Recently my friend and I decided to travel to Kashan, a conservative, historic city at the edge of a desolate expanse of central Iranian desert. We wished to visit some of its modern galleries, which have been stunningly renovated in recent years.
Situated about 250km south of Tehran, the city has long shared its conservative culture with the neighbouring holy city of Qom — home to the most senior Shia clergy. So we packed Islamic dress, as well as the more liberal clothes we sport in the capital.
When we arrived, however, we were pleasantly surprised to find they could be left in our cases. Not long ago, a visitor to Kashan would have seen most women in black chador — the full Islamic covering. Not any more. As a frequent traveller in my home country, I have to conclude that if this is happening in such a place, it is no longer appropriate to describe any Iranian city as fully conservative. Even Qom is going through its own social transformation.
Change is everywhere in Kashan. Still a place of mud-brick walls and narrow alleys, the city now also boasts boutique hotels and dazzling homes renovated by well-off Tehran residents. Many guest houses turn a blind eye to official social restrictions and allow young unmarried couples to sleep in the same room.
There are also signs of progressiveness on the cultural front. The House of Lucie, the New York-based photography museum, opened its branch in Kashan this year in a restored traditional house. Many of the world’s most famous pictures were on display, including of Hollywood actresses. Half joking, we said it felt like being in Spain or Greece.
The visit proved to me that the bastions of societal and cultural conservatism are slowly falling. Iran has not had an organised women’s movement, even though many female activists have been imprisoned. But since the 1979 Islamic revolution, women have been part of a leaderless and fairly peaceful campaign. Day by day they have pushed back traditional boundaries in their own lives, achieving wins for wider society along the way.
Thanks to this grassroots change, Iranian women’s aspirations for higher education, equal rights and a life in the modern world no longer differ that much from one city to another.
During the Persian new year holidays in March, there were many videos posted on social media showing women dancing in public across the country — an act which is officially banned. Women are increasingly singing solo — also banned — and posting the videos on Instagram. Fashion designers dress female models in daringly minimal clothes, as if in a secular state. Last month about 800 women in Iranian films, including some of the country’s most famous actresses, signed up to their own #MeToo movement.
But Iran remains rife with contradictions. Back in Tehran, my friend had to report to the moral police station to deal with a previous offence of failing to observe obligatory Islamic cover while driving her car. This was no political statement: her scarf had simply slipped from her head to her shoulders. She had to attend a short moral education class and keep her car in a public parking lot for one week. Such random acts of suppression have not helped the regime. But her case shows how hard authorities struggle to keep the image of their theological system intact, the main symbol of which is the hijab.
Hardline politicians won last year’s presidential election and now dominate all power centres. But they can neither tighten controls on women, for fears of a popular backlash, nor pave the way so women can push further on abolishing restrictions. When women were prevented from entering a football stadium in the northeastern city of Mashhad in March and attacked with pepper spray, the subsequent public outcry was a challenge to the authorities. Despite vows to do so, conservatives have not yet been able to limit internet access.
How long these contradictions will continue is uncertain. But what is clear is that women have been quietly manoeuvring Iran towards transformation for decades. The best that hardline politicians can hope for is to delay the outcome of their efforts.