It's hard to have fun in Iran -- that is, if you're one the more than 45 million people under the age of 35 looking for casual ways to socialize with members of the opposite sex. Conservative authorities in the Islamic Republic are taking steps to shut down Western-style establishments that proved popular gathering places for young Iranians. But social experts say such moves may only end up widening the value gap between conservatives and Iran's young majority.
Prague, 9 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Until recently, Sormeh, a single Iranian woman in her 20s, was a regular patron at Apachi, a Western-style restaurant in Tehran that was one of the few public places where young men and women were able to gather and discreetly socialize.
But last week, Apachi and three other restaurants were shut down by conservative authorities for failing to observe Islamic codes of behavior. Sormeh told Radio Farda it is getting harder and harder to find places to spend a casual evening out in the Iranian capital.
"My friends and I used to go to the Apachi restaurant once or twice a week to have some fun and spend some time together. It had a nice atmosphere; you could forget your troubles for a while and just hang out with your friends. They are closing the billiard clubs, too, and Tehran's coffee shops are also shut. Places where people can get together and have a good time are slowly being dismantled from all the districts in Tehran," Sormeh said.
Iran's Islamic laws put strict limitations on the places and circumstances in which young people can conduct their social lives, and contact between unmarried couples is prohibited. Although the Islamic Republic has seen a gradual liberalization under the tenure of President Mohammad Khatami, the Western-style cafes and fast-food restaurants offering young Iranians a rare opportunity to gather are coming under increasing scrutiny from the country's conservatives. Police are free to interrupt even private gatherings, and can punish partygoers for dancing or drinking alcohol.
In the case of Apachi, Sormeh says the restaurant may have drawn the ire of the regime for failing to enforce strict Islamic dress codes. "I think one of the reasons why it was shut down is that young people didn't follow the kind of 'hejab' [dress code] that is required by the Islamic Republic regime," she said.
Wearing headscarves and long, smocklike coats is compulsory for Iranian women, who according to Islamic law must cover their hair and body whenever they are in public places. But increasingly, young women are fighting back, wearing shorter coats and make-up, and pushing back their headscarves to show their hair.
Social analysts say the regime is fighting a losing battle in trying to control the lives of young Iranians, who make up 70 percent of the population and who have grown disillusioned with the Islamic values of conservatives in the government. Iran's Youth Organization recently warned of a rise in drug use and social rebellion among the country's young people.
Amanollah Gharayi Moghadam, a sociology professor in Tehran, says much of this behavior is spurred by the strict social limitations imposed by conservative authorities. "All the research shows that in every aspect, these kinds of restrictions have made [young Iranians] more pessimistic, rebellious, and arrogant," he said. "It has done a lot of mental and psychological damage to young people, and has the direct effect of causing them to disagree with the actions of us elders."
The gap is quickly widening between the Islamic values promoted by Iran's conservative rulers and the demands of Iran's 35-and-unders. Many young Iranians have no interest in politics or tradition. Instead, they just want more social freedom -- freedom of expression, freedom to meet members of the opposite sex, and freedom to listen to the music of their choice.
Gharayi Moghadam says the young generations are also losing touch with Islam. "Our findings show that our youth have become pessimistic in every aspect. [The authorities] have even pushed young people to become pessimistic about religion, to a certain degree," he said.
Editorials in Iran's reformist newspapers often warn the growing disillusionment of Iran's young people poses a serious potential threat to the country's political stability. Gharayi Moghadam says it is time for authorities to address the concerns of the country's youth rather than enforcing austere restrictions that may have outlived their effectiveness.
"Instead of thinking about the welfare of our youth, instead of turning society into a place where they can feel happy, comfortable, and at ease, we put restrictions on them. This is surprising! You don't see them do such things in any other society, especially a young society like ours," he said.
In the meantime, however, young Iranians may continue to have difficulty forging a social life -- particularly in the capital Tehran, where the newly elected conservative mayor has already shut down several cultural centers and is believed to be behind last week's restaurant closings as well.
(Farin Assemi of Radio Farda contributed to this report.)