Islamic Iran's young people have never been closer to the West ― with a simple mouse-click, they're connected to the Internet, which Iranian authorities used to call "satanic".
"It's like entering a limitless world filled with opportunities and freedom, even if just for a few hours a day," says Afshin, a 28-year-old computer engineer. "Iran is a country full of limits, but once the kids here enter the Internet, they see no borders."
Some two-thirds of the Iranian population is under 35, and many are increasingly turning to the Internet to flirt and chat with a freedom often denied them under the nation's strict Islamic law.
Unmarried youth, fearing possible confrontations with both parents and Iran's morals police, are now turning to cyberspace to meet new people, and even look for a possible spouse.
"It's the least problematic way of getting to know people," says 26-year-old Leyla Azari, an arts student from Tehran. "Girls, for example, are often either not allowed to go to parties, or are afraid of possible trouble. But when you are online, you can have fun without having to worry about being caught," she says.
Internet cafes have sprung up across Tehran and other major cities since the 1997 election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami, who has moved to liberalize Iranian society in the face of stiff conservative opposition.
In Tehran alone, trendy girls and boys can choose between some 1,500 existing "coffeenets" ― some open round the clock ― to meet friends, drink cappuccino and surf the net. Sites such as one-and-only.com and matchmaker.com are filled with personal ads by men and women, girls and boys ― nearly all from Tehran ― looking to make new acquaintances.
Just like personal ads round the world, they are each accompanied with a personal photo, height and interests, in addition to a description of what kind of a person, and relationship, they are looking for.
Last month, press reports that some 800 Internet cafes in Tehran had been closed drew sharp criticism from reformists around Khatami.
His First Vice President Hassan Habibi criticised authorities for having been "thoughtless and too conservative" in recent years for failing to understand the importance of the net, notably for educational means.
But reformers are not the only Iranian officials to have discovered the benefits of the Internet.
Former intelligence minister Ali Fallahian, one of Khatami's conservative rivals in the June 8 presidential polls, can be seen on fallahian.com, where he outlines his programs for Iran if elected as head of state.
The Internet cafe boom in Tehran and other major cities is seen by many as a result of Khatami's efforts to liberalize society, but in recent weeks the president has come under increasing fire from conservatives.
On Friday, conservative cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi said Khatami's cultural reforms were tempting young people towards drugs and sex and away from the nation's Islamic values.
"Reformists keep young people from going to Koran class and draw them towards cultural centers where girls and boys have illicit relations in the name of culture," Kashani said.
But arts student Azari says that, while the net propagates what officials believe are "un-Islamic or Western" customs, "at least online meetings keep us away from alcohol, drugs and other things" commonly seen at illegal parties. ― (AFP, Tehran)
by Violet Pakzad
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)