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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 July, 2003, 23:10 GMT 00:10 UK
Eating burgers beneath the veil
Frances Harrison
By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Tehran

Iranian women
Some wear black from head-to-toe even in searing heat
When you talk about going to Iran people have images of hanging out in leafy gardens and traditional tea houses or encountering crowds of angry men shouting "Death to America".

But I spent many of my evenings with my three-year-old child in burger joints like Mac Mashallas - an Iranian imitation of McDonald's - the fast-food icon of the "Great Satan".

American-style restaurants have rapidly spread throughout Tehran in the past year or two.

They are popular haunts for young people who now have access to western culture in a way that is unprecedented since the Islamic Revolution.

The ketchup may not be Heinz and the Coca-Cola is certainly not the real thing but these are places where you can feel you might be anywhere in the world - almost.

That is if it was not for the neon sign saying respect Islamic moral values, the head-scarved waitresses and the portraits of Iran's spiritual leaders that seem strangely out of place in the world of Happy Meals and Ronald McDonald.

Cutting edge

The differences are shrinking in a country that once talked about building a Chinese-style wall around itself to protect its values from outside corruption.

Disney has penetrated this market like every other - at amusement arcades they sell Mr Potato Head and Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story films.

[Teenage girls wear] short white trousers to mid-calf with no socks, pointy, fashion-victim, high-heeled shoes and skin-tight overcoats that only reach to the knees
While children play on flight simulator video games which say US State Department, I wonder who they think the enemy is being bombed out of existence on the screen.

It is only the mothers who look a bit like something from another planet - some in diaphanous headscarves and chic coats - others shrouded in seemingly endless layers of black clothing despite the searing summer heat.

But the teenage girls in outdoor cafes and fast food restaurants are pushing the boundaries like never before.

Short white trousers to mid-calf with no socks, pointy, fashion-victim, high-heeled shoes and skin-tight overcoats that only reach to the knees.

That is with long dyed blonde hair that is only nominally covered with a half see-through white or pink headscarf.

The effect is fairly electric - especially when combined with huge quantities of make-up. It certainly has nothing to do with being modest and demure and everything to do with being a rebel.

These girls are among 45 million people who are today under the age of 30 - the massive force responsible for the winds of change currently blowing over Iran - a country of 65 million.

And it is these young Iranians who have been taking to the streets recently to protest against what they see as the lack of freedom.

Open to outside influences, they now have a taste of what they are missing and they are hungry for more.

Pushing for change

The frustration is huge - one young mother told me she was thinking of taking her two children out to anti-government protests and just leaving a note for her husband to find when he came back from work.

He had warned her not to go - asking who would look after the kids if something happened to her. She was propelled not by recklessness but by a desire for a better future for her daughters.

For the slightly older generation in their 30s who remember the pre-reform years, there is an attitude of awe and envy.

Anti-government protesters
There were a string of anti-government protests in June
They talk about having had to go to weddings in ankle-length black cloaks with no make-up or nail polish in case they were stopped at a checkpoint and scrutinised.

One woman who grew up during the first years of the revolution described going to England and not knowing who the Hollywood star Richard Gere was - to the shock and horror of her new friends.

Those were the days of isolation - now satellite television, smuggled videos and the internet mean that young Iranians can watch the latest films and keep up with western fashions.

In a country where - if you are a woman - you have to cover even your ankles to enter a government office, you can still watch Fashion TV or sex channels among many hundreds of stations you can receive if you have an illegal satellite dish - something that is now common.

Explaining the paradox

There are so many contradictions that make life in Iran difficult to explain - especially to a three-year-old whose favourite word is why.

"Mummy, you look ugilee," said my son when I wore the obligatory headscarf and overcoat.

But being at a phase where he mimics everything I do he of course wanted to wear a headscarf too and be equally "ugilee".

There were tears if he did not have a cloth tied on his head too when we went out.

He attracted such extraordinary looks of either amusement or horror being a boy wearing a scarf that I finally coaxed him into removing it on the grounds that he would seriously offend people.

"Why?" was a question I found hard to answer in simple terms - not wishing to introduce ideas about men lusting after women's ankles to my toddler.

I just said it was the rule and then my child complained Iran had too many rules.

I could not help but wonder if he had accidentally strayed into the realm of political comment.

Young Iranians are now trying to change the rules, and the question is whether the system will bend to accommodate them.

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