Iranian Mystique

Behind closed doors, a more permissive world thrives in the Islamic Republic.

Start Slideshow View as a List


Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran's secular world all but disappeared from view. Today, much remains forbidden, especially for women: They are not permitted to socialize with men in public or reveal too much hair from under the headscarves they are required to wear. Security forces troll the streets to enforce these restrictive laws.

But behind closed doors, a more permissive world thrives. Young Iranians, including women, engage in the taboo: smoking, dancing, drinking, mingling with the opposite sex. There are no bars in Iran, so young people often meet at coffee shops, like the one pictured above. Proprietors post signs saying they're not permitted to serve hookahs to women, but some do it anyway.

Iranian photographer Hossein Fatemi, now based in Chicago, spent years in his native country capturing these hidden lives.




At Iran's public beaches, women are not supposed to go in the water (except in small, cordoned sections) because wet clothes will reveal their figures. Yet society is more accepting than Iranian law, and this woman swims with her young son, in the open and unafraid.




When Fatemi visited this small gym, the women covered their hair, arms, and legs. One invited Fatemi to photograph her at home so she could show more of herself -- and show the world how powerful Iranian women really are.




These two women live together, throw parties, drink alcohol, and don't always wear hijabs. Here, while one smokes a cigarette, the other prays -- but still she ignores conservative religious mandate by exposing her arms. "I pray for my own relaxation," she told Fatemi, "not for anyone else."




Two young women, having enjoyed a drink at a party, dance together (their boyfriends sit in the background). Although unrelated men and women are forbidden to socialize with each other, many people ignore these strictures in the privacy of their own homes.




Two young couples sit inside a tent smoking a shisha, an act that has been banned for women in public.




Women play pool in a men-only gym, which women are forbidden to enter.




A man adjusts a woman's tiara in a bridal clothing shop. As it is forbidden for an unrelated man and a woman to be together under such circumstances, the dress is fitted in a part of the shop that is out of view of the street or the public.




A saleswoman and a customer look at a lingerie catalog while another woman tries on a bra.




A group of young women stand on a terrace at Bam-e Tehran, the "roof of Tehran," an area overlooking the capital. One of the young women has a bandage on her nose following plastic surgery. Iran has the highest rate of nose surgery in the world, with a reported 200,000 operations taking place each year.




A woman swims in a private pool.

Previous Next Close