Tehran girls just want to have fun

Over 30 years have passed since Iran's Islamic revolution. An entire generation of young women has grown up without knowing any other society than the one created by the conservative mullahs—a society full of oppression against women, injustice, and severely restricted freedom of movement, in the name of Islam. Journalist and author Mojgan Ayyari went out on the streets of Tehran to talk to young women about their everyday lives and dreams. 

June 10 2013 Text: Mojgan Ayyari

Present-day Tehran staggers under massive inflation, money that is worthless, constant increases in prices, and costly consumer goods, as well as medical shortages, unemployment and high rents. The city is weighted down by fear and insecurity brought on by the seriousness of the economic situation and its devastating pressure on the city’s middle class. However, this isn’t because the residents of Tehran lack either dreams or curses in this sea without shores. It doesn’t mean they have no feeling of community and warmth, or of citizenship. It doesn’t mean they aren’t trustworthy if you start up a conversation with them, or that they wouldn’t like to be your friend or stay up all night with you.

I go past shop windows, past fences, newspaper stands, cafes, walls and gates, through the season of snow and through the season of hot sun, in the heart of a city that, like so many other cities in the world, waits to begin entertaining until night has fallen. Entertaining both men and women.

According to the last year’s census, Tehran’s population is now 8½ million, half of which are women. Sometimes these women get to hear that “everything belongs to them and if anything is missing, they’ll get that, too.”[1] At other times, they’re called wretches and chador-wearers.[2] Sometimes, they drive around male criminals dressed in women’s clothing to humiliate them.[3]

If a representative of this gender should decide to step outside “the Islamic Revolution’s intended female role,” or decide not to be “her husband’s consolation and her family’s security,” she will in all likelihood be erased from the social scene.

This is Tehran and everything is decided depending on where in the city and what steepness of the slope of the Alborz mountains you live on. This determine in many ways what social group you belong to. From a social perspective, there have always been people who have belonged neither to the ruling class nor the most destitute, but a class whose needs are relatively well met, who differ from the “masses” through their respectable level of education, their analytic skill, and their comfortable everyday life. This class has never been particularly cherished by the powers that be nor an object of interest among the intellectuals.

Depending on their gender, the youth of this middle class choose where to meet and pass the hours, spending most of their time there. These are not places, they say, for fun and amusement but for hiding. In recent years, the young women of Tehran have dissociated themselves more and more from community activities in favor of underground ones. Their confused youth continues underground. Their make-up gets thicker by the day and they wander the streets throughout the night in a melancholy search for fun and entertainment, in constant fear for their families and the authorities.

From a geographical point of view, districts five and two in western Tehran are where the middle class lives. These are areas with large populations, open spaces and a rural atmosphere. I meet Neda in a shopping center in the district of Punak. She is 21 years old and we soon become friends. She says she’s like that to everybody. It doesn’t take long before she starts to tell me about herself. “If it was possible,” she says, “I would drink alcohol and smoke grass every night. My friends and I meet here a lot, to party, drive around, and play ‘jadulbazi’ (driving with one wheel on the fence of the road). We often hang out in Sa’adat Abad,[4] at Café Tehran or Amir Chocolate. On our days off, we go to Farahzad, the restaurant in Hafziye Park or the Hossein garden. The restaurant in Mahestan-e Saluqun is pretty good, too. Fasham and Ziyan are nice as well, but it’s really far for us girls to go to places like that, since we aren’t allowed to get in late,” Neda says.

Roxana is 20 and learning to be a graphic designer. She lives in a rental in the Bagh-e Feiz neighborhood, with her parents, who are civil servants, and five brothers and sisters. She has no income or pocket money, but she loves to go to parties, shopping malls, and beauty salons. “I’ll go all the way to Khaniyabad if there’s alcohol there,” she says. “But nowadays, all they have is bootleg stuff, since the price of liquor has gone up so much. There isn’t any real liquor at parties anymore,” she sighs. “It’s been two years since I last had any vodka.”

Roxana and her friends, who are a group of about twenty 20-year-olds, often go to parties in the district of Sa’adat Abad. On the rare occasion they get the chance to go to a party in Valenjak or Moqaddas-e Erdebili, Roxana says, there’s often “kukuli” there: cocaine. With a laugh, she says, “The cocaine at those parties costs about 270,000 toman[5] for a line.”

Samira, one of Roxana’s friends, is 20 and works at a beauty salon. She tells me she prefers to meet her friends at home rather than at clubs or cafes. Parties at home always have music, dance, hookahs, and alcohol. She says she loves to dance with boys and that if she should feel attracted to one, she might very well have sex with him. She tells me she lost her virginity to the boyfriend she had when she was 18. When he realized she was worried about the problem this might cause her with her family, he offered to make an appointment for hymen repair, but said that would be the end of their relationship. Roxana didn’t have the surgery, but she thinks about it a lot, since most men in Iran are conservative and refuse to marry girls who aren’t virgins. She says it’s fairly common for families to take their daughters to doctors and get a certificate saying the hymen is intact.

Maral is 19 and lives in the district of Shahran with her mother and retired father. All of her siblings are married. She has dropped out of the university and is unemployed. “My mom would do anything for me,” she tells me. “She paid for nose surgery and lip tattoos. I even have a tattoo on my breast. But she doesn’t let me go out that much. I love going out. Around 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening, we take my father’s Peugeot 206 to Sa’adat Abad, and the boys come in their BMWs and Porsches and give me their phone numbers. Then we go to one of their houses and listen to music, talk, and smoke grass. The boys think we want to have sex with them just because we drive around in their cars and party with them, but that’s not true. It’s just a great feeling going around in a Porsche.”

On the outskirts of the neighborhood of Homa is Western Tehran’s Free University. There I speak to a girl who adores dark-haired singer Rihanna and has dyed her hair the same color as hers. Her name is Mahnaz and she is 23 years old. She says she doesn’t go out much because her family doesn’t approve. Mahnaz is studying hard to give herself and her family a better life materially. She says she’s been tempted to have a boyfriend a couple of times but that her conscience wouldn’t allow it. She prays daily and spends her leisure time with her family. Studying at the university is her only source of enjoyment.

Maryam is another student at the university. She doesn’t think it’s possible to have fun in public places in Tehran. Wherever you go, the vice squad turns up. “Lately,” she says, “they’ve even charged into people’s houses and broken up parties. Parks have become places for retirees and we young people are left to dream of another life behind closed doors. We’re only allowed to sit for 45 minutes in cafes. Studying at the university is our only amusement,” she concludes.



[1] From a speech held by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

[2] These utterances were made by Iran’s Vice-President, Mohammed-Reza Rahimi, and referred to states that boycott Iran. The vice-president later apologized.

[3] Police in the city of Marivan recently punished male criminals in exactly this way. This time, no formal apology was forthcoming.

[4] Neighborhood  in south-western Tehran, known for its many restaurants, cafes, and luxury clothing stores.

[5] About 230 US dollars.