Via NY Transfer News Collective * All the News that Doesn't Fit
from Green Left Weekly #231 5/15/96
NINA LANSBURY visited Iran in November. Here she presents some of her observations.
I had an eerie feeling of living within my novel. I was reading George Orwell's 1984, and each time I glanced up from the pages of Big Brother, the large and always half-smirking face of the late Ayatollah Khomeini was looking down upon me from a wall or side of a building.
Seventeen years after the revolution which abolished the monarchy and ousted US-owned companies, Iranians seem dissatisfied with the results. Some long for subtle reform. They envisage women taking stronger, leading roles without the required covering, and religious leaders returning to the mosques rather than taking up seats in parliament.
The ruling group are referred to as "Hezbollah''. The Hezbollah are officially unopposed in their leadership, having disposed of most of their opposition. Communists were tortured and exiled, as was the case for an Iranian Communist poet I met in Turkey. Policemen had poured petrol over him, then set it alight.
Another opposition group is the Mujahaddin. Most of their leaders were killed or "quietened''. One man in the tropical town of Bushehr told me of his brother's murder 15 years ago. His brother, an eloquent, bright student at high school, had been killed by police for possessing a publication of the Mujahaddin. On claiming the body for burial, the family was told, "First you must pay for the bullet we used to kill him''.
In homes and shops, it is common to find portraits of the three leaders - the two current religious and political leaders, Rafsanjani and Khameini, and the "immortal'' Imam Khomeini. "Imam'', the title used for the 12 caliphs of early Islam, has been bestowed upon the leader of the Islamic revolution. This image of Khomeini gives respect and cohesion to the present government, which does not have such a charismatic aura.
With regard to crime, Iran has become a safe place, to the extent that women can walk alone at night in a back street without fear of harassment. This is due to the hard line taken by the "committee'', a group of military police.
The committee is ever-present, and prone to interrogate any passer-by. A young couple will often be stopped in the street and asked for details of their relationship. They risk both charges and public exposure if they are not married. This committee will also create problems if a member of the public is not wearing hijab dress in line with the Islamic dress code.
Although Islamic law is not implemented in Iran, penalties can be severe. It was announced in early 1995 that anyone found dealing on the black market would face the death penalty. In reality, as is the case with many prohibited dealings such as alcohol, the black market is flourishing.
Since it is the only way Iranians can buy hard currency, usually US dollars, the black market is easy to find. A security guard at the National Bank of Iran gave me directions to find a "Mr Bazurgi'' in a nearby basement, since the bank had already closed!
Although not all Iranians are Muslims, adherence to the Islamic dress code is required and mixed social contact limited. Alcohol is officially prohibited, although Shiraz grape wine and malt beer have persisted in the Persian culture for centuries. Many people brew at home in their basements.
Ornate, well-preserved mosques can be found in the tiniest villages, but alternative places of worship do exist. Armenian churches can be found in Esfahan, resembling mosques in their dome-like structure, yet featuring a tiny crucifix high on top. There are also synagogues and Zoroastrian temples. I even passed the American Evangelical Church in Tehran, but it seemed to be deserted. The last shah followed the Baha'i faith. On his exile, Khomeini proclaimed that this religion practised incest.
The role of women in Iran is a concern to many feminist groups internationally. The distinctive "chador'' is commonly worn over modest clothing. Clothing must hide the shape of the body, including neck and ankles. A scarf hides the hair, which may attract attention. Women are not prevented from being outwardly beautiful, I was told, but they must evoke lust only in their husbands. Perfume, make-up, short dresses and dancing must all be kept for the eyes of the husband only.
The mentality brought about by hijab is one of such suppressed desire that women told me they were afraid of being stared at by men if they were inadequately covered. Men often commented that they would not be able to control themselves if their women did not wear this outer covering in public.
In reality, women enjoy taking off their hijab in private homes. At weddings and celebrations, the party is segregated and the women remove their hijab, often revealing extremely elaborate outfits. Tight-fitting dresses, heavy make-up and fancy hairstyles are all popular, and many women are keen to dance the sensual movements of Persian dance, which are now prohibited publicly.
Chadors were worn as an option prior to the revolution, but they were brightly coloured and floral, unlike the orthodox black which are such a common sight on the streets of Tehran. The last shah's father, during his rule, encouraged a change to western dress. Iranian cities were hard to distinguish from their counterparts in western Europe. With the 1979 revolution, initially the religious police "committee'' patrolled the streets with canes to enforce the dress code. Today, women incur a fine and instruction if they neglect correct hijab.
The dress code creates an atmosphere which makes female emancipation difficult. Covered, as Paul Theroux once wrote, like a piece of furniture beneath a dust sheet, the women of Iran are all identical, with little more than their faces for individuality. The female newsreader bares only a triangle of her face; the rest of her person is a mass of black cloth.
Women, in general, are not encouraged to speak up in mixed gatherings. As a foreign woman, accustomed to being assertive, I was regarded at times as being only part woman, and my male partner was seen as too passive, since he allowed me to be so bold.
The USA still enforces a debilitating embargo on Iran. The revolution of 1979 was directed against the shah's pliability and subservience to the USA, and today there is a national pride that neither the monarchy nor any US-owned companies exist in Iran.
The economy has suffered from severe inflation since the Ayatollah Khomeini's death in 1989. During the pre-revolution years, the rial was as strong as the US dollar, but today 3000 rials are equivalent to one dollar.
The general public do not benefit from a welfare system, but the government subsidises public transport and education. The infrastructure of roads, water treatment and renovation of historic and public buildings is also of a high standard.
Despite an oppressive theocratic government and stagnant economy, Iranians have faith in their homeland and hope in its future. Many Iranians who were sent overseas during the revolutionary years by their wealthy families, are now returning to invest their acquired knowledge and expertise. One man, recently returned from the USA, told me, "I would rather be in a country heading up [Iran] than one going down [USA]!''
There is a general attitude that the present government is a temporary occupier of power, like Alexander the Great, the Arab invaders and the British colonialists. Reform is a process which occurs slowly and subtly, yet it seems to be occurring in educated circles. People in positions of influence are slowly, through the media, altering the views of the public.
The Islamic revolution was a time of hope, when Iranians strove to regain their cultural and religious identity. For many, the regime has been oppressive, dictatorial and a disappointment. Perhaps, one day, Iran will strike a balance between religious adherence and modern democracy without poverty, fear and oppression.
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