Iranian Women Are Changing the Game
My third evening in the Islamic Republic of Iran lands me in an underground music gig in a hip café-cum-alcohol-free-bar in the capital, Tehran, where a special band is playing.
The café swells with young tehranis, a small ocean of dark hair, streetwear and hijabs moving with excitement. Besides the bluish light illuminating the stage, all is dark. Rapid Farsi cartwheels through the room. Someone does a sound check. I swear I can smell weed.
My new friend Nousha* and I sit stage left and chat. I’d met Nousha, a vivacious tehrani with wild burgundy curls and killer English, the day previous. We’d hit it off and she invited me along.
Soon after arrival I get all cultural inquiry. Do underground gigs happen frequently? (Gestures to canoodling couple) Is that allowed in public? Do you guys smoke and drink when you’re out?
With grace – and perhaps amusement – Nousha explains: All the time. Not in public, but here is okay. (Gestures to her reddish, half-moon eyes and her friend’s bottle of ‘water’) Yes, in Tehran we do.
One act and two fruit mocktails later, we join the crowd in a smoke break outside, where the conversation turns to sex. Underscoring my misconceptions of Iran, Nousha clarifies that, in Tehran, casual sex is doable.
Sex outside marriage is outlawed in Iran (and adultery a capital offence). In recent years, however, young people have resisted tradition by living together before marriage – an ‘epidemic’ condemned by the Supreme Leader – or shunning marriage altogether.
And while national Islamic dating websites like Tebyan exist, where parents arrange and attend dates for their adult children, Tinder in Iran still runs hot. “You just have to know when and how long your parents will be out,” Nousha says.
Back inside, the gig’s highlight band, The Finches, walks onstage to fervent applause. Clad in punkish tartan, boots and black lipstick, the four female musicians, aged 18-20, settle into place before requesting that no one takes footage.
I look to Nousha. “It’s illegal for women to sing without a man in Iran. If the government saw the footage online, they could get caught,” she says.
Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, female solo performers have been banned. Thus, The Finches’ gig of Arctic Monkeys and Led Zeppelin renditions, interspersed with their own punk-rock, Courtney Barnett-esque tracks in both Farsi and English, is a reverberating slap to the system’s face.
Post-gig, I ask Nousha: “So, do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, actually,” she replies. “I have a girlfriend.”
Aware of the sociocultural, religious and political challenges faced by the LBGTIQ community in Muslim countries, I engage Nousha weeks later in a Whatsapp interview to discuss the situation for queer Iranians.
“It’s really fucked up because citizens in Iran have zero freedom of speech. You can’t really be who you want to be,” Nousha tells me. “And because our legislation is based on the Quran, you cannot be gay publically. Gay people can be executed here.”
According to Equaldex, sodomy is punishable by death and lesbianism by 100 lashes.
The draconian attempts to silence Iran’s LBGTIQ community don’t erase trans people all together, though. The Guardian notes that, according to reports, Iran now performs more reassignment surgeries than any other country save Thailand.
This, however, can also reflect Iran’s intolerance of transgender; the law may force sex reassignment surgery on trans people who’d prefer to keep their birth-assigned sex. Reportedly, some gay men have, too, been forced into the procedure.
In fact, Nousha’s first school crush was on a girl who ended up having a sex change. While her parents are pretty open-minded, “I’d never tell them I’m bi. They wouldn’t be happy about it,” she says.
Nousha goes on to talk about challenges faced by Iranian women.
“Don’t get me wrong; women are really active in our society. We’re entering universities more than men are. But sexism has deep roots in Iranian culture,” she says.
“Men always comment on your looks, and if you look different to a ‘normal’ woman, you get stared at so much. And we have to wear hijab.”
She recounts how one time on the bus, an older woman chastised her friend whose hijab had slipped off, saying she would distract the men on-board. “Can you imagine how fucked up that is?”
Interestingly, one of Nousha’s friends, Dee,* who I chat with at The Finches gig, views the hijab differently.
“I know it has religious origins and women are forced to wear it, but I don’t hate it. Sometimes the hijab looks beautiful. It can be really feminine.”
Hijabs are compulsory in Iran, except when the woman is in the private company of her husband and immediate male relatives. However, particularly in Tehran, some women push it halfway back on their head for maximum hair exposure.
Recently, Iranian women have further pushed boundaries by removing it while driving, while movements like My Stealthy Freedom encourage female tourists to post pictures of themselves sans hijab, as an act of solidarity.
For my friend Shadi*, with whom I stay in Esfahan, it wasn’t until after her divorce at age 18 – to a surly young man she barely knew – that her parents acknowledged the pressure they’d placed on her as a young woman.
After the divorce, “I told them it was their fault – they were the ones who’d insisted on me getting a legal relationship as soon as possible,” Shadi says. “After, they realised there are more important things than obeying God’s will.”
Staying with Shadi’s family is as inspiring as it is indulgent (her mum showers me with hugs, queries and home-cooked food). Here, I learn that Shadi, now 21, has hitchhiked to, and travelled around, Jordan – alone.
Asked about women’s freedom in Iran: “We hate restrictions and so are willing to do anything to rise against them. Here, women wear so much makeup only because it’s the only thing they can control,” Shadi says.
According to Nousha’s observations, however, that’s a good sign.
“We’re pushing the boundaries in society. Our generation is more rebellious and we’re changing the attitudes. We’ve been raised with international media and the internet, so we have a more global attitude,” she says.
“It’s hard, but I feel responsible to make Iran better for women.”
*Names have been changed
Cover by Janko Ferlič
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Lizzy is a freelance writer on a year-long trip from Bali to Iran. As a graduate of journalism and Spanish, she’s interested in language and culture, and dreams of being a foreign correspondent.