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Iran’s Rebels By: Maureen Callahan
New York Post | Tuesday, June 23, 2009


To the iconography of revolution -- the man in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, young people ripping shards off the Berlin Wall -- we can now add this: the red nail polish, black eyeliner and side-swept bangs of young Iranian women.

So conservative by American standards, yet revolutionary by Iranian ones: these women, who by law can do and say and expose and adorn almost nothing, are agitating for the most basic human rights in the smallest of ways. And it is these tiny acts of rebellion that the Iranian government, which has further constricted the rights of women since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, cannot abide.

"I do not know a single woman who is pro these laws," says a 29-year-old Iranian woman, who has lived in the US for the past 11 years. "They are not as bad as the Taliban, but it's all relative."

The women of Iran are on the verge. They are more literate and highly educated than men (63% attend university), and, as in the US, women comprise 50% of the vote. Ahmedinejad's challengers -- even Karroubi, the cleric! -- made a point of soliciting the female vote, appearing in public with their wives, or speaking to the need for more women in parliament or positions of power. Mousavi, the so-called reform candidate, shrewdly deployed his wife, political science professor Zahra Rahnavard, as a vocal campaigner. Her electrifying effect on the electorate led to comparisons to Michelle Obama.

"I really like her," says the Iranian ex-pat. "She could be very influential and help change the suppression of women. She's educated and very open-minded. A lot of people follow her."

The resonance Rahnavrad has had on the electorate rattled Ahmedinejad enough to drag his own wife -- a woman many Iranians are unsure even exists -- out of the shadows. Sort of. She doesn't speak, and dresses so conservatively that all one can see are her eyes. "And she wears glasses!" says Iranian scholar Dr. Nayereh Tohidi. "That makes it even harder!"

Under Ahmedinejad, Iranian women must cover their heads and their bodies at all times. They cannot file for divorce, travel without their husband's permission, attend sporting events, smoke a hookah. Beauty salons are outlawed, and the ones that exist are run like speakeasies. (Men have never been able, or really willing, to outlaw vanity.) Once she turns 13, a girl can be conscripted into marriage. Even public transportation is segregated.

It is a contradiction that even the most Americanized Iranian women have trouble reconciling.

"I first noticed the buses were segregated when I was 12," says Sara, a 19-year-old who was born in Tehran. (She asked that her last name not be used.) In many ways, Sara is more American than Iranian: she has lived in America since her family moved to a comfortable Los Angeles neighborhood when she was a toddler. Her first point of reference to segregated buses was the civil rights struggle in America, and this led her to believe it was wrong.

Yet today, she says segregation "is a good thing. It's not like African-Americans and whites. It's a respect thing. If it's crowded, men will try to touch you. That's why women sit in the back, and men in the front."

That said, she reports that 10 out of 11 Iranian girls have had nose jobs. Boys and girls drink alcohol (which is forbidden) and date and log onto Facebook and hang out at the mall. They know how kids in the West live and they like it and want to live like that too. The hottest commodity in Tehran is an iPhone. Boys are not shy about asking girls out. Young people on the whole are not religious, because they see a theocratic government twisting and manipulating religious dogma to its own ends.

"The more fundamentalist families -- that's where you see problems," says the ex-pat. "Because this new generation, my age and younger, they know that a lot of the laws that control them are unfair. They have the Internet. They can see the basic human rights that most everyone else has. I was in Tehran eight months ago. These girls are not afraid. They do what they want. And sometimes they are beaten."

The police in Tehran have formed a special task force specializing in dress codes. Known as "the green police," they often park their vans outside malls and by the promenades where kids hang out, snatching up girls whose dress is deemed too provocative. Usually it's a female officer -- swathed head-to-toe in black -- who does the rounding up and arresting, the photographing and fingerprinting, the calling of the parents.

Last year, Sara says that her cousin, who lives in Tehran, was arrested: "Her clothing was not short or tight, but the cops cut it up," she says. Women who can afford to bribe the police are let go; those who can't are beaten with metal chains. Curiously, it is the women who truly defy the dress code, who wear bright colors or a tighter silhouette (one can only imagine what that could constitute), who are left alone.

"The cops won't bother with those girls," says Sara. "I asked my family why, and they said, 'Those girls are already a lost cause. They're already ho's.' "

In the wake of this most recent election, Ahmedinejad was asked about the status of women in Iran. He said that they have more rights than men. "Can you believe that?" says Tohidi. "It made women outraged."

Yet no matter the outcome of this revolt, says Tohidi, Ahmedinejad does not know what he's up against.

"He cannot take women back again," she says. "Even if he stays in power, it won't last."

 





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