Middle East

Iran: The Liberation Won’t Come from America, but from Women

Iranian women great Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi in Tehran
Iranian women greet Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi at the Tehran airport, Oct. 14, 2003 (Photo: Henghameh Fahimi/AFP-Getty Images).

The Iranian regime has agreed to play the transparency game on the nuclear issue, but at the same time is increasing its pressure on Iranian society. The ayatollahs have been bolstered by American threats, but soon they’ll have to deal with a tidal wave: women demanding their rights.

The head scarf seemed unreal as I knotted it on my head in the passenger airway after the Iran Air 747 landed in Tehran. The other women passengers didn’t appear to believe in its reality, either, with their silk scarves thrown on carelessly, their locks stretching the fabric. So at the baggage carousel, I asked the first question. A real Parisian question: “So what would happen if you all took them off, all at once?” The answer was Iranian, and abrupt: “Another revolution, a bloodbath, and nobody is prepared to pay that kind of price.”

In the milling throng, turbaned mullahs and heavily-made-up Lolitas, blue scarves over their black curls, veer away from each other so as not to collide. Matrons in chadors embrace adolescents in head scarves, the young people as relative in their attire as their mothers are absolute. “You know, this little veil is nothing more than a symbol,” whispered my seat-mate from the plane, before I lost her among the vast frescoes of Ayatollah Khomeini and the shahid, the fallen heroes of the Iran-Iraq war, their torsos covered with tulips, the bloody flowers of martyrdom.

Only a symbol, this head scarf, but it’s hot and sticky to wear it on this too-hot October night, as the men go about in shirtsleeves and the women in carefully fastened coats. Iran is opening up, but not unbuttoning. The men can breathe; the women sweat. My trip, just beginning, has already been indelibly stamped.

Watchful Militiamen
Who’s pretending and who’s obeying? Who’s faithful to Islam and who doesn’t give a damn? Who was it who shouted the other day “Shirin Ebadi for president!” in welcoming her at the airport? The woman barely knew Ebadi’s name except through the radio broadcasts of Friday prayers, with their sermons denouncing Ebadi for appearing unveiled in Paris on the day she won the Nobel Peace Prize in October. What Tehran am I heading into, through the heart of an immense traffic jam, under a cloud of pollution that bites the nasal passages? Ten million inhabitants, how many truths?

The key to survival: Climb higher, ever higher. From South Tehran, from the toxic basin, toward the hillside parks, the airy, fashionable boulevards that glitter as they climb the mountains. As you rise, your lungs and your head scarf both relax, the vise of pollution and the vise of religion loosening at once. Ever higher, toward the ocher-colored Alborz mountains that dominate the capital, toward the Mount Tochal cable car and the mountain paths where, finally, you can take off the veil. Strange, a city where oxygen and freedom get mixed up so meaningfully.

But oxygen is for the rich. The reality is that to climb, physically as well as socially, you need money. A bank account in the billions of tomans (1,000 tomans equals 1 euro or 84 U.S. cents) to live and breathe in North Tehran, a place that’s a mix of [the fashionable Parisian neighborhoods] Passy and St. Germain, of businessmen and intellectuals, keeping a careful distance away from cops and militiamen who mount a close watch on teenagers and women. It’s important not to forget all that, even if you fiercely want to believe that your happy, healthy lungs are somehow also the lungs of Iran, breathing deeply and freely. It’s important not to remain up there, up high, with cool hair and cool thoughts. Rather, with the scarf tight on your head and your throat dry and painful, you must accept being out of breath, accept descending back into the airless basin where three-quarters of Tehran stagnates.

People’s eyes sting, they run with tears from the dust, from fatigue, and often, from fear. As the more or less opaque fabric covering these beautiful Persian women allows you an occasional glimpse, you can see rage or resignation; or the need to tear oneself away from one’s milieu, even if it is the poorest of the poor; or fatigue, which precedes the act of giving up. You have the full-body black covering worn by the wives of office workers and small shopkeepers. Then there’s the maghneh, a tight-fitting sort of hood worn over the outer coat, which is the uniform of high school students and civil servants. There’s the pastel scarf, a symbol of resistance to the officially decreed darkness. When an institution forbids women to wear a scarf like that, there’s a way of wearing the acceptably funereal garments slightly cockeyed, an inside joke that belongs to young Iranian women alone.

