A country deeply entrenched in regional crises like those in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen
What thoughts does Iran provoke when you think of this West Asian country? A country run by mullahs (ayatollahs) who hold a grip on all spheres of life in the country. A compressed society that screams for azadi (freedom) from the clergy as is told by books like Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, etc. A country portrayed as a jail for the minorities, especially Sunni Muslims and fun-loving moderate Iranians.
A country strangulated by international sanctions by world powers led by the United States. A country defying all these sanctions and vowing not to bow to any pressure. A country deeply entrenched in regional crises like those in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. A country that remains constantly in the news. These were the assumptions with which one landed in Tehran last week and examined them.
We, a delegation of Indian journalists and academics, arrived in Tehran in the wee hours of November 24. A saccharine call to prayer (azaan) for fajr (early morning prayer) greeted us at Imam Khomeini airport. An overwhelming absence of heavy security (we expected high security in Iran given the presumption that it faces security threats) surprised all of us. Besides, there was hardly any evidence of commercial hoardings barring a big Samsung one under two large portraits of Imam Khomeini
and Imam Khamenei. Later, we found out via discreet chats with some locals and lower-level officials that security in Iran often remains invisible and officials discern threats from foreigners long before they arrive in Iran.
As we arrived at our hotel, the first thing my reporter friend and me noticed was a wooden box. It invited sadqa (charity) with a saying of Prophet Muhammed written on it: “Sadqa makes heart happy.” The money, we were told, is largely spent on the marriage of poor girls. Our guide said that this box is neither ignored nor stolen by locals. “Such boxes are put up either by the ministry of women welfare or by NGOs working for the government. Every year, they collect a huge chunk of money to distribute among the poor,” said Hyder Reza Zabet, an Indian-Iranian and our guide on the tour. Mr Zabet added that these boxes have never been reported to be stolen. Contrast this with theft cases in India!
After keeping our bags at our hotel, as we moved to search cigarettes, an absence of the local currency failed all our efforts. No one agreed to exchange Indian rupees despite us offering a lucrative deal. They asked only US dollars and Euros. Suddenly, a student-like looking Iranian saw us craving for caffeine. He bought seven cigarettes from a kiosk and handed over five to us. We protested but he went away waving a bye of friendship.
RESTRICTIONS ON FACEBOOK, YOUTUBE
As we started operating our mobile phones in the hotel lobby, we found to our shock that sites like Facebook and YouTube are banned in Iran. It was no less a nightmare for social networking addicts like many of us. Anyway, the hotel receptionist came to our rescue. She whispered that we can access these sites through internet proxy apps like VPN, Bazar, etc. The Iranian government, we were told, had recently put restrictions on these sites as they helped foment a recent unrest against the Hassan Rouhani government and the hardline ruling clergy. However, Iranian spin-offs of these sites like Cloob and Aparat were active throughout, with millions of Iranians active on these platforms.
TRAFFIC AND VEHICLES
As we moved from Tehran airport into the city, Iranians were seen rushing to their offices in cars, buses and motorcycles. Offices in Iran start at eight in the morning and run up to three in the afternoon.
“Iranians are mostly punctual,” said Mr Zabet. One more remarkable aspect of traffic in Tehran was despite a gigantic number of vehicles, not a single honking was heard by anyone in our group. In fact, our group members became alert to note whether any commuter lost patience and pressed the horn’s button. But in our entire five days journey, it happened only once, and that too by our own driver. He was duly admonished by the fellow traveller whom he honked at.
Mr Zabet told us that almost half of all Iranian vehicles are in Tehran, and that 80 to 90 per cent of Iranian vehicles are self-manufactured. Conditions of many such vehicles suggest that they might belong to the pre-Islamic Revolution monarchy era. After the famed oil and gas industry, the automobile industry is the third largest industry in Iran. Industry stats inform that it makes for 10 per cent of country’s GDP and around 4 per cent of its entire workforce. Today, Iran is the said to be the 18th-largest automaker in the world and one of the largest in Asia, with an annual production of more than 1.6 million vehicles.
IRAN SANCTIONS, POLITICS, MEDIA, RELATIONS WITH INDIA
After we settled down in our hotel, interactive sessions with Iranian academics, former diplomats, senior government officials and media personalities kick-started.
Dr Hussein Akbari from from Asr Institute, Tehran, was the first to address our delegation. He is a former diplomat and a current academic. He also edits a journal, The World of Islam. He described Iran as a classical case of victimisation by western media imperialism. He said that the US considers the whole world as a big Guantanamo Bay prison. “All its allies are treated as inmates. They obey the jailor,” he said, pointing towards US’ allies in the Gulf region. He said that the picture of Iran as a patriarchal society and a pariah state is only because of biases in the western media.
“The Western media wants you to believe that human rights are suppressed in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but it doesn’t show how Iranians have suffered because of direct war (the eight years long Iran-Iraq war) and indirect war (economic sanctions) imposed by the US and its allies,” he said. He said that western and regional atrocities against the nation have left it weakened but it has also helped the nation to always stand on its feet. “We may look weak but we are very determined to face any eventuality. The Holy Quran declares that those who resist against injustice, God illuminates their path with victory,” he said.
On India-Iran relations, he said that both the countries share a common history, mythology, culture and trade. “They share no hostility whatsoever. This is despite India voting against Iran in the UN on the nuclear issue in 2005. Actually, there has been no military conflict between India and Iran since the invasion of Nadir Shah in 1739. And after the opening of current avenues like joint gas and petrochemical projects, Chabahar sea port, bilateral relations between the two countries will embark on a fruitful voyage. InshaAllah!” he concluded.
