Recently, my friend and I decided to travel to Kashan, a conservative and historic city on the edge of a desolate stretch of the central Iranian desert. We wanted to visit some of its modern galleries, which have been beautifully renovated in recent years.
Located about 250 km south of Tehran, the city has long shared its conservative culture with the neighboring holy city of Qom, home to the highest Shia clergy. So we packed Islamic clothing, as well as the more liberal clothing we sport in the capital.
When we arrived, however, we were pleasantly surprised to find that they could be left in our suitcases. Not so long ago, a visitor to Kashan would have seen most women in black chadors – the full Islamic covering. No more. As a frequent traveler to my home country, I must conclude that if this happens in such a place, it is no longer appropriate to describe an Iranian city as totally conservative. Even Qom is going through its own social transformation.
Change is everywhere in Kashan. Still a place of mud-brick walls and narrow alleys, the city now also boasts boutique hotels and dazzling homes renovated by affluent Tehran residents. Many guesthouses turn a blind eye to official social restrictions and allow young unmarried couples to sleep in the same room.
There are also signs of progressiveness on the cultural front. The House of Lucie, the New York-based photography museum, opened its Kashan branch this year in a restored traditional house. Many of the world’s most famous images were on display, including Hollywood actresses. Half joking we said we felt like we were in Spain or Greece.
The visit proved to me that bastions of societal and cultural conservatism are slowly crumbling. Iran has had no organized women’s movement, although many activists have been imprisoned. But since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women have been part of a leaderless and fairly peaceful campaign. Day after day, they pushed the traditional boundaries of their own lives, winning gains for society at large.
Thanks to this fundamental change, the aspirations of Iranian women to higher education, equal rights and a life in the modern world no longer differ so much from city to city.
During the Persian New Year holiday in March, numerous videos were posted on social media showing women dancing in public across the country – an officially banned act. Women are increasingly singing solo – also banned – and posting the videos on Instagram. Fashion designers dress female models in bold minimalist clothing, as in a secular state. Last month, around 800 women in Iranian films, including some of the country’s most famous actresses, signed up to their own #MeToo movement.
But Iran remains plagued by contradictions. Back in Tehran, my friend had to report to the moral police station to deal with a previous offense of failing to comply with the compulsory Islamic cover while driving her car. It wasn’t a political statement: her scarf had simply slipped from her head to her shoulders. She had to take a short moral education course and keep her car in a public parking lot for a week. Such random acts of repression did not help the regime. But her case shows how the authorities struggle to keep intact the image of their theological system, the main symbol of which is the hijab.
Extremist politicians won last year’s presidential election and now dominate all centers of power. But they can neither tighten controls on women, for fear of popular backlash, nor pave the way for women to push further for the abolition of restrictions. When women were blocked from entering a soccer stadium in the northeastern city of Mashhad in March and attacked with pepper spray, the public outcry that followed was a challenge to authorities . Despite wishes to do so, the Conservatives have yet to be able to limit internet access.
The duration of these contradictions is uncertain. But what is clear is that women have been quietly maneuvering Iran toward transformation for decades. The best radical politicians can hope for is to delay the outcome of their efforts.