Tehran the great one, Tehran the loud one, Tehran, under the gaze of the Tochal, that mountain range with restaurants with a vibe on fire following the first stars in the sky, with its silent visitors, side by side, hidden by the altitude, with the families scattered by crowds and desires. The city, tireless, keeps spreading: buildings on the heights, streets in the desert, urban jungle carved in the sand. Valiasr Street cuts the city between East and West, crosses the North, the South and time. She carries the scars of years, new streets, rushed lives on her concrete. She hosts the yellow cabs that never empty, the hopes of the vendors, the relentless wait of the mothers at the bus stop. The longest street of the Middle East crosses time. From the South, older, who bends his spine under the masses and the merchandise that sprawls relentlessly; under the clustered chadors that veil the sidewalk with jet black; under the suspicious look of the men, spectator from another era, lost in the present. They stacked, these tones of before and after, these smells of with and without, in Persian history, in the eyes of the old man, on Valiasr Street. Farthest North, the other side of the coin is displayed in the fashionable storefronts, the coffee shops tuned on Spotify and the girls's laughs. The street, a pillar of the capital, is the Iranian paradox. The one that runs through the veins of customs and hopes, the one that tears the middle class and makes the heart of the capital beat.
Who is the Iranian woman? "She is intrinsically independent... But her energy is not used to its full potential. She has rights, especially when you compare with the countries around us. She drives, she goes to university... However she could go further than that." Nazanin Darneshvar, founder of Takhfifan (the Iranian Groupon), is well-known among the Iranian startups. Her career is crossed by the ambition and the strength her father passed her on in her youth in addition to the desire to inspire the others. "It is also essential to find a balance between family and work. We need both to be a woman."
Family is a pillar of Iranian culture. It is omnipresent in the customs, hosts the children until they marry and provides the direction to its offspring. In the traditional pattern, it is financially supported by the man while the woman takes care of the children and domestic duties. This structure is tied to the Nafaghe, the responsibility of the husband to give money to his wife in exchange for her work at home. The Nafaghe is however not tied to the good will of each family. It is an institution with which the Iranian society grows up, on which the other systems are erected. It is the symptom of a traditional organisation but its soul is in the duties whispered to the Iranian women. How can a woman be ambitious in that context? "I have several female employees who left me as soon as they got pregnant. They almost never come back on the labour market... There is no point for them since they have to take care of the child and the husband is the breadwinner. For them, the salary is pocket money... Many Iranian women don't look for financial autonomy."
Parisa, automobile engineer, lives in the North of Tehran. While she cooks for tonight, smokes a cigarette and serves tea, we discuss about women in the world and Iranian women. Independent and living alone, she has an uncommon situation. She shares Nazanin's view: "Because many employers see the women's salary as an extra, they tend to give them less money compared to men with the same position... I know I am less paid than my male counterparts. Even if I don't like that, I understand. The man is the one in charge of the family. In most of the families, everybody relies on his salary." Her sister comes for dinner with her family. In the living room her two nieces run around the table, giggling after each other, while the little brother, a toddler, observes them with envy and tries to stand up, in vain. The dinner is over and digestion unties words. "It is sometimes difficult to find an alternative for the children's care. The rare options are too expensive or have a poor quality. My sister would have liked to keep working, sometimes she regrets."
Despite the kilometres and kilometres of street, it is hard to find the plates that do justice to Iranian gastronomy. Those ones, including the Āsh-e anār or Kashk bademjan, are mainly in the Iranians' kitchen. They are a well-preserved treasure that only unveils when losing yourself in the street of following resident's recommendations. They are behind the bulwark surrounding the private space, high and tick walls, the border between two distinct universes, the street and the house.
In Isfahan, walking one morning on its mountain, Saffeh, in the middle of the locals -young, old, in the uphill or downhill, lying on the grass, helped with a cane, lovers, lonely- life flows on a tightrope walking on the barrier of these two worlds. Isolated from the public rules' gravity, conversations and laughter float above the trees, rise up to the immovable blue sky and crosses the ages. There, I met a woman with broken English and constant smile. She invites me for lunch, I accept, we drive to her apartment. As soon as she passes the door, she removes her coat and her hijab, puts on her jean and a pale pink tee-shirt and, without further delay, she prepares the flat bread, the yogurt, the olives, the nuts, the plates that have simmered for hours at low heat, until we forget them, until that unique sauce -the one you can only smell after the doormat- soaks the vegetables and the meat. The other Iran is in the pots, the other Iran is kept away from the sidewalk, the other Iran as uncovered and loose hair, discusses about the world's state, fears and hopes.
"You have to pretend you're someone you're not, you have to be acceptable for the others." Farnoosk Nik has red hair ends and a frank look. Co-founder of Artsy (the Iranian Etsy), the 27 year-old entrepreneur explains the difference between the public and the private Iranian. "In the street, we have to be the person others want to see. Iranians need to be well seen by the others. They don't want to be misjudged ." Later, she adds: "The Iranian woman is finally not so different from her appearance in the street... It is a human being, like men, with many abilities, but covered with a hijab... Meaning that she can never be 100% herself." Giving up on conformity means losing a certain respectability. Meeting the expectations means sacrificing a lot of energy to be someone you are not. "I have hope for the next generations... My generation is stuck in between. It grew up with the start of internet and an Islamic education. It is not easy to deal with both... In public or private."
