As the music ended and the crowd rose in a standing ovation, several women in the audience could be seen with heads bared, the obligatory head scarves draped around their necks.
This was no underground concert by an indie band in North Tehran, though. Rather, it was a recital by a classical lute player in Vahdat Hall. As the opera house emptied, the women casually slipped the scarves back on and walked out. No one seemed to care, or even to notice.
Far from a protest or a political gesture, this was a fleeting illustration of a newfound self-confidence, visible across the capital — what Iranians are calling the “lifestyle movement.”
“Nobody batted an eye, because in practice most people are far ahead of the norms set by the government,” said Haleh Anvari, an essayist based in Tehran who was at the concert. “In cars, cinemas and concerts, ordinary people are increasingly taking their space.”
Iranians have always enjoyed rich private lives, some following Western trends and fashions, but behind closed doors. The state tolerated that, but insisted that people adhere to the strict laws on appearance and behavior in public spaces that were laid down after the Islamic revolution in 1979.
This disconnect has led to a perpetual cat-and-mouse game, with public freedoms virtually disappearing after the government’s brutal repression of protest following the widely disputed presidential election in 2009.
But now, following the election of a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, and the signing of the nuclear agreement this summer, Iranians are increasingly taking to the streets, this time not to challenge the government but to reclaim public spaces. Though there are plenty of skeptics who say the changes are minimal and could be reversed at any time, the lifestyle movement seems to be spreading across the country.
“Few would say it out loud, but we had almost become a police state,” Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, a sociologist at Tehran University, said about the years after 2009, when the morality police were a fixture in every main square, hauling those deemed to be “badly veiled” off in vans. For many, the atmosphere became so suffocating that they started leaving for other countries.
Mr. Jalaeipour said small changes began after Mr. Rouhani succeeded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013, promising a nuclear agreement and an expansion of personal freedoms, but have increased noticeably of late. “Especially after the elections and now the nuclear deal,” he said, “the self-confidence of ordinary people is increasing and that can be seen everywhere.”
But the change is palpable in a country that once posted morality police throughout the city; discouraged dressing in anything but black and most forms of entertainment; and that, in recent years, had begun burying the remains of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war in the middle of public squares.
In the universities, students have started wearing bright colors. Street musicians line up at busy crossings, even though music is still frequently denounced by conservative clerics as “haram,” or forbidden in Islam. Fashion shows with models and runways, previously banned, are popping up. At night, women can be seen riding in cars without their head scarves, while billboards, long the exclusive domain of political figures, now feature celebrities like the Iranian actor Bahram Radan, who advertises leather coats.
Where previously even joking in public gatherings was considered politically risky, cafes now organize stand-up comedy evenings. Groups of citizens have formed nongovernmental organizations around issues like animal rights and the environment.
In the spring, more than a thousand animal rights activists gathered at the Ministry of Environment, protesting the killing of stray dogs in the city of Shiraz. The protest was fueled by social media, heavily amplified by the introduction of 3G mobile Internet. The killing stopped.
|A concert by the pop singer Sina Hejazi at the Milad Tower in Tehran. Public concerts have become more frequent in Iran even though music is still denounced by conservative clerics. Credit Newsha Tavakolian for The New York Times. Courtesy NY Times.|
|Young people enjoyed their afternoon in a cafe in central Tehran. Credit Newsha Tavakolian for The New York Times. Courtesy NY Times.|
|Family members enjoyed a paddleboat ride in a newly built artificial lake in west Tehran. Credit Newsha Tavakolian for The New York Times. Courtesy NY Times.|
|A fashion show in Tehran. Credit Newsha Tavakolian for The New York Times. Courtesy NY Times.|
|Ehsan Rasoulof is the son of a banker, and is using family money to open up public spaces in Iran. Credit Newsha Tavakolian for The New York Times. Courtesy NY Times.|