- Young and Defiant in Tehran
In Young and Defiant in Tehran, Shahram Khosravi examines youth and popular culture, generational divides, popular spaces, spatial dominance and resistance, and cultural defiance in contemporary Tehran. He is centrally interested in exploring cultural politics and how young Tehranis defy official cultural forms and practices and seek to create their own. He argues that more than two decades after the Islamic Revolution, much revolutionary spirit has evaporated. Indeed members of the generation that has recently come of age in the Islamic Republic (over half of Iran’s population) see the Revolution as the project of their parents’ generation. Khosravi illustrates how in particular middle and upper-middle class youth in Tehran, caught in a rather authoritarian and patriarchal cultural context, carve out and create their own spaces where they seek to live their own lives and actively create and negotiate everyday cultures. He argues that, in the absence of larger social movements, there are plentiful individual acts of defiance and instances of cultural escape among Tehran’s youth.
Khosravi introduces the concept of “cultural crime” that emerged in the Islamic Republic, which denotes “violations of the ‘collective sentiment’ of the Muslim community” (17). The concept covers much that is associated [End Page 747] with youth, popular culture, sexuality, and passion. While somewhat eased in the 1990s, its hold continues. Khosravi notes that when “the shariat (…) was extended to cover public law, the distinction between the illegal, the immoral, and the sinful disappeared. Thus crime, vice and sin become synonymous” (18). Aspects of youthful experimenting, misbehavior and protest were criminalized. The author shows how the concept of gharbzadegi (Western-struck) denotes alienation, sell-out, or worse, betrayal of national culture and Islam, and plays an important role in Iranian cultural debates and politics. Consequently, the “principle of mutual discipline” (25) emerged to monitor and suppress defiant (and often gharbzadegi) practices, which are identified as counter-productive to individual wellbeing. The “caring power” (28) of the state works to set individuals back on the straight path.
The aesthetics of the Islamic Republic are central in Khosravi’s discussion. Revolutionary leaders associate gharbzadegi with consumerism, as opposed to the virtue of self-restraint. The Islamic Republic has developed its own aesthetics, revolutionary and officially sanctioned art, an aesthetic of modesty, and most prominently, veiling. Khosravi describes the “official culture of the theocracy [as] characterized by a tone of petrified seriousness, based on religious awe, lamentation and humility” (53)—its favorite color being black. Public life turns into a performance with “predetermined roles and little space for agency” (56).
Khosravi’s ethnographic work is based in Shahrak-e Gharb, an upper class Tehran neighborhood. Designed by French architects in the 1970s, the quarter has its own infrastructure of schools, clubs and shops. In addition to its elite status, the quarter is marked by a distinct sense of being different, worldlier, and more “modern” than other quarters. Residents oddly position themselves as being “the victim of the state’s policy” and “being the best” (64). Unlike in most other capital cities, this wealthy and educated elite does not represent the state and takes up an awkward position as a simultaneously powerful and powerless social class. Forced to hide some cultural preferences and social practices, this group has nonetheless more freedom to transgress rules. More than elsewhere in Tehran, signs of globalization, like global media culture or patterns of consumption, are visible in Shahrak. Because of this vague and precarious freedom and the superior access to global culture by way of satellite TV, internet and international travel, Khosravi stresses that Shahrak is a center for “diffusing Westernized youth culture” (87). He insists that this deterritorialized [End Page 748] quarter is a “state of mind and a symbol” (69) that has become a stage for cultural experiments and defiance, where youth of different classes participate. For some lower class youths, Shahrak is a dream space to escape cultural and economic limitations.
Many urbanites, however, look at Shahraki residents with suspicion. Shahraki girls are stereotypically viewed as lacking in morals and local men are...