Shahram Khosravi, Young and Defiant in Tehran (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).
The all too common interpretive strategy for commentaries on contemporary Iranian youth and women—whether popular or scholarly—is to pose a simple binary. In the standard version, the 1979 revolution is taken as the historical breaking point. Iran under the Shah may have been an autocracy, but compared to what came after it was a paradise: modern, secular, Western, enlightened and rich. Iran under the Islamic Republic is hell: backward, religious, traditional, repressive and poor. A variation on the historical binary can also be performed with the original Islamization of the country: Zoroastrian Persia was glorious (plus most of the positive adjectives from the modern binary); Iran after the Arab Muslim invasion was a broken version of itself (and hence most of the negative adjectives from the modern example). Minor details like the fact that in “modern” Iran in 1975 the illiteracy rate was 58 percent (and 69.7 percent for women), according to UNESCO statistics, or that Zoroastrian Persia was a caste society, are rarely allowed to complicate the comparisons.
These handy configurations may be simplistic, but they are cherished by a host of groups, outside and inside Iran, who are uncomfortable admitting that the majority of the population may have been deeply resentful of a regime (whether ancient or modern) that mostly benefited a small elite. Nonetheless, for many Western media and government Iran analysts, and for those Iranians who wax nostalgic for their former elite status, whether they are now in Tehran or Tehrangeles, the paradigm of paradise lost remains a self-affirming way to view both the past and the present.
In its latest manifestation, the historical binary is folded onto itself so that it is possible to view contemporary Iran as two opposite societies uneasily coexisting within the same historical period, facing each other across a generational break rather than a change of political regime. This twist also moves the story forward: The post-revolutionary Islamic Republic may still be hell, but for rebelliously persevering Iranian youth who have turned their backs on the errors of the revolution, the present is purgatory. That inevitably transitory state, in turn, implies movement toward a heavenly goal, in this case an Americanized, consumerist Iranian identity, perhaps with a touch of New Age pre-Islamic Zoroastrian spirituality thrown in for good measure. Thus, in what is really an extraordinary achievement, the binary revolves back on itself, presenting a smooth circle of interpretation uninterrupted by other Iranian voices.
Shahram Khosravi’s Young and Defiant in Tehran fits all too well within this binary model. An ethnographic study of (almost exclusively male) youth in an upper-class neighborhood of Tehran, it is strait-jacketed by the author’s inability to take a closer look at his own material. This is a shame, because some of the material is fascinating, and provides a tantalizing glimpse of a much more complex social reality than the heroic youthful rebellion Khosravi seems to think he is describing. Shahrak-e Gharb is a north Tehran suburb-like neighborhood of cul-de-sacs and Western-style single-family homes. A pre-revolutionary planned community intended for those who wanted and could afford an affluent Western lifestyle (villa-style housing, swimming pools and the residential and commercial segregation that demands and enables car culture), Shahrak-e Gharb remains Tehran’s most visible physical symbol of the cultural self-representation of the 1970s Pahlavi regime. Like many newer well-to-do American suburbs, its center is a mall, which was itself a primary site for Khosravi’s fieldwork. A number of recent works in urban sociology and social history study the rise of shopping culture as a mark of modern middle-class identity, and many of these works are included in Khosravi’s superb bibliography. But these comparative examples cannot puncture the circularity of his binary interpretation. The Western-style shopping behavior of the local kids is to be celebrated, and their self-proclaimed defiance of their elders’ cultural norms is to be taken at face value as proof they are the vanguard of a newly modern and democratic Iranian identity.
A vanguard they may be, but a cause for celebration? Stripped of the paradigm he himself has imposed, Khosravi’s own material presents a much more ambiguous, if not distressing, picture. Over and over, Khosravi’s informants insist on the exclusivity of their own privileged identity, while reinscribing every traditional hierarchy of class, neighborhood and gender they can manage. If this is most self-evident in terms of class (Shahrak-e Gharb is after all an affluent neighborhood and its mall is intended to provide an upscale consumer experience), it is perhaps more problematic in terms of gender, and the sites at which gender and class intersect. Khosravi describes Golestan, the fancy shopping mall, as more “democratic” than the bazaar because of its youthful clientele, higher proportion of women shopkeepers and non-Islamic atmosphere. For most of his youthful (and mostly male) subjects, hanging out at the mall during evenings of casual social mingling with unrelated members of the opposite sex constitutes the essence of modern behavior and the guarantee of their modern identity. But Shahraki boys still describe all the girls hanging out there in the evenings as “sluts” who are not from the neighborhood; the neighborhood girls are pure, do not smoke and only go shopping during the day with their mothers. Shahraki girls play the same blame game, insisting that the girls hanging out in the evenings with the boys at the mall are all “whores” from south Tehran looking for customers. Local boys and boys from poorer, more traditional neighborhoods in south Tehran (some of whom make regular pilgrimages to Golestan in order to absorb its behavioral codes) agree that they do not really mix with each other. Shahraki boys look at the outsiders with contempt; the outside boys view the locals as shallow and incapable of true friendship. The book includes no voices of outside girls.
Khosravi captures the sexual dynamic of the Golestan mall culture when he writes: “The coincidence of shopping and male leisure-seeking makes Golestan a masculine playground.” But he leaves hanging the implications this might have for women: Is the modern, youthfully “defiant” culture of this male pleasure zone really more “democratic” for women than the traditional bazaar? And is that the only or most appropriate comparison we can make? Similarly, he ignores the possibility of a gendered difference in perception of shared public taxi rides, where men tend to take advantage of the tight space (three passengers in the back and two in the front, the front two sharing the single passenger seat) to lean into and over their youthful female seatmates. Young men may consider this “a romantic ride through the normally sex-segregated public spaces” and tell stories of how they “enjoyed the erotic moments of physical contact with a strange female body that, outside the taxi, would be separated from them and inaccessible.” In my experience, young women regularly describe these encounters as humiliating and unpleasant.
Yet there are alternative moments in the book as well. Khosravi’s basij informant (a member of the voluntary Islamist militia, most of whom are from working-class or provincial backgrounds) is the only child of a wealthy, Westernized north Tehran family, and his father is a doctor. He is certainly an exceptional example of youthful defiance, and merits further investigation. A young taxi driver keeps a book of philosophy on the front seat of his cab, and is eager to discuss the problem of Iran’s struggle with tradition and modernity; a young village schoolteacher asks searching questions about Habermas. Khosravi is right to include these voices in his portrait of a dynamic new generation. But these young people, who work and read and wonder about their national future, may have been able to provide a more intriguing and accurate picture of Iranian youthful social potential than the one that occupies center stage here.
These hints at other possibilities have a further significance. Shahram Khosravi is a young scholar who went to the field and did his research; he is clearly familiar with a wide-ranging scholarly literature and he took on a promising topic. Much of the criticism of the book’s binary interpretation properly goes to those more senior scholars and university press editors who should have pushed harder at some of the issues of gender and class at an earlier stage. This is why we go through the trouble of publishing in academic journals and with university presses, so that even when there is little current field research being published on a region (as is the problem with Iran), experts in comparable areas can make suggestions. The fact that the binary interpretative strategy is common in publications on Iran does not make it intellectually acceptable. It is hard to imagine that equivalent characterizations of increasing consumer culture among youth could be so lauded in scholarship on another Muslim country—is lack of political engagement and a focus on shopping progressive in Saudi Arabia? It’s too bad that is the interpretation in Young and Defiant in Tehran, but the blame does not rest with the author alone.