LIFE AND TIMES: Women on the streets of Tehran گزارش تلگراف | پژوهشهای ایرانی

LIFE AND TIMES: Women on the streets of Tehran گزارش تلگراف

  • on the streets of Tehran

    Iranians. The world has been doing just that, says S.N.M. Abdi, who crisscrossed the country for two weeks in October-November

    Inside Iran

And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts from sinful desires.”

— Sura Al Nour Verse 31

The Quranic advisory displayed prominently in the departure lounge of Tehran’s Imam Khomeini international airport horrified me. It warned women not to look men in the eye and conceal their curves from the male gaze. But is it decent to tell women so publicly to cover their private parts? Or be so brazen about sinful desires?

The excerpt from Sura Al Nour, or The Light, was displayed in bold letters beside a coffee and snacks outlet called Mehmandar, or The Host. I thought the exhortation left even pious women who had memorised the holy book squirming in their black chadors. Looking around I noticed that women outnumbered men waiting to board the Mahan Air flight to Delhi, and the majority of them were Iranians.

I turned to one in her mid-30s flipping through The Economist. “Is an airport the best place in the world for imparting lessons in sexual morality,” I asked, pointing at the advisory. “Definitely,” she replied. “The airport provides guardians a final opportunity to remind daughters about Islamic values so that they don’t go astray overseas. It’s like parting advice or last minute instructions.”

That made perfect sense from a deeply religious, conservative Iranian perspective. I was leaving after crisscrossing the country for two weeks in October-November when I struck up that conversation with The Economist reader. Her explanation made me rethink, besides reinforcing my overall realisation that to fathom Iran one must always talk to Iranians.

America, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany seem to have done just that. They talked and talked to Iran in Geneva, ultimately accepting its logic and recognising its right to enrich uranium. A dangerous deadlock was broken on November 24 after world powers grasped — and gave in to — Iran’s contention that it was entitled to enrich uranium for civilian use as it had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

What really struck me about Iran was that it wasn’t doing all that badly despite so-called crippling sanctions. It had the look and feel of a first world nation. Tehran’s underground trains, art galleries and theatres stood out; the motorways crisscrossing Iran were a driving enthusiast’s dream come true, pollution was religiously monitored and law and order enforced uncompromisingly.

The nation oozed confidence, although income from oil and gas was down by 50 per cent, the rate of inflation and unemployment had risen to 40 per cent and its currency, the rial, had depreciated by half. But it still held its head high.

It can be debated whether handling adversity with such aplomb is driven by core civilisational values or wily calculation. But undoubtedly the whole country is extremely proud of its achievements since the 1979 Islamic revolution which turned Iran on its head. The biggest source of national pride is, of course, the country’s nuclear programme, acknowledged after a decade of confrontation, with Iran refusing to blink.

Parallels are inevitable as Iran was our next door neighbour until Partition. Conspicuously, nobody defecates in the open; men don’t urinate on the street, there are no beggars except the occasional Syrian or Afghan refugee, stray dogs don’t stalk pedestrians and spitting is definitely not a national pastime.

Sayyid Hameed was at the wheel of our left-hand drive vehicle as we drove to Esfahan, Iran’s top tourist destination, from Qom — headquarters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is ranked higher than President Hassan Rouhani and bodies such as the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council and Expediency Council which are more powerful than Parliament.

  • An anti-US banner in Qom

We crossed Kashan and were cruising past Natanz when Hameed suddenly announced that there was an underground uranium enrichment plant only five km from the highway on our right. Hameed’s pride in Iran’s nuclear programme was transparent like the windscreen: he was bursting with pride and dying to show us a national trophy.

If we took a detour we could have seen with our own eyes the Natanz nuclear facility at the centre of Iran’s raging dispute with the West. It was also possible to photograph it from the safety of our car. It was all very tempting to be honest — Hameed said he could drive past the plant if we were keen to see it. But we didn’t want to blot our copybook!

