Marcel Proust said: "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." During the past two decades, I visited Iran on numerous occasions staying 10-14 days at a time. This time around, I stayed for 2 months and heeding Proust, I carried with me a fresh pair of eyes. I discarded both my Western lenses as well as my Iranian lenses and observed with objective eyes. It was a formidable journey that left me breathless.
Part I - Women of the Islamic Republic of Iran
It is hard to know where to start a travel log and how to describe a newfound world in a few pages. However, given the obsession with the status of women, it is perhaps appropriate to start with the women in Iran as I perceived them.
Western media with help from feminists and Iranians living outside of Iran portray Iranian women as being "oppressed" -- foremost because women in Iran have to abide by an Islamic dress code - hijab. Yes, hijab is mandatory and women choose to either wear either a chador or to wear a scarf. But what is crucial to understand is the role chador played in pre 1979 versus the post Revolution era.
Prior to the 1979 Revolution, the chador was indicative of a thinly veiled caste system. While a few distinguished women of high socio-economical background chose to wear the chador, the rest, the majority of Iranian women, were simply born into the habit. In short, the socio-economically disadvantaged wore the pre 1979 chador. In those days, the chador was a hindrance to a woman's progress; she was looked down at and frowned upon. She could not move forward or up. She was oppressed. But Western feminists were blind to this oppression. After all, the Shah was modern and America's friendly dictator.
The Revolution changed the status quo and chipped away at the caste system. A revolution, by definition, is a complete change in the way people live and work. And so it is with the Iranian Revolution. The post 1979 chador is no longer an impediment to a woman's future. Today's Iranian woman, the same (formerly) less privileged class, has found freedom in her chador. She has been unshackled and she marches on alongside her (formerly) more privileged colleague. This emancipation is what the Western/Westernized feminists see as oppression.
I myself come from yesterday's tiny minority of "privileged" women, far too comfortable in my "Western" skin to want to promote hijab, but I will not allow my personal preferences to diminish the value of the progress made because of hijab. The bleeding hearts from without should simply change their tainted lenses instead of trying to change the lives of others for Iranian women do not need to be rescued, they do not follow -- they lead.
On two separate occasions I had the opportunity to sit and talk with a group of PhD students at Tehran University's Global Studies Department. Frankly, these young women charmed me. Their inquisitive and sharp minds, their keen intellect, their vast knowledge, their fluent English, and their utter confidence dazzled me. Western feminists would consider them "oppressed". Seems to me that feminism needs rescuing, not Iranian women.
The inordinate success of women goes vastly beyond education; they participate in every aspect of society: motherhood, arts and sciences, high tech, film and cinema, research, business, administration, politics, sports, armed forces, bus and taxi drivers, fire-fighters, etc. Women's active role in society is undeniable. What I found tantalizing was their role as cultural gatekeepers.
Women - The Cultural Warriors
Cultural imperialism is part and parcel of neocolonialism. The eradication of an indigenous culture and replacing it with a hegemonic one enables the hegemon to exert influence on the subject nation -- to own it. And women are the nuclei. They hold the family together and pass on traditions. To this end, in every colonial adventure, regardless of geography, women have been the primary targets (i.e. victims of rescue). Iran has been no different. While some have indeed abandoned their culture in order to embrace that of another, the vast majority have resisted and fought back with authentic Iranian tradition.
One group of these cultural warriors left a deep impact on me. I attended a dance ensemble at the famous Roudaki Hall (Talar Roudaki). Girls aged 6 to 18 sent the packed hall into a thunderous applause when they danced to various traditional songs from around the country. Their dance was not MTV stuff. It reflected the beauty and purity of an ancient culture. Their movements and gestures were not intended to be seductive, they were graceful and poetic ushering in the ancient past and bonding it with the present, strengthening it. These were the women of Iran who would guard Iran's precious culture and traditions against modern, Western culture deemed central to 'civilization' and 'freedom' by Western feminists.
It is not my intention to give the false impression that every woman in Iran is happy, successful, and valued. Like any other society, Iran has its share of unhappy, depressed girls and women. It has its share of women who have been abused and betrayed. It has its share of girls and women who turn to drugs, prostitution, or both. I came across these as well. I also noted that laws in Iran do not favor women, be it divorce, child custody, or inheritance. Yet women have leapt forward.
Part II -- Esprit de Corps