Illustration by Pamela Jaeger

In her gripping memoir of “growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran,” Azadeh Moaveni illuminates one of the broadest political truths: Falseness in sexual life leads to falseness everywhere, the denial of truths of the individual body leads to corruption of the body politic.

This isn’t to say that strictness in sexual matters is unilaterally hypocritical, or that sexually conservative cultures corrupt. The rules of traditional societies, including those of traditional Islam, generally work for those particular societies. In the course of my three trips to Afghanistan, and four weeks spent living in an Afghan Uzbek family compound in a provincial city, I met a lot of relatively happy, satisfied people living under rules I’d personally find intolerable: no social mixing of unrelated men and women; arranged marriages, typically between first cousins; and social life pretty much limited to extended family. To be sure, there are Afghans who somatize rather than complaining or acting out their discontent; they live in a pre-Freudian culture so, okay, they’re entitled to some hysteria. But most people seem to find the rules wise, fair, and essential to the continuation of a deeply satisfying, meaningful way of life.

The problems begin once a culture reaches a point of modernization where judgments can be passed on its sexual rules, seen as arbitrary, and hypocrisy regarding sex has a corrosive effect on all institutions. This is one way of looking at the recent scandals regarding pedophile priests, or the nastiness of Saudi society. And it is key to the failure of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

Moaveni was born in 1976 in Palo Alto and raised in Northern California. Her parents sprang from the upper echelons of Iranian society, but from the liberal segment who initially greeted the 1979 revolution with hope for social justice. Her mother, whom she called “Maman,” was a former campus radical at once fiercely proud of her Persian heritage and so enamored of Western culture that she dragged the young Azadeh to the opera, even when she could only afford standing room. Maman and her husband split when their daughter was just a few months old, and Moaveni developed a keen eye for the fault lines in people and societies. And there were many fault lines to see by the time Moaveni moved to Tehran in 2000 to work for Time magazine.

The hypocrisy of two decades of turning back to the eighth century had become too much to bear even for the mullahs. The 24-year-old Moaveni found that the typical one-hour interview with a cleric began with his averting his gaze in the manner prescribed by Islam to religious men in the presence of unrelated women, and ended with his flirting with her and asking for her mobile number. The measures intended by Islamic tradition to desexualize the relations of men and women only inflamed desire. “Iranians were preoccupied with sex in the manner of dieters constantly thinking about food.” Moaveni might have added that dieters constantly think about certain forbidden foods because they used to eat them. If they didn’t know what they tasted like, they wouldn’t desire them.

Chaste dress can uphold chaste behavior only when it’s all that people have ever known. It’s hard to go back to the chador when, like Moaveni and her contemporaries, you remember your mother wearing miniskirts. Hijab is sometimes defended by Islamic feminists for allowing women to appear first and foremost as human beings rather than sexual objects, and in Afghanistan it might actually work that way. But in Tehran, Moaveni found that “the constant exposure to covered flesh . . . brought to mind, well, flesh.” Because young people were prohibited from the kind of casual coed socializing their parents had known studying together, skiing together, and hanging out in groups, when they did have the chance to meet, the result was “amplified decadence,” with upper-class high school girls defiantly wearing skin-tight dresses and 5-inch heels at forbidden “mixed” parties. These teenagers lack both the innocence the mullahs thought to ensure, and which they might enjoy in a place like Afghanistan, as well as the opportunities to explore sexual desires they would have in many developed nations.

Moaveni paints a damning picture of daily life in Tehran with a hundred fascinating, subtle details. Iranian doctors pay no taxes and bribe taxi drivers to bring them incoming ER patients, the best-equipped women’s gyms cater to the young mistresses of clerics and government figures, men wear post-surgical bandages in public because nose jobs are chic, wealthy Iranians visit the Indian ashram of the Hindu mystic Sai Baba rather than participate in the Shiite rituals the regime imposes on them.

The mullahs gutted many Persian cultural traditions when they interfered with the single-minded imposition of shari’a law: respect for the elderly, tolerance, solidarity across class and ethnic lines. But in insisting on a sexual puritanism incongruent both with ancient patterns and with the early-20th-century modernization under Reza Shah, the 1979 revolutionaries have arguably done grave damage to the integrity of Persian civilization. It’s true that Iran wasn’t colonized — a possibility at various points in the 20th century — but there are worse fates. At least colonized people know whom to hate. When you have made your own tyranny, like Hitler’s Germany or Saddam’s Iraq or Khomeini’s Iran, you may have to tear yourself apart to purge it.

One of the sadder episodes of Lipstick Jihad describes a scene from the final night of Ashoura, the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Hossein. It was once an occasion for sincere grief, and as solemn a day as Yom Kippur is for religious Jews; but Moaveni finds a huge “Hossein party‚” in a public square where girls and boys slip each other their phone numbers at a candlelight vigil. Even less in the spirit of the holiday, the thuggish Basij-vigilantes from the conservative slums, operating with the tacit approval of the regime, begin to club teenagers who disobey their instructions to disperse.

But much to Moaveni’s credit, she is able to find the redeeming aspects of what often reads like a sojourn in one of the outer circles of hell. She celebrates the grace of the Persian culture that still survives, the poetry, food, and family intimacy. And then there is the special sweetness of life in all societies that retain elements of traditional ways. When she suddenly returns to New York amid government pressure to censor her articles and accusations of spying for the CIA, she misses a Tehran “suffused with intimacy.” Accustomed to the obstacle course of daily life in Iran, she finds that “not having to think and maneuver as much, did not feel great, as it should have. Mostly it all felt too free, too oppressively Light.”

Moaveni had gone to Iran in part to find out how Iranian she was, even what her Iranian-ness might mean, but her wise, anticlimactic answer is that she might have made more of her Iranian identity than it had made of her. Growing up outside a “troubled country,” she realized, “came with many complications. You grew up assuming everything about you was related to that place, but you never got to test that out . . . You spent a lot of time . . . feeling sad for your poor country. Most of that time, you were actually feeling sorry for yourself, but since your country was legitimately in serious trouble, you didn’t realize it.” You don’t have to be Iranian, or to think of yourself as a hyphenated American, to need this warning. Just insert your favorite cause, political stance or sexual identity in place of “your poor country.”

And you don’t have to be absorbed by the same sense of a divided self to be moved by Moaveni’s conclusion about divided selves in general. After returning from Iran and before moving to Beirut, where she now lives, Moaveni attended her grandfather’s funeral in California. Still homesick for Tehran, she realized that “Iran existed here, in the interior intimacy and rhythm of our lives.” Her longing for Iran when she is in America and her longing for America when she is in Iran showed her the truth: “that I was whole, but composed of both.”

Lipstick Jihad | By AZADEH MOAVENI | Public Affairs | 249 pages | $25 hardcover

Azadeh Moaveni will read from Lipstick Jihad on Wednesday, March 23, 7 p.m., at Dutton’s Beverly Hills, 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 281-0997. And on Thursday, March 24, 7 p.m., at the Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena, (626) 449-2742.

Ann Marlowe is the author of How To Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z. Her second memoir, The Book of Trouble: A Romance, is due out from Harcourt in 2006.

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