June issue 2009

By | Published 15 years ago

They’re holding hands. A double take confirms it. And they are not two men holding hands (or hooking pinkies) like some do here in the subcontinent. There is one man and one woman. In broad daylight. In Tehran.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in early March  — three months before the disputed national elections and subsequent protests that turned Iran upside-down — and the winding, uphill path in Darband draws a slow, erratic flow of meanderers onto its crooked back. Darband is at the northern end of the capital. Lying in the foothills of the Alborz mountain range, it’s the gateway to a hiking trail leading to Mount Tochal, almost 4,000 metres in the sky. The beauty of Darband, though, is not the main attraction: it’s a beginning-of-the-road mini-resort.

Carved into steep rock walls, restaurants and cafés have set up terraced seating, overlooking the pedestrian corridor that connects the road to the trail. Vendors selling boiled fava beans and dried, pressed fruit line the pathway up. Atypical late winter colours electrify every level of the route. Everything seems to get its colour from the reds and yellows of the stacked and packed berries, cherries and apricots. The railings, the painted walls reflect the amber of the apricot piles, glowing like suns. The rugs, cushions and awnings borrow the Venetian red of the sour cherries and the midnight burgundy of the endless mulberries.

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But within this colour wheel in the hills, what stands out the most are the women. Up here women outnumber men. Some are alone with a guy, like the one seen holding hands. Some are on double dates. Others lounge in bigger all-girl groups: they sit cross-legged on charpoys, chat, drink tea and puff on a qalyoun (hookah). Perhaps they are off from school early. In the lead-up to Nowruz (the Iranian New Year), some of them might be playing hooky.

All around the city, people seem to roam and carry about their business with, well, er, freedom. In Tehran, there are few overt signs of oppression.

Words like that could get a man choked at the hands of feminists (and so many more Iranians). The fact that women must cover up, from head-to-toe, in Iran, is an unacceptable in-your-face form of oppression. It is one of two glaring, undemocratic restrictions that outsiders see. The other is a spoon-fed press.

Otherwise, life looks normal. Men share the streets with women. Kids are seen coming out of school, knapsacks hanging off their shoulders. People hop on buses, go to work, window-shop, stop by the bank, pick up Versace shoes and fight through bumper-to-bumper traffic like anywhere else in the world. There is no disconcerting military or police presence — traffic cops, though, are at every intersection. There are no moral police combing the sidewalks looking for rebels to beat into submission. In this Islamic republic, there is a mingling of the sexes and no one seems to care.

Except that the government does. Which is why, after walking around the most cosmopolitan city in Iran, I saw only one couple holding hands. Which is why women are forced to hide themselves, become less visible, less individual. Women in Tehran, though, find ways to be noticed.

It’s hard to dress up a chador. So those with a more fashionable bent go for the manteau. The long overcoat covers the arms and legs, usually past the knees, and often is belted across the waist, promoting womanly curves. Yet, in terms of modest Islamic dress, the manteau is only half a compromise: it doesn’t cover the head. Enter the headscarf. Strategically placed, it acts more as an accessory than a hood. A colourful Hermès scarf can draw eyes towards a woman and her perfectly coiffed hair that is more than peeking out from the front, blonde streaks and all. From under the manteau, jeans and funky boots, stick out too, demanding to be noticed. Iran is just as fashion-conscious as anywhere else. And the men further confirm this.


The 18-35, male crowd is a metrosexual bunch. Crisp, fitted button-downs and slim slacks are common. Hair, though, is the true beacon of style for Tehrani men. Salons provide cutting-edge looks and guys strut the streets with super-sculpted hair that is the result of handfuls of gel. For women, the focus is on the face. Among the hip, modern women in Tehran, a fastidiously painted face is a must. Yet sometimes make-up isn’t enough.

Along a major road with shops and boutiques on either side, I stand by a shop window, watching people go by. There is a steady flow of pedestrians. Men make deliveries and women with groceries head towards the taxi stand. I notice a well put-together woman with a broad white bandage across her nose. I think little of it until I see another young woman, not shy about the gauzy mark of surgery in the middle of her face. Tehran isn’t filled with clumsy women who fall and break their noses. It is filled with women who hate their noses.

“The most popular form of plastic surgery in America is liposuction,” states a 2005 CBS news report. “But in Iran, where the female form is kept largely under wraps, women prefer to spend their money where they can show it off.” Many Iranians believe the Persian nose is a big nose, while western noses are small and beautiful, “like Barbie’s.”

A short documentary on current.com sniffed out a whole family sensitive about their schnozes. The three daughters name their favourite celebrity noses: Angelina’s, Britney’s and J-Lo’s. The Angelina-admiring daughter, at 19, is undergoing rhinoplasty the next day. Her mother, who already had her proboscis tweaked, says her nose was never as bad as her daughter’s and describes the teenager’s nose as “too meaty.” The 19-year-old is one of 35,000 Iranians to get a nose job that year.

Western movies and satellite television may be blamed for shaping this trend, but in Iran, the government has done plenty of other propagandising. Around Tehran, hundreds of murals prove the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The city’s most famous mural shows a giant US flag draped sideways with skulls replacing the stars and bombs dropping from the stripes. Anti-American statements and images have covered the walls of the former US embassy for years now. Other political murals depict national war heroes from the war with Iraq, while paintings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini are ubiquitous.

Drive around town and it’s clear that it is not all political. There are also large murals of rolling hills, blue skies, doves and children. And there may be more to come. City officials have launched a beautification drive that aims to replace many negative murals with paintings of peace and hope. “The plan is to make the crowded, traffic-congested, polluted capital of Iran lively with lasting and universally understood murals,” said the man behind the drive in a news report. “We have to give a new message for a new generation.”

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While crossing the road in Mashhad, I receive a message. The second largest city in Iran is less modern than Tehran, but it is bustling. Traffic flows in and out of each roundabout in relentless waves. I step out onto the street just as a car passes. There is a gap before the next rush of vehicles. Watching the lead car, an old, white Peugeot, I start to cross. But the driver, a woman in her fifties, is watching me too — though, not because I’m a moving obstacle. As our eyes meet, she leans forward and takes her right hand off the steering wheel. She gestures at me with an inward twist of the wrist and a nod. She’s trying to pick me up. No, not in that way. She wants to know if I want a lift.

In Iran, an informal car-sharing system exists as a grassroots taxi service. People wait along the street for drivers travelling in the same direction to stop and pick them up. It’s a common scene by highway on-ramps: groups of people standing, looking for rides. Often they are not far from other travellers who have stopped to picnic. Iranians have no problem picnicking in unthinkable places: immediately along the side of the highway, just metres from the asphalt, in the dust, the desert on one side, engines on the other. It’s said that every Iranian automobile is eternally packed with the essentials for an impromptu picnic: carpet, water, tea, biscuits, coal and a qalyoun.

The passengers looking for rides, though, aren’t hitchhiking: they pay. During a cross-town trip a driver may pick and drop many passengers, helping him pay for the petrol. The old woman approaching me is looking for gas money too. I shake my head and scurry across the street.