The New York Times

The Iranian Revolution at 40: From Theocracy to 'Normality'

In February 1979, Tehran was in chaos. A cancer-stricken Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Western-backed autocrat, had gone into exile in mid-January, leaving behind a rickety regency council. On Feb. 1, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the godfather of the revolution, returned from exile in Paris. And in the Iranian version of “Ten Days That Shook the World,” street demonstrations raged until the government collapsed on Feb. 11. Ecstatic Iranians danced in the streets, playing cat and mouse with soldiers as lingering pro-government sharpshooters fired from the rooftops. Families joined in mass protests, as vigilantes ransacked liquor stores and people kissed the foreheads of turbaned clerics leading the revolution. Forty years ago, Iranians swelled with pride, hope and the expectation of a better future. Dreams of freedom and independence from the What materialized after those first bloody years was truly revolutionary: an Islamic republic, a theocracy built on ideological choices inspired to a great extent by Khomeini. New rules were implemented to forbid anything that might lead people astray, preventing them from ascending to a heavenly afterlife: strict controls on the media, which isolated Iranians from Western influences; an absolute segregation of the sexes in public places; compulsory headscarves for women; bans on alcohol and musical instruments on television; rules forbidding women from riding bicycles. It went on and on, zealously and sometimes brutally enforced by the morality police and the paramilitary basij forces. But over the years, as the early revolutionary fervor gave way for most people to a yearning for a more normal existence, the rules became negotiable. While the political system is basically the same as those early years, the society changed slowly, at times almost imperceptibly. Those changes have been enormous, and Iran today is closer than most outsiders generally appreciate to being that “normal” country Iranians want. It took time for the cumulative changes to reach a critical mass. When I first visited Iran as a young reporter, the 20th anniversary of the revolution had just passed and the country was still living up to its revolutionary image. High-rises were decorated with anti-American murals or portraits of the martyrs of the 1980-88 war with Iraq. The notoriously snarled street traffic was made up almost entirely by a sea of white, locally made cars called Paykans. In a small park, close to where I would eventually settle down, boys and girls would secretly meet on some of the more hidden benches, away from the prying eyes of relatives, but also from the morality police. In those days, it was inside people’s houses that I saw a completely different Iran. Passing through a front door often meant stepping into a different reality, one where all the rules that applied on the streets would magically disappear. There would be stories — Iran has a deep culture of storytelling — and bursts of laughter would be followed by dancing to Persian pop songs smuggled in from Los Angeles. Often, the music would be accompanied by someone playing a drum or, if that wasn’t available, a rice pan grabbed off a kitchen shelf. Everyone — accountants, journalists, doctors, nurses — would enjoy weekend parties that were technically illegal. Iranians became adept at acting various roles. Abbas Kiarostami, the award-winning director who died in 2016, used mostly everyday people rather than actors in his movies, because Iranians were so accustomed to switching between lives in two worlds. But as the years progressed, the changes began to creep outdoors and become more noticeable. When my wife, a photographer, decided many years ago to get a nose ring, she was fired on the spot. While the editors thought of themselves as reformists, they still considered a nose ring despicable and Western. But now, they are everywhere. It is not all that unusual to spot a woman with pink hair flowing under her headscarf. Women now race through traffic riding bicycles, once seen as improper. They can even be seen riding motorcycles. While state television still refuses to show musical instruments, there are buskers on the streets of Tehran. One day I was watching a couple of young men, one on drums and the other on guitar, when suddenly a tall young woman appeared with a bass guitar and joined in. At times the state would fight back, making a few arrests in fitful efforts to roll back the changes, but never for long. At times, it seemed as if they had simply given up. Connections to the outside world — the internet, of course, but particularly satellite TV broadcasts that broke the veil of isolation — were critical drivers of change. One day police raided our apartment building and destroyed the multitude of satellite dishes on the roof. The only one left was mine — as a journalist, I had special permission to have one. That evening about 20 female neighbors joined me in my living room to watch their favorite Turkish soap opera. By the next day, they all had new dishes. Police have largely given up that fight, too. There are just too many dishes around. Iranians can now watch over 200 Persian-language channels operating from abroad, showing everything from “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” to unfiltered news and Hollywood movies.

This article originally appeared in .

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