Monthly Archives: January 2009

Emigration for Education

From Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran, by Azadeh Moaveni (Public Affairs, 2005), pp. 166-167:

I reached for the bowl of apricots on the table, picked out a plump one, and passed it to Mitra. She took a nibble with a sip of tea. Our time together was usually spent with her two daughters, dancing in the living room or eating pizza on the balcony. This was our first private conversation.

I had always wanted to ask her about why she had decided to leave Iran, even after Khatami. Was it hard deciding to go, I asked. You stuck it out for so many years, what made it finally unbearable? She thought about it for several seconds, passing her finger back and forth over the apricot. When she finally did speak, it was not about the veil, or the violations of private life, or any of the daily degradations I had lived and expected to hear about. I couldn’t stand arguing with them anymore, she said, the Sister Fatimehs and Sister Zeinabs at the girls’ schools.

Mitra had two daughters, both teenagers. They would come home from school, having learned nothing useful, but with an earful of reprimands. “I would go down there every day, and ask them why my daughters were being treated like this. And they, these uneducated, unforgiving women, would stare down their noses at me, like, who was I to be asking questions about my daughters’ education.”

Every life in Iran came with its unique set of battles, most of which, like Mitra’s, were unknown to me. I had never tried to raise children under the Islamic Republic, so that particular challenge did not even occur to me. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like sending my daughters off to school each day, to be indoctrinated against me, their heads filled with an ideology that I would then need to unteach them at home. To be told that I, their mother, was anti-revolutionary, Westernized, immoral. Had I a choice, I realized, I might not have stayed to fight. Not if it meant sacrificing my daughters. The way I had learned to conceive of the Iranian nation, of devotion to homeland, was, after many months, still abstract. If I had children here, being pried from me and claimed for the revolution, if I had to go through a divorce under a system that stripped me of all my rights, then perhaps these notions of patriotism and loyalty would sound hollow.

Mitra’s cheek gently fell against a cushion, and her exhalations became regular. In the quietness of the moment, as twilight settled on the willow trees outside the window, I felt some of the guilt of belonging to the diaspora, to the tribe who left, recede. Through living here, through seeing all the complexity that went into people’s decisions to stay or leave, I was learning not to judge so harshly myself or others over such an intensely personal choice.

I respected Mitra for boxing up a privileged life, saying goodbye to all of her extended family, and starting from scratch in another hemisphere. Leaving was not an act of treason or disloyalty but of self-preservation. I had always believed that we outside were compromised for leaving Iran behind. That belief had colored my life, filled it with remorse for a decision that had not been mine. But for Mitra, and thousands of mothers like her, it would have been more compromising not to leave. Sacrificing a middle-aged life was one thing. Sacrificing two fresh daughters entirely another.

Well, this problem is hardly peculiar to Iran. It worries the education-focused parents of every society with a dysfunctional, oppressive public school system, and that seems to be most societies. Those with the means can opt to send their kids to private schools or move to a place with better public schools, even if it means emigrating. But very few parents have that option.

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What the PLA Learned in Korea

From A History of the Modern Chinese Army, by Xiaobing Li (U. Press of Kentucky, 2007), pp. 105-106, 110-112 (footnote references omitted):

From the conclusion of the fifth campaign until the end of the war, the [Chinese People’s Volunteer Force] adopted more cautious and realistic strategies, including maintaining a relatively stable front line; increasing CPVF air force, artillery, and tank units; and beefing up logistical support. Indeed, the CPVF increasingly became a mirror image of its American counterpart in its prosecution of the war. The Korean War thus began China’s military modernization and professionalization in terms of command, organization, technology, and training. In this respect, the United States turned out to be a “useful adversary” in the Korean War. For instance, Chinese forces began to learn to execute joint operations. The first such effort took place in the last phase of the war, on November 30, 1951, when the Chinese forces launched an amphibious attack, supported by aircrafts, onto Dahoo Island, off North Korea’s coast. Though the CPVF lost five of nine bombers during the joint attack, the landing succeeded.

