Friday, August 14, 2009

Lipstick Jihad

I tried to recheck out Their Finest Hour and it wasn’t on the shelf, so that’s on hold for a while. I also looked of the call number on the House of Sixty Fathers, but really I felt like something meatier. Lo siento. So I checked out a book that has been on my personal to-read list for quite some time. Lipstick Jihad By Azadeh Moaveni. I dog-eared the whole book (sorry library). It was fascinating look at Iran, Iran’s diaspora, and growing up between two cultures. However, I didn’t relate well with the author and some of her comments I just plainly disagreed with.

First of all to give some background, she was from an upper middle-class family in Iran pre-revolution. To give an idea of what that meant here’s a few examples: all family members male and female were educated abroad, a lot of them did drugs, her aunt spent her weekdays shopping in Europe and the weekends partying in Tehran, swimming in a bikini in the Caspian or skiing. Her aunt also never learned to drive, because why would she? She had a driver. Anyway, her parents had actually moved to California before the revolution even occurred, and divorced shortly after her birth. Her father was anti-Iran and atheist. Her mother was anti-American and tried out a new religion every few years, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Mormonism (the author wrote it that way, like we were the most outlandish religion out there.) She was raised in a community trying to keep it’s Iranian identity while also trying to seem as American as possible—a large part due to the hostage crisis. Most of her extended family also exited Iran shortly after the revolution.

So onto random quotes and my thoughts about them.

“At the University of California, Santa Cruz, indeed in probably most universities in California in 1998, there was nothing more pressing to do than amplify your ethnic identity…And then there was the question of race in the American sense. Was I brown? All the Iranians I knew seemed to consider themselves Europeans with a tan. Was I an immigrant? My family had always insisted we weren’t really immigrants as such, but rather a special tribe who had temporarily been displaced. Iranian women like Khaleh Farzi lived in daily fear of being mistaken for a Mexican—a pedestrian immigrant rather than a tragic émigré…Khaleh Farzi always bullied me into cutting it short, a bob just above my chin. “Swingy and chic, not straggly and long like a Mexican,” she would say.”

This is one attitude that bothers me a lot. Not really about the fact that they felt that way personally, just that any immigrant does this at all. It irritates me to no end. I guess because I have to struggle with it all the time with my own daughter and her constant remarks degrading Mexicans. I want to hit her upside the head, and yell, “Do you realize you’re a Hispanic immigrant too and nobody is going to know the difference between you and a Mexican??!?! Insulting them is only going to hurt yourself!!!” It’s like Leo’s brother that told everyone he was Italian in high school and refused to have any Hispanic friends or acknowledge that he spoke Spanish. So stupid!! I think it shows an absolute lack of self-esteem and is extremely disrespectful to Mexicans. I think it has more to do with asserting your social class rather than race or citizenship.
On a lighter note, just this past Sunday at church, Bro. Puertacarerra was teasing his son that Elena wouldn’t acknowledge him because he was Mexican. It was pretty funny, but only a Mexican could make a joke like that.

One of the irritating arguments she expressed, was when she talked of her teenage years and her fights with her mother. She explained that her mother would often pick values from either the American culture or Iranian culture to extol while the next minute picking to pieces all their faults. Her daughter argued that you can’t pick and chose the parts of a culture you want, it’s all of nothing. I completely disagree. That’s what having values is. Picking the ones you want and then abiding by them no matter what the rest of your culture or another culture is doing. Anyway, the author is very secular and always came across anti-conservative anything.

“Originating from a troubled country, but growing up outside of it, came with many complications…You spent a lot of time watching movies about the place, crying in dark theaters, and feeling sad for your poor country. Most of that time, you were actually feeling sorry for yourself, but since your country was legitimately in serious trouble, you didn’t realize it. And since it was so much easier and romantic to lament a distant place than the day-to-day crappy messes of your own life, it could take a very long time to figure it all out.”

I just like how she summed that all up. As she discovers when she actually goes to Iran, she’s still far more American than Iranian.

“He warned me, in the early weeks of our acquaintance, of the difference between nostalgic and realistic love. If you are a nostalgic lover of Iran, he said, you love your own remembrance of the past, the passions in your own life that are intertwined with Iran. If you love Iran realistically, you do so despite its flaws, because an affection that can’t look its object in the face is a selfish one.”

I found that thought interesting; it made me wonder about my own fierce Canadian loyalties when I was a child. Not that Canada has many flaws, (Hee. Hee.) but simply because of how impassioned I was to defend Canada and proudly declare my heritage when really a summer visit was about all I knew.

“Many of the U.S.-educated Iranians who had returned to Tehran were there because they had been mediocre in the West and preferred to be big fish in a small swamp. “All the exceptional people have left,” said a young Tehrani to me one night at a party. “They’re the ones who’ll never come back.”

This reminded me of the “brain-drain” of Latin America. Colombia had it’s own diaspora in the late nineties (when my husband left). It makes me sad for those countries.

