Iran is a mythical paradox, a symbol of my familial memories littered with hyperbole. My time there has been short and sporadic, being a half English half Iranian tourist, who had the blessed opportunity to visit this country throughout my youth. My views are a snapshot, a flurry of days out, of travel pursuing pleasure, which only captures a glimpse of life, which are both magnified and rose tinted. Iran is a romanticised memory and a ferocious source of pride, handed down from my mother and my time there.
When I was younger my family travelled through Iran visiting our Iranian family in Tehran, the Caspian Sea and Shiraz. Shiraz is the ancient capital, the city of Hafez and my mother’s birthplace. It is rich in its beauty, a city for lovers filled with gardens, poet’s tombs and amazing food.
Tehran is the modern day capital, surrounded by mountains, a cosmopolitan and bustling city. Both are filled with raucous Bazars where you can buy grains, rice, food, trinkets, carpets, Hubble bubbles (Iranian shisha) and so on. My family are beautiful people, principled people, flawed people, just you know people. Iranians are to me, famous for their congeniality, openness and in some cases partial for a bit of a barney.
If you visit this amazing country you will fall in love with its mosques, landscapes, taxi drivers and music. They say the eyes are the gateway to the soul. You should see the Iranian people’s eyes, their pretty smashing on their own. Now get lost in them and soon enough you will face a cuddle and a fight, full of soul, the way life should be.
But the thing with Iran is, I am ambivalent about parts of its culture, oppressive regime and the State’s antiquated laws on sexuality. I think gender roles there are complicated too. The humble and modest dress is something that is visibly applied to both genders, stoically muting individuality. Although women are victim to exclusion from other practical facets of a free existence; say swimming in the sea (apart from in designated pens), going to a water park or a football match. Increasingly the more modest dress applies to religious types. If you travel through the city late at night to tuck into an Iranian style fried chicken establishment, you will encounter stylishly dressed throngs of boys and girls. The women free to use the excesses of makeup and their headscarf’s very loose and light in their application, often made from exquisite colours and fabrics more comfortable than say a flat peak or a massive bushy hipster beard.
I think the chador is a religious issue one that is tied into an old fashioned regime which penalises men as well as all citizens politically and in other ways tantamount to what the chador has come to symbolise. There are restrictions to both men and women in their political freedom, creation of the arts, drinking, generally and in some cases literally letting your hair down and a pernicious pressure to be celibate before marriage. This unsurprisingly accelerates a marital desire, for those who might not be ready. This regime in my experience is rejected by Iranians especially young Iranians who make up a significant proportion of their population. Iranians are however fiercely patriotic and some of their frustrations with parts of the Islamic regime, must not be confused with or undermine the desire for self-governance and a proud rejection of western interference. Younger Iranians seem to me, to want greater freedom but not at loss of their distinct and great culture. A society and its people is only as free as their ability to self-criticise and satirise. In this State, it comes quietly from the people.
Here is where it gets even more confusing, going back to women in Iranian society. Women are highly educated and respected in that sphere. They are the formidable matriarch in the family. They are celebrated and romanticised, protected and respected by a culture that openly and unashamedly revels in romanticism. When you are there, amongst this, on the receiving end, you cannot help but get swept up in it. Hiding anything that conflicts with this narrow celebration of aesthetics, of love, men’s feminised and intense dancing, and arguably a more comparatively balanced interaction between men and women than in the UK. The interaction I am talking about to me is in the workplace, on a football field, in the bedroom and in conversations, think mansplaining.
The UK is seemingly a bastion of progressive liberal law, equality and democracy. But you don’t quite see its superiority in these respects compared to Iranian people and how they make you feel. The opposite could be said in the UK. The laws are there, they are pretty much spot on but do people and our interactions assure you of these principles? Does it match up?
What you want is a fusion from both sides. All the opportunities, freedom from religious rule, freedom from restrictions to dress and affluence of the West. Alongside the charm, the amazing food, morals and principles, the culture, the people and well, some of the music, from the East. Essentially you want to be able to dress how you want and not to be thrown in jail. But to be powerful, intellectual, ferocious and not be objectified in the west.
Maybe you could argue that everywhere is littered with sexism and has frustrating imbalances and hardship for many, not pertaining to gender, but to race and class and so on. But on this you are forgiving to the quirks of Iran and its complexities, as it charms you, they say, ‘be strong, be educated, be funny, be fierce and we will love you.’
It feels like freedom to me, in the UK is punctured by an insidious demeaning attitude to women, the shallow and unforgiving expectations that are placed upon us. I guess in the end both the mainstream culture and government in both countries are inadequate. With the fondness of nostalgia and the blighting of injustice albeit, extreme or trivial, there are always limitations to your perspective.
Leilah King is a half Iranian, half English spoken word poet living in Bristol, UK. She has performed at various locations and events including Brisfest and Bristol LaDIYfest.