Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

The End of the 00s: A Party In Iran, by Kaila Hale-Stern

Not a party picture
Hadi is showing me pictures from epic-looking parties. Men and women dance, their bodies caught in ecstatic pause. The women are, for the most part, rather scantily clad: microscopic skirts dominate, and belly shirts that show a good deal of taut belly. Their faces are masterworks of make-up art: streaks of vibrant color rising to the eyebrow, glitter and blush and outlined lips. They move, the partiers, with abandon, heads tipped back, preening and laughing. The pictures are from Iran.

We were sitting in Prague, in mid-May 2009, before the fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is weeks before newswhores like me could expound upon the legitimacy of the Guardian Council and pontificate about Khamenei, before hundreds of thousands pushed into the streets and were pushed back. The human seas of opposition supporters in Mousavi green and the videoed murder of Neda Agha-Soltan surely stand with the defining iconography of our decade.

In May, my knowledge of Iran was as sorely limited as many Americans: I knew some of our sordid dealings in the Cold War decades ago; I knew about Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and had watched the '81 run from our beleaguered embassy in class. I knew that we were supposed to boo and hiss the crass Ahmadinejad, but I was also trusting in our new President's overtures of diplomacy to smooth the relations that Bush had mangled.

I had read Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis and thus felt qualified to comment that the current social status of women in Iran had been a modern and ruthlessly enforced invention. Since the 1979 revolution under Sharia law women had been dictated a strict dress code. The religious "morality" police in Iran were given the power to punish for improper hijab.

So I sat staring slack-jawed as Hadi clicked through his album. I had consumed, perhaps, one too many fine Czech beers, and my brain was slow that night. "But… don't they… burqas?" I managed, watching bold women go past on the screen.

America often likes to portray itself as superior to extreme Islamic states in its treatment of women. Never mind that our lack of head-to-toe covering can promote whole other systems of body-bound repression-that's a subject for Jezebel. We're still a nation grappling with the fallout from a Superbowl nipple-flash.

But in demonizing Iran, or justifying bombing out the Taliban while not blinking at the civilians underfoot, Western politicians and talking heads love to jab fingers at huddled women in black, zooming in on what we imagine to be plaintive eyes peering out.

Along the way I must have swallowed that constructed image. A burqa meant a burqa, and somehow free-thinking dissent would be lost under cloth. I had not really considered that for many-for the old guard who had lived in a more female-empowered Iran, for the young, who are as wont to want to party as their counterparts across the planet-it could all just be a cover.

Hadi laughed at me, at my packaged TV-news knowledge. "Sure," he said of the burqa. "They wear it. They wear it on the street to the party. And when they are inside the house"-he mimed tugging his shirt up-"They take it off; and they are wearing that underneath."

Glitter and painted eye-arches and glowing lengths of skin. Laughter and dancing. Young and not-so-young people in the night's heat, matching our slinkiest club attire, maybe even wearing less than we would. Seeming to care about it less. I sat staring and thought: we still have very little understanding of each other, despite the decade's stunning advances in the accessibility of information.

For many in Iran, access to information became a precious necessity last summer, a means to survival and a way of bearing witness. The internet was purposely crippled in the election aftermath, and SMSing shut down entirely. The harsh crackdown on reporters and media presence that followed was unprecedented in its scope-the Iranian government would even blame the BBC for plotting coups and inciting violence.

But around the world, people were still watching, and information kept leaking through from Iran. Bloggers tracked the election protests obsessively. Twitter and Facebook icons turned Mousavi green. Companies (and governments) stepped in to keep their software accessible. Computer experts worked to make safe pages and portals for the protesters to use.

Agha-Soltan, a student who had stopped to watch the protests, was shot by a Basij militia bullet and would go on to die millions of times online and in cell phone videos and on TV, our first digitalized martyr and an instant symbol of the protest movement and the reigning regime's brutality.

Lay people like me learned fast about the history of Iran, its tangle of politics and religion. And the need for real honest-to-God, on-the-ground reporters has never been more soundly demonstrated. When only a corrupt government's state-run media gets to report to the people, George Orwell wins and everyone else loses.

Americans believe they should have the luxury of picking and choosing what they want to know, of leaving on only the channel that says what you want to hear. These days we seem to collectively thrive on a mix of navel-gazing outrage, scandal and denial, hopping from one to the other with hysterical frequency aided by the 24-hour news cycle and the web. While our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President surges forth with an unwanted war in Afghanistan, imperiled newspapers keep a certain celebrity golfer on their front page for what's now weeks in the running. This is the state of America as we bring the first decade of the new millennium to a close.

Doesn't it seem like what we want to know is not a lot? On The Daily Show last summer, Jason Jones' tongue-in-cheek but masterfully painful segment "Jihad Walking" put questions to Iranians-who could name American presidents, locations and the branches of our government-while Americans similarly quizzed in Times Square could often not bring forth the name of a single Iranian city, or even the name of the country.

It demonstrated a very willful ignorance. As that sage Alan Jackson once sang: "I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you / the difference in Iraq and Iran."

We were in Prague, and Hadi, from Kuwait, had come away from elections there. In Kuwait, he told me, his party had just worked to successfully elect three women to parliamentary office. This was against the express advice of the hard-line imams, who cited eternal damnation for the offense of voting for any of them. He couldn't stop smiling over the victory.

Hadi told me that the parties amongst Iran's revelers were some of the best he's ever been to. They favored tequila. He told me he can't wait to go back. In the pictures, his friends hefted bottles and danced and moved close together, making Facebook faces.

