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 Saturday, 2 November, 2002, 15:34 GMT
The modern face of Iran
Veiled women in Tehran
Traditional dress but an increasingly modern outlook
Iran's slow journey out of isolation and into the modern, more Westernised world is gathering pace. BBC world affairs correspondent Bridget Kendall discovers a nation of contradictions.

Our guide looked me up and down with an appraising eye.

"You!" she said to me, "Cover your fringe!"

I was by now used to being draped from head to foot in nun-like garb, the inevitable headscarf and a full length black coat buttoned to the neck and cuffs. Its only concession to decoration - one gold button and two sizeable shoulder pads that I suppose gave the garment a certain swing.

But five days into our trip, I was heartily sick of it, and quite taken aback to find I did not pass muster at the women's section of Friday prayers in Tehran.

I had thought I looked considerably more demure than the lipstick-glossed Iranian beauties who these days wear jeans and jackets and drape their scarves well back on their heads.

Now and then the male audience roared a chant, ending with a slightly weary refrain of 'Death to America'

But the hallowed atmosphere at Friday prayers did not, it turned out, go so very deep.

My guide, Saharnoz, who described herself as a tailor and a housewife - and sported a walkie talkie under her black cloak - bustled round the back of the stadium to the women's section.

On green carpets under a tent-like canopy, hundreds of women knelt and listened. From behind a high grey screen next to them, the amplified voice of the conservative ayatollah giving the address in the main auditorium rose and fell.

Now and then the male audience roared a chant, ending with a slightly weary refrain of "Death to America".

"How many men are there?" I asked.

"I'll just take a peek," said Saharnoz, pulling aside the grey cloth screen to peer through.

Then I noticed the TV crew, three men, right there among the women praying. They were filming a pretty nine-year-old girl sitting, contemplating a rose on a prayer rug. What were THEY doing here, after all the fuss of keeping men and women apart?

"Oh, they're television so they don't count," was her airy reply.

Baby boomers

It was this relaxed attitude of so many Iranians that most impressed me during my stay.

Two-thirds of the population is under 30 - a product of a birth boom encouraged during the first years of the Islamic revolution, to provide a steady stream of young martyrs for the eight-year war with Iraq.

Now it is a potent force for Iran's reformers to tap into.

Map showing Tehran and Esfahan
A recent poll showed that a staggering 70% or more think dialogue with America is a good idea.

Outraged conservatives instantly clapped the pollster in jail. But that won't change street attitudes.

At night in the city of Esfahan, ancient capital of Persia, by the river and on the boulevards, giggling teenage girls darted out to shove scraps of paper into the hands of loitering boys.

On each was scrawled a mobile phone number - "message me, if you like me too" was the meaning.

Everybody's gone surfing

Surfing internet chatrooms, watching satellite TV from the illegal dish that everyone seems to have, using your mobile to set up a blind date - there are plenty of ways to meet members of the opposite sex and sample the ways of the world outside.

All this despite the restrictions of Iran's powerful clerics and however much they may rail against the cultural invasion of the US and its acolytes, intent - they say - on curbing the spread of Islam.

In fact the complaint of most people, as far as I could judge, was not about the political battles that still pitch clerics against modernisers. The prime worry was economic.

Near Esfahan's exquisite blue mosaic mosques, one man selling trinkets complained he made only $100 a month.

His wife was doing better he said. She was a marriage counsellor, a booming business in these days of strains caused by both man and wife working 15 hours a day.

Dream ticket

He planned to emigrate, if only he could find a Western country to give him a visa. Quebec was his dream destination.

Another man invited me into his shop to meet his sister, an English teacher.

"We are not happy," she said. "My husband and I work all day and all evening and still we don't have enough money.

"President Khatami can't do anything, he is too weak," she added. "The Religious Council has the real power. They tell him what to do."

A poster showing an idealised Iranian woman
The young challenge old stereotypes
Her chubby 11-year-old niece chipped in: "When I grow up, my wish is not to have to wear a headscarf," she said. "Like it is on British and American TV."

At the cemetery to the fallen martyrs of the Iran/Iraq war, inevitably, attitudes to the outside world were more mixed.

Whole families were visiting the graves of their sons and brothers. Solemn young faces gazed out from the black and white photos on the headstones, many with their first downy moustache.

Suspicion of America

Some of those who had come to mourn were themselves veterans from the front line. A US-led war on Iraq was viewed with suspicion.

"Saddam Hussein is our enemy," said one man, "But America has other aims. After Iraq, maybe Iran will be next."

"The American goal is interference," agreed another man. "Where you smell oil, there you'll find the USA."

But one old lady had a simpler view. She'd lost her only son 25 years ago.

"Saddam Hussein killed my son," she said. "To see him go is my only wish."

Even if the Americans killed him, she said, that would do.

There may be suspicion and resentment to America going into Iraq, but not everyone in Iran thinks it would be all bad.

See also:

24 Oct 02 | Business
17 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
24 Oct 02 | Middle East
08 Oct 02 | Middle East
02 Oct 02 | Middle East
21 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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