TOPICS : Much more than beards and black veils

Nothing could be more misleading than the stereotyped image of life in Iran, as projected by the western media, as one of bearded men throwing stones at embassies and women peering out of slits in heavy, black veils. At closer range, the lives of Iranians offer a far more colourful and vivid picture.

“In a totalitarian state that attempts to control even private lives, people live double existences. They wear masks in public to conform and be safe. In private, they lead the lives they wish to live,” says an analyst, asking to remain unidentified. “The Islamic state envisaged by Iran’s hardliners and conservatives is a religious state having control over every aspect of people’s lives. What they think and believe, their personal relations, what they watch or read, are all to be approved by the state,” he adds. There is a historical background to the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ existence that many Iranians have developed over time. “Shiaism, long suppressed in history, has always preached that at times of suppression when professing one’s religion can put him in danger, one can hide his belief and pretend to adhere to the official religion to save himself. But the younger generation is tired of living double lives,” he says.

“The youth want to be individuals, not one of many, so they try to look different. They are no longer content to live the way they wish only in the safer confines of their homes,’’ says a student activist. With the acquisition of power by hardliners in June 2005 and pressure from clerics and vigilantes, the grip has tightened. Correcting people’s behaviour has risen to the top of the agenda for the government and various other bodies responsible for public morality like the police, the judiciary and the parliament. The state recently launched several offensives against personal freedom. A crackdown on satellite dishes, enforcement of dress code, refusal to issue publication permits for books, banning films and plays and internet filtering are some examples. The Islamic dress code has always been the most obvious and observable sign of ‘conformity’ and hardliners and conservatives are now crying out for enforcement of the code by the police and other responsible bodies. The state propaganda and control has not been very effective, at least in the way people dress. Walking around streets in Tehran and most other cities, one notices there are fewer ‘conformists’ than ‘non-conformists’.

One analyst considers the new crackdown on people’s social and personal freedoms a temporary measure to pacify religious hardliners whose support the administration needs. “The regime has now engaged itself on various fronts, external and domestic. Ahmadinejad’s administration is struggling to cope with economic conditions created by heavy subsidies while the people’s demands have been increasing,” he says. “But Iranian history shows us the recent confrontation is nothing but a war of attrition and eventually the state will cave in under pressure from people. The Islamic state cannot force change on people as long as they are not genuinely ready for that,” he said. — IPS