A modern Iran could counter regressive models of the faith
By Swapan Dasgupta
For the past three decades, Iran has been plagued by its sinister projection in the free world. Even if the images of a mass of humanity marching against the Pehlavi dynasty in 1980 were inspirational, the spectacle of the Revolutionary Guards undertaking combat drills before the captured American Embassy in Tehran and the show trials of the Shah’s henchmen, drug addicts, communists and sexual “deviants” before Ayatollah Khalkhali, nicknamed the “hanging judge”, cast Iran as something straight out of the Dark Ages. In recent years, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s grotesque denial of the Holocaust painted Iran as a country run by cranks — and dangerous ones at that. Even those who rue nuclear apartheid are terribly ill at ease with the idea of a theocracy with weapons of mass destruction.
I must confess travelling to Iran in 1999 with many of these unfavourable images firmly etched in my mind. In the mid-1970s, as a student in Britain, I was familiar with the down-and-out Iranian exile, usually leftist radicals, half-angry and half-terrified of Savak informers lurking around campuses. In the 1980s, this breed was replaced by the more prosperous and, indeed, more clubbable exiles who couldn’t countenance the draconian illiberalism of the black-robed ayatollahs. In the heyday of the Shah’s impatient drive to modernize Iran, Tehran had often been regarded as a Paris of the East. After 1980, Iran eschewed cosmopolitanism.
Going by appearances, Tehran in 1999 seemed a complete throwback to the 1970s. From the cars that had clearly outlived their natural life to the worn-out interiors of the hotels, it was obvious that Iran had seen better days. Only the grandly opulent foreign ministry — where, unfortunately, the officials seemed incredibly wooden and socially ill at ease —served as a reminder of the fact that Iran wasn’t just another emerging basket case but was driven by a passionate desire to be a regional power worthy of its rich inheritance.
Ten years ago, Tehran had reminded me of Calcutta — another great imperial city overwhelmed by genteel decay, political graffiti, frozen in time but yet pulsating with life and vitality. The traffic was infuriatingly chaotic and inimical to any timely business. Yet, the shopkeepers in the grand arcade of the Bazar-e-Bozorg flaunted an impish and irreverent sense of humour. “Have it with champagne or good vodka,” the man who sold me an old silver caviar dish told me laughingly. He was delighted because I had paid for it in US dollars, a currency preferred to the wads of “khomeinis”— the disparaging description of the local currency.
It wasn’t merely the indefatigability of the Iranian man on the street that was such a sharp contrast to the media-driven stereotype. Much more of a discovery was the remarkable extent to which the Iranian economy was powered by women. The sartorial restrictions — the ubiquitous head scarves and the occasional full chador — appeared as needless restrictions on personal freedom. However, it was remarkable that this insistence on modesty in a completely male-dominated establishment hadn’t succeeded in reducing women to complete subordination. In office after office, particularly in the private sector, it was clear that women were the driving force. “Our men are useless,” a woman graduate nominally attached to an embassy told me bluntly, “Without women this country would be in an even worse state.”
Maybe she was exaggerating but I suspect she was pointing to something that Iran-watchers have been slow to realize: the growing mismatch between the economic role of women and their role in the power structure.
On the face of it, the recent turmoil in Iran is over a flawed election involving candidates whose credentials had been vetted by the theologians in the Guardian Council. Initially, there had been nothing to suggest that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the foremost challenger of President Ahmadinejad, was anything more than a representative of a fraction of the ruling establishment, in particular that section allied to the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mousavi had, after all, served as prime minister under the spiritual guidance of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The factors which transformed Mousavi from being just a more benign face of the Islamic establishment into a threat to the status quo, as he undoubtedly has become, is really the story of Iran’s evolution in the past two decades.
In a sense, Mousavi became a prisoner of the forces that saw in his candidature a small opening for the creation of a less doctrinaire and more open society in Iran. Leading the charge were the young men in jeans who have been sending Twitter commentaries to the outside world on the state of the street protests. But what has been sustaining the movement is the solid support from modern, mainly middle-class, Iranian women who have the greatest stake in demolishing the all-powerful theocracy. The brutal gunning down of the jeans-clad, 27-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, deified as the Angel of Freedom, has come to symbolize the angry yearning for personal freedom in Iran.
There is a caricatured version of what this freedom is all about. Recounting her experiences in Tehran, Leyla Ferani, a 21-year-old British Iranian woman wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “By day I dutifully donned a shawl and overcoat, in public playing the part — like all Iranian girls my age — of the respectful and obedient woman. But at night, and in private, the shawls were off. The same girls — with their brothers and cousins — joined me in underground raves, fuelled by smuggled alcohol and copious amounts of cannabis.”
Given the severity of punishments for drinking and smoking pot, it is hardly presumptuous to suggest that violation of the law was a conscious act of subversion. “I feel a heaviness of heart,” another woman told Ferani, “because I know that I’m not living the way I want to.”
It is conceivable that all this outpouring of anger will come to nought against the organized might of the State. There are many in the West pressing President Barack Obama and other leaders to back the protestors in Iran in the same way as the former president, Ronald Reagan, backed Solidarity in Poland. Unfortunately, any certificate from the West is likely to make things more difficult for Iran’s beleaguered liberals.
The cry for personal freedom may have an outward veneer of Westernization, both in terms of the partiality to jeans and to Facebook and Twitter. But that is at a high level of superficiality. Societies such as India and Iran are too rooted in their own cultures and backed by their own distinctive religious traditions to be overwhelmed by glitzy Westernization — although, like any forbidden fruit, this may have a strong initial attraction.
In theory, there is also a potential conflict between cosmopolitan dreams and nationalism. However, if the Indian experience is any guide, the real attraction is for Western technology and consumer goods. Global influences may modify indigenous value systems but at the end of the day, the appeal of uninhibited individualism and atomized existence is limited. If Iranian nationalists fear that a rash of personal freedoms will trigger a civilizational breakdown, they can take solace from the Indian experience.
It is important that democracy takes firm roots in Iran, and it is equally important that theocracy is undermined there. A modern, progressive Iran has the potential of becoming the alternative to regressive versions of the Islamic ideal. Iranians are always quick to remind visitors, “We are not Arabs”. The distinction needs to be spelt out unambiguously. It would also help if it is simultaneously affirmed that Iran doesn’t aspire to be a clone of the West.
The Telegraph, June 26, 2009