Discovering a Liberal Iran
Iran surprises the visitors. Most striking feature is the plethora of Iranian women seen working everywhere.
Prof. Mumtaz Ali Khan
IRAN is a Shia-majority Islamic nation. Before the revolution about 23 years ago, the country was ruled by Raza Shah Pehlevi whom the present generation remembers as dictator, a tool in the hands of the Western countries. With Ayatullah Khomeini taking over the reigns after overthrowing the Shah, Iran is under the throes of rapid social transformation. Today’s Iran is entirely different. The words “Islamic Republic of Iran” are rather misleading in the sense that it is a country where Muslim fundamentalists rule and reign of terror would be the order of the day, if the Western images are to be believed. But in reality Iran is a progressive and liberal state. Though about 99 per cent of the population consists of Muslims, the small minorities have equal rights and lead a life of dignity. The status of women is superbly commanding.
Bridge over Karun River in Ahwaz
This writer was a delegate at the preliminary International Conference on Racism held in Tehran during February and record here impressions gathered during the visit.
For a vast majority of delegates this was their first exposure to an Islamic country. Before I left for Tehran, I had an impression that it is an extremely conservative society. Other delegates too shared it. In fact, we had been briefed by the organizers, the Asian NGO Group, that we had to meticulously follow certain behavioral norms and we should be cautions in our observations about Iran and Iranians. This caution added to our fear. Thus, we were mentally prepared for adjustment to suit the local requirement.
But our exposure to Tehran dispelled all clouds of doubts. What a beautiful social climate we experienced! No doubt, the weather was awfully terrible with mercury dipping to minus 4 degree Celsius at nights. Politeness is the best part of Iranians’ cultural trait. This was so, both in the case of men and women. English is spoken by the educated men and women. What is charming is the beauty of Persian script on the signboards and everywhere else.
Hijab is respected as well as commanded. Visitors are requested to strictly observe this. In the five-star Esteghlal Grand Hotel where we stayed, had kept a well written board at the entrance of the hotel.
This seems to be an appeal. But it does not mean that it is left to the whims of the visitors. It means business. Strict compliance is demanded. The female delegates had been properly oriented about all this. The result was that all women, be they Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist had covered their bodies to appear modest. They had covered their heads at least with a scarf. Saree was ruled out. All the women had worn Salwar kameez. Hands upto wrist and legs upto ankles were covered. Only face was kept open. How dignified they looked! It so happened that a couple of women delegates wore saree. This was observed by the press and reported next day. A special appeal was made by the organizers to respect the culture of the land. In fact, Ms. Robinson, the U.N. Commissioner of Human Rights had adopted this dress with a grace and smile on her face.
Iranian women are very sociable, friendly and mobile. Their ‘Burqa’ system and pattern were pleasing. Women, whether young girls, or middle aged were extremely charming. Their charm was devoid of any sinister designs. They evoked respect wherever they were found. Women’s literacy is 81 per cent, girls’ education is encouraged by the state. Contrary to Western propaganda, Women could be seen working everywhere in hotels, airports, banks, restaurants etc. Women could have afforded to remain lazy because the oil - gas rich country does not need women employees. But true to the tradition of Islam, women do work and supplement family income.
More women are seen at the big markets and hotels. Shopping is generally done by women and they form the major chunk of customers in hotels. In a group of eight or ten women taking dinner at a hotel, one or two men are seen. In the international Conference itself women were found very active. It is seen that men and women lead a happy life. Mutual trust and love keep their relationship intact and sublime. Horse races allowed. But there is no betting. It is merely a pastime and is, therefore, encouraged. What is very significant is that alcoholic drinks are totally prohibited in practice. Prostitution is also absent. It goes to the credit of Iran that the implementation of law is honest and rich are not allowed to indulge in the vices.
Though Islam permits plural marriages by a man subject to certain conditions, men in Iran do not take in general more than one wife. Monogamy is respected and expected by the society. If a man has to take a second wife for certain reasons, the consent of the first wife is compulsory and no excuses are heard. Violation may take the erring husband to the family court and he is all likely to be punished. Small size family norm is practised. People are conscious of better future for their children. For some reasons, temporary marriage is permitted. This is called the ‘Muta’ system of marriage. However, this is rarely done.
This impressive social life of the people of Iran and a progressive and liberal Government took the participants by surprise. The long bearded rulers, the participants thought, would be extremely conservative. But finally, the participants saluted the progressive nation and the charming people. Many participants enjoyed their field visits at the very low cost because petrol is dead cheap. It is something like one litre for one rupee! Pista, almond, gold and carpets attracted the participants. Many participants purchased these and left for their countries with pleasant memories. The lavish dinner parties where even Iranian Biryani was served remain evergreen for a long time. Let all Islamic and Muslim countries follow Iran.