Books: 'Lipstick Jihad'

Azadeh Moaveni
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; 12:00 PM

Journalist Azadeh Moaveni was online Tuesday, May 23, at noon ET to discuss her book,"Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran," which describes the conflict she felt between her two disparate yet connected worlds. "Lipstick Jihad," named after the formerly imprisonable offense, examines not only her personal identity but the world of modern Iran: the defiance of its youth, the role of Islam in its political culture and the disaffected elements of the population that oppose the regime.

The transcript follows.


Washington, D.C.: Azadeh, do you feel that women in Iran are much more repressed, sexually and politically, than women in the United States? I look forward to reading your book.

Azadeh Moaveni: Not really, I find that Iranian women -- especially educated ones, which are a substantial segment of the female population -- are quite savvy politically. They read newspapers, follow debates, are generally very tapped into the issues of the day affecting women, like the recent row over women's access to soccer stadiums. As far as sexually, I think again women in urban areas who work, who have gone to school, especially those who are middle class, feel that they have more sexual options than their mothers' generation. That doesn't mean it's openly talked about, though, in society, things like premarital sex.


College Station, Tex.: Would an American attack on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities serve as a setback to progressive forces in the country? Would the supposedly restless younger generation abandon their opposition to the government and "rally around the flag" in the face of American aggression?

Azadeh Moaveni: I definitely think an attack would mobilize people around the regime. Already activists and intellectuals are feeling intimidated by rhetoric about regime change, especially from Washington, because the line now is that the US government will support change from within. That automatically makes every critic here a potential agent for overthrow, and hands conservatives eager to crackdown anyway a pretext.


Washington, D.C.: Do you often fear for your safety as a young woman when you visit?

Azadeh Moaveni: No, as a woman I don't fear for my safety at all. Tehran is quite safe, it's only when you start breaking the rules that one could fear repercussions. Flouting hijab, drinking alcohol, etc, and those worries apply to everyone, men and women alike.


Washington, D.C.: I am interested in your take on head scarves. What was your reaction to finding out that schools in France had banned women from wearing them?

Azadeh Moaveni: I'm pretty divided on that. The liberal cultural relativist in me immediately thinks it's an infringement on civil liberties, to restrict an individual's right to cover herself out of religious principle. But I can see the secularist argument as well, that Muslims in Europe need to assimilate to secular societies, and sometimes that doesn't happen voluntarily. I'm split!


Arlington, Va.: I love your rich descriptions of food, vivid accounts of your experiences and, most of all, your talk of love in Iran. Do you see a difference between young love here versus in Iran?

Azadeh Moaveni: Thanks. I love that issue. I think here there's still a bit more breathing space for romance. I find that in the West, young people are obsessed with categorizing their experiences, and each progressive state of their romantic life. Popular culture encourages that. That to me doesn't leave much room for discovery or the unexpected, and veers toward the clinical.


Washington, D.C.: Ms. Moaveni

Thanks so much for joining us. I am curious, how do you feel about the current coverage given to Iran by the mainstream media? How do you feel that papers such as The Post could do a better job illuminating what is really going on with Iran/Iran-U.S. relations?

Azadeh Moaveni: Given that Western reporters are not granted regular visas and access to report in Iran, I should say first that the work my colleagues do manage to do is often excellent. That said, I think the analytical reporting on US-Iran that comes out of mainstream Western media is often through the lenses of unexamined US-Israeli security concerns. Now that Iran is behaving so intransigently, it's harder to make the case that Europe, for example, is less worried about Iran because of separate security calculations. But the Iranian political establishment is also opaque and extremely complex, so reporting on what's really going on in Tehran within the regime is extraordinarily tough.

I would say as a general thought that more stories and coverage of how everyday Iranians are experiencing this new regime would be illuminating for Americans, beyond the diplomatic back and forth.


Washington, D.C.: It seems like you've seen some of the best and worst aspects of both nations and I wonder: with which nation do you most identify?

Azadeh Moaveni: I've come to a point where I don't lean towards one or the other, but have become quite comfortable existing in the middle. I think with identity questions you reach a point where the various moments in your life swing more toward one direction, and then the next. When I make decisions about my personal life and family, for example, I tend to identify more with Iranian or Eastern values; intellectually, I'm still very much a product of a Western humanities education, and that shapes how I think about rights and democracy, etc.


Alexandria, Va.: What kind of feedback have you received about your book, from both Iranian and American readers?

