The new, all leather interior, white hatchback French-made Peugeot I’m riding in is one of the many cars zooming through Sari’s Khee-abooneh [street], Shoonesh, on a hot and humid April evening. Sari, a few hours north of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is a small city with a population of 200,000. If you’re young, privileged, and bored in Sari, Shoonesh is the place to be on a Friday night. Racing through the narrow streets, you only need a passing glance of consent from a neighbouring driver to signal you that they’re down for a challenge. A black BMW X5 cuts off the Peugeot within minutes of driving down Shoonesh. It’s the perfect partner for the girls I’m with this evening.
“Girls, I think he’s the one. Let’s see if he looks,” says Niusha, the driver of the Peugeot. The other girls giggle — there’s a rush of excitement. Is he going to race-flirt back? He makes a left turn at the next intersection, and our hopes subside. “Damn, did you see his car though? Dr. Habibi just imported one like that from Dubai.”A moment later an orange Peykan — a common, locally manufactured car that hasn’t changed its model since 1960 — honks at us. “Ah-hh [the Persian equivalent of eww], he’s straight out of the Da-hat [ghetto]. He’s borrowed his uncle’s car.” Niusha quickly cuts him off, and we lose sight of him.Niusha is a second-year architecture major at Daneshga-eh Noor, a university one hour north of Tehran. I had met her the night before at a party held by one of my uncle’s friends. She’s a daughter of one of my uncle’s co-workers. “If there’s an Enghelab [revolution] tomorrow, believe me, we would be the next Europe,” Niusha tells me, in a conversation not about politics, but about shopping. Her black Marc Jacobs dress and black Christian Louboutin pumps definitely help her argument.The next night when we’re in her car, her Chanel headscarf dangles around her neck instead of covering her hair as dictated by Islamic Sharia law. When I ask her if it’s fine to be driving around the streets without her hijab, she replies, “I just got these highlights today; I don’t want to hide them.”Niusha’s frank and free attitude toward life detaches my Western, media-oriented perspective from the reality that ordinary Iranians face. There’s a long list of issues brewing in this country: a boorish President, a budding nuclear program, human rights violations, continual unrest after a corrupt 2009 presidential election, and ongoing international sanctions. Yet for a 20-year-old middle-class girl like Niusha, her concerns don’t involve politics: Western headlines don’t define her Iran.
This is the difference between an Iranian-Canadian like me, and an Iranian like Niusha. When I packed my bags to leave for Iran, I was ready to face the “crude” realities of the country. I had just finished a semester of introductory Persian and had read all I could on Iranian politics and history. I had exhausted every possible conversation related to the future and politics of the Islamic Republic with every single member of my Iranian-diasporic family.The city of Sari is where I spent much of my trip this past summer. It’s a small rural city in the northern Iranian province of Mazandaran, where my mother’s family lives. Sari is known for a lot of things: scenic mountain ranges, some of Iran’s most fertile Shalizars [rice fields], and probably the biggest pool of hospitals and medical doctors in the entire country.My Dayee [uncle] Homayoun is a pharmacist and medical supplier for Beemarestaneh Shafa [Shafa Hospital], with supply links to the 10 other hospitals that are located in Sari.My Dayee’s medical connections provide my family with many advantages. Any member of our family has access to private suites in Shafa for the treatment of anything more serious than a cold. I learned of these benefits first-hand due to some unfortunate sinus problems that required a minor operation. The only upside to the illness was a rare case of medical VIP treatment, which, for two nights, included my own private nurse and three-course (albeit hospital) meals in the biggest private room at Shafa. I was living the life, or so the generous supply of codeine was telling me.My Dayee’s vast network of business and social ties also worked to my advantage by providing me with an invitation to a party attended only by Sari’s medical practitioners. This is where I would meet Niusha. Almost every specialist and surgeon who was not on call in Sari that night was at that party, including my very own anesthesiologist, Dr. Habibi, from my prior week’s hospital visit.My immediate impression of the luxurious marble-floored apartment, where the soirée was held, was reminiscent of an image of the Stepford Wives. The women and men were divided. The men huddled around the bar where the male host urged his guests to drink. In another room, elegantly poised and groomed ladies sat on big French antique chairs while socializing with each other. I felt a little disappointed when the host sat me in the French antique room. The corner with the alcohol looked like it would lead to a much better night!Once I met Niusha things started to turn around. I got a quick explanation of who all the guests were. It turned out the party was no ordinary gathering of couples, and the stylish women were more than pretty powdered faces. There were a variety of dentists, family doctors, and plastic surgeons among the guests. The most impressive of all was Sepideh Yazdani, dressed head-to-toe in black, in typical Persian fashion. At only 35 years old, she’s the head of the Department of Gynaecology at Imam Khomeini Hospital, Sari’s largest, and one of the most prestigious medical centres outside of Tehran. Something along the lines of Johns Hopkins, Sari’s Imam is the training ground for the country’s best medical students. Sepideh is the youngest doctor to reach such a position so naturally; this woman, who seems to have it all, intrigues me. She’s happily married with two young daughters and a successful medical career. Not bad in a country that has a codified law that views the worth of women to be exactly half of that of men.Further investigation into the matter demonstrates a slight complexity regarding the role of women in medicine. While Sepideh’s success is admirable, under Islamic Sharia law, female doctors’ fields are quite limited. There is not a conscious effort by the Iranian regime to promote professional female doctors. