"Make sure you cover your toes, too. Not just your hair." The advice came from a fellow reporter who had covered Iran after the revolution in 1979. A former State Department officer who served in Iran suggested I not look in the eyes of any man I might interview. I listened carefully. This was my first journey to Iran and I wanted to be culturally appropriate so that my behavior wasn't an issue and my research would be fruitful.
But times change. My careful covering made me one of the more conservatively dressed women in Tehran in 1999. Many women still wrapped themselves in black chadors -- as was the fashion in pre-Islamic Persia. But there were also brightly painted toenails, flaunted in platform sandals; calf-length coats showing blue jeans underneath. And from teenagers to grandmothers, women tied scarves loosely, casually over their heads.
Democracy cannot be measured by women's wear, but in Iran it symbolizes an expanding envelope of accommodation. What we're witnessing is the birth of a democracy, a gradual, and what the Iranians hope will be a peaceful, evolution from the monolithic rule of few to shared and balanced power within a religious context.
To date the religious hierarchy maintains control over most state functions, with a say in, and veto over decisions regarding both domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Over a cup of sweet tea in his semi-detached home in Tehran, Professor Nasser Hadian said, "Those in power feel threatened by political values like democracy and human rights." Hadian teaches political science at the University of Tehran and lectures frequently in American universities. "They feel they may lose their power," he continued, referring to the religious authorities. "They don't want to be challenged."
But they are being challenged. Many Iranians point to the election of President Mohamed Khatemi in 1997 as a turning point for tolerance in the Islamic Republic. The rule of law still applies, but interpretations have become looser and enforcement less strict in some walks of life.
There will be no major foreign policy changes coming from Iran even with the strong showing by the reformers in recent elections. There will be no major foreign policy changes in the United States if the Republicans take the White House, either. But some rudimentary principles of democracy are germinating -- such as limited opportunity to air grievances, and limited freedom of the press. And when people have been so tightly reigned in, even a little freedom is welcome.
"The test of democracy is not to climb up the ladder, it is to come down the ladder," said Mohamad Jawad Larijani, a member of the Iranian parliament or Majlis. "In the case of Khatemi's election, for the first time a powerful politician like Hashemi Rafsanjani, after finishing his term, he came down the same ladder he went up." Alive. Able to run again.
We take this all for granted in the United States. We take it so for granted we often fail to vote. Iranians, by contrast, turned out by the millions, from age 16 on up, to cast their ballots on February 18. They are encouraged by even a limited tolerance for dissent. Disagree with the religious powers-that-be and you may end up in jail. But you will have been heard. And you will likely live to speak again.
Iran's ayatollahs and mullahs are beginning to put forth a variety of interpretations of Islamic and Iranian law. Take the recent trial of Abdollah Nouri, the former interior minister and Revolutionary Guard-turned-newspaper-publisher, for example. After six days of public hearings he was found guilty and sent to prison. But his voice was heard by all who lent an ear. There is also the case of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was once expected to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini. Montazeri is under house arrest in the city of Qom for, among other things, saying mass executions were a violation of Islamic justice.
There are many who agree with him. Seated on the carpeted floor of his living room, Nasser Hadian noted, "There have been different interpretations of the American constitution. There have been different interpretations of the Qur'an [the Holy Book of Islam]. It is the flexibility of the system that gives it stability."
In his Tehran office, Majlis member Larijani gave me an example of the delicate balance between mandate and judgement. "According to our constitution you cannot propagate an idea which runs against the Islamic nature of the state," he said. "The government is entitled to prevent you if he (sic) wishes. If he considers an offense that serious he will stop you. If it's not serious the government won't prevent you. But it has this obligation and this mandate."
Larijani got his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1960s. He witnessed the harsh response of the U.S. government to student protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War. He concedes that government must do what it must do to survive certain circumstances. He believes that like the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of Iran is just and flexible.
