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Into Iran

My flight to Tehran was the overnighter from London Heathrow. I was travelling to Iran alone and felt very much the foreigner. Only the flight crew were British citizens. It was about 5 a.m. when the young Iranian lady in the next seat, dressed in slacks and a sweater, rose to visit the toilet. On her return, I noticed she now wore a headscarf and a loose black long sleeved, knee length tunic over her slacks.  I commented, that her change reminded me that we were about to land in an Arab state. A suspicion of a smile crossed her lips. “Iran is not totally an Arab state” she uttered, “ many of us are basically Christians”. 

Before we touched down, she explained that corners of Iran are populated by descendents of the Christian Elamite and Aryan people who originated in old Persia. Many hundreds of years ago, the Arab endeavoured to impose Islam upon them. Until this day, most Iranians can only speak and write in their own Farsi language. Since The Koran is written in Arabic, this created a problem for many people. 

As we disembarked, I realised that all women whether they resided in Iran or not, regardless of their religious denomination, had to dress according to Islamic law. That meant their hair must be hidden. They must dress to camouflage the female figure, to show only the hands and cover to the ankles. Iranian women mostly wear the black all enveloping chador. As for the men, they must wear long trousers and a shirt in all public places. Long hair must be combed back into a pigtail or concealed under a hat. Any gay person, man or woman, should resist attempting any relationship in Iran. It is forbidden.

Following the coronation of The Shah in 1967, the feudal rights of Islam were rolled back over the next twelve years. Persian women experienced new freedoms in their choice of dress and their attitude towards men. By the latter 1970’s the women were considered to be the most liberated in the Middle East. In November 1978, the first signs of unrest boiled to the surface. The Shah ordered marshal law throughout the country. The Mullahs, who enforce Islam in Iran, encouraged the fanatical Shias to go on the rampage. As events spun out of control all over Iran, The Shah and his family were smuggled to Egypt. During the winter of 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini made a triumphant return to Tehran from France.

At this time, a growing movement of Iranian women chose International Women’s Day to protest against their future under the new Islamic laws. Thousands of women, believed their role in life would be reversed by 1,000 years. Under The Shah, women had virtually discarded the chador, preferring to wear variations of Christan dress that were far more flamboyant. In a single voice they chanted “freedom – not the chador”, but their plea was to be of no avail.

While wandering alone around Tehran, I had seen numerous women in the streets going about their business. Only their faces were framed by the chador. As a red-blooded westerner, I began to realise that with such a small focus of attention, my attitude towards Iranian women changed. No clingy dresses, no revealing sweaters, no mini-skirts, my complete attention to the woman was devoted to her face.

I did see teenage girls and young career women in more colourful dress. They wore a Rosari, a form of head scarf, with a pastel coloured Monteux, cut above the wrist which is akin to a three-quarter length light weight coat complimented by slacks. I spotted the European wives of diplomat’s and businessmen in the shops along Vali-e-Asr Avenue opposite the beautiful
Mellat Park with its lake and fountains. Being long stay residents of Tehran, they dressed appropriately and moved about with ease.

I encountered three European ladies and took the opportunity to tempt conversation. The daughter of one of these women was in Tehran visiting her parents from a university in France. She appeared extremely self-conscious in her Muslim outfit.

That evening, I was driven across Tehran to a more atmospheric district where we entered a student’s café. Here young men and women freely talked with each other. Some held hands across a coffee table, an act that was forbidden in public until recently. Other small mixed groups chatted animatedly among themselves.

Following my Iranian friends, we were shown to a table adjacent to a couple of young women, both dressed in black chadors. My friends heard them refer to the foreigner at the next table and encouraged me to create an entree. Thankfully, they both shyly spoke English. Each had a career working at computer data bases. I naturally assumed they were both Muslims, but one of them was in fact a Christian Armenian. Christian churches in Iran are heavily fortified while contrary to the norm in other Islamic republics, in Iran a westerner can gain entrance to a mosque. Under normal circumstances, the girls would have no language in common. But between themselves they conversed in Farsi, and were quite happy to talk with this stranger in conversational English.

