14 Jul 2009 22:04
A group of Iranian women in Tehran protesting forced hijab, or Islamic veiling, which was imposed shortly after the 1979 revolution.
By SETAREH SABETY in Nice, France | 14 July 2009
The palm of my hand has developed a callous where it rests on my PC. For more than a month now I have been following the election in Iran and its bloody aftermath as passionately as one can in front of a computer screen. In fact, for more than thirty years now I have been following events in Iran as much as I can.
I was a senior at Palo Alto High School in 1979 when the Shah left Iran and Khomeini installed an Islamic republic. The term, from the beginning, was an oxymoron for those of us who wanted a revolution but not one that would usher in the rule of Islam or Sharia.
I remember how my father and I celebrated the departure of the Shah by opening a bottle of champagne in the little house I had rented on Byron Street. Like many Iranians, giddy with having ousted the once almighty Shah, we did not realize the contradiction of drinking champagne to celebrate what would become an Islamic Revolution. Despite my mother's warnings that the mullahs hate women, we were filled with hope for an Iran that had been robbed of a chance for democracy in 1953, when a CIA coup removed the much loved and venerated father of our independence, Mohammad Mossadeq. But soon our elation would come to an abrupt end.
My father turned against the revolution when all his property was confiscated and relatives called to tell him to cancel his trip home. His name had been placed on the list of those wanted by Sadeq Khalkhali, the most callous of Khomeini's henchmen. To this day, after many attempts and trips back, I have not been given an official reason for the verdict against my family. My father was wealthy. He had inherited vast swathes of land in Khorasan, which he had cultivated, supposedly making him a so-called 'feudal lord'. But being a landowner is not a crime in Islam. The best explanation I was given, 'unofficially,' was that we shared a family name with the shah's head of secret police (Savak), and this tashaboh esmi, or name similarity, was what made them confiscate our worldly possessions in the first place. Later, when they did find out that we had nothing to do with Parviz Sabety; the considerable size of my father's wealth made them unwilling to part with it.
I was young at the time and this blacklisting of my father, and so even the confiscation of his wealth was not enough to turn me against the revolution I so admired. What turned me off was the imposition of hejab, or Islamic dress. That, I just could not stomach. For many women like myself, that was the turning point of the revolution. We had not gotten rid of the Shah to replace him with even more patriarchal rulers.
I was in Boston at the time and remember attending meetings of mostly leftist women who shared their outrage at what happened in Iran by reading Simone de Beauvoir in a classroom we had booked once a week at MIT. That began a thirty-year wait for the revolution to mature, change or die. It may seem like a small thing, the forced hejab, but to me it is the most significant and blatant symbol of how the revolution of '79 went wrong, how the dream that we shared of an independent and free Iran turned around and stuck its tongue at us. If before we were victims of American Imperialism, now we became victims of our own people's religious anachronism. The enforcement of hejab and the imposition of Islamic laws that took away most of what women had gained during the reign of the Shah, like the right to divorce and the right to be an equal witness in court, threw in the face of us secular-minded Iranians the impossibility to reconcile democratic ideals with Islamic laws.
We realized that we had been naive in believing Khomeini would allow for a secular democracy to take shape and retire to Qom to act as the benevolent hands-off leader of our great Revolution. Over the years, as I was living and studying in the United States, I felt more and more alienated from the people of Iran. It became clear to me that I was very far in mind, spirit and education from the masses who adored Khomeini.
Finding myself in poverty, I went back several times to try to claim my father's properties and wealth; this was after Khomeini died and relatives reported "a thawing in the judiciary." I enjoyed those trips to Iran even though much of my time there was spent waiting in the waiting room of Evin prison for the head of the Revolutionary Court to grant me an audience, or going to Qom or Mashhad to beg this or that Ayatollah to venture to help me in exchange for a promise to donate a big percentage of my wealth, once recuperated, to his favorite charity.
I did not get a single rial back, but I learned much about the byzantine workings of the Islamic Republic, which gave me more reason to regret the revolution. My Iran-loving father's property, which had nothing to do with the Shah or the Americans, had been confiscated, not to be given to the poor or the proletariat, but to fatten the belly of the worse kind of hypocrites and criminals, many in religious garb. What also became apparent was that unlike the Shahs centralized government, the IRI was deeply divided. The rivalry between the big religious charities, as well as the complicated way the power and the wealth was divided, betrayed this fissure amongst the elite.
