I know you shouldn’t interview your colleagues. But when we were discussing how to report “Investing in teenage girls,” the theme of this year’s United Nations’ World Population Day, I thought, why not just turn my chair around and talk to the three young Iranian women I’ve been working with for a while? I know how they live their lives today, in London. But how did they end up here? What can these three cosmopolitan cultivated women tell me about their country that most of us know so little about, and what it was like to grow up there?
As a young woman who spent my teenage years just north of Copenhagen, Denmark – having boyfriends, wearing makeup, living an easy life – it was hard for me to imagine what it is like to be a teenage girl in a country ruled by Islamic laws and norms. When I was 16, my weekends were mostly about drinking beer at the high school’s bar or going to the cinema with my boyfriend. Of course my colleagues couldn’t do that in Iran. So what did they do?
“Nowadays, you see a new generation of Iranian teenage girls who don’t have the same restrictions that we had, because we fought for them,” says Mansoureh, a 32-year-old Iranian blogger and journalist who moved to London five years ago. “At that time, we didn’t know we were fighting; we didn’t know the meaning of being an activist.”
The 30-something Londoners, Mansoureh, Nazanin and Nargess, didn’t know each other back in Iran. But they have similar stories from their teenage years in Tehran – from having to wear the hijab to bans on beauty and confrontations with the morality police.
“We have a lot in common,” Mansoureh says. “Because we share the same experiences. We have been through a lot of the same things.”
One skill they all developed at a young age was how to navigate the web of bans, restrictions and regulations imposed on women in Iran – not only by the country’s strict Islamic code, but also by society itself and the values it promotes.
“Laughing in public places was frowned upon,” says Nargess, a 33-year-old lawyer, who left Iran for Canada 10 years ago before moving to London in 2009. “Once I was chatting and laughing with some of my girlfriends at a café. The manager came and told us to stay quiet. Apparently laughing was a crime.”
Mansoureh agrees. “I think all of us have had that experience. I always took the bus to school with my female classmates. If we laughed loudly, even though we were at the back of the bus in the section for women and girls, all the old and middle-aged women would look at us like, ‘You are a girl, you are not allowed to laugh.’”
Hijab, Facial Hair and Lipstick
Looking back, all three agree that one of their biggest teenage struggles was being forced to wear hijab. Although they are all Muslims, none of them cover their hair today. They tell me that in Iran, girls are required to cover their hair in school as early as age seven — age nine if you’re going out on the streets. I wondered, what’s that like?
“Oh my god, I hated it,” Mansoureh says about the veil – a short version of the chador – that was a part of the school uniform. “I hated having something around my neck. And it’s under your chin. Why should you have something there?”
Nazanin, a 32-year-old web admin and human rights activist who left Iran in 2007, agrees. “Honesty, you look super ugly. You have to cover it tight around your face and cover half of your forehead.” She illustrates with her hands the small opening of the hijab out of which young women’s faces appeared to the public.
“Then imagine it with your big mono eyebrow,” Mansoureh says with a smile.
“You know, Iranian girls are hairier than Northern Europeans…” Nargess says.
The girls laugh; what sounds like a tragic teen experience has at least turned into an amusing memory.
“When you are a teenager you care about your beauty,” Mansoureh continues. “But we were not allowed to do that. It made us feel insecure.”
I remember that in high school, I wore mascara and eyeliner every day. Without makeup, my Danish blond hair would make me look – or at least I felt so – like an insecure ten-year old girl. I couldn’t imagine teachers or other adults prying into what I did to make myself happy with the way I looked – much less getting into trouble over it.
But when Nazanin, Nargess and Mansoureh were growing up in Tehran, it was a completely different story. Wearing any makeup was forbidden. So was plucking eyebrows or waxing facial hair.
“In school, if one girl had a lipstick or a mirror or something, they would come to our class and search all of our bags. It was so bad; I can’t forget that,” Mansoureh says. “And even though no one could see our hair, still they would check if we had dyed it. Once they claimed I had colored mine. They kept me out of class until my mom confirmed I didn’t dye my hair. Even when nobody could see my hair. Why would it matter?”
Nazanin says that she was once sent home from high school after she had waxed her upper lip hair.
“They sent me home for three weeks, waiting for the hair to grow out again,” she says. “The school principal called my mom, who explained, ‘We think it’s better for her. She’s 16, she doesn’t feel good.’ But the principal said she didn’t care. I felt terrible. They used me as an example to scare the others from doing the same.”
Mansoureh says her parents were also okay with her waxing over the summer holidays, when she wouldn’t get into trouble.
“And then two weeks before school you would grow it out,” Nazanin adds.
As girls, they knew exactly how to get around the rules – and when to pretend to follow them.
Boyfriends, French Kisses and Illicit Affairs
Where I grew up, there was no such thing as a boys’ or girls’ school. We had separate toilets, but other than that, we did everything together: I shared classes with boys, did sports with boys; even sex education was taught to boys and girls in the same classrooms. When I was 13, the local after-school-club hosted discos every second Friday, and, later, my high school hosted beer bars. Girls were free to have boyfriends, or even just short flings. Teenagers could walk down the street holding hands, and even French kiss in public or at school. This was just part of teenage life, as common and normal as listening to Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears.
