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Million mutinies


Kamin Mohammadi

That first trip was mortifying, " says Kamin Mohammadi. After 18 years of living in London, she went home to Iran in 1996. Her Persian was rusty. She'd known of but never practiced the "ritualized forms of courtesy" and was "in the worst social position of knowing enough to know that everything [she] was doing was wrong. " She found Iran very different in lots of ways and, strangely enough, unchanged in just as many.

Mohammadi was at the Jaipur Literature Festival to discuss the Arab Spring. She has this to say to the revolutionaries of the region : "Be very careful. Look what can happen. " Iran's is a cautionary tale but there are misconceptions too. In her first book, The Cypress Tree, she writes of her journey back and offers "snapshots" of life as it's actually lived in Iran.

"Sixty-five percent of university graduates are women, " she says, busting the first myth about women and education in Islamic states. "There's discrimination in the job market - it's still a horrifically patriarchal society - but the West thinks Iran is Saudi. It's not. " Women leave home to go to university, live in flats and take up jobs. "The Islamic revolution has given women more opportunities in some ways. A lot more girls get educated now, " she observes, "Maybe traditional families who wouldn't let their daughters out in this decadent western society we had under the Shah, were happy to let them go into an Islamic one. "

Mohammadi, 42, herself lived and studied in the UK. "I get tired of telling people there you can divorce your husband and own property in Iran, " she says. She describes women's status in the coun try as "ambiguous. " The world thinks they're just repressed, but they're also subversive and fight back. "We didn't hear about that outside the country but 2009 changed our image. The west saw some of the realities I've been writing about. They saw people who didn't want that system. "

Her family fled Abadan, Iran, in 1979, immediately after the revolution that ended the Shah's rule, when Mohammadi was nine. They settled in London and, within a year, she went to boarding school. "Now it's all about multiculturalism and respecting other cultures but there was none of that at my school. I had to be English, " she says. She was fairly successful at blending in till, in her late 20s, she once again took interest in Iran and her roots.

Her father, who had been in the oil business in Iran and who's own story inspired Mohammadi to write the book, has himself not been back in the 33 years. He had directly benefited from the changing work culture of Iran under Reza Shah - "the new Iran that was being born. " He came from a humble background, was given the opportunity to study abroad and manage the oil business - all of it made possible by a system beginning to believe more in merit than in social standing. "I think the revolution broke his heart. He can't bear to see everything so different, " she says.

But Mohammadi will be the first to argue that not everything is different. "We are still the same people, the same culture and have the same passions and desires. What we all desire is to lie under a walnut tree with a beautiful girl dancing to some music, drinking tea and eating some fruit - - that's still the idealized Persian lifestyle. That stuff hasn't changed. "

With technology, Iran is not as insulated from outside influences as the current regime would perhaps like it to be. Trends rise and fall there much like the way they do in rest of the world as people encounter belly-dancing and salsa or Tai-chi and yoga. Sai Baba has legions of followers. Western music that was freely welcomed in the rapidly modernizing Iran under the Shah became contraband after the revolution. But now Iranian pop - often with a dash of rap or Latino tunes - is created in Los Angeles by second-generation immigrants. The videos are broadcast over satellite channels "beamed into Iran from LA that everyone watches illegally". Satellite dishes aren't allowed but Iranians, apparently, have a criminal streak a mile wide. "There's a law and everyone does something else and everyone knows because you can't hide a satellite dish, " says Mohammadi laughing. "Once in a while they do a raid and everyone hides their dishes. They've caught on and they are doing their own things. "

There is state censorship of the internet but Mohammadi says Iran has "the best hackers in the world". Her 15-yearold cousin can circumvent official censorship in minutes;and in the spirit of public service, Iranian hackers leave codes that can open virtual doors on the backs of bus seats for the benefit of the less tech-savvy among the citizens. The internet has made all the difference. During the Green Revolution of 2009, Iranian IT professionals from around the world helped those within the country get the news out, upload videos, access news sites. It has helped the diaspora reconnect. "Facebook, my God, everyone complains about it but for us it's like being back in my granny's courtyard, " she says.

She hasn't seen the actual homes of her relatives in a while. Hoards of journalists have escaped Iran, particularly post-2009. Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim Nobel Laureate, too, left in 2009. But Mohammadi thinks the problems started earlier. "I haven't been back since 2006 because of having this feeling of discomfort about it, " she says. The six months in 2006 went well. Then, as soon as she left, she heard of friends who had helped her being investigated. "I had done a lot of high-profile work, the chances of their being aware of me were quite high, " she says explaining her decision to stay away, "I wasn't doing anything anti-regime in Iran, but if you're known, that is already a problem. "

"Iran has got a tremendous amount of energy from seeing the young people of these other authoritarian states standing up for their rights, " she says. But it's the tough, feisty women and "nitty-gritty of daily life" there - the cumulative effect of a million minor transgressions - that she hopes will change things.

Correction: The copy says Shirin Ebadi is the first Muslim Nobel Laureate which is incorrect. She is the first Muslim woman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. 

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