Sunday, October 09, 2005

Book Review: Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni

Azadeh Moaveni grew up in San Jose, California, the daughter of Iranian emigres (her mother never did like the word "immigrant"). As with most children of emigres, she feels she straddles two cultural worlds, the exotic Iran, home to some of the world's greatest poets, dense, fragrant orchards and finest carpets, and the United States, the land of her classmates and her adopted land. As a young girl she had wonderful memories of a summer spent visiting relatives in Tehran, and in university she developed a strong interest in her Iranian heritage. She became a reporter for Time magazine, and, after a stint in Cairo, she was assigned to work in Tehran.

This personal memoir describes her life in Tehran between the years 2000 and 2002. When she arrived in Tehran in 2000, she realized that Iran was in the throes of a huge change. The generation, or the under 30's, that grew up after the Islamic revolution and which made up nearly 2/3rds of the current population of Iran, seemed no longer willing to be slaves to Islamic ideology. Most of that change was internal and had occurred in their thinking, value or belief systems. There wasn't much about their outward appearance that could tell one that there was a monumental change going on. There was one exception, however, and that was in the way the women dressed---she found that they now wore veils of dazzling colors leaving their hair slightly exposed which was a huge no-no in the years immediately after the Islamic revolution. It is this colourful rebellion that prompted the author to call her book "Lipstick Jihad" which when translated literally would mean, 'the war of the lipstick'.

The veil was responsible for causing many emotional and physical problems but the biggest problem it seems to have caused was a social one---a burgeoning of clinics specializing in cosmetic surgery. Since only the face of a woman could be revealed, women were obsessed with having a near perfect one, which unfortunately meant lots of costmetic surgery, but especially rhinoplasty. Men, too, seemed to favor nose jobs (perhaps to achieve a more Western look and thus appearing less traditional), even the ones that didn't actually have a nose job, would use post-surgical bandages anyway, because they looked cool!

Realizing she was in the midst of a youth rebellion and wanting to get an authentic feel for what was happening, Moaveni decided to live like any young Iranian---she delved deep into Tehran's secret underground, she attended parties where young people did drugs, holidayed with them at ski resorts, attended youth movements and so on. What was most disturbing to her were the clandestine house parties that encouraged young men and women to mingle.

As she aptly points out in her book:

"... the codes of the Islamic Republic banned young men and women from interacting casually together, attending soccer matches, stydying at the library or going to the movies together. As a result, when they met at these underground parties and were finally permitted a few hours in each other's company, they scarely knew what to do, or how to behave. They had never developed a sense of what normal behavior between the sexes looked like; not only were they lacking a template, they found the prospect of normality unsatisfying. Instead, they sought to contrast the oppressive morality outside with amplified decadence behind closed doors..."

So in reality, state-sanctioned sexual puritanism unwittingly had eroticised the society, keeping sex as much on people's minds as it was in the rhetoric of religious leaders. But even these very same religious teachers or the Mullahs couldn't help but push their carnal desires to the front. Many of them would resort to Shiite custom called 'signeh', a temporary marriage, very convenient for a man when he wants to sleep with a woman and yet not marry her. A 'signeh' could have a man and a woman married in as little as 15 seconds and the marriage could be annulled as soon as the carnal act was over, sometimes in less than 15 mins.

So clearly, the Islamic revolution was not acheiving all that it had set out do, if anything, it was turning Iran into a sick, depraved society. People were getting so disillusioned with Islam that many were turning away from Mecca and finding solace in in the Hindu mystic Sai Baba, Yoga, Sufism etc. ( Eastern spirituality, with its internally directed, pacifist sensibility, was the ideal antedote to the militant, invasive brand of Shiite Islam imposed by the regime) This is not how the reformists of the 1979 revolution had meant for the new Iran to be and they too were baffled that their utopian vision had produced an oppressive overly sexualized society. However, because most of the reformists came from an ultra-traditional class that held more conservative social values than the majority of the Iranians, they still refused to see that women's oppression was among the Islamic Republic's central problems.

"...this was the Achilles heel of their movement, this foolish idea that they could take a Western concept, like democracy, alter it with Islamic attitudes toward women, and expect it to function properly..."

As a journalist, this was a very exciting time for Moaveni to be in Iran, and she effortlessly combines commenting on the political goings-on of the country alongside her own personal journey. She reveals her private struggle to build a life in a country with medieval laws and customs, wholly unlike the sweet, pomegranate-tinted Iran of her imagination. Hers is the struggle of a young woman searching for a homeland that may not exist.

I did enjoy the book and felt like I had learned a lot about the Iranian youth struggle, but then again, since most of the author's sources seem to have come from affluent urban families in Iran, it's hard for the reader to tell if these views are shared by the majority in Iran. Still, it is an authentic view and I am better off for having read it.


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