Iranian Fashionistas Push Back Against Strict Dress Code
"I just got a new haircut and had my eyebrows shaped," Ali M. says over the phone from Tehran, jokingly but with a hint of pride in his voice.
In recent months, Iranian authorities have cracked down hard on Iranians who violate the dress code, which requires women to wear the head scarf and prohibits men from wearing short-sleeve shirts or ties. But that hasn't stopped legions of women and men from dressing as stylishly as they can. In fact, the more the authorities try to enforce the code, the more it seems Iranians want to push the boundaries of personal fashion -- even at the risk of fines and imprisonment.
Click here for a photo gallery of Iran's Islamic fashions -- and the improper styles that have landed some Iranians in jail.
Police often detain people with “improper clothing and haircuts,” but Ali M. says he couldn't care less. And he says there are millions like him, picking up on international fashion trends from satellite television channels, glossy magazines, and foreign travel.
Ali says he and his fellow Iranian "fashionistas," many of whom dress modestly in public but turn on the style at private gatherings, want to wear the latest designer labels and hairstyles. “I usually watch Fashion TV, World Fashion and other satellite channels,” he tells RFE/RL. “My favorite brand is Dolce and Gabbana (D&G). When I buy clothes, I try to follow the D&G style. Sometimes I buy this brand. Actually, yesterday I bought a pair of shoes from D&G’s limited edition. They are silver-colored with red lines on the seams.”
Ali M. works as the Tehran representative of a well-known European company that sells skincare products and perfumes. He says he can afford to purchase goods in numerous chic boutiques and get his hair done at salons where prices start from $100 per haircut.
Their Hearts' Desires
Tehran is full of trendy boutiques and shops offering Western-style clothes, including skimpy tops and figure-hugging trousers -- even though such items are forbidden. Ali M. says many well-known firms, such as Christian Dior or Armani, have branches in Iran where they sell their comestics. However, they don’t directly sell clothes, which instead are often specially ordered through private shops.
Apparently, nothing can discourage Iranians from trying to dress fashionably -- not the restrictive laws, not the morality police, not even exorbitant prices for designer labels.
According to Ali M., those "who cannot afford to pay $600 for a pair of designer shoes, can easily find an exact replica of the designer label for $60. The same goes for dresses, tops, and coats."
In interviews, some Iranian women say they lead double lives when it comes to clothes and fashion. One Tehran woman told RFE/RL: "We get dressed modestly for work, but privately we follow our hearts' desires -- opting, for instance, for sleeveless tops, plunging necklines, and short trousers."
Iraj Jamsheedi, an Iranian independent journalist, says many Iranians, especially urbanites, are increasingly frustrated with authorities meddling in their private lives. "Many people ignore the rules as much as they can, simply to protest this and other social restrictions," Jamsheedi says.
"Official decrees have failed to change people's dress sense. In many instances, the dress restrictions have had the opposite effect -- people's clothes have become more [liberal] than before. It is a sign that people are resisting these decrees."
Neelofar, a 23-year-old Tehran resident, says she was detained by the morality police in a shopping center last summer. She was wearing "an overly short pair of trousers and showing too much hair under a loosely tied colorful head scarf."
Speaking to RFE/RL, Neelofar says she was taken to a police station along with a couple of other dress-code offenders. The police officers called Neelofar's parents who brought a "proper overcoat" for their daughter and gave a written pledge that Neelofar would never violate the law again.
Neelofar, however, had different ideas. "I didn't obey [the dress code] too much after the incident," she says. "But I wasn't detained anymore, maybe because I don't walk in the streets too much -- I usually travel by car or bus. Usually, [detention] happens to people who walk in the streets."
Jamsheedi regards the drive to enforce the dress code as part of a larger effort to control society. "The situation in Iran is not simple," the Tehran-based journalist says. "A social uprising could break out any minute. The authorities want to prevent any such upheaval by tightening their grip on people's lives."
Nuisha Boghrati and Farin Assemi from Radio Farda contributed to this report
Iran: Shiraz University Students Arrested After Week Of ProtestsAt least 12 students from Shiraz University have been arrested and summoned to a revolutionary court over their participation in more than a week of demonstrations.
