Lipstick Jihad: An Interview With Azadeh Moaveni

An Iranian-American journalist discovers a complex, paradoxical Iran.

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Viewed from the outside, Iran seems an alien, forbidding place. What we know of its rulers — a clique of hard-core mullahs who run the country with a heavy hand — isn’t encouraging; and what we know of its people … isn’t very much at all. It’s useful, then, to have a book like Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran, to show us that Iran is every bit as nuanced, as various, and as contradictory as we like to think the United States is.

Moaveni grew up in San Jose, Calif., her parents having left Iran in 1976, three years before the Islamic revolution unseated the Shah and established theocratic rule, and radical students took Americans hostage in the US embassy in Tehran. The unresolved tension she felt between her cultural identity as an Iranian and an American led her, after college, to go to Iran as a journalist.

For two years she wrote about Iran for Time, finding that beneath the surface of easy assumptions and cultural stereotypes lay a complex and varied reality. Her stay was bracketed, roughly, by the pro-democracy student demonstrations of 1999 and President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in 2001, after which the government clamped down hard on dissent — and on journalists: she felt compelled, after routine intimidation and occasional interrogations, to leave in fear for her safety.

Lipstick Jihad is the account of Moaveni’s time in Iran, and of her quest to better understand her cultural identity. From her hotel room in Manhattan, where she began her book tour, she recently spoke by phone with Given the tense history between the US and Iran, do you think it’s more complicated being an Iranian-American that some other kind of hyphenated American?

Azadeh Moaveni: You have these two countries that have had this really fraught relationship for almost 25 years now. It’s very charged. Being another hyphenated American, I imagine, is charged racially. But this is a political charge, you’re in the shadow always of this relationship. The hostage taking, for America, was a uniquely traumatizing event, and we were so immediately linked to that. So there’s a lot of baggage. What are some of the biggest differences in your mind between American culture and Iranian culture?

AM: One big difference I’ve noticed is how class is experienced in both places. Even though America is so class-stratified, the idea that there is a national culture that transcends class is really present. In Iran, despite the revolution and its attempt to eliminate class as a category, there’s now political class. That’s different than social class, but it’s still very much infused with the nuance that comes from a class-stratified place. What are some ways that that manifests itself in Iran?

AM: The interesting thing is that you see the revolutionary elite becoming Western, because being privileged used to mean being Westernized in Iran. They came from a conservative background, made a lot of money off the revolution and were supposed to be political elites, but not westernized ones. But that association between the West and privilege lingered so persistently that even though they’re still socially really bound to the revolution, token aspects of Western lifestyle are becoming part of what it means to be, paradoxically, revolutionary and anti-Western. You also write about a distinctive kind of evasiveness in Iranian culture.

AM: Yes, I think this is the biggest difference between the US and Iran — how honesty is interpreted. American culture is incredibly forthright. There’s this premium on telling it like it is and being frank. Iranian culture, and Farsi, the language, is really evasive; it has all these rituals and cues and formalities in how people deal with one another.

I think evasiveness took on a whole new meaning after the revolution. You suddenly had Islamic conservative values governing how society was run, which pushed a lot of things behind closed doors and under veils and chadors. Private behavior became much more weighted.

I write in the book about eroticization. It’s not explicit, ever, but the emphasis on covering and the hidden and forbidden was sexualizing because everyone was very preoccupied with that. Nothing about how you conduct your private life is at all apparent from the way you look to everyone else. Evasiveness, privacy and eroticization all came together in the post-revolutionary culture. The Western media paints a very dark picture of what life is like for women in Iran today. Is that accurate?

AM: I have a chapter on relationships and sexuality and how some women actually had their opportunities expanded by the revolution. I used to think that some traditional woman had more rights than secular women, but I’ve come to think about traditional women’s current situation as more tragic than the way I wrote it in the book. The revolution was meant to be an emancipation for women. It ended up being a semi-emancipation, but promiscuity and drugs and all those things grew and festered after the revolution. So there was lost innocence and then young girls got nothing in its place. They didn’t gain any freedom to actually explore themselves and they didn’t get a chance to do anything with some of the new freedoms that come with education. What kept Iranian girls and women from taking these new freedoms to the next step?

