Recently, FToI authors received a letter from a reader: a young lady living in Iran. The letter was sincere and moving and reminded me of my own concerns and fears a few years back.
Her name is Monika. She is a university student, living in one of the major cities in Iran, in a well-educated family. She is, however, frustrated and confused by the perspective of her future life and the traditions imposed on women mostly in form of the seemingly inevitable matrimony.
When you are 20, and you live in Iran, everybody around you starts talking about marriage! Your parents normally say that you should finish your higher education first so that you can better decide for your own life.
Indeed, as you become more educated, more independent, and more self-determined, with every single success, you are able to identify your potentials better and strengthen your personality. For the first time in your life, at the university, you are directly competing with young men. You realize that you are no less than them, and you can even excel them all. You develop your own view of life, try to re-define good/bad and right/wrong for yourself, identify what makes you happy and start planning for your happy future which does not necessary require to be married. Yet, marriage talk becomes more serious as your parents get calls from possible future husbands! It just doesn’t feel right.
When you look around, you see all male-dominant families. You see working mothers being pressured under the burden of working full time and being in charge of the housework. After all, it has always been the wife’s duty! You see working women leaving the workforce as they can not tolerate the pressure, becoming even more dependent on their husbands. You see them losing their social life, and missing their identity. Is that the life that you really want?
Well, maybe you can find a loving understanding husband, an intellect who believes that it takes two persons to build a fabulous life. Or maybe you “think” you find one, but after a few years you realize you were mistaken. Then you decide to get a divorce, but he doesn’t want to let you go. The law supports him: “A woman can only get a divorce with her husband’s consent or with valid grounds (husband’s insanity, addiction, etc.)”. Men, on the other hand are allowed to divorce their wives without any valid grounds. You, determined to avoid such a disaster, think that the only way is to get to know your partner very well before marriage, and your parents seem to agree. One important problem is that any friendship or relationship with the opposite sex is prohibited by the law, unless you are engaged or your relationship is recognized by the religious authorities. Furthermore, even if you survive with the unlawful behavior, after a couple of months your parents become insanely worried usually because a neighbor or a distant relative has spotted you together and has questioned your mother if you are getting married. According to your parents, this path only leads to getting emotionally involved with him and being hurt, or even physically abused; it is your “reputation” at stake!
What kind of a relationship can live through such circumstances and how can you trust your feelings under such a pressure? You should find ways to deal with your parents, your neighbors, and even law enforcement officials, to think clearly and not to get confused or delusional by anxiety, and to make a right choice. It consumes all your energy to the extent that you find yourself skipping classes, and not caring about your professional career just to “know” someone. It is a truly vicious circle which leaves you confused, helpless and exhausted. As Monika described in her email, marriage which is considered the holiest happening in one’s life looks like a gloomy suffering to you. There is no way you can accept such a miserable life!
I decided to write this article just to let Monika know that I share her concerns and worries. I understand when she says: “I can not risk…I want to live my own life without getting married…[because] I might fall in love with someone and I would goof”. I know how unreasonable it is to choose a life partner with a very limited chance of knowing him. I know how confusing this situation is and how difficult it is to resist the traditions you don’t believe in. Nonetheless, I wanted her to know that she is not at all helpless and vulnerable.
I am married and I love my life because I chose it. I believed in myself and my discretion, took full responsibility and reminded myself that nothing could go wrong that I was not able to fix. I decided not to be afraid of making mistakes, not to let anyone choose my husband and lead my own life. I decided to be courageous for myself, for my dreams and for my beliefs. I asked for equal rights and opportunities and I tried (and will try forever) my hardest to achieve it. I believe the time has come for Iranian women to re-define marriage especially because the new generation of Iranian men is more willing to accept their wives as their loving partners and friends. If there is any discrimination or inequality, it is our responsibility to put an end to it. I believe that despite our male-favored culture, there are Iranian men who will support their partners encouraging them, cherishing their success, and comforting them in failures. Let’s face it, women are no victim anymore. They should not be.
The recent federal election in Canada which happened two months ago was a great opportunity to familiarize myself with the inside politics of a country other than my home country, Iran. The campaign run by the different parties, various issues which were raised during the election and the way the whole Canadian government is running, were all different interesting topics for me to learn. Though the election was fair and free, I noticed several flaws in the system which I would like to mention in below.
