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Place of Women in Iranian Society

Tehran, Iran

We talk with female students at a university. Although women outnumber men in many schools and professions, women must abide by segregation and strict dress codes. Visiting a fancier district, it’s clear that wealthier people enjoy a little more freedom.

Complete Video Script

Tehran is a vibrant metropolis — Iran's social, artistic and educational center. Its university is the oldest, biggest and most prestigious in the land. It's quite selective — only about one in ten applicants get in. Here, as in other Iranian universities, students enjoy a higher education paid for by the government.

But wandering through campus, we learned that free tuition comes with strict guidelines as dictated by the theocracy. While I hoped to find some non-conformity, the vibe here made BYU seem like Berkeley. Compliance raged.

Women are perfectly welcome. In fact women outnumber Iranian men in both universities and in many respected professions. But segregation is the rule. In classrooms, it's men on one side and women on the other. There was no real student union center, just a small commons in each department…with a snack bar for men and an adjacent one for women.

Despite the conservative atmosphere, we found students friendly, curious, and willing to chat.

Rick: What do you study?
Woman: Chemistry.
Rick: Chemistry? Very difficult. For me, very difficult.
Woman: Yes.
Rick: What do you study?
Woman 2: Chemistry.
Rick: All of you are chemistry!
Rick: So we are learning very much when we come to Iran.
Woman 3: For example?
Rick: For example, the people are not angry with America.
Woman: Yes, government has a lot of war with each other because they benefit but there’s no war between people.
Rick: That’s a very interesting point. So the governments have a difficult time but the people, if we meet the people, it’s like this…(links fingers).
Woman: Yes, they are like friends to each other. They should be friends.
Rick: I like that. So for Americans we are a very religious people but we make the government and the church apart you know?
Woman: It’s not common to each other. But in Iran unfortunately the religious and the politics is mixed with each other.
Rick: Yeah.
Woman: And that’s the main problem.
Rick: You think that’s —
Woman: It’s the main problem and it’s the main point of that distance between people and government.
Rick: So you are a modern young woman?
Woman: Yes of course.
Rick: Well educated?
Woman: Yes, I like to be.
Rick: And you must cover your hair.
Woman: Yes, it’s a law in Iran.
Rick: It’s a law.
Woman: It’s a law.
Rick: Now I cannot shake your hand?
Woman: No, because here it’s a religious society.
Rick: So I can go like… Salaam?
Woman: Xodâhâfez.
Rick: Ok. And I can shake his hand?
Woman: Yes, Yes
Rick: I’ll shake your hand for her…OK? Thank you.
Man: Do you like to take a picture? Do you like to take a picture together?
Rick: I would like to take a picture (that’s a good looking hat). I have a game I like to play with all my new friends. I will go like this…can I take a picture with you and me?
Woman: Yes, of course.
Rick: And all of you guys together. So you can go here. OK, alright. Are we ready? So we’ll look into the camera and we’ll say “salaam” and we’ll say “people to people”.

Iranian women live under strict Muslim laws in public. To a Western viewpoint, the dress code imposed on women seems disrespectful. But according to an Islamic perspective, modesty is considered respectful. In Iran, women's bodies are not vehicles for advertising. You don't see sexy magazines. There is almost no public display of affection.

While women can dress as they like at home, in public they wear the chador and are expected not to show their hair or showoff the shape of their body. I found their awareness of our camera fascinating — women seemed to sense when it was near and would adjust their scarves to make sure their hair was properly covered. Local surveys indicate that about 70% of these women would dress more freely in public if allowed.

While modesty is enforced, vanity is not out of bounds. In fact cosmetic surgery — especially nose jobs — is big business here among the middle class. Even though covered up, women expertly utilize their feminine charms. Faces are beautifully made up and when so much else is covered, particularly expressive and mysterious.

In Tehran, I found simply wandering the shopping streets endlessly entertaining. Dropping into this book store and surveying its selection, the Persian passion for poetry became clear….

Rick: Yes, so this one opens like so.

And in Farsi, the book starts where our books end.

Rick: Is this the beginning of the book here?

Streets were lined with cheap, colorful snack bars and inviting ice cream shops. Each little visit left me with indelible and often tasty memories.

This isn't just any ice cream sandwich — saffron, rosewater and pistachios…a Persian specialty.

But if you really want to shop with style, leave the gritty, intense central area and head to the hilly district of North Tehran. Browsing in its malls and classy shops, you could be in London or Paris.

Shoppers who have the money can find nearly anything they like. This high-end confectionary shop gives a glimpse of the taste and lifestyles of North Tehran citizens.

Cafes in lush gardens like this are the playground of Iran's wealthy…where they "let their hair down"…just a little. The young, privileged, and cosmopolitan manage to be quite fashionable. This scene may be chic, but I heard that the real partying goes on in the privacy of people's homes. Many of these people could afford to live abroad, but prefer to live as economic elites here in the ritziest corner of Tehran.