Those Sexy Iranians

May 08, 2004
The New York Times
Nicholas D. Kristof



If, as the poet Philip Larkin observed, sex began in 1963, it has finally reached Iran over the last year. True, girls and women can still be imprisoned for going out without proper Islamic dress. But young people are completely redefining such dress so it heightens sex appeal instead of smothering it.

Women are required to cover their hair and to wear either a chador cloak or an overcoat, called a manteau, every time they go out, and these are meant to be black and shapeless. But the latest fashion here in Shiraz, in central Iran, is light, tight and sensual.

"There are some manteaus with slits on the sides up to the armpits," said Mahmoud Salehi, a 25-year-old manteau salesman. "And then there are the `commando manteaus,' with ties on the legs to show off the hips and an elastic under the breasts to accentuate the bust."

Worse, from the point of view of hard-line mullahs, young women in such clothing aren't getting 74 lashes any more they're getting dates.

"Parents can't defeat children," Mr. Salehi mused. "Children always defeat their parents."

And that's what Iran's baby boomers, a wave of 18 million people 15 to 25 years old, are doing. They will transform their country, just as baby boomers in the West changed America and Europe. I don't think Iran's theocracy can survive them, for I've never been to a country where young people seem more frustrated.

The regime's problem is that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini exhorted Iranians to have more children, and they responded today, 60 percent of the country's population was born after his Iranian revolution. And these young people are determining social mores and carving out a small zone of freedom for themselves.

In one sense, the relaxation in clothing requirements is superficial, and some Iranian women have scolded me for asking them about head scarves when they are more angry about discrimination in divorce, child custody and inheritance rules. But the clothing rules affect every woman every day and raise the central question in Iran's future: should a few aging male mullahs still determine the most basic and intimate elements of every Iranian's life?

From that vantage point, it looks to me as if the revolution is sputtering. The mullahs are refusing to accept real democracy, but they are giving in to popular pressure in some areas. The draft is immensely unpopular among young men, for example, so this year the hard-liners shortened the service requirement. More important, individual Iranians are reclaiming their individuality and their autonomy and how they dress is the best measure of that.

The morals police no longer order women to cover up stray hairs. These days, the fashion is for brightly colored, glittery see-through scarves, worn halfway back on the head.

"It's possible head scarves will be gone in another year or two, the way things are going," said Amir Suleimani, a scarf salesman in the Tehran Bazaar. "God willing."

No wonder conservative newspapers in Tehran denounce Iranian women for strolling around "nude."

The baby boomers include Saghar Tayebi, a 17-year-old in Isfahan who wore a tight manteau with high slits, embroidered jeans and a red headband. Her mascara was hefty and her lipstick bold, and her sleeves were rolled up to reveal lots of bracelets. Lots of hair escaped her scarf. But when I asked her whether she dreamed of wearing Western-style skimpy clothing, she looked aghast.

"We totally reject that," she said indignantly. "We don't want that freedom."

Conversations with young people like Saghar suggest that youths want to remain good Muslims, and that some are happy enough in an Islamic republic but that, above all, they want to laugh and love. Many are not overtly political, nor sure exactly what kind of government they want, but they do know that this isn't it.

"We want fun," declared Tannaz Haj Hosseini, a 20-year-old university student who was out with her boyfriend in Tehran. "There's no joy here."

I protested that her nail polish and see-through scarf not to mention the boyfriend underscored the progress in Iran. A few years ago, she would have been lashed.

"I don't compare myself with 10 years ago," she said. "I compare myself to what I could have and don't."

Ayatollahs, look out.