Protest organizers announced late on March 5 that they will temporarily halt the demonstrations until an official from the Education Ministry comes to negotiate with the students. Student leaders say they will restart their demonstration on March 9 if ministry officials decline to meet with them.
Students have spent the past nine days demanding the university president's resignation, greater freedom for student activities, and better living conditions in dormitories.
Eyewitnesses told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the number of protesters has steadily increased since the demonstrations began on February 26, and that some 2,000 students were gathering each day and chanting slogans such as "The university is not a military garrison" and "Long live freedom!"
Students are demanding the resignation of university President Mohammad Hadi Sadeghi, saying that he has turned control of the university over to security forces who harass students. They also accuse university officials of dismissing some professors who have reformist leanings or have been critical of the government.
Although classes are officially continuing at the university, many students are boycotting their lectures.
A Shiraz University student who did not want to give his name for security reasons told Radio Farda that the "demonstrations have largely been peaceful, although there were some clashes between students and the university's special security service officers." He said security guards had beaten a female student.
The student added that demonstrators maintain that their demands are nonpolitical, but that "the university administration wants to connect it to politics."
"At the moment there are police vehicles around the university as well as a few vehicles that belong to security forces," the student said. "They want to attach these protests to politics and say things like 'the protesters have received dollars from America.' They want to deceive society, but fortunately, they are not successful and the number of protesters is increasing every day."
Threats And Pressure
Demonstrators say that members of the university's special security services "have summoned and threatened at least 10 students who have taken part in the protests." Some 25 parents have reportedly been "contacted and pressured by security services over their children's participation in the rallies."
Most Iranian universities have special security services that monitor and control the way students dress as well as their social and political activities.
A demonstration took place at Shiraz University in April 2007 when students protested against a mandatory dress code for male students ordered by university authorities. At those protests, students also asked university officials to improve conditions at the university and in its dormitories. But 10 months later, students say the situation has worsened.
Many professors and other employees at the university have reportedly issued a statement voicing their support for the demonstrations.
Similar statements have been issued by student organizations at other universities in Shiraz, which has a population of 1.2 million people and is the capital of Fars Province.
Mohammad Mehdi Ahmadi, a member of the Islamic Association of Students at Shiraz University, told Radio Farda that students are displeased with the increasing restrictions in their cultural and social environments.
"A kind of atmosphere of protest has been created at universities. The smallest issue could become the spark that leads to bigger protests," Ahmadi said.
Radio Farda reports that students have also staged protests in other Iranian cities, such as Karaj and Shahrud.
RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Farin Assemi contributed to this report
Sunnis Say Iran Working To Solidify Economic Control
His country has entrenched itself in the Iraqi economy, so much so that observers say Iraq is becoming economically, if not politically, subordinate to Iran. This point has not been lost on the Sunni Arab press in Iraq, nor by pan-Arab dailies, which surmised that Tehran has shrewdly filled a vacuum long ignored by Arab leaders.
Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq has been widely described as "historic," primarily because he is the first Iranian leader to visit Iraq in 29 years. But he is also the first senior regional leader to visit Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime. Sunni observers claimed that the fact that he dared stay overnight in the Iraqi capital was proof enough that Iran's military has control over Baghdad. But it is growing economic integration that has Sunni Arabs -- both in Iraq and across the region -- most worried.
Iraq is Iran's largest export market. Iraq imported an estimated $1.3 billion in goods from Iran in 2006, according to U.S. figures. Estimates for non-oil trade since 2006 have ranged as high as $2 billion, some 97 percent of which is one way from Iran to Iraq. Iran expects trade to soar to $10 billion over the next five years.
In June, Iran opened a branch of Bank Melli in Baghdad -- the same bank that the U.S. Treasury identified last year as a financial conduit to facilitating the purchases of sensitive materials for Iran's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The bank also provides banking services to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its Qods Force, which the United States says is providing financial and material support to militias in Iraq.
