Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hejab or Behejabi

In spring of 1983, during No-Rooz, an Iranian celebration of renewal and visitations, I had an encounter with a mid-level Iranian foreign ministry official, a staunch Khomeini supporter. My brother was in jail in the midst of a broad crackdown on the voices of criticism. I tried to use this opportunity to raise my brother's illegal incarceration with this individual. It was about six months that he had been locked up (lasted for over six years) and we did not have any information about his well being. The lack of any legal recourse and shutdown of free press generally forced families to campaign among government officials and religious authorities to advance the case of their prisoners.

As a warm up, I started with a different inquiry: "It is obvious that forces loyal to Imam Khomeini are in control of the government and the Imam's vision of an Islamic society and its code of ethics are being implemented throughout. All women are in hejab (covered up) and the overwhelming majority is on your side. Let's say that the Islamic government is very successful in its endeavors and all is well. Apart from all ideological contentions, permit me to ask you a question; considering all the efforts of the Islamists, do you think that Iranian society is moving toward more hejab (covering itself) or toward behejabi (shedding the cover)?" – Hejab in Iran is the Islamic cover for women. He pondered for a while and said, "It is moving toward behejabi". I do not think he was an exception among the die-hard Khomeini supporters about this reality in Iran; most of them if asked in private probably would have answered the same. At that time you could not, without some risk, inquire or discuss these simple questions and make any credible measurements about the changes in attitudes and behaviors. It was left only to upheavals as a definite measure of change and we just received a measurement of it in this Iranian election cycle and its aftermath.

A whole generation of Iranian youth have been schooled and preached to about the Islamic edicts and yet we do not see a deepening desire for them. On the other hand there are an increasing number of Iranian women, more educated than ever, who want to determine the manner of their dress. They, along with their brethren are seeking more freedom, cultural, social and political. The recent protests around the outcome of the presidential election have ripped apart the facade of public approval for the Islamic government. There is deep discontent with the status quo and no amount of hejab can cover it up. The discontent is beyond the banning of individual newspapers or the suppression of students by storming their dorms. The regime can no longer disguise the deep fissures in the society. This discontent has gone beyond the expectations of the reformist candidates and their dispute about who won at the ballot box. It is broad and deep and if one wanted to summarize the present state of the society, it is indisputable to say that the people of Iran have grown culturally in their sophistication, whereby their expectations cannot be contained within the bounds of tradition whether monarchic or religious.

Some 30 years have passed since the 1979 insurrection. The Islamic Government of Iran has had ample time to create a new generation in its own image and it has failed. The new generation with little memory of the past, that haunted its parents, has had the fortune to be raised in the era of new communication technology. Despite all the limitations imposed by the regime and the travel restrictions by the west, this generation has had the broadest contact with the west and its democratic traditions than any other generation before it. It has been comparing and more and more rejecting what is being dished out to it as the glorious Iranian tradition by the Islamic government. At the same time this generation does not find any of the other ideologies, Mojahedeen (either Islamic or Marxist varieties), Maoists, Pro-Soviet Communists (Tudeh Party), the Trotskyists or other Marxist variations any more palatable. On the contrary they question their parents, who were from these ideological currents, of their responsibility for the present predicament.

Within the ruling circles there are both economic policy and ideological differences. A section of the wealthy class opposed to Ahmadinejad, sees the massive government bureaucracy as a drag on the growth of their wealth. They believe that they could do a lot better in the context of a freer association with the world market, Europe and in particular through a normalized relationship with the U.S. This segment, aligned with the reformists believes that their vision is the best direction for the use of oil revenues. Policy makers within them look at Chile, Brazil, Argentina and the South East Asian countries (Singapore, South Korea and India) as prime examples of where they and the development of the country could be heading. Another segment attached to a variety of Islamic foundations, subsidized by the government and controlling many of the Iranian industries, propped up by the Basij militia, as well as important sections of the Revolutionary Guards prefer their opaque existence. They support Ahmadinejad’s populist policies and camouflage under his anti-imperialist and anti-Israel posturings and alliances with countries like Venezuela, Cuba and Zimbabwe (“anti-imperialist” alliance). Their closer attachment to the less educated masses through the foundations give them a certain level of social cohesion and fan the radical Islamists animosity toward the more educated and democratic minded strata of the society.

Islamic ideological currents suppressed during Khomeini’s rule are expressing themselves more openly. They range from the clergies who do not see any benefits in democracy, and portray their rule as a blessing sent from heaven and see these election charades as a burden to their true representation of god on earth; to the ones that are opposed to the concept of Islamic government and believe that mixing religion with government only debases the religion. You could also add to this mix all of the different Islamic sects who feel they are bounded; largely the Sunni Muslims. Add also other religious minorities who are treated as second class citizens such as Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews and some others, like Baha'is who are outrightly persecuted.

Beneath all these political, economic and ideological complexities lay the different nationalities (Kurds, Azari's, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkmen to name a few) that have their own historical grievances. The Islamic government has been trying to contain these grievances mostly by suppressing them.

Then there are the psychological premonitions that emanate from foreign interventions, particularly the interventions by great powers. At the top of the national psyche is the war with Iraq and the 1953 US aided coup that toppled Mossadegh's government (prime minister at the time). The lack of open assessment and discussion of these historic events tends to give them mythical dimensions and complicates international relations.

The above enumeration is not by any means exhaustive. One can add to that list issues such as drug addiction, corruption, urban and rural poor and the workers’ rights, etc. From a political perspective Iran is a very complex society, bursting at the seams to enter the modern era of political openness and discourse to address its problems; at the same time all the dominant political, legal and judicial institutions are geared toward preventing this transition.

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