By Fereshtehsadat Etefaghfar (Source: The Middle East Institute)
Is present Iranian society more open and more democratic than during the Pahlavi period?
The Iranian Revolution at 30
Each year during the anniversary of the revolution, which in Iran is called Dahe-ye Mobarakeh Fajr (The Sacred Ten Days), the Islamic regime leaves no doubt in Iranians' minds about the causes of the Islamic Revolution. The ten-day celebration starts on January 31, the day that the late Imam Khomeini flew from Paris to Tehran and ends on February 10 when the powerful Pahlavi regime was destroyed by a huge popular uprising. Among many national and international events, including the arrival of hundreds of foreign visitors to Iran to observe the general mood of happiness and excitement, the Islamic leaders are full of praise for the Iranian people because they have successfully strived towards achieving the revolution's objectives. But many Iranians, particularly the younger generations, do not necessarily agree that the revolution's objectives have been attained.
The principal motto of the revolution was Esteghlal, Azadi e Jumhury Islami (independence, freedom, and the establishment of an Islamic republic). Based on that, Iranian leaders regard the main objectives of the Revolution as fulfilled. After all, Iranians were opposed to the ex-Shah's close ties with the West and in particular with the United States and Israel. They wanted a regime which was much more independent of the United States. They also demanded freedom and opposed the ex-Shah's autocratic and repressive style of government. Finally, they believed that Islam was capable of delivering a more humane, egalitarian, and democratic political system; hence they supported the idea of an Islamic Republic as opposed to the Shah's dictatorship.
But is present Iranian society more open and more democratic than during the Pahlavi period? Opponents of the Islamic Republic, particularly the royalists, perceive the current regime to be undemocratic, authoritarian, and brutal. They condemn its human rights record as one of the worst in the world. In contrast, the leaders of the Islamic Republic and their supporters boast about Islamic Iran's democratic achievements as well as its human rights record. Apart from the Islamic Revolution's "achievements" or "failures" there are other areas where the same dispute arises. Among the most intensely disputed issues are female participation and women rights. Again, opinions are deeply divided between the opponents and supporters of the regime. Some women's rights campaigners maintain that Iran has actually moved backward.
Dr. Fereshtehsadat Etefaghfar, Lecturer, Islamic Azad University, Shar-e Rey Branch
One mistake which both the supporters and the opponents of the Islamic Revolution make is that they do not consider the changes in the context of Iranian society. Instead, they maintain a purely political orientation. Any changes, including democratic changes or changes in the status of women, must be considered within the social background of Iranian society itself. One of the most impressive achievements of the revolution has been the spread of the education. On the eve of the revolution in 1979, there were some 100,000 students attending the country's universities, out of which 17.5% were females.1 Thirty years later, the number has reached 2 million. What is even more impressive is the rise in the number of female students. In some subjects, such as Arts and Social Sciences, there are more female students than males. In total, female students have exceeded the number of male students by 54% to 46%.2 However, the country suffers from chronic unemployment, particularly among university graduates; and admittedly, female graduates find it more difficult than their male counterparts to find employment.
Nevertheless, given that more than half the country's graduates are female, there must be a large number of women who manage to find employment in the tight Iranian job market despite the various social, traditional, and legal barriers and forms of discrimination. In other words, as a leading female Iranian sociologist has argued, "the younger generation Iranian female university graduates have managed to break a number of traditional as well as institutional barriers against the women."3
A similar analysis can be offered on the more sensitive issue of Iran's human rights record and democratic development. Islamic Iran's record on human rights and civil society standards are far from ideal. In both areas, Iran lags behind neighbors such as Turkey and Pakistan, let alone countries such as India, Japan, and those in the West. But at the same time, Iran compares very favorably with many of the countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and others.
More relevant still is the comparison with pre-revolutionary Iran. It is true that the Islamic authorities close newspapers at their will, without much respect for legal procedures. But the degree of press freedom which Iran enjoys today is unprecedented. There are a few daily newspapers that can broadly be described as independent from the government. They criticize the hardline Ahmadinejad policies on almost every important domestic as well as international issue. This is indeed an unprecedented development in Iran and must be regarded as one of the most important achievements of the Islamic Revolution. By the same token, while it is true that elections in Iran in comparison to those held in developed countries cannot be described as free and fair, they represent substantial progress over those held during the Pahlavi era. The same is true for many other aspects of modern political development, such as freedom of expression, rule of law, and checks and balances on the state.
In short, while there are serious shortcomings on a number of fundamental sociopolitical issues, there can be little doubt that there have been impressive achievements as well. However, it remains to be stated that the Islamic Revolution should have achieved far more during the past three decades.
1.Ministry of Science and Higher Education Statistical Year Book, 1978-79.
2. Ministry of Science and Higher Education Statistical Year Book, 2007-08.
3. Jaleh Kazemi, "On the Achievements of the Iranian Female Graduates," Goftego, Vol. 47 (July 2007).
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