The title here comes from the graphic novel, Persepolis. Later turned into a film, it details the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl growing up in Iran under both secular and Islamic governments. Having recently taken a course on Middle Eastern history, Iran really struck a chord with me.
I got to know a number of Iranians through the charity Migrant Help and found them to be some of the kindest, funniest people I have ever met. Learning about the revolution, I was also struck by the misconceptions I had about it. Although it was later called an Islamic revolution, it was at its inception a revolution against an illegitimate and autocratic government.
Iran was ruled by a pro-west dynasty from 1925 until 1979, under the Shahs of Iran. For those who know little about Iran, it may seem from pictures of the 1960s and 70s, that it was once a progressive, free and liberal nation. Women were encouraged to go to university and it certainly seems a far cry from the present situation, where women have been arrested for not covering their hair. More than anything, contemporary Iranian women deserve the right to choose, as the journalist Masih Alinejad eloquently expresses in this video here.
However, it would be wrong to portray the revolution, despite the subsequent establishment of an Islamic Republic in 1979, as backward-looking, archaic or religiously motivated at its core. It was not a fight against a free, liberal and progressive nation – the secular state was oppressive in its own ways. During the 1930s, for example, the ruler Reza Shah ordered the police to forcibly remove the hijab from any woman who wore it in public.
The heir to the throne, Mohammad Reza Shah, was exceedingly unpopular. The Iranian people resented his approval and tolerance of Iran’s economic exploitation by foreign powers. Thus, in 1951 the Iranian Parliament elected Mohammad Mossadeq as Prime Minister. Mossadeq was not an Islamist, he advocated social reforms and the elimination of British control of Iranian oil.
But this did not fit with western interests. Britain and America joined forces in 1953 to overthrow the democratically elected Mossadeq, bring back foreign control of the oil firms and reaffirm the Shah’s position as supreme leader. In my eyes this kind of political interference is unforgivable, though unfortunately not unique. The CIA and Israel also helped the Shah to establish a secret police called SAVAK, which was used to torture and murder his political opponents. Opposition political parties were banned, and later on in 1975 Iran became a one-party state. This political oppression, as the historian Halliday points out, provoked a “popular rage” that eventually exploded in 1978.
The initial rumblings of discontent came from the urban middle classes, who called for social justice, human rights and constitutional liberties. There was also deep resentment towards the Shah’s economic policies, which led to high inflation and a widening gap between rich and poor. This was aggravated by the fact he was viewed as an illegitimate leader, propped up by the western powers rather than the broad support of his own people. In 1978, under international pressure to reform, the Shah loosened his chokehold on the country. This, then, seemed to finally provide the Iranian people with an opportunity to channel their grievances. The protests were ultimately met with violence and death, but the Shah could not hold on forever.
Islam, in a sense, became a way to unify all strata of society. It was relatable and stood in opposition to the secular ideology and government that had failed them. In retrospect it seems that Ayatollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic of Iran, was the figurehead of the movement. However, Khomeini was exiled in 1963 and though he still remained in the public eye through tape recordings, he did not return to Iran until after the Shah was overthrown. The public mobilised of their own accord and swathes of people were disillusioned when the movement became swept away in Islamic fervour. As we can see, an Islamic state was not necessarily the most pertinent issue for protestors. Rather, they fought against what they saw as intrusion in Iran’s domestic affairs and the limitation of their democratic rights.
Between the oppressive secular nation prior to 1979 and the oppressive Islamic nation that followed, the Iranian people have been continuously betrayed, persecuted and failed by those who are supposed to lead them. A couple of years ago I spoke to an Iranian man who had been granted asylum here in the UK. He had been arrested and tortured by the Iranian government, after taking part in the 2011 protests. He asked me, if we can go out on the streets to protest in this country, why was he was not allowed this freedom in his own?
I had no answers.