For a short period of time in June 2009, the newsmedia gave its attention to a worthy cause, and the internet finally proved itself to be useful. Iran's protest movement may be written about as the goddamned "Twitter Revolution" in history Kindles, but it was the first avidly viewed by curious and participatory audiences tuning in around the world.

And it established more than ever the need for the accessibility of uncensored information, which should now be considered a basic right. The quelled uprising in Iran represented a call for freedom and reform the likes of which we should be ashamed we could not replicate here in America during our own electoral problems.

In the 00s, we changed our online avatars to show solidarity with admired revolutionaries. Maybe we will do more. The future of peace and conflict is irretrievably linked now to our ability to talk to each other and show our truths.

Kaila Hale-Stern lives in a self-selected corner of the internet populated by basement-dwelling anarchists and people who write stories about their favorite fictional characters. Her primary concerns are the duplicities of history, the scourge of pop culture, and not letting Mayor Bloomberg win the battle against cigarettes. She can be read here and reached here.

22 Comments / Post A Comment

Moff (#28)


(You deserve however many you end up with.)

mathnet (#27)


mathnet (#27)

OMG wouldn't it be so awesome if #26 chimed in now?

Moff (#28)

Who is 26?

By the way, Kaila, I totally thought burqas, burqas, burqas was the norm, too. Thanks for the elucidification.

Matt (#26)

You rang?

Moff (#28)

Aha! That makes sense.

kaila (#634)

Thanks, o great creator of Moff's Law.

kaila (#634)

Re: Burqas – I did too, which was why I thought it deserved to be written about. I was flabbergasted, and then ashamed at knowing so little. Just imagine what Iranians think about us when they see something like "Jihad Walking."

I found myself explaining a lot while traveling that Americans are generally a well-intentioned bunch. But we're also short-sighted and kind of ADD, and we're used to self-selecting the news we want to hear now, at least the outlet it comes from.

People wanted to know why we didn't talk much about our wars or our Middle East policy or our homemade injustices but still arrived in their countries as loudly talking and opinionated tourists.

sg (#2,830)

Burqas are not worn in Iran! Burqas are worn in Afghanistan and some parts of Pakistan, and cover the entire face and body.

Iranian law dictates that women wear the hijab – which can be just a scarf over your head and an overcoat (which are often very tight and actually pretty sexy among urban women!)

Religious Iranians wear the chador, which is the full covering, but they do not cover their faces.

HiredGoons (#603)

"Facebook faces." Christ, this is a thing now, isn't it.

This was a wonderful piece! Trademark History Kindles while you can.

The Steven Meisel spread in this month's Italian Vogue is all making fun of "Facebook face" photos. It's geniuinely hilarious. So there's at least one good thing that comes of the style being recognized and accepted. And by "one good thing" I mean "being mocked by haute fashion mags."

Or guyswithiphones.

kaila (#634)

I don't think people look much at art or monuments anymore, they just hold their cameras up in awkward self-taking portrait mode in front of it and move on to the next.

HiredGoons (#603)

It is a source of great sadness for me.

I actually HATE going on vacation and having my picture taken in front of things – I have the god damned photo, obviously I was there.

I have a stunning photo of the Parthenon. JUST the Parthenon.

slinkimalinki (#182)

i don't know if "anymore" comes into it. cameras have been around for a long time, and the difference between taking a shot of yourself for facebook and getting a stranger to take a photo of you so you can invite your relatives to an interminable slideshow in the garage is probably not all that great. what i'm getting at is that the majority of people never did look at art or monuments much.

HiredGoons (#603)

"The human seas of opposition supporters in Mousavi green and the videoed murder of Neda Agha-Soltan surely stand with the defining iconography of our decade."


kaila (#634)

A few days ago, government forces killed Mousavi's nephew Ali and his body was disappeared for a while to prevent an attention-drawing funeral.

I want the press to cover what's been happening in Iran since the death of Ayatollah Montazeri last week with the fervor it showed this summer. We may not have sexy Twitter trend pieces at the ready, but dissent is still being brutally and actively crushed.

Zack (#2,609)

We should probably just get passed the idea that "mainstream media" is an effective tool for this type of story. We should probably move passed the idea of "mainstream media" period. There is no mainstream. The coverage of Ali was out there. That's how I knew. That's how you knew.

kaila (#634)

World events need to get caught in the echo-chamber of the news cycle now in order for attention and action to come about. The news cycle as constructed has a perilously short attention span, and it is sensationalistic and profit-driven.

If the mainstream — that is, the giant headlines and squawking heads and, yes, the biggest blogs — were to follow, say, the war in Afghanistan for a week with the tenacity and hysteria of a Tiger Woods mistress-announcement, do you think we would still be there?

Zack (#2,609)

I don't think you are wrong about the news cycle, but I think you award the giant headlines, squawking heads and biggest blogs too much credit. The numbers of people they serve don't add up to the diverse mass of people in the US.

If coverage shifted overnight from Tiger to Afghanistan they would simply exchange their audience for one engaged in that debate. The government (and this is a bit beyond me, but I'll play along and speculate) takes it's cue from people, not media. And the type of action you suggest comes from people, not media. That is, our strong interpersonal networks.

My point is simply that mainstream media may raise awareness for some, but these people are only the smallest fraction of our population. And there countless other outlets of information far more people encounter on a daily basis.

deepomega (#1,720)

Strongly agree but can we stop talking about "not being as well-informed as maybe we should be" as though it is an American problem exclusively? A better metric of foolishness would be what Iranians know about, say, Venezuela – because so much pop culture detritus sifting off of America is laden with references to it. Knowing more about America is not an American thing, it's an everyone thing.

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