The Chinese army had previously fought in wars against the Japanese and Nationalist armies, but it knew little about American, British, Canadian, and other technologically equipped Western forces. Korea became a combat laboratory that offered Chinese officers and soldiers essential combat training. Starting in the fall of 1952, the PLA began to rotate Chinese troops into Korea to give them modern warfare experience fighting American forces as well as to relieve the CPVF troops already in Korea. As the result of this process, more Chinese troops were sent to Korea, including five Chinese air force divisions operating under the CPVF command. In all, about 73 percent of the Chinese infantry troops were rotated into Korea (25 of 34 armies, or 79 of 109 infantry divisions). More than 52 percent of the Chinese air force divisions, 55 percent of the tank units, 67 percent of the artillery divisions, and 100 percent of the railroad engineering divisions were sent to Korea.

By the end of the war, the CPVF emphasized the role of technology and firepower and respected its technologically superior opponents. To narrow the technology gap, China purchased weapons and equipment from the Soviet Union to arm sixty infantry divisions in 1951–54. Thereafter, Chinese weaponry was standardized. The Soviets also shared technology for the production of rifles, machine guns, and artillery pieces. Additionally, Chinese and North Korean armies received foreign aid from Eastern European countries, including Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Romania provided forty-one railcars of war materials for the North Korean and Chinese troops in April 1951, including two railcars of hospital equipment and ten railcars of medicine for a one-hundred-bed hospital. Romania also sent twenty-two medical persons to China that month….

Between 1950 and 1953, more than 2.3 million Chinese troops participated in the Korean War. In addition, twelve air force divisions participated in the war, including 672 pilots and 59,000 ground service personnel. China also sent to Korea 600,000 civilian laborers to work in logistical supply, support services, and railroad and highway construction. In all, 3.1 million Chinese “volunteers” took part in the Korean War. Although the PRC government did not declare war on any foreign country, this was the largest foreign war in Chinese military history.

From October 19, 1950, to July 27, 1953, confronted by U.S. air and naval superiority, the CPVF suffered heavy casualties, including Mao’s son, a Russian translator at the CPVF headquarters, who died in an air raid. Chinese soldiers who served in the Korean War faced a greater chance of being killed or wounded than those in WWII and those in the Chinese civil war. According to Chinese military records, Chinese casualties in the Korean War break down as follows: 152,000 dead, 383,000 wounded, 450,000 hospitalized, 21,300 captured, and 4,000 missing in action, totaling 1,010,300 casualties. Among the 21,300 Chinese POWs, 7,110 were repatriated to China in three groups in September and October 1953 (the armistice was signed in July). The other Chinese prisoners went to the ROC on Taiwan.

The PRC spent a total of about 10 billion yuan (about $3.3 billion) during the war. The Chinese government transported into Korea a total of 5.6 million tons of goods and supplies during the intervention. Between 1950 and 1953, China’s military spending represented 41 percent, 43 percent, 33 percent, and 34 percent of its total governmental annual budget. The Korean War was the first time Chinese armed forces engaged in large-scale military operations outside China, and they faced one of the best militaries in the world. The Korean War was the only meaningful reference point for sustained PLA contingency operations beyond China’s border. Chinese generals recall their fighting in the Korean War as a heroic rescue operation and an extension of their own struggle against imperialism. Chinese history books portray China as a “beneficent victor” in the Korean War. Peter Hays Gries observes that “to many Chinese, Korea marks the end of the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and the birth of ‘New China’.” Still, after the Korean War, Chinese generals were convinced that the Chinese military was a regional force, not a global one, and that it would fight limited wars in terms of both theaters of war and geopolitical objectives. This would force the PLA to consider the relevance of China’s traditional approach.

After the Chinese-American confrontation in Korea, China’s position in the Cold War was no longer peripheral to the two opposing superpowers but was, in many key senses, central. In retrospect, China’s early Cold War experience—as exemplified in its participation in the Korean War—not only contributed significantly to shaping the specific course of the Cold War in Asia but, what is more important, helped create conditions for the war to remain cold in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Flogging the Vote in Tehran, 2001

From Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran, by Azadeh Moaveni (Public Affairs, 2005), pp. 126-129:

Since the middle of the summer of 2001, Tehran had witnessed a baffling revival in the practice of public flogging, a form of punishment prescribed by Islamic sharia (criminal law) but abandoned by the Islamic Republic for over two decades. In the parks and squares of the capital, young people found guilty of petty social offenses like drinking alcohol, attending parties, and selling pornography were being rounded up every few days and lashed before crowds in busy squares.

