Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Wired News | Loose headscarves distract Iran's youth from reform

Wired News | Loose headscarves distract Iran's youth from reform: "Loose headscarves distract Iran's youth from reform

Tuesday, June 14, 2005 8:34 a.m. ET
By Edmund Blair and Amir Paivar

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Surgically designed noses are a "must have" and the religious headscarf has been reduced to the flimsiest of coverings, barely hiding the highlighted hair of the young women in the Iranian capital's trendy coffee shops.

Young men in the Islamic Republic can wear their hair long with little fear that the Basij religious vigilantes will barge in and forcibly hack off this symbol of "Western" fashion.

But some of Iran's well-heeled young fear such modest freedoms may be dulling opposition among their peers to the Islamic Republic's system and taking their mind off demands for deeper political reforms.

Some fear a clampdown after Friday's presidential elections.

"The youth was pushing for freedoms, but the kind of freedoms they (the authorities) gave are not real freedom ... The youth doesn't realize this is happening," said 26-year-old Azadeh, who like many of her friends has had her nose reshaped.

"The face is the only thing Iranian girls can show," she explained as she sat with her boyfriend in a dark corner of a cafe, a liaison that would have been stopped a few years ago.

Since outgoing reformist President Mohammad Khatami swept to power eight years ago, headscarves that should hide the hair have been pushed back way past the fringe, both sexes mingle more openly in public and religious vigilantes are less active.

But Khatami's political reforms on civil liberties and efforts to put more power in the hands of the elected president were blocked at every turn by the hardline supervisory bodies.

"You can notice changes from the appearance of people. One example is the hijab (headscarf) or relationship between opposite sexes," said Shahin, 24, a long-haired student.

But youths have been distracted from reform as they revel in more social freedom, he said. "Fewer young people are active in politics," he added.

In the wealthy parts of Tehran, where real estate prices have rocketed on the back of surging oil prices, youths party at their homes more freely, worrying less about the ominous knock on the door from the religious paramilitary.

LIMITED FREEDOM

And in the weeks prior to Friday's polls, when the electorate votes on the eight candidates vetted by the hardline Guardian Council, restrictions have been relaxed further. The young have used rallies to openly flirt in public together.

"It is routine. Before elections they give us limited freedom, but they stop it after," said Farahnooz, 27, who like many disenchanted voters says she won't vote because all the candidates where chosen by the political establishment.

Analysts say the loosening social restrictions may encourage goodwill and a high turnout, which the authorities seek to show support for Iran's theocracy, where the final word in matters of state lies with hardline Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

"They want to preserve the regime, and they will pay what it takes, such as giving some limited freedom," said Mahiar, a 36-year-old architect, who said he still would not vote. "Those who take this bribe don't have ideals for change."

But some of the disenchanted youth have started to pay closer attention to the election race as what had appeared to be an unassailable lead by pragmatic conservative cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been eroded.

"I didn't plan to cast a vote, but then I realize that someone like Qalibaf could become president, and things will get even worse," said 25-year-old Pegah, referring to Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative lying third place in the opinion polls.

Now she plans to vote for Mostafa Moin, a reformist who has surged into second place behind Rafsanjani, who has sought to show young voters a softer face to Iran's religious social laws.

Asked why not Rafsanjani, Pegah said: "I don't want clerics ruling the country. They should be preaching in the mosques."

Copyright © 2005 Reuters Limited. "