Both girls drew upon cigarettes and sipped tea. The more vocal Muslim girl told me her career and financial independence at approximately £140 a month, came before marriage and having her own family. I wondered if she had dated men on the internet, a remark met with a blank expression. She was not aware of such a facility, which my fellow friends had used to meet their Iranian girl friends. She did not intend to follow her mother’s example by early marriage and five children. As for being a chattel to one man and dependent upon his income, that was not her immediate ambition.

I had noticed that Iranian state owned television programmes showed actresses in dramas and comedy shows. They wore light coloured tunics with the rosari draped back from their faces that showed the hair line. There was a picture on the café wall of a woman, with no Rosari, just wearing a sleeveless dress with the neckline revealing a suspicion of cleavage.

I wondered why these young women chose to wear the black chador and ventured to suggest that a more feminine choice of clothing I had seen in shops might be preferable. The Armenian provided an unexpected answer. She said they both had the option, but felt more vulnerable to the attention of men in alternative clothing. The Muslim girl interrupted and said “Anonymity is often more preferable”. When we bade farewell, by convention I waited for them to offer their hands in goodwill. Only the Armenian girl obliged.

My next stop was the historic city of Esfahan, situated 350 miles to the south of Tehran. I made the 700 mile return journey by luxury coach that had on board television, air conditioning and an attendant who served snacks and drinks. Good value at £6 the return ticket. Travelling on normal city buses, I noticed that men and women must sit separately on either side of the gangway. On this coach, everyone sat where they pleased.

After a late night meal, an Iranian companion and I sauntered across the ornate So-o-Seh Bridge that spans the Zayandeh River. Old men were fishing, young boys played volley ball by lamp light while women and their children sat on Persian carpets to prepare a picnic and boil water for tea on a primus stove. The groups of youths strolling along the wide riverside paths made no attempt to compromise the girls. My companion informed me that if a man advanced upon a female in public, he might never be seen again!

We arrived at his mother’s home where I stumbled upon umpteen shoes that littered the doorway. The men sat around chatting and drinking alcohol in just shorts and a vest in the balmy night air while the matriarch of the entire family remained dressed in black and still wore a head scarf. The young women wore jeans and sweaters and helped the grand parent in the kitchen. They not only shook my hand, but also allowed me to greet them with a kiss on the cheek; an act totally frowned upon out doors. 

We then moved north to the Caspian Sea. Unlike the dry heat of the barren south, the mountains are forest clad as they drop down to sea level where rice paddy fields proliferate. Consequently, the atmosphere was humid, tempting me to bathe in the languid sea off a beach at Namak Abrud. We had rented a fisherman’s chalet at £10 for three persons with all modern facilities.

It was bliss being able to wear shorts, even though the fisherman warned me not to venture anywhere near the main coastal road where I would be reprimanded by the law. I had spotted sections of beach screened off with canvas. Here women could bathe fully clothed in their chador. No western style bathing costumes were permitted. So any foreign woman would have to resist the temptation to swim with the turtles or take the choice of bathing Muslim style.

 My fellow companions seemed to accept this state of affairs with some equanimity. We visited the international Narenjestan Hotel near Maahmoudabad. Men and women ate, drank and promenaded together. We saw a family on the private beach. A man on a jet ski sped around in the sea as his wife and their children sat looking unimpressed under a lonely sunshade. We understood from the armed beach guard that married couples were permitted to bathe in the sea with their children. 

 Western women find the country frustrating because they must comply with the Islamic dress conventions. However, the country is a shoppers paradise. A place, where women can proceed un-hindered by men. In Iran, I noted that my attitudes were certainly more reverential towards men and women. This was perhaps a reflection of their open handed welcome to me into their homes and weekend villas buried in the countryside and along the shores of the Caspian. The over grown remnants of pleasure parks, constructed under The Shah, were sad reminders of joyous days gone past. Today, I found it hard to realise that Iran was among the top most fashionable destinations in the world.  

The men and women I encountered were polite, warm-hearted people who generously broke bread with me and were proud let me call their house my own. Iran is where Christmas is celebrated in many homes behind locked doors.

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