Iran’s population is about 70 million. The population doubled between 1975 and 2000; about half the population is aged under 25 and two-thirds under 30. This helps to explain why a large mass of the population is at odds with the theocratic regime’s severe restrictions on people living normal lives.
Iranians are not against having a good time, but Iran is a socially conservative country, disapproving of homosexuality, female sexuality, etc. And, this can’t change while, for example, gay people are persecuted by the state, with homosexuality punishable by death, and young women are obliged to wear modest dress in public — with laws like this, even the most liberal person can get sucked into making judgments about what is “good” or “bad” hijab.
In many ways, Iran is a very modern country. The education system, particularly for maths, sciences and technical subjects is good; engineer is a respected status. But there is a “brain drain” of graduates from Iran, especially as it is hard to get a good job, or any job at all. Many young women go to university (over half of graduates are now women, although only about 10% of the workforce is female).
There are surreal cultural contradictions: if you watch Iranian state television you will see state-of-the-art graphics, techno music, and so on. At the same time the content is sanctimonious, boring and morally repressed. Young people, as we have seen in the current protests, are switched on to social networking media, etc. They have to be if they are to enjoy any kind of youth culture.
There is a large output of films and pop music for Iranian young people created outside Iran, in Los Angeles (dubbed Tehrangeles, where perhaps one million Iranians or second-generation Iranians live), or in Dubai. The regime does not, normally, stop people visiting these places. In a way they are a safety valve for the regime, where the middle class can go to let off steam and consume.
During the Iran-Iraq war, 1980-88, there were big advances in medical techniques. Iran has great dentists and great reconstructive and cosmetic surgeons. It is quite routine for young middle class Iranians, men as well as women, to have nose-jobs. They sit in cafés with plasters on their noses after they have had it done, like it was a status symbol.
At election times, the candidates appeal to the youth. They have lively campaigns. Young women in “bad hijab” – with scarves falling off the back of their head revealing bouffant hair, and wearing stacks of make-up — are encouraged to get involved. You could see them in footage about the election campaign, carrying around posters of one of the candidates, the relatively “liberal” cleric Karroubi, an old man with a beard and a turban.
Almost as an antidote to the dourness of the regime’s culture, which glorifies Islamic and Iranian national martyrdom, and the dourness of its underlying Shia religious culture, which emphasises mourning, the young people are showy and overly hedonistic. They have every excuse!
Iran also has many socio-economic problems, some of them half-concealed, such as a high rate of heroin addiction. Possibly 1 in 20 people are users. High unemployment, perhaps as much as 20%; GDP has risen lately but is lower than it was in the 1970s. Rampant, unplanned urbanisation, with now more than 70% of the population living in cities; capital city Tehran’s population has grown from about two million just before the 1979 revolution to 10 million today: it is a teeming, polluted, stressful place to live or work.
Even young people who are rebellious now can get worn down or preoccupied with the task of simply living in a country where it is very stressful to live: tackling the bureaucracy, negotiating the horrendous traffic just to get from A to B, finding a job, earning enough to survive, finding a home, coping with family life, and so on.
Given the prevailing social conditions there will be enough people replenish the ruling elite and to populate the militias like the Baseej. You simply need to be poor to find a job like that appealing, and Iran does have many poor and desperate people.
Those who can get out are the lucky few. Those who have to stay have many battles on their hands.