When a political shift in Tehran placed a reform-minded cleric at the head of the Islamic Republic, the United States eased sanctions, toned down official rhetoric, and offered the coolest of overtures to its erstwhile enemy. This diplomatic thaw has helped to dispel many of the erroneous stereotypes propagated by the respective governments. Yet fundamental barriers still remain.
Emblematic of that cultural divide, and symbolic of the mystery that Iran poses for the West, is the chador. It is difficult for Western eyes to see anything but repression in the heavy black covering worn by most Iranian women outside Tehran. Visually, it reinforces the belief that Islam denies women individuality. Textually, the Koran's emphasis on female purity smacks of sexism. Interestingly, the authors of two recent portraits of Iran today are Western women, journalists both, who found their sex to be an advantage in understanding the society as foreigners.
Christiane Bird is a veteran travel-writer who spent a few years in Tabriz as a child, and set out for a second visit in 1998 armed with elementary Persian and a list of contacts. The Iran she returns to scarcely resembles her childhood memories, but captivates her entirely. Through myriad indirect acquaintances, she gains broad access to Iranian society. Her ability to keep an open mind allows her access and insights into the nuances of Iran that confound so many in the West. The mandated attire, which at first bedevils and angers her, becomes understandable and even sensible to her after months in company with women who take the dress code for granted.
Neither East Nor West is fascinating in its anecdotal content, if uninspired in its chronological narration, evidence that a great traveler does not a great travel-writer make. Still, Bird's viewpoint is an interesting complement to the more studied account of Iran published late last year by New York Times correspondent Elaine Sciolino.
Sciolino, who has covered Iran since the 1979 revolution, counters the conventional wisdom about Iranian women with stories of strikingly powerful, independent and modern individuals. These are women who struggled under the old regime for equality and legal rights, who refused to relinquish them to a new authority, and who, in many cases, garnered new powers as revolutionaries. They became politicized peasants, empowered religious housewives and, in Sciolino's tongue in cheek dig at the chador, "Nuns with guns."
In Persian Mirrors, the tidy compendium of her two decades of reporting, Sciolino equates the gender question in Iran with race relations in America. These are the fault lines that our respective governments straddle uneasily. Iranian women have learned to use the veil as a shield from behind which they are free to assault any foe, be it bureaucrat, taxi driver or "morals" police. Unassailable in the trappings of respectability, law-abiding Iranian women are among the most politicized and educated in the Islamic world. To be sure, Iranian women face an uphill battle for full equality, with the law still heavily biased to favor husbands in property matters and marital disputes. Much of daily life is still sexually segregated, and sexual crimes are still generally blamed on the woman.
But injustices and unfavorable odds seem to be the lot of ordinary Iranians everywhere. Men and women alike must learn to pursue privacy in a police state and to seek answers outside of Islamic law. Bird, whose brief encounter with Persian loopholes taught her to circumvent travel restrictions, concludes Iran is "a country of unruly children. Everyone, myself included, was trying to get away with something and hoping that we wouldn't get caught." As for the authorities, those "distant parents," time has shown that the Islamic Revolution and the upheaval that it brought was truly a popular revolution. The will of the people continues to drive the course of the revolution now in the new millennium, towards economic revival, even at the expense of the religious resurgence in the rest of the Islamic world.
This is particularly true of the non-Shiite communities of Iran. In a society based on Shari'a law, the role of minorities are a critical indicator of the broader social climate. Bird -- whose three-month stay takes her from the cosmopolitan circles of northern Tehran to the fundamentalist stronghold of Qom -- writes at length about her encounters with the ethnic communities that make up over 40 percent of the country's population.
Armenians, who of all minorities enjoy the most respect and parliamentary representation, tell her that they are at home in the Islamic Republic. The Kurds of Sanandaj and the Baha'i community of Tabriz, on the other hand, face constant persecution due to their respective tribalism (considered a nationalist threat) and faith (considered heretical). But throughout the country and its religious diversity, Bird finds a common pride in Iran and its Islamic revolution. The most important legacy of the revolution, she concludes, is a national self-respect.
In the years since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian people have become practiced at dispelling fervor, fostering nuance, and elevating individualism in their revolution. Also in that time, the population has doubled, so that today 65 percent of all Iranians are under the age of twenty-five. When the youth take to the streets with banners and slogans, it is to demand jobs, not jihad.
Technology has forced the rigid theocracy to make concessions to modernity: clerics and medressahs have embraced computers for their time-consuming textual scholarship. And the illicit pleasures of the Shah's era can be spotted in many a private home or club. Even at the Laleh Hotel, run by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture, has a store of brandy-snifters hidden behind the bar "just in case." Both Bird and Sciolino take special care to note the subtle work of time in tempering the strident tones of the revolution.
Only about 2,000 American tourists visited Iran in 1998. That's less than a third of the average number of Iranians who have immigrated to the US yearly since the revolution. It's no surprise that Iran remains an enigma to Americans. Even as the people of Iran push at the confines of their closed society, Westerners still see a nation partitioned by a veil. Glimpses like those from Bird and Sciolino are rare in their clarity.
Elizabeth Kiem is a freelance writer
based in Washington, D.C.