The Tehran police released a statement meant to explain: “Regarding the spread of decadent Western culture in the society, police have seriously risen up against the propagators of corruption.” The corruption described included: shop owners selling pets such as dogs and monkeys; clothes bearing pictures of Western movie and rock stars; coffee shops serving women dressed immodestly and wearing heavy makeup; malls playing “illegal” music; and shops that displayed women’s underwear or nude mannequins in their windows.

The head of the judiciary declared “an all-out fight against social vices” and said “the people” had thanked the judiciary for carrying out the punishments. Both the police and the judiciary were run by hard-liners, while the Interior Ministry, which was loyal to President Khatami, publicly opposed the floggings. The standoff illustrated how the Islamic Republic worked, or more aptly, did not work: one powerful semi-official body implementing a policy that another sphere of government opposed and tried to obstruct.

Privately, reformists said Islamic criminal law, with its seventh-century origins and arcane punishments such as stoning and lashings, should be abolished. But discarding Islamic law would definitively secularize Iran. What sort of Islamic Republic, after all, could be run without Islamic legal codes? How else could Shiite clerics justify their divine right to govern without religious law?

The hard-liners were anticipating the upcoming presidential election and feared massive voter turnout, which would bolster Khatami—the bee in their turban—with a second popular mandate to carry forward reform. Somewhere in some dusty, dirty-carpeted room in Qom, some wily hard-liner understood the psychology of electoral politics. Television attack ads—or in this case, public floggings—disgusted voters enough to keep them at home. Khatami’s opponents staged such spectacles to discourage fence sitters, already unsure whether to support a maimed-duck president, from voting.

In the weeks that followed, the lashings sparked an open debate about the role Islamic law should play in modern society—a crucial and thorny question many Muslim societies are facing today. On many important issues in Islamic law—like stoning as punishment for adultery, or the killing of apostates, or a woman’s blood money equaling half a man’s—the Koran is largely silent. Historical records of the Prophet Mohammad’s teachings, called hadith, offer some guidance, but because they are open to interpretation, the calculations depend on the philosophical and moral worldview of clerics. A skillful cleric can convincingly argue that a given punishment, like stoning, should be abolished, or upheld. Purely in theological terms, it can be argued either way.

The progressive clerics in the reform movement searched for a way out of the impasse. They argued that since Islam is silent about 95 percent of the matters people face in daily life, people should be free to determine their own behavior, adjusting to the changing times. But the hard-liners interpreted this domain of the 95 percent as their own, a chance to shape society in their own image, by prescribing rules by fatwa. This debate, obscure as it may sound, was the basis for the political battle over the Islamic Republic’s soul, if not the role of Islam itself in modern life: In the realm of the Koran’s silence, are people free, or subject to the fatwa of clerics?

While the debate was significant—unique in a region that as a rule stifled candid talk on sensitive religious issues—it couldn’t have mattered less to ordinary Iranians. They were light years ahead of such conversations (the need for secularism being as obvious to them as the blue of the sky), and it only irritated them to watch the country’s rulers engage in esoteric theological bickering.

Young people were busy launching weblogs (by 2003, Iran ranked number three in the world in number of weblogs); intellectuals were writing innovative, sparkling satire, graphic designers were creating websites for the West. Their interest was turning intensely outward, to the world of ideas outside, and they didn’t have the patience for this conversation among men of religion.

Although the reform movement had a far more intimate sense of people’s actual desires than the conservative clergy, its leaders were still disconnected. They made the same miscalculation that the conservatives had, and it was ultimately this that cost them people’s support. They assumed people would always back them, simply because there was no better alternative. In a competition between violent, fundamentalist ayatollahs, and religious-minded moderates, surely the Iranian people would choose the latter. For a couple of years this logic held, but as the regime stayed the same, and as it became more and more apparent that official change would be slow and undetectable, the distinction between religious conservatives and religious moderates (both functionaries of a dinosaur regime) ceased to matter at all.