Once back in Tehran as a reporter, the author describes in great detail the ways and in-and-outs of getting around all the rules and regulations in Iran. How young people met socially even though they weren’t allowed to mix with members of the opposite gender. How parents held “secret” parties for their teenagers. She describes how women wearing more and more lipstick and more colorful scarves were changing the openness of the society. How the small bends in the rules constituted immense changes in a way but were never viewed as enough by the people who wanted everything to be changed. This compromised the majority of her book, and it was fascinating to an extent.
However, her views and commentary always seemed one-sided. She only ever told from the point of view from her own class: rich, well educated, often still traveling from Europe to Iran, partying constantly, doing drugs, popping anti-depressants and sleeping pills, and drinking homemade vodka. In the one story she told of a partial friendship with a conservative Muslim girl, she discussed her like she was alien in her full chador dress and eventual marriage which ended her career. She just seemed hypocritical or at least, self-centered. Marriage and children were always talked of in a disparaging tone, the end of a real woman’s self. Religion as well was treated as unimportant and anyone following any devoted Muslim worship as an oddity. (The clerics weren’t considered devoted, only greedy and hypocritical—not that I’m disagreeing with her on that, just that anyone in her normal sphere would have been considered odd).
She also made the argument that Iran’s society was so absurd due to the inequality of men and women and their lack of being able to associate normally. Since the genders were always separated, she claimed this led to a heightened sexuality that was not normal. For example, she was always being asked to have s** from any and every male she came in contact with because they assumed since she was working and not at home she must sleep around too. Or she described some of the teenage parties she went to as a chaperone for her cousin and how once there and mingling in a never before experienced freedom, teenagers had no idea how to act and went from the extreme of veils and required clothing to dressing as they saw on MTV—and acting accordingly. They had no concept of being friends with the opposite gender and no middle-ground in dress.

“When they were finally permitted a few free hours in each other’s company, they scarcely knew what to do, or how to behave. They had never developed a sense of what normal behavior between the sexes looked like; not only were they lacking a template, they found the prospect of normality unsatisfying. Instead, the sought to contrast the oppressive morality outside with amplified decadence behind closed doors…The Islamic Republic does not control me; see it in the layers of makeup I apply on my face, the tightness of my jeans, the wantonness of my s** life, the Ecstasy I drop.”

She also describes the atrocities she witnessed: hearing people tortured, whippings in the street, bullying and harassment constantly from militia groups made up of poor, young men bent on enforcing the morality/dress laws, the widespread corruption, disappeances of activistists, reporters, reformers, ordinary people, and the randomness of it all. That truly was the heart of her book because in the end she realized that most Iranians were so used to it and shrugged it off, they forgot almost that it shouldn’t be happening at all.

“It doesn’t make a difference who takes over,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether Khatami is cloned or granted three more terms, or whatever. It doesn’t matter who comes, because fixing the culture created by the system is now the problem. I used to take such pride, Azi, in my Iranian identity. I don’t see that culture I was proud of anymore, that respect for elders, for children. These are the effects of lawlessness. If you do business and don’t take bribes, you’re considered strange, behaving outside the norms. Being corrupt is normal. The country’s ethical code has gone mad. It’s going to take so much more than politicians to fix that, this culture of lying, deception, and corruption.”

“What I wanted to explain was that we had a moral obligation to care when awful things happened to people around us. That by treating beatings, lashings, or checkpoint arrests as commonplace—ordinary, like going to the ATM—we were becoming dehumanized to the sickness around us. A heightened threshold of suffering was necessary for getting through the day, but mentally, we had to retain some sort of perspective. Of how a functional government should behave. Of what was unacceptable. Otherwise, we would become like those blasé reformists, who would look you in the eye, and say: “Look at how much progress we’ve made…See! I’m wearing short-sleeves…could I have worn short-sleeves ten years ago? No! …What are you whining about human rights for?… Aren’t we better than the Taliban? Than the Saudis?” Yes, there would always be some junked, lost country we would be superior to, but that wasn’t a proper ambition, was it?

And these two quotes are rather unrelated, but here they are anyway.

“As we drove away, I asked Dariush whether it was not a relief that under Khatami, such run-ins happened a couple of times a year, instead of every weekend. He gave me a searching look. “However infrequent, I do not find any consolation in the fact that my fate is determined by the whim of an armed sixteen-year-old.”

“Maman explained that in the Koran, it says that a man can take more than one wife on the condition that he treats them exactly equally. Their quarters must be furnished with equal elegance or simplicity, he must spend an equal number of nights with each. But what about love? I asked. How can he love them equally in his heart? He can’t, she said. The heart doesn’t work that way. And that’s why men should never, ever, have more than one wife. Because the heart is not docile, can’t follow literal instructions, can’t be cordoned off like a garden—this grove for the first wife, this for the second. Sooner of later emotions blossom or wither in place they shouldn’t and the pretense of heart boundaries collapses.”

Oh and it bothered me that she said these yoga class participants in their white oriental-looking outfits looked like Mormon housewives. First of all, supposedly they had checked out Mormons at one point so I think she’d know a little more, because really, in what way is that like Mormon housewives?!? And secondly, she complained the whole book about being subjected to stereotypes and misconceptions and here she does the exact same thing. A bit hypocritical to say the least.

Sorry this was so long--it's all from the lack of writing I've been doing for the last several weeks, and it all came out at once.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

I want a white oriental outfit to do yoga in. Then I want a nanny so I have time to do yoga in my sweet white oriental yoga outfit.