1) The first surprise appeared to me when I was watching TV showing Paul Martin, the Canadian prime minister, calling for an early election. He told the reporters about the permission he has been given by the governor general after their meeting. Everything looked to be very well accepted by everyone: in order to call an election in Canada, the Queen of England should be first informed. Not to mention that in principle, every single law passed in Canada has to be approved by the Queen.
2) Despite a few hundred years of history of Canada as a nation, it is less than 25 years since this country has had an independent constitution. Knowing of many countries still without any constitution, I am not surprized that Canada did not have it for a long time. However, I was under the impression that now every law has to agree with the current constitution. So I was shocked to become aware of a law called notwithstanding clause which permits the federal or provincial government to approve or reject any law in the contrary to the constitution if they wish. For instance, assume that the supreme court of Canada says that restricting the definition of marriage to heterosexual relationships, is unconstitutional. The premier of the conservative dominated province of Alberta has already threatened to use the notwithstanding clause and reject the order of the supreme court of Canada.
3) Unlike the US, senators in Canada are not elected by people but are appointed by prime ministers. In principle, the senate has a crucial power that allows it to reject any law passed by the parliment. The way the senate is appointed is also interesting. Prime minister can only appoint a senator when there is one available seat meaning that one senator retires, quits, or passes away. Thus, one prime minister may be very lucky to appoint many senators in contrary to another, who may never get a chance. Now, think of a senate mostly appointed by a prime minister becoming a big source of trouble for the next government at the time power switches from one party to the other. Not only senetors, but the judges of the supreme court are also appointed in a similar way as the senators. A "lucky" prime minister can get a chance to appoint several judges who share similar views with him so that he would never have to confront them.
To be honest, what has made my mind busy is not these problems themselves. I could see any country to have similar problems. What is amazing is how everything goes very smoothly and democraticly in Canada. There is not any noticable abuse of power though the laws may permit such a thing. In my opinion, some of the Canadian laws are even worse than some Iranian laws in some regards. No one can say that Queen of England has less power than Velayat-Faghih [supreme leadership] in Iran. The unelected senate can be an obstacle to a democracy just as much as the Guardian Council is currently in Iran. The judges of the supereme court of Canada can abuse their power just as much as some judges in Iran do. However there is something that makes the Queen to never abuse her power and Iranian leader to do despite their similar power. It would also be interesting to study the number of times senate of Canada has rejected a law passed by the parliment in comparison with the Gaurdian Council. Though the two constitutions seems to have some similarities, they function very differently. Doesn't this tell us that the problems of our home country comes from somewhere other than our constitution?
The pre-blackout Google cache of this post with comments is available [here].
I try, very briefly, to answer the question "what is Iranian nationalism?" This is particularly difficult since Iran is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country. Iranian nationalism is not a uniform concept. While one may argue that no concept of national identity that functions as a base for its respective nationalism is uniform, Iranian concepts of nationalism are diverse in the extreme. My goal is not to do a survey but rather to discuss broad factors that may be seen as encompassing the multiple facets of Iranian nationalism and provide a framework for discussing its general characteristics. For the purposes of this paper, I have identified three inter-related factors that provide the basis for Iranian nationalism(s): a strong sense of history or collective memory; a distinct, continuous culture; and geographical continuity. These are broad factors that can be may be seen as encompassing the multiple facets of Iranian nationalism and provide a framework for discussing its general characteristics.
Iran is what Shahrough Akhavi calls an "old new state" by which he means that "if one views it as a member of the third world societies, it nevertheless has an ancient tradition and history within roughly the same frontiers as those of today." Thus, Iranian nationalism fits into the mould that Ryszard Kapuscinski has set for ancient civilizations. He writes: "Societies with a historical mentality are directed toward the past. All their energies, their feelings, their passions are dedicated to greater times already gone by. They live in the realm of legends and founding lineages."
