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Program 9931
August 3, 1999


Azar Nafizi, professor, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

AZAR NAFIZI: The point is that the, America took the official Iranian government’s position as the Iranian people’s position. And that is one thing that really bothers me here.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the political changes in Iran and their effects on women.

NAFIZI: For each article of make-up that you put on or your hair showing, or the way you are dressed—if you are not dressed according to the code—you can be flogged up to 76 lashes; there’s a jail sentence of up to one year, and a monetary fine. And there are special morality squads in the streets who sort of regulate all this.

KRISTIN MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. From the Revolution in 1979 to the student demonstrations of 1999, Iran has gone through enormous cultural turmoil. And the role of women in Iranian society has endured dramatic change. Today we hear from Professor Azar Nafizi. Formerly a faculty member at the University of Tehran, she now teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Professor Nafizi has written extensively on literature, culture and women’s rights. She begins our conversation with some comments on the public appearance of women in Iran today.

NAFIZI: For example, say in the United States, the way you are at home would not be much different from the way you are in public. Now the difference with Iran is that sometimes, at least for a lot of us, you have to create a fact in order to go into the public. And the weird thing is that at home I might be dressed just like any other “American” or Western woman, and when I go out, first of all I have to remove any make-up, if I have any make-up on-and usually people put make-up on when they go to public; I have to cover myself basically from head to foot. Either you wear what they call a chardor??, which is a piece of cloth which, you know, covers your hair and leaves just the oval of the face, or in a sort of rob-type-like dress and a head scarf. If I don’t—For each article of make-up that you put on or your hair showing, or the way you are dressed—if you are not dressed according to the code—you can be flogged up to 76 lashes; there’s a jail sentence of up to one year, and a monetary fine. And there are special morality squads in the streets who sort of regulate all this.

PORTER: Now you mentioned that there’s the oval of the face…


PORTER: …that is showing. Because sometimes we see pictures of

NAFIZI: Oh, Yes.

PORTER: People with something covered, only the eyes showing or less showing. What’s the difference in those?

NAFIZI: You see that this is just a more stricter code. This is not what the law is in Iran. Some people do it, you know. But this is not—I mean, when you talk about Iran, the veil is not like Indian women’s sari. It was no a traditional dress. And it was not just secular women who didn’t wear the veil. A lot of Moslem women also—not just in Iran, all over the world—don’t wear the veil or wear very light head scarves. And also, during my mother and grandmother’s times, those women who wore the veil, a lot of them wore this very light, flowery costumes, not just this black, strictly. This was a very urban costume in Iran.

PORTER: Yes, tell us, what is the connection between that dress and Islam?

NAFIZI: Well, there is—you don’t want to open that Pandora’s box, because there are so many different interpretations. Some people, some, actually Moslem scholars now claim that the veil didn’t necessarily come from Islam. That a lot of these cultures that Islam went to already had the veil. Well, you know that even in ancient Rome and in ancient Persia, women from the noble families were secluded and they would sort of have to be covered when they came into public, you know. But Islamic—I think that the veil later became part of an instrument of repression by the states which also claimed to be Islamic, you know. In Iran we have—Iran has different nationalities where women wear very colorful national dresses. In Iran’s northern provinces and where we have our rice plantations and tea plantations, women are the ones who do the work. And, you know, they’re naked up to their knees, you know, because they have to be in the rice paddies. And they don’t wear the veil in that manner. Later, it became mainly again an urban form of clothing.

PORTER: Just for comparison’s sake, tell us something about how this differs from what we see in Afghanistan today, under the Taliban.

