Robin Wright. Foreign Affairs. Volume 79, Issue 1. January/February 2000.
A generation after it seized power, Iran’s revolutionary regime is deeply troubled: fractured by intense political divisions, endangered by economic disorder, discredited by rampant corruption, and smothered in social restrictions no longer acceptable to large sectors of its changing population. To the outside world the Islamic Republic of Iran often appears to be at a precipice, its unique theocratic government on the verge of imploding from internal tensions. Over the past year, its domestic drama has played out visibly, and sometimes violently, in killings by a rogue death squad, newspaper closures, student unrest, political trials, local elections, charges of espionage against the Jewish minority, and as always, relations with the United States.
Yet Iran, often in spite of the theocrats, has begun to achieve one of the revolution’s original goals: empowering the people. New social and political movements are blossoming defiantly in ways that put Iran on the cutting edge of the Islamic world on issues ranging from religious reform and cultural expression to women’s rights. So, although the theocratic regime that seized power in 1979 is unlikely to survive in its current, austere form because of profound internal problems, the driving force behind the revolution has proven durable and, in the end, adaptable enough to allow Iranians to go out and get for themselves what the theocracy has failed to provide.
Iran’s revolution was about more than getting rid of an unpopular king or ending 2,500 years of dynastic rule. In the quest for empowerment, the upheaval of 1979 was an extension of earlier challenges to the state’s central power: the 1950s Constitutional Revolution that diminished the monarchy’s authority, and the nationalist rule between 1951 and 1953 that briefly forced the shah into exile. Both earlier attempts at evolutionary change were ultimately aborted. Thus the coalition of parties seeking a greater say in public life resorted to revolution. Iranians were not alone in trying to end autocratic rule. Iran’s upheaval was part of global change, including the demise of communism in Europe, white rule in Africa, and military dictatorships in Latin America.
But the process of empowerment was hijacked in the early days of the revolt by a clique of Shiite clerics who used their networks, legitimacy, and leadership to unite the disjointed opposition. After the shah’s ouster, the coterie around Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gradually purged its partners and crafted a theocracy instead of a democracy. Human rights were virtually ignored during the decade-long “First Republic,” which lasted from 1979 until Khomeini’s death in 1989. With typical revolutionary excess, the regime’s zealots became obsessed with deconstructing the past and winning converts to their cause, both at home and in the region. The fragile new state was also nearly overwhelmed by plummeting oil prices, economic sanctions, international isolation, and the region’s bloodiest war in a century. It survived only by crushing dissent, spending its foreign exchange reserves, and tapping into fierce, age-old Persian nationalism.
Nonetheless, seeds of public empowerment were planted and grew. The Construction Jihad (teams of development experts and builders) brought progress in the form of schools, social services, clinics, electricity, television, and roads to the countryside. The revolution particularly excelled in education, in quantity if not always in quality. In the late 1970s, only half of Iran’s youth between the ages of six and twenty-four were literate; two decades later, the number had grown to 93 percenteven though the population itself had doubled. Iran succeeded in part because traditional families trusted an Islamic government to educate their children, especially girls. Students also remained in school longer. The number of university graduates soared from 430,000 in the late 1970s to more than 4 million in the late 1990s. This success spurred expectations of a greater role in the system and access to new instruments of progress.
In the “Second Republic,” from 1989 to 1997, Iran graduated from reacting against the past to realistically dealing with the present. During President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s tenure, the government of God plummeted back to earth-with a thud. The new leadership initially promoted physical reconstruction, economic reform, and a diplomatic thaw. But without the ayatollah’s authority, longstanding political divisions deepened and paralysis set in. Despite a brief try at privatization, including reviving the monarchy’s stock market, promises of change remained largely unfulfilled. In the end, the regime’s blatantly manipulative tactics kept it from achieving its goals, instead spawning corruption, deepening debt, and social turmoil.
Paradoxically, the very policies that Rafsanjani introduced to win back the support of a war-weary public inadvertently jump-started the empowerment process. The regime sporadically tolerated cultural freedoms and relaxed some of its social restrictions. It also facilitated a consumer spending spree on imports by making credit available. The outside world soon flooded back in, through satellite dishes, videos, computers, and even textbooks full of ideas. From that point on, the tide of information could no longer be controlled, however hard conservatives and clerics tried.
