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The Story of Parvin: Reflections on Hope in an Age of War and Intervention

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As a member of several women's book clubs in Toronto, Parvin Najafi* enjoyed the get-togethers and discussions with her neighbors and friends. An immigrant to Canada from Iran in 1996, she joined one such club in 2003 when she heard they would be reading Azar Nafsi's bestseller, "Reading Lolita in Tehran."

But during the discussion she found herself dismayed at her neighbors' lack of knowledge about life in Iran under the shah, before the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979. "There was this view that everything was really rosy and beautiful in Iran before the ayatollahs took over," she said in a recent phone interview. "They had an impression of the shah's regime as almost enchanting. 'What a beautiful queen the shah's wife was!' some would say, as if her beauty would do anything for anybody. But then all of a sudden these dark Islamic forces apparently descended on Iran and destroyed everything. They spoke as if the ayatollahs had just parachuted down from space."

Now in her early 50s, life in Toronto is not Najafi's first exposure to western culture. In the early to mid-1970s, she was a student in the United States at Southern Illinois University (SIU)-Carbondale. I met Parvin there in 1974 while also a student. She was 20 years old and a recent refugee from a traditional ar-ranged marriage in Iran. At that time, the SIU campus was home to a large Iranian student population, many of whom were actively engaged in opposing another form of tradition-the dictatorship of Mo-hammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Much of this opposition centered on campaigns in defense of the 25,000 to 100,000 political prisoners Amnesty International estimated were then being held in Iran's jails and torture centers.

In Carbondale, Parvin and I with other students and SIU faculty organized a chapter of the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran (CAIFI), a U.S.-based civil liberties group that was mounting highly visible campaigns in defense of such political prisoners as the poet Reza Baraheni and the sociolo-gist Vida Tabrizi.

Unlike the recent reception given Iran's current president, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, Washington in those days regularly feted the shah and his empress wife on their U.S. visits. Such was the image of these "crowned cannibals," as Baraheni once described them, that even New York high society and artists such as Andy Warhol considered the Pahlavi's worthy of their gushing hypocrisy. Fittingly, the shah was one of the esteemed guests at the 1969 funeral of President Eisenhower, whose administration had orchestrated the funeral dirge for Mossadegh's Iranian democracy.

Groups like CAIFI and others countered the shah's western image as a "civilized modernizer" by docu-menting and publicizing the regime's record of human rights abuses. More important, within Iran itself the regime's corruption and brutality were setting the stage within Iran for the massive popular revolt that would topple the shah from power in early 1979.

What's routinely ignored now in the U.S. media is the great, if aborted, opening for progressive social change the shah's downfall offered. This was not simply because the shah was removed from power, but because of the way he was removed from power. For more than a year prior to the regime's collapse, sus-tained and massive popular anti-government mobilizations had rocked the country. The protests reached a peak on Sept. 7, 1978 when an estimated 2 million people marched through the streets of Tehran demand-ing the shah's abdication. In response, the shah declared martial law and ordered his army to fire on demon-strators. Two thousand people were killed that day.

But the days when the shah could rely on raw force to subdue the people were over. In response, the nation's 30,000 oil workers went on strike, effectively shutting down the entire Iranian oil industry. It was the beginning of the end for the Peacock throne. Even more factory, office, and school strikes were then set in motion, proving a mortal dagger to the shah's ability to rule. It was a mosaic of protest that drew its in-spiration from the rage, blood, and sorrow of generations of Iranian workers, students, women, slum dwell-ers, and soldiers.

A Country of Contradictions

With news of the collapse of the shah's government, Parvin had returned to Iran within days, excited and hopeful for her country's future. As a feminist, she was one of the organizers of the first International Women's Day march in Tehran on March 8, 1979. Tens of thousands of women joined that march, the fo-cus of which was opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini's just declared edict that women must observe hejab, the Islamic code governing dress in public. From the speaker's platform that day, Parvin challenged Iran's new leaders to support women's demands for equality in every area of society. Without it, she said, the Ira-nian revolution will remain incomplete, a limited and ultimately failed experiment in liberation.

But in a country where a woman's word in legal proceedings was worth only half a man's, the sight of thousands of women marching for equality, for the right to dress as they please, was infuriating to Iran's clerics and fundamentalist followers. Indeed, gangs of angry men had menaced the march that day. The years of American support for Iran's dictatorship had also taken a heavy toll on organized political opposi-tion. There were no mass secular political or labor parties of any significance capable of decisively chal-lenging Ayatollah Khomeini and the religious clerics for leadership. The latter through the nation's exten-sive network of mosques had been the one independent organization to survive more or less intact the shah's crushing repression.

In the aftermath of the shah's departure, Iran was a country of contradictions. Mostly, it was a nation in flux. At first it was as if the entire nation were waking from a long, paralyzing coma. In the swell of free-dom that followed the shah's overthrow, dozens of new or formerly underground political parties began to openly organize. The largest opposition group in the country was the Mojahedeen Khanegh (People's Ma-jority), an Islamic socialist group that had played a role in mobilizing resistance to the shah. In the first months following the shah's departure, the group's newspaper, Mojahed, saw its daily circulation climb to 600,000.

The political and social fervor was such that one government minister complained that constant political discussions in the workplace were hurting the economy. But this freedom would prove short-lived. Within a year, the Khomeini government began to crack down on independent politics and grass-roots activism. On a single night in June 1981, hundreds of members of Mojahedeen Khanegh were reportedly executed after government troops broke up a Tehran demonstration organized by the group. Thousands more were imprisoned.

Parvin herself found her life in danger twice. She had joined a small socialist group, Hezb-e Kargaran-e Socialist (HKS), and moved to Isfahan to work as a political organizer. But life was more circumscribed outside Tehran. In July 1979, the group's office was surrounded by an armed gang operating under the un-official sanction of the government's Committees of the Islamic Revolution. Parvin and others in the private home they used as an office narrowly escaped assault, saved only by the attention of curious neighbors who had gathered in the street.

Apprehensive, she and five other HKS members met a week later in a quiet park in the village of Len-jan, about 25 miles from Isfahan to discuss what to do. They had met for only a few minutes when a Com-mittee security vehicle pulled up and they were arrested. Ironically, the police did not know anything about their socialist beliefs. They were being arrested because the park groundskeeper had reported a lone woman sitting in public with five young men.

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Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He is a featured contributor to "The Flexible Writer," fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). His blog, "Writer's Voice," can be found at

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