Scholars of the modernist school tend to negate the role of collective memory. The popular conception of nations and nationalisms is that they are fairly recent phenomena, arising around the time of the French Revolution or after. For modernists, the formation of nations is deeply rooted in the advent of modernity, with little consideration for the pre-modern historical context. However, Anthony Smith's critique of the modernist perspective and his consideration of the historical roots of nationalism is particularly applicable to the Iranian case. He distinguishes two problems with the modernist argument. Firstly he argues that in the modernist theories, "the nation... is divested of 'identity'." It is, he goes on to say, "either conflated with the state, to become the 'nation state', or it is equated... with modern high culture." Secondly, he faults modernist theories as having as having a "tendency to rely on purely structural explanations." By this he means that they "trace the origins, rise, and course of nations and nationalism to the consequences of (uneven) capitalism, industrialism, militarism, the bureaucratic state, or class conflict, or a combination of these."
Few scholars would argue against the idea that there has been an Iranian identity long before the modern era. This is of course, not to say that there was an Iranian nation in the modern sense of the term, but there has long been the notion of "Iranianness" but it meant different things in different historical contexts. The Achaemenids regarded themselves as Iranian in insofar as Iranian signified a group of various ethnic entities sharing common linguistic, religious and cultural traits. The Sassanian consolidated the definition of Iranian by adding a definite political and geographical facet to it. In the Islamic period, this definition lost its political and religious connotations and became merely a cultural and geographical concept. Furthermore, in each period right up to the modern era, political and cultural elites have made use (even if in a selective or manipulative manner) of this common history to reinforce a collective sense of identity.
Early Iranian intellectuals did not create the Iranian nation ex nihilo: Qajar period thinkers started making extensive use of an Iran-centred history in formulating and promoting Iranian nationalism. As Mohamad Tavakoli Targhi argues, "The narratological centrality of Iran signified the emergence of a new conception of historical time differing from the prevalent cyclical arrangements of chronicles." A glorified ancient past (particularly pre-Islamic) was used to establish an Iran-centred continuity directly connect with the present. It was in the Qajar era that intellectuals made the first attempts to imagine an Iranian nation. Writers such as Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh (d. 1878), Mirza Agha Khan Kermani (1853-1896) amongst others used history to "reawaken" Iranians in the face of imperialism and the countries declining fortunes. A perfect example of such a use is provided by ‘Abd al-Baha ‘Abbas (1844–1921) in his treatise al-Asrar al-ghaybiyyah li asbab al-madaniyyah [Hidden Secrets of the Causes of Civilization]. He writes, "O people of Persia! Look into those blossoming pages that tell of another day, a time long past. Read them and wonder; see the great sight." He gives a brief account of past glories, real and imagined, taken from sources such as the Old Testament, the Shahnameh, as well as contemporary European works, then implores his country men to: "Awake from your drunken sleep! Rise up from your lethargy!" In short he beseeches them to consider what they were and what they have become.
Closely tied to the collective memory is the idea of a collective cultural consciousness. Benedict Anderson, like Smith, stresses the cultural and historic roots of nationalism. He writes that nationalism is best understood, not with "self-consciously held political ideologies," but instead with "the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which — as well as against which — it came into being. In the same way that the Greeks of the various city states saw themselves as having a Hellenic culture different from other, so too did Iranians distinguish between themselves and ‘others'. Granted, in the Islamic period, this "sense of Iranian community and culture" was "largely centred on the Persian language and literature." There were however other subjective cultural traits that can be considered common to Iranian culture: the celebration of common festivals, notably the Iranian New Year; religious peculiarities common to the Iranian cultural area, and later, on the Iranian plateau, Shi'ism; common myths and legends; and distinctive material culture. To give but one example, it was this common sense of community that sided Safavid Turcomans with the Persians, against the Turkish Ottomans and Uzbeks. They held in common, religious beliefs (Shi'ism) and common history/myths (e.g. Iskandar Beg Monshi, hinself of Turcoman origin, writes of the armies of Iran and Turan when describing a battle between the Safavids and Uzbeks.).
The Persian language is often fetishized as the common denominator of Iranian heritage and while this may have been true to in the pre-modern period it is less so today. In the pre-modern period Persian was not only the language of ethnic Persians - it was the lingua franca of the Iranian geographical area and beyond. Homa Katouzian writes: "Massive evidence of this broader Iranianism — which remained alive during the centuries of political disunity, mainly through the medium of the Persian language and literature — is provided by classical Persian literature. However he goes on to say that the pan Persianist policies of the 20th century have "dealt a blow to the wider sense of Iranianism which had always existed", since the non-Persian minorities began to see themselves as subjects of discrimination. It can thus be said that, despite the predominant conceptualizations of an Iranian nationalism based on language, Persian no longer has the same paramount status as it once had.
