) "did not have enough money for socks," and were "a Basiji family" - staunch supporters of the revolution.

She paid in cash - and became another example of the deep conservatism underlying the current social permissiveness on the streets.

Indeed, just as some conservatives have lowered their sights, in terms of molding a restive population, many youths have also adjusted their expectations in a grudging acknowledgement, even accommodation, of hard-line forces in Iran.

Among the newly tempered youths is Alireza Mahfouzian, a 25-year-old whom the Monitor first met five years ago on ski slopes of Dizin, not far from Tehran.

Back then, he was pushing the envelope, putting his arm around the shoulders of his then-girlfriend, Golnar, and even giving her a quick kiss before they sliced their way down the snowpack.

Many girlfriends later, and now running an interior-decoration business that puts him in contact with typical Iranians, Mr. Mahfouzian is a changed man. He remains a party animal, just a more circumspect one.

"We must realize we live in an Islamic country - we should accept that the [leaders] have their own tools to push," says the heavyset Mahfouzian, stroking a close-trimmed goatee. "I understand this is their way of imposing power."

The Khatami era has meant that "freedom has been translated into the streets,"with far fewer roadblocks, where the Basiji [hard-line militia volunteers] these days are "so polite," he says, compared to a decade ago when "they were violent."

But he understands the limits: A decade ago, he was caught during a raid at a family party where alcohol was served. He received 75 lashes in punishment.

Friends told him to take photos of his lacerated back and use them to apply for political asylum.

"I was very angry for a year. I thought: 'Why do they use this violent, old-fashioned way [of punishment]?' " says Mahfouzian. "Why do we have such laws? And why do we have such people to carry them out?"

"I went through this dark period - I tried to leave everything behind, to turn my back on the country and try to go to America," the young man says, noting that the lashings, family bankruptcy, and love problems prompted a period of "crazy" moves that included becoming the youngest Iranian to get a parachuting certification.

"Then I came to my senses," he goes on. "I like this place, and want to live here. So I had to adapt myself and accept certain things."

Iranian youths who refuse even to acknowledge that hard-liners play such a decisive role in Iranian society - for better or worse - have "inexperienced" views, he says, "not based on reality."

"You must decide: Will you grow up and adjust? Or stay reckless and destructive?" says Mahfouzian. "Not all rightists are bad, and not all the leftists [reformers] are good.

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