So I came back from these trips feeling defeated and disillusioned. I started questioning my identity, and began to believe I was more Concord Avenue than Khiaboon Vali Asr. This apathy vanished, however, when in 1997 the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami became the president of Iran in a landslide victory.
Like many, I saw in Khatami a liberator, a man who much like Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, had come from the ranks of the establishment but had the foresight to realize a change was badly in need. Khatami was our Napoleon, with a book in his hands instead of a sword. He represented our change from within, our indigenous voice of secularism that had risen from the ashes of an anachronistic and oppressive theocracy. In Khatami, we saw a man who was intelligent and open-minded, even if from under the burden of his turban. He symbolized the ability of traditional society to hold a conversation with its rebellious offspring. When he spoke of a need for 'dialogue among civilizations,' it was as if he spoke from the bottom of our hearts, and in our bilingual tongue. He spoke of a need to reconcile Iran to the West and to reconcile ourselves to ourselves, Iranians with Iranians. Because for us, Iranians of the Diaspora, a dialogue of civilizations was even more urgently needed; for our own self-growth we had to reconcile the many 'cultures' contained within our identity.
The first series of disappointments came during his first term. The students rose to protest the heavy hand of government that had the apparent backing of the president they helped vote to power. Khatami betrayed them however. We knew there and then that this Khatami was not going to risk his neck for any real and substantive change. All talk of "civil society" was just that, talk.
I moved back to Iran and lived there for most of the four years Khatami was president. But I never felt more alienated from Iran than living right there in the middle of Tehran. I realized that the revolution, the long war with Iraq, and most importantly, economic hardship, had turned Iranians or at least Tehranis rather callous. The bazaari (merchant) ethos pervaded in such a way that even your hostess might end up trying to sell you jewelry after serving you dinner. The Tehranis had become so cutthroat and materialistic they made New Yorkers look like lambs.
I left not having recuperated a penny of my inheritance and completely disillusioned with not only the theocratic regime but with my fellow countrymen. It was like finally finding a lost beloved and realizing that he has become a prostitute and now wants money for the love he bestows!
I shelved Iran and relegated her to the rank of writing 'material' -- until these recent elections, that is. The way the people pushed the campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi to revolutionary proportions moved me. To a disillusioned soul, it gave me that most elusive of feelings: hope. I fell in love with Iran again, and with my fellow Iranians. The campaign slogans in of themselves were enough to move me to want to support those who came out and shouted them.
One slogan, shouted by Karroubi supporters, brings tears to my eyes every time I repeat it; it represents one of the biggest wish all of my adult life: "Hagh Zaneh Irani, Hejab Ekhtiari!" (Voluntary Hejab, every Iranian woman's right!) I threw doubt out the window and cheered the youth and the women who chanted my very heart's desire on the streets of Tehran. I thought this new found courage and turn of events was founded on two possibilities: Either Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, had seen the light and had decided to allow reform in order to assure the longevity of the regime, or the people had hijacked the elections and used the more open political space it provided in order to bring about change, the opening that was so badly needed. Either way, the prospect of a more moderate Iran was once again palpable.
The chance of the elections being rigged was so great and obvious that it too became a chant for Mousavi and Karoubi supporters long before Election Day. For a nation that has never really experienced free elections, the rigging came as no surprise. Yet no one expected that the government would cheat so blatantly, so audaciously. That is why so many were offended, hurt and angry. The Khamenei /Ahmadinejad camp seemed to be giving the finger to the entire nation and once again reminding us that they did not care one iota for public and international opinion. In fact, defying the opinion of the whole world has become the defining characteristic of hardliners from the very beginning of the Islamic Republic. From that day back when they stabbed women who came to protest the enforcement of hejab some twenty-nine years ago, the Islamic regime has demonstrated time and again that they pride themselves in their ascetic indifference to public and international opinion.
For more than a month now, I have been glued to this PC trying to follow and contribute in whatever way I can, from this far and with words in another language, to the uprising that followed the announcement of Amadinejad's victory giving him more than 60 percent of the votes.
Those first hours were exciting. News was slow coming out of Iran. As the electoral coup d'etat unfolded and showed its increasingly ruthless face, those of us on Twitter -- I started using my account to follow a journalist friend's updates on Election Day -- realized that the best and most up-to-date news was coming first to us. We soon became news gatherers and disseminators trying eagerly to decipher between what was rumor and what was truth. I found myself passing information on the use of proxies and first-aid for gun wounds. All of a sudden our cyber voyeurism turned into activism as we were encouraged by the international media and the protesters' use of our information. The revolution, we thought would be "Twitterized," in the words of one Twitterer.
