Reihaneh Taravati, one of the Tehran six, the group of young people who were arrested, strip-searched, and forced to confess on state television for producing a lip-synced video to Pharrell William’s “Happy,” is the sort of young Iranian woman that strikes great nervousness into the heart of Iran’s hardliners.
Just a casual glance through her Instagram account reveals a talented young woman with serious professional and artistic aspirations, one who is deeply engaged with the worlds of fashion, art photography, and high-end advertising. She is also a Tehrani through and through, who like so many young women is determined to build a future in the city of their birth, mining its rich social, aesthetic, and human potential.
What can we glean of Reihaneh through the photos she has earmarked of her life? I see people in her photos I know from my days living in Tehran, and can imagine what she would be like in person. Playful, sharp, articulate. There is a devotion to culture, a short clip of women in hejab playing classical Persian music on the cello at some opening or other. There are photos of the writer and literary translator Abdollah Kosari at home, surrounded by books and plants. There are joyous photos of Reihaneh and friends digging into abgoosht, details like a tin of Quality Street on the coffee table, an affection-infused portrait of her mother twirling in a flowered chador.
There is work, too. The Instagram account links to Reihaneh’s personal website, where she features her wedding and advertising photography, both burgeoning fields in Iran, where a ripe market awaits access to normally-priced consumer goods and the obsession with stylishly documented matrimony endures despite 40 percent inflation.
What I find most striking about the markers of Reihaneh’s story is how little the popular conception of Iran in the west accommodates stories like hers. Whether she is staying in Iran out of choice is something I cannot speculate on, but she seems passionate about the horizons of her country, the tiles in Yazd, the decaying architecture of old Tehran, the saturated colors of mosque mosaics, the wide open deserts and infinite blue sky. I knew many young women like her when I lived inside the country, women who felt like they belonged there, who were moved by the art and culture of their country and felt it was feasible to work and make a living doing what they do anywhere—but they wanted that place to be Tehran.
The video clip she worked to produce, “Happy,” sends a message about life in such a city, under such circumstances. That it is possible to thrive professionally and artistically as a young woman. Yes there is an element of north Tehran grunge-socialite to her images. But there is also seriousness of purpose and presence of mind, which reminds me of all the young Tehrani women I knew who found small enclaves in which to take forward their goals and ambitions. Whether it was designing ponchos or holding living room sales of clothes bought in Istanbul, baking cakes for dinner parties with an eye to opening a patisserie, or simply setting up a local nursery because there was obviously demand for childcare, I remember a city of young women eager to work and build something. Reihaneh is on the stylish, arty side of that spectrum. But like so many young women in Tehran, her Instagram life reveals an individual whose tastes and worldview are purely international, but refracted through the impulse to create and thrive in her own homeland.