The dichotomy of Iran: Firsthand impressions of Tehran and its people

There is so much thirst for freedom here, so much love for life, but the life led and the freedoms given take place within the strict confines of the regime and its laws.

SAKINE OMRANI is one of the nine female members of the Iranian parliament. (photo credit: ANNIKA HERNROTH-ROTHSTEIN)
SAKINE OMRANI is one of the nine female members of the Iranian parliament.
I came to Iran bearing a clear picture of what I was about to see – social struggles, hatred and oppression – but the reality was much more layered and far more complicated than that.
Iran is a clash between then and now, ancient tradition and Western-style modernity, but even that comparison falls short of what actually is. East and West do not apply here, for Iran stands singular in all my travels and experience, and therefore the clashes can be neither be foreseen nor managed by the will of Western might.
Just outside the city, on the main street cutting through Tehran, is a mural painted soon after the nuclear deal was struck. The artwork features two arms extended in a handshake, one painted in the colors of the American flag, the other in the flag of Iran. There is a sharp knife coming out of the sleeve of the American hand, ready to stab at its partner.
It is not the only work of its kind but, rather, part of the literal and figurative landscape of the city, speaking of conflicts new and old. Politics is everywhere, intertwined with ancient history, but when I ask my government-appointed guide about what it is like to live under these conditions, he is hesitant to say that there is any pressure.
“It’s not like Europe, of course, and I hate that I can’t travel and see the world as much as I would want to, but the love I feel for this country is second to none.”
Hamid’s English is flawless, and he dresses like a 29-year-old man from the West, wearing a well-ironed Ralph Lauren shirt and stylish dark-wash jeans.
We spend all the waking hours of the week together, and as a friendship starts forming ever so slowly, I can’t help but wonder what I would be if I took his place and our lives swapped in an instant.
We spend the time between meetings talking about religion, and when he finds out I am religious, it seems to relax him, as we are standing on somewhat common ground. I wait in the car as he stops at the mosque to pray, and he follows me to the synagogue at the end of Palestine Street. Once we are there, I see his curiosity, and after I say the minha prayer on the very first day, we start comparing notes; his traditions and mine, our texts and our laws and our outlooks – it is all debated in a context that I never thought I would find myself in.
What was first a tentative talk grows in intensity, and I summon the courage to ask him if he on any level considers me an enemy. I can see the hurt move across his face and I regret it, yet despite myself I keep insisting, trying to ascertain how much of what I know is truth and how much is fiction.
“I make a clear distinction between Jews and Zionists, between believing in the Jewish God and supporting Israel. You are my friend and I care about you. I understand that you do not represent Israel.”
I’m not sure what to say to that, so I say nothing, and Hamid alleviates the tension by offering me gum, a somewhat endearing and nervous habit. His words are echoed throughout the week, people I meet putting emphasis on this quite familiar distinction. The Jews are loved; Israel is hated, and in between is the wobbly line that the Jews of Iran are left walking.
EAST AND West do not apply here. The clashes can be neither foreseen nor managed by the will of Western might.
NINE OF the 290 members of the Iranian parliament are women, and Sakine Omrani is one of them, representing the conservative wing known as the Principalists. I speak to her in her office in the Majlis, the beautiful stone structure of the Iranian parliament, on the last day of sessions before breaking for elections taking place on February 26.
Omrani points to her black chador, the ankle-length garment covering her body, and smiles at me with the look of a woman not to be messed with.
“The West does not understand Iran at all, and the biggest misconception has to do with women and equality. We are respected here. Even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said women are creators of humans, just like the holy Koran. That perfectly describes our special position in this society."
Regarding the chador, she says, “I do not have to wear this, but I choose to.
Yes, according to our law I have to cover my head, but I could do it like you,” she says and gestures at my loosely fitting hijab and my protruding curls.
“I wear my chador because it protects me from irrelevant ideas that men as well as women might have of me. And mind you, this is not a Muslim phenomenon or limited to the Middle East. People draw conclusions about you based on your appearance, and I do not want that. I want it to be about my mind. All about my intellect.”
The situation for women in Iranian politics is, like the country itself, full of contradictions. While there are several female political heavyweights and even an all-female political party (Zeynab Society), the women in parliament are vehement in backing harsher legislation impacting women such as nikah al-mut’ah (temporary marriage), the law against contraception, and gender segregation in schools and government bodies. When I ask Omrani about this and about the possible growth of a feminist movement within the country, she says that this is their way and their values, and that the world lacks a certain sense of humility in relating to countries like Iran.