The Second Republic also overlapped with the end of the Cold War, which Iranians felt deeply because of their shared border with the Soviet Union. The collapse of Soviet rule in a country with superpower resources-sent a powerful warning about the vulnerability of revolutionary regimes. Finally, Iran’s return to peacetime pursuits, its flirtation with pragmatism, and the pressure of social problems all unleashed unusual initiatives, largely outside the government but also within the circles of power and even the clergy.
Iran’s theocracy slowly came to recognize that it was endangering its own agenda by ignoring the state’s real problems, such as its population policy In the 1980s, millions of women complied with the theocrats’ dictate to breed a new Islamic generation that would defend the revolution. Within seven years, Iran’s population jumped from 34 million to more than 50 million; it is now 70 million. The clerics soon realized that soaring numbers were more likely to undo the revolution than to save it, and they introduced one of the world’s most extensive family-planning programs. Every form of birth control, from condoms and pills to sterilization, became free. All couples now have to pass a family-planning course before obtaining a marriage license. Thousands of women mobilized by the Health Ministry have gone door-to-door to explain the necessity of birth control. Clerics, preaching the benefits of small family size, have issued fat was approving everything from intrauterine devices to vasectomies.
Sensing a reluctant realism within the regime, Iran’s increasingly savvy population began taking stands, making demands, and even defying the theocrats. In the .1997 presidential election, which had the highest turnout since the Iranian people endorsed revolution a generation earlier, 70 percent of Iran’s voters spurned the theocrats’ candidate of choice and instead elected a dark-horse cleric named Mohammad Khatami, a former minister of culture and Islamic guidance who was purged in 1992 for “liberalism” and “negligence.” The election marked the onset of the “Third Republic” and the burgeoning of what is now a very public fight for empowerment. Its outcome will be determined partly by Khatami’s success in restoring the rule of law, fostering a civil society (two of his campaign pledges), and wresting power from the religious superstructure-the theocratic part of Iran’s system that limits the government’s powers. But more likely, Iran’s future will be decided by the newly energized popular forces that made Khatami’s election possible in the first place. Three movements reflect how the revolution is being redefined: daring Islamic reformers, an adventurous film industry, and spirited women’s groups.
Brave New World
The most innovative movement in Iran today is the Islamic reformation. Iranian thinkers have injected energy and ideas into a disparate movement, spreading from Egypt to India, that has been struggling for more than a century to reconcile a seventh-century religion with modernity. By using Islam as a popular political idiom, by weaving Islamic tenets into a modern, Western-style constitution, and by putting clerics in charge of the state, Iran became a live test and a venue for debate on the proper relationship between Islam and the modern world. Ironically, the failure of the world’s only theocracy to empower its populace provided the biggest boost for new, progressive formulations about the modern Islamic state. Much of the most profound discourse within Islam today is taking place in Iran’s newspapers, courtrooms, and classrooms. Even clerics who once held high office and intellectuals who were Khomeini’s proteges are now challenging the religion’s basic precepts as well as the specifics of theocratic rule.
Tehran was engrossed last autumn in the trial of Abdollah Nouri, a cleric, former Khomeini aide, and editor of the newspaper Khordad who served during the Third Republic as vice president, interior minister, and Tehran city councilor. The Special Court for the Clergy, which operates as an independent agency, charged him with multiple counts of “insulting” Islam, the prophet Muhammad, and Khomeini. Nouri’s specific offense was running articles in Khordad that questioned everything from the Islamic concept of eye-for-eye justice to the clergy’s automatic right to hold power. At his trial, Nouri, dressed in a white turban and clerical robes, astonished Iranians by taking the stand and denying the court’s right to judge him: “I totally reject the court, its membership, and its competence to conduct this trial, and any verdict you reach will have no legitimacy.” After his conviction he refused to appeal, on the same grounds. In late November, Nouri was sentenced to five years in prison and was also barred from political activity for five years, a punishment tacitly designed to prevent Khatami’s closest ally from running for speaker of the parliament. And Nouri’s newspaper was banned, although his staff defiantly pledged to launch another publication–the new way of getting around forced closures.