They’re all the same, complained student activists who had once passionately delineated their difference. In the end, reformists and conservatives had more in common politically with each other than with ordinary Iranians. The gulf between a mullah and an Iranian civilian was far wider than between a mullah and a reformist.

That much became clear when I began reading the daily newspapers in earnest. Each day I had to skim at least ten, because the political cliques that lined the spectrum from hard-Iine to reformist each had their own mouthpiece. They included the Super-fundamentalist But Non-Violent Clerics of Qom; the Pragmatic Anti-U.S., Pro-Europe Technocrat Hard-liners; the Fascist Anti-Western Hard-liners Prone to Assassinations; the Classical Anti-Western, Pacifist Clerics; and the Society of Combative Clerics, not to be confused with the Society of Clerical Combatants.

These factions had risen up together through the ranks of the Revolution, studied together at the feet of the Ayatollah Khomeini, ordered executions and then dined on chelo-kabob. They were the architects of this system, and now they were bickering over its structure and its spoils. “Reformist” and “conservative” were the labels they used when fighting amongst themselves—and though they fought each other like cats, they still considered themselves khodi (insiders) and everyone else gheir-khodi (outsiders).

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Navigating America by Area Code

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles blogger Jennifer 8. Lee notes the key role of telephone area codes in helping Chinese immigrants who can barely read English find their way to smaller cities served by the Chinatown bus services.

That is because many Fujianese restaurant workers are not educated and thus don’t really read and write English. Given that. How do you divide the United States? Not through towns and states. You do it through numbers — hence the area codes. As I wrote in a piece in 2005, job listings in Chinatown employment agencies are often done by area code.

Here’s a snippet from that earlier article, which is well worth reading.

For workers who cannot read the names of their destinations in English, area codes serve as the restaurants’ main geographical identifiers. The workers do not see America as a series of cities or even states, but as a collection of area codes, almost all with dozens upon dozens of Chinese restaurants looking for help. Maps in every Chinese agency break down the country by area code, with recently introduced area codes scribbled in by hand.

For many restaurant workers, the number of hours by bus is a critical measure of how far they are from the American center of their universe, East Broadway in Chinatown. Almost all travel by bus, because many do not speak English or have identification, so they cannot travel by plane. A network of Chinese bus companies has sprung up to shuttle the restaurant workers from Chinatown to the rest of the country. Some have started to draw non-Chinese riders, specifically the “Chinatown buses” that run between New York and Boston or Washington. One bus-company sign advertises the destination and the fare: “Minnesota (612, 551, 952, 763) $150; Wisconsin (920, 715, 608, 414) $120.”

via Culture-making

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A Millennium of Reconfiguring Chinese Armies

From A History of the Modern Chinese Army, by Xiaobing Li (U. Press of Kentucky, 2007), pp. 18-20 (footnote references omitted):

To secure China’s central position in Asia, Han emperors maintained a large army of more than one million men. The conscription system, however, did not meet the extraordinary demands of frequent wars, even though the emperors had extended the age range of service to between twenty and sixty-five. The later Han emperors began to include criminals and paid recruits in the army. These measures failed to stop the decline of the dynasty. Its efforts to create an Asian powerhouse drained its resources and provided no significant economic return.

Chinese historians describe their past as a series of “dynastic cycles” because successive dynasties repeated this story. After the collapse of the Han Dynasty, China had two long periods of division and civil wars (the Three Kingdoms Period, 220-80, and the Northern and Southern Dynasties, 317-582). During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), although the emperors reunified the country, they squandered an enormous amount of manpower and financial resources in building palaces for their own comfort and vanity. They attempted to reconquer Korea three times, and several million peasants were drafted as soldiers and laborers for the military expeditions. As a result, the peasants were exhausted and the Sui treasury was nearly empty. The burdens on the peasants had become unbearable. They began new uprisings, which dealt severe blows to the Sui regime. While the flame of peasant uprisings was burning across the country, local landlords were allowed to recruit troops of their own and occupy various parts of China. They safeguarded and then extended their power and influence. In 617, the aristocrat Li Yuan and his son Li Shimin started a revolt and quickly occupied Chang’an, the Sui capital. The following year, the Sui emperor was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, and his death marked the end of the Sui Dynasty. Li assumed the imperial title at Chang’an and called his new regime the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which became one of the most glorious dynasties and made China central to Asian affairs once again.

