As Taboos Break Down, Iranians Party On

Erdbrink, NY Times, June 2, 2018

To get to
the Emarat wedding hall, you have to drive outside Tehran and into the
countryside, down a series of rural roads until you reach an entrance marked
only by a number. There, a security guard checks your name off a list and
directs you to a parking lot screened from the road that seems to have enough
space for hundreds of cars.
wedding of Melina Hashemi, like many social events at halls that have sprung up
along dark side roads in the plains south of Tehran, illustrate how the strict
rules in Iran are fading.CreditArash Khamooshi for The New York Times
—Leaving the car, you walk through a series of arched walkways, covered in
vines, leading to a lush garden that ends at a large wooden door. It is the
entrance, at last, to the main hall that, on this day, is crowded with tables
decorated with flowers and basking in the light of dozens of chandeliers.
party, celebrating the wedding of Amir Hashemi and his bride, Melina Hashemi,
is already well underway. Men in tuxedos and women in revealing dresses with
costume jewelry in their immaculately coifed hair have hit the dance floor for
a favorite tune, the pop classic “The Pretty Ones Have to Dance,” by the exiled
Iranian singer Andy. Couples at the tables enjoy small talk as some sip from
small plastic water bottles.
In short,
besides the remote location, nothing out of the ordinary for an upscale Western
wedding reception. But in this case, the celebrants are violating no fewer than
six of the fundamental laws governing personal behavior in the Islamic
Republic: mixing of the sexes; women baring flesh and failing to wear head
scarves; dancing; playing pop music; and, last but not least, consuming alcohol
(in the vodka-laced drinks in the water bottles).
another era, all these violations would be punishable with a lashing or jail
sentences. Some, like failing to wear the head scarf and drinking alcohol,
still are.
traditional weddings, men and women celebrate in separate rooms and applaud
from their seats. When they meet afterward outside the venue, they are not
supposed to shake hands, as any physical contact is forbidden. But the
Hashemis’ wedding and many other equally relaxed social events illustrate how
the old rules are giving way to the inevitability of change.
wouldn’t even consider throwing a traditional party,” said Mr. Hashemi, 36, who
sells office equipment.
Hashemi and his bride, Melina, doing a wedding dance tango through a cloud of
smoke from a fog machine. “We wouldn’t even consider throwing a traditional
party,” said Mr. Hashemi, 36.CreditArash Khamooshi for The New York Times

“We want
to party with everybody,” said Ms. Hashemi, 29.

Up until
about a decade ago, the risk of getting caught by the security forces and the
morality police trying to uphold the law would have been high. But today, in
Tehran at least, young couples can choose on Instagram between dozens of
wedding halls that have sprung up along dark side roads in the plains south of
Tehran — some of them enormous venues with security, catering, D.J.’s, bands
and fireworks. Those places, like Emarat, are long-term investments that cost
millions of dollars to build.
events remain illegal, and at times the police still show up, sometimes to
collect kickbacks, but mixed weddings have become a large industry here, and
the venues host marriages almost every night.
“There is
just so much demand for modern weddings that the state has decided to tolerate
it most of the time,” said Asal Rastakhiz, 36, a prominent wedding
millions joined the clerical-led revolution that ousted the Western-backed Shah
Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979, strict Islamic laws had widespread public
support as a preparation for the afterlife. But not too many years later, the
consensus began breaking down, and Iran’s clerical government and the
increasingly modern society it leads have been engaged in a tug of war ever
monopolizing Iran’s politics, the educational system, the courts, the security
forces and most news media outlets, Iran’s conservative leaders have long been
in retreat. While the laws are rarely changed, the flagging public support
makes enforcement of the rules increasingly complex, with many former taboos
now tolerated by society.
ruling theocracy is stuck in its own proclaimed ideology, which is not clear
and predictable,” said Shahla Lahiji, a publisher and civil rights activist.
“It cannot even accept an iota of change in law and can only tolerate change if
is forced to do so by the people.”
pendulum can swing widely in Iran, with periods of relative liberality
alternating with crackdowns. During the eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s
presidency, for example, the police presence was far heavier. But that ended in
2013, and even then, people kept pushing for more personal freedoms. Most
Iranians say the changes underway are so widespread and so widely accepted that
it would take a cataclysm for them to be reversed.
shoppers at a jewelry stand at MZone Boutique in Tehran, which brought a
blossoming group of underground fashion designers into the open.CreditArash
Khamooshi for The New York Times

social change is not reversible in Iran, because the traditions have changed;
the way people interact and related to each other has changed,” said Nader
Karimi Joni, a journalist. “No law or crackdown can reverse this.”

