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Many hues of a rainbow

Iran is a cultural mosaic drawn from many sources.



No en masse defiance: The dress code is the site of a running battle between women and the clerical authorities. Photo: AP

"THIS must be the only country in the world where water costs more than petrol," said the Teheran taxi-driver wryly as I got out of his car to buy some bottled water from a pavement shop. Petrol in Iran costs the equivalent of Rs 4 a litre, while mineral water costs up to three times more.

"Iran must also be the only country where the rulers imagine they're respected, but people don't like them," exclaimed the middle-aged woman passenger whom the driver had invited into the cab, as she proceeded to loosen her headscarf to expose a good chunk of brightly painted hair. Both wanted to know if things are any different in India.

It only takes a couple of days in Iran to realise that there is something seriously wrong with the stereotype disseminated by the global media which portrays Iran as a closed, unfree, pre-modern, anti-Western, pathologically authoritarian society — one that's monolithic, obsessed with Islam, in which men willingly subjugate themselves to the Ayatollahs, and women cower and skulk, with their hair and ears completely covered, arms and ankles invisible, and curves hidden by loose-fitting garments.

Talking freely

As I discovered during a recent visit, this stereotype is a parody. There is nothing that the Iranians love more, barring picnicking, than talking — and talking freely, with abandon, even to strangers. This is not only because they are curious about India. (Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan are household names).

Iranians are no more pre-modern or obsessed with the past than Indians. Nor are they particularly anti-Western. Over a million live in the United States alone and closely interact with their families back home. American products, including the latest Hollywood films, are easily available in Iran — where consumerism is as rampant as in India's shopping malls.

True, Iran carries the legacy of the 1979 Islamic Revolution against the Shah, an American puppet. But many Iranians distrust the U.S. mainly for political reasons: it's an arrogant, interfering power which overthrew Iran's first elected Prime Minister (in 1953), pillaged its oil, supported Iraq in its eight year-long war with Iran, and imposed sanctions upon Iran.

Iran is a cultural mosaic, which has drawn from Greek, Mediterranean, Arabic, Indian, Afghan and Central Asian sources. Iran's ethnic diversity is striking. Persians only account for half the population. A quarter is Azeri; the rest are Kurd, Turkman, Arab, Armenian, Tajik, Baluch, etc.

Iran is home to West Asia's largest population of Jews outside Israel/Palestine. Its 20,000 Jews, like its Zorastrians and Christians, can practise their faith and have political representation. Going by human-rights defenders' reports, they don't face large-scale discrimination (unlike the Baha'is).

Iran's Islam, scholars say, is more ritualistic than doctrine-driven. Iranians are remarkably lax about honouring the Islamic injunction against depicting holy figures. In the shops and pavement stalls of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, portraits of various Prophets and the most important Shi'a Imam, Hussein, sell briskly. Sociologists say there has been a considerable decrease since the Islamic Revolution in the number of Iranians who pray in mosques — a proportion much smaller than that of church-going Americans.

Iran's fastest-growing faith seems to be Hinduism of the New-Age guru variety. (Buddhism comes a close second). Sathya Sai Baba, Rajneesh, Mahesh Yogi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are familiar figures in middle class drawing rooms. For many in the elite, Yoga is far more important than Haj.

The Forum of Artists in central Tehran, close to what was the U.S. embassy building, is a wonderful public space with galleries and auditoria. Its café is strictly vegetarian. One's Salaam is greeted there with Hare Krishna. The menu's star attraction is the Gita Thali.

There is a yawning gap between the prescribed dress code for women and actual attire. A significant minority defy the code in different ways. They wear short scarves, partially expose their hair or ankles, and use lipstick. At home, they dress even more casually, much like Indian women, but with Western clothes.

The Revolutionary Guards' Bassij militia periodically tries to enforce the dress code and intrusively searches women's handbags. This is often resisted or warded off through bribery. Recently, public sentiment impelled Guards commander Rahim Safavi to order the Bassij not to "interfere in peoples' lives ... and ask for identification cards and rifle through CDs ... ".

The dress code is the site of a running battle between women and the clerical authorities. Recently, the supposedly "hard line" "orthodox" President relaxed the ban on women entering football stadiums.

But the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) overruled him.

Iranian women don't defy the dress code en masse. But they are by no means servile, submissive or obsequious. The dress code has not broken their back. They walk and speak with dignity, pride and confidence.

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