Six months earlier, Tehran had been absorbed in a similar trial that of Mohsen Kadivar, a popular young cleric and seminary professor whose sister was an adviser to Khatami and another Tehran city councilor; his brother-in-law was Khatami’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance. The Special Court for the Clergy charged him with “disseminating lies and disturbing public opinion” for writing articles advocating the separation of political and religious institutions. Kadivar also dared to compare practices in the Islamic republic with the shah’s repressive controls on the freedom of expression and questioned the powers and righteousness of the theocracy. “From both a legal and religious point of view, it’s quite permissible to criticize the Supreme Leader or the ruling establishment,” he argued. Like Nouri, Kadivar rejected the clergy’s right to judge: “Investigation into political and press offenses must be carried out in the presence of a jury and by a qualified court of the judiciary,” he told the court. He was convicted and received an eighteen-month sentence.
Kadivar’s case gained him celebrity status. Posters of the young cleric, who came from a noted religious family in the city of Shiraz, were plastered all over Tehran. Students held a candlelight vigil in the hills near Evin prison, where he was being held without bail. Chanting “freedom of thought, forever, forever,” they released doves as a symbol of liberty. More than 200 journalists also signed a petition that condemned Kadivar’s arrest as unconstitutional and called it an “offense” against Iran’s writers and intellectuals. These responses to Kadivar’s imprisonment reflected a newly emboldened population.
Both trials involved an issue more fundamental than the freedom of expression: the separation of religion and government. In an Islamic society, who has the ultimate power—the elected officials or the clergy? Since Islam is a monotheistic religion that offers not only spiritual values but also a set of rules to govern society, sorting out the allocation of power is critical to any genuine reform. Hence political change and religious reform are often intertwined in Muslim societies.
Over the past five years, Iran’s leading philosopher, Abdul Karim Soroush, has fueled public debate by offering a framework-on the basis of faith-to blend Islam and democracy. He argues that to be a true believer, one must come to the faith without coercion or pressure-in other words, freely. That principle is the origin of all other freedoms. He never abandoned the tenets of his faith; he believes that sharia (Islamic law) can be a basis for modern legislation. But he breaks from Iran’s theocrats in his declaration that Islamic law is not static, but is flexible and adaptable because it has only begun to be understood by imperfect human beings.
Soroush was a long-time follower of Khomeini, who appointed him to the Committee of the Cultural Revolution to conform university curricula to Islam. But a decade after the revolution, Soroush began to see the ayatollah as an instrument of transition, not as the goal. In books, magazine columns, and lectures at the three universities where he taught, Soroush warned that Islam, like any other religion, should never be used to rule a state, because it opens the door to totalitarianism. Often called the Martin Luther of Islam by students, Soroush is also widely popular among intellectuals, reformers, and the clergy. Many of his former students and followers launched new, reformist newspapers most notably Jameh, Tous, Neshat, and Asr-e Azadegan, or “Era of the emancipators”-all of which were closed down by the judicary.
The goal of Soroush, Kadivar, Nouri, and other reformers is to be Muslim without being fundamentalist, to be reverent but free, and to find a world-view that is both Islamic and modern. As the only Shiiteruled country, Iran is unique in the Muslim world. Yet the work of Iran’s reformers is nonetheless spreading throughout the 53-nation Islamic bloc, the last group of countries to hold out against the wave of democratization that has swept the rest of the world.
The frontline in the conflict over Iran’s identity and its future is between artistic freedom and Islamic correctness. Some of the earliest and boldest challenges to the Second Republic came from artists. In a 1994 open letter titled “We Are Writers,” 134 writers, poets, journalists, and scholars, including many who had once rallied around the regime, demanded the freedom to associate in a writers’ union, noninterference in their personal lives, and an end to censorship. Within months, more than 200 film directors and actors petitioned for an end to the “straitjacket regulations and complicated methods of supervision” of Iran’s movie industry, including everything from script approval to the distribution of raw film stock.