NAFIZI: I think that when the Islamic regime came—both Taliban and the Islamic regime—at the beginning, they were using this as an ideological ploy in order to gain control over population. You know, this is the best way of going about it. And if you relate it Islam and tradition then you can, you know, find a justification. Because you say, “this is what –people want.” You know. Now Iran being a very modern and advanced society, that could not be implemented. From the very start there was, you know, a wave of reaction against it. And that reaction we see right up today. With Afghanistan of course, Taliban were much more brutal and the situation in Afghanistan was different because Afghanistan was already a country which was, for years it had been just plunged into one war after another, so there was not the cohesiveness in Afghanistan that you see in Iran. In Iran we had a society with institutions, you know, with different social forces that could stand up to this. You don’t see that in Afghanistan. So Taliban could, you know, bring this calamity upon the people. But I don’t think they can—for the first few years in every revolution the population is dazed and you can bring on a lot of things upon them. After a while, they themselves, the ones who rule the country, are demoralized.

PORTER: You yourself, you lost your job.

NAFIZI: Oh, so many times I don’t remember any more. [laughing]

PORTER: Direct….

NAFIZI: Sometimes willfully I lost it. [laughing]

PORTER: You lost your job in direct relation to the dress?

NAFIZI: Well, Yes, the first time. Yes. Actually, always. This is the interesting thing. I’m not political. I don’t belong to a political party. But just because of my own beliefs I always am sort of become “subversive” or get into trouble. You know, so the thing in Iran is that what is being punished is not really political position that you take. A lot of people talk for instance about democracy, that we need for democracy, the government is not democratic. Nothing much happens to them. But if a woman walks down the streets of Tehran taking the veil off, that means that the regime has changed. You know. So it is very central to the image the regime has created of itself, from the start. It is now caught in its own trap. And my story was that when I came to Iran women weren’t wearing the veil anywhere. It took the government three or four years to be able to implement it because of the resistance. And when they finally made it compulsory for working women to wear it I, along with some other women, refused to wear it, you know. And we protested and then were expelled. Stayed at home, went back, you know, and I never wore it properly. I never got tenure. [laughing] So, and the last time I just resigned because I couldn’t take the pressure, you know. It wasn’t just the veil, of course. There was a lot of other things.

PORTER: Yes. I’m sure, and the veil is just, the sort of the most public version, or the most public image of the repression.

NAFIZI: And, you know, it’s not just a piece of cloth.

PORTER: Right.

NAFIZI: And it’s not that I think all women shouldn’t wear the veil. I think all women should have a choice to do. If it is tradition then tradition is not implemented by gun. Tradition is something people choose and continue with. And this is how a lot of my friends who do wear the veil feel. That is should not be forced upon me. Or people like myself. And it’s also the concept of woman. That you are a sexual object. And it makes your job very difficult. You know, I am a teacher. I go there and teach to both men and women. Okay? Should I think more about whether my veil is slipping or the course that I am teaching? At universities the main thing is how you are dressed, how you connect with the opposite sex, rather than, you know, how knowledgeable you are. It’s very distracting.

PORTER: Yes. You mentioned something about religious law and secular law, the connection between the two. I mean, somehow when you take a religious belief and enforce it with public law, don’t you cheapen or take away the dignity and the credibility of the religious belief?

NAFIZI: Actually, that is what a lot of people in Iran, actually a lot of people from amongst high-ranking clergy, like Ayatollah Imam?? Montazeri?? and the rest are worried about. That by just—I mean, in Iran today everything that happens, Islam is responsible for it. You know, even if you’re pipes don’t work it’s because of Islam. The fact that you give the name of an Imam, who before was very sacred—you know, you never would use it in vain—you would give the name of a street or a square to an Imam and every morning when you get in the taxi you say “go to Imam Hussein Square.” You know. The fact that now people joke about the Prophet and about a lot of things that they never dared, it cheapens it. Because religion, it’s purpose is to tell you, to distract you from the worldly, to modify your worldly ambitions and not to become an instrument of worldly ambition, you know. And that is what is wrong with us now. We’ve become cynical, when religion becomes state.

PORTER: Tell us something about life before 1979. What was life like for the average woman in Iran before the Revolution.

NAFIZI: Of course, you know I don’t want to give you the impression that life before 1971 was all roses.

PORTER: Before Nineteen-seventy—?



