Divided Iran

By Malise Ruthven
The New York Review of Books, July 2, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

In the 1979 revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini argued that in the absence of the Hidden Imam the clerics should effectively exercise power on his behalf. This was a radical break with the tradition of de facto separation between religion and state.

A cliché of Iran's revolutionary rhetoric is that the United States is the Great Satan bent on destroying the Islamic Republic. Such frenzied antagonism owes more to Zoroastrian dualism than mainstream Quranic theology. During the early Islamic centuries, Iranian Shiism absorbed the Zoroastrian view of a world divided between pure believers and polluting infidels.

In a patriarchal social order, it is women who bear the brunt. As in other patrilineal societies, the woman is the door of entry to the group. Improper behavior on her part can expose her community and family to all sorts of hidden dangers. The sexual double standard was effectively institutionalized in all the mainstream Islamic traditions: men were permitted up to four legal wives and the right of divorce by repudiation. In pre-modern Iran, male prerogatives were enhanced by the practice of temporary marriage and by the availability of concubines.

Gender segregation contributed to the prevalence of boy concubinage and pedophilia. Although sodomy is condemned in the Quran, homosexual relationships between older men and boys were tolerated.

The social reforms instituted by Reza Shah Pahlevi were modeled on the perceived advantages enjoyed by people in the industrialized West. Religious leaders adamantly resisted. They recognized that in enacting reforms in the realms of hygiene and dress, the state was appropriating their powers as the guardians of purity.

Khomeini's revolution upended the Pahlavi reforms, leading to a drastic reversal in women's rights. The compulsory veil was imposed for women in public. Women and men no longer enjoy equality under the law, with evidence from a man worth twice that of a woman. Child marriage was allowed once more, with the age of marriage reduced from 18 to nine for girls (revised to 13) and 15 for boys. New laws encouraged polygamy and prevented women from leaving abusive husbands. The husband's right of unilateral divorce was reinstated. New policies encouraged temporary marriage.

Despite the formal reintroduction of child marriage, the mean age of first marriages for young women has continued to rise from around 19 before the revolution to 24 today. The revolution has maintained the momentum of the Shah's literacy campaigns, with literacy rates exceeding 95 percent for both sexes. A majority of college students are now women. Companionate marriage, with couples freely choosing their partners, is becoming the norm.

The revolution's outward momentum was blocked by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which launched an unprovoked attack in 1980, leading to a war that cost as many as one million lives. Saddam's use of chemical weaponry underpins Iran's policy of developing a nuclear capability.

Clerical Errors

By James Buchan
The Guardian, June 27, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Ahmad Kasravi was born in modest circumstances in 1890 in the Turkish-speaking city of Tabriz in north-west Iran. Bred up for the Shia clergy, his life was changed in 1905 when the Shia clergy became aware of some of the wider consequences of Enlightenment ideas. They were shocked to learn that liberty included liberty not to pray or wash, and equality might even be extended to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. The new parliament, instead of merely interpreting and enforcing sharia, would give law to the Muslims.

This break in the alliance between clergy and liberals is the dominant theme of modern Iranian history. It has permitted a succession of government coups d'etat from 1908 to 1979. The two groups together mobilized millions of demonstrators over the winter of 1978/79 and sent Muhammad Reza into exile. The Iraqi invasion of 1980 and the eight years of war forged a solidarity that persisted into the 1990s.

From a historical point of view, the most likely outcome of recent events is despotism. Kasravi saw the parade of Shia ceremonies that punctuate the Iranian calendar, the cursing of the early caliphs, and the self-flagellation and mourning for the prophet's family, as mere mechanisms for despotic control. The prophet Muhammad performed no miracles, but the Iranians know better. Khomeini loathed popular superstition. Not so his successors.

Kasravi became more and more anti-clerical. In the course of the 1930s, he came to argue that the Shia itself was a perversion of the prophet's Islam. That brought him to the attention of Muhammad Navvab Safavi, who had founded the terrorist group Fedayan-e Islam. Brought to trial for his anti-clerical stance in Tehran, Kasravi was butchered in 1946.

AR Another excellent article from Jamie Buchan, whose expertise on this topic is considerable. See his 1999 novel A Good Place to Die, set in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. I knew Jamie when we were students at Oxford.