The View from Tehran Avenue

The View from Tehran Avenue


Le Monde diplomatique
February 2004

By Wendy Kristianasen

Iranians might be going to the polls to cast their votes in
parliamentary elections on February 20. But how many of Tehran’s young
voters will take part? The feeling in the city is one of alienation.
Disenchantment with the political system is complete.

Noushin is 22 and a journalist with a cool culture e-magazine, Tehran
Avenue; she was 16 when Mohammad Khatami became president on 22 May
1997, swept into office by 20m of the 30m votes cast by an electorate
of 33m. His dovvom-e khordad reform movement was premised on civil
society, rule of law and freedom of expression. During his campaign he
had spoken of the particular need to meet the aspirations of youth and
women. The reformists’ victory was repeated in the municipal and
parliamentary elections of 1999 and 2000, and in Khatami’s re-election
in June 2001with more than 77% of the votes.

But for Tehran’s youth nothing really changed. Noushin says: “This
regime has been able to play on people’s vulnerabilities like
religion, fear of God, superstition. In my parents’ day some people
liked the idea of going back to tradition, but most felt they’d got
more than they’d bargained for. Growing up, we saw our parents’
reactions to all this and became even more confused than they were
about what’s right and wrong. People began to reject politics as a big

“And what was new in 1997 got boring because nothing changed. I grew
up with some interest in politics. But everyone younger than me is
completely uninterested and blames the Islamic Republic. We’ve all
become diplomats: you play by the rules to get things done.”

Before the 1990s only a tiny minority, those who were able to study
abroad, had any contact with the West. Then came satellite dishes and
the internet. The West gushed in, filling the young with new
impressions. Noushin says: “America is a symbol of freedom. Everyone
wants to go and live there, or just to go there and have fun. It’s a
mixture of people from different backgrounds and its ruling system
isn’t imposed on you. And people are more accepting there than they
are in Europe, where we feel like strangers.” The Iranian regime’s
views on the United States have made it even more an object of desire.

What about daily life? On the street the coffee shop is the most
important venue where boys and girls can meet openly outside the home,
in groups or couples. “That’s only in Tehran,” says Behrang
gloomily. He failed to get into Tehran University and is pursuing his
veterinary studies in Tabriz (1). Tehran’s revolutionary
law-enforcers, such as the basiji, have lightened up over the past two
years. Boys who want to be cool wear their hair long; girls push the
Islamic dress code to the limit: a scarf, a tunic (manteau) over
trousers. The approach is everything – chadors may be black, but black
is also the preferred colour for girls who like to wear their tunics
short and tight. Near the centre of town, in Motahari Avenue, I
spotted one in highestt of high heeled bright orange shoes, orange
handbag, minimal orange scarf and the tightest, shortest manteau,
barely covering her bottom. With bright orange lips to match. A
defiant statement of self.

Four boys were playing guitars in Laleh park that sunny winter
Friday. Close by, a girl was gliding, exquisitely, on roller blades:
Karina, 22, Armenian, had studied accountancy at a technical college
and now had an office job. She wore a short, tight manteau and a
brilliant blue scarf, so skimpy that her bright red curls tumbled from
under it nearly to her waist. What about the basiji? “It’s OK in the
park; there’s just the park police. Outside the park Muslim girls get
away with much skimpier clothes than we do. Life’s boring here:
nothing to do, nowhere to go. I don’t like the cinema: it’s full of
films about real life, and I have enough of that already.”

Nearby young people sat in groups round tables, the girls together,
facing the boys. Elsewhere boys and girls were quietly holding hands
on park benches. The real fun in Tehran is at the disco parties in
homes, in non-traditional households sometimes with alcohol.
Noushin’s eyes light up as she describes these: “They’re unique:
they’re made up of strong social groups of people you really care
about; there’s an intimacy about them.” And they are safe, protected
from outside intrusion.

Maryam, 14, still a schoolgirl, loves coffee shops, pizzerias, burger
bars and disco parties. She and her friends have a vocabulary of their
own (2): cool is plus, trendy is titanic, classy is ba-class,
14-year-old girls are fenchul (finches), the police are cactus,
intelligence agents kaftar (pigeons) and so on. She especially loves
Arian, the first Iranian pop group and a commercial success story –
they have sold more than half a million copies of their two albums, on
CD and video. This sunny Persian pop music has a big novelty – girl
singers: three of them, in cream hijabs, breaking all the old rules of
segregation and opening a new space for the dreams of Iranian girls.

This commercial music is looked down upon by the supercool folk who
run TehranAvenue, who organise underground music competitions and
bring together experimental bands – pop, rock, fusion – that have
seldom performed in public. The organisers of these events know that
the authorities keep them closely in their sights but since they are
far from mainstream, they are not too worried: the more alternative
the group and the smaller the audience, the less they need
worry. TehranAvenue’s website (in Persian, and in English for the
benefit of expat second gener ation Iranians) (3) has good graphics
and often irreverent reviews of what’s on in Tehran: movies, plays,
exhibitions, events. It also carries articles: one featured a team of
Tehran women footballers, who wear black hijabs over a red strip; and
another an article on sexual needs and Aids, plus an interview with
the owner of a shop that had the novel idea of selling condoms, legal
and available, through its website.

Along with alcohol and drugs – hashish, marijuana, ecstasy, anything
you want – there is sex. Noushin divides up Tehran’s youth into
generations: “The older ones – 23 up to 30-somethings – seem to value
the sanctity of sex as something you do for love, long-term,
serious. People under 23 live for the moment and hold nothing sacred,
not even sex. It’s just an event, something tem porary. And because
all these kids have grown up together, virginity isn’t so important
any more.”

But for the mid-20s-up age group, once they form serious
relationships, there are social problems. Shirin, 24, a successful
photographer, explains: “You can go to the cinema and the coffee shop,
but you can’t go away on a trip with your boyfriend or take him home
to your parents. So you have to get married.” Iran has an easy system
of temporary marriage, but this is frowned on. So she and her
boyfriend married, though they can’t afford a home, because “marriage
is the licence to live in this country. Our identity still revolves
around the family: it’s not just our parents, it’s our extended

Shahrzad, 25, is from Shiraz but she works in Tehran in
advertising. She has a different problem. She is one of the few
unmarried girls to live on her own and have her own flat. “It’s
tough,” she says. “My neighbours are always on the look-out for my
comings and goings; they’re like self-appointed relations.”

All this is confirmed by Dr Mohammad Sanati, a professor of psychiatry
at Tehran University who runs 25 therapy groups of 12-15 people each,
many of them young. He explains that less than half now care about
politics, while only a fraction are very angry. One of the angry
brigade, Yassin, was a member of the student union at university until
he got expelled. He says: “Politics isn’t seen as serious any more as
it was when Khatami came to power: only 10% of students count
themselves as radical these days.”

Dr Sanati believes that many of today’s young are still religious. All
the young agree that religion exists in every family, to different
degrees, mainly as tradition. But in the same way that the young have
rejected their parents’ values system, many of those that opt for
religion do so on their own entirely new terms. A young man might make
a pilgrimage to Mashad wearing a gold chain around his neck, defying
the rule that men only wear silver. There is interest in learning from
other cultures and setting a private spiritual agenda – when and how
to pray or fast.

Though Tehran’s young have abandoned trad itional values and Islamic
politics, they may perhaps have retained God.


(1) In 2003 the percentage of girls entering into university in Iran
reached more than 62%.

(2) Published in a paperback dictionary by Nashre Markaz, Tehran,


Original text in English