Nuclear plants, all said and done, are a big magnet. In 2005 I was on board Air India’s inaugural direct flight from Calcutta to London. First and business class was teeming with journalists and officials sipping red wine. As we overflew Iran, a very senior civil servant announced that a nuclear plant was directly below us. We peered from our windows but all we could see was the arid landscape where nothing grew.

On the ground, anti-Americanism binds Iranians together like Shia Islam itself — the country’s predominant faith. Anti-US billboards were a common sight in Tehran, despite a relaxing of tension. Even as Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif was closeted with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, a new competition for anti-American art was accepting submissions for various categories such as “Why U.S. is not reliable,” “U.S. and breaking promises” and “U.S. and self-conceit.” The best work will get US$ 4,000.

I met Mohammad Arab in Mashad — Iran’s second-biggest city where the eighth Shiite imam, Imam Raza, is buried; his shrine attracts 20 million pilgrims annually. Arab served in the Iran Air Force as an electronic warfare expert. The retired colonel pulled out a dog-eared American driving licence and social security card from his wallet, mementos from a stint at an aviation academy in California just before the revolution snapped defence ties with the US.

“I know America and Americans well. They cannot be trusted. How can we forgive the USA which brought down our plane, killing 290 innocent Iranians in 1998,” he asked angrily as his daughter nodded in agreement. “Obama telephoned our president in New York [the first direct conversation between the presidents of the US and Iran in 34 years] for selfish reasons. They need covering fire in Afghanistan as they leave. So it’s high time Iran dictated terms.”

A Western diplomat disclosed that Tehran was very upset with Washington until Iranian and American officials met regularly in Oman for the past year without which the November 24 deal wouldn’t have been possible. Apparently, the secret talks cleared misunderstandings which had piled up after George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech. The high stakes, face-to-face talks placated Iranians, clearing the deck for the landmark six-month interim nuclear agreement.

“Iranian leadership had good reasons to be angry with America. No less a person than Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, recently recounted the extent of Iranian cooperation. As Iran and America had a common enemy in the Taliban and al Qaida, Iran produced an extremely valuable map showing the Taliban’s order of battle just before American military action began in Afghanistan. Naturally, Iranians were fuming after Bush’s speech,” the diplomat said.

Tehran insists that it’s not building a bomb — and there is no reason to disbelieve it — but educated Iranians told me it’s a necessity because Israel has a nuclear arsenal. They cited India’s example as New Delhi justifies its nuclear capability on the ground that it faces a threat from a nuclear-armed China, and Pakistan justifies its bomb saying India has one. Iranians argue that if self-defence in a dangerous neighbourhood is good enough reason to have a bomb, then they are also entitled to that deterrent.

But I also heard voices of reason and reconciliation as Iran emerges from the shadows. Significantly, I heard them in the holy city of Qom, a 90-minute drive from Tehran. Besides being home to the dazzling Hazrat Masuma shrine, Qom is the ruling clerics’ ideological headquarters. Broadly speaking, it’s the equivalent of Nagpur — the Sangh Parivar’s nerve centre.

I slipped into Madrasah Faiziyah, the cradle of Islamic revolution, and was reading the commemorative bronze plaque outside room number 20 where Ayatollah Khomeini spent his formative years, when Hossin Motesadi Zadeh politely inquired whether I was from India or Pakistan. When I revealed my nationality, he hugged me exclaiming: “You are a friend”, even as his flowing robe billowed out around him in the chilly breeze.

Interestingly, seminaries in Qom and elsewhere in Iran train thousands of budding Shia clerics from many countries, including China. But Indians account for the largest number of religious trainees. Which is hardly surprising as India is home to over 50 million Shias — the world’s largest Shia population after Iran’s. Some Lucknow- and Srinagar-based Shia community leaders have, in fact, direct access to Supreme Leader Khamenei who easily grants them an audience.

Zadeh, studying at Faiziyah for 12 years, remarked that even the late Ayatollah Khomeini would have approved of the emerging d�tente between Iran and America. “The world and our region have changed drastically since he overthrew the Shah and branded America the Great Satan. So much so that Rouhani described America as a great nation just before Obama telephoned him. It can only mean that Iran and America are ready to do business as equals.”

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