"From 2002 to 2006, Bank Melli was used to send at least $100 million to the Qods Force," the U.S. Treasury warned in October 2007. "When handling financial transactions on behalf of the IRGC, Bank Melli has employed deceptive banking practices to obscure its involvement from the international banking system."
Two agreements on electricity supply were also solidified during Ahmadinejad's visit: one is a 400-megawatt electricity line running from the Iranian port city of Abadan to the Iraqi town of Alharasa, which should become operational this year; the second is on a transmission line that will run from the Iranian Kurdish city of Marivan to Panjwin in Iraqi Kurdistan. Tehran already signed a $150 million contract last year to build a 300-megawatt power plant in Baghdad, and it supplies power to Khanaqin, in Iraq's Diyala Governorate.
Ahmadinejad was expected to attend groundbreaking ceremonies for two more power plants in Al-Najaf and Al-Amarah during his visit but cancelled, allegedly because of time constraints. Iran's Deputy Energy Minister Mohammad Ahmadian said on February 29 that Iran intends to link its power networks to Iraq through nine border points, IRNA reported. The deals will benefit Iran's longtime allies in Iraq, the Shi'a and the Kurds.
Other agreements include cooperation in education, customs affairs, insurance, and transportation; the establishment of industrial towns; supervision of imports; and the implementation of joint industrial projects. In addition, Iran offered Baghdad a $1 billion soft loan, though Iraq reportedly had a budget surplus of between $21 billion and $28 billion last year.
Good For Iraq?
Iraq's locally produced products, including agricultural products, are already struggling to compete in marketplaces flooded with Iranian goods, the "Ilaf" website reported on March 2. Farmers say that Iranian goods are sold at far below Iraqi market prices, which places a strain on local producers.
In addition to official trade, smuggling generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The head of Iraq's Supreme Audit Board said in October that at least 15,000 barrels of crude oil are smuggled everyday from Iraq's southern fields to Iran and the Persian Gulf states. In reality, the figure could be significantly higher. In January 2007, U.S.-based petroleum expert Jerry Kiser told the BBC that up to 300,000 barrels per day are smuggled from Al-Basrah to Iran through smuggling routes established by Saddam Hussein when Iraq was under sanctions in the 1990s.
The smuggling of alcohol between Iraq and Iran along the northern borders is estimated to be worth $2.5 million a day. Food, illicit drugs, livestock, cars, and other commodities also fuel the black market.
Sunni Press Criticizes Visit
Sunni Arabs have attacked the latest agreements forged between the two countries. Al-Sharqiyah television, which represents the Sunni Arab perspective, claimed on March 3 that Ahmadinejad "asked Iraqi officials to merge the Iraqi economy with the Iranian economy and ensure that they complement each other, particularly in the financial and industrial areas, with a view to breaking the sanctions imposed on Iran in the fields of banking and money transfers."
Ghassan al-Atiyah, who heads the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, told Al-Sharqiyah on March 2 that Ahmadinejad's visit "will give the impression that Iraq is to be politically and economically subordinate to Iran, which will raise much Iraqi concern, particularly since there is a well-established Iraqi political inclination toward independence." Asked about the $1 billion Iranian loan, he said: "The Iranian aid to Iraq is in reality a shop window for Iranian economic activities in Iraq, and consequently if we follow this line we will find that it is merely economic subordination to Iran.... Rather than unifying the Iraqis, this visit will split them more and arouse feelings of mistrust and fear" among Sunni Arabs.
Summarizing the Shi'ite perspective on relations with Iran, Shi'ite legislator Hamid al-Mu'allah told Al-Jazeera television on March 2: "Iran came [to Iraq] while [other states] were absent. We [Shi'a] regret the strange paradox that the absentee is calling to account the one who is present. The other [Arab states] should also come and find themselves a place in Iraq."
Indeed, that point was not lost on the pages of the pan-Arab press this week. A March 3 commentary published in "Al-Dustur" noted: "This visit indicates the growing status and influence of Iran as a regional power.... Ahmadinejad is in Baghdad, while all Arab leaders have not been in Iraq for the last two decades."
A March 4 commentary in the same daily written by Husayn al-Rawashdah adopted a similar line. Rawashdah said it would have been "acceptable to understand the protests staged in our Arab world against Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq if there was a united Arab stance towards Iraq, its occupation, and the U.S. threats to Iran, and if the Arab world had already settled its crises in Lebanon and Palestine in particular."
A commentary by Wahid Abd al-Majid in Cairo's "Al-Wafd" noted: "It seems that it was only the Turks [referring to Turkey's cross-border incursion last week] who were compelled to cross the border on a specific and brief mission were the ones who violated Iraq's sovereignty. As for the Iranians who infiltrated Iraq and influenced its people, they are not guests and not even partners.... Rather they are the owners of the country." In a scathing criticism of Iraq's Shi'ite-led administration, Abd al-Majid continued, "As far as the Iraqi rulers, or to be fair, most of them, are concerned, everything these Iranians do tastes better than honey."
A March 2 commentary in "Ilaf," a Saudi-funded website, claimed: "Now that Iranian agencies have infiltrated the Iraqi state agencies and religious parties whose vile political practices have been exposed up and down the country, Iran's aim is to subjugate the Iraqis and impose a de facto situation on them. That is the odious psychological aim that will fulfill the Tehran rulers' cheap desire for revenge" for the suffering imposed by Saddam Hussein on Iran.
Meanwhile, the Iranian press described the visit as a success. Golam Reza Karami, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on March 3 that Ahmadinejad's visit confirmed Iran's strength in the region. "Although there are no Iranian troops in Iraq, the results of Tehran's spiritual power in Iraq are fully visible," ISNA quoted Karami as saying.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, who accompanied Ahmadinejad to Baghdad said Iran is able to resolve a number of concerns existing in the region, so those countries making wrong interpretations against Iran must reform their policies and interpretations, ISNA reported on March 3.
While it is natural to assume that Iraq would establish economic ties to neighboring states in the post-Hussein era, the establishment of such ties with Iran could have substantial negative effects on the security situation, particularly with regards to the Sunni Arab community.
While the Iraqi government has seen few overtures by neighboring Arab states in recent years, strengthened relations with Iran is an affront to the sacrifices Sunni Arabs say they have made in recent months in the fight against Al-Qaeda. The Iraqi government is alienating Sunni Arabs at a time when it should be building on recent strides.
The failure of Iraqi leaders to address Iranian support for Shi'ite militias before the government concluded an array of investment and integration projects severely damages the government's credibility among the Sunni Arab population, and by extension, its Sunni Arab neighbors.
Trade Flow Increases, But Mostly From Tehran To Baghdad
Iraq is Iran's second-largest, nonoil export market. Iraqis bought some $1.3 billion worth of goods from Iran during 2006. And estimates for nonoil trade during 2007 are as high as $2 billion -- but almost entirely one way -- from Iran to Iraq, according to a report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service issued in January.
Iraq imports a wide variety of goods from Iran, including air conditioners, construction material, office furniture, carpets, clothes, medicine, fish, spices, and fruit.
Hundreds of Iraqi trucks pass through border checkpoints every day. However, fuel trucks are the only Iranian vehicles that are allowed to enter Iraq. Iranian trucks that carry food or other products usually go to border "transloading" points where they are unloaded and their cargoes are transferred to empty Iraqi trucks.
A seller in the Iraqi city of Al-Kut, near the Iranian border, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) that he regularly stocks Iranian produce that has passed through the transloading points.
"The imported goods from Iran stand out because of their low prices and good quality, which is the reason for their popularity," he says. "When you compare them with local [Iraqi] goods, you find that the local products are expensive and of lower quality compared to those being imported. Even vegetables are being imported from Iran -- as well as poultry, meat, canned foods, carbonated drinks, and dairy products. And they are all lower in price and better in quality."
Many Iraqi shoppers say they prefer Iranian food as a cheap alternative to products imported from other Persian Gulf countries. They say Iranian produce also is more competitive in terms of quality and durability than produce from China.
