Officially there is no access to alcohol for Muslims in Iran, or nightclubs for anyone. Women must cover their heads in public. Although the ‘morality police’ have been reined in by President Rouhani, modest dress is strictly enforced. Also, the seemingly Orwellian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance restricts access to television, media, music, film and the internet.
However, beneath the surface of Iran’s society lies an unfettered strain of creativity and libertine spirit. What some conservative Iranians may call a Western-influenced decadence, others would argue has always existed despite the country’s Islamic makeup. But access to this ‘other’ society is a question of who and what you know.
Due to the lack of nightclubs, parties and events often take place behind closed doors in private homes. These can range from hipster gatherings in jeans and t-shirts to lavish parties in home ‘nightclubs’ with patrons decked out in designer gear.
The official punishment for consuming alcohol is a lashing. But alcohol is available. A Guardian article describes how a Tehran shop, called Super Jordan, ‘is frequented by a spectrum of north Tehran residents looking to stock up on cigarettes, mixers and late-night snacks.’ Prostitutes and men in sports cars roam the streets, adding to the illicit nature of the area. Apparently, Super Jordan survives due to the municipal connections of its owner.
This corruption is the reason most party-goers do not live in constant fear of corporal punishment or reputational damage. State officials and police can be bribed if they find an illegal party or gathering. But this also depends on the flexibility of the officials. The revellers can be put under arrest, have to pass drug and alcohol tests and even female virginity tests. Punishment can also vary according to the party’s nature, with sex, homosexuality and nudity being most taboo.
Music and the arts feel the weight of state repression. In 2014, a group of Iranians who made a tribute to Pharrell Williams’ hit song ‘Happy’, were arrested for injuring ‘public chastity’. This climate has pushed the music scene underground. But it isn’t correct to classify Iran’s underground scene in a similar way to the West. In Iran, it is not a reaction against the music industry’s commercial mores. Rather, it is a chance for Iranians to create and disseminate a wide range of music including pop, hip-hop, jazz and indie rock, in an environment away from a regime that abhors creative self-expression. Morad Mansouri, writing for the Tehran Bureau, notes, ‘Music reflects the symbiotic bond between Iran’s underground subculture and shifts in mainstream social consciousness.’ The music is mainstream and it is forced underground by circumstance rather than cultural volition.
Often Iranian artists must move abroad to put on legal concerts or to release their music in a non-clandestine way. The 2009 Cannes award-winning film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, depicts a couple travelling around the underground scene looking to form a band which will eventually leave the country. The quasi-documentary examines the desire many musicians feel to escape, and included real bands who would later emigrate. Even by creating unsanctioned music, the musicians are making a statement against the regime, whether they want to or not.
Iran was not always like this. Until the Revolution in 1979, alcohol and Western influences were not officially discouraged and the wearing of the hijab a matter of choice. Medieval Persian poets, such as Abu Nuwas, wrote odes to wine. Iran was considered one of the more advanced and liberal parts of the Middle East.
Some attribute the hypocrisy between public conservatism and private actions to the concept of the ‘shame society’ in Eastern cultures. Advanced by the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, living in a shame culture you are more fearful of public humiliation and ostracism rather than guilt for not following society’s rules. Therefore if you can get away with breaking social conventions no harm is done. But the state of Iranian society cannot be so easily summed up. The parties and music may share similarities to the West, but those in power still see Iran as Islamic and Middle Eastern foremost.