Iran's hybrids unveiled

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Women in the Islamic Republic are mixing east and west in their battle against the chador, as a new exhibition of female artists shows

One morning this spring I spent four pre-dawn hours in Tehran's Imam Khomeini international airport waiting for a flight back to London.

Far from an inconvenience, the delay was an opportunity to attend a visual pageant, to conduct unscientific anthropological observation of Iran's young women and their particular way of dressing or making themselves over. The ones that fascinated me were not so much the severe-looking girls in full chador, devoid of makeup, bags jutting out under the all-encompassing cloak.

No, I was staring at the women whom the religious girls dismiss as "extremists".

Four in particular caught my eye as I sipped my coffee. They were waiting for their flight to Dubai, one of the few places to which Iranians can travel freely and where many of them go – metaphorically at least – to let their hair down. Excited about their trip probably, they were in high spirits as they sipped juice drinks. But they had also, even at that ungodly hour, gone to extraordinary lengths to get into character.

The heels on their boots were sky high, their wrists draped in gold bracelets, nails painted; on their laps perched Louis Vuitton bags. Over their skinny jeans (skirts are a no-go area in Iran) they wore skimpy shirt-waister tunics, belted tightly around their stick-thin waists but cut to the upper thigh to preserve their modesty or to preserve the honour of Iranian men, as the revolutionary law requires.

For Islamic veils, mandatory by law at all times in public, they wore silk squares of lime green, shocking pink or electric blue, tied under the chin like a Fifties housewife, and tilted back at an angle.

There was so much hair on show that the scarves not only constituted "bad hijab", in other words, contravene Islamic standards, but they defied gravity. They were there, you had to conclude, not out of any conviction in the ideals of the Islamic revolution, but purely for legal reasons. From under the scarves loomed big hair, dyed (or maybe bleached) blond, but so groomed and sprayed and backcombed and beehived that they could have been wearing wigs.

It wasn't just the hairdos that looked artificial – they themselves looked unreal, like Sindy dolls, or extras from the set of The Stepford Wives. There was something else. Underneath the layers of foundation and eye shadow, their distinctive Persian features had been airbrushed away. Probably by a plastic surgeon. Tehran can lay claim to being the rhinoplasty capital of the world. And it is possibly also the bee-stung Botoxed lip capital of the world. You see the walking wounded everywhere, surgical tape criss-crossing the nose, not that it looks as if it is providing any medical function, but almost like a bandage in a cartoon. The first time you see the nose tape you think you've just seen somebody who walked into a door. But then you realise they're worn openly, proudly, a badge of honour, money or status or maybe a badge that says "I can look Western".

Appearance has been a battle ground in Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the early days, lipstick was an outrage, an insult to the blood of the martyrs. Ties on men were equally reviled, too Western for the devout bearded ones.

Now, at least to the eye of the outsider, there seem to be two extremes of womanhood, the chador wearer, or the other revolutionary, the woman who has grown up on satellite TV shows from the West, and who deploys her hybrid glamour to defy the clerics and morality police while staying within the law – just.

The airport princesses might have been posing for Shirin Aliabadi, an artist born in Tehran in 1973, who uses her photographic art to explore the politically charged choices of such women as well as having a go at our Western perceptions of Iranian women as repressed, downtrodden creatures. Her women are exaggerated but, like the reality on the streets of north Tehran, have staged a cultural rebellion, often using blond highlights and blue contact lenses as props in this pursuit. The collision of Islamic rules and an extreme interpretation of what is fashionable in the West is puzzling, mildly disturbing, just as it is when you see it in the flesh.

Are these Iranian women just expressing themselves like members of a youth subculture anywhere in the world, or are they intentionally building a new image, a different identity, one that is in conformity with and at the same time utterly at odds with the expectations of the repressively conservative theocracy in which they exist? And if it's the latter, have they unwittingly fallen into another trap, mocking the shackles of chadors "manteaux" and hijabs but substituting them for the tyranny of perpetual grooming, dyeing, plucking, nipping and tucking, all to achieve a "Western" ideal of beauty?

Some of Aliabadi's works can be seen in Made in Iran, a group show featuring an exciting new generation of contemporary artists in Iran. Also exhibiting is the 39-year-old Simin Keramati, whose portrait Make Up features a veiled, mute woman with her eyeliner and lipstick smeared and smudged, as though after violence. "Make Up is a painting from the series 'self portrait'; all the works are about objections I have to the society I live in," she says. "This portrait shows a woman with closed lips the colour of blood. She wants to say something." They are artists who have had to circumvent the heavy hand of authority and find novel ways of self-expression, just like the women.

Made in Iran, to 4 July, at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W1

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