Iranian cinema has led a major countercultural revolution since the early 1990s. Despite often ridiculous restrictions, filmmakers have been able to exploit the subtleties of their medium to make bold statements about sensitive political and social issues. Characters are challenging the status quo; plots focus on the shortcomings of the Islamic system; dialogue is extending the boundaries of public discussion. Indeed, few subjects are now off-limits. The White Balloon, one of Iran’s most famous postrevolution films, jabs at the country’s failures to address poverty, racial bias, and child exploitation. Dariush Mehrjui, the father of modern Iranian cinema, wrote a quartet of films-Banoo (1992), Sara (1993), Part (1995), and Leila (1997) about the professional and personal plight of women in Islamic society. Each ended with the lead female character defying convention or leaving her husband to head out on her own-a radical move in a society where women must get written permission to leave the country. Mehrjui’s Hamoon, ranked the best movie in Iranian history in a 1997 Poll of Iranian film critics and audiences, was a dark comedy about modern Iranian life that examined people’s fixations with Islamic religious figures. Today’s increasingly independent film industry is thoroughly undermining the theocrats’ draconian effort to create a new society centered around the devout Shiite. Indeed, the change in the social climate is stark.
In the 1980s, the regime had forced artists and writers into silence or exile. Bookstore shelves were emptied and state-controlled television and radio were limited to religious programs, children’s shows, sports, news programs, and staid documentaries. In the 1990s, a bookstore was firebombed for publishing an “un-Islamic” book. Theaters were attacked for showing films accused of religious insensitivity. One leading writer died mysteriously in prison; three others were murdered by a death squad tied to the intelligence ministry. Nothing was too trivial: the theocrats even endorsed new, Islamically correct dollsSara and her brother Dara-to supplant the influence of Mattel’s Barbie and her boyfriend Ken.
But Iran’s isolation proved to be a boon to the movie industry. The theocrats’ ban on most foreign films in public theaters created a captive audience for Iranian cinema at a time when other countries were dominated by American movies. For the first time, Iran developed its own artistic film business. And like religious reformers, film directors with reformist views enjoyed a certain legitimacy, since many of them were once the regime’s closest allies. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who spent five years in the shah’s jails, was known in the 1980s for ardently religious and pro-revolution films. But in the 1990s, his films shifted to secular stories that coyly challenged revolutionary truths. Makhmalbaf’s fifth film was blatantly antiwar, and two were banned by the government. His seventh film, A Time to Love, was a controversial tale-with three endings based on three perspectives-about a married woman who pursues a younger man. But critics were concerned less with the illicit affair than with the film’s message: Perception varies, and so can the truth.
In 1998, Makhmalbaf’s teenage daughter Samira made her film debut with The Apple, the true story of an illiterate man who had locked his twelve-year-old twin daughters at home since infancy, for fear that the girls’ purity would be spoiled by strange men’s gazes. The movie revolved around the gradual exposure of the girls-almost mute, unschooled, and both physically and mentally disabled-to the outside world. “I wanted the film to make this point: An it takes to imprison many, many women is one man,” Samira told reporters when the film opened in New York in 1999. “What 1 noticed about those two girls is that the more they came into contact with society, the more complete they became as human beings. For me, that became a metaphor for all women. Women in Iran are like springs. If they want to be free, and if they try, they burst out with a lot of energy.”
Iran’s countercultural revolution has had a major boost since Khatami took office. During his 1997 confirmation hearings, Minister of Culture Ataollah Mohajerani described his ministry as the “laughing stock” of the government. “Islam is not a dark alley. Everyone can walk freely in the path of Islam,” he told parliament. “We must create an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity in all centers of culture, where all citizens can express their ideas and where the seeds of creativity can blossom.” Iran’s filmmakers are several steps ahead of the bureaucrats-and are gaining international attention. Children of Heaven was one of five films nominated for the 1999 Academy Award for best foreign film. The White Balloon won the 1995 Cannes Camera d’Or prize for best first feature film and the 1997 New York Film Critics award for best foreign film. Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997- Other films have won festival prizes in six continents for best picture, best foreign film, best director, best script, best actor, best documentary, best short film, and best jury. In defining the modern Islamic agenda, Iran’s cinema is proving to be more appealing-and effective-than the theocrats’ campaign to export religious militancy.
From Under the Chador
The most energetic movement to emerge since 1979 is the women’s movement, which is shattering the starkest stereotype of the Islamic republic: the chador-clad female. A generation after the revolution, Iranian women are by far the most politically active in the Persian Gulf and are among the most empowered in the Islamic world. In 1996,200 women ran for the 270-seat parliament, and 14 won. In 1997, four women registered to run for the presidency. Although all were disqualified by the Council of Guardians that vets candidates, the decision was not based on gender. Five months later, Khatami appointed a female vice president. And in 1999, 5,000 women ran in local elections, and 300 won.
