To a liberal, open-minded Westerner, it may be all too easy to enter Iran thinking that maybe most Iranian people like the Islamic regime, that the country’s laws, while unappealing (to say the least) to us, are to them not only acceptable but what they expect, and how they want their society to be organized. It is tempting to think that the differences between the Iranian system and, say, the U.S. system can be written off to culture. People vote in Iran, after all, and in the last elections chose Ahmedinejad. Very quickly, within the first few days in Iran, this sort of relativism was wiped clean from our minds.
Iran is not a place where people are free to decide to be Muslim, or follow traditional behaviors, or be for or against the government; it is a place where people feel oppressed by the fanatically religious minority, the mullahs who have undemocratic, total control over the government and military and dictate a way of life that people would not choose. We heard it far and wide, from older women to youngsters, from Muslims to Zoroastrians, from big cities to smaller towns. Of course, we spoke more often with people who speak English, and we communicated (in English, through a translator or by non-verbal means) more often with people who reached out to talk to us, the foreigners, but our sample size was not small–Iranians are exceptionally friendly and we spoke to literally many dozens of people during our month in Iran. The bottom line is that people do not feel free in Iran, and that people have a strong desire to be free.
Two hand gestures became very familiar to us while traveling in Iran and communicating with locals. The first was a hand wrapping an imaginary turban on one’s head, a symbol for the theocratic elite of the country. Repeatedly, people would make the gesture, sometimes accompanied by the hand stroking an imaginary beard, to signify that it is the mullahs who have control and are mismanaging the country and restricting people from enjoying their lives in the manner that they wish. The second was the throat-cutting gesture, hand across the neck, which was used surprisingly often not only to describe what would happen to you if you tried to exercise a freedom that was not provided under Islamic law, but also as a general symbol for the government–nowhere else have we seen people associate their government so closely and so repeatedly with execution. One person told us that the only thing stopping the Islamic government from restoring stoning as a form of punishment is international pressure.
What freedoms are missing in Iran? Iran is in some ways more free than other countries we have visited. Some public criticism of government officials (though not the unelected religious hierarchy) is permitted in the press, particularly since the Khatami presidency. Traveling about the country, it feels less like a police state than Syria, where to take a long-distance bus trip your ID is checked, or Uzbekistan, where during our visit in 2003 there were frequent police checkpoints on the roads. The police presence in Iran is fairly minimal, and soldiers (usually fulfilling their compulsory military service) are friendly. What makes Iran different from other countries with comparable freedom deficits is that the freedoms unavailable in Iran are deeply personal, things that affect people on an intimate, daily basis. People speak of the censorship and lack of freedom in countries such as China, but the reality is that, day-to-day, most people in China can live largely as they wish, where their personal lives are concerned; the government does not seem to involve itself. Syrians, who seem to have almost no political freedoms but do have many personal ones under their secular government, still seem quite content with their government. Political freedoms, I feel after a month in Iran, are in a sense secondary to those personal liberties that we demand in our private lives. Of course in many cases, including possibly Iran, political freedoms are necessary to achieve the more personal ones, but if you had to choose only one, politics would come second.
After one young man told us that the thing he wished most for Iran was freedom, we asked him, “What does freedom mean to you?” “I wish I could hold my girlfriend’s hand in the street,” was his reply. Romantic/Sexual freedom is core to our identity as humans (or even deeper, to our animal souls), and one area in which the Iranian government is particularly active. We were told by one man that he is afraid even to walk down the street with his girlfriend, because of the ever-present possibility of adverse action by the police. While young people often have illicit (sexual) relationships, the dating scene is so limited that almost everyone we heard having been married or about to be married was married or engaged to his or her cousin (though this may also have to do with the frequency of arranged marriages). Forms of sexual expression that may be illegal in other countries as well, but are likely usually tolerated, such as adultery and homosexuality, are capital offenses. One man told us that, if a man discovered that his new wife is not a virgin, he would have the right to annul the marriage and likely without much legal repercussion kill the man who had slept with her.
Freedom of religion/conscience is also core to our identities. While Iran permits the practice of certain non-Islamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism), following long-established Islamic custom, there are also severe restrictions on religious belief. Perhaps most shockingly, apostasy, or renunciation of Islam by a Muslim, is punishable by death. Given this ban, the permitted minority religions are not allowed to proselytize, nor are they allowed to worship publicly. Religions other than the permitted ones, including most infamously the Bahai faith, are severely persecuted with the full force of the state. Atheism, of course, is unthinkable.