Azadeh Moaveni: When I'm on book tour American readers often ask, "If Iran is really how you say it is, why doesn't our media reflect that?" I think US readers still find that their media represents a dated Iran, very different from the world I present in my book. Iranian readers have all sorts of different reactions, depending on their politics, quite honestly, and whether or not they have hang-ups about exile or the Iranian government.


Bethesda, Md.: What are the kind of things you have to be mindful here in America, and when you travel to Iran given the vast set of societal and cultural rules? Do you have a preference on where you'd rather live?

Azadeh Moaveni: In Iran I have to be mindful of keeping myself intellectually engaged, because here one needs to make an effort to feed one's mind. You can't just switch on NPR while you're eating lunch. It seems silly that I wouldn't have a more urgent preoccupation than that, but you really get used to the various rules and they become part of life, and you don't get bothered about them on a daily basis. I haven't lived in the US for more than a month or two since I graduated college, nearly eight years ago (!), so my sense is somewhat skewed by distance. I think if I lived in the US I would have to live in New York, by preference and trade, and that means being mindful of not going into debt. Seriously.


Brambleton, Va.: Ms. Moaveni - I was born in the Soviet Union and was raised in the US and I was drawn to your book because I was interested in reading about someone's similar experience of assimilation and struggle for a sense of self within two different cultures. So far your book has spoken volumes for me - I've often thought about putting pen to paper about my family's experience. Thank you for sharing yours.

Azadeh Moaveni: Thank you so much for your kind thoughts. The process of writing about living in between was amazing for me personally, there was something about the physicality of working my thoughts out on screen, on the page, that helped me see things more clearly than ever before.


Arlington, Va.: I recall a good Iranian friend who spent some youthful years in both Iran and the United States. One small thing that struck me as interesting, as it struck her as something major, was she was shocked to see school children disciplined in American schools in front of the other students. In Iran, the discipline may be similar, but it was held in privacy. I don't know if that is particularly cultural or just her experiences, but I was wondering if that holds as a cultural norm that children in America are more prone to humiliation in front of others than what Iranian society does.

Azadeh Moaveni: I never went to school here, but my husband is sitting next to me and I just asked him. When he was in school, he says the punishments happened in front of the whole class, and that they were very rarely conducted in private. That was both before and after the revolution. Of course he says he was never punished for anything, being model citizen from infancy.


Washington, D.C.: A Post article about youth in Iran reminded me of my experiences in Central Asia. In nearby countries such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, opium or heroin is widely available and cheap despite the poverty and the highly controlled nature of the societies. That being said, its hard to think that the leaders are ignorant of the problem or aren't benefiting from the situation. After two years working in the region, I wouldn't say the governments are 'marketing' opium to the younger population but its clear heroin addicts aren't going to start any revolutions. The aforementioned Post article went into depth of heroin use among youth in Iran. Do you see any parallels to Central Asia's heroin use? Or if you could just comment on heroin use in general that would be appreciated. Thanks for your time!

Azadeh Moaveni: I think along the same lines. At a point when heroin use becomes a widespread and alarming social epidemic, the government either handles the problem with seriousness of purpose, or finds that somehow turning a blind eye is not somehow un-useful. Of course I would never say the government condones heroin use, and its dismal track record in many other areas could suggest that it couldn't even handle the problem if it wanted to. But the parks where dealers deal are notorious, and it seems to me that young people numbing themselves with cheap drugs keeps them apathetic, as you suggest. It is a great tragedy, especially given the numbers here in Iran, of addicts and usage.


Fairfax, Va.: Ms. Moaveni,

When I first picked up your book, I expected it to be a romanticized version of life in Iran akin to another book I've read written by an Iranian-American. Instead I discovered you have a strong anti-Iran bias which quite frankly, shocked me. Here, you have the opportunity to portray the country in a positive light, and counter the negative perceptions the media perpetrates -- which is something I would expect from a Iranian-American. Instead I found a strong negative slant in everything you described Iran.

I was disappointed with your half-hearted attempts (if at all) to explain the Muslim culture and/or religious beliefs that lead people to do the things they do.

Your description of the ladies gathering in the month of Muharram really shocked me -- you seemed to take it out of context and not explain the background behind it, and you made it appear it was a woman's event only. You very well know these are attended by men as well.

Of course, you are entitled to your biases and viewpoints, but don't give people the impression you are an Iranian in America because you clearly are only American. Thanks.

Azadeh Moaveni: I don't feel responsible, as either an Iranian or an American, to 'frame' reality for the benefit of either side. I am a reporter and a writer, regardless of nationality, and my calling is to report what I see. There is much in Iran that is deeply problematic, which is why, if you have perhaps noticed, there is an opposition movement and criticism.