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, there has been an ongoing attempt to separate men and women in almost every aspect of day-to-day life to minimize their physical contact. As a result of this gender segregation, only about one third of all medical students in Iran’s medical schools are women.The party ended up exceeding my expectations, especially as I discovered huddling around the bar was unnecessary — the alcohol was served to the ladies on silver trays.However, this is only a glimpse of how a small group of Iranians live. The vodka-cranberries served to me as I marveled at the successful and beautifully groomed the ladies around me, were only a part of my enlightenment process.While I was reading and listening to music on a swing chair in my grandparents’ house, Olliyah, the 20-year-old housekeeper my grandparents had just hired, would join me in her spare time. My grandparents aren’t particularly well off, but help around the house is typical for most Iranians who have some money to spare. Needless to say, the Iran Olliyah inhabits is a completely different country than the one Niusha and Sepideh live in.Our conversations over a shared bowl of Zeyton Parvardeh [tiny Iranian olives] on the porch are the only instances where I see Olliyah without her headscarf. She resembles Niusha and the female doctors in terms of Persian beauty, but Olliyah’s style is of a different nature. Her uniform around the house is a long bronze silk skirt, a regular long-sleeved cotton blouse, and a synthetic purple scarf with black beads stitched all over. Olliyah becomes barely recognizable when she removes her headscarf. She tells me it’s inappropriate to walk around my grandparents’ home without her hijab when a man she isn’t married to is present.She sewed her skirt herself and bought her scarf for 1000 toman [CAD $1]. Our first conversation revolves around how it feels to be 20 years old. I tell her about university and my plans for grad school. She tells me about her husband and her plans to sign up her three-year-old daughter for day care in the deh [village] that’s 40 minutes away. It wouldn’t seem like we would have much in common, but we manage to find common ground through a discussion of clothes and our opinions on President Ahmadinejad.She confesses that she doesn’t know how to read or write. Her 11-year-old brother died in a highway collision riding on the back of a motorbike when she was 14, and she never recovered from the trauma of losing him. She quit school and stayed at home to help her grieving mother take care of her other brothers and sisters. At the age of 17 she was married off to her husband, Shahban, who was 27. For cleaning my grandparents’ house, she and her husband get free room, board, and food. She tells me she’s saving up to buy her daughter a new dress for the next party her mother-in-law is throwing.A recent headline in Western newspapers covered Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman from the Northwest province of Azerbaijan who was convicted for committing adultery after the murder of her husband. Cases like this certainly expose the sometimes-tragic circumstances of women in Iran. But for others like Niusha, Sepideh, and Oliyah, life goes on in much the same way it does in the rest of the world. There was nothing overtly political about these women’s lives. The prospect of new sanctions imposed on their country didn’t seem like an immediate concern.Discussions about Iran often centre on the fact that the country has one of the world’s most active civil societies and usually reference the Green Movement that evolved in 2009 to protest the rigged re-election of President Ahmadinejad. None of the three women I met had any particular attachments to the protests.Sepideh is a doctor at a state-owned hospital — any overt political stance would compromise her job. When I asked Niusha about the protests, she said it was great fun and that she was a supporter of Mir-Hossein Mousavi [Ahmadinejad’s political adversary]. The way she talked about taking to the streets of Sari, it seemed like she protested more as a pastime than a political statement. She had little to say about the policies of the candidates.Part of Ahmadinejad’s campaign involved visiting the dehs and giving away money to those in need. Olliyah’s parents were among the recipients of these cash giveaways during the months leading up to the June 2009 elections. She firmly believes that Ahmadinejad was the rightful winner of the election, and that the protests weren’t anything more than a disturbance of the peace. “People our age are out of control. The way the girls were dressed when they were protesting, they might as well have forgotten about their hijab. It was out of control … people are upset they threw them into Evin [a prison in Tehran that houses political prisoners], but I’d rather have crazy things happen in the jails than out there on the streets.”The death of one protester, Neda Agha-Soltan, captured on video and posted on Youtube, was a violent image of political discord. How could we not rally behind the cause of the Green Movement? But that’s the point Olliyah was trying to make. Watching news footage from North America distances us from what is actually happening on the ground.My encounters with these three women this past summer helped me realize something: Niusha, Sepideh, and Olliyah are all products of their socioeconomic backgrounds. The privileged 20-year-old, the doctor, and the traditional-minded housekeeper all had different opinions and concerns about their country.I had a conversation with my Iranian friend Shervin a couple of weeks after my trip. We were discussing the 2009 elections and I told him about the possibility of Ahmadinejad actually winning the elections fairly, relating Olliyah’s experience with campaign donations in the dehs. He immediately jumped at me. “So what do you mean? You’re for Ahmadinejad? What has the Green Movement been for then?”I felt a little taken aback. Was it really that hard to see the situation from a different viewpoint?I have no definite answer as to who should be governing Iran. I’ve never lived there, and probably never will. But for those Iranians whose lives depend on the actions of the Iranian government, it’s a different story.For our Iranian governmental timeline, please click here