NAFIZI: Was all roses and then everything bad came, or vice-versa. Or it was all terrible. I think that the Iranian society was carrying a lot of these contradictions. But you talked specifically about women. Now the fight for modernization wasn’t just imposition of imperialist rule. It wasn’t just the Shah giving us, you know, the permission to take off the veil and Ayatollah giving us the permission to put on the veil. It was a process of protracted struggle, from mid-18th Century, you know. And women had won a lot of their rights. Even during the Shah’s time when women brought, in early 1960s they won the right to vote. And it was pretended as if the Shah granted them the right. But if it weren’t for women who worked really hard at the grass roots, or woman like Madam Hofgzani??, or many women within the government who pushed for these laws to be changed, you know, it would not have passed.

And at that time when women got the right to vote Ayatollah Khomeni had an edict against women voting saying that it was equal to prostitution. It’s ironic that later on he came and he kept that. Because he found out how important women can be to him and his government, if they can vote. And Iran since early 1960s had women cabinet ministers, women in Parliament, women in, active in all walks of life. What we lacked was political participation. People wanted to be actively involved in the political life of the country. And we were advanced enough to demand it. And we also went wrong. You know, the people and various forces that were in the opposition. And the Shah’s regime was also responsible but we didn’t ask for our rights to be taken from us. We wanted more, not less.

PORTER: Yes. What is the status of civil society in Iran and in particular women’s rights groups and movements? Does that exist today in Iran?

NAFIZI: You know, we don’t as yet have women’s rights per se—groups per se. Because most of the groups who are allowed to form and form an organization have to be Islamic. And they go under the shadow of the government. Even though people within them can be very progressive. But what the regime did, it implicated the whole citizenry. Because, you know, when you walk down the streets of Tehran you are a sign of opposition or position, through the way you dress. So, there is a sympathy between citizens. And understanding, you know. And almost instinctively women started acting like—they took the veil and they made it attractive by letting a little bit of hair out, by dressing in a certain way. You know. And so they defeated the purpose that the government had. Now, of course, with these new openings the most, one of the most central issues and controversial issues has become the women’s issue, mainly through publications. Rather than groups people are voicing their protests through various publications, women’s publications.

MC HUGH: Coming up, more from Professor Azar NAFIZI on political turmoil in Iran.

NAFIZI: You know, and President Khatemi himself is in the middle of this paradox. On one hand he cannot denounce the regime which has given him the power, in a sense, you know. On the other hand, can he denounce the people who gave him the votes?

MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: In the West the overwhelming message that we hear now is that Iran is becoming more moderate, that there’s this new reform-minded president, and that big change is underway in Iran. Is that an accurate message or not?

NAFIZI: It is partly accurate. I think that we should avoid simplifications because in the same way that Iran was not wholly anti-West, anti-American, anti-open before; it’s government was, you know. Now, Iran is going through a very important and contradictory stage where on one hand there is a desire for a reform and there have been openings. On the other hand as the reforms are being pushed there is also an amazing backlash. You know, and President Khatemi himself is in the middle of this paradox. On one hand he cannot denounce the regime which has given him the power, in a sense, you know. On the other hand, can he denounce the people who gave him the votes? You know, so he’s in a very difficult position. His power of maneuvers is very limited because of that.

PORTER: There’s been a parallel drawn between the change that’s happening in Iran and the change that took place in the former Soviet Union. The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev; he was a child of the regime, yet he tried to introduce perestroika and glasnost.


PORTER: Is Mohammed Khatemi in the same position?


PORTER: Is there a Boris Yeltsin out there….

NAFIZI: You know….

PORTER: …who’s going to come and push him aside?

NAFIZI: In fact, even before President Khatemi some people were saying that President Rafsanjani was saying, “I am Iran’s Gorbachev.” You know.

PORTER: Iran’s Gorbachev.