Finally there is the important physical aspect of Iranian nationalism that must be taken into account. This however provides an interesting contradiction: on the one hand Iranian history and culture are linked to a definite geographical context and on the other hand, the physical geography stood as a barrier against easy communication — a requisite for forming a nation. These geographical barriers also kept the Iranian plateau relatively isolated. As Cottam states, "To the extent that geography was responsible for the uniqueness of Iranian character, culture, and history, it helped create a national particularism which in turn served as a catalytic force for the growth of nationalist sentiment." Thus there is a dichotomy where the Iranian geographical area was relatively inaccessible to foreign influence but was also to centralized political control. Of course the past tense is important here since with modern forms of communication, transport and control, this is no longer the case.
There is another more important aspect in the discussion of geography and Iranian nationalism. There has already been mention of an Iran as a geographical concept, but it is important to analyse its connection to Iranian nationalism. The idea of Iran, as the land of Iranians, is an old one. Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet convincingly argues that "Iran" and its corresponding territories therefore were not 19th century innovations… Nor did these ideas originate with the works of Orientalists... The impulse to set apart things Iran — land and language, culture and civilization — had old roots and simply found a new application and context in nationalism."
History is again of relevance when we consider that the limits of Iran as described in Perso-Islamic sources have direct roots in Sassanian Iran. The Sassanians distinguished, even in there own empire, between Iran (Eran) and non-Iran (an-Eran). The land of Iran "corresponds roughly to the eastern Iranian world, the Iranian plateau, and Mesopotamia." In a world context, Iran held special prominence as the first and central of the seven lands (keshvars). This concept of Iranshahr persisted well into the Islamic era and has influenced modern Iranian nationalism. In medieval Persian geographies, Iran would often be given special consideration as the most beautiful, fertile land, etc. If the notion of Iran, in a cultural or historic sense, was subjective and intangible, a geographic Iran was objective and tangible. As Kashani-Sabet notes, "scholars had reified this abstraction (i.e. Iran) and justified the "truth" of its existence by connecting it to a concrete reality: a territory." Furthermore, "the mapping of "Iran" reinforced the idea that something concrete sustained the idea. Land existed tangibly and with a measure of constancy that culture did not, and its reality was repeatedly supported by visual evidence."
Even today, Iranzamin ["land of Iran"] is given special importance in Iranian nationalism. While, areas that were historically considered part of Iran, are no longer part of the Iranian state, the so called "Iranian heartland" is still in tact. The very land or earth of Iran is held in semi-sacred reverence. One has only to read modern literature for many examples of this. For example, the un-official Iranian national anthem starts right off by extolling Iran as the "treasured land" (marz'e por gawhar) and with "soil that is the wellspring of virtue" (khakat sar cheshme'ye honar).
As already noted, Iran is multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country. Yet, it does have the basis to constitute a single nation, in the simplest sense formed as a result of lengthy and systematic intercourse, as a result of people living together generation after generation, in a common territory. Iranian nationalism is reflective of Iran's long and diverse history. Thus, it is not unusual to have nationalisms based on the pre-Islamic heritage, Shi'ism, etc. Iranian heritage provides a collage of experiences that Iranians can pick and choose from, focusing on some while paying less attention on others. Ultimately, Iranian nationalism is a romantic notion, perhaps best described by Renan when he writes,
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Only two things, actually, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other is in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances; the other is the actual consent , the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage which all hold in common.
 Shahrough Akhavi, "State Formation and Consolidation in Twentieth Century Iran" in Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner (eds), The State, Religion and Ethnic Politics: Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, Syracuse University Press, 1997, pp. 198-99.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1991; Paschalis Kitromilides and Georgios Varouxakis, "The 'Imagined Communities' Theory of Nationalism," in Athena Leoussi and Anthony D Smith (eds) Encyclopaedia of Nationalism . Oxford: Transaction Books, 2000, pp. 136-139.
