Inside Iran: The Young and the Restless

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TEHRAN, Iran - Welcome to Iran's version of New York's Upper East Side.

Spend some time in the streets of north Tehran, and you will feel the pulse of a vibrant and modern Iran. Images of luxury and wealth are everywhere.

And there is little that money can't buy: the world's top fashion labels, the latest Mercedes and BMW models, designer watches, and multi-million dollar penthouses, to name just a few.

This is not quite the image you expect from this deeply religious society. But this is a land of contrasts. And at the moment, Iranians are hungry to experience the outside world.

Much of this desire, especially for all things Western, is being fueled by kids like 19-year-old Tehran resident Amir.

"Everyone likes to have the best cars and lots of money," Amir said.

Sporting a popular hairstyle in Tehran, Amir says he wants to party and pray: "I say my prayers and I perform my religious duties, but I also want to enjoy myself."

And when asked about his hairstyle and whether it could be viewed as "un-Islamic" by the authorities, Amir replied, "All my girl friends like my hairstyle, so I cut it this way. I can bring them all to you and they will testify to this!"

Amir is part of the under-30 crowd who make up 70 percent of Iran's population. They were born right before or shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

This generation doesn't want the religious men who rule this country running their lives. They've had enough of the strict Islamic rules. They want closer ties with America.

Amir said, "People in America can enjoy everything. You have so much freedom. Here in Iran we enjoy ourselves, but to a limit."

Some American pastimes such as drinking and dancing are strictly forbidden. Those caught doing so are beaten or arrested.

Mehti is a 24-year-old college student in Tehran. "We love to dance and listen to music, but we have to be very careful," he said.

You won't find any bars or nightclubs. But that hasn't stopped Amir and his friends from finding a way to party.

"We party underground, secretly in homes," Amir explained. "Sometimes the police give us trouble, but that's okay. This is how we live."

Dating is also forbidden. But here too, the youth are finding ways around it.

"I spend most of my free time chasing girls! This is what my friends and I do all the time. But again we do it secretly and not out in the open," said Amir.

Holding hands in public is discouraged unless you are married. Occasionally, you'll see one or two couples defy the mullah's ban.

And it's not just on the north side of the capital. Young Iranians across the country, rich and poor, are starving for more social freedoms. Twenty-seven years of Islamic theocracy have left millions disillusioned.

A recent government survey found that 55 percent of Iranian young people have contemplated suicide at least once. An increasing number are turning to drugs.

Mehti said, "People are using drugs like Ecstasy and Crystal in so many of the underground parties."

The young people sometimes take to the streets demanding democracy. But these protests are brutally put down.

"All the young boys and girls in Iran want freedom; freedom to think; freedom to speak," Mehti said.

And freedom to express themselves.

"I express myself by taking pictures," a young lady photographer said, "but I have to be very careful. There is no freedom here."

Freedom to say "no" to jihad and "yes" to the iPod.

"Life is good, but not in Iran," said one young girl from Tehran. For now, money and technology are giving the young access to the forbidden. They are wired to the Internet and exposed to Western ideas and culture.

"I spend a lot of time in Internet chat rooms," said one young woman, "talking to my friends around the world. I love it!"

Owning a satellite dish is against the law, but they are everywhere. Iranians see a life of freedom out there and they want it.

Western fashion has made a big impact.

A young girl said, "I enjoy watching beautiful girls wear all kinds of beautiful clothes."

After the revolution, women were forbidden to show their hair, arms, or legs. They were required to cover themselves from head to toe and wear clothes that would hide the shape of their body.

Some wore the all-encompassing black chador, which literally means "tents." Others choose long and loose-fitting black coats. Many still dress this way.

But an increasing number, especially the young, are pushing the limits.

They use makeup, show much of their hair, wear high heels and shorter, tight-fitting coats. Capri pants are very popular here.

One 18-year-old complains about having to cover her head all the time in public. "God is very beautiful and loves beautiful people," she said, "and so why can't I look nice too?"

But for the time being, they're happy to exchange the traditional black head covering for more colorful scarves.

There is a little stall on the side of the street and it's selling scarves. You've got women who are trying out different colors.

For the longest time, all they could wear were black scarves. Now they are finding shawls - pink ones and all kinds of multi-colored scarves and shawls.

Again, there are women who are pushing the limits in so many ways, trying to say to the regime that the old ways are good, but they want to embrace some new changes.

"I've got so many different colored scarves at home, but I thought this year brown is more in fashion, so I am wearing brown today," said a young woman describing her scarves.

And when they're not out shopping for clothes, you will find some of them at the ski slopes. The Swiss Alps? No, think again. The famous slopes of Alborz.

A short drive from the capitol, the snow-capped mountains around Tehran are a momentary escape from the religious edicts of this country.

"This is the best place for me," said one skier from Tehran. "A lot of young people come here to get away."

A young female skier said, "I come here and I have no worries. I can at least dream about having a better future one day."

But she and others may have to wait a while. Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed to roll back some of the modest freedoms gained in the last few years.

There is already a new crackdown on women's fashion. Western music has been banned. The Internet is being closely monitored. Satellite television programs are being scrutinized for un-Islamic content.

A few days after our interview with Amir, the government announced that hairstyles such as his would not be tolerated.

These are tense times in Iran. The youth are once again left to wonder if their dream of freedom and democracy will ever become a reality.

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George Thomas

George Thomas

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