Bethesda, Md.: In Iran, there are self appointed defenders of morality who impose their beliefs on what they find moral by physically attacking those who violate their norms. In America, we have the Christian Coalition, which at least do not attack physically, but does attack verbally. What similarities and differences do you see in the two countries on those who defend religious norms?

Azadeh Moaveni: From what I gather, not knowing about the CC in intimate detail, is that religious conservatives tend to seek to impose their agenda and values on others either through force, or the law. There seems to be little tolerance for freedom of choice in lifestyles and values among the religious right in general, and it seems that compulsion to impose is the real commonality there.


Va.: How many Americans live in Iran?

Azadeh Moaveni: I have no idea exactly, but not that many. A smattering of American women who married Iranian men before the revolution, I gather.


Washington, D.C.: Does the young population of Iran view the U.S. differently than the government? How do you think the attitudes of today's youth will affect U.S.-Iran relations in 10-20 years?

Azadeh Moaveni: When I moved here in 2000, young people adored the US. They were smitten with pop culture, with fake McDonalds that open up here, with movies, and everything you could imagine. They romanticized the US as a benevolent power and by in large backed better ties with Washington. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the Abu Ghraib scandals, the US has lost serious political capital among young people, who now are very suspicious and skeptical about US designs in region. That is somewhat fluid, though, and if the US behaves differently, it could find itself popular here again, and with that, find that Iranians again back restored ties with the US.


Bethesda, Md.: This may be a little of-topic, but how is the West's use of the word "jihad" regarded in the Muslim world? As I understand the term, it means "struggle," primarily at the personal and spiritual level as one seeks to overcome sin and earthly obstacles to God. But it's taken on decidedly political and terrorist connotations by Western press and politicians, and I was wondering if you've heard reactions to this elsewhere.

Azadeh Moaveni: Yes, in the West jihad is synonymous with terrorist. Which is why I always feel badly for my Arab friends who are named Jihad, which is not an uncommon name, given the peaceful, internally-directed definition of the word. But I don't hear much complaining among Mideast intellectuals about this particular point, perhaps because the Islamic radicals use jihad in such terms themselves, and have created the phenomenon by which the term lost its other meanings.


Arlington, Va.: Having grown up in the suburbs of the U.S., was it a shock to you when you went to Iran for the first time? How did the reality differ from your the place of your imagination that had been described to you over the years? Did you have a picture that was to idealistic, or just different?

Azadeh Moaveni: Well, I went to Iran from Egypt, which is decidedly more un-developed and Third World. So Egypt was my yardstick, and I found Iran to be refreshingly modern and functional. The Iranian middle-class, I would argue, is more Westernized than other middle-classes in the Middle East, so there wasn't an extreme moment of cultural shock. I was taken more aback my how culture had evolved here since the revolution, and how the culture of my imagination and childhood, uninfluenced by war and revolution, was a thing of the past. The private/public divide that followed 1979 has so shaped how people here live and see the world, and I think only living in a somewhat restrictive society could prepare one for understanding all that that entails.


Austin, Tex.: You responded to an earlier question that you did not feel women were more repressed in Iran than they were in the United States. Yet later you admitted fear over flouting "rules" --like not wearing hijab-- that are themselves repressive, in this instance specifically repressive towards women. How do you justify this blatant discrepancy personally?

Azadeh Moaveni: I think that question was about sexual repression, not general repression. Women by in large conduct their sexual lives here in private, and that regime does not follow them into their bedrooms. A woman here can have many lovers, just as she does in the US.

If we're talking about legal rights and access to public space, etc, then of course women here face a myriad of restrictions, from getting an easy divorce to child custody to...the list goes on and on. An Iranian woman's rights as a citizen cannot be compared to the rights of a woman in the West, obviously.


Rockville, Md.: At the time of the Revolution the university I worked at in Texas had many students from Iran. I suspect that a lot of them are now in Iran. What is their impact on the society? Do they keep quiet? Or do they talk about what they saw and learned?

Azadeh Moaveni: Iranians who have experience of the US often share their insights and familiarity with that culture with friends and family, and I think that knowledge is passed on that helps correct the endless misperceptions here about life in America. Often it is Iranians who've actually lived or studied in the US that can remind Iranians about issues like race, or about what Americans are actually like as people, as opposed to what Iranians watch on satellite television.

_______________________ Thank you all for joining us today.


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