Dissecting the Dichotomy
Trip Start Jun 09, 2010
39Trip End Dec 31, 2015
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#1: Myth: Iran is a conservative Islamic Republic. Therefore, all women are dressed in hijab (headscarf), chador (full body covering), or perhaps even a burkha (full body covering with only a slit for the eyes). Women are oppressed and not allowed to show any part of their skin or bodies in public. Clothing is loose fitting and does not reveal anything of the shape of the body. Open toed shoes are forbidden. Women and men are segregated in public except when married or with family. Men do not shake hands with women and are not allowed to touch them outside of marriage or family.
Reality: Iran is a conservative Islamic Republic. However, the people are not nearly as conservative as the outside world perceives. Women all wear the hijab, but there is a lot of hair showing. In fact, I’ve seen women who look like they spend hours getting ready in the morning, styling their hair. Women with their hair dyed blonde. Flashy hijabs of every color of the rainbow. Yes, there are older women who wear the chador or the burkha, but it is the exception rather than the rule. The clothing is often quite revealing, but in a teasing kind of way. Many women wear close fitting clothes, sometimes even jeans. Shoes are often open toed. Men and women are seen socializing often in public. We visited a park/garden the other day and it was full of young love. Not that kind of young love, it is Iran, but we saw many young couples sitting together in seclude areas. Many times there have been men who have offered their hand to shake the women in my tour group. So, yes, it is a conservative Islamic Republic, but it couldn’t be more different that what we would imagine from the news or other media. The people of this country are very open and seem quite progressive in many ways. Nothing like what you’d find in the US, but a lot closer than you think.
#2. Myth: Islam is the most dominant feature of Iran. Islam is a way of life that rules and transcends all other aspects of life in Iran.
Reality: Islam is the most apparent feature of Iran. However, though this is a theocracy, meaning no separation of church and state where the church actually runs the state, the social aspect of Iran is more provincial and heritage based. People are proud of their city. They are proud of their Persian heritage, or Zoroastrian heritage, or Armenian heritage. To many people in Iran, Islam is only a part of their life, or perhaps they aren’t Muslim at all. Today, we visited the Vank Cathedral, which is an incredibly beautiful Armenian Christian church, adorned with fantastic artwork depicting the life of Christ and the apostles, as well as important stories from the Old Testament. The Armenian community in Esfahan is quite strong and has an important, protected relationship with the government going back to the early 1600s under Shah Abbas the First, who issued a decree giving them protected status. Zoroastrians, as I mentioned the other day, have more limitations on their ability to openly practice their religion, but they are still allowed to maintain their temples, and it’s difficult to enter a shop that isn’t selling and celebrating Zoroastrianism. I’m even surprised at the large number of souvenirs and sights that recognize or even celebrate the Shah, who was deposed in the revolution in 1979. A shop in our hotel even sells currency from the time of the Shah. People on the street even speak with reverence of the shah. (**N.B. -I don’t say this as a criticism of Iran or in support of the shah, I simply state it as an observation).
#3. Myth: Iran and the US are mortal enemies. The people of Iran hate the US and wish for its destruction. I’d even heard before coming here that weekly protests against the Great Satan (USA) are held. Americans are in grave danger in Iran.
Reality: As I’ve recounted in previous posts, this is obviously not true. My rock star status in this country is actually getting a little exhausting. Today, when riding in a taxi through the city (which was a harrowing experience in itself. Our driver seemed in such a hurry, he was cursing at cars that were moving at the speed limit or slightly above rather than obliterating the limit, or at cars that dared to stay in their own lane, preventing him from forging ahead unhindered. Turns were made at breakneck speeds, tires squealing, etc. I survived, but it was questionable at times), while stopped at a traffic light, a man on the side of the street beamed over at the car and asked “where are you from.” “America,” I replied. “Oh!” he said with surprise and glee as the driver peeled away suddenly, only to leave the man standing like a stunned animal. As we sped down the road, another car made its way alongside, and by along side, I mean he left about 6 inches between his car and hours. He was talking on his cell phone, but took the time to yell from his driver’s side window to my passenger side window “What is your country?” “America,” I replied. “Oh!” he said with surprise and glee, taking his car off the road and looking at me in awe. Then he promptly had to swerve away to avoid crashing headlong into a slow moving motorbike. Oh, well. If he had crashed, it would have been in a moment of unfettered happiness. It’s a bit embarrassing, actually. But each of those zany moments reminds me that we are not actually mortal enemies. Were the same people, living in different countries. We are one tribe, after all. They yearn to embrace the wider culture of the world, even if they are already living much of it right now. The people here would no sooner harm me or any other American than they would harm their own children. There is honest love in it.
Where does my dissection of the dichotomy fall apart? Where does it in fact remain true? Unfortunately, it lays on our own laps. Iranians possibly have an excuse for their lack of awareness and knowledge of the realities of the world, or of a misperception of America, Americans, and American culture. They live in a controlled society. So, what is our excuse? America has the privilege of many freedoms: of press, of religion, of assembly, of speech. What is our excuse for not knowing what Iran is really like, for believing with such fervor that they are our enemy, that they are evil? Should a farm boy from Missouri be tasked with traveling to the other side of the planet to find out the truth for himself. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but why did I not know these things before? So, actually, in the end, maybe this part of the dichotomy is also false. Once again, we are the same, we are not really contrasting, opposed forces. We are equally ignorant of one another.