The Iranian press is testing the stability of the system and elbowing new limits for itself. The American model for a free press is a brass ring to many Iranian journalists. So-called new "freedoms" for reporters there would make an American journalist's eyes roll with impatience. Say what you see and write what you believe and you are at risk of closure and imprisonment. Over the past few years in fact, dozens of newspapers have opened in Iran, many of them feisty and mildly critical of governmental policies, and some of those newspapers have been closed by order of the religious leadership. But they've opened again. And been closed and opened again. What is to an American a violation of the First Amendment, is cause for celebration to an Iranian newspaper editor.
"Iran is in a transitional period," said Hamidreza Jalaeipour, an editor whose newspapers have been closed repeatedly by the government. At the time of our conversation he had overseen the publication of Jamaa' then Tous then Neshat. When we spoke, his latest paper, Al Iqtesad, had been on the streets for just two days. He is not at all satisfied with the way things are, but he is pleased with the direction things are going for the press in his country. He would like to see a separation between the functions of state and religious institutions in an Islamic political experiment.
There is less censorship in Iran these days, Jalaeipour explained. Newspaperman though he is, he understood why there was censorship in the early days of the Republic, as counter-revolutionaries challenged the fledgling government. "In this challenge it is natural that censorship is going on," he said. He appreciates the reason for censorship during war times, as in Iran's ten-year war with Iraq, acknowledging that "in war time censorship is a common feature." But nowadays you get your message out first, he said, and then you may be closed down. You may even go to jail, as he did. But the point is the papers re-open with the same editorial staff and reporters. This makes him optimistic about the future.
"I see a reform trend," said Jalaeipour. "It has a good place among the new middle class, among educated people. You know more than four million in this country have got BA, MA, Ph.D. Twenty million students go to school. There is good ground for reform trend in Iran."
We read of ongoing tension between the minority reform-oriented leaders and the powerful conservatives in Iran. The Berkeley-educated Larijani was eager to address this issue. "It is not good that all of the power be concentrated in the hand of one person," he said. "We have a ,constitution. We have elected a president." Larijani pointed out that when the American president is challenged by congress we view it as a sign of strength in a democracy. "But if such a challenge comes in Iran," he sighed, "it is looked at as a sign of weakness."
Hasan Ghafoorifard, a member of the Iranian Majlis who lost his seat in the recent elections said, "We have a much better idea now about an Islamic government. What we have right now is much closer to the idea of Islam than what we had at the beginning."
The only example of Islamic government on which all Muslims will agree was led by the Prophet in the city of Medina (now in Saudi Arabia) in the 7th century A.D. The Prophet was both a political and spiritual leader, but consensus was one of his tried and true methods of governance. Given that "democracy," as we know it today did not exist as a political model at that time, consensus was about as close as you could come to government by the people and for the people.
For the government of Iran right now, that includes putting up with a freer press and accommodating political diversity.
"Iran is coming of age," Dr. Larijani explained proudly. In his office a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini watches all conversation. A visage of the popularly re-elected president, Mohamed Khatemi also hangs on the wall. So does Imam Ali Khameini, Iran's current religious or "supreme" leader.
"The Islamic Republic is 20 years old now," Larijani philosophized. "We're out of babyhood; we're not rebellious teenagers anymore. Now we are carving a future as mature members of world society. We have the will and the self-confidence. We can admit our mistakes and stand by our principles. That's what this election is all about."
Birth can be a long and painful process. So is growing up. Only 73 years after the U.S. Constitution was enacted we fought here a long and bloody civil war. That was part of the birthing of American democracy. Iran is enduring its growing pains under the microscope of world public opinion in an age when we want everything done yesterday. What we must remember is that the process of growing up is painful, hopeful and invigorating. And it takes time.
Anisa Mehdi, an occasional contributor to iviews.com, is a broadcast journalist who is producing a PBS television documentary with Alvin H. Perlmutter Inc. on the subject of Islam around the world.