Change in Iran

By Erika | 2002-01-01 12:00:00

The election of reformer Seyed Mohamad Khatami to the Iranian presidency in 1997 was an indication of the people's desire for change. In February of 2000, the people reinforced that statement by electing a majority of reformers to the sixth majlis, the Iranian parliament. Although the ousting of the conservatives from parliamentary power does not undermine the ultimate authority of the hard-liner Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it does signify that movements for change are occurring that will have a chance to redefine what is meant by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khatami's re-election in June 2001 further strengthens this resolve.

In Iran today, feminism, nationalism, and reform are all being questioned and subsequently are inter-related. Many women are challenging the patriarchal system and its limits on their development, just as students are demanding a representative and accountable government. Similarly, for many Iranians, secular nationalism is beginning to eclipse the identity provided by the Islamic revolution. Any change in Iran will affect the way people and states interpret Islam and its role in politics. Westerners, in their foreign policy objectives, must recognize that Iran is a dynamic country with varied internal movements.


In 1997, out of more than 200 candidates and including a handful of women, only four were approved by Khamenei to run for the presidency. Among these candidates were Seyed Mohamad Khatami and Speaker of the House Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri. Nateq Nuri was clearly the supreme leader's favorite and ran on a conservative campaign representing the establishment. Khatami, on the other hand, discussed an Islam of compassion and openly dealt with civil rights and women's issues. Khatami however, came from the clergy, as did Nateq Nuri, and by no means challenged the system itself, such as the supremacy of Khamenei. He advocated reform from within.

Khatami's victory has been called the beginning of a "third republic." The first republic was under Ayatollah Khomeini and lasted for the first ten years of the revolution, from 1979 to 1989, until Khomeini's death. It was marked by austere Islamism, a strong rejection of Persian nationalism, international isolation, war, repression and revolutionary fervor. After Khomeini died, Khamenei became the Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani became the president. This period sought economic reform and a diplomatic thaw with relations abroad.

Little reform was actually achieved but a new realism emerged with respect to such phenomena as the population boom. At first women had been told to procreate as much as possible, to breed a new population of "revolutionaries" and the population had expanded abnormally quickly. The government was forced to introduce a birth control program, showing Iran's new sense of pragmatism. In the "third republic," Khatami has promised a rule of law and civil society. He has promoted a fusion of democracy and Islam, advocating freedom of the press and republicanism.

Since Khatami's 1997 victory, the reform movement has seen even greater achievements. In the elections for the sixth majlis in February 2000, the reformist candidates ousted the conservative majority that had been permanent since the revolution.

The reformers won 190 seats out of the 270-seat parliament, with the ability to pass reform bills much more easily. However, the Supreme Leader still has final say over everything, and considering that Khamenei is an ultra hard-liner (Khomeini style), the final word in Iranian politics remains conservative. Similarly, the Council of Guardians is conservative and is still supreme over the parliament for passing laws. The judiciary, the Revolutionary Guard and the state-sponsored media are also still controlled by the hard-liners.

These powerful tools under conservative control have frustrated almost every attempt from the majlis or from Khatami himself to institute reform. One important example is the press laws. The fifth majlis passed a restrictive press law that the sixth majlis intended to amend, under Khatami's leadership. Meanwhile the judiciary closed more than thirty reform-based newspapers while Khamenei ordered the majlis to stop the plans for a press law amendment. Freedom of the press was a big priority for Khatami and his power has been blatantly curbed. Some people recognize that Khatami must not be too radical in order to maintains his position in the government. Others, however, see these events as Khatami's failure to make real changes.


In Iran, intellectuals have served as the more extreme voices of reform. Some intellectuals and politicians have criticized the state and paid heavily for it. Mohsen Kadivar, for example, has openly advocated the separation of religion from the state apparatus. He has likened repression under the shah to repression in the Islamic Republic, which is a severe insult to any revolutionary regime. He has argued for the rule of law, and has justified his criticism as legal and righteous. He was sentenced in court to eighteen months prison for "disseminating lies and disturbing public opinion."

Another example is Abdollah Nouri, a prominent reformer and backer of Khatami who has served various posts in the government. Nouri is interested in redefining the face of Islam: "Our Islam is the Islam of love and friendship, not the Islam of suspicion... Islam and a supreme clerical leadership that supports breaking up public meetings and violence and opposes its critics, we do not believe in that Islam. If that is your conception of Islam, then you are wrong. If that is religion, then we do not accept it." Nouri was editor of the newspaper Khordad and was charged with insulting Islam, the prophet Muhammad and Khomeini, and he responded by saying that the court had no right to judge him and that their proceedings were illegitimate. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Both Kadivar and Nouri have turned into popular heroes for the pro-reform masses. Students held vigils and protests when Kadivar was sentenced and he has become a figurehead for the struggle for reform. Equally, Nouri's harsh sentence was seen as a positive force for reform, inciting more people to join the movement for change. As one reformer said, "This is a setback - for the conservatives, not for Nouri. Iranians now have another figure to look to, someone who didn't cave in. Whose values are reinforced - the reformists or the conservatives?"