“Feminism as you know it will not win over Iran. We have our foundation in the holy Koran and it teaches us everything we need to know, including the importance of respecting women. Sixty percent of university students in Iran are women, no one here in parliament has anything less than a master’s degree, including me; and the women of Iran choose the lives they lead. That is equality. Is it feminism? I don’t know and I don’t care.”
And this is what seems to be the Iranian way. Pride and independence, stained with an ever-present feeling of betrayal and abandonment, dating back to the Iran-Iraq war. These emotions are reflected in the public and political reaction to the nuclear deal, where careful optimism clashes with a deep suspicion of America and its motives.
“There is a definite lack of trust between Iran and America, and that does not change with this deal. We want to improve this country, but on our terms, not America’s terms, especially since they are far from sincere and the promises made can easily be broken. So yes, we can use the things acquired by the deal, such as Western technology, but we don’t want the whole package; we will use the technology to create our own solutions and apply it to our way of life.”
THE WOMEN in parliament are vehement in backing harsher legislation impacting women such as temporary marriage, the law against contaception and gender segregation.
FOR MANY in the Jewish world, Persian Jewry is most closely associated with the Purim story and Esther and Mordecai who fought Haman and the evil nation of Amalek, but this community has seen many trials and victories over the span of 2,700 years. In modern times, up until the fall of the shah, Jewish life here was good, as were the ties to America and Israel, but with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 came troubling times for the Persian tribe. Over the course of a few months the Jewish population of Iran diminished from 80,000 to today’s 12,000, most of them emigrating to Israel and America. Rampant anti-Semitism and Israel-hatred were the main reason, paired with government seizure of assets and a spike in violence toward Jews as vengeance for rumored “theft of Persian treasure.”
Since then, things have stabilized, in part because of the sustained efforts of the Jewish Central Committee and its work to create ties to the regime. As of now the country houses 13 synagogues, a variety of kosher restaurants and several Jewish schools and learning institutions, and when I sit down to speak to the head of the Tehran Jewish Committee, Yoram Haroonian, he tells me life here is probably not what I had expected.
“The Jewish life here is good. We choose to stay; leaving is not forbidden, so it is our choice to be here. This is something many seem to misunderstand.”
And a part of me is drawn to their life, to this community and this country, in a very unexpected way. The tight-knit community true to Torah and tradition, the riches of the Jewish life and lack of guards outside schools, synagogues and institutions – it’s all far from the life I live in Sweden and the sense of exclusion I face every day.
But there is something else that dispenses with the longing – the looming presence and the watchful eye, the fear that the status quo will be altered by factors well beyond their control and that leaves them on the other side of what is now a mostly positive exception.
Jews in Iran are a recognized minority, as stated in the Iranian constitution, but in that very text it clearly says that they are to abide under and adhere to the law, and that law is, of course, Shari’a. This leads to a homogeneous community, partially as a result of intermarriage carrying a possible death sentence, but also to a slanted form of equality where the only answer is caution and adaptation.
MEMBERS OF the Iranian Jewish Community vote in a synagogue in last months’ presidential elections.
ON THE last day of my trip I go to the bazaar to pick up some souvenirs, and Hamid escorts me back to my hotel, helping to carry bags of exotic treasures. As we approach my room to lock up the loot before dinner, there is an angry voice behind us. I cannot understand the rapid Farsi, but I do understand that I crossed a line that I didn’t even see was there.
Hamid does not argue with the man, but apologizes and then turns to me.
“I thought it would be okay for me to help you, but I should have known better, and I am sorry for doing this to you.”
His face shows utter embarrassment, having been reprimanded by a pimple- faced bellhop for approaching a single woman’s room, and I try to assure him I am okay, though I know it makes no real difference.
“It is times like these I feel frustrated, because I see that I’m stuck, you know, and that everyone is watching to see if I break one of the million rules just so they can catch me,” he says.
It’s perhaps the first real moment I’ve had since I got here, the very first crack in the glass. I see the control in action and what it means for someone my age; not being imprisoned but also never free, always looking to see who might be watching.
Omrani told me she wanted to be judged by her intellect, but I know for sure my mind was not the reason for being stopped on my way to that room.
My intellect is secondary, and can be heard only after I relinquish my body and sexuality, accepting that just as all other things, it is a matter for the state.
This is the dichotomy of Iran and the heartbreak of its people. There is so much thirst for freedom here, so much love for life, but the life led and the freedoms given take place within the strict confines of the regime and its laws – leaving only remnants of either. 
The writer is a political adviser and writer on the Middle East, religious affairs and global anti-Semitism. Follow her on Twitter @truthandfiction