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Second Report on Conditions in Iran from Prof. Beeman

Here is the second report from Dr. William Beeman, an Iran expert from the University of Minnesota. He is currently in Iran with our 6-person tour, which ends back at the Tehran airport in a few days. This was our 16-day/15-night comprehensive tour and it is available to any of you reading this at prices which are approximately half of those being offered through the New York Times or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And our travelers have stayed in the very best hotels available in each city they visited.
Here is the second report below.

Continuing my trip in Iran from Tehran to Zanjan, Hamadan, Kermanshah, Khorramabad, Ahwaz, and Shiraz (onward to Yazd, Isfahan, Kashan and back to Tehran).

Most of you know that I am an anthropologist with a long history in Iran. It is part of our profession to notice social change and to try and interpret it. In many cases very small things and subtle changes indicate much larger shifts in social attitudes and behavior.

On this trip almost the first thing I noticed was that women’s dress is far more colorful and innovative than in the past. In particular, women are wearing things that would have been impossible just a few years ago. There are black chadors to be sure, but also red, pink, purple, orange full outfits with diaphanous head scarfs set far back on the head–a mere gesture to the hijab of yore. Asking women about this, they are quite frank in saying that they are pushing the envelope on personal dress. Footwear was always a means of personal expression, and you see not only low heels but also sneakers in wild colors and designer flats. This is not just North Tehran–it is everywhere. One of the most fashionably dressed women I saw was in Behbahan–a Luri town between Ahwaz and Shiraz.

Even the Arab visitors from the Gulf are affected. I met a group of Bahraini women all wearing huge sunglasses. I asked them about the glasses. They said, “In Bahrain we would be wearing a neqab (face mask) but people in Shiraz think that is too conservative, so we found these big sunglasses instead, and now we are fashionable!” They came to Shiraz to shop because “the fashions are so much better than in Bahrain.”

Makeup for women as well as blonde hair coloring is ubiquitous. This would never have been tolerated even a few years ago.

The color red is especially noticeable. In the past no adult would be wearing red in Iran because of the association with the villains in the story of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad, whose death is the central symbolic event in Shi’ism. The villains who killed him and his family are depicted in popular culture wearing red. Now you see red clothing everywhere in large cities, and occasionally in small towns.

Men are no less adventuresome. Short-sleeved shirts were first allowed during the Khatami period, and now men are branching out with bold t-shirts, tight jeans and fashionable sneakers and shoes. Hair styles for both men and women are adventuresome as is facial hair for men.

Sometimes it is not even subtle. For example, I went to lunch today at the home of a family I know only slightly. My host was a woman with whom I have corresponded on the internet. The home would be considered a designer home in the U.S. with an open kitchen (very atypical), unusual lighting and a My host’s brother is a chemical engineer. He showed up in a suit and a tie (!) (Ties have been considered decadent since the Revolution). He said, “Well sometimes the police “advise me” but then there are so many Europeans with ties they can’t say much.” He didn’t take his shoes off in the house (the only one who didn’t). The women were all without hijab except the mother. The youngest son, finishing his final exams in his graduate architecture course, wore a beet red short-sleeved shirt and had shoulder length hair, half of which was in a pony tail. The middle son, a mechanical engineer working in the huge petroleum complex in Assalouiyeh on the Persian Gulf, did all the cooking (with his mother, sister and sister-in-law in the house).

Men and women are walking the streets holding hands everywhere–even in smaller cities. We were in the Nasrollah Mosque in Shiraz. A couple was there with a friend who was taking pictures. They were posing for what looked like pre-wedding photos. But what photos! They were hugging, and lying together on the carpeted floor of the mosque. In one photo, the woman was entwined in the man’s lap–all in public and in a mosque with the public around, not taking any particular notice. Not so surprising for LA but very different for Iran.

My Iranian friends don’t see many of the changes I am noticing as positive. One man complained that women getting professional degrees and working so extensively erodes the family, and besides, there are no jobs. People comment on the abundant food supplies by saying “yes, there is a lot of food, but no one can afford it” or “they are exporting all of it to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.” Of course these same people complaining about the food prices are the ones with groaning tables and food everywhere.

Still there are serious economic problems. And it is noteworthy that there is no real attempt to cover them up. They are prominent in the press and on TV. I think the theme that I hear all the time is upset over unemployment for university graduates. Here’s how the older generation puts it: “In my day you could get a job with just a diplom (high school diploma). Now you get a lisans (undergraduate degree)and even a fogh-e lisans (masters degree) and you still can’t get a job.” A survey on TV claimed that 60+% of unmarried young people said that economics was the principal reason they couldn’t marry. The situation is exacerbated by the rising pressure to privatize public industry in accordance with Article 44 of the constitution requiring privatization of government industry. As soon as they get these concerns into private hands, I’m told, they start firing people.

President Rowhani had a very lively press conference in which the journalists really put it to him. They asked about Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post correspondent on trial for spying, on the failed privatization, on ISIS/ISIL and how Iran is coordinating with the United States. On unemployment, the inevitable questions about lifting of economic sanctions, and a range of other very tough topics. It was not his answers that intrigued me, but rather the intrepidness of the questioners, which was breath-taking. Half of the journalists were women and they asked the most penetrating questions. I felt a bit sorry for President Rowhani because he was being asked about things that were above his pay grade. He did a good job fending them off, but clearly the press is reaching a new level of candidness–at least in the questions they are asking.

It is impossible to avoid the topic of the economic sanctions. I encountered a Qashqa’i tribal woman in the Shiraz bazaar. She was a widow with two grown sons. We were both drinking a sharbat at a bazaar stand. After a few pleasantries she suddenly said: “So why cant the US and Iran stop this fighting! Why can’t we get together? All this talk of war. Enough!”

William O. Beeman
Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology
University of Minnesota

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