How to Flirt in Iran

Like teenagers anywhere, Iranian youth like to push limits. But in Iran, there are a lot more rules to break. Kiana Hayeri

Women in Iran may be forced to wear the hijab – a scarf covering their head – but that doesn't stop the country's restless youth from keeping a watchful eye on Western fashions and trends. As young Iranians strive for sartorial freedom -- and fewer restrictions on the way they interact with the opposite sex -- they can face fines, imprisonment, and torture. But many still make small rebellious gestures: They put on a bit more makeup, wear colorful clothing, reveal bare arms, push their headscarves back and do things behind closed doors that are countercultural, or even banned.

This photographic project presents a window into the disobedience, both public and private, that can be found in Tehran. It's a world I can identify with: As a young woman growing up in Iran, I adopted the dual life that everybody there leads. I had a public face but a private life. I emigrated to Canada when I was a teen, which allows me a unique perspective: I can be an insider when I'm in Iran, while my experiences in the outside world permit me added objectivity in looking at my subjects. Through these images, I try to explore the tension between the way people want to dress and behave, and the laws, enforced by the "morality police," that constrain those desires. At a time when the country might seem mysterious to many Americans, I hope this project offers Western audiences a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary people in Iran.

Yassi and a friend on their way to a reception at a gallery in Tehran’s north. Being bold and eye-catching can draw the attention of the morality police, but many girls still choose to put on bright lipstick and dress distinctively. Kiana Hayeri
In Jolfa, one of Tehran’s trendier neighborhoods, people gather for a religious and mourning event called Ashura-Tasua – and use the time to socialize. Kiana Hayeri
Any kind of gambling is banned in Iran under Islamic laws, but a group of young men and women gather once a week to play poker behind closed doors. They take turns hosting the game so that they don't attract attention. Kiana Hayeri
A young couple share a moment during a night out at a friend’s house. Under enforced Islamic laws, any relationship with the opposite sex outside of marriage is a sin and therefore must be punished. Kiana Hayeri
Some cafés refuse to serve a hookah to women, but Sheida and friends found one in northern Iran where they could smoke. Kiana Hayeri
Women are not allowed to swim in public, even fully clothed. But Sheida and Behnoosh escape the hot and humid night and hit the Caspian Sea with their manteaus and scarves on. Kiana Hayeri
Dressed fashionably in black, youth watch a religious parade during Ashura-Tasua, which provides a good excuse to socialize on the streets. Kiana Hayeri
As she puts on her boots, Melika argues with her dad over the time she must be back home from dinner. Aside from the restrictions imposed by the government, many youth have to deal with limitations their family puts on them. Kiana Hayeri
Ebrahim gazes at his niece as she cleans up after dinner. The women are expected to do all the housework within traditional and religious families. While women are becoming more powerful and educated, chauvinism still exists among more traditional families. Kiana Hayeri
Inside the Shah-Abdol-Azim shrine in Ray, Iran. Kiana Hayeri
At far right, the trendy Ati Saz building complex is isolated by highways and a poor neighborhood seen in the foreground. Kiana Hayeri
After a long day of studying, Melika dazes on the couch in the living room. Kiana Hayeri
An underground theatre troupe rehearses their newest play. Depending on the content, some plays and art exhibitions (and all dance productions) must remain underground and be performed behind closed doors, as existing Islamic laws view them as inappropriate. Kiana Hayeri
Parmida, a ballerina, prepares. Ballet is banned in Iran due to its Western influences, but it continues to be performed behind closed doors. The authorities shut down Parmida’s studio but she still practices in a basement. Kiana Hayeri
Getting ready to go out in Tehran. Kiana Hayeri
A 14-year-old girl with dyed blonde hair at the Tasua parade in the Jolfa neighborhood. Kiana Hayeri