Today, more than 40 percent of university students are female, as are one-third of faculty members. Thousands of women educated after the revolution work as engineers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, and even clerics. More than 340 directors-general in government ministries are female. Iran has 140 female publishers, enough to hold an exhibition of books and magazines published by women only. Women have become painters, authors, designers, photographers, movie producers, directors, stars, and sculptors crafting “anatomically correct” female figures (otherwise known as nudes).
A fierce women’s movement was not what the theocrats intended. Their original goal was more akin to gender apartheid. After the revolution, the regime dismissed almost all women who had risen to positions of importance. A former female education minister was executed for promoting “Prostitution” among girls. The revolution’s severe intentions were reflected in the new Islamic dress code and the lowering of the minimum age at which women could be married to nine. The new constitution also removed critical women’s rights in divorce and child custody battles.
A generation later, restrictions still border on the bizarre. A woman may have an equal vote in parliament or equal powers among the vice presidents, but her testimony in court carries only half the weight of a man’s. Women can head universities and publish newspapers but cannot leave the country without their husbands’ written permission. They can act in plays and movies alongside men, but they cannot sing in public or ride in the same section of a public bus.
Iranian women, however, have proven irrepressible. In defiance of the theocracy, they are putting their imprints on diverse aspects of Iranian life. Beginning in the mid-1990s, pressure from women changed laws on employment, divorce, and maternity leave. Women packed a courtroom to protest child-custody laws after the brutal death of an eight-year-old girl-weighing only 35 pounds, with a fractured skull, two broken arms, and burn marks covering her body at the hands of her father, a drug addict with a criminal record and a documented history of child abuse. Islamic tradition allows a mother to keep a daughter until the age of seven and a son until the age of two; fall custody then switches to the father. Parliament subsequently revised the law in 1998 to stipulate that a child could no longer be awarded to an unfit father, defining the custody qualifications in a way that could often disqualify men.
Women have challenged other male bastions as well. Thousands of women broke a long-time barrier preventing females from attending male sporting events when they poured into Tehran’s stadium to greet the Iranian soccer team after it qualified for the 1998 World Cup. Women are also playing sports. Tehran alone has eighty-five women’s basketball teams in five leagues. Only ten thousand women engaged in intramural sports on the eve of the revolution; today, two million participate in soccer, basketball, swimming, tennis, handball, skiing, aerobics, fencing, judo, shooting, volleyball, rowing, horseback riding, gymnastics, golf, table tennis, karate, tae kwon do, and even waterskiing-despite the slightly absurd waterproof coats and scarves women must wear to demonstrate modesty, and women have forced the theocrats to acknowledge their participation officially; at the 1996 Olympics, for the first time, a female athlete led the Iranian team onto the field.
The new activists are as distinct as their political environment. The most outspoken women are no longer Westernized or upper-class elites, but have emerged from within the revolution. Many are from traditional families, clerical circles, and rural areas-none of which had previously produced female activists. Some women would continue wearing conservative dress, even if it were not required. But all dare to challenge the regime on far more critical issues, from centuries-old Islamic traditions to recent clerical interpretations of Islam.
Women’s publications have been brazen on reform issues. Zan (Woman), the newspaper published by Faezeh Hashemi, a member of parliament and the daughter of former President Rafsanjani, editorialized against child-custody laws, the use of stoning as a punishment, and “temporary marriage”-the practice of contracting a short-term wife. It ran an expose on the return of prostitution and reported on a New Year’s message sent to Iran by the former empress. The theocrats banned Zan in 1999. Another publication, Farzaneh, is trying to reconcile more robust women’s rights with the Islamic faith; its articles have included “Human Rights of Women in Islam,” “A History of Silence and Debates Today,” “How to Proceed,” and “The Long Way Ahead.”
Iran’s women still face serious discrimination. But their participation in society has already helped to reshape the political scene. In a country where women have the franchise from the age of 15, Khatami’s stunning upset victory would not have happened without the female vote.
Like the world around it, Iran is still undergoing a profound transformation. More internal turmoil lies ahead, as the revolution’s early passions are replaced by hard-earned pragmatism, and as arrogance gives way to realism among many sectors of Iranian society. Gradually, the government of God is being forced to cede to secular statecraft-and to empower Iranians. In the process, Iran has begun contributing to the spread of public empowerment around the world.