Tang emperors needed a self-sustaining army to prevent military spending from bankrupting the dynasty. To secure manpower and economic resources for military needs, Tang rulers carried on the fubing system, a peasant-soldier reserve system established by the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535; established in north China by Turks), as the main source for new recruitments. There were 634 junfu (command headquarters) across the country. Each selected soldiers from among the local peasants who had received land through the land equalization system (juntianzhi). In 624, to increase the source of tax revenue, the Tang ruler adopted this land system and a tripartite tax system. Under the new system, a peasant above the age of eighteen received a small piece of land, of which one-fifth could be sold or left to his children. The other four-fifths must be returned to the government upon his retirement or death. The new land policy slowed the concentration of land in the hands of big landlords and redistributed it among the peasants. The men in the fubing system were peasants in peacetime and reported to the local headquarters to serve in wartime. Locally, the two-tier system of provinces and counties prevailed except in border and strategic areas, which were administered by garrison commands. The chief executive of each command was responsible for military as well as civil affairs as a military governor-general. The local power of military governors-general increased throughout the Tang Dynasty.

To stop the decentralization, after Tang, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) divided the fubing into the central or urban army (panbing) and the local or village militia (xiangbing). The first Song emperor, Zhao Kuangyin (Chao K’uang-yin; reigned 960-76), former commander of the imperial guards, took several measures to prevent the reemergence of separatist local regimes so as to concentrate all power in the central government. The central government took over the authority hitherto belonging to the military governors-general, and only civil officials could be appointed heads of military and administrative affairs at the local level. This civil-military relationship became another part of the Chinese military tradition. Robin Higham and David A. Graff point out that, during the Song Dynasty, “civil bureaucrats and military officers were often rivals for influence at court, and the civil officials attempted to assert their dominance over the military sphere in various ways and generally had the upper hand. Civil officials with no practical military training or experience of command at the lower levels were sometimes sent out to direct military campaigns.” Neiberg considers the domination of the civilian bureaucracy in military affairs as one of the reasons that the Song Army had one of the worst military records of any Chinese dynasty. In 1279, the Mongols destroyed the Chinese army and ended the Song Dynasty.

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Attitudes toward Religion in China

From Under the Heel of the Dragon: Islam, Racism, Crime, and the Uighur in China, by Blaine Kaltman (Ohio U. Press, 2007), p. 127:

The single most important tie that binds the Uighur to one another and forms the foundation on which the Uighur have developed their sense of national identity and shared consciousness is their belief in Islam. All of the Uighur I interviewed, regardless of their individual religious practices, adamantly and proudly maintained that they were Muslim. Even those Uighur who admitted that they drank alcohol, didn’t fast during Ramadan, and never attended services at a mosque, nonetheless maintained that in their hearts they were religious. This profession of faith in Islam was the one universal characteristic shared by all of the Uighur I met during the course of this study.

The Chinese constitution contains a guarantee of freedom of religion for ethnic minorities. However, the Chinese Communist Party, aware of the role that the Catholic Church played in undermining Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, is suspicious of organized religious activity. Prior studies have reported that Uighur religious activities have been widely suppressed and criminalized; however, during the course of my research, I observed no evidence of the criminalization of Uighur religious activities. While the Chinese government requires all Islamic organizations and places of worship to register with the Religious Affairs Bureau, services in the mosques that I observed (all of which were officially registered) occurred without any noticeable governmental interference.

Uighur were generally reluctant to speak about religion, usually saying that it was a private matter. However, while only a few of them were openly critical of the government’s policies concerning religion, many of them were uncomfortable with the way religion was viewed by the Han. Uighur feel that Han look down on them, as one explained, “because they are too ignorant to understand the benefits of religion.” According to another, “The people of China—the Han—are taught that religious belief is ignorance. And now, more than before, that Muslims are terrorists. Being a minority, being religious, especially Muslim, doesn’t improve your situation in China. It only makes things more difficult.”

The mandarins of Western societies seem to share those same Han attitudes toward religious belief and religious people.

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An Elite Birthday Party in Tehran

From Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran, by Azadeh Moaveni (Public Affairs, 2005), pp. 81-83:

Other than the steady stream of cars that silently pulled up to the Kermanis’ front door, there was no indication of the scene transpiring inside the darkened house. For their daughter Leila’s seventeenth birthday, the Kermanis were throwing a “mixed party,” which meant both boys and girls would attend and dance together to Western music, both activities officially banned by the regime.

Inside, the atmosphere was more Japanese hostess bar than a teenager’s birthday party: a disco ball flashed against the walls, as erotically dressed girls and bored-looking young men prowled about self-consciously, oppressed by the pressure to have wild, illicit fun. Staging and attending such an event involved such elaborate subterfuge that nothing less would do. Leila worked the room in a white halter top that glowed in the flashing strobe light, trying unsuccessfully to lighten the edgy mood.

Everyone scanned the room furtively, carefully blase, holding distracted conversations. The heels were high, the skirts short, and the corners dark. In shadowy corners, shots were taken, hash was smoked. A Toni Braxton song came on, filling the makeshift dance floor with couples swaying in close embrace—an intimacy out of place in an Iranian family home, especially with Mrs. Kermani yards away in the kitchen, clucking orders to the maid preparing birthday cake. Toni Braxton went over well. So well that the song, “Unbreak My Heart,” was played three more times, and each time, the embraces got a little tighter.

I, spinster chaperone, sat in the kitchen with Mrs. Kermani, who cast forlorn, helpless glances at the spectacle in her living room. I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids, she sighed. Poor Mrs. Kermani. Five years ago, she had fretted over raising a daughter in a grim, socially oppressive society. Now, she seemed aware that social permissiveness carried its own knot of worries—strained sexual relations, drinking and drugs, a new range of emotional pitfalls. When I was a teenager, we would dance all night, she mused, fiddling with the stack of dessert forks. They’re dancing, just slow dancing, I said. She gave me the Iranian parental your-generation-is-weird look, and I gave her the your-generation-made-the-revolution look.

Around midnight, Mrs. Kermani began finding quiet rooms where worried parents could be pacified on the phone. While she called taxis, the girls scrambled to pull pants under their miniskirts. The cloakroom was strewn with slipdresses, for coming, and veils and roopoosh, for going. Leila looked exhausted; she didn’t sparkle or preen, as she might have, given that she was beautiful and young, that it was her birthday, and that she had just presided over the most glamorous party of the season. As she shut the door, a girl in five-inch heels traipsing toward a waiting car turned her head back, and cried “Happy moharram!” in a tinny voice.

Three years ago, parties such as this were unthinkable. President Khatami’s election made them commonplace. Elite Tehranis threw parties where waiters in starched white shirts circulated cocktails in gleaming crystal. Less status-conscious Iranians gathered as frequently, though they drank homemade vodka instead and were comfortable sitting on cushions. Everyone celebrated this newfound freedom in whatever way made sense to their lives. Trendy teenagers hung disco balls over their parties. Shiny, exposed, pedicured toes. Political arguments in the backseats of taxis. Young families picnicking with music in the Alborz foothills. Small freedoms, admittedly, that appeared inconsequential from the outside, but here they were felt deeply. They were the difference between suffocating, and breathing very, very heavily.

As Kimia and I drove home that night, careening down the wide expressway that connected north Tehran to downtown, I wondered how many more of such parties I could stand. All the laconic airs, the premeditated exposure of so much flesh. It hadn’t been a birthday party so much as a pushing and shoving match with the Islamic Republic; a cultural rebellion waged indoors against the regime’s rigid codes of behavior. Those codes banned young men and women from interacting casually together, attending soccer matches, studying at the library.

When they were finally permitted a few free hours in each other’s company, they scarcely knew what to do, or how to behave. They had never developed a sense of what normal behavior between the sexes looked like; not only were they lacking a template, they found the prospect of normality unsatisfying. Instead, they sought to contrast the oppressive morality outside with amplified decadence behind closed doors, staking out their personal lives as the one realm in which they could define their individuality, and exercise their free will. The realm where the system tried to intrude, but ultimately could not control. The Islamic Republic does not control me; see it in the layers of makeup I apply to my face, the tightness of my jeans, the wantonness of my sex life, the Ecstasy I drop.

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