“Bemantcheh”—“I Couldn’t Care Less”
South Tehran, at the Bahman cultural center. Bahman is the sacred month of February when Khomeini seized power in 1979. The center, built in 1991, stands in the heart of the poorest part of the city, on the site of the old slaughterhouses. It offers the common people’s kids—both boys and girls—lessons in theater, English, and computer science, as well as art and music studios. For the girls, the center was initially a place where they could have a bit of freedom. They could finally go out without their families, who are among Tehran’s most traditional, screaming about their scandalous behavior. Because their parents believed firmly in Islamic revolutionary virtues. But their children, for their part, believe only in freedom, freedom to do as they please. A recent survey of high school students—rich and poor, North and South Tehrani—is revelatory of their wishes and their disillusionment. The bulk of the 15-18-year-olds believe neither in the clergy who have stolen away their lives, nor in the secular intellectuals whom they don’t understand. Their motto? Bemantcheh—Farsi for “I couldn’t care less.” They are totally allergic to the regime. They are totally without political culture or interest. According to the survey, just two young people out of every 50 call themselves nationalists. Their real world? The Internet and rap music. Rap is to Iranian youth what rai was to Algerian youth a few years ago: an existential rebellion, an insurrection of music and body. The regime answers them with posters on Tehran’s walls: “Rap is America’s garbage.”

At the Bahman cultural center, boys and girls mingle, watch each other, learn about each other. But be warned, the new director doesn’t mess around when it comes to good Islamic moral principles. He is an “HB,” to use the Iranian abbreviation: a veteran of the Hezbollah Islamic fighters, an invalid from that late, great horror, the war with Iraq. The arrival of this reactionary at the center coincided with the victory of the conservative party in the recent municipal elections. An illusionary victory, resulting from the massive abstention of voters disappointed by the so-called “reform” president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami: Just 15 percent of those eligible to vote bothered. Worse, opinion polls are forecasting exactly the same voting percentage for the national legislative elections in February 2004. This is how, in the Islamic Republic, everything moves but nothing changes. How the fundamentalists can be both in the minority and in control.

Naturally, it’s the children of the poorest Iranians who suffer. At Bahman, on a bench in the courtyard, three pretty girls, pale blue jeans under their chadors, are happily chattering about their dreams for the future. The first wants to be a doctor, the second a computer programmer, the third an actress... “And I won’t marry against my will!” But suddenly, there heaves into view a large and imposing matron. A veritable tower, barricaded in multiple layers of cloth. She’s the decency patrol. She bellows, she grumbles, she admonishes: “Just look how you’re wearing your maghneh! Pull down your coat, you’re showing too much. Is this how you respect Islam? You’ll pay for that in hell!”

But the matron’s hell is of no concern whatever to the girls. Her little show hasn’t succeeded in humiliating them. These young girls have grown up surrounded by such petty shows and insults. Out of the heat of adversity, they’ve forged a philosophy for themselves: The matrons, like the “HB”, are nothing but big empty shells. And they, the ungovernable girls, are society. A great, full, unfettered body, boiling with desire and despair. A wandering, lost body, waiting for something, impatient, agitated.

Who will save these young girls? Who’s going to stop the cops from making their sweeps on certain rotten evenings, rousting bunches of kids from Tehran’s parks, those immense Persian gardens without doors or fences, open to the city, to the night, to life? The parks, an oasis for the young and for the women.

Mellat Park, in North Tehran, facing the mountains. With-it kids from the chic neighborhoods mingle with wise kids from South Tehran, who came all this way to sniff the air—and sniff around the girls.

Out on the avenue, in their minibuses, the morals police watch and wait. Nobody can ever predict when the cops will get steamed, pounce on two lovers, and haul everyone off to the “Committee.” That’s where infractions of Shariah law, Islamic civil law, are judged and punished. At the Committee, they can whip you—20, 30, up to 50 lashes. Having a teenager picked up by the Committee is every parent’s nightmare. If you have money, you can work something out: It costs 10,000 toman ($8.40) per lash to buy off a sentence. A couple of years ago, a teacher wasn’t allowed to buy himself out: He got 48 lashes after he was caught with an single-serving bottle of liquor.

By the way, there are two methods of whipping someone. There’s the easy way, in which the whip-wielder puts a copy of the Quran under his off-arm, softening the blows he inflicts with the other. Then there’s the hard way, without the Quran. With all the energy of two free arms. You remember a hard beating for a long time.

Absence of a Leader
When will it end, the suffering, the punishment? Shirin Ebadi, accepting her Nobel Prize, called for an end to stonings, whippings, and amputations. A week ago, they cut off the fingers of a man accused of theft in Ahwaz, in Khuzestan province, where the celebrated archeological site of Susa is located. Can Ebadi, a bold lawyer and former prisoner who has been elevated to an international symbol of the fight against religious dictatorship, get the ayatollahs to bend? Will this woman—who under the shah was Iran’s first female judge—dare to run for president in 2005? That’s the burning desire of Iran’s secular intellectuals, who are begging her to come home and revive the reformist camp.

But does she want to? When she welcomed us to her little office, Ebadi seemed overwhelmed by her newfound fame. She answered a question about the presidency categorically: “I will never run for office. A defender of human rights must remain among the people in order to be able to criticize whoever is in power.” Has she been pressured, threatened? Why isn’t she responding to the expectations of those who place their hope in her? Isn’t she afraid that, without a leader to give direction to the people’s revolt, Iran will remain stuck in its present masters’ trap?

Ebadi pauses to think. You have a feeling that she knows everything, that she’s weighing up everything. Everything we don’t know, can’t assess, in the West. “My role is to push Iranians toward democracy. To give them more courage to obtain what they want.” Even though she has called on Iranians to vote massively in next February’s elections, and has assailed election boycotts as absurd, she refuses to throw her hat into the ring.

Why? Some secularists say it’s because she doesn’t have an organized network behind her. Many Islamic feminists, the ones who want to change the law but keep the veil, believe that it’s too soon for her to run, that the country isn’t ready. They believe Iran, in its deepest heart, remains rooted in tradition.

At Farzaneh, a magazine founded by Islamic feminist intellectuals, they’re wary of the Ebadi phenomenon. Rather than serving the reform cause, her emergence could play into the hands of the ultra-fundamentalists, Farzaneh staffers worry. “I don’t know whether this brave woman will throw a new light on the political scene or radicalize it even further,” ironically observes Mahboobeh Abbasgholizadeh, 41, who is the heart and soul of the publication. Brilliant, pragmatic, dogmatic, at the age of 20 she was a passionate supporter of Khomeini. She’s a world away from Shirin Ebadi and the secularists. She says: “I want to be the Simone de Beauvoir of Iran.” But if she were called upon to represent her country at an international conference, she would attend dressed in the chador. Mahboobeh sniffs out everything, ranging from developments in the corridors of power—Farzaneh’s publisher is environment minister and a close collaborator of President Khatami—to the news and opinions emanating from the provinces and villages—the “real Iran,” much less amenable to Western influence than you would think if you looked only at the café gaiety and hush-hush society parties of North Tehran. An Iran so confused about the rest of the world that the ayatollahs’ speeches about Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel Prize—“an anti-Muslim plot cooked up by pro-monarchic Iranian exiles”—are easily swallowed.

Opening up, clamping down
Thus, the symbol brandished by the Nobel Academy in Stockholm may annoy the dictatorship on the surface but strengthen it at its roots. Right in Tehran, to the dismay of some traditionalist women (traditionalists, but female emancipationists, too), young people at a meeting organized by one borough hall assailed Shirin Ebadi for showing her unveiled head in Europe.

Here we are at the heart of the Iranian paradox. The country opens up and clamps down simultaneously. Cries of joy at the return of Iran’s Nobel Prize winner and bassiji (militiamen) on alert. A generalized, indefinite, shapeless sense of waiting for the Big Change; expectations of that change varying wildly according to social class and level of culture. No visible leader. Impossible to bring the various dissident groups together, as Khatami did for a while, the president who didn’t know how, couldn’t, wouldn’t pursue reform to its logical conclusion and thus made an illusion out of it. No link between this pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guard, a former fighter who’s had enough of the regime—“I can’t lie to my children any longer”—and students who’ve been traumatized by the waves of repression that have painted the universities in blood—“We’re individualists; politics has betrayed us.”

Impossible, too, amid Iran’s amalgam of hope and despair, to see the fervent faith in America alleged by certain observers who trained their cameras on the happy Northern fringes of the capital. Salvation from America, as vague and miraculous as the return of the Hidden Imam [a quasi-Messianic idea in Shiite Islam], is preached seriously only among the thin ranks of old monarchists: “The ayatollahs must feel the wind turning and take a powder. A one-way ticket out, like the one they gave the shah!” Except that it took a real revolution before the last of the Pahlavi dynasty had to pack his suitcases. And in today’s Iran, there are no revolutionaries, even reverse revolutionaries. A widely heard slogan runs: “We aren’t ready to shed anything—not even a tear!”

