Before the 1979 revolution, religious fundamentalists were revolted by images of scantily clad Iranian women in the country's cinema and television; today, state television and cinema are forbidden from showing unveiled Iranian women. This is despite the fact that most of the country's citizens have access to the much more tawdry fare on satellite TV (the dishes are officially illegal, but thought to be smuggled in by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps itself). In the forthcoming documentary The Iran Job, Kevin Sheppard, an American who played basketball in Iran's professional leagues, is shocked while surfing his newly connected satellite television. "We have 600 channels," he remarks, "400 of them are sex!"
Because of its religious pretensions, however, the Iranian regime is forced to spend untold millions of dollars trying to jam satellite TV broadcasts to prevent them from reaching the country's citizens -- a futile attempt to simultaneously repel the forces of both technology and human nature. In an interview with the New Yorker several years ago, an Iranian security official candidly assessed the challenge at hand:
The majority of the population is young.… Young people by nature are horny. Because they are horny, they like to watch satellite channels where there are films or programs they can jerk off to.… We have to do something about satellite television to keep society free from this horny jerk-off situation.
One might assume a country that suffers from chronic inflation and unemployment -- not to mention harsh international sanctions and a potential war over its nuclear program -- would have better things to do than discourage its youth from masturbating. Yet the regime continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Chinese censorship technology to create a moral Iron Dome against political and cultural subversion, with decidedly mixed results. Piped-in BBC Persian and Voice of America television are sometimes successfully scrambled, but those who want pornography have no shortage of outlets. That said, the censorship software sometimes get a bit overzealous. One Iranian friend told me of repeated unsuccessful attempts to access his British university's email account from Tehran, only to realize that the school's apparently bawdy name -- Essex -- was prohibited by the regime's Internet filters.
DURING THE RULE OF WESTERN-ORIENTED autocrat Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Tehran was a rapidly evolving society that deceptively appeared to be crossing into the modern age. My own family history is perhaps representative of Iran's urban middle-class trajectory during the 20th century: My devout paternal grandmother, born in 1907, wore a chador and wasn't formally educated beyond elementary school; three of her four daughters attended university, and all eschewed the veil. All of their daughters grew up in a Tehran in which miniskirts were the trend, and Googoosh -- Iran's pre-revolutionary J. Lo (but remarkably modest by today's standards) -- was their main "source of emulation."
Khomeini's opposition to the shah was fueled in part by the latter's enfranchisement of women, which the ayatollah deliberately conflated with sexual decadence. In his 1970 book Islamic Governance (Hukumat-e Islami) -- which would later provide the ideological and political template for post-revolutionary Iran -- Khomeini hyperventilated that "sexual vice has now reached such proportions that it is destroying entire generations, corrupting our youth, and causing them to neglect all forms of work! They are all rushing to enjoy the various forms of vice that have become so freely available and so enthusiastically promoted."
Khomeini nonetheless reassured his liberal revolutionary compatriots -- just months before the revolution, while in Paris exile -- that "women [would be] free in the Islamic Republic in the selection of their activities and their future and their clothing." Much to its retrospective dismay, a sizable chunk of Iran's liberal intelligentsia -- both male and female -- lined up behind Khomeini, some even referring to him as an "Iranian Gandhi." Shortly after consolidating power, however, Khomeini and his disciples swiftly moved to crush opposing views and curtail female social and sartorial freedoms. "Islam doesn't allow for people to [wear swimsuits] in the sea," he proclaimed shortly after becoming supreme leader. We "will skin their hide!"
Women who resisted the mandatory veil were met with violence and intimidation, including lyrical taunts of "Ya roosari, ya toosari!" ("Cover your head or be smacked in the head!"). As Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi recently wrote, "Although the 1979 revolution in Iran is often called an Islamic revolution, it can actually be said to be a revolution of men against women.… The drafters of [the Islamic Penal Code] had effectively taken us back 1,400 years."
Like Islamists in today's Egypt -- and some among America's Christian right -- Iran's revolutionaries found fertile ground on which to play the politics of pious populism, rather than concretely address the enormous challenges of building a diversified economy. The country's massive oil wealth made it appear all too easy. Khomeini famously dismissed economics as "for donkeys," and he responded to complaints of inflation by saying, "The revolution wasn't about the price of watermelons." Three decades later, the results are self-evident: In 1979, resource-rich Iran's GDP was almost double that of resource-poor Turkey. Today, it is roughly half.
The brutal reality is that Iranians had entrusted their national destiny to a man, Khomeini, who had spent far more time thinking about the religious penalties for fornicating with animals than how to run a modern economy.
AFTER HIS DEATH IN 1989, Khomeini was succeeded by the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has remained loyal to Khomeini's vision for Iran, including his prudishness regarding matters of the flesh. For Khamenei -- who has said that keeping women in hijab would "prevent our society from being plunged into corruption and turmoil" -- outward displays of feminine beauty are viewed not only with religious disfavor, but as an existential threat to the regime itself.