Escapism

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Iran: Revealing clothes highlight society's duality

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Mannequins clad in figure-hugging strapless gowns and black headwear on display in Shiraz bazaar. Photo / Jill Worrall
Mannequins clad in figure-hugging strapless gowns and black headwear on display in Shiraz bazaar. Photo / Jill Worrall

It was a sight that could sum up 21st century Iran - two curvy mannequins clad in figure-hugging strapless gowns, their plastic heads decorously covered with black cloth.

It was a quirky example of the duality of life in Iran - the requirement to conform in public while the reality for many Iranians in private is completely different.

The gowns themselves are no surprise to anyone who knows the Islamic Republic of Iran or who has even travelled briefly through it.

Although appearing in public in such garb would almost certainly attract some attention from the authorities, Western fashion is for sale almost everywhere. It's worn behind closed doors and under all-encompassing coats by probably millions of mostly urban, less conservative Iranian women.

What is new is the response to the latest decree from the Iranian government - the need for even female mannequins to have their heads covered - hence the incongruous models in the Shiraz bazaar.

Along with the decree on these came an order that male shopkeepers can no longer sell women's underwear and that men should desist from spiky, gelled hairstyles deemed "western".

I saw plenty of mannequins in headwear and a few new salesladies lurking among the lingerie but it seemed most of the Iran's trendy young men were failing to fall into line with the ruling on hair treatments.

One has to wonder whether Iran's leadership might not have more pressing matters to deal with... the small issue of nuclear power/weapons, a sluggish economy, and what appeared to me to be an accelerated exodus of its brightest and best overseas.

Would the Islamic Republic crumble if women could choose the degree to which they covered up or young men could decide how to style their hair?

I found on this, my sixth visit to Iran, that I was pondering more than ever the issues of personal freedoms versus government control.

How would we Kiwis cope with being dictated to over personal appearance and behaviour? After all, even a suggestion about the sort of showerheads and light bulbs we should be using raised the nation's hackles and contributed to an electoral backlash.

As I watched young svelte women in university cities such as Shiraz or in the shopping malls of Tehran pass by with headscarves perched precariously on the backs of their heads, feet shod in high heels, designer sunglasses highlighting artfully made-up eyes, I wondered... how long can you keep a highly sophisticated and perhaps increasingly secular younger generation under control like this?

So many of these young ones went out of their way to tell me (I didn't have to ask) that they wanted to move to Canada, Australia or New Zealand - in fact anywhere that might take them.

A girl doing her electronic engineering homework in an internet café was preparing to go; a multi-lingual guide who I'd met last year had already left; a woman, hearing a Kiwi accent, desperately searched for a piece of paper on which to write contact details - she wanted to talk to anyone about how to emigrate.

Iranians are not wanting out because they have to wear headscarves or give up hair gel. But, restrictions on personal freedoms certainly do weigh heavily on many.

Losing them overseas seems a high price to pay for maintaining control over the minutiae of life in a country in desperate need of talent, intelligence and energy.

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