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Vibrant culture

Iran has a vibrant intellectual tradition and an active academic community that spans different disciplines.


Despite state repression and censorship, the progressive intelligentsia has been able to sustain journals of ideas and create new forums of debate.



Complex: The nuclear issue is a source of lively debate. Photo: Reuters

TWO images capture Iran's reality far more authentically than the familiar, stereotypical, stern face of Ayatollah Khomeini (or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), and scenes of mutilation of the United States flag in street protests. The first is a picture of two chador-clad women squatting in a public garden, smoking. The second is that of thousands of stone-throwing students battling the police.

The first picture was famously published a few years ago. The second is an abiding aspect of reality — which recurs, as is now happening in Tehran. Both testify to growing irreverence towards authority. This is periodically revealed through both unconscious actions and deliberate choices. Recently, literally half the population defied orders not to celebrate the New Year (Nowruz) in "pagan", "unIslamic" ways.

Defiance of authority

Iranians of all classes regularly defy injunctions against consuming alcohol. Every evening, one can see vendors lining Tehran's pavements with suitcases carrying two important commodities: liquor, and cassettes of foreign films dubbed in Farsi. A discreet call to the bootlegger's cell phone will ensure home delivery of a 4.5-litre can of alcohol locally distilled from raisins/dates, or imported vodka or whisky. Parties are rarely held in middle-class homes where liquor does not flow freely. After all, wine making has a longer history in Iran than France.

At a more conscious level, irreverence towards authority takes the form of demands for the relaxation of restrictions on individual freedom, greater pluralism, and extension of human rights. Although the reformist current was weakened following Mohammed Khatami's departure as President last year, it is certainly not out of the reckoning. The reformist sentiment is widespread and manifests itself through the creative arts, civil society movements, as well as explicitly political initiatives.

Signs of the cultural renaissance that's under way in Iran are everywhere — in literature, film, painting, theatre, and the plastic arts. (To get only a limited English-language glimpse of what's on offer, one only has to visit tehranavenue.com). Today, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiaroustami and Dariush Mehrjui are appreciated globally as among cinema's great auteurs. Iranian painters and photographers may not be as well known but are gaining recognition, even fame. Tehran's theatre scene, redolent with avant-garde forms, as well as conventional naturalistic plays, is impressive even by the standards of most Indian cities. Many plays are written as parables to avert political censorship. Iran's puppeteers also use their art to telling political effect.

Iran has an active and growing civil society with a strong awareness of its autonomy from the state and its close identification with citizens. Particularly noteworthy are Iran's small but growing feminist movement, fast-expanding environmentalist groups, radical students' organisations, and campaigns for human rights.

Feminist issues

Iran's feminists have been able to make a mark at least in terms of putting the issue of women's exclusion and discrimination against them on the agenda. Activist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh told me that the issues feminists raise go well beyond the dress code: "We want a comprehensive reform of gender relations and full citizenship rights for women. That alone can empower them".

Iran has a vibrant intellectual tradition and an active academic community that spans different disciplines. In calibre of its teachers, and especially its material infrastructure, Tehran University compares respectably with the best of Indian universities — except on the freedom of expression and debate.

Specialised policy institutes and think tanks in Iran boast of articulate scholars who can hold their own anywhere in the world. (Unfortunately, I cannot name most of them for fear of exposing them to interrogation, and worse. A month ago, Ramin Jahanbegloo, an eminent political scientist who had just returned after spending six months in India, was detained on charges of espionage, considered preposterous by those who know him. Jahanbegloo is not a scholar in the activist mould, but very much an academic. His harassment has shocked many in Iran who believe that it is meant to intimidate all dissidents and reformists.)

Despite state repression and censorship, the progressive intelligentsia, which stands for a fully institutionalised democracy with inviolable human rights, has been able to sustain journals of ideas and create new forums of debate.

A lively debate is under way in Iran's intellectual parlours and cafes on the nuclear issue. Although it does not find public expression because of official censorship, personal conversations suggest that there is very little support for a hard-line position favouring Iran`s acquisition of nuclear weapons. There is a strong consensus that Iran should have the option of developing nuclear power for electricity generation and that its right to do so under international law should not be sacrificed. At the same time, many Iranian intellectuals are worried that in the current international discourse, the issue of Iran's right to peaceful nuclear activities is being subordinated to Iranian citizens' human rights.

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