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Iran's Young Are Restless Under Islam: Teenagers Lament Strict Social Laws

By Afshin Molavi

TEHRAN, Iran, December 28, 1999 (The Washington Post) —The music of Latin pop sensation Ricky Martin filled the room and the DJ exhorted the crowd to dance. "C'mon, everybody," he yelled into the microphone. "It's time to go-go-go," he boomed, mimicking lyrics from a popular Martin song.

Within minutes, the intricate red and gold Persian carpet on the floor was packed with young, hip-shaking, twenty-something Iranians. "Way to go," cheered Keyvan, the disc jockey with long, gelled hair. "I don't want to see anyone sitting down!"

As the music shifted to European dance hits and Iranian pop songs, the group of nearly 50 young men and women swayed to the varied beats in the dimly lit house.

Suddenly, the music stopped. The lights went on. Keyvan looked worried.

A group of young women ran upstairs. The host urged calm. Outside the house, a young man in a green military-style jacket approached, leaning his motorcycle against the outer wall of the villa.

The unexpected--and unwelcome--visitor was from Iran's morals police, charged with cracking down on gatherings of unrelated men and women, alcohol consumption and other activities illegal under Iran's Islamic social laws.

The young party host approached the visitor, whispered to him and quietly handed him a few bills. The visitor left. The host returned to the house, to smiles and cheers.

"C'mon, this is a party," he cried. "Let's dance!"

Keyvan resumed spinning the records. The young women ran back down the stairs and the music boomed: "Go-Go-Go!"

It was another Thursday night in North Tehran, where the young and affluent regularly gather in private homes to dance the night away, although with the occasional interruption.

"This is really unfair," said Leila, a 22-year-old student who was flustered by the police visit and decided to leave early. "We are not doing anything wrong. I am so sick and tired of this meddling in our personal lives," she said as she put on a head scarf before going outside.

Like many young Iranians, Leila is frustrated by restrictions on personal lives imposed since the Shah was overthrown by Islamic conservatives in 1979. Coupled with bleak job prospects, the laws have left many young Iranians angry and dispirited.

Nearly two-thirds of Iran's population is under 30 and more than half is under 21. This poses a prickly problem for conservatives who are locked in a power struggle with reformists led by President Mohammed Khatemi and overwhelmingly backed by the country's youth.

The frustration is not only felt in well-heeled North Tehran. In less affluent South Tehran and big cities across the country, public parks are full of young men and women exchanging glances and complaining about the restrictions. "We just want to do what other young people have the right to do, have fun," said Ali, a 19-year-old South Tehrani, sitting on a green park bench and waving across the lawn at the latest object of his affection.

Since the revolution, Iran has had strict social rules prohibiting public displays of affection, alcohol and mingling with members of the opposite sex in public. While these restrictions may be enforced in villages and smaller cities, they are routinely flouted by young people in Tehran and other big cities.

Although the vast majority of youth support Khatemi's social and political liberalization program and most agree that their social freedoms have improved under Khatemi, they are becoming increasingly impatient with the pace of reform. Iranian young people also emphasize different aspects of reform. Some want democracy, while others simply want the right to have fun.

As a result, the growing pro-democracy student movement has created some unlikely bedfellows. Most prominent pro-democracy student activists come from the ranks of Islam-oriented youth who want systemic changes while maintaining the country's strong Islamic character. These activists often find themselves protesting next to longhaired, Pink Floyd-listening youth whose Western-style goals they do not share.

Dancing, meanwhile, is making something of a comeback, although it is still prohibited in public. In South Tehran, a group of five teenage boys was seen recently dancing in a crowded park, blowing kisses to passing girls.

"We could not do this a few years ago," said Hossein, one of the boys. "The environment has eased, but we are also becoming more defiant. If someone from the morals police confronts us, we fight back."

Such remarks are not just bravado. Last week, a young man did fight back, with tragic results. Morteza Amini Moqaddam was confronted by Hadi Mohebbi, a young man with links to the morals police, for smoking during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are expected to refrain from eating and smoking until sunset. A deadly argument ensued. When the dust cleared, Mohebbi lay dead with multiple stab wounds and Moqaddam was sentenced to death for the crime in a case that has Tehran buzzing.