Break Dancing, Western Clothing : Life Loosens Up a Little for Residents of Tehran

Associated Press

The harsh Islamic codes imposed when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took control of Iran in 1979 show signs of easing in this sprawling capital. Western clothing styles, books, videocassette movies and even alcohol are making their way back--often at stiff prices.

One sign of change came in mid-September when, according to Iranian witnesses, Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani chastised hundreds of Muslim militants for protesting outside Parliament against women who ignore the Islamic custom of head-to-toe dress.

The witnesses said Rafsanjani came to the balcony and told the crowd, “If you’d stop protesting all the time, we might be able to make some laws here.”


Official enforcers of Islamic law seem to be closing one eye to a mild revival of the Western life style as Iran tries to emerge from its self-imposed seclusion and look to the outside world for friends.

‘Keeping Fingers Crossed’

No one is certain that the trend will produce a further relaxation of social attitudes; it could still bring a reaction and crackdown by fundamentalists opposed to any weakening of the Islamic teachings that have characterized post-revolutionary Iran.

“For the time being, we are just keeping our fingers crossed,” said Shahin, a young middle-class accountant who said that the break dancing at his recent wedding was “in the best New York fashion.”

Indications are that some people want freedom from laws that ban alcohol, music and bright, Western-style clothes.

In the wealthy northern sector of Tehran, families spend hours watching videotapes of new Western hit films--a change from the diet of religious programs, war news and Japanese cartoons on state television.

In the crowded streets of southern Tehran, youths lock themselves inside cars and cruise around with windows closed, listening to Michael Jackson tapes.


Stories about women being sprayed with acid or having their faces cut with razors for wearing makeup still frighten Iranians. But some teen-age girls challenge the anti-vice squads and go without the prescribed head scarfs.

Alcohol is increasingly available. There is an efficient dial-a-bottle service for taxi delivery of homemade vodka. Imported scotch flows in the living rooms of the more affluent Tehran residents.

“Before the revolution, Tehranis went out drinking and prayed at home,” a local saying goes. “Now, they go out to pray and drink at home.”

Bookstores sell Persian-language paperbacks of “Rambo”--the fictional hero of post-Vietnam America, love stories, and even a novel that glorifies the Israeli army. Iran regularly denounces Israel and the United States as “the great Satans.”

Censors still black out pictures of sleeveless women in foreign magazines, but the fervor seems to have waned. Offending photos manage to slip through the system, sometimes even of bikini-clad foreign starlets.

U.S.-made cigarettes at nearly $7 a pack are smuggled through Turkey and in some places are more popular than the local Azadi brand.


“America is the devil but makes good cigarettes,” quipped a grinning revolutionary guard flashing a pack of Winstons.

Big McAli

American-style fast-food shops are spreading. One chain called McAli has borrowed and adapted the M-shaped symbol of McDonald’s, which had branches here until 1979.

“Shoppers around here are often harassed by Revolutionary Guards, but they keep coming for the latest Christian Dior or a silk shirt,” a botique owner said.

However, very few people can afford them. A pair of Italian shoes sells for $400. An elegant shirt, even locally made, can cost $70, a pair of much-coveted U.S.-made jeans sells as much as $80.

Canned food, cheap clothes and public transportation remain rare. Lines are a frequent sight outside food stores and at bus stops.

In the traffic-jammed streets, pedestrians stop to admire new wall paintings depicting Iran’s military glories or banners proclaiming verses from the Koran, the holy book of Islam, but the huge murals portraying a frowning Khomeini have begun to peel, and his picture now rarely appears in the government-controlled media.