Bahai News - Finding the Seeds of Hope in a Society of Paradoxes
September 27, 2000
BOOKS OF THE TIMES
By IRA LAPIDUS
Finding the Seeds of Hope in a Society of Paradoxes
or many Americans, Iran conjures up the hostage
crisis, terrorism, the crowds chanting "death to America" and the fierce
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini denouncing the United States and
Elaine Sciolino shows a different Iran. More than 20
years of visits, interviews, encounters and analyses have given Ms.
Sciolino, a senior correspondent in the Washington bureau of The New
York Times, her deep and wide-ranging insights. Her perceptive book
"Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran" conveys the diversity of
Iranians and the subtleties, dilemmas and contradictions of their
Iran is not easy to know well, but Ms. Sciolino
knows it intimately. Its people are warm and welcoming, but do not
reveal themselves readily. Conversation, she reports, is full of
politeness, self-abnegation, hypocrisy and lying, all to avoid offense
and loss of face. What happens can be accepted, but talking about it is
taboo if it strips away dignity and honor. Ms. Sciolino succeeds because
she has unraveled a difficult code of cultural expectations.
is particularly sensitive to Iranian women. "There is an unspoken bond
among us that transcends culture, history, nationality and language,"
she writes. She shows both their helplessness and their power. In public
life Iran's women must not be visible. Their heads and bodies must be
covered. They may be beaten for violations of these rules.
private and family matters, Islamic law puts them at a disadvantage.
Although it is easy for a man to obtain a divorce, a woman can get one
only in extreme circumstances, and the husband is given custody of all
but the youngest children. Husbands can also take second wives or
arrange "temporary marriages," which are religiously acceptable.
Nonetheless, women fill almost all the roles of a modern society. More
than half of Iranian university students are women. Women work, drive,
own property, have access to birth control and vote. Moreover, the book
notes, women "are experts in finding ways around the constraints of the
male-dominated system." Ms. Sciolino found everything from
gender-segregated parties to beauty salons to a woman who ran a gambling
business in her apartment, where women in low-cut dresses drank and
danced to heavy-metal music.
This activity is very dangerous.
There is always the possibility of an unexpected intrusion by the morals
police, perhaps just to extort a bribe, perhaps to arrest the
participants. The insecurity is deeply resented.
Women also show
extraordinary courage in fighting the system. Azam Taleghani, the
publisher of the weekly newspaper Payam-e Hajar, is committed to Islam
and the revolution but challenges clerical ideas of male supremacy and
promotes a more feminist interpretation of the Koran. Another activist,
Faezeh Hashemi, published a newspaper until it was banned and now
promotes sports programs to combat depression among women and to
encourage them to fight for their rights.
Minorities do not fare
well at all, but are nonetheless loyal to the Iran of their ideals.
Zoroastrians and Christians are barely tolerated. Jews are accepted in
business, medicine, engineering and law, but anti-Semitism is
widespread, and the government maintains incessant anti-Israeli
propaganda. Bahais are persecuted relentlessly. Their marriages are not
recognized by the state. Their property has been confiscated. They have
been expelled from the universities and many have been executed.
But even under this pressure, the religious minorities are loyal. Jews
— Persian is their native language — feel profoundly, truly
Iranian. And a Bahai engineer says: "I am Iranian. I love this
Courage and love are essential because the authorities
are powerful and oppressive. The clerical establishment, headed by the
supreme leader, now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, controls the judiciary and
large sectors of the economy. A vast apparatus of military, police,
intelligence officers, morals enforcers and organized vigilantes is used
to crush drugs, gambling, homosexuality, prostitution, rape, murder,
spying, counter-revolutionary activities and "sowing corruption on
earth." Above all, it punishes women for being improperly dressed in
public. Recently Iranian journalists and students have been beaten and
Still, the authorities have not been able to check the
demand for a transformation of the Islamic Republic into an Islamic
democracy. There is a vigorous though embattled press. Guardedly, young
people, women and intellectuals, including many liberal clerics,
struggle for the future.
Recent elections gave 70 percent of the
seats in parliament to liberals, but they are still paralyzed by the
powers of the conservatives, and it is not yet clear who will win.
Although the struggle is sometimes framed as a conflict between Persian
and Islamic identities, religion and popular culture, clerical rule and
freedom, dictatorship and democracy, in this supple and sophisticated
country even liberals accept the Islamic state. Looking beneath the
surface, Ms. Sciolino makes us aware of deeper currents flowing toward
political compromise and synthesis.
Iranians, she points out,
have a love-hate relationship with the United States. In politics it is
the Satan that opposed Iran in the war with Iraq, shot down a civilian
airliner, orchestrated an embargo and sides with Israel. Yet America,
avidly consumed on television, audio and videocassettes and computer
software, is the country of Iranian dreams. It embodies their fantasies
of a good life. American relations with this fascinating nation hold
Through the eyes of Ms. Sciolino, we
see a culture of paradoxes: a nation that is open and welcoming but
remains hidden and mysterious; a clerical dictatorship but one of the
Middle East's liveliest democracies; a puritanical regime but a people
who love everyday life; a severe orthodoxy but an expressive cinema and
an argumentative press; a state that makes control of women its first
concern but whose women are powerful as personalities and even
subversive; a revolution that has rejected secularism but a nation
heading toward a fusion of Islamic and Persian identities.
and foremost, Ms. Sciolino shows Iranians as human beings trying to cope
with an unusual and very difficult situation. For this wise perspective
the reader is grateful.
©Copyright 2000, New York Times
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