The Creeping Restrictions in Iran

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FARZANEH KHADEMIAN / ABACA

An Iranian volunteer militiawoman, July 26, 2006.

When Behnaz Mohsenian, 29, started English lessons at the Najdad Institute in Tehran this spring, the 15 men and women in her class studied grammar sitting in mixed circles. Last month, the language institute divided male and female students into separate classes held on separate days of the week. Not long after, female staff began arriving at work dressed in full-length black chador, at the government-run institute's request. Now plans are under way to move the women's classes to a separate building, to eliminate altogether the possibility of illicit mingling. Promptly, a third of Mohsenian's classmates dropped out of the institute, preferring to study English elsewhere in integrated classrooms, or not at all. "It feels like your rights are being amputated," she says. "As if we're all incapable of behaving like normal people, and need to be regulated at all times."

Over the last few months, various branches of the Iranian government have stealthily worked to roll back social freedoms, re-institute gender segregation in some public academic institutions, and impose repressive Islamic codes that have been ignored here since the late 1990s. Because the Iranian system is composed of ministries with overlapping mandates and multiple security apparatuses that often act upon their own initiative, it is difficult to tell whether these measures signal a government-wide crackdown, or the individual efforts of radical government appointees emboldened by the Islamic conservatism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There is nothing new about the restrictions themselves. They were the grim reality of life here before the 1997 election of the liberalizer Mohammad Khatami. The difference today is the sporadic and velvet-gloved implementation of the old codes. Instead of announcing new bans or dispatching morality police onto the streets of Tehran to harass and arrest young people — the crude, classic measures that fomented much anger and discontent — the system is employing more subtle means that seek to make Iranians themselves, instead of uniformed agents of the state, the enforcers.

So discreet is this steady creep toward Talibanism that it only hit me last week, after a visit to the beauty salon. Usually, framed photos of coiffed brides adorn the walls, but I arrived to find the coffee-colored walls blank, save a clinical advertisement for fungus-fighting nail polish. Authorities had raided the salon two weeks prior, declaring images of unveiled women illegal and demanding they be taken down. In Iran, women's hair salons are off limits to men anyway, so it makes little sense why photos of coiffed women should be banned in a room full of women getting their hair coiffed.

Of course, in the spectrum of ways the clerics can oppress women and restrict their rights, this is perhaps not the most alarming. What is worrisome is the shift of focus. Under Khatami, the state relaxed many of its most repressive codes, especially those aimed at restricting women's access to public space and discouraging their participating in civic life. Women's singing, for example, banned for years after the revolution became permissible in group ensembles. But the sort of mentality that seeks to ban images of women typically wants also to control and restrict women's place in public life. At a recent concert in the town of Sari, the female members of Iran's only non-government orchestra were asked to play from behind a black curtain. They have been disinvited from an upcoming concert in northwestern Iran altogether.

There have been other warning signs, of course. But until that day at the beauty salon, I had ignored any hint of a return to 7th-century mores, preferring to savor a few extra weeks of denial before the government-issued burqa arrived at my doorstep. A month ago I met a few girlfriends for coffee at a café popular with young people. Upon lighting a cigarette, one of them was informed by the embarrassed owner that smoking is now illegal for women in cafés. Now half the women I know don't go out for coffee anymore. An ingenious way of stifling Tehran's bustling café scene without resorting to a single raid.

That same week, I showed up at the gym wearing the standard uniform of young, urban Iranian women: a veil, short coat and jeans. The receptionist told me the authorities had also paid them a visit; unless their women patrons started dressing more conservatively, the gym would be shut down. Again, the official warning was smoothly delivered via a civilian intermediary without ugly confrontation, and was perhaps even more effective for its underlying threat: if you don't dress the way we want, we will take away your ability to exercise. At the same time, authorities have targeted retailers of those popular short-coats, known as manteaus, and warned shop owners against stocking them. You still see women in the street wearing their fashionable, clingy manteaus, but over two weeks it took real effort to find them in shops. The idea is to make life difficult enough for retailers that they stop selling the sinful frocks altogether.

So who is behind these new restrictions, and why now, just as the establishment heads toward a collision with the West over its nuclear program? When President Ahmadinejad took office last summer, everyone watched nervously to see whether Islamic dogma would shape his domestic policies. To much delight, nothing changed; bootleg alcohol continued to flow, Western films and music were sold everywhere, women wore skimpy veils and tight pants, and couples held hands in the street. At the time, former officials and foreign policy analysts explained the surprise leniency as a triumph of Ahmadinejad's canniness: by staying out of Iranians' private lives, he built support across class lines for the country's nuclear program.

Some observers say Ahmadinejad himself has not ordered up the crackdown, but that it reflects the religious extremism of the officials he has appointed throughout national and provincial government. Others argue that hardliners throughout the system, not necessarily presidential appointees, have been emboldened by Hizballah's success in Lebanon; they consider the militia's feat a major victory for political Islam, and a validation of their radical mentality. Such hardliners have criticized Ahmadinejad's administration for being Hizballahi (religiously extreme) in appearance, but not in practice. "The president has shown he's not after imposing social or cultural pressures on people," says Amir Mohebbian, a prominent conservative analyst. "But when the atmosphere heats up, some officials start imposing their own tastes."

What's clear is that the restrictions are expanding by the day. Just this past week, trucks overflowing with confiscated, spindly satellite dishes rolled through my neighborhood in Tehran. Police have been systematically raiding neighborhoods throughout the city, rounding up illegal dishes, but unlike in the past, without issuing fines. Whether these measures are a temporary flare-up or here to stay remains to be seen. So far, the government seems undaunted by the marked lack of public enthusiasm for its Islamic causes. On the eve of the ceasefire in Lebanon and Israel, the establishment celebrated Hizballah's success as though it were an Iranian military victory. In addition to cooking the world's largest victory kebob (over 21 ft. long), the establishment asked Iranians through the state-controlled media to go up to their rooftops at an appointed hour, and shout "Allaho Akbar," or "God is Great." The tradition, borrowed from the early days of the Islamic Revolution, used to draw Iranians out en masse, and the city reverberated with their cries. But few heeded the call last week, and across most of Tehran there was silence.