October 26, 2004

Iran; Smooth Transformations

Emadedin BaghiPart of this article was adapted for an Op-ed published by Washington Post on Monday, October 25, 2004
In early August I had the opportunity to converse with Ahmed Othmani the head and chairperson of PRI (Penal Reform International), on his visit to Tehran. As the head of the Society for Defending Prisoners’ Rights (SDPR), I had fruitful talks with him on possible future joint actions. Talking about the changes that the Iranian society is going through, I was struck by his comment on a strong mentality formed in the west saying that, due to the deadlock in domestic political situation, there is no significant sign of any possible changes in Iran.
Contrary to this image that reforms in Iran is not possible, we believe that under the current situation, by making the best of the existing opportunities and possibilities, we are still able to move forward and bring changes to our society. Based on this belief we have instituted SDPR to encourage modifications in the way prisoners are treated. Even if we assume that there is a deadlock in the power structure, this is not true about the society which is the main origin of any transformation. But on what basis do we believe in the possibility of reforms and changes? And is there a real prospect for civil progress and transformation in Iran?
When reviewing the comments made by the US, European or Iranian political analyst on Iran one sees analytical disparities among them. They are merely focusing on the changes happening in the hierarchy of power, whereas the main changes are occurring and actually can be seen in the main body of Iranian society.
Down from the surface of the society there are deep transformations taking place, which reveals, using the words of the French social theorist Émile Durkheim, that the objectivity and reality of a society is free from the will and intentions of persons, individual groups or even the political power.
Presently, out of the sight of those in power and independent of the will of the state, social norms are eventually changing and underlying democratic modifications are currently at work, however smoothly and slowly they might be.
The significant rise in the number youth population, and immense economic problems and unemployment crisis has led the government to extend the higher education in the hope of impeding the flow of job-seeking youths. However, this in turn has hastened the transformation of norms, thoughts and expectations in every corner of the country.
In military colleges until quite recently, talking about human rights was totally unacceptable but today due to social requirements, courses on human rights is part of the academic curriculum. Iranian society is experiencing a passage form traditional mode of life to that of modernity; therefore the emergence of abnormity in various aspects of social life is inevitable.
In this regard the twenty percent increase in the divorce rate, can be seen on one hand as something regrettable and worrying, but on the other hand it is a sign of transformation in traditional marriage relations and women’s attempt in gaining equality in social and legal rights.
There is a significant rise in women social participation. About 60% of university students, directors of 717 publishing houses, about 12.4% of the whole, 22% of the members in Iranian Professional Association of Journalists and also 8% of the press directors are women. These figures might not be high in comparison with other countries but at the same time, with reference to the situations we had a decade ago, it shows a considerable rise, despite the fact that the rate of participation in the political structure is still very low.
In recent years according to informal statistics about 8000 NGOs have been established throughout the country. Although only some of these civil institutes are determined to pursue the tasks they have designated for themselves and therefore have been taken seriously, it has been said by officials in some administration sections that the NGOs are acting as serious threats assimilating the power of the state. They have surely become a threat for undemocratic circles. These NGOs are developing rapidly and there is no power to stop them. On one of my research trips to the city of Chāh Bahār, in the Sīstān va Balochestān province which is one of most deprived regions in the country, I was astonished to realise that there are several women NGOs there. An active member of one of these NGOs told me some of the members are illiterate but well-aware of what they are doing. Sadegh, a local official, told me “these women are so confident in what they are doing that they challenge the high-ranked officials and insist on their demands”. In one of the villages near the city of Firūz Kūh, 80 miles east of Tehran, people have established their local council. According to Parviz Piraan, a prominent urban sociologist, “in terms of its democratic structure this council could be regarded as an exemplar. Every decision is made through democratic procedures; NGOs are created to support and inform the council on local affairs”.
In the sphere of religious thought, the elaboration of democratic evolution is significant. Not long ago, based on a traditional conservative interpretation of religious texts, only the believers of the faith were entitled to certain civil rights but, according to the novel reading of religious texts Ayatollah Montazeri, one of the most prominent religious leaders in the Shi’a faith, has concluded that all humans, regardless of their faith are equal in human rights.
All these are the signs of formation of a social movement that no power can stop. Modern education and communications have created an environment for domestic changes, where there is no need for foreign imposition or intervention. When all the social cells are undergoing changes, the whole society, as an organ, cannot escape the overall transformation. Therefore reinforcing civil institutions and strengthening non-governmental organizations is one of the principal and practical strategies of a general social transformation.
In Iran the state is facing powerful, irreversible social pressure for reforms and changes, if these claims are not responded in time, or even worse if these claims are repressed, as the historical experiences of other countries indicate people would then welcome changes of foreign origin, which would surely interrupt the non-violent, smooth domestic transformation.
Political despotism in Iran has been the result of socio-cultural structures. To campaign against human rights violation and despotism we need to encourage cultural and civil movements.
Therefore the question whether changes and reforms in Iran are possible or not seems to be vague and imprecise. The reality is that Iranian society is undergoing serious changes. We are confident in future. Hope and courage are the main motives for change whereas dispiritedness and disappointment are pre-emptive. Let’s reformulate the question about changes in Iran; how should we face these changes and how the hope for changes be reinforced? Our answer to this is obvious; we should remain hopeful and active in the Iranian movement towards establishing a democratic civil society.

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