AM: I think society hadn’t moved that far along. Suddenly you had all of these women going to college and becoming literate, which hadn’t really happened before ’79. But there weren’t jobs for them. Also, traditional conservative Iranians weren’t ready to see that next step. So our daughters get educated, but are we ready for them to go off and be independent and have jobs? No. There wasn’t a parallel social evolution to match women’s new freedoms. Did living in Iran affect how you see yourself as a woman now?

AM: I’m always startled by how much I’ve internalized all of this stuff. I’ll come back to the States and I’ll see a woman in shorts, and I’ll think, “Oh my God!” And then I’ll stop and I’ll think, “Why did you just have that thought?” It’s an unreflexive internalization of these things. Of course it’s very shallow, but it makes me realize why Iranian young people are so conflicted now, even after things opened up in ‘97. You’re given all these messages all the time—that this is forbidden and you can’t be with a guy on the street. Even if you don’t really believe any of it on a conscious level, it seeps into how you think. I don’t think young Iranians acknowledge that they’ve internalized any of that, but I think it’s there. Even though young kids can be really hedonistic and rebellious in Iran, they’ll come up with surprising ways of judging. Has working in Iran changed you as a journalist?

AM: As a reporter you know not to take what people say at face value. But Iran really taught me that in a whole new way, because especially young people—when you ask them questions about how they feel about America or how they feel about the prospect of America pressuring this regime, you’ll get the impression that they are incredibly pro-American. It wasn’t until I really lived there that I saw a lot of it had to do with cultural associations and what America meant as a symbol of lifestyle freedom or as a way to get under the mullahs’ skin. It was not so much about America but about being Iranian in Iran at that moment.

It made me much more inclined as a reporter to move away from vox pops. Do I talk to everyone all over a city or spend a day in a village understanding how big picture questions have changed one place? It made me value getting as micro as possible with big picture issues. You came in for some intimidation in Iran. How does that compare to your experience in other Middle Eastern countries?

AM: Honestly, in most other places I worked I was never interrogated or followed or felt my reporting checked in an explicit way. I think that’s probably reserved for, say, Egyptian journalists in Egypt or Lebanese journalists in Lebanon the way it was for me in Iran.

But as a reporter in those places, I was surprised by how much more closed off the debate was about political Islam. The debate in Iran was so startlingly open. These big issues about faith and Islam and the role it should play in politics is what everyone talks about Iran, and no one talked about it in any other Middle Eastern country, or they did so in very uninteresting and suppressed ways. In the book, when you talk about Islamic politics, one of the expressions you use is “culture of lies.” You also say you think that only secularism can safeguard basic human rights. Is that an absolute?

AM: My experience in Afghanistan recently informed my thinking about this. Having a legal system that incorporates both secular law and religious law at the same time, I think, is a way to bridge those who might want to have Islam involved in governing society and those who value the western notion of rights—the rights of the individual. If there’s a way in which you can have secular approaches to different aspects of legal practices, I think it doesn’t have to be only secular. You mentioned western-style rights. What do you have in mind?

AM: I think this young generation in Iran wants Western-style rights. It’s not “rights” in a very legalistic or human rightsy sense, but “rights” as in values—the right to individual choice in lifestyle, career choice, who you marry and who you don’t. Rights as a way of not being bound by tradition or having to live a certain way. Iraq’s constitution looks likely to be grounded, to some degree, in Islamic law. Do you think in that case it’ll be possible to retain the kinds of individual rights and freedoms you’re talking about?

AM: In Iran, you have an elected government and the divine right by law and they’re both trying to operate. You can have an elected parliament that makes laws, but if the judiciary is appointed by the Supreme Leader—who is a representative of God—then you’re kind of at an impasse.

But Iraq won’t have that top-down structure to deal with. I think it’ll be a question of juries and due process and other elements of a secular legal system. You can have all of those in place with a system that’s inspired by Islamic law, and if the system is trying to be reasonable and accountable, there’s no reason why it has to be a disaster. You say in the book that you didn’t grow up as a devout Muslim. After living in several Middle Eastern countries, has your relationship to Islam changed?

AM: Between my experiences in Iran and Iraq, I learned how to become a secular Shiite, which I never knew was possible before. This idea that you are culturally a Shiite, yet you don’t pray five times a day — in the Middle East I found this established tradition of never doubting for a second that you have Muslim identity, but that you’re secular. In Iran, too?

AM: Definitely in Iran. Iran is so secular. I’m so shocked by this. That you can have a secular middle class in an Islamic country, I think is just phenomenal. It’s so rare in the rest of the region. Why is that rare?

