Finding the seeds of hope in a society of paradoxes
By IRA LAPIDUS
The New York Times
September 22, 2000
For 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 Israel. Elaine Sciolino
shows a different Iran. More than 20 years of visits, interviews, encounters
and analyses have given Sciolino, a senior correspondent in the Washington
bureau of The New York Times, her deep and wide-ranging insights. Her perceptive
Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran" conveys the diversity of Iranians
and the subtleties, dilemmas and contradictions of their society today.
Iran is not easy to know well, but 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. Sciolino
succeeds because she has unraveled a difficult code of cultural expectations.
She 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.
In 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." 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
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 country."
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 killed.
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, 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 unanticipated possibilities.
Through Sciolino's eyes, 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.
First and foremost, Sciolino shows Iranians as human beings trying to
cope with an unusual and very difficult situation. For this wise perspective
the reader is grateful.
MIRRORS: The Elusive Face of Iran'
By Elaine Sciolino
Illustrated. 401 pages. The Free Press. $26.