A lot of what came through was hard to watch, yet it was morosely addictive. I remember watching the now famous video of Neda on June 20th, the day she was shot. It came on my Twitter page a good many hours before CNN aired it. My mom was having tea with me. I told her, "Come look, here is another video." It came with a warning that it was graphic. I was used to graphic clips and pictures since many had already died. But nothing could prepare me for that half minute video of a young woman dying from a gunshot wound right in front of our eyes. The way we saw the life go out of her, the speed of it, the meaningless and random cruelty of it shocked the world. I cried on and off every day for two weeks.
We realized that day that Khamenei's Friday prayer support of the election results and warning to protesters was not just rhetorical. The chance of this uprising being bloodless vanished even for the most optimistic of us. From that day on, I started questioning my right to even cheer the movement. I, who would never let any of my children out in those streets, felt like I had no right to cheer on other people's children. Mothers like me in their fortis are not revolutionaries. One step removed from that bloodless comfort zone and nothing, no country, no ideology, no religion is worth one drop of blood of anyone's child. As much as I want Iran to be free from tyranny, I do not want it enough to encourage anyone to risk their lives.
It was very hard to have our hopes die. Three million people poured into the streets of Tehran and still the hardliners managed to push them back and terrorize them down to a manageable size. Once again I found myself deeply disappointed with the leaders of this movement. Mousavi was never seen again after the first day of protests on June 14th , though those loyal to him say he is under house arrest. His wife, who was such a force during his campaign promoting gender equality and empowering women, never showed her face. Khatami was as absent this time around as he was ten years ago. Many of their aids and advisers were arrested. Hashemi Rafsanjani spoke after some weeks, voicing his discontent in a veiled Mullah legalese. Karoubi, the bravest of them, showed up here and there, but never really to lead. It became apparent to me that once again we were left sans leader. No Gandhi to lead our people, just a bunch of heroic kids and people coming out on the street again and again to be attacked and beaten savagely by vigilantes, the infamous basiji and security forces.
The world, particularly the United States, disappointed the Iranians on the street. For thirty years the U.S. administration has actively supported a regime change and now that Iranians too seem to want change and democracy, get no help. For the new regime in Washington, it must be easier to respect differences than to support democratic movements with little chance of survival. In his famous speech to the "Islamic World" Obama defended the right of Muslim women to wear Hejab, but did not mention her right to choose not to. Cultural relativism becomes dangerous when it keeps the world from voicing outrage at injustice. Obama justified his lukewarm response to the Iranian uprising by claiming that he did not want to be accused of meddling. Here he showed his naivete: the hardliners accused him of meddling anyway. Our own naivete was exposed when it became clear that the world would not actively support our cause.
There are those who hold on to hope, who claim that these things take time and that this movement is so big that it will certainly prevail in the end. "There is fire under the ashes," the optimists among us say, repeating this Persian maxim. But for a tired mother who has waited all of her adult life for a chance to see a free Iran, who has suffered injustice at the hands of the theocrats, for a tearful mother who prefers to advocate migration and exile rather than courage in the face of adversity, a great chance was lost. That day when we were three million on the streets of Tehran our leaders failed to stay with us and once again we lost a chance of historic proportions due to a lack of leadership and strategy.
The Mousavi camp knew the rigging and subsequent clampdown would take place. Where was their Plan B? If I were the mother of one of those kids dead or in jail, like my friend who is now catatonic upon her son's arrest, I would never forgive Khatami, Mousavi and Karoubi, not to mention Hashemi for having ignited this uprising only to sit back and announce the formation of a new party! It is not a new party that we need! It is leadership and strategy, rarities in Iranian politics that can save us now. I sincerely hope that my disappointment is unfounded and that the reformists who led us to this bloody juncture in our history will deliver us from it without much more bloodshed.
I have often been wrong about Iranian politics. I sincerely hope that I am once again. As I sit here far away in safety, still in love with those people who showed such courage, I pray the hesitant, clandestine prayer of an atheist in desperate need to cling on to hope. I hope what my mother, who went back yesterday, told me, as I was finishing this essay is true, that there is indeed "fire under these ashes."
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau