Change in Iran in me

My grandmother has a number of highly predictable behaviors. My mother and I have become well acquainted with her quaint, well-meaning diatribes, and once the occasion or conversation is ripe for one of her seasoned sermons, we look to each other, knowing what's coming next.

Maman Joon's mini-lecture series touch on matters far and wide, from the myriad nutritional benefits of Aab Goosht (which she chooses to bring up when eating foreign food, presumably to fulfill her mission of exalting Iranian cuisine over all others), to the importance of reading periodicals and keeping abreast of global news (which, conveniently for her, also provides as a distraction for us while she slyly changes the channel to her own preferred Iranian satellite TV).

Many of her speeches and words of advice go unnoticed, mostly out of our over-exposure. But one particular soliloquy of hers is still rebounding furiously off the walls of my brain: “Jairan,” she said, “Iran has its problems, I know. Inequality is through the roof and the political situation stinks. But really, you should come back [to Iran]. If nothing else, to see the weddings! Iranian weddings are second to none, and nowadays people are putting twice as much effort and money into these ceremonies. What splendor!”

Her words shook me. Not so much because I was offended, although I must admit that I did feel a little belittled when I thought how silly she must have thought me to proffer such folly as a legitimate reason to uproot and move back to Iran and its current social and political situation.

What got me was how genuinely little she had to go by. Not even my tragically optimistic and eternally homesick grandmother could find a good enough reason with which to lure her granddaughter back to Iran, and finding her sack of promises empty, she had resorted to some B-list enticement, like lavish wedding ceremonies. I wasn't buying it, but she continued anyway.

My last trip to Iran was quite recent. I went on a whim, after being absent for a little over three years. I was long overdue. Living in the United States since my late teens, I had counted on regular trips to Iran to remind of what life had been like there, how I fared in the state-run school system, the trajectory and pace at which friends and loved ones lived, the soothing and humbling sight of the Alborz mountains on mornings miraculously swept clear of the trademark Tehran smog, etc.

In a sense, these trips served to ground me and give me the occasional jolt, lest I become to content and comfortable in my new American home. If I ever experienced alienation in my American middle school, another year spent in Iran would remind me of the tacit sense of sisterhood that I felt towards my classmates in Iran. When I began to realize that my dreams of college would wilt and disappear in Iran, my family relocated and I became acquainted with my prospects for higher education.

This time, I had been away from Iran for too long, and the anticipation had given way to dread: How would I react? How would my friends react? Would I stick out like a sore thumb, or manage to blend in? I packed up my bags and gathered all the provisions I would need to do just that: Blend in. Maman Joon always says: “Gar nakhaahi shavi rosvaa, hamrang-e jamaa'at sho.” (Literally, “if you don't want to get sussed out, blend in with the crowd.”

After disembarking from the plane and at the onset of the obligatory jetlag, I was thrown for a big curve. Or was it a lot of little curves? I couldn't tell, and found myself face to face with a different airport (Imam Khomeini International), different conduct from the airport staff, different garb worn by other female passengers.

As I waited for my baggage from the carousel, I found myself distracted by the toenails of a nearby woman: her strappy sandals showed off her ankles, lacquered toenails, and even a bit of … calves. I lifted my gaze to meet hers, and it was only at her quizzical response to my staring that I became painfully aware of my own garments.

My long Manteau and large, muted scarf made for a frumpy ensemble compared to the skintight blazers, skinny jeans, and translucent fabric barely covering giant peaks of frosted hair that my fellow female passengers were passing off as state-required Hijab. This was nothing like what I remembered! They would surely get into trouble with the guards…

… but they didn't.

Needless to say, this was only the beginning of a series of rapid-fire revelations that came to me during my short trip. Many of them were discoveries that concerned family members, others had to do with the state of health, safety, and food in present-day Iran.

But what struck me most were the things I discovered (and discovered anew) through the eyes of an ardent feminist, almost none of which were positive or optimistic in their outlook, although to varying degrees. Many of them centered around the outward presentation of women, and how others (especially men) were likely to treat them as a result.

