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A land of contradictions

'Values' debate plays out publicly, privately in Iran

Iranian women and young
Iranian women and young people have been key, albeit not always successful, in pushing for rights.



Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- The band jams in a tiny room atop a Tehran building, their music full of heartbreak, their mood subdued. There is no audience, as rock 'n' roll is banned here and on the streets below.

Such restrictions are part of life in Iran, aimed at safeguarding conservative Islamic "values" and, critics claim, the regime led by Ayatollah Ali Khameinei.

Yet the group -- named Oriental Silence -- plays on, without fanfare but with hope that tomorrow might be different.

"I want the rights and freedoms that everyone is entitled to," said lyricist Payam Eslami. "Normal rights. Nothing more."

Many, especially Iran's youth (at least half its 75 million population is under 25), felt the reform movement would bring about such freedoms. In 2001, 83 percent of the country's eligible voters turned out to overwhelmingly re-elect moderate President Mohammad Khatami.

This June, with Khatami and allies having been stymied for eight years by hard-line clerics and barred by law from seeking a third term, Iranians hit the polls again. Amid reformist-proposed boycotts, hints of apathy and claims of fraud and intimidation, the results were far different.

With half of eligible voters participating, Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- a staunch Khameinei supporter who embraces the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- got 62 percent of the vote to win a runoff with ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

This political roller coaster reflects larger issues in Iran, where ambiguity and inconsistency are commonplace. Forget predicting the future: assessing Iran's present is difficult enough.

In a state ruled by conservative Muslim men, women are fashion designers, race car drivers and students (as a clear majority of university enrollments). In the land where the United States is the "Great Satan," Bill Clinton's autobiography is a bestseller and Western goods fly off store shelves. And in a restrictive society, a Stanford University study estimates World Wide Web use in Iran may triple to 15 million between 2003 and year's end, with some 100,000 Farsi bloggers.

Even Ahmadinejad is full of contradictions. As he advocates a larger role for Islam, he will be the first non-cleric president since 1981. A favorite of the powers-that-be, he lives humbly as a "man of the people," say his supporters. Wary of the West's influence, he cites his astronomical phone bill as proof of his children's frequent Internet use.

So what is the real Iran? Experts say dichotomies -- especially between people's private lives and their public personas -- have long defined Iran, as they do today. Will there be a tipping point, when the divisions become too deep and too important to persist together?

"People have become increasingly fearless," said Abbas Milani, head of Stanford's Iranian Studies Program, claiming that most Iranians favor reform and oppose the regime. "But I don't think anyone can predict when or how [change will come].

"Revolution has a romance with those who have not experienced it," he added. "[Iranians] went through a bloody 10 years of war, terror and absolute mayhem ... People aren't willing to confront [the regime] in an all-out battle."

State, family shift

University of Toronto Professor Mohamad Tavakoli calls Iran not only "one of the most dynamic countries in the Middle East," but also "the most secular in its values, despite the Islamic Republic."

That's not to say Iran is a liberal bastion. Growing up near Tehran, Tavakoli said conservative practices -- pertaining to dating, dress, religion and the like -- typically were enforced sternly at home, while youths had less to fear and more freedoms in the public sphere.

Now the roles are reversed. As the state imposed more restrictions, most families became more open and accepting, Tavakoli said. In many cases, he adds, children force their parents' hands demanding liberties at home -- from what they wear to showing affection for boyfriends or girlfriends -- by threatening to risk arrest or worse by demonstrating their independence in public.

In two terms, President Khatami was often stymied in his efforts to realize reforms and assure liberties.

"Limitations imposed on the public have created a more accommodating, liberal family structure," he said. "Family social gatherings, regardless of class, have nothing in common with the public displays."

Meanwhile, hard-line vigilantes, Revolutionary Guards, the Guardian Council and others aligned with the regime have cracked down on many aspects of Iranian society.

Many suspect that authorities track phone calls, e-mails and other communications, said Milani, like Tavakoli an expatriate who returns to Iran frequently. He compared the current regime with that under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Both were "despotisms," he said, but in the latter, at least, one could avoid the worst types of repression by withdrawing from politics.

"Here, they follow you into the bedroom, to the innermost processes of the mind," Milani said of the current system. "They want to determine what you wear, whether you shave or not ... They interfere with everything."

The Islamic Revolution also changed how Islam is practiced, said Tavakoli, by wrapping it up in the ruling political and military system. Some clerics, he said, fear that this has taken some of the spirituality out of the religion and favor decreasing Islam's role in politics.

"In the pre-revolutionary period, you'd do the prayer for yourself," Tavakoli said. "Now you do it for the public to see."

Fighting for democracy

Not all Iranians have embraced hard-line positions, publicly or privately.

start quoteRevolution has a romance with those who have not experienced it.end quote
-- Stanford Professor Abbas Milani

Women like Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi have been particularly assertive in demanding freedoms. In academics, the arts and other fields, they often outnumber men -- a stark contrast to strict Islamic regimes like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban.

"Iranian women have fought the most unrelenting, heroic fight for their rights," Milani said. "They tried to convince women to go back to their houses, offered them opportunities to retire, but women fought back. They stayed, and have become a very influential voice."

Amid fears the recent election would prompt a crackdown, thousands of women took to the streets in June demanding rights -- the first such protest in the 26 years since the revolution.

Laleh Seddigh, a race car driver, says women will maintain legal privileges granted over the past eight years and achieve new rights, as long as they continue fighting.

"If they ask for their rights, [I hope they] will achieve it," said Seddigh. "They must try if they want to be successful."

Granted, there is little doubt that hard-liners now have the upper hand. Ahmadinejad's win gives conservatives, led by Ayatollah Khameinei, control of all three branches of government.

Yet while some say the young population, particularly, is now "permanently depoliticized," Milani points to the huge turnouts in Khatami's twin election wins and other factors and sees only a "lull" in the pro-democracy cause.

Furthermore, voting is now central to the political process. As one Iranian said before the runoff, "The candidates may be different, but the main reason for voting is gaining democracy."

Future murky

Shirin Ebadi
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi says women can get more rights under the existing regime.

Beyond social or cultural issues, the nation's sagging economy stands as a chief concern, a problem that may be exacerbated as more young people enter the work force.

"In Iran, 70 or 80 percent of people are facing financial hardships, a lot of problems making ends meet," said Bahruz, a Tehran mechanic who voted for Ahmadinejad. "The way people dress does not solve economic problems. Our problems must be solved in stages, and it must be the economy first."

Much like the students who fueled the 1979 revolution -- among their number a 23-year-old Mahmoud Ahmandinejad, now the president-elect -- today's large young generation might determine what shape the existing Islamic Republic takes, whether it is strengthened or supplanted.

Young Iranians should not be stereotyped, notes Takavoli, saying it is unwise to assume they all side with the West over Iran, or favor liberal ways over conservative values. "But they all, one way or another, have an interest in free expression," he said.

While some, like the members of "Oriental Silence," have turned away from politics, others seem intent on acting up and speaking up for their homeland.

"I love my country," said one Iranian woman, "and it's my right to participate in what belongs to me."

CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

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