Guest column

TEHRAN — Each trip I make to Iran is a source of fresh wonder.

Last year the encroaching war in Iraq, a country that shares a long and conflict-ridden border with Iran, discouraged many Americans and other foreigners from visiting the Fajr Film Festival. With the Mideast situation momentarily stabilizing, Fajr has once again become an obligatory stop for buyers and festival programmers. Lured by the continuing strength of Iranian arthouse product and an expanding Intl. Film Market (Feb. 4 to 9), 150 foreign guests came to screen new Iranian films.

Heavy censorship rules have forced Iranian directors to find subtle new ways to tell about life in their country. Perhaps this accounts for the many exciting films being made. But what immediately strikes the Western eye is the growing number of women working in the film industry. New films by Rakshan Bani-Etemad, Tahmineh Milani and actress-turned-director Niki Karimi drew attention. Their festival-quality output is one of the most heartening things one sees at Fajr, and one of the best measuring sticks of Iranian society’s painstakingly slow progress toward equal rights.

Having attended the festival since 1990, when conditions were considerably bleaker than they are today, I can attest to the very real changes that have occurred. Back then, a scant decade after the American hostage crisis, the atmosphere was thicker than a burqa and the Western guests fit into a few mini-buses. Men and women were not allowed to shake hands or even sit side by side in a car or at the festival closing ceremony.

The post-revolutionary Hyatt had replaced its bar with a coffee shop where waiters roughly ordered an Iranian director and actress I was interviewing to show some modesty and pull their scarves down.

Not only hair, but one’s neck, forearms, waist and legs all had to be carefully covered and disguised lest they lead some passing male into temptation. The pretty young festival interns, dressed in habit-like outfits, looked like nuns to us. In Isfahan, a particularly religious city, I bought a faded green raincoat in a doomed attempt to blend in. Some girls in the store offered to buy my jeans, as in eastern Europe.

Nowadays the dress code has loosened up and a long sweater over loose trousers is tolerated. Whereas before one heard stories of women being taken off to jail or worse for wearing make-up on the street, it’s now widely used. Headscarves have grown noticeably lighter, smaller and more transparent. A few stray locks are no longer a tragedy.

To my surprise, a few men even shook hands with me and the ceiling didn’t cave in.

Still, you must be constantly vigilant about how you sit, how your coat gapes open, if that scarf is slipping. With the years, the self-consciousness of dressing unnaturally never passes, it only gets more frustrating. The feeling of hypocrisy also grows, as the outspoken films of young women directors like Mania Akbari in “20 Fingers” and Niki Karimi in “One Night” (but also Abbas Kiarostami’s “Ten” and Mohammad Shirvani’s “Navel”) bring images of Iranian women as normal sexual beings into focus.

Women are more covered up in films than in real life. That’s because the censors can pounce on an actress wearing too much makeup or with too much hair showing to nix a politically undesirable film. Most directors, especially women, feel it’s not worth the risk. In their homes, no one wears a headscarf and overcoat; in the movies, women go to bed this way. This is why many directors, like Kiarostami, refuse to shoot indoor scenes at all.

Men, in contrast, have only one dress taboo: ties. A dim view is taken of that symbol of Western capitalism, although some middle-class rebels seem to want to wear them. In the recent film “Too Far Away, Too Close,” a neuro-surgeon is asked to take his off before appearing on TV.

Restaurants went through a steep decline after the revolution, when not only alcohol but also singing and music became off-limits. I’m happy to see more opening up, with their traditional food and d├ęcor and — surprise — orchestras playing tuneful folk music.

But nothing is more amazing than being invited to a private party. It’s true that women take off their street cover-ups and wear evening dresses (though nowhere near as revealing as what they wear in the Arab Mideast) and everyone drinks. Non-Islamic citizens — like those belonging to the dwindling Armenian community, now down to 30,000 in the whole country — even play music and dance. The feeling of liberation at being able to take off the headscarf is guaranteed to be one of the week’s peak emotions.

I was still amazed in this last visit to Iran by the unexpected courtesy of being escorted to the luxuriously decorated VIP lounge at Tehran airport to wait while someone collects my baggage and gets my passport stamped. And I’m still deeply irritated — as are all its female visitors — in being forced to fight a weeklong battle with a slipping headscarf that rebelliously refuses to cover my hair from male view. Then it astonishes me to discover that — look! –this year you can show six inches of hair, instead of only three.

I have come to feel it’s a privilege to be a woman visiting Iran because, unlike our male colleagues sprawled comfortably in their short-sleeved shirts and blue jeans, the dress and scarf hassle has brought me face to face with what local women go through every day. How I sympathize with them. And how I look forward to their new films.

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