At times,
of course, the society’s frustration with the government has erupted in open
rebellion, as when Tehranians took to the streets in protest in 2009 after what
they believed was the fraudulent re-election of Mr. Ahmadinejad to a second
The rise
of Instagram, which spread images of Tehran’s modern lifestyles, has led to
similar demands by residents in smaller towns. During nationwide protests in December and January in more
than 80 provincial towns, most demands were economic, but some in the weeklong
protests said they wanted more freedoms.
But these
outbursts provoked official crackdowns, and did not translate into increased
freedom. That has been accomplished in subtler ways.
It is not
just in wedding halls that the rules are being stretched. When Asal Khalilpour,
35, started her first fashion event six years ago, she took a big risk. In
those days, when the police occasionally raided shops selling “improper”
clothes, a show like “The Ladies Weekend,” which brought a blossoming group of underground
fashion designers into the open, stood out.
“At the
time, there simply wasn’t any fashion event,” said Ms. Khalilpour, who is from
a family of entrepreneurs. “Fashion was officially frowned upon, but people
were longing for it, aspiring to be different.”
Dress has long been a battleground between Iranians and their
government. In addition to the compulsory veil, women have to wear a closed overcoat that
falls over the knees. Men are not allowed to wear shorts, and for decades only
doctors were allowed to have ties, long deemed symbols of the West.
in Iran used to be secluded spaces. But a Sam Café in Tehran has
floor-to-ceiling windows opening the place to the street. People could sit
along shared tables and converse with strangers.CreditArash Khamooshi for The
New York Times

Iranians have always found creative ways to bend and even flout the rules, with
fashion crazes like Western-style mullets and skintight coats for women.
Currently, open coats are all the rage for women. While the morality police
continue to roam the streets and at times arbitrarily arrest women they deem to be improperly veiled, the state has given up
enforcing much of anything but the rules on head scarves and shorts.

At one of
Ms. Khalilpour’s recent events, sponsored by BMW, young women went through
racks filled with products from local fashion designers. “Not only are we not
bothered, they now praise us for producing locally,” she said.
At one of
Tehran’s three Sam Café outlets recently, Dua LIPA blasted from the speakers,
where until three years ago only instrumental music was allowed. Young people
sat in front of MacBooks with white earphones sipping lattes as if the capital
of the Islamic republic was just another city in the wider world.
years, coffee shops in Iran were secluded spaces where young lovers would meet
secretly. Often the police would cast an eye about the place to catch any
violators of moral norms, meaning no kissing or holding hands.
But the
owner, Mohsen Majidikhah, wanted a more welcoming environment. So this Sam Café
has floor-to-ceiling windows opening the place to the street. People could sit
along shared tables and converse with strangers. Mr. Majidikhah, who said he
believed in the power of community, also acknowledged that his cafe had twice
been shut down by the security police.
decade-long game of push and pull between society and the state is growing
tiresome for many people. Sure, they are pleased with the freedoms they had
wrestled from the state, said Hojat Kalashi, a sociologist, but what do those
mean when you can still be arrested at a mixed wedding party?
“We are
changing nonstop, but the ruling establishment has no theory or vision how to
run the country,” he said. “They have no plan how to deal with needs and
instincts of people.” Ultimately, this will lead to collapse or explosion, he
concluded. “What is clear is that this conflict between gradual changing
society and rigid laws cannot go on forever.”
Some take
that point further, regretting having missed a chance to codify the changes in
should’ve pushed harder for new laws, and we should’ve urged people to take to
the streets,” said Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a reformist politician and sociology
professor. “We have simply failed to get this all in writing.”