Iranian feminism is on the rise. Since the beginning of the reform movement, women have been instrumental in bringing about change. During the campaign for the fifth majlis in 1996, both religious and secular women began calling for more attention to women's issues. They agreed that the system was not protecting its women and that Islamic family law was securing male domination in the home. The 1996 campaign for the fifth majlis saw great leaps in terms of female political participation. One hundred and ninety women ran alongside over 3,000 men for the 270-seat majlis. Women generally voted for women. Thirteen women were elected to the majlis and began campaigning to change the status quo. The most popular woman to run was Faezah Hashemi, the daughter of ex-president Rafsanjani. Even though she still formulates her calls for change in Islamic terms, she is called "the nearest thing to a feminist in Iranian politics." Hashemi ran in Teheran and came in second, right after Speaker of the House Nateq Nuri.

The election for president in 1997 also saw leaps for women. As protest to the fact that only men are approved by the Council of Guardians to stand as candidates, nine women presented themselves even though they knew they would not be approved. Hashemi asks the most fundamental question: What stops a woman from becoming the president of the Republic?

Today Iranian women have to live with certain contradictions in their society. While they can be elected to parliament, they cannot leave the country without permission from their husbands. The majlis passed a bill declaring that unmarried women can study abroad, but they must obtain permission from their fathers. Every step forward also involves one step backward. This hypocrisy was exemplified with the 1996 Olympics. Iran sent a woman to carry the flag and lead the team, showing equality and opportunity for female leadership, but this only masked the fact that she was the only woman on the team.

Despite these disturbing contradictions, Iranian women are provoking reform. Their movement was largely responsible for putting Khatami into power. The "gender apartheid" that was imposed by Khomeini cannot exist today with the energy coming from the female populace. When the Iranian soccer team qualified for the World Cup in 1998, thousands of women disobeyed the law excluding them from the stadium. They charged in to welcome their team. Today women play more sports, are journalists, publishers, professors, heads of universities, powerful physicians, and members of parliament. Khatami also included one woman on his cabinet, although he was expected to include three. Women have also published newspapers. One controversial paper Zan , published by Hashemi, criticized everything from temporary marriage to stoning as punishment. This paper was eventually banned by the hard-liners, but since many of the female leaders are religious, they cannot be dismissed as "corrupt Westerners."


Some say that Khomeini purged the society of nationalism, at least the Persian ethno-nationalism of the Shah. Khomeini linked Islam with the state of Iran, making pan-Islam the most substantial part of Iranian identity. Under Rafsanjani's leadership, in the second Republic, a secular nationalism was revived, most identifiable with Shi'ism. Shi'ism became the rallying point for Iranians. That too, however, has failed really to unite the people. Little solidarity actually exists between Shi'ite minorities in, say Iraq or Afghanistan, with the Islamic Republic and with the people. This trend of moving from a non-nationalist Pan-Islamist identity prescribed by Khomeini to a more Iranian nationalism of today may be the future of Iran. Iranians are curious about their pre-Islamist past. They discuss Persepolis and the fundamentals of Persian civilization through news about archeological discoveries and restorations of ancient sites.

The identity of Iranians is the paramount question. Today we see evidence of discontent among youth, intellectuals, students, professionals and especially women. This discontent is aimed at the Islamic Republic and in some cases even at the supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Iran moves away from full Islamic political identity, there will be a void in Iranian identity where Islam once solidly stood. There is already a movement towards reform and secular nationalism and away from Islamism. Another Iranian identity will have to come into play, and secular nationalism will probably play a large role.


The future of reform in Iran is positive. Khatami is committed: "No pressure can make me give up this path. I cannot give up my commitment to God and the noble people. We have no choice but to succeed in establishing Islamic democracy." This prospect for Iranian democracy will bring a new plurality to Iran that will have to make room for a burgeoning feminism. Plurality might also open the door for secular nationalism, as a constructed phenomenon to unite the people when Islam cannot. As long as the conservatives do not completely shut out Khatami and undermine the majlis, these movements will continue to gain support among the discontented masses and change is inevitable.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002, page 15. Some rights reserved.

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