News / Middle East

Four Days in Iran in August: Heat, Hijab and Hope

FILE - Women stand in line to vote during the Iranian presidential election at a mosque in Qom, 120 km (74.6 miles) south of Tehran, June 14, 2013.
FILE - Women stand in line to vote during the Iranian presidential election at a mosque in Qom, 120 km (74.6 miles) south of Tehran, June 14, 2013.
What is it about Iran and Western women journalists?
 
Foreign reporters who got visas to cover last week’s inauguration of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, were overwhelmingly female and included me as well as correspondents for NBC and CBS. Historically, women such as Christine Amanpour, Robin Wright and Elaine Sciolino have also reported extensively from Iran. Why did we choose Iran and why does Iran choose us?
 
For an American reporter of any gender, Iran is a terrific story because of its byzantine politics, regional importance, deep culture and 34-year-old estrangement from the United States. While the U.S. has been stingy in granting Iranian reporters permission to cover our country, Iran has always allowed some American journalists to come to Iran, in part to maintain communication with the United States in the absence of diplomatic ties.
 
Male chauvinism undoubtedly plays a part in the preference for women over visiting male reporters (with the exception of a handful such as Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor and, more recently, Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio. Thomas Erdbrink, a Dutch citizen, is based in Tehran for the New York Times, and Jason Rezian, an Iranian-American, works in Iran for The Washington Post.)  
 
Male officials may assume that women will not ask tough questions, even though that assumption has repeatedly been proven wrong by Iranian as well as foreign journalists. On the other hand, Iranian officials recognize that a handful of American women are truly committed to the story. Plus giving them visas means that officials get to see them struggle to comply with the requirements of Islamic dress.
 
Last week’s visit was particularly trying in that regard. With temperatures soaring above 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 C), Iran’s law that all women – foreign as well as local -- have to cover their hair and most of their bodies was pure torture. Iranian women security guards – who endure summers wearing full black veils known as chadors – kept a group of about a dozen foreign women journalists in a sweltering anteroom for half an hour before allowing entrance to parliament where Rouhani was about to take the oath of office on August 4. Sweat poured down our faces as the guards dallied about matching names with those on a printed roster. Since purses had to be checked, no one could re-apply makeup. Even NBC correspondent Ann Curry’s lipstick was deemed too dangerous to take inside the parliament chamber!
 
Dress requirements eased, slightly

That said, Islamic dress requirements were the most lax I have experienced in nine trips to Iran since 1996. Instead of the once predominant colors -- dark grey, dark brown, navy blue and of course, basic black – Islamic cover or hijab now comes in a profusion of bright shades and provocative styles. In addition, the dreaded morals police, who used to harass women whose scarves were too far down on the back of their heads or who showed too much ankle, have been off the streets since Rouhani’s June 14 election. 
 
Barbara Slavin, wearing the required headscarf, and Thomas Erebrink of the New York Times, await Hassan Roouhani's swearing-in in Iranian parliament August 4.Barbara Slavin, wearing the required headscarf, and Thomas Erebrink of the New York Times, await Hassan Roouhani's swearing-in in Iranian parliament August 4.
x
Barbara Slavin, wearing the required headscarf, and Thomas Erebrink of the New York Times, await Hassan Roouhani's swearing-in in Iranian parliament August 4.
Barbara Slavin, wearing the required headscarf, and Thomas Erebrink of the New York Times, await Hassan Roouhani's swearing-in in Iranian parliament August 4.
The relaxation of the dress code contributed to a somewhat lighter atmosphere in Tehran. Indeed, the security presence that was so oppressive a year ago – when I attended a summit of the Non-aligned Movement in Tehran – was less obvious on both the streets and in the Evin hotel (the same name as Iran’s notorious political prison) where foreign reporters were obliged to stay. Happily, we checked in and all of us were able to check out!
 