When it comes to one’s romantic/sexual life or one’s faith, however, people will to some extent act according to their desires, regardless of the law. We were told that non-martial sexual relations were fairly common among young Iranians, some engaging in anal intercourse to preserve the woman’s technical virginity. Many of Iran’s parks, especially those located somewhat outside of city centers, are filled with amorous young couples hiding among the trees. There is even a dangerous but not-so-underground gay life in the big cities [see my post also of 6.6]. Similarly, Mohammed himself said that there is no compulsion in matters of religion, and people in Iran believe in their hearts and minds many things deviant from the Islamic legal requirements. We were told by several Iranians that it is common for a person to be a Muslim on paper (Iranian government ID cards state the citizen’s religion), but not be one in spirit. One woman we spoke to said that her father and her siblings were all essentially atheists, and that her father encouraged her to learn about other religions and to pick a faith that feels right to her. Another young man, who had grown to equate Islam with the hated Iranian government, told us outright that “Islam is shit” (!) and that he wanted to become Christian. (We tried with little traction to tell him that there were plenty of bad Christians in the world as well.) He wore on his neck a cross, which had been given to him by his parents, who accepted his choice. It was a shock to see in front of us a man actually wearing around his neck evidence that could be used to convict him of a capital offense.
Cross on the neck of a Muslim man who wished to convert to Christianity, a capital crime. After we took this photograph, the man, to our surprise, asked us to re-take the picture, with his face. Later, his friend reminded us never to show that second photograph to anyone (of course we had no intention), using the throat-cutting gesture.
But of course people, while acting outside of the law, remain afraid. Iranians love to talk about politics, and wanted to talk to us about politics, but also let us know that they feared that our conversation was somehow being monitored. People told us that we, as Americans, were likely being followed, and a man who had invited us into his family home (such invitations are not uncommon in Iran, one of the friendliest and most hospitable countries in the world) was certain that the police knew that we were there. One man who wanted to speak to us had us step away from his university classmates, because he didn’t feel he could trust them not to report the conversation. The apparent total control that the government has, its apparent ability to monitor its citizens’ activities and the severe punishments provided under the law lead to a general sense of distrust and paranoia. Without such intimate and essential freedoms as sex and faith, nearly everyone becomes a potential criminal and target of the state, a person who has to live with distrust, paranoia and potential severe punishment.
All this leads to a sense of discontent and pessimism that we have not seen in many countries. One woman told us when we said we were from New York, “I wish I was born in America.” One young girl we spoke to, when we showed her pictures from New York, said that if she lived in New York she would never come to Iran. Another young man, hearing that we were American, said, “New York, yes. Los Angeles, yes. Iran, no. Mullah, ech,” and wrapped an imaginary turban about his head. “Will things change?” we often asked. The answer generally fell somewhere between thirty years and never. Those who were the most pessimistic said that their government was deliberately keeping the country at a relatively poor state of economic development, so that people would not have the energy for political action or rebellion. Others said that the mullahs very carefully calibrated the laws to give Iranians a modicum of freedom, such as the relatively recent allowing of women to ride bicycles, a change that an optimistic Iranian specifically identified to us as a sign of progress in Iran (though to us of course it sounded absurd). Multiple people said that the government encouraged the relatively free availability of hard drugs in Iran, because the religious elite prefers that young people be chemically dependent rather than politically active. One person painfully pointed out that Western governments don’t really even care about the Iranian people, raising a conflict with Iran only when it comes to issues of security such as the nuclear program.
Lee Bollinger said in his introduction to Ahmedinejad’s address at Columbia University that “there are not enough prisons to prevent an entire society that wants its freedom from achieving it.” In the longest conversations we had with Iranians, I tried to remind them of this, and I must confess that I cannot entirely understand why 100,000 women in Tehran, Shiraz and the other biggest cities don’t just suddenly take off their headscarves one day. But of course I understand that there are real risks, and that, while Iranians may be able to sense and desire the freedoms that we take as essential, I cannot feel the fear that someone who grew up in the Islamic regime feels. Until the day comes when freedoms are restored in Iran, many Iranian people will have to continue living parts of their lives underground, or emigrate, as so many are choosing. One fellow traveler we met in Iran, an Irishman, said that he would kiss the ground when he returned home. And indeed visiting Iran does make a visitor appreciate the freedoms he enjoys back home–but a better reaction than smugness or selfish relief is outrage, for these are freedoms that we should all be able to take for granted, should not even have to be thankful for. How to direct one’s outrage remains, of course, a difficult question.