Christina Patterson: The true religion of Iran is not Islam

How free did we feel before this hot, itchy carapace swaddled our heads?
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The Independent Online

If you want to make a woman feel like a slut, just give her a headscarf. Hair which hitherto caused anxiety only for its recalcitrant frizziness, or greasiness, or stubborn, rogue curls is instantly transformed from neutral, necessary framing of too-tired, too-wrinkled or too-blotchy face into glinting, winking, evil sexual weapon, a trap to catch and poach and traumatise an innocent male.

From the moment I touched down at Tehran airport a couple of weeks ago, I, and the two women journalists I was travelling with, thought of little else. What did we do with our hands, we mused, before fiddling with our headscarves all day long? How free did we feel, before this hot, itchy, blinkering carapace swaddled our heads and addled, it felt, our brains? And what was it like, we wondered, to whip off your cardie when you felt a bit hot? What was it like? We could barely remember.

Our guide had brought thick brown viscose gowns to preserve our modesty, but I preferred the ancient, knee-length jacket I'd bought from M&S. But when the velcro strip I'd stitched on to it, to ensure that no one suffered an offensive flash of betrousered thigh, came off, our guide rushed at me with a safety pin. Later, I bought long tunics in the bazaar. I don't know what toxic chemical they'd been dipped in, but by the end of the week I had skin like a crocodile. If my mind was captivated by Iran, my body rebelled against it.

"In the Name of God" screamed the application form for press cards, and "In the Name of God" screamed the list of instructions for tourists outside the Crown Jewels. It's "in the name of God", presumably, that toddlers stagger down the street in chadors, and men and women stand in different parts of a bus, and the silhouette of even the modern Iranian woman is no longer a female form, but a triangle.

And it's "in the name of God" that you can be in Shiraz, tucking into chicken delicately spiced with saffron, and dreaming – but only dreaming – of a nice glass of the stuff. "In the name of God", too, that you yearn for it, pine for it, so that when, at 8am, your plane lifts above the runway, and Iranian soil, you beg for it. "O Winebringer," you say, or words to that effect, to the steward, "bring us a bucket of wine!" And you are, in fact, quoting Hafez, the great 14th-century Persian poet, beloved of Goethe, beloved of Emerson, beloved of Lorca and beloved of pretty much every Iranian man, woman and child.

It's at the tomb of Hafez, in a shaded garden surrounded by cypress trees, that you find Iranians worshipping their true God. This is not the fierce patriarch of the mad mullahs, the one which has half the population of a country shrouded in black, and men yelling out at you if your scarf slips, and moral police checking that the young woman you're talking to is, as you've claimed, your cousin. It's not that God which inspired the exquisite miniatures so central to Persian art, and the beautiful carpets, and the stunning paintings and the rose-scented gardens which offer a taste, as the Persian word for garden, "pardis", suggests, of paradise.

The God that Iranians worship, it's clear, as we watch our guide touching the marble tombstone, and mouthing words as if they will save his soul, and hear him recite a poem about spring and a nightingale and a rose, is a God of poetry, a God of transcendent yearning for beauty, a God, you could almost say, of wine, women and song. This, presumably, is why many Iranians treat the poems of Hafez like a guide to life, a Bible, a Koran, an I-Ching. It's also, presumably, why, for all the public signs of piety, only 1.4 per cent of the population go to Friday prayers.

The fact is that Islam was an Arab import to a culture whose central religion – Zoroastrianism – was non-proselytising and based around a transcendent, non-personal, non-patriarchal God. It was Shah Abbas (the flowerings of whose civilisation are on display at the British Museum) who imposed Shiism on a then Sunni country. As with all Iran's leaders, his religious refinements were for political ends.

And so it was when Iranians rose up against a regime – a tyranny, complete with secret police, torture, mass deaths and mass terror. And who installed it? Well, us, as it happens, the good old Brits, in cahoots with the CIA, in order to keep our hands on our favourite sticky Middle Eastern treat, oil. This, alas, is not bleeding-heart liberal angst, but a fact. Revolutions always need an ideology – and fundamentalist Islam was the nearest to hand.

"The night is gone," said another great Persian poet, Rumi, "and day has arrived/ and the sleeper shall see what he has dreamed." We can only hope that that spirit of beauty, the one that produced some of the greatest poetry, architecture and science in the world, will one day crush the plodding literal-mindedness of the misogynists in charge, will one day rip the veil, and the headscarf, and the chador, away.