AM: In many other Middle Eastern countries, the government has made such a point of keeping Islam at arm’s length. People have grown increasingly frustrated with their lives, with the economy and with the politics of the country. Islam becomes an appealing outlet. They’ve had a reason to become more religious, whereas in Iran, it was never taken away in the first place. In fact, it was imposed. So people are able to conclude whether they want to have a private relationship to their faith—which is actually what I mean when I say “secular” in Iran. It’s this idea that everyone decides for ourselves, and the government doesn’t decide for us, how much Islam there is in our lives. Do you see Iran changing in our lifetime?

AM: Iranian young people want secular government. But they know this regime is around for a while, and the trick for them is to see how they can transform it from within. They are doing this in their everyday life, looking for small ways to press for more personal and political freedom.

I think Iran is the kind of place where it’s difficult to predict what’s going to trigger structural change. It’s hard to also predict the role that civil disobedience or mass protests could play. Iranian young people are so modern and so secular, so connected to the world. It’s hard to imagine that the culture won’t change and then start putting pressure on the government to change. The horizon is 10, 20, 30 years, but I think it will happen. How do you balance your disagreement with parts of the politics and policies of both countries?

AM: It’s really tough, because in the U.S. you’re so easily branded an apologist for the Islamic Republic or an accommodationist if you’re not willing to say that everyone would welcome American tanks with flowers. But if you speak openly about what’s going on in Washington and tell Iranians, “Look, America’s really serious about your nuclear weapons,” you’re branded as being hawkish or you’re speaking for America, when really you’re just saying, “You gotta understand how the American government works.” What is the American media not reporting about the current standoff?

AM: There needs to be more attention paid to the spectrum of Iranian public opinion. I think Iranians are very conflicted about the bomb and whether the government should have it. They’re very critical of the government’s motives for wanting one. They’re worried about the possibility of a Chernobyl. They’re worried about whether this government is efficient enough to even run a huge nuclear power plant.

The Iranian government says, “We have the full support of the entire Iranian nation for our nuclear program.” And then I see a lot of press coverage in the West that says, “Iranians back their regime over this.” It’s not terribly sexy to say, “Iranians are divided straight down the middle about something.” But I think Iranians’ ambivalence is going to be a huge factor. Has the Iranian government cracked down on freedom of expression as the tension has mounted?

AM: The level of repressiveness has been semi-constant since Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, which completely changed political culture in Iran and the extent to which you could have debate in newspapers and on weblogs about where the country should be going. It became really stifling then, and I think that’s still the case. Would you give some examples of how the government became more stifling? It almost seems like it was a self-fulfilling prophecy on Bush’s part: His calling Iran “evil” pushed the clerics to become more repressive.

AM: If it’s democracy you’re trying to promote in Iran, if you have a fledgling trend of liberality and you suddenly make that regime feel like it’s under attack, it’s a no-brainer that it’s going to crack down.

Before “axis of evil,” you had reformist newspapers writing openly about Islam and punishment: does Islam justify stoning and lashings and these sorts of things? Afterwards, it had to go underground. Suddenly newspapers that had been extremely critical ran stories on runaway girls. You had to criticize obliquely through human-interest stories and pointing out how miserable people were in different walks of their life. What lesson is there for Americans to learn from your experience as a journalist in Iran?

AM: That muckraking journalism is about agitating objectively, but that it’s not driven by a political agenda, but rather a rights-based agenda. I would encourage people to think about media as a forum for politics.

In Iran, the way that that’s approached is really sophisticated. If there’s an objectively awful thing that’s happening and you’re writing about it in a way that communicates that, it’s not seen as biased. That’s how really rotten things in society can be changed. People should realize that it’s not necessarily an insidious or regressive thing in the part of media. How do you think the US media compares?

AM: I think there’s this cult of objectivity in the U.S. about media. There are two sides to every story, but it’s not always objective that one side has as much right to narrate a story. I think it’s distorting to always impose that 50-50 impulse on everything you cover because otherwise you’ll be branded as “liberal” or “having an agenda.” Life is not 50-50.

Iranian society is really politicized, and your average person reads a bunch of newspapers — or at least used to, before the post-“axis of evil” government crackdowns — and thinks about these things. Reading the news is not a rarefied domain for only people who have two degrees. So even if the government would crack down on the press, people defended the press. Here, media is beleaguered. Even the mainstream media is being attacked, and most people don’t seem to care!



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