by REZA M. in London
23 Jan 2011 23:39
[ comment ] One Iranian New Year in the mid-'80s, my father was listening to our shortwave radio for the celebratory broadcast from Iran. Although at the time a pious Muslim, he was appalled by a female caller whose New Year wish for the nation was that Iranian women would stop wearing so much lipstick. Oddly, this conservative sentiment is today reflected in the attitudes of some of even the most liberal Iranian ex-pats.
"As a people, we're just emulating everything that's destructive about the West." At this, I prepared to agree wholeheartedly with what I thought would be my friend's critique of the horrors of late-industrial capitalism -- the ever-increasing disparity of wealth and assaults on welfare programs, to name the most obvious -- taking hold in Iranian society. Like me, my friend is an Iranian brought up in England, socially liberal and politically left leaning. Although I knew we differed on Iran's Green Movement, I had thought our positions on the Islamic Republic were generally consistent.
As she continued, however, I realized this was going to be another strange exchange where I'm left struggling with the contradiction of a privately liberal, Western-educated, and privileged Iranian whose criticism of Iran revolves around moralizing about the supposedly rampant hedonism in the Islamic Republic. According to her, "as a people," Iranians have a "Western drinking culture with none of the work ethic" and "promiscuity, but with the same outdated attitudes toward women."
I'm inclined to agree with the second point. Although diverse attitudes toward women are increasingly common, Iranian men still tend toward the traditional when it comes to female subservience. But surely that's a problem with every aspect of their attitudes about women, not just sexual promiscuity. It's not like those "outdated attitudes toward women" would be acceptable if only Iranians weren't promiscuous. The contradictory yet predictable inclusion here of concern for women's welfare comes across as insincere. It manages merely to mask the same old attitudes of social and political conservatism.
As for drinking, the bare facts are not on my friend's side. By any measurement of social harm, alcohol is incomparably less damaging than the "traditional" drug of choice -- opium -- yet the opiate doesn't fit into the narrative of Western evils, and so is overlooked. Drunkenness is in fact a long-established Persian tradition, and the typical place and manner of consumption is as far removed from Western club and bar life as one could imagine.
Other than the factual flaw in focusing on sex and drink as the major problems facing Iran today, I've been unsure as to why an increasing number of Westernized Iranians I'm in contact with express such strict expectations of the people in the country they have left behind. My friend and those like her seem to personify the two most destructive elements of the contemporary Iranian character -- Osoolgarayan (Principlist) and gharbzade ("West-toxified") -- identities traditionally thought contradictory but, in these cases, somehow complementary. The Osoolgarayans are the most socially reactionary element of Iranian political life, while the gharbzade are those hopelessly enamored of everything Western. Together, they form a double standard. I'm inclined to conclude that not morality but privilege is at stake.
The reference to Iranian society's lack of a "work ethic" is telling. This common complaint is in fact only really applicable to the bureaucratic and wealthy business classes. It is far removed from the conditions of the broader masses, many of whom struggle to make ends meet despite working multiple jobs in grueling conditions, while being denied the benefits of union membership.
Beyond betraying the sensitivities of Marie Antoinette, the call for a stricter work ethic reflects the business-class assumption that workers have it too easy and should always be working harder. This is the true counterpart to sanctimony about revelry. The overall message is a command -- more work, less play. Perhaps it is understandable that this should come from some of those Iranian families who have been educated abroad and are able to flit between Iran and the West at will.
The assumption then is that other than the laziness of Iran's labor force and the ghastly fact of young people drinking and having sex, there is little to worry about. If only we as a people were more diligent in our work and less frivolous in our pleasures, Iran would provide the ideal respite from Western life.
The image of an ultra-conservative society where Iranians can return to recharge their piety batteries to withstand the vices of the West is evidently attractive. Yet this is clearly just an indulgence for those who have the means to evacuate when life gets a little too stifling, or when vocational, recreational, and educational opportunities cease to present themselves. Iran becomes for the Osoolgarayan-gharbzade a land of pseudo-spiritual retreat, a holiday for the soul amid the misery of others.
From their perspective, Iranian morality is healthy, not the hypocritical public face of private vice, the veil over usurpation and greed. Iranians should be having less "meaningless" sex, no matter that its repression is for the purpose of social control à la fascism. That most dangerous of European trends isn't mentioned by the Osoolgarayan-gharbzade, even as the Islamic Republic regresses ever closer to it. But then affluent nationalists have often viewed fascism as healthy, as with the business-class support for Hitler and Mussolini.
Along with their economic superiority, Osoolgarayan-gharbzades benefit from the endless opportunities open to them in Iran. They can easily find employment and enjoy automatic prestige; they are necessarily superior. It is understandable that some of these personally liberal Iranians would oppose the liberalization of Iran when it threatens their position as scarce commodity.
The bad conscience of privilege is abated by the blunt Ahmadinejad/Hashemi-Samareh propaganda of feigned poverty. Iranian power is so well disguised by a beige windbreaker and velcro shoes that even its greatest beneficiaries feel downtrodden simply by supporting those who sport them. In Iranian politics, after all, it's the appearance that counts, and Iran has succeeded in raising a facade that keeps pre- and post-revolutionary class structures intact while presenting itself as radically different, even if the gestures of poverty are often utterly surreal. The Osoolgarayan-gharbzade's cries for moral standards is as relevant to Iranian social injustice as the uptown New York hipster who ironically dresses street is to racial tensions in the States.
Those who imagined Ahmadinejad a man of the people because of his appearance, gestures, and rhetoric are proved hopelessly wrong by mass privatization, soaring unemployment, the continued denial of trade union rights, and an unabated influx of foreign commodities. Now, in concert with the IMF and governments throughout the West, the President's rampant free-marketeering is set to plunge untold thousands more Iranians further into poverty. Meanwhile, official edicts continue to encourage piety and political disengagement and our Osoolgarayan-gharbzade friends continue their lives unaffected, confident that rampant capitalism with a chador is fundamentally different from what they experience in the West.
Those intoxicated with the West's economic models are also capable of holding reactionary views on civil society, for capitalism takes well to the oppressive climate of inequity. Indeed, Iran is in many ways a picture of what American society might look like if the right-wing supporters of unregulated big business had their way, sanctifying the holy marriage of economic inequality to strict public morality.
Those of us fortunate enough not to have to countenance the progressive and egalitarian failings of the Islamic Republic should be wary of promoting its betrayed ideals. We have a duty to ensure our analysis -- if we are to offer it -- respects the experience of those living lives we can barely imagine.
Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau