Iran's Culture Wars: Who's Winning These Days?
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Iran's President Rouhani came into office on a pledge to open his country to more social and cultural freedoms, but some of his political opponents have been putting up roadblocks to change. NPR's Deborah Amos has been traveling in Iran and found that for many Iranians, reform isn't coming fast enough.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This is just one battlefield in Iran's cultural worlds - a luxury resort high up in the snowy peaks above Tehran. I'm at the top of the mountain in a ski resort called Dizin. It's about a three-hour drive outside of Tehran. Here, men and women ski down these slopes together. Women don't wear headscarves. They have on ski caps or ski helmets. The rules loosened here more than a decade ago. And Iranians aren't willing to give up the relative freedom without a fight, says Pooya Imami, a 26-year-old college graduate.
It's a place where the chador, the all-enveloping black cloak, has been replaced by sleek ski outfits for women. The morality police, the official enforcers of the strict dress code, have lost the battle here.
POOYA IMAMI: They keep coming and telling them to cover up themselves, but they just don't listen.
AMOS: It's OK here to break the rules.
IMAMI: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You can tell that.
AMOS: Iranians have pushed against the rules since the early days of the Islamic Republic, says American academic Kevan Harris, an Iran specialist. There are many things that are officially prohibited but have become unofficially accepted, he says.
KEVAN HARRIS: The only way to learn that is learn by doing in Iran. So people who live here, they've lived in a situation where their whole life, they've been pushing back against the rules.
AMOS: The biggest push comes from a generation born after the 1979 revolution. They've grown up with the Internet and satellite TV. They're influenced by social media and global trends. Even here in a crowded mall in the heart of the capital, young female shoppers defy the government's rule of mandatory head covering, known as the hijab or Islamic veil. They push the limits with colorful scarves that barely stay in place. How far back can your headscarf go?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Laughing) (Foreign language spoken).
AMOS: This is the extreme, they say proudly but without giving their names. That's the maximum.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Foreign language spoken).
AMOS: They reflect the social change in Iranian society, a generation rebelling against conservative social norms.
HADI GHAEMI: I think the regime is starting to be fatigued by this resistance. And no matter how hard it tries, it doesn't seem to be winning that battle.
AMOS: That's Hadi Ghaemi who heads a U.S.-based human rights group. He says the vote that brought Hassan Rouhani to power last year was a vote for more significant change, not just what Iranians can wear, but what they can say and what they can do. Rouhani promised better relations with the West, an end to crippling economic sanctions. Domestically, he pledged to ease political restrictions, open the Internet, relax stifling rules on music and art.
GHAEMI: He gave promises during the campaign that people expect him to deliver, but in practice, he has a very, very uphill battle. And he doesn't seem to be willing to pedal up that hill yet.
AMOS: There have been some openings, remarkable by Iranian standards. For example, for the first time, state TV broadcast a performance by an Iranian band.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).
AMOS: There are conservatives who believe music is un-Islamic. Last month, the first rock band with a female singer played publicly in the capital. President Rouhani reopened the House of Cinema. That's a guild for movie directors and actors. It was closed down by the former hard-line president. And a banned film called "Parental House," that criticizes fanaticism in Iran, was recently released to critical acclaim. Still, say Iran's reformers, these are small steps.
ALI POUR ISSA: In my perspective, in my viewpoint, I don't feel any changes. I mean, it's not happening for everybody.
AMOS: Ali Pour Issa, a young film director, is struggling to break into Iran's cinema industry. We meet in his apartment where he's rehearsing actors for an independent movie he is shooting for the festival circuit.
ISSA: So we're practicing scene by scene
AMOS: And these are all professional actors?
ISSA: They're not stars, but they are famous in television and cinema.
AMOS: He studied film and drama in the U.S. and recently returned home. He voted for Rouhani, but he's been disappointed by a system resistant to change
ISSA: I've been to Yale to become a critic and dramaturge, and I realize that the society is not ready for their conversation.
AMOS: The conversation that matters most is the one that between hard-liners and Rouhani's more pragmatic administration. A recent battleground is in the prisons, where the culture wars is about more than culture. Executions have spiked this year, with close to 200 death sentences carried out since January. The high numbers have sparked condemnation from international human rights organizations and Western governments, and undermines Rouhani's government, says Ghaemi.
GHAEMI: I think that we have to ask the question, who are the people implementing these executions? And therefore, why have they made the decision to have such a spike?
AMOS: He says the decision makers are all connected to hard-line presidential candidates who lost to Rouhani.
GHAEMI: They want to show that we can continue these executions, regardless of how much pressure the international community will put on us, to show that Rouhani coming to power has not changed much.
AMOS: The hard-liners need to demonstrate they are as powerful as they were before Rouhani's election, he says, when Iranians gave a candidate who promised to change the country a decisive vote. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.