Change begins with colour

18:55, Dec 08 2013
Young Iranian women as you'd never have seen them just five years ago, with brightly coloured manteaux (coats) and headscarves.
Increasingly, Iranian women, especially younger ones, are pushing the boundaries of the Iranian dress code. Headscarves are being pushed back as far as is technically possible without them falling off, and even the lipstick is brighter.
Traditional chadors (the all-enveloping black garments pictured here) are still the chosen attire for many women although they are rare in prosperous north Tehran or Shiraz.
Two years ago wearing leggings in public in Iran would have been almost unheard of, as would the almost bare-foot look.
A few years ago I'd never have dared let so much hair escape while travelling in Iran but, when in Rome ... (or in this case north-western Iran near the border with Azerbaijan).
What you wear behind closed doors in Iran is your business. This means the Islamic Republic can still sport some rather eye-popping shop windows. When you have to cover up in public all day, there can be a tendency to go overboard at night.

There's an organisation called the Travelers' Century Club (the TCC was founded in the US, hence the spelling) that you can join only once you've visited at least 100 countries.

The club officially lists 321 countries or territories (the latter include places such as the Ross Dependency in Antarctica). You can tick a place off as long as you've stepped foot in it, which means it's permissible to include transit stops in airports.

Despite 10 years of reasonably regular and fairly extensive travel I've not reached the qualifying mark. However, this doesn't worry me at all because I can't help wondering how well you can get to grips with the essence of a country by gazing at it through the windows of an airport transit lounge.

GLOBAL STYLE: Visitors to Iran are often stunned to find that what they thought was going to be a country of dowdy women, swathed in black, is far from it. Even a borrowed Aussie hat can't detract from a typically gorgeous young Iranian.

Of course I might have become a TCC centurion, as they are called, if I hadn't made so many return visits to certain countries. But what I might have lost in terms of countries to "tick off the list", I believe I've made up for in being able to observe nations going through often turbulent times of change.

When I first went to Syria about five years ago, for example, to the first-time visitor it would have been impossible to imagine that in a few years the country would be torn apart by a civil war. On my last visit I literally just beat the Syrian government tanks to the border with Jordan. Likewise in Libya, even people I knew well wouldn't utter a word of criticism about former dictator Gaddafi, but a few years on were delirious with joy when he was killed. I first travelled to Bhutan when it was an absolute monarchy (albeit a very benign, enlightened one) and then was able to trace its transition to a constitutional democracy (in the process causing me to rethink whether democracies are always the best way to govern a country ... but that's another story).

The country where I have been privileged to see the most history in the making is Iran. I've visited the Islamic Republic of Iran nine times since 2005. During this time there has been an almost constant stream of diplomatic incidents, which have either kicked off just before I'm due to arrive or while I am in the country.


There was the capture of British Royal Navy personnel in the Persian Gulf in 2007, worldwide consternation at almost every public utterance by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and most recently, suspicion over Iran's nuclear programme.

Earlier this year, after two four-year terms of the Ahmadinejad presidency (which in the view of many millions of Iranians was eight years too long) the country elected a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who is a Muslim cleric and also has a PhD in law from Glasgow Caledonian University.

Rouhani is considered a moderate in both domestic and international politics, although everything is relative: in order to be even selected as a presidential candidate in Iran one must have the approval of Iran's Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei.

I arrived in the country about six weeks after President Rouhani took office and the impact on those Iranians who have become like a second family to me, and on the wider population, has been dramatic.

There was an almost heady sense of optimism permeating the country, tempered by a knowledge that in the past, any relaxation in Iran's policies is often met with staunch resistance by its country's power base of mullahs (religious leaders).

One startling expression of this new attitude among Iranians - especially the younger, more liberal, less religious population, of which there are many millions - were the changes in how many women in Iran were dressing. After a two-year absence I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

Under the rules that govern daily life in Iran, when outside their homes women (and female tourists when not in their hotel rooms) must not only cover their hair, but also wear long tops or coats down to mid-thigh, with sleeves almost to the wrist, and even avoid strappy shoes (which showed too much skin.) Clothing and scarves were also supposed to be of unobtrusive colours.