NAFIZI: And I think that President Khatemi himself is very well aware and some of his aides in fact, the Minister of Guidance, Mohar Jurani??, made a comment that these people think that Khatemi is the Gorbachev and they’re going to be the Yeltsin. Of course, we hope that we’ll have better Yeltsin’s. But the situation is very much in many ways similar. Of course one doesn’t want to draw simplistic parallels. Because in a society which has been used to being very total, how do you bring reforms which don’t make it crack? This is our problem and contradiction now. In your society you can make room or be flexible, so over a number of years through the efforts of the minority, then the minority voice can become majority. But in Iran, that is the test. And I think that there will be violence. There has already been violence. You know, and there will be violence. But it’s the price we pay.

PORTER: Yes. We’ve heard about a round of elections in Iran and the fact that some reform-minded candidates have won. Tell us something about that. What’s happened there?

NAFIZI: You see, that is what, this is, I’m glad you asked this question because this is a good example of what is happening. The fact was that these reform-minded candidates of course went through a grill, they didn’t accept them, then they had to take an oath of allegiance. They were another group which belonged to the former President Bazargan??, the first Iranian Prime Minister, Bazargan. They supported the elections because they thought they could participate and have their own candidates. They were cheated because once they supported the elections and participated then they didn’t even take their names out of the ballot. That was the first thing. Those few from the reformists who did win, which is in itself very important, now they’re being questioned. And the “hard-liners” are trying to annul their, you know, the votes. So you constantly have this back and forth movement. And with each back and forth of course there is a group that becomes more radicalized. Not just on the right, but on the side of the reform, especially the young people, are demanding more.

And at some point Khatemi has been in a very bad position where he has been criticized. In fact, one of my friends called from Tehran the other day and she said, “I was going to meet so-and-so and I didn’t. I gave her Khatemi.” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “That means that I told her I’ll do something and I didn’t.”

PORTER: I have a question for you about culture and about the impact of Western culture inside Iran. The party line is, “this is a closed society, that Western culture is pollution and that it’s not allowed.” Does Western culture make any impression inside Iran?

NAFIZI: Well, you mentioned Soviet Union in this short time. There are parallels there too. Because this culture has been so deprived of the Western culture and because the pollution line, which we call the cultural invasion of the West, is the official line. The populists, and especially the youth, are very much fascinated by the Western culture. They are fascinated to the point that it worries me. Because they are uncritically fascinated.

PORTER: Uncritically fascinated. Yes.

NAFIZI: Yes. And there are also a lot of good things of course. Because if we could create a real dialogue it would be to have a real cultural exchange, where the young people in Iran would find out that democracy is not just all these luxury items or the color that they’re missing. Of course, to have many colors is a sign of democracy in a sense. You know. To be various, to be allowed to be various. But that there is a price to pay and there is a certain type of mentality behind this.

I was never the one to think that culture can be oppressive. I thought that our relationship, economically and politically, it has been oppressive and exploitative. Culturally it’s always to our advantage, and to the West’s advantage.

PORTER: There is the ban on satellite television…


PORTER: …in Iran. Is this effective or ineffective, as we’ve seen elsewhere?

NAFIZI: It’s as ineffective as it can get. The government keeps making this mistake of making, banning things so that that they will become more popular. So satellite dishes, people—they are very expensive too, you know—and like what they say, it’s not just a few Western or rich people who have the satellite dishes; the government decided to ban it because it was becoming very popular among the poorer people. And what they would do, people would buy one satellite dish and they would sell tickets. So others would come and watch. And unfortunately, and this is what I mean about uncritical, in these areas, films like Baywatch, they were the most popular. Soap operas, Baywatch, you know. They went well because people are deprived, you know. And they don’t see it, they’ve been said, “decadent, decadent” so much; they don’t see the decadence. That you might in here.

PORTER: So it’s not just that they’re getting Western culture. I can see they’re getting the best of Western culture, right?

NAFIZI: Yes. [laughing] That is what worries me. That is why I want more “culture” so that they can also get the other side, you know, and not just…. And it’s also shows by the films they bring from the West. That they cut them. They had the festival of Oliver Stone and some of the films were cut to about 45 or half an hour. Really. And there were crowds….

