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25 Years Later, a Different Type of Revolution

Western Culture Is Seeping Into Iranian Society, Despite Lingering Restrictions

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page A20

TEHRAN -- Victoria's Secret has arrived in Tehran. So have the Gap, Diesel, Benetton and Black & Decker. A quarter-century after a mass movement inspired by Islam ended 2,500 years of monarchy, Iran's revolutionary society is moving on.

Yet, still trapped in transition, the Islamic republic is full of telling and sometimes bizarre contradictions.

American films such as "Fahrenheit 9/11" have found their way into theaters in Tehran, the Iranian capital. (Robin Wright -- The Washington Post)

At demonstrations marking the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover last month, participants handed out cards listing companies to boycott, including Calvin Klein, because they do business with Israel. But all over Tehran, billboards that once would have been reserved for revolutionary slogans and portraits of Iranians killed in the war with Iraq now advertise Calvin Klein.

Victoria's Secret is not a legal franchise. U.S. economic sanctions ban American businesses from doing business with Iran. So Iranian entrepreneurs buy brand-name goods abroad and resell them in their own shops -- often with the brand replacing the shop name on storefront signs. Some shopping sections of Tehran -- and the teenagers who frequent them -- are beginning to look like what one would find at shopping malls in suburban America.

The shop with sexy lingerie is a bit more discreet -- marked only by a trademark pink-and-white-striped Victoria's Secret bag in the window.

"Iran is now doing pretty much the same things as during the shah's era, except for symbols like women's scarves and 'Death to America' -- and most people don't mean that anymore, either," said a prominent banker in Iran, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does business with the government.

The modest clothing rules for girls and women have relaxed a great deal, too. Especially among the young, coats called roupoushes are now so short they end high on the thigh -- with slits going even higher -- and so tight that they accentuate rather than conceal the most specific attributes of the female anatomy.

"Every year, they go up a couple of inches," a young woman said with a chuckle as she picnicked with friends in a park. To complete the ensemble, tight jeans exposing bare ankles have replaced black stockings and baggy trousers. "Pretty soon you won't be able to tell the difference between you and us," she told a Western reporter.

The transformation of Iran's most cosmopolitan city is reflected even in its traffic. In the early years of the revolution, checkpoints manned by morality squads often popped up at night to ensure that women riding in cars with men were either blood relatives or spouses.

Now, Tehran is flooded with a new breed of law enforcement: traffic cops and meter men. They represent an attempt to control the capital's chaotic streets, where free-for-all rules account for one of the highest accident rates in the world.

Dressed in snappy white broad-brimmed military hats and dark green uniforms with gold emblems on their epaulets, the new traffic police look more like a brigade of generals let loose on Tehran's streets. And sometimes they act like one. Daringly deployed even in the middle of exit and entry ramps to freeways, they don't hesitate to order drivers to pull over for not obeying the dictate displayed on other new billboards, in Farsi and English, throughout the capital: "Fastening the seat belt is mandatory."

After 9 p.m., the generals retreat, leaving motorists to follow Tehran's widely accepted rules of the road. To turn left, get in the right lane -- and vice versa. If you've passed your exit on a busy freeway, just back up. And if you need to make an illegal U-turn, wait until oncoming traffic is roaring toward you.

On Thursday night, Africa Boulevard and other main thoroughfares are jammed with Iran's young trying to meet and impress the opposite sex. The idea is to clog the streets so cars filled with males in their teens and twenties can chat up or get the cell phone numbers of girls in cars going the opposite direction. Sometimes they end up meeting outside Tehran's growing number of pizza parlors.

Taboos on dating in public have largely ceased to matter -- except for parents' restrictions. In the early days of the revolution, the only couples holding hands in public were married. Attendants in theaters checked during movies -- in which women had to be depicted in Islamic dress -- to ensure couples behaved. And well over half of marriages were arranged by families.

Today, the assumption is that people holding hands are not married, Iranians say. A growing number of teenagers of both genders insist they will marry only for love. And no one monitors behavior in theaters, where one of the most popular twin features this month was "Kill Bill" and "Fahrenheit 9/11."

The government still sends mixed and confusing messages. After a decade of warnings about "Westoxication," or poisoning by Western cultural values, music stores can now legally sell CDs that were once available only on the black market. But a recent concert by a popular local Iranian band, Arian, was canceled, and public concerts at the Swiss, French, German and Turkish embassies have been banned or disrupted. After a musical performance by the Turkish ambassador's wife, co-hosted by the wife of Iran's foreign minister, several women who attended were hassled or briefly detained after they left, foreign envoys here say.

Yet Tehran is filled with signs -- from the canned pork on sale at a supermarket to the "Jingle Bells" ringtone on the cell phone of a staffer at Reselaat, one of Iran's conservative newspapers -- that the rigidity of the early era is steadily eroding.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company