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In Iran, 'personal space' expands as reform stalls

TEHRAN -- The young woman, dressed in a manner forbidden by law, was complaining about something she saw on a television channel that's illegal to watch.

"The stuff on Euro News," said Nesa Hamlehdar, exasperated. "They show Iranian women in chador. Boys as soldiers. Old cars."

She rolled her eyes. "This is the image the West has of us!"

In Iran, reality looks a lot more like Hamlehdar. Pausing in a fashion mall on her way home from a day of college classes, the 22-year-old language student wore tight bell-bottoms under a tunic cut not like the all-enveloping chador, which translates literally as "tent," but more like the little black cocktail dresses that now pass for outer garments in some parts of Tehran.

There was eyeliner and nail polish. And her scarf was pushed back to reveal half her hair, something officially prohibited shortly after President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr explained in 1981 that women's hair emits rays that drive men insane. "The limitations that used to be," Hamlehdar said, "do not exist now."

That basic fact of Iranian daily life signals a fundamental shift in politics. The dramatic relaxation of the theocracy's strict official dress code is only the most visible aspect of a grudging yet steady expansion of what Iranians call "personal space." The term describes the realm of purely personal liberties that extends from holding hands in public to watching satellite television without fear of a police raid.

Initially championed by reformers who also demanded political freedoms, these personal liberties are being granted by the conservative Islamic clerics who control the most powerful institutions in Iran's government. The hard-liners, who wrote the rules in the first place, now see a political advantage in allowing them to be widely ignored.

Iranians elect a new parliament in February. And years before a hard-line election oversight body caused an uproar this week by summarily banning reformist candidates by the thousands, moderates in the conservative camp plotted a subtler route to victory, one based on giving people more of what they want.

"Already, we have plenty of freedoms on the street. Nobody can curb that," said Mohammed Javad Larijani, a senior official in Iran's judiciary, which is headed and staffed by conservative appointees. "We politicians have staked our future on that freedom. We are hopeful to gain power through that freedom."

Many Iranians, while embracing the new leeway, say they recognize that the gains are meant to relieve pressure for more fundamental political freedoms, which remain circumscribed. While taking morals police off the streets, for example, hard-liners have also closed more than 200 newspapers.

"It's like a safety valve to prevent an explosion in society," said Shadi Kohandani, 25, an accounting student.

"They want to keep everyone amused so they don't think about more important things. They're investing for the next elections."

"At least we have these -- music, clothes," agreed Nazanin Derakhshanzadeh, shopping for a new overcoat in north Tehran.

The new leniency also extends to romance. With morals police no longer on the streets, young couples hold hands in public even while passing Friday prayers in downtown Tehran. "It has become common behavior," said Amirabbas Sari Aslani, 25, who had tucked his girlfriend's hand inside his jacket pocket on a chilly afternoon. "People need to show this behavior."

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