Majid Abd al-Husayn, from the predominantly Shi'ite city of Karbala in southern Iraq, says Iran has "excellent products that taste good and we buy them. For example, raw cream is good and we buy it. Regarding other dairy products, I find that the Iranian products are tastier than their Saudi equivalents."
Ties between the Shi'ite Iranian traders and sellers in Karbala have been on the rise since the ouster of Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime and the reemergence of Karbala as a pilgrimage destination for Shi'ite Muslims. Iranian merchants also have been trying to increase their presence in Karbala by organizing trade fairs in the city.
However, not everyone is happy about the growing amount of imports from Iran. "We have observed that the goods reaching Iraq are not of the quality level we desire for Iranian goods coming to Iraq. This is because the quality of the Iranian goods reaching Iraq is not the same as what we have seen of Iranian production," says Shakir Abd Odeh Shhayib, the head of the Karbala Chamber of Commerce.
"While it is true that the Iraqi and Iranian merchants may be responsible for this, some Iranian merchants are seeking to increase their profits by exporting cheap goods to Iraq," he says. "And some Iraqi merchants are driven by their desire for a quick profit to bring in below-standard goods."
Nowruz al-Khaffaf, head of the Kurdistan Contractors' Association in northern Iraq, agrees. He tells RFI that Iraq's dependence on imported goods has forced local producers and sellers in northern Iraq to suspend their work. Al-Khaffaf wants Iraqi authorities to protect local producers by limiting imports from Iran.
"In my personal opinion, the Kurdistan regional government should do nothing. It should not import. We don't want any water or anything else [from Iran]. Let them only provide electricity. The entire regional budget should be allocated to [providing] electricity," al-Khaffaf says.
"Is it reasonable for [Iraq], with its fertile lands, to import cucumbers and tomatoes from Iran and Turkey?" he asks. "We even import dates from there. We have date [groves] stretching from Ba'qubah all the way to Al-Basrah. If you go now to any shop selling fruit, you will find canned date products from Turkey and Iran. Is this reasonable?"
Religious Tourism On The Rise
During Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's historic visit to Iraq this week, Ahmadinejad and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani signed seven agreements on issues including industrial development, trade, and customs.
Improved relations between the two countries are not limited to trade only. Tourism also has been on the rise in recent years.
Since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003, Iranian pilgrims have been able to visit holy Shi'ite shrines in Karbala, Al-Najaf, and other sites in neighboring Iraq.
Despite a lack of security, Iranian pilgrims make their way to Iraq in large numbers, with 1,500 to 2,000 entering each day.
About 500,000 Iranian Shi'ite pilgrims visit Iraq every year, and hundreds of Iranian religious scholars head to Karbala and Al-Najaf to study every year. Iranian authorities say they hope the annual number of Iranians visiting Iraq eventually will increase to 3 million.
"The number of visitors differs in line with the occasions, but the average is between 100 to 150 per week," says Nasir al-Juburi, who owns a hotel in Karbala. "We receive Iranian visitors as well as those of other nationalities who come to Karbala to commemorate the memory of [Imam] al-Husayn and for other [occasions]. The ages of visitors varies. But a large portion of them are elderly -- between 70 and 80 years old."
Some Iraqis see the large number of Iranian visitors to their country as a key reason for the revival of the tourism industry that is now under way. Others, however, complain about rising prices and other inconveniences that they blame on the influx of foreigners.
Iraqis, for their part, visit Iran for similar reasons, with about 1 million Iraqis heading to holy sites in Iran each year. Tahsin Ali, the owner of a travel company in Al-Kut, says Iraqis also go to Iran for recreation and medical treatment.
"Tourism between Iraq and Iran has undergone major development since the fall of the [Hussein] regime," Ali says. "Most [Iraqi] travelers to Iran are in one of three categories: first, for a religious visit; second, for recreation; and third, for medical treatment -- because Iran has capable doctors, modern equipment, and lower prices for medical care than nearby Arab countries like the [United Arab] Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt."
Contributors to this report include Radio Free Iraq correspondents Ahmad al-Zubaidi, Shamal Ramadhan, Mustafa Abd al-Wahid, Saif Abd al-Rahman, and Ayad al-Gailani.