Nadia Badiee come from Shiraz, a city some 900 km south of Iran’s capital, where the grapes used for the eponymous wine did not originate. They actually come from France and it was Australian whimsy that christened them with the name of Nadia’s city. This, though, is rather academic given that alcohol is banned in Iran although you can freely enjoy the wine grape as a fruit drink and – strictly behind closed curtains – wine has been known to find its way into glasses at Iranian house parties.
Nadia, an enterprising woman who works as a tour guide for English-speaking tourists, tasted the illicit drink in Turkey once, on her first trip outside of Iran. Curiosity and not bibulousness was the motive, driven to wonder what all the fuss is about because of photos she receives regularly on her phone. Overseas tourists who would have been in her company for a week or two, when they are flying home think it amusing to send her a selfie and invariably the photos feature a glass or bottle of wine.
More interesting is the fact that Nadia travelled to Turkey for she is not married and, while such independence of spirit is not uncharacteristic of young Iranians, being a woman she needed written agreement from her father before being issued with a passport. This is in a country where education for women is no longer confined to the ruling elite (as it was during the rule of the Shah before the 1979 revolution) and where , in fields like the law and medicine, women are graduating in such large numbers that restrictions have been applied to the number of women entering the best universities.
Iran is an Islamic theocracy and since 1979 there has been a strict dress code for women that insists they cover their hair, the nape of the neck and the ears by wearing a hijab. Bare arms above the shoulder are not to be displayed and bare legs are out of the question. Nadia was only ten years of age when the dress code was introduced and has grown up in a society where it is taken for granted. Morality Police enforce the rule although the situation is not as draconian as it might seem. We Are Iran, edited and translated by Nasrin Alavi (Portobello Books, 2006), quotes a judicial call for prison terms from three months to a year or fines and up to 74 lashes with a whip for offenders but Nadia explains how minor infringements noticed by the Morality Police result only in a request to observe the code, something she has experienced on two occasions. Young teenagers who flout the rules may find their parents being visited by the Morality Police and a warning issued.
Many young women are subverting the dictates of the dress code, transforming the hijab into a gaily coloured and fashionably designed thin scarf that hangs loosely over the head. This allows anything from a few strands of hair to more than half he head to be revealed and when tight jeans, high-heels and judiciously applied makeup are added to the equation it becomes clear that young Iranian women are not going to be silenced by male phobias and paranoia about the female body.
Given that only the female face can be shown outside of the home, young Iranian women devote an excessive amount of attention to highlighting their facial features. Nadia’s younger sister, on reaching the age of seventeen and following in the footsteps of her peer group, had a cosmetic operation on her nose that supposedly streamlines its shape. Such operations are hugely popular, often followed up by lip injections and adjustments to the cheek bones; hairdressing salons invariably display images of the face of Kim Kardashian as the ideal to which any young woman should aspire.
Anyone visiting Iran today, you will quickly realise that the dress code and other reactionary aspects of officialdom are completely at odds with the easy-going and tolerant mindset of the vast majority of Iranians.
Thoughts of fanatics shouting Death to America were in my mind when walking to view the ex-US embassy building in Tehran but the fading anti-American graphics on the walls are ignored by busy pedestrians who look at me with curiosity, as if to say ‘why are you wasting your time taking photographs of that old graffiti?’ I spent two weeks in Iran, travelling from Tehran to Shiraz and Esfahan and sleeping in places that ranged from beds in a good four-star hotel and a restored caravansari to the floor of a nomad’s home, and not one of those days passed without strangers stopping to ask where I was from before graciously welcoming me to their country. There were two Americans in the group and they were as unfailingly greeted with smiles as myself.
There is political contention within the country between the old conservative order and a more liberal wing represented by the new president and one suspects that the future prospects of Nadia and her contemporaries depends on the outcome of this power struggle. If the liberals win, her dream of one day opening a café under her own name may more easily become a reality; if the religious rightwing swings back into power she’ll continue to have the Morality Police lurking behind her back and looking to admonish her for daring to reveal the nape of her neck or ears.
Flying back to London on Pegasus Airlines (flypgs.com/en) there was a flurry of movement amongst female passengers as hijabs were removed once the plane had taken off; the reverse had occurred when the flight to Tehran had landed and began taxiing. Meanwhile, Nadia was preparing to receive her new group of arrivals on Intrepid Travel’s Iran Adventure. Their fifteen-day tours start from £2,090 per person, including accommodation, selected meals, activities, ground transport and the services of a local guide (intrepidtravel.com; 0808 274 5111). Bradt’s Iran by Patricia Baker and Hilary Smith is the most up-to-date travel guide to a country with plenty to see and many friendly and welcoming people to encounter along the way.