At the crossroads with Enghelab Street, Valiars transforms itself in chaos. The four corners of the intersection spit out the subways survivors. There under, packed against each others in their assigned car, women observe other women, ignore the sellers, look out for their stop and prepare to get out the human slump. Above, in the open air, it is another obstacle course. The sidewalks, protected by barriers, push men, women and children to escalate the absurdity made of blue metal. Afterwards, booed by the cars, they cross the traffic, lane after lane, wait to pursue their way, escalate other obstacles, finally arrive on the opposite bank.
Day after day, Iranians cross busy streets crossing crossroads. Especially when the barriers turn into economic sanctions and when the mad cars change themselves into legal tools. By making their own path, Iranian redouble their creativity and ingenuity. That space, closed but porous, controlled but misty, is a playground for all sorts of entrepreneurs. The ones who dreamt to pursue a career outside Iran now believe in the future of their country, create a new dynamic inspired by the Persian resourcefulness, adding their own modernity.
"In a movie I directed five years ago, I asked Shaghayegh where she was seeing herself in five years. She answered she would probably be outside Iran. Today, she doesn't want to leave anymore!" Negin's business partner and friend confirms. The two young entrepreneurs, Negin Nasiri and Shaghayegh Jahanbani, could establish themselves in a field that is usually closed to women in the world and particularly in Iran: carpentry. In less than two years, Studio_On became more than a business, it is a popular brand that young people watch closely. Their products contrast with the furniture they are used to, their design has the energy to which that generation identifies itself. Their Instagram account, a reference in terms of popularity in Iran, shows almost 30,000 followers.
Around the table of the Rione, a new coffee shop in the middle of Tehran, the notes wander around the table and contrast with the urban confusion that fusses outside. Negin and Shaghayegh share their stories with enthusiasm. "At the beginning, people couldn't believe it. When they saw we constructed real furniture, they tested their solidity with a disproportionated strength. But it still held on!... Now, they respect what we do... Even the people of our street, which is in a traditional neighbourhood, they support us... With our work-clothes and our hair tied in a scarf, they are not always sure we are girls (laughs)... Today, many girls and boys see us as an inspiration."
In that entrepreneurial frenzy, the new Amazon, Uber and Ebay emerged to replace their elders. Startups quickly followed and, despite the lack of investments, they could take advantage of the absence of competition to expand. "It is still difficult to create startups in Iran, it is still very new... This field asks many good developers and those are still a scarce resource... In addition of that, the amount of investments is low. The traditional market actors are not used to that business model and don't trust it. " Despite all that, many accelerators keep emerging and attracting new recruits, drawn by a sector full of promises.
The day comes down and the heat in the street is at its highest. Tehran rises again after the afternoon anaesthesia. On Tajrish place, at the Northern end of Valiasr, an hysteric symphony of horns rushes the passerby. He jumps from the sidewalk without caring, brushes the hood, dives again in a compact crowd. Groups of taximen, leaning on the dusty yellow of their darlings, raise the hand to the rare tourists, suggest the main attraction of the city: a ride through the traffic that draws Tehran's destiny, with a zest of radio tremor on the side, on a bed of eager cigarettes.
Between the tracts and the human counterflow, with the display of nuts and sour cherries on one side, the mountains on the other, the Iranian youth crosses the path of the elderly. The first ones, dressed with the spring-summer colours, walk with confidence through the chaos, their chaos. The second ones move at their own pace, don't notice the fever, hear the prayer, take the known paths. Further, at the foot of the Cinema Museum, in the Bagh Ferdows park, girls gather, veils barely covering, podium's make up and Vogue between the fingers. The regular beat of the high heels is the unique traffic of the place.
"Nowadays, the hijab is worn as a fashion tool. We say it is like a frame for a girl's face." If other barriers, through law or customs, are raised around the Iranian women, they also overcome them and tame them in their own way. With Negin and Shaghayegh, we talk about the Islamic dress but also laws. Divorce for example that, in the official texts leaves little room to women: "The young Iranians who are going to marry sign a paper that puts the two spouses on equal terms." To that, they add that young people are the bearers of a better rooted equality. But all that takes time, needs examples.
Nazanin mentions the same necessity, including in the professional sphere: "We need more models, for women or startups in general." Could that new environment, with more egalitarian culture and attracting a younger generation, be a key-sector for Iranian women? "In my startup, the majority of the employees are women... In addition of being an environment that appeals an educated and modern youth, it is also a job where revenues are considered too low for some men." Tied to the Nafaghe despite changing mindsets, these men are generally less attracted by the uncertainties around the wages of startups.
It is almost 11 pm. Valiasr's sidewalks are barely soothed. My flight is in a few hours and soon I will be back in the yellow cab, an historic figure on its own; I will cross Tehran, its multiple contraries and stories into History. Where is the new Iranian woman? Like the startups, she rises with new possibilities, a range of actions that would have been unthinkable in a different time. She makes her first steps without rushing, with confidence. She inspires beyond the frontiers. But what future? Farnoosh, using these words to describe the entrepreneurial environment, probably uses the best expression:"We have to try, test, persevere. Nobody ever knows what will happen, the most important is to keep moving."