Average Iranians also were more willing to talk to a foreign reporter and less hesitant about expressing admiration for the United States. While several blamed the U.S. for sanctions -- which have halved Iranian oil revenues and reduced the value of the currency by two-thirds, driving up inflation -- others were nearly as friendly and welcoming as Iranians used to be toward Americans before the disputed presidential elections of 2009 and the Iranian government crackdown on the so-called Green Movement. One vegetable seller in the poor south Tehran neighborhood of Javadieh, Araz Habibzadeh Ardebil, was particularly effusive, insisting that he be quoted by name and saying “Send my regards to Americans” and “I love Americans.”
 
Reformists re-emerge

Some Iranian academics and columnists affiliated with prior reformist presidents and movements also re-emerged like bears waking up from four, and in some cases, eight years of hibernation. Members of the pre-2005 political elite, they appeared to be relishing their return to the public sphere and said they were hopeful that Rouhani and a largely technocratic new cabinet he has appointed can ease Iran’s international isolation and economic downturn. 
 
At the same time, few ordinary Iranians encountered during brief stops in north, central, south and east Tehran spoke enthusiastically about their new president. Many Tehranis said they had not bothered to vote. Those who did vote for Rouhani said they chose him only because he was the least bad of the six available candidates. As one young saleswoman in the central Tehran neighborhood of Haft-e Tir put it: “The last one [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] didn’t do anything for us and this one won’t either.”
 
This prevailing cynicism reflects the fact that ultimate power in the Islamic Republic of Iran lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and that Rouhani’s leash will be only as long as Khamenei allows. The man and woman-on-the-street comments also demonstrate the lack of popular support for the system as a whole and a sense of frustration that there is little ordinary Iranians can do to change it.
 
Rouhani, a veteran regime insider partly educated in Scotland, appears to understand the depth of the challenges he faces and how difficult it will be to overcome both domestic and foreign skepticism about his ability to alleviate the multiple crises facing Iran.  He has promised repeatedly since his election to be honest with the Iranian people and stressed that to succeed, he needs the support of all factions and groups – including those who boycotted the elections. For now, Khamenei is urging the political elite to cooperate with Rouhani . The new president must retain the Supreme Leader’s backing while simultaneously reaching out to the international community -- no easy feat.
 
U.S.-Iran side-stepped

During his first press conference as president on August 6, Rouhani side-stepped questions about whether he would authorize direct talks  with the United States, promising only to respond “appropriately and constructively” to “meaningful, rational measures” by the Barack Obama administration. It was a mirror image of the White House’s own cautious outreach to Rouhani. Each side keeps saying that the ball is in the other’s court.
 
Still, it felt good to see the back of Ahmadinejad with his insatiable need for attention. Iranian reporters at the press conference seemed liberated by the change and drilled into Rouhani with pointed questions about the economy and human rights. An Iranian academic said he felt a huge burden off his shoulders with Ahmadinejad gone.  At the same time, he gave grudging credit to Iran’s much maligned former president for reducing the influence of the clergy over Iranian society, and trying – however ham-handedly – to promote the interests of ordinary people.
 
Overall, this trip to Iran confirmed that Iranian society is evolving beyond the ability of any one politician to control. One has only to experience Tehran’s manic traffic to know that Iranians do not like to be told what to do by anyone.

(To see more of Barbara Slavin's columns, click on the link below.)

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Kurdish President: More Needed to Defeat Islamic State

In interview with VOA's Persian Service, Massoud Barzani says peshmerga forces have not received weapons, logistical support needed to successfully fight IS in northern Iraq More

Sierra Leone's Stray Dog Population Doubles During Ebola Crisis

Many dog owners fear their pets could infect them with the virus and have abandoned them, leading to the increase and sparking fears of rabies More

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

New methods for mapping pain in the brain not only validate sufferers of chronic pain but might someday also lead to better treatment More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Souroosh from: Iran
August 16, 2013 6:00 AM
Hi. I hope that you are doing fine and well.
To express my idea, Iran my country once was a great country with cultural and civilized figures. Now, every thing is converse. The only thing we see, hypocrisy, duplicity. people who are so fatigued from the cruel leaders and government. Women's condition is deteriorating every moment. No freedom of speech, clothing, religion. Here, human rights means only Lie.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
X
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs