Children Of The Revolution: life inside the Islamic Republic of Iran
Mir belongs to the generation of Iranians growing up in a fast changing, technologically linked world, yet still under the shadow of the revolution experienced by her parents.
For outsiders Iran evokes images of the 1979 Islamic Revolution which overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah and shook the Middle East, the Embassy Hostage Crisis, the fierce Iran-Iraq war, the chanting, revolutionary crowds, the hijab over Persian eyes, marching Revolutionary Guards.
Iran has also been a major focus of U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East. Just last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a bellicose speech before the U.S. Congress, denouncing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear development program and leaving few options on the table aside from war.
Such an ancient land, such a great role in history. And yet as their very system of government holds the world's attention, Iran's youth rebel by doing in secret what so many young Americans do openly.
Iran's population features a highly educated society, with a generation of professional young people who train for the future, while determining what course their country might take.
Mir, a student studying Physics, discusses her country with an eagerness to inform on what it's like to live in one of the world's few, official theocracies. Mir is a native of Isfahan, a city in Iran near the famous nuclear reactors Israel is obsessing over.
"After the Revolution, people thought it was going to be a free country," explained Mir, "but because of the regime right now it can't be that way." Mir described how Iran's laws are based on a unique form of religious code, while not as extreme as a Sunni state like Saudi Arabia, the laws expect women to cover their heads with the famous, scarf-like hijab.
"The media is with the regime. They don't want you to know a lot about the world beyond Iran," said Mir when explaining the almost Orwellian control of information inside the Islamic Republic. "If you see all the public channels, it's like they say 'heaven is right here in Iran.'"
Furious times returned to Iran in 2009 when mass protests erupted over what many believed was a presidential election stolen by then controversial president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The protests were mostly led by young Iranians, especially students. Now 19, Mir was very young when the protests reached her hometown and she remembers being forced to stay indoors to avoid the unrest outside.
"They wanted something to go for, but they didn't have a leader," said Mir. "Many young people my age, they talked about many things. They are on Facebook, they are on Twitter. We get illegal satellite channels. They hear the news, they watch movies and TV shows. They want to change something, but there was no leader."
Denied clear political changes, Iran's youth now bask in the most cosmetic aspects of modern, capitalist culture. It is literally a young country. According to the CIA, more than half of Iran's population is under the age of 35. This means that more than half are too young to remember when the Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the 1979 Revolution and established a unique, first of its kind Islamic government.
Yet the Ayatollah is long dead, and while his successors keep the veneer of an "Islamic Republic" as the official government, underneath the new generation is rebelling by adopting trends and behavior common in all consumer societies.
"It's supposed to be an 'Islamic Republic,' you have to cover up, but the people underneath have nail polish, and they have relationships that mean nothing. Everybody is with everybody," said Mir when describing how under the image of the hijab, Iranian women wear high fashions and partake in the 'hook up' culture.
Mir agreed that in the case of Iran, it is the social restrictions of the government that provoke greater risky behavior. In the Islamic Republic, the shallow indulgences common in the West are a crime. "When something is illegal, people want to have it," she said. "Because they don't have that much freedom, they want to be like that. It's like saying 'I have to have the hijab, but I will have it this way.'"
Iran functions like a society based on mirages. Extramarital sex and the consumption of alcohol are illegal, yet the authorities simply look away, especially in cases when culprits openly support the government in public. In a society where virginity is highly prized when the time for marriage arrives, and families vet a prospective wife or husband, the woman will simply lie and claim a chastity that is not real. Secret parties are held in homes where alcohol is smuggled in. "At the night parties, if you know someone in the government, you're ok," said Mir.
"If everything became free, they will go crazy," said Mir.
It's all about having the right connections and friends, Mir even compares the system to the "mafia.""My mom is a doctor, but she has tons of problems because she's not with the regime," said Mir. "They are so afraid of people who are popular and are not with them."
If the government has genuine supporters to mostly remain the rural poor and workers who received social benefits from the Revolution such as access to schools.
But Iranians are still keenly aware of their place in the world. With tensions rising with Israel, Mir acknowledged that even the young still pay attention. "They talk more about the news than people here," she said. "In Iran everybody says their opinions about the world. When the Revolution happened a lot of Jews from Iran went to Israel. We actually talk a lot more about the United States, not Israel."
If war were to break out, whether involving the U.S., Israel, or both, Mir made it clear that Iranians would still defend their homeland, despite their disenchantment with the government. "There is a difference between defending your country, and defending the government," she emphasized.
According to Mir, the image of the United States projected through media gives it a special allure that makes Iranians want to leave their country. "They think it's heaven here. I am now here and there are good things here, and bad things. Most young people think in the United States they can have everything. A lot of our geniuses come here. But for the rest, if you don't work here you have nothing," she explained.
Yet the image of Iran most Americans receive is also a mirage. "Americans should see the people inside Iran," said Mir. Her brother has already received an acceptance letter from Harvard, ensuring that a silent exchange of cultures continues, even as rumors of war persist.