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

South Korea Divided on Response to North’s Cyber Attack

In past five years, officials in Seoul have accused Pyongyang of hacking into banks, government websites, causing chaos and inflicting millions of dollars in damages More

Video Calm Amid Fear in Daily Life in S. Sudan’s Bentiu

Residents have been trying to regain some sense of normalcy, but planning for the future remains uncertain as fear of attacks looms More

2015 Could Be Watershed for Syria Conflict

Republican control of US Senate in January could lead to more aggressive policy against IS militants in Syria - and against regime of Bashar al-Assad 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.
Jane Monheit Christmas Speciali
X
December 22, 2014 8:15 PM
Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Jane Monheit Christmas Special

Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Trade Talks Could Heat Up in 2015

With boosting trade a top priority for the Obama administration, 2015 may be the year that an agreement is finally reached on the Trans Pacific Partnership. But the trade deal, which is intended to boost trade between 12 Pacific countries, faces opposition as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Ugandan Doctors Aid Victims of Sudan's Civil War

In Sudan's state of South Kordofan, the number of amputees as result of civil war is in the thousands, but few have access to sufficient medical help. Adam Bailes recently visited the area and says a small team of Ugandan doctors has been providing remote help, producing new prosthetic limbs for those in need.
Video

Video Calm Amid Fear in Daily Life in S. Sudan’s Town of Bentiu

Six months ago, Bentiu was a ghost town. The capital of northern Unity State, near South Sudan’s important oil fields, had changed hands several times in fighting between government forces and rebels. Calm returned in November and since then, residents of Bentiu have been trying to regain some sense of normalcy. Bentiu’s market has reopened there are plans to start school again. But fears of new attacks hang heavy, as Benno Muchler reports from Bentiu.
Video

Video US Business Groups Press for Greater Access to Cuba

President Barack Obama's decision to do all he can to ease restrictions on U.S. trade, travel and financial activities with Cuba has drawn criticism from some conservatives and Republicans. People who bring tourists to the island and farmers who want to sell more food to Cuba, however, think they can do a lot more business with Cuba. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school

All About America

AppleAndroid