In fact, a New Zealand social occasion and an Iranian street scene used to have a remarkable similarity given many Kiwi women also have a wardrobe default setting of black.

Makeup, once banned - as was visible jewellery - had been increasingly tolerated, although if you visited certain religious shrines while wearing too much lipstick or eye make-up you could be asked to wipe it off. This always reminded me of being dispatched to the headmistress's office for similar misdemeanours while at high school.

Although the hated so-called moral police, which were very active after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 deposed the liberal and west-leaning Shah, are not nearly so obvious these days, crackdowns on women's dress were not uncommon in recent years.

Iranians are just as susceptible to the joys of spring as anyone else and there was often a seasonal appearance on the streets of hatchet-faced women in government employ and wearing all- enveloping chadors (black cloaks). They would castigate elegant women for having streaked hair emerging from daringly pushed-back headscarves, oversize designer sunglasses or too-tight coats.

Iranian women are a feisty lot and often such encounters were met with disdain. When out of sight of the clothing police the make-up and sunnies would go back on and the scarves would be once again pushed back precariously to the back of the head.

When I first went to Iran I struggled to find a manteau (a lightweight coat worn over trousers) that was not either black or dark brown. Beige was as good as it got and that took some finding. So, while walking through the streets of Shiraz one evening only a few weeks ago, I was staggered by the shop displays.

There were manteaux in every colour imaginable - fire engine reds, lime greens, golds and turquoise blues - and there'd been a corresponding outburst of colours in the headscarf stores too.

But what was really remarkable was how many women across a wide age range were pushing back against the overall dress norms.

Women were wearing leggings with long tunic tops. There were dresses worn with dark stockings. Sandals that exposed most of the feet were everywhere and sleeve lengths were sneaking up towards the elbow. It was an almost bewildering transformation and took some getting used to.

And that goes for the authorities too. Apparently Iranian women who want to choose how to dress have not got it all their own way yet. There have been new checkpoints set up (one coincidentally made an appearance near the New Zealand embassy in north Tehran, the most liberal and prosperous part of the city), where uniformed men scrutinised women drivers and passengers for the acceptability of their dress.

But change was in the air, although I doubt that by the time I am scheduled to go back to Iran next year we'll be abandoning our headscarves and conservative clothes.

Elements of Iranian authority will not readily give up their beliefs that moral/ religious issues are a matter for state control and not personal choice. There are many women, especially those who are more conservative and religious, who would probably prefer to keep wearing the chador or similarly modest garments when out and about.

However, what much of the population would like would be the right to decide this for themselves.

Iranian women often say that the clothing restrictions might be the most visible sign of government interference in their personal lives but are not the ones that worry them the most. But the changes I witnessed seem to be a sign that women now feel ready to challenge authority.

In an even wider context, they suggest that many millions of Iranians are interpreting the more moderate line of their new president as an indication that life might be changing for the better.

Before Ruhmani took over and while the US-led sanctions were still in full force, inflation in Iran was running at an official rate of 400 per cent. For ordinary people on fixed incomes this rate was estimated to be more accurately about 800 per cent. Buying a house or an apartment was all but impossible - in fact even meeting day-to-day expenses meant many people had to dip into savings to get by.

Iranians remained as hospitable and as warmly welcoming to visitors as ever in these years but there was a sense of despair and powerlessness too.

During my travels around Iran this year, the breakthrough discussions between Iran's foreign minister and the US Secretary of State, along with the telephone conversation between the two countries' presidents, were headline news and were being discussed and analysed at length by Iranians themselves.

It's hard for us to appreciate how deeply troubled and embarrassed many Iranians were about some of the utterances of their former president on the world stage (although we've had more than a few politicians who've at least given us a taste of this).

This has now been replaced with optimism that Iran's days as a pariah on the world stage might be drawing to a close. Looking from the outside in, that might be a bit over-optimistic in the short term but at least having some hope for the future might slow down the rate at which young educated Iranians, especially, are leaving the country for new lives elsewhere.

So next year, when I hope to be returning for my 10th visit I could regard it as a missed opportunity to draw closer to being a Travelers' Century Club centurion by instead chalking up a new destination. But I know I won't ... Iran on the brink of a new era is history in the making and who'd want to miss that?

The Timaru Herald