From the Outside Looking In: Making Sense of Iran’s Past and Present

It is difficult to imagine what a revolution meant for millions of Iranians. The common outcomes of a revolution are obvious: Death, imprisonment, an unsettling environment, fear and anticipation. However, this revolution brought with it a series of events and limitations that no one had anticipated, and few could imagine living through. It is tough to say if this new world was more difficult to cope with for the Iranians who were old enough during the revolution to understand it, or those who were born in the post-revolution years. The answer to that, I am certain, is still debated.
Those who were alive during the revolution had to see their world completely changed. It is true that the Shah had forced religious women to unveil, and some felt that he leaned too far west, but there were some advantages to living in a westernized nation — one with discos and dancing, alcohol and parties. They had access to western music, literature, film and fashion. They had famous female singers, like Googoosh, an icon who is still adored across the globe, who would sing their desires and passions aloud while dancing freely in front of a camera. They held hands with their loved ones and walked the streets with no fear of being reprimanded.
That was not the Iran that I experienced. That was not the Iran that those born after the revolution knew at all. And for those who lived before the revolution, that more liberal Iran was taken from them.
I could not walk the streets of Iran without continual thought. I could not clear my mind for a second.
“Don’t look that man in the eye, Nushin,” I thought. “Pull your coat down, Nushin. Bring your scarf forward, Nushin,”
Once, the top button on my coat popped off, revealing the six inches below my neck. I moved my head scarf over so that one side of it would fall over that area. As I walked, the scarf flapped in the wind, proving to be a poor cover, but I didn’t give it a second thought.
Moments later, I noticed stares from the left and right. Staring was not uncommon in Iran, but the number of stares drastically increased from the previous 10 minutes.
“What is going on? Is there something on my face?” I thought.
Several minutes later, a group of young boys walking in front of me turned around, whispered to one another, and turned again. I grew flustered and frustrated and stormed past them.
“Fix your coat!” someone yelled.
I looked up at a middle-aged man who looked disappointed and entitled as he walked by. I pinched the top of my coat together and bought a safety pin off of the first street vendor I found. Bewildered and upset, I wondered, how my visible collarbone area could cause so much trouble. I realized soon after that there was little in Iran that wouldn’t cause a lot of trouble.
The weight of anxiety I felt was much greater than that felt by the women living in Iran. Abiding by these expectations has become natural for them. They have surely left opposition or questions in the back of their consciences, for the sake of their sanity. With 75 percent of the population under 25, Iran’s youth is made up of millions of young men and women living with circumstances that very much contrast our own.
I spent one day at the University of Tehran, Iran’s largest university. I thought of UC Irvine, and I was reminded of a circus. Their campus, in contrast, seemed barren and prison-like. Their libraries and classrooms were old, with white-stained chalkboards and carvings in desks only large enough to seat a child. There are no colorful buildings or large, lush parks. There were no fraternities luxuriating on couches, no awful rap songs blaring in my ears. Where we have a stage for dance crews and distracting dance music, they have an area where hundreds, maybe thousands, of devotees come to pray on Fridays — the one day off Iranians enjoy each week.
Our students bicker over sushi vs. salad and burger vs. burrito. What are their students’ options? A segregated cafeteria, with soup, kebabs and assorted junk foods. In addition to being segregated on campus, young men and women are not given our plethora of social networking tools. The government bans Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube due to their “inappropriate content.”
Iran’s youth has found other original ways of meeting the opposite sex. One method that I encountered often was that they would pick a certain street on a certain night, go there in a group and mingle with one another. I came across this scene during a Thursday night on Vali Asr, the longest street in Tehran. In traffic, carloads of young men would call out to the girls in cars next to them; if the girls found them attractive, they would exchange phone numbers. On the sidewalks, groups of girls would walk and talk until they came across a group of guys who would approach them.
Of course, there were always the disinterested jokesters who would call out, “Are you married yet?” and poke fun at the norm of early marriage in Iran. These methods may sound cheap to our generation and culture, but for Iran’s youth, these are the only solutions to their circumstances.
I never wholly understood the dating scene, as an outsider. In moments of ignorance, I even found it romantic. I felt that the anticipation during their forbidden encounters and the development of it all was more pure than anything I was familiar with. Understanding this part of Iranian life was arguably even more complex than understanding the more apparent political situation of the country. Grasping the ins and outs of this not-quite-underground dating world is beyond the reach of any inquisitive outsider.
I recall a conversation with my sitar instructor in which he, too, seemed at a loss for words in explaining dating in Iran. With one leg crossed over the other and the sitar in his lap, he extended his right arm to a glass of water placed on a table between us.
“See this,” he said. “See how you can see all of it? This is Nushin. We don’t have many Nushins here.”
And that was the best explanation I could expect.