PORTER: Now here you’re talking about official, public, legally….


PORTER: …allowed presentations of these films.

NAFIZI: And people were just crowding. I mean, there was riots to go in and see it. And of course the videos, everybody sees them. I just had a letter from a student of mine talking about Shakespeare in Love, you know. So…

PORTER: That they were able to see illegally?


PORTER: Or legally?

NAFIZI: Yes, it’s all illegal.

PORTER: Yes, okay.

NAFIZI: They raid your house and they take you to where you can be jailed and flogged and all sorts of things.

PORTER: But you’ve mentioned that there were also some Shakespearean productions that were allowed on legal….


PORTER: …Iranian state television as well.

NAFIZI: And that is the paradox of Iran. Because the government itself, because the society being modern, the government itself is in a sense in competition with it’s own past and with the West. So they want to say, “we’re progressive.” So they showed Hamlet, the Russian version of Hamlet on Iranian television a few years ago. And they cut Ophelia from all the scenes, you know. But if you hear it here, you say, “Oh, look, they’re showing Hamlet.” They also did the same with Othello, where they cut Desdemona and the suicide scene. You know.

PORTER: Because suicide is illegal.

NAFIZI: Is illegal.

PORTER: And also, the showing of Mary Poppins in your article.

NAFIZI: Yes, and this is again, a student of mine was here and she was watching CNN and she said, “CNN is saying, ‘just what’s new, a country after 20 years, Iran is showing American movies.’” And she was saying, “Yes, they showed Mary Poppins but they cut it to about, between 45 minutes to half an hour, because they cut all the song and dance scenes. And somebody was narrating it.” You know. So all these news come to you as not the whole experience, you know. As just parts, partial experience.

PORTER: We’re just about out of time, but I do want to ask you about one final area, and that is US relations with Iran. We have a, not a very good history really, when you think about it. The downing of the Iranian civilian airliner, the deaths of hundreds of Iranians, and then we also can go back to 1979 and 1980 and the Iran hostage crisis there. Is there any chance that the US and Iran will become closer and what has to happen for that to….

NAFIZI: I am sure they will. Both of them are course for more, colder reasons like economics and politics, they have to get close. And Iran has come to such an impasse at this point; the approach to US is because of its dire need. But also, I think it would be really fruitful if it could be truly people to people. And not just government to government, you know. Because it will open up that society. And the government will be answerable to the world. Because they can do anything they want to, to the people, without—I mean, we don’t have the guns or the power. But once you become answerable to the world, once you tell the world, “we are civilized, we are modern, we want to be friends with you,” then it will change. The US should help the people. What about the visa situation? That would be a good place to start. You know.

PORTER: To allow more Iranians to come to the US.

NAFIZI: To allow more Iranians, to allow more cultural exchanges in terms of students studying in US or maybe exchanges for students from US going to Iran. Not just delegates going to Iran for a week or two. But people who could actually get a feel of the culture, you know. I think it’s great that this is happening.

PORTER: There is certainly a streak of narcissism in America, in America and in American society. So I have to ask what do people on the street in Iran think about America and Americans?

NAFIZI: Well, believe it or not they always liked it. That, that is why Americans were so surprised. They want to Iran and they were so welcomed, you know, even by the guards, you know, who were embracing them and saying, “are you going to America?” The point is that the, America took the official Iranian government’s position as the Iranian people’s position. And that is one thing that really bothers me here. They don’t differentiate between Iranian people and the Iranian government. You should always differentiate. And you should always say the relationship between our government and our society is an interaction. I mean, the government does change and did change, because the people didn’t put up, you know. The Iranian people should get some credit for heaven’s sake, you know. [laughing] For what happened. They give all the credit to, to the government still, you know. Could Khatemi come to power or say the things he says if there was not deep satisfaction and protest within the society? Because the vote he got was a protest vote. It wasn’t a vote for Khatemi; a vote against what has been happening in Iran. So there should be some, some credit there.

PORTER: That is Professor Azar Nafizi, from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

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