If the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq fascinated some of Iran’s secularists at its beginning, they’ve concluded today that the foreign military operation in the neighboring country has put wind in the sails of Iran’s conservatives. “They’re getting a lot of mileage out of warnings of a potential Israeli attack on our nuclear power plants,” one intellectual comments bitterly. “If foreigners really want to help us gain our freedom, they must know that any aggression against Iran will backfire on the moderates. We’re the ones who’ll be thrown in prison!”

But salvation through European pressure is another thing entirely. On Oct. 21, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Britain came to Tehran for a meeting that achieved a breakthrough in Iran’s nuclear crisis with the West. The Iranian regime agreed to act with “total transparency” toward the International Atomic Energy Agency and its inspections. The French position won the day. For, unlike Washington, Paris has refused to humiliate Tehran by blocking the progress of its civilian nuclear program. France has bet all its chips on dialogue in order to meet the critical objective: a halt to Iran’s nuclear efforts in the military sphere.

Immediately after the signing of the recent agreement, secularist circles in Iran bubbled over: Oh, joy! The ayatollahs were in forced retreat. This, after the Western proposal had been rejected just two months ago by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guide, master of Iran’s executive branch, subject to Allah alone. A typically Persian change of course. “We’re a bargaining culture,” Iranians like to say. “The international community can’t behave toward Iran the way it behaved toward Iraq.”

Islamic Feminism
There’s another reality the White House ought to think about. It would be crazy to try to export a solution for Iran, a country that clings tenaciously to its history and its institutions. A country that will cling to them no matter how strongly Iranians want to blow up the Bastille—consisting of the Supreme Guide and his council, supported by the Revolutionary Guards and the Families of the Martyrs—that is keeping these admirable institutions locked down and paralyzed. A Bastille that represents 20 percent of Iran—zealous and fierce militants who, while acquiescing to their gurus’ pragmatism on the diplomatic front, are threatening savage repression on the home front if the youth engage in new protests.

You can feel the weight of these militants in Tehran’s neighborhoods, where people’s terminal irritation with the symbols of power could break into action at any time, fed by disgust over corruption and jump-started by new price increases for staple foods.

Some 10 miles from the capital lies Islamshah, the City of Islam. Built just after the revolution for those in the direst need—rural Iranians who had fled their poverty-stricken villages—Islamshah has been the scene of sporadic revolts in recent years. Despite its buildings of modest size, limited to four stories—“We respect the principles of Islamic architecture”—it’s an Iranian-style Sarcelles [A distressed working-class suburb north of Paris, populated largely by immigrants living in glum concrete high-rise towers] where a basketful of ethnic groups has been thrown together and told to get along. “Religion unites them,” says the mayor, who’s held his post for eight years. With Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum in the west of Islamshah, “this is a 100-percent revolutionary city, which can boast 1,000 martyrs,” the mayor adds, during his interview with a French woman journalist, who’s filmed, photographed, and recorded throughout the meeting, her head covered in the obligatory black scarf.

A city, though, where the revolution is growing weary. The mayor, a mason by trade, tries to patch up an Islamic discourse that’s showing cracks: “To instill enthusiasm, we tell our young people about revolutionary heroism. But the most important thing for us is to persuade them that we stand by them, that we’re working honestly and unceasingly in their interests. We are the ones who made the revolution, and so we are the ones who must give further proof of our sacrifice.”

Of the nine members of Islamshah’s city council, two are women. One, a lawyer, heads the legal committee. The law is the major battle for women everywhere in Iran, however thick or thin their chador. Women’s rights is the domain where Mahboobeh, the Islamic feminist, sees the revolution of tomorrow, a revolution that will inject new victorious energy into the anemic reform movement. Sixty-two percent of the young people who pass the dreaded university admissions exam, so hyper-selective that it’s nicknamed the Monster, are women. Bright futures that will no longer allow themselves to be eroded by the darkness of ignorance. The paradoxical triumph of a revolution issuing its own death sentence!

We leave Islamshah, still under the eyes of the shahid, the martyrs whose images are spread across gigantic, ecstatic frescoes. Gazes from the past that weigh heavily on today’s teenagers. Now I’m leaving Iran, blue skies and dark shadows, and I’m full of emotion at the intelligence and poetry I’ve glimpsed: the poems of [14th-century Sufi poet] Hafez printed on flyers and handed out in the street, what I’ve experienced of youthful sweetness threatened in Tehran’s Persian gardens, and pain behind the veils of friends. I leave Iran; and in the airplane, I rip off the head scarf, that rag of devastation. We’re free, others aren’t. Who can win freedom for Iran’s men and women but Iranians themselves?