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Story Publication logo June 17, 2003

Most of Reformers' Work is Left Undone



The following article ran as part of a six-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 14-17, 2003.

An overflow audience some 300 strong showed up last week at Iran's main teacher training college to discuss a locally produced film from which government censors had made 17 cuts and whose release had been delayed for nearly two years.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is remarkable that watchable films get made at all, considering regulations that are among the most stringent in the world.

No women shown with their heads uncovered. No woman making physical contact with any man. No direct criticism of Iran's ruling clerics, or of Islam.

Yet the director on the college stage, Bahman Farmanara, has made a film, "House on the Water," that tackles everything from adultery, betrayal, drug abuse and AIDS to the loss of faith in Iran's revolution.

Iran is home today to some of the world's most compelling movies - and where movie directors are just some of the people battling the odds to live free lives.

Farmanara tells the students that in other university appearances, he has been chased off the stage by basij militia, paramilitary "volunteers" that Iran's clerical regime has traditionally used to enforce its edicts.

But at the teacher training college, the localbasij gave its blessing to the showing of the film and Farmanara's appearance, students said, and pledged to permit more such discussions in the months ahead.

"They're responding to society's demand," one woman student explained. "They have no choice."

To many viewers, what is most striking in Farmanara's film is that the main character lives a morally corrupt life but is presented sympathetically.

"They're used to black and white," Farmanara said. "I tell them that in real life everybody is shades of gray."

It's not a bad summary for life in Iran itself.

This is a country seared by revolution and war, the sudden imposition of clerical rule after the revolution in 1979 and then, almost immediately, the onset of an eight-year war with Iraq that would claim some half-million lives.

You see the price that a generation paid at Zahra's Paradise, the vast and meticulously maintained cemetery in the desert plain south of Tehran where many of those killed in the war are buried. Row after row of graves, each with a stone marker and a glass case containing photographs and mementos, pays tribute to the "martyrs" who sacrificed their lives.

"Mother, be happy," reads the message at the grave of Mehdi Karimi, a member of the Revolutionary Guard who died in Iraq at the age of 19 in 1984. "I have not died," the message reads. "I am alive. The kindness of you is with me still."

Yet the very sacrifice of that war helped transform Iran. The mullahs who spurred the martyrs on knew that with so many men lost to war, they would need help to keep the country's economy afloat - and so turned to women who had traditionally remained at home.

It wasn't exactly "Rosie the Riveter," not with rigid enforcements on dress and sexual contact still in force, but it nonetheless brought millions of Iranian women into social and economic settings their mothers had never encountered.

"Women had to start being present in society," said Ziba Jalali, a specialist on women's issues. "Afterward, they didn't want to go back to their lives at home. They started to function in society and they wanted to continue."

Women of new Iran

Some of these new-generation Iranians were encountered last week in Dareke, the area of hiking trails in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains just north of Tehran, where young people flock on weekend mornings because social rules are less rigidly enforced than in the city streets below.

The trails follow a fast-flowing stream, with lush foliage on either side and bare mountain up above. The path crisscrosses the stream and at nearly every bridge there's a teahouse where day-trippers while away the morning, checking out the scene from raised platforms covered with rugs and pillows.

Fatemeh, 30, is a secretary in a school, as is her friend Sara, 32. They're here with two younger women, Sara's sister, Azer, 21, and Nazila, 20. They ask that their real names not be used but are otherwise engagingly frank - about their work, their families, men, America and what they see as the failures of the revolution.

None of them is married. All live with their parents. None has traveled abroad but would like to - "to America, of course," says Azer. "Because America is the place where anything is possible, where there is freedom for anything."

The women believe that the U.S.-led war on Iraq was good. "America got our revenge for us," says Azer, adding that she rather likes President George W. Bush's gunslinger style. "When America says something, they mean it," she says. "We chant - they act."

They have no faith in the clerics who rule Iran, whether reformers or conservatives. "They are all still clerics," says Fatemeh. "They will never give up their power voluntarily."

And yet they don't believe America should interfere in Iran. "Why is it," Sara asks, "that America must always deal with the world through war? Why can't they work through peace?"

Nazila, the youngest in the group, has a black belt in karate and teaches the sport as well. She's wearing the short black overcoat known as a roopoosh , a sheer black scarf and black denim pants. She has blond hair spilling out of her scarf and wears a stylish pair of reflector sunglasses.

At the gym, she's allowed to practice minus Islamic cover, she says, but only because the class is all women. She tells of a colleague who went overseas to a karate tournament, only to be told that competitors weren't allowed to wear scarves. She refused to compete and came home instead - where the government made a big show of giving her an award.

Nazila giggles in the telling of it, and the others join in. It would be ridiculous, they say, if it weren't so sad.

Unfulfilled promise

Progress remains uneven, at best.

Most of the reform agenda that formed the basis of President Mohammad Khatami's election in 1997 (and re-election in 2001) remains unachieved.

Women's testimony in court still counts for half that of men; custody and divorce laws discriminate against them; and travel abroad for women younger than 35 still requires the approval of a male family figure.

Iran remains a country where a judiciary accountable only to clerical authorities can sentence a professor to death for challenging the supremacy of clerical rule, as happened last fall in a case concerning dissident academic Hashem Aghajari that is now under appeal.

More than 90 publications remain banned. A steady stream of journalists and intellectuals have passed through jail, usually without the public trial and jury that are ostensibly required under Iran's constitution.

An example is Isa Saharkhiz, editor of the monthly journal Sun and the elected press representative on the panel that considers permit applications for new newspapers and that reviews content for possible violation of Iran's intricate rules of permissible material.

One of the pending applications is his own, for allegedly suspect articles on Islam. No stranger to controversy, Saharkhiz was forced out of his government job several years ago after approving a newspaper permit - even though the applicant was the daughter of a former president.

"They wanted to suspend me for three years," he says, "and so I resigned - for life."

In many areas the basij militia still wreaks havoc, from the street confrontations with protesters in recent days to raids on shops that specialize in more revealing versions of the overcoats women are still required to wear.

Moreover, the government has so far failed its biggest challenge - to reform a sclerotic, corruption-ridden and largely state-controlled economy so as to create jobs for the 2 million people now entering the work force each year.

"The cure is inside"

For most young people, a university education isn't a realistic possibility, not with 1.5 million high school students vying each year for some 150,000 slots. Drug addiction has soared; officially, the number of addicts and regular drug users is said to be 2 million. Specialists say the real number is probably 3 million or more, out of a total population of close to 70 million.

"Look around you," says an engineering student at Tehran University, gesturing to the swarm of young people jamming a fashionable Italian restaurant on a recent weekday night. "There's not a person here who has a real job, or the prospect of getting one."

He was no exception himself, he said, noting that he was dragging out his course work at the university to avoid compulsory military service and because there were no jobs available after graduation.

Farmanara, the movie director, says that notwithstanding the heightened U.S. presence in Iran's immediate vicinity, few people here put their faith in an American-led solution to Iran's troubles.

"There was a time when we all thought that when Americans spoke of freedom they spoke for everybody," he said. "Now we realize they don't care if we go back to the 12th century. All they care is that their own freedom is secure - if we go to hell, then so be it."

Farmanara speaks for many when he says that Iranians must solve their problems themselves, by engaging society and taking risks and speaking their minds.

There's a scene in his new film that expresses that point well. A doctor and his secretary are discussing the case of a boy in a mysterious coma.

"They are bringing specialists in from abroad," the secretary says.

"Nonsense," the doctor replies. "The cure is inside."

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