A short introduction
As a relatively sheltered high school student in Tehran, I had little interest in fashion. To make matters more complicated, I had also been absent during the last few years when satellite television became as ubiquitous in Iranian households as bread. During that time, it seems the already style-conscious women and youth of Tehran had been taking their cues from (largely) western fashion icons.

The women I saw in the terminal proved to be but a tiny snippet of what I was about to experience in the style-hungry, ever-changing world of Iranian women's garb. The towers of hair, giant sunglasses (which regrettably evoked images of none other than a one Paris Hilton in my mind), and wholly impractical shoes became a familiar sight. The footprints of the most fashionable of Hollywood's youth echoed in the crowd, from Tajrish to Aazaadi square.

At this point, I would find it easy to bring up notions of globalization and victimization by fashion, but what I've found is that these debates are almost completely null in the present environment and with current attitudes among young Iranian women (which are very favorable to the trends and couture imported from America and Europe).

A nation thirsting to try its hand at consumerism and tasting the gleaming promises of Western fashion, the credo among Iranian women today seems to be more along the lines of “live a little” and aspiring to dress like the Olsen twins, than “Killing us Softly” and spouting Emma Goldman. And indeed, can we have that sort of expectation from our Iranian cohorts? The short answer is “no”.

Now, here is where one might ask: “These women are thirsting for an opportunity to express themselves through their garments and accessories. They're finding ways to do it and more or less stay out of trouble. What exactly is the problem?” This is a legitimate question. But that question begs a more urgent one: “do these women and girls really stay out of trouble? What if the 'trouble' finds them as a result of the way they clothe and decorate themselves?”

Both of those questions can be answered by first stating what I will venture to say is a fact: when you are a young female in present-day Iran, whether or not you get harassed by the government or unsolicited males has little to do with how much makeup you apply and how tightly your clothes fit. Merely being female (especially a young female) is enough. Therefore, women and girls often “go to town”, as it were, when it comes to getting dressed for the outside world. There is little evidence to convince Iranian females, myself included, that more coverage and more modest dress will guarantee less unwelcome sexual advances and/or jail time.

An anecdote
On one of the first days I spent in Iran, I told my father that I planned to set out to explore the city by foot or by taxi. He looked at me as though in shock, stating that that was a bad idea and that “I would not be left alone”. I was not totally naïve to what he meant by that. I knew that I would probably get the occasional whistle, the dirty word muttered by some passing dude, or on a really bad day, a furtive grab at my glutes.

I tried to shrug off his advice and tell him more about my planned destinations and sights. He did not drop the matter though, and insisted that I wait for my brother to do the driving. “You don't know what it's like,” he said. “It's gotten bad, really bad. They're going to make 'assumptions' about you.” “Assumptions”, I thought angrily. I had every right to waltz out into those streets. And so, the next day when I found myself alone in the house, I donned my unassuming hijab and my don't-mess-with-me scowl.

As I headed out of the house in the direction of the bookstore that was a mere 5 blocks away, I heard a passing man whisper something vulgar, got beeped at twice, and had the same beeping driver swerve in front of me to offer a seat and “take me” where I was going. I hurried to the store, purchased my books and wore a bigger scowl all the way back home. Recounting that anecdote the way I have makes me shudder a bit.

It reminds me of stories told by certain Western women, or Iranian girls who had never before set foot into the country and had finally found the opportunity to do so, only to be disgusted by predatory looks and unwarranted arrests. The sort of indignant tone that I detect in my very own retelling of this and countless other such experiences that I had makes me feel odd, as though I should have known, and what else did I expect?

Yet I cannot seem to quell my outrage at something that appears so routine to so many Iranian women and I myself experienced so much in my youth. Have I forgotten what it felt like, or just become more impassioned? Have I grown and changed so much in my political sensibilities that I can no longer tolerate some unfortunate behaviors on a social level? Or is it Iran that's done the changing? Is it possible for myself and countless other first and second generation Iranian immigrants to go back from whence we came, knowing and expecting what we have grown accustomed to living in other countries? This question is yet to be answered for myself.

I aim to look for that answer in more frequent trips to Iran in the future, but it is here that I find it impossible to take my grandmother's advice to heart and forget the fact that Iran has more social and political problems than I can contend with over a two week trip, even if doing so would mean the chance to take part in some pretty kickass wedding parties.

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