Like Dr Akbari, Professor Rahimpour of Tehran University dwelt on the importance of India-Iran relations in the changing equation of the new world order. He said that the testimony of heart-to-heart India-Iran relations is the plethora of Indo-Iranian architectural monuments in India. “These monuments, especially the Taj Mahal, are like an Iranian soul in an Indian body,” he emphasised. When this correspondent suggested that whether Iran will take a lead to help preserve these monuments in India, he promptly accepted the suggestion and promised to take it to the concerned authorities.
Later, we were taken to a tour and witnessed live proceedings of the Iranian Parliament. Despite a heated debate in the House, the Speaker rose from his chair to greet all of us. Then his advisor on international affairs, Dr Hossein Amirabdollahian, took us to high tea and an interactive session. He took almost all of our questions. On US sanctions on Iran, he said that 70 per cent of these curbs are psychological and only 30 per cent of them are biting them in Iran directly. He also said that US President Donald Trump personally wants to lift these sanctions as he is a businessman and wants to pursue his family trade interests in the Gulf region, including Iran. “While his Republican predecessor George W. Bush had only oil on his mind when he invaded Iraq, Trump has other business calculations,” he revealed.
When this correspondent asked about his opinion on the Kashmir issue, which was once addressed as a festering one by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, he said that both India and Pakistan must know that imperialist powers have their interest in sowing discord among developing nations. “There are around 10 Kashmir-like disputes in the Gulf region, like the Oman-Saudi border issue, the Saudi-Kuwait border issue, and you know since 1917, Bahrain used to be a part of Iran. So, if we have to solve our problems, we must solve it ourselves. I believe Kashmir should be resolved bilaterally,” he said.
Our first interaction with women in Tehran was with the receptionists at the hotel counter. They were smartly dressed as is expected of hotel staff, but when we strolled the streets later, we discovered that almost all of Iranian women dress similarly — jeans with long overcoats and tidily wrapped headscarves. Headscarves are mandatory in Iran and if not worn properly, they may invite punishment. But dress doesn’t stop Iranian women from dominating Iranian society. They overwhelm with their presence in almost all walks of life — be it government jobs, private jobs, schools, colleges, markets, sports, and night hookah bars. They can be seen sharing some intimate moments with their beaus in public in some corner of the streets if you can spot them, though public displays of love are strictly forbidden in Iran.
Actually, curiosity about the conditions of women in Iran was on top of our minds when we interacted with almost everybody in Tehran. Questions about women were common ones. To answer some of these queries was invited to our hotel Dr Siddiqa Hijazi, chief of women’s welfare in the Supreme Council for Cultural Relations, Iran.
Covered in chador (loose burqa) from top to toe, she presented a perfect picture of subjugated Iranian woman we would have imagined before we arrived in Iran as most of us outsiders believe. She jolted this myth. “After the Islamic Revolution succeeded in Iran in 1979, the maximum propaganda against Iran has been centred around the conditions of its women,” she started, adding that the Capitalist and Zionist media have always been afraid of portraying correct picture of women in Iran. “They show as if women live in the dark ages in Iran. The reality is women were in dark ages during Reza. Shah Pehelvis’s regime before 1979. The Shah is officially quoted as saying that women are only meant to provide enjoyment to men. His sister herself ran a drug smuggling racket. During his tenure, only a handful of powerful women enjoyed whatever we call human rights,” she said.
She said that during the Shah’s time, only 30 per cent of Iranian women were literate. “Today more than 90 per cent of women are literate and their literacy rate is higher than that of men. Their life expectancy is 76 years as against 74 years for men. During the Shah’s period, no record of women’s health was maintained, today the health of almost every Iranian woman is taken care of. In fact, women are a majority among medical students in Iran,” said Ms Hijazi.
She said that Iranian women lead in every walk of social and political life in the country. “They are politicians, they are filmmakers, they are fashion designers, they are poets, they are writers, they are activists, and they are nuclear scientists. You name a field, we will name a woman expert there,” said Ms Hijazi, with an air of utter pride.
She said that the Iranian-Islamic model of women’s roles in society is centred around the importance of family. “We are a family-oriented society. We put family values at the core of our social development. Our model is neither eastern nor western. It is a fine balance of both as the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomeini, used to famously say ‘neither West and nor East’. We follow this dictum,” she said.
After Dr Hijazi’s talk, as we took a post-dinner walk in an alley, we bumped into two young sisters running a cafeteria-cum-hookah (shisha) bar. As I told one of them that we just met a woman called Dr Hijazi and showed her Ms Hijazi’s picture, she gave disdainful looks. “See these women (like Dr Hijazi) are hypocrites. They may cover themselves from top to toe but they can’t see the reality that they are as ambitious any other Iranian woman. The hijab or headscarves, which they have imposed on all Iranian girls and women, are treated as a punishment and not as a honourable choice,” said the elder one. The younger one was more forthright and revealed that young Iranians do everything the clergy forbids them. “Boys and girls hang out as you yourself can see here in this café. They go out dating. They sometimes even stay together in hotels and rented apartments. They have pre-marital sex. Many girls don’t marry and prefer to stay single. Plus, even if they marry, couples usually end up separating after sometime. Divorce rates in urban Iran are quite high. Post-Islamic Revolution Iran is nothing but a charade. We probably were better off during the Shah’s time,” she said. But when this correspondent asked if women of Iran or Iranians were better during the Shah’s time, why did they rise up in the revolution against the monarchy under the leadership of a theologian, she mumbled for an answer.