25 Years Later, a Different Type of Revolution
By Robin Wright
TEHRAN -- Victoria's Secret has
arrived in Tehran. So have the Gap, Diesel, Benetton and Black & Decker. A
quarter-century after a mass movement inspired by Islam ended 2,500 years of
monarchy, Iran's revolutionary society is moving on.
Yet, still trapped in transition, the Islamic republic is full of telling and
sometimes bizarre contradictions.
At demonstrations marking the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover last
month, participants handed out cards listing companies to boycott, including
Calvin Klein, because they do business with Israel. But all over Tehran,
billboards that once would have been reserved for revolutionary slogans and
portraits of Iranians killed in the war with Iraq now advertise Calvin Klein.
Victoria's Secret is not a legal franchise. U.S. economic sanctions ban American
businesses from doing business with Iran. So Iranian entrepreneurs buy
brand-name goods abroad and resell them in their own shops -- often with the
brand replacing the shop name on storefront signs. Some shopping sections of
Tehran -- and the teenagers who frequent them -- are beginning to look like what
one would find at shopping malls in suburban America.
The shop with sexy lingerie is a bit more discreet -- marked only by a trademark
pink-and-white-striped Victoria's Secret bag in the window.
"Iran is now doing pretty much the same things as during the shah's era, except
for symbols like women's scarves and 'Death to America' -- and most people don't
mean that anymore, either," said a prominent banker in Iran, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because he does business with the government.
The modest clothing rules for girls and women have relaxed a great deal, too.
Especially among the young, coats called roupoushes are now so short they end
high on the thigh -- with slits going even higher -- and so tight that they
accentuate rather than conceal the most specific attributes of the female
"Every year, they go up a couple of inches," a young woman said with a chuckle
as she picnicked with friends in a park. To complete the ensemble, tight jeans
exposing bare ankles have replaced black stockings and baggy trousers. "Pretty
soon you won't be able to tell the difference between you and us," she told a
The transformation of Iran's most cosmopolitan city is reflected even in its
traffic. In the early years of the revolution, checkpoints manned by morality
squads often popped up at night to ensure that women riding in cars with men
were either blood relatives or spouses.
Now, Tehran is flooded with a new breed of law enforcement: traffic cops and
meter men. They represent an attempt to control the capital's chaotic streets,
where free-for-all rules account for one of the highest accident rates in the
Dressed in snappy white broad-brimmed military hats and dark green uniforms with
gold emblems on their epaulets, the new traffic police look more like a brigade
of generals let loose on Tehran's streets. And sometimes they act like one.
Daringly deployed even in the middle of exit and entry ramps to freeways, they
don't hesitate to order drivers to pull over for not obeying the dictate
displayed on other new billboards, in Farsi and English, throughout the capital:
"Fastening the seat belt is mandatory."
After 9 p.m., the generals retreat, leaving motorists to follow Tehran's widely
accepted rules of the road. To turn left, get in the right lane -- and vice
versa. If you've passed your exit on a busy freeway, just back up. And if you
need to make an illegal U-turn, wait until oncoming traffic is roaring toward
On Thursday night, Africa Boulevard and other main thoroughfares are jammed with
Iran's young trying to meet and impress the opposite sex. The idea is to clog
the streets so cars filled with males in their teens and twenties can chat up or
get the cell phone numbers of girls in cars going the opposite direction.
Sometimes they end up meeting outside Tehran's growing number of pizza parlors.
Taboos on dating in public have largely ceased to matter -- except for parents'
restrictions. In the early days of the revolution, the only couples holding
hands in public were married. Attendants in theaters checked during movies -- in
which women had to be depicted in Islamic dress -- to ensure couples behaved.
And well over half of marriages were arranged by families.
Today, the assumption is that people holding hands are not married, Iranians
say. A growing number of teenagers of both genders insist they will marry only
for love. And no one monitors behavior in theaters, where one of the most
popular twin features this month was "Kill Bill" and "Fahrenheit 9/11."
The government still sends mixed and confusing messages. After a decade of
warnings about "Westoxication," or poisoning by Western cultural values, music
stores can now legally sell CDs that were once available only on the black
market. But a recent concert by a popular local Iranian band, Arian, was
canceled, and public concerts at the Swiss, French, German and Turkish embassies
have been banned or disrupted. After a musical performance by the Turkish
ambassador's wife, co-hosted by the wife of Iran's foreign minister, several
women who attended were hassled or briefly detained after they left, foreign
envoys here say.
Yet Tehran is filled with signs -- from the canned pork on sale at a supermarket
to the "Jingle Bells" ringtone on the cell phone of a staffer at Reselaat, one
of Iran's conservative newspapers -- that the rigidity of the early era is