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Leave it to the people
Democratic movement gaining momentum

By Narges Bajoghli
July 30, 2002
The Iranian

With each trip I make to Iran, I am amazed at the rapid transformations the country has undergone since my first time visit back to Iran in 1996, during President Rafsanjani's last year in office.

I visited three more times, the last time, before this current trip, was two years ago, after the quelling of the student uprising, before the shut-down of more than 40 newspapers by the conservative judiciary, and people were still optimistic and hopeful that President Khatami would be able to make real changes.

With each visit I witnessed the spirits of the country transform from elation over Khatami's election to the subsequent bleakness in the failure of the reformists and the apparent victories of the conservatives. Iran, today, is a vastly different country than the one I saw the previous years. Each major city is in the process of expanding - fruitlessly attempting to meet the demands of a booming population.

Tehran's modern streets appear as if they will cave at any moment, giving into the mere weight of cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians, not to mention the high-rise apartment complexes that house the city's population of 13 million residents.

The youth claim the streets, glaringly restless with their existing situation and demanding changes with their sheer numbers. Walking down the streets in any city, but especially Tehran, will make you wonder where the traces of the Islamic Republic are in these young men and women.

Couples openly walk the streets holding hands; boys, fashionably growing their hair long, carry guitar cases on their way to practice; and young women confidently walk the streets - no longer resembling the black clad women of the revolution. Instead, they dress in the latest fashion with their faces fully made.

Women's overcoats are above the knees, tight, and with elbow-length sleeves - resembling a long chic shirt instead of the suffocating overcoat that was meant to disguise a woman's figure. The Islamic scarf looks less Islamic each day as new styles of wrapping are invented that shows half of a woman's hair.

Along with these changes in appearances, the public and private domains transformed tremendously as well. Iranian pop music blasts out of every car, restaurant, and store but, no longer the music of the Iranian singers of Los Angeles.

Within the past few years, Iran began producing its own pop singers and bands whose beats are faster and better to dance to than the Los Angeles singers, not to mention that their lyrics (mostly about love) actually make sense. These singers give regular concerts in every major city, which are widely attended by both men and women.

Theaters are packed and parks are always swarming with families and their young children renting boats or roller-skating with techno music blasting in the background. Parties for the youth are prevalent, with young women in mini skirts and young men in ties (even in the more traditional cities such as Isfahan). They dance easily with each other while alcohol is served in the other room.

All of this takes place with the visible absence of the Komiteh (vice police). The only instances their infamous patrol cars are evident is when they conduct routine drug checks. These changes may seem superficial and politically irrelevant to our Westernized eyes, but we must remember that for each of these social "liberties", a struggle ensued and a fight was made victorious.

The most visible victory against the Islamic Republic, the battle that has allowed others to begin, has been the women's persistent struggle against the mandatory hejab. The situation evolved from a revolution that made the veil and overcoat mandatory, in which the chador was publicized as the purest way for a woman to be dressed, to the rampant tight, short, colorful "coats" that women today wear. These are worn with short pants that daringly show a woman's legs, and the veil that steadily slides back.

For every inch women's overcoats have shortened, women endured public humiliation by the morals police, lashings, overnight stays in jails, heavy fines, and horrific stares by the self-proclaimed, civilian guardians of the revolution. Nonetheless, women persisted being a thorn in the government's side until Khatami's election and his subsequent establishment of women's centers across the country.

Khatami's attempts to address the demands of an unrelenting populace and the women's refusal to retreat are finally being realized as women illustrate their gain in Iran's traditionally patriarchal society. Last year's acceptance rate of university students in the highly competitive process yielded a 60% acceptance of female students nationwide compared to 40% male students.

Due to these numbers, which are expected to rise this year, Majlis (congress) is debating legislation that would mandate university acceptances to be 50% male, 50% female, fearing a domination of female students at the universities (this debate was in process at the time of my trip in May-June 2002). Furthermore, in four years there has been a 135% increase in Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs),139 of which are specifically directed towards women.

Professional women today make up an immense portion of both the private and public sector, and different women's groups are working towards getting legal rights for housewives and women who do not work. Many problems continue to exist for women, as a writer for Zanan magazine as well as prominent lawyers and researchers informed me.

The number of runaway girls is steadily increasing; prostitution is on the rise; legal rights for women, such as divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are still based on the Sharia (Islamic) law and continue to pose difficult situations; as a result of domestic violence and other abuses, some women, although the numbers remain small but are still noticeable, have resorted to ham-sar koshee (killing their husbands) because they see no other way out.

Coupled with these, women, as well as men today face the problems of a failing economy and the tremendous and horrifying increase in drug use, which has resulted in the steady increase of AIDS. Iran wrestles with its societal problems while attempting to advance and modernize, even if only at the demand of its citizens. A strong civil society is becoming visible and demands for change are deafening.

Everyone I interviewed, from a taxi driver to a restaurant owner to a businesswoman to a lawyer seems to have an opinion on the situation and they all shared it openly with me. Even the more traditional and religious demand changes and are no longer content with the government. The politicized, educated, yet restless population wants a bigger transformation than it has seen.

In the eyes of many, Khatami has failed, but he has succeeded in providing an environment where discussions on change and change itself are possible. The population is less optimistic about Khatami and the reformists than two years ago, but they are more determined for democracy than ever before.

With the growing civil society, the discontented youth, women who refuse to cower, and an educated population, Iran is steadily advancing towards a democracy. What is beautiful about this process however, is a demand for democracy made by the majority of the population who has struggled together for twenty-three years.

This process is not led by a vanguard of the society's elite, nor directed by outside sources. Rather, and more importantly, this process is in motion as a result of a transforming population two decades after a popular revolution. Those of us who have not lived there for the past twenty-three years cannot understand the current situation nor can allow ourselves to interfere and attempt to vainly hasten the process.

Concerned communities abroad can aid the Iranian process towards democracy through translating political and social materials relevant to such a struggle. However, calling for protests over satellite television broadcast from Los Angeles, for example, is not only not helpful, but it can be detrimental because of the unfamiliarity of those abroad with the daily conditions in Iran.

Over the past two decades, different portions of Iran's population have protested against the government at various times. Their protests are characterized by a strike at the government with a consequential, and mostly unparallel, attack against the population by the governmental forces.

Through this shared, daily struggle, resident Iranians have come to learn specific tactics and strategies that allow them to effectively fight this system. By exiles, who were familiar with struggle against the Shah's regime but mostly unfamiliar with this regime, calling for protests half-way across the world, puts the lives of many in danger.

A democratic movement is gaining momentum and communities abroad can do much to help. But they must realize the danger of vainly calling for civil unrest in order to further their own political agenda. This steady move towards democracy is a people's struggle for change, a struggle that must be left for the people in Iran to make.

* The statistics for the NGOs were taken from: An interview with Ms. Ehterami, head of the Governmental Women's Center of Iran. Tehran, Iran; May 2002.

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