So I am curious to hear if Nazanin, Nargess and Mansoureh had teenage boyfriends too. All three nod yes. But, they say, the term “boyfriend” has a somewhat different meaning than what I remember from my own youth.
“Having a boyfriend is different,” Mansoureh says. “There’s no hugging or holding hands in public.”
“It’s about talking on the phone; sometimes you go out,” Nazanin adds.
Even hanging out with a person of the opposite sex – unless you are related – is considered “a misdemeanor” in Iran, and can get you charged with having an “illicit affair.”
“When I was 18, I was out with my boyfriend in a park to celebrate the Persian New Year,” Mansoureh says. “The police came and asked us what we were doing. We were just sitting together. They asked if we were related. We tried to convince them we were cousins, but they wouldn’t let us go together; it was half an hour before New Year. The policeman shouted at me to leave. My boyfriend later told me they had slapped him.”
Authorities, she says, invent bizarre methods for preventing boys and girls from becoming friends. All the way up to university, boys and girls are separated in schools. And to make sure they don’t meet each other on their way home from school, classes finish at different times.
“The boys’ school finished an hour earlier than ours,” Mansoureh says. “But the boys came and waited for us in front of our school. The police would tell them to leave even though they weren’t doing anything.”
She says that boys also had to follow rules. But they weren’t as strict as for the girls, and they mostly depended on their school.
“I know the boys had to cut their hair, and they couldn’t wear shorts or jeans,” she says. “But they could go and play in the streets and do whatever they wanted; we couldn’t do that. That’s why many girls dress as boys. When I was younger I liked to dress up like a boy because then I could play football on the street with my neighbor. It was just easier.”
As a Dane who grew up with lots of male friends, I couldn’t understand how Iranian young people even had the opportunity to meet someone of the opposite sex.
“When you want to do something, you will find a way,” Nazanin says.
“Some managed to meet boys at religious ceremonies,” Nargess explains. In recent years, some ceremonies commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, the 3rd Imam of Shias, have changed from environments of strict religious observation to something resembling speed dating. They’ve even coined the name “Hussein Parties.” Gone are the days of self-flagellation and chest-beating. Instead, it’s all about mingling.
“Or if you took a piano class or other extra-curriculum activity, you would have a chance to socialize with the opposite sex,” Nargess continues. “And I remember at university, online chatting was popular. That was a bit risky, but you could find someone that you could meet in person.”
Mansoureh says a lot depends on families. “I was volunteering in a social group for the environment,” Mansoureh says. “If you have an open-minded family then they will let you go to parties and let you volunteer or do sports. But if you don’t have a supportive family, it’s much harder. Many Iranian families won’t accept any relationship outside of marriage.”
She adds that at university the rules become somewhat more relaxed, making it easier to mingle with boys and find boyfriends. “Some girls only go to university to find husbands, because they don’t meet them anywhere else.”
Being a Teenage Girl is a Crime
I’ve been researching and writing about arrested and incarcerated Iranian journalists for a couple of years now, so I’m familiar with crime and punishment stories in Iran. But after talking with Mansoureh, Nargess and Nazanin, I can see that many girls in Iran live with a constant feeling of being seen as criminals — just for being themselves, being young and doing what young people do. That ice cream I shared in the park with my first boyfriend would make me a criminal in Iran. And the fact that today I travel with my partner whom I’m not married to could potentially put me in prison.
“One of my friends’ sister was given 75 lashes when she was 19 years old,” Nazanin says. “Her crime was being at a party with boys. After spending three days in jail, she received the lashes and had to pay a huge fine.” Nazanin laughs when she sees my shocked face. “It’s normal in Iran,” she says.
“Because so much is illegal, as a child I started to learn to lie to survive,” Nargess says. “I felt that everything I was doing was criminal. When I rode a bike, the religious police would come and puncture my tires. And when we went out after university in a group of boys and girls, we weren’t allowed into any cafes. I wasn’t doing anything criminal; I wasn’t a political activist. I was just a normal girl who loved to laugh.”
“When you are a child, you don’t know why these rules are there,” Nazanin says. “You just know you have to wear something that is bothering you; that you can’t run in the park because you are a girl; you can’t cycle on the road.”
Yet, despite the constant feeling of being a criminal — despite the bans, the restrictions and the indefinite lists of do’s and don’ts — these women look back at their teenage years with fond memories.
“We had fun,” Mansoureh says. “We learned to bypass the bans. Anything we did was a satisfaction; we achieved something. Even though it was just a small victory, it counted.”
Nargess agrees. “You learn to live. I always rode a bicycle knowing that I might get caught. When I reached my destination I had some kind of satisfaction.”
It is clear to me that growing up in Iran wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, even though some of the stricter rules have been relaxed in Tehran at least. But I see too that these women feel they learned valuable lessons from their experiences.
“Being born in any background, in any society, has some advantages and disadvantages,” Nargess says. “Living in Iranian society has made me flexible, resilient, and strong. It made me a fighter.”
“Of course living in the West as a teenager is easier,” Mansoureh adds. “I’m sure I don’t want my kids to go through what I went through. But we had a valuable experience. With my European friends, if something goes wrong, they go crazy and think it’s the end of the world. For us, life goes on. I think we are stronger than those who grew up in the West.”