Behind the Veil
By Diane Johnson
The New York Times
October 22, 2000
Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran. By Elaine Sciolino. Illustrated.
402 pp. New York: The Free Press. $26.
In the Atlanta airport a few months ago I was startled to see a man
and his two wives encamped on the carpeted floor surrounded by their six
little sons, the women entirely shrouded in black chadors, their faces
veiled, only their eyes showing. This is a sight one often sees in England
but seldom here, a rare reminder of the existence of a culturally and geographically
distant people whose lives are intertwined with our own more than we realize.
In her new book on Iran, "Persian Mirrors," Elaine Sciolino
points out that Iranians think about us, the Great Satan, much more than
we think about them, for historical reasons that have never impinged on
American everyday life. Far from us, an English and then an American client
state, Iran has long been the victim of Western geopolitics without the
voluntary cooperation of its people. Yet, because of its history of religious
and ethnic diversity, arising from its crossroads position since antiquity,
Iran has the potential to be the cultural bridge to the Islamic world that
the more monolithic Arab countries seem less likely to be.
Sciolino, a senior correspondent for The New York Times, has been visiting
and writing about Iran since the late 1970's, when she interviewed Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini in his Parisian exile (and thus well connected, traveled
with him on the plane for his triumphant return). She has seen the hostage
crisis and the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the antigovernment student
unrest of July 1999 and the recent election of the reformist leader Mohammad
Khatami. She has therefore been in a position to view the changes in Iran
over a considerable period of time, from its days as a police state under
the shah, through its days as a police state under the mullahs. And though
she promises to "resist the temptation to make predictions" about
whether Iran can evolve into an Islamic democracy -- and one, moreover,
that America is apt to regard as friendly -- her complex and nuanced account
certainly conveys her impression that today such a thing is becoming more
and more possible. Iran, she writes, is now "more democratic than
at any time in its history."
Like news from China 30 years ago, like news from Utah 100 years ago,
reports from Iran have an exotic fascination that no doubt will dissipate
as the country becomes more Westernized. Sciolino has given us a portrait
of this strange Iran of today, with an emphasis on the changes, from restaurants
to classrooms to health spas, that illustrate the declining influence of
the revolutionary mullahs and the increasing liberalization of attitudes,
especially among Iranian youth, who account for more than 65 percent of
It is paradoxical that an intimate, inside account like Sciolino's has
the effect of making the Iranians seem less, not more, like ourselves.
Even when their behavior seems to indicate a desire to wear, view and drink
what they want, as we might, Sciolino's subjects reveal, on closer inspection,
a set of motives sometimes quite different from those we might wish to
see -- piety and patriotism, rather than rebellion in the Western mold.
Still, there is a good deal of resistance to the Muslim clerics, and "by
far the most relentless struggle for control of public space," she
writes, "has been over women's dress."
Islam is not, to be sure, the only religion that shrouds women. But
it has clung with special anxiety to the idea that women must be covered,
attaching a moral significance to a glimpse of female foot or hair with
a prurience some Westerners find offensive. Sciolino quotes an Iranian
woman writer who says that the black, tentlike chador is a changing symbol:
"An emblem now of progress, then of backwardness, a badge now of nationalism,
then of domination, a symbol of purity, then of corruption, the veil has
accommodated itself to a puzzling diversity of personal and political ideologies."
The black head-to-toe veil was outlawed back in the days of Reza Pahlavi,
the father of the most recent shah, as part of his effort to Westernize
Iran. It was revived again in the 1970's, before the fall of the shah in
1979, by younger women who wore it as a sign of piety and of rebellion
against Westernization. (One saw the same thing happen in the early 1990's
in Algeria, where young radical women assumed the veil as a sign of revolt
against the West and little suspected that their more secular countrymen,
fanaticism unleashed, would soon be cutting their throats.)
Dress infractions are not treated as harshly in Iran as in Afghanistan
under the Taliban, or even in Saudi Arabia, and attitudes appear to be
softening. All the same, the fanaticism of the Iranian morals police, its
fervor in enforcing the strict dress code for women, was one of the most
conspicuous features of the revolution. The mullahs were, after all, requiring
women who had enjoyed a degree of freedom unusual in the Islamic world
to return to a badge of subjection, and of course that works less well
than where women have not known anything different. In today's Iran, women
have been trying, in subtle and often covert ways, to subvert the dress
code. As a result of their efforts, it is now permitted to wear a headscarf,
as long as it covers all the hair, along with a sort of raincoat. Change
is likely to be slow, but, as Sciolino reports, "there is no turning
back; the excitement is too great and the stakes are too high." Iran,
an Iranian journalist tells her, "is nothing less . . . than a hot
test of democracy."
Before the revolution, it was the middle classes and left-leaning intellectuals
who were singled out by the Savak, the shah's secret police, while the
Islamists' base of support -- the merchants of the bazaar and the working
classes -- remained comparatively unscathed, the extent of their antagonism
certainly underappreciated. Today the middle class and intellectuals are
still the target of often horrific repression. The character of protest
has changed, of course. In the shah's time, young people demonstrated their
revolutionary fervor by such overt and seemingly innocent signs as readopting
the veil. The first years of the revolution were marked by bloody retribution,
executions and mass protests denouncing America. Today's rebels prefer
the orderly use of the ballot box. But despite the reformist impulses of
the popular President Khatami, the more conservative clerics continue to
suppress dissent, most recently with crackdowns on the freedom of the press.
One of the most telling of recent incidents took place when 400 men
of "uncertain provenance" -- Sciolino calls them "thugs"
-- broke into a dormitory at Tehran University, beating the students who
lived there, smashing their computers, stealing their modern appliances,
arresting and even killing some of them. This action provoked violent resistance
in street demonstrations; enraged students rioted and ordinary citizens
joined in, leading one expert to tell Sciolino, "If we don't do something
to appease the youth . . . the Islamic Republic will be doomed." Maybe.
The riots of July 1999 were followed by the elections of February of
this year, which were widely considered a victory for the forces of moderation
and reform, but the immediate outcome has been even more reprisals against
freedom of the press. Newly enacted measures protecting press freedom were
canceled by the mullahs, who have a right to do this, and there has been
a spate of assassinations of intellectuals and journalists, which of course
animate more protest. Thus the cycle of pressure for freedom and repression
All this would seem to bode ill for the prospects of an Islamic democracy.
Yet, as Sciolino points out, the Iranian revolution revolves around a central
paradox. On the one hand, "theocracy by definition imposes religious
thinking on a secular society. Certain types of conduct and thought are
not only illegal but also evil." On the other, "Shiite Islam
thrives on debate and discussion in a particularly egalitarian style. .
. . So freedom of thought and expression is essential to the system."
By contrast, most other Islamic states are monarchies that experience comparatively
little strain between their religious tenets and their legislative branches.
Sciolino makes a persuasive case that Iran is one of the few places
in the world in which the claims of theocracy and democracy vie with more
or less matched force, so that the outcome is not entirely predictable.
If one thinks of Ireland or even of the American Bible Belt, the advocates
of theocracy, while a persistent and irritating force, are not really likely
in the long run to imperil democracy. We saw recent events support this
in Kansas, where voters outlawed the teaching of Darwinian theory, then
reinstated it. If the liberal forces in Iran similarly win in their efforts
to make their country a more tolerant place, this rich and advanced nation
could become an important world power and partner. But Sciolino's book
makes it clear they have a long way to go.
Diane Johnson, a novelist, is the author of "Persian Nights"
and, most recently, "Le Mariage."