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Lipstick Jihad Exposes a Different Kind of Revolution

Tracy Clark-Flory

Vibrant pink and turquoise clothing, lipstick, fussed-over hair, and exposed flesh: hardly the stuff of a revolution.

But the firearms, Molotov cocktails and crude weaponry more typically associated with a revolution do not drive the transformation that Azadeh Moaveni writes of in Lipstick Jihad. She describes an underground and gradual movement among young Iranians, especially women, which she believes will be the country’s saving grace.

Lipstick Jihad details Moaveni’s 2000 move to Iran, her country of birth, where she expects to find the rooted sense of belonging and culture that she longed for growing up in the suburbs of San Jose, California. But her journey to Iran reveals her as an outsider, skirting the line between American and Iranian culture, but never fully realizing either one. Her position as both an insider and outsider however, allows for a unique perspective of the grass-roots transformation in Iran.

Spurring the idea for the book’s title, Moaveni encountered a police officer in Tehran who made her wipe off her lipstick before entering a movie theater. She noticed that her female relatives had become accustomed to skillfully removing their lipstick and nail polish, delicately navigating the stringent world of the regime. While this type of rebellion may seem superficial, Moaveni saw it as “a symbol of a much deeper opposition that was taking hold in all realms of Iranian life.”

“Parliament never officially pardoned color, sanctioned the exposure of toes and waistlines,” writes Moaveni. “Young women did it themselves, en masse, a slow, deliberate, widespread act of defiance. A jihad, in the classical sense of the word: a struggle.”

Slow change was sparked during the Islamic Revolution and election of Mohammed Khatami as president in 1997, and while the struggle consisted of more than a rebellion against modes of dress, Moaveni said it became an ideal symbol of the movement since most of the change was non-verbal.

“So much of what was changing after ‘97 was through culture in the form of beliefs and attitudes and behavior in the sense of people being willing to say things in public in ways they wouldn’t have before,” Moaveni said.

Moaveni describes young women’s rebellion against the constraints put on them in everyday public life and reveals that instead of exacting the control they hoped for, the regime’s strict rules led to a subversive and silent outlashing.

“[Young women] sought to contrast the oppressive morality outside with amplified decadence behind closed doors, staking out their personal lives as the one realm in which they could define their individuality, and exercise their free will,” Moaveni writes.

As a group allowed so little power, Moaveni saw women as employing the only control they were allowed.

“When political and social freedom and these kinds of rights are so difficult to come by for women, in particular when their appearance and body, and what they do with their personal life is the only realm to exercise any free will, it’s expressed other ways,” she said.

At a party full of young Iranian women wearing short skirts and high heels, Moaveni writes the interior dialog she imagines behind their pseudo-empowerment: “The Islamic Republic does not control me; see it in the layers of makeup I apply to my face, the tightness of my jeans, the wantonness of my sex life, the Ecstasy I drop.”

Despite her observation of the significance of dress, she warns against following what she sees as the U.S. media’s preoccupation with the veil as a symbol of passivity.

“I can sympathize with the veil as a sort of political act or way of expressing protest against certain brands of Western politics,” Moaveni said, adding, “At the end of the day, in a very personal way, it’s a scrap of cloth that is the most everyday form of tyranny.”

Moaveni observes that Iranian women are often limited to behavior that is disguised as empowering, when it is really anything but. One such example is the practice of temporary marriages in Iran, which she says allows for promiscuity.

“It is a form of prostitution, which enables a patriarchal culture to cement the imbalanced gender relations in the guise of empowering women with a temporary and flimsy legal status that rarely works to their benefit,” Moaveni writes.

Examples of control, guised as empowerment, do not stop there. Moaveni said, “You can have women in parliament as long as they’re just as conservative on women’s issues as men. [There’s] this idea that if you play within these rules you can fully participate. But even that is so disingenuous.”

The gradual, underground movement isn’t limited to women. With 60 percent of Iran’s population under 30, it comes as no surprise that the force behind the movement comes from young people as a whole.

“From the religious student activists to the Ecstasy-trippers, from the bloggers to the bed-hopping college students, they will decide Iran’s future,” Moaveni writes.

She describes young people in Iran as living an “as if” lifestyle where it’s acceptable to “hold hands on the street, blast music at parties, speak your mind, challenge authority, take your drug of choice, grow your hair long, wear too much lipstick.” But as Moaveni suggests, these imagined liberties slowly transform into actual ones.

She notes that young Iranians have become particularly adept at maneuvering through rigid political controls and exploiting what freedoms they do have, to exact actual change.

“[Blogging is] a way to connect with each other and be exposed to the world — that kind of virtual political space that doesn’t exist in a physical way,” Moaveni said.

Since Moaveni left Tehran in 2002, she’s already noticed significant change.

“The apathy and the antipathy that was sort of setting in has really developed among young people. What criticism there was in newspapers has been further muted,” Moaveni said. “The axis of evil rhetoric and shift in U.S. policy after 9-11 had a worrisome effect on the regime and lowered its threshold.”

While she hopes the movement develops a better focus, she sees a real potential for change.

“The way that we see Iran change from below, whether it’s the student movement or young people in their daily life…is really what has transformed Iranian life,” Moaveni said. “Given how apathetic and alienated young people are from the regime…I sort of see that being the momentum and the source from where they’ll be more pressure.”