It was a bizarre co-existence, to be sure, Barbie and the mullahs. Until mid-May, when the public morality police began eradicating the American icon assiduously, Barbie was the one barnacle that Iran officially preferred to ignore. She was blonde, busty and skimpily dressed, and, strangely, she appealed as much to fully grown men as she did to little women in the Islamic republic.
“Barbie is dead and that is bad because Barbie is beautiful,” groaned one aficionado, a man with raven-black hair. “But sex is not, and in Iran that’s the one thing men and women have on their minds, so don’t be fooled by the chador.”
This was my first visit to a nation that had attempted to create a utopian religious society. I had been in Tehran for all of three hours when the gentleman in question, a young lawyer, approached me in a toyshop whose shelves had just been purged of the doll.
Sex is not a subject one expects to hear a lot about in a country governed by the immutable strictures of theocratic rule. Unfairly, I assumed that the heavily Brylcreemed Barbie devotee was a bit of a crank. But since the 1979 revolution, Iran has become seriously idiosyncratic. With the youngest population in the world – three-quarters of all Iranians, numbering roughly 40 million, are under the age of 25 – prohibition has succeeded only in sexualising le tout.
Iranians, who still avail themselves of sigheh, a temporary marriage contract, to satisfy their sexual urges, rarely shy away from addressing the subject, once taboo. Nearly every conversation, even those with po-faced officials, inevitably leads to the three-letter word (in my own notes, taken over a week, there were 49 references to it). And sexuality exists where it should not: shaking a man’s hand, allowing a headscarf to slip enough to show a provocative swirl of hair, even sitting on a chair that may previously have been occupied by a set of male buttocks – activities steadfastly banned under Shia Islamic law.
For the Islamic republic is nothing if not opaque. Just as Iran’s politics are characterised by conservatives and reformers, with their interminable feuds, Iranians delight in telling you that there is an indoor and an outdoor life, a mask for the street and a face for the home, a uniform for the frump and a designer dress for the chador-less nymph, a public and a private morality.
“In Iran,” said one British-educated businessman, as we sipped cocktails and danced to “Hotel California” at his home, “we do everything – sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. It’s just that we do it behind closed doors.”
When it comes to making love, confided another British-trained engineer, Iranian women simply make sure that men are extra-cautious. Premarital sex is punishable by up to 70 lashes. A ruptured hymen can mean disownment by the family and lifelong social ostracism. “Often, they ask that we do it in other ways,” he said, in a matter-of-fact way. Thus followed a near-pornographic explication of how such congress could be concluded happily.
But although Iran has loosened up immensely since the reformist Muhammad Khatami came to power in 1997, fraternising with a member of the opposite sex who is not also next of kin still requires some measure of strength.
Young Iran is hooked on television. With US satellite channels beaming “westoxified” scenes to most parts of the country (Iranians are MTV addicts), increasingly, it is sexual frustration that is propelling the youthful clamour for change.
As Iran’s post-revolutionary baby boomers come in to their prime, this is a force more potent than might at first seem. Stroll the parks that pepper Tehran and you will encounter youths on the prowl. Many come armed with slips of paper inscribed with vital details which they pass on to promising partners.
“The new generation want change and they want it now,” Muhammad Ali Abtahi, Iran’s vice-president, told me somewhat forlornly. “In an ideal world, of course, we would move as fast as possible with reform and democracy.”
A hadjitollah, the rank below ayatollah, Abtahi is the right-hand man of the popularly elected Khatami and, like him, relatively open-minded. But he readily admits he is just as “confused” as anyone about the intricate political workings of Iran.
Although unelected, Islamic fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the undistinguished successor of the father of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, retain an iron grip on power. In matters of security, defence and justice, it is they who have the last say. The bookish, mild-mannered president and his reformist allies control the Majlis, or parliament. But their forward-looking policies are invariably blocked by the Council of Guardians, an upper house controlled by the conservatives.
