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

Lion Cecil's Killing Sparks 'Canned Hunting' Debate in S. Africa

Conservationists believe incident, which triggered worldwide outrage, will reshape debate about practice in which hunters are allowed to target animals bred for hunting More

Taliban's New Leader Says Jihad Will Continue

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Environmentalists Issue Warning on Mekong Biodiversity

Scientists say decades of economic development, hydropower-dam construction, lax law enforcement and trafficking have taken their toll 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.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs