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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #9 (February 28, 2006), page 15.

Caught between two worlds

Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran

By Azadeh Moaveni

PublicAffairs, 2005
Hardcover, 249 pages, $25.00

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Azadeh Moaveni lived as an outsider in two worlds. Born in Tehran, Iran, she spent her childhood in San Jose, California, vacationing occasionally in Iran. Because of the tension surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis, she had to hide her heritage, calling herself "Persian." Her mother often fought with her over her acceptance of American culture, but Moaveni never felt she’d truly become a part of her adoptive country. Even though she went to American schools, had American friends, and adopted American values, she still felt like a foreigner and longed for the Iran of her memory, where she felt she belonged.

And so, soon after she graduated from college, Moaveni moved back to Tehran, hoping to find the comfort and acceptance she craved, but never seemed to find, in California’s Iranian exile community. Working as a foreign correspondent for Time, she was able to observe and report on her second home country while still retaining some level of independence. But, instead of finding acceptance, she found herself still a foreigner, chafing under the restrictions imposed on women by the radically conservative Shiite government and unfamiliar with the language and mores of the society she’d once felt to be her own. In time, Moaveni would adapt to Iranian culture the way other young Iranians did, by carefully subverting the oppressive regime whenever possible, and turning a blind eye to the everyday incidents of repression and violence.

Lipstick Jihad tells the tale of her remarkable journey between two very different nations, and how Moaveni learned the truth of both American and Iranian values, finding the truth about herself in the process. In America, the land of freedom and acceptance, she felt afraid to disclose her homeland, and the permissiveness of American culture made her take for granted those things that defined her personality — her opinions, appearance, and sexuality. In Iran, a land where language, dress, and behavior are strictly regulated, Moaveni found people obsessed with sexuality, hedonism, and Western-style values — those same things that the Shiite regime wished to deny Iranians. And Iranian religious rulers were every bit as corrupt, their rules just as senseless, as the Western culture they demonized. The same clerics who declared a fatwa against poodles and CDs gave her lascivious looks in private, suggestively pestering her for her cell phone number.

Although Moaveni learns a great deal about America, and the American values she unconsciously absorbed, the book is really a study of Iranian society under Shiite rule. Moaveni sees how little Iranians care about the substance of the religious laws, and how they find ways to subtly thwart the intentions of the ruling clerics. Women slowly alter their dress and appearance so that lipstick and brightly colored veils — once criminal offenses — become everyday sights. During Ramadan, she watches a cab driver sneak a forbidden cigarette, or is chided by her friends and neighbors for trying to fast the entire day; all of them fast in public, but feast in private. Sometimes Moaveni witnesses a thrilling kind of rebellion, as when holy days occasion impromptu street parties, teenagers slipping one another phone numbers as they mill about in "prayer." Other times, this passive resistance takes on horrifying dimensions, as when Moaveni’s friend dispassionately denies any relationship with her boyfriend, as she watches the morality police (komiteh) trying to beat the truth out of him.

In the end, it is difficult for Moaveni to find anyone who truly believes in either the Shiite government or their restrictive laws. Like rebellious teenagers, they pretend to play by the rules, but find ways of bending the rules in public, or ignoring them in private. Those things that the ruling clerics seek to deny to the people — Western music and values, alcohol, cigarettes, revealing clothing — instead become prized items indicative of worldliness and independence, more valuable than they are in America, where they are all freely available.

There is a lesson here, of course, for both countries, but Moaveni is careful to let the situations speak for themselves, and not to turn her book into a political screed. She writes with remarkable skill and insight, weaving Farsi words and concepts into her beautifully crafted prose, speaking honestly about her own difficulties in finding love or making friends, even as she reveals the baroque machinations of the Iranian people against their government. Although the title might suggest either a light-hearted approach or an exclusive focus on women’s issues, Lipstick Jihad is in fact a must-read for anyone interested in Middle Eastern politics, repressive theocracies, or the impact of these things on American society.


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