Recently, attempts to raise the age of marital consent for girls, from eight to 18, was rejected by the council on the grounds that it transgressed Shia law. Along with Barbie, Iranian women have also been subjected, of late, to the punitive whims of the public morality police for flouting the sombre Islamic dress code.
Such political paralysis has given Khatami, in the eyes of the electorate, a lame-duck appearance, and, since his re-election by an overwhelming majority last June, fuelled youthful grievances.
Large-scale unemployment (hovering around 20 per cent) has sparked inevitable social problems. Every year, about 800,000 school graduates are pumped into the labour market, often without any hope of a job. In this atmosphere, student suicides have risen dramatically, as have prostitution and drug abuse – Iran has roughly two million registered heroin addicts, the highest number in the world.
“A lot of us are very depressed,” Mohammed Hani, a student, said. “It’s not as if we have a very bright future . . . All those people you see in our country with very blank stares have taken to drugs because they are desperate.”
But it is the youth vote, alongside women, that forms the backbone of support for Khatami. “A reference group has emerged, one inhabited by youngsters and females, that is definitely redefining the public sphere,” says Professor Parviz Piran, who teaches sociology at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran. “It’s the women who are leading this social reform movement. They’re really brave. Every day, they make a political statement, just by the way they wear their headscarves and decide to show their hair.”
Since Khatami came to power, ever more women have begun wearing make-up, painting their nails and – where possible – discarding the clothes that, in public at least, have turned them into a nation of conscripted nuns.
Young Iranians are not only sophisticated, but eloquent in their demands for greater freedom – even if few dare to speak honestly and give their full names. From the countryside to the towns, the baby boomers want an end (evinced in the copious circulation of copied CDs, DVDs and US magazines) to what is seen as the regime’s intellectual stultification, and the modernisation of an economy reeling under US sanctions and corruption.
For the most part, Iranians are resentful at religious restrictions. Only 1.4 per cent of the population bother attending Friday prayers; the mullahs are now the butt of jokes that were once unthinkable. “Religion and modernisation don’t go hand in hand,” harrumphs Zahra, one of Prof Piran’s students. “Democracy in the context of theocracy isn’t possible . . . a state run by mullahs is a contradiction in terms. The two cannot co-exist.”
Disgust at the flamboyant lifestyles of growing numbers of mullahs has also discredited the regime. In sharp contrast to the average Iranian, who can barely afford meat, senior clerics own Beverly Hills-style mansions, have assets overseas and are ferried around in flashy limousines.
Increasingly, the desire for reform has become bound up with the interminable debate over whether Iran should repair ties with Washington. Diplomatic relations have been severed since 1979, when radical students stormed the US embassy and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Slogans of revolutionary zeal are still daubed on the walls of the old US compound. Yet polls show the new generation favouring rapprochement.
“A lot of us enter online chatrooms,” said Mohsen, a bespectacled student at Tehran University. “But if you’re online with an American and you say you’re Iranian, they immediately say ‘terrorist’, or ask if you’ve ever seen a car, or still ride camels.”
That, sighed Mohsen, was especially upsetting because, after the fall of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, many Iranians (including opposition clerics) had hoped that the mullahs would be put back in their mosques. “We had really hoped the US army would come and do for us what it did for Afghanistan.”
Despite 23 years of xenophobic zealotry, America, according to one senior EU diplomat in Tehran, “remains a place of inspiration. Many Iranians have relatives there and are genuinely fascinated by it,” he said. “If the US ever attacked this country, I can assure you most Iranians would side with the Stars and Stripes.”
Strangely, the love-in with all things “western” is seen nowhere more than on the street. Last year, Victoria’s Secret, the very un-Islamic lingerie line, appeared in Tehran. American self-help books, cultural icons and brands such as Coca-Cola – products imported through third-country suppliers to skirt the ban on direct trade – have also become immensely popular.
“What people want is reform, not violence,” said Abtahi.
For now, the new generation is leaderless. And with memories of the Iran-Iraq war still fresh, and the bloody student riots of 1999 even fresher, there are few who appear willing to shed blood in the name of change. For now.
Helena Smith is a foreign correspondent for the Guardian and Observer