Life's little inconsistencies - they abound in Iran's Islamic revolution

EVEN before his rise to power in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini blasted Western culture and education as a threat more dangerous to Islam than Western politics. Yet last week on Iranian television, a Laurel and Hardy classic and a Pink Panther cartoon ran in between hours of war news and Islamic programming. Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, and John Keats were quoted alongside great Muslim philosophers in the Tehran Times' ``Thoughts of the Day.''

In other words, Iran's eight-year-old revolution is occasionally inconsistent.

Indeed, the Islamic Republic is full of seeming contradictions. Visas for foreigners are nearly impossible to get; journalists come by invitation only. Yet a new bus seen last week had on its side: ``Iranian Touring and Tourism Company.'' It was empty.

The dramatic changes over the past eight years leave no question that Iran's identity is avowedly Islamic. Yet, despite the revolution's austere image, no stereotype fits this sprawling land, which has more people and greater diversity than the rest of the Gulf states combined.

Other vignettes of life here offer some perspective on how Iranians are adjusting to the conversion from a monarchy to a theocracy.

Islamic dress codes now restrict women to ``modest'' attire, including the enveloping black chador. A visitor who forgot to take off her red nail polish had to wear 10 bandages over her fingers through airport immigration. Even passport pictures must be taken with hair covered. Dress code violations can lead to anything from a polite notice from neighborhood revolutionary committees, who police moral conduct, to temporary detention.

Yet Iranian women have learned to adapt. Dark roopooshes - a below-the-knee coat complete with big shoulder pads and raglan sleeves, cut in the latest styles - have become the fashionable alternative. And with the black stockings and designer scarves now frequently seen on women in the capital, Iranians could walk along Paris boulevards in rainy weather and feel rather chic.

An Iranian woman wearing pink nail polish was asked by a foreigner about her boldness. ``Oh no,'' she explained, ``subtle pink is permissible.'' And, surpisingly, all press credentials issued by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance list women as ``Ms.''

In other words, the revolution allows some latitude.

One of the first moves by Iran's ruling theocrats was to close down nightclubs and outlaw alcohol. Gambling, cards, and chess are now prohibited. But on Thursday nights, before the Muslim Friday Sabbath, Tehran is a lively place. The bright lights of the ferris wheel at Luna amusement park attract hundreds of families. Many restaurants are packed. And street vendors take on Tehran's notoriously chaotic traffic to hawk pastel balloons shaped into animals. A local driver dubbed it ``Thursday night fever.''

In other words, the revolution is not devoid of fun.

The fiery rhetoric from Tehran has become a trademark of the ruling mullahs. Yet the posters and paintings and Koranic sayings on Tehran University's walls do not reflect the only campus opinions, as evident in graffitti on lavatory walls. ``Rafsanjani must be punished for McFarlane,'' reads one by someone who apparently thinks the Speaker of Parliament betrayed Iran during arms deals with the United States. ``Death to Khomeini,'' reads another, in opposition to the theocracy. ``Beware, the Americans are coming,'' reads a third.

Iran's parliament, or Majlis, is an open forum of often-feisty debate, leading an envoy with long experience in the region to compare it to heated scenes in Israel's Knesset - a comparison that would make many Iranians wince. Iran's assembly is not even all Islamic. Seats are reserved for the four recognized religious minorities, including Jews and Christians. (However, members of the Bahai minority, viewed as infidels, are persecuted.)

The press is state-controlled. But political factions fight verbal wars in the papers, analysts claim. The newspaper Reesalat reflects views of conservatives in the theological center of Qom; Ettelaat, the mainstream progressive line; and Abrar, the more extreme position.

In other words, the revolution does not speak with one voice.

Even policy is filled with paradoxes. Policies connected with the ousted Pahlavi dynasty are anathema in Iran. Yet after seven years of war and a pledge that there will be no peace until Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is overthrown, Tehran still maintains the diplomatic relations established with Baghdad by the Shah.

And diplomats and analysts here claim that the Islamic Republic's goal in the Gulf is, ironically, the same as the Shah's: to be the main power and policeman in the region. The main difference is that the theocracy wants to do it independently, not under the auspices - or, as many Iranians claim of the Shah's days, the control - of the US.

In other words, even in a revolution, not everything changes.

Last of four articles.

Robin Wright is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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