When I joined this project about a year ago, I was not sure if it was a good idea. In fact I didn't even know if I liked the idea and surely I didn't know if I did the right thing. I didn't know if this was to answer an urge of self-replication, now infinitely easier using the internet, out of a selfish benign feeling for my compatriots in Iran, many of them suffering, and many not knowing about them, or was it out of sheer vanity. I don't know and it is now too late to care for such an answer.
I am in no position to argue or report on the goals and (potential) achievements of the freethoughts dot org project, neither am I qualified to elaborate on what an individual (author/reader) might gain from it. However I give myself the right to ask a few questions to mark the anniversary of the Free Thoughts on Iran (FToI) project. Please enlighten us with comments and answers:
(0) Why the name? What makes this project free thoughts on Iran, and why to choose the internet domain name "freethoughts"? What gives us to claim that liberae sunt nostrae cogitationes [Our thoughts are free]?
(1) Why should a bunch of people mostly with "science" or "technical" backgrounds write for a project that deals with "humanities"? A social network is behind the formation current group of authors no less, but who should be qualified to write anyway?
(2) What shall these "free thoughts" be about? May I talk about "determinism" in the light of "moral objectivity" and vice versa here? May I write about my favorite "wake-up music"? May I ask people feedback on my new paper?
(3) Why the comment moderation? Is it free only for the authors and restricted for the readers? Is it just a bunch of dogmatic tyrants ranting about their own wisdom, shutting up anyone who attacks them?
(4) Who is the intended audience? People in Iran who know English? Why would they care about an amateurish project of a bunch of Iranian students, talking about things that they might already know? International readers? Why would they care about an amateurish project of a bunch of Iranian students, talking about things that they might already know?
(5) ... Add your favorite question here!
Survival of the Persian Culture
Historically, the resistance against the invading Greeks, Arabs, Turks and Mongols, etc. came from the non-Persian Iranics, in some cases being liberators. In the post-Islamic period, the non-Persian Iranics staged most of the resistance: Papak of Aturpatkan, Abu-Moslem of Khorasan, Maziar of Tabarestan, and the Safarids of Seistan. The Persians of the south and their aristocracy remained neutral. Some of them, like the Barmakids, in fact joined the Arab Caliphate as chancellors. Barmakids, for instance, were apparently the descendents of Hormoz son of Khorow I and they became the Chancellor of Haroon'a'Rashid.
Considering culture, for example, "Firdowsi of Tus" played a great role, in the survival of the Persian language. Firdowsi who came from a Parthian district, revived the Persian language in his great epic work, Shahnama (the Book of Kings). One should remember that many of the "Persian" poets were from the ethnically non-Persian territories. Poets like Firdowsi, Rumi, Khayyam, Naser Khosrow, Fakhrodin Asad Gorgani (from Hirkania who wrote the beatiful Vis [or Veys] and Ramin) and Attar are all actually natives of the Parthian territories. The same goes for scientific and cultural figures like Khwarazmi, Tusi and Ibn-e-Sina. One should also mention of the efforts of Khayyam of Nishapour in restoring the Iranian calendar system. The whole idea that Mohammad's migration from Mecca to Medina "had in fact taken place" on the first day of the Iranian solar calendar (Spring Equinox), separated Iranian chronology and subsequently history (under King Jalloldin Malekshah ) from the rest of the Islamic civilization. Contribution achieved by a man from Nishapour, a non-Persian territory. Such a conclusion that the Iranics outside Persia had developed a strong sense of freedom that resorted to combat if necessary can be seen in the Shiite Movement of Sarbedaran [The Hanged] that overthrew the Mongolian dynasty of Khorasan. According to Mir-Khand and a few other historians of the time, and as Abd-orafi Haghighat (a modern expert in this area show), the Sarbedaran movement paid a lot of attention to Shahnameh mythologies, despite the Shiite pretentions of their religious leaders. Names such as Pahlevan Efandiar Basthini appear besides Hassan and Hosseineh Hamzeh, while historians report that Sarbedaraans were reciting Shahnaameh poetry on the day that they defeated three Mongolian armies separately.
Being dominated culturally by Persians for centuries and afterwards politically by the Arabs, Turks, and the Mongols, the Iranic Persian culture was still closer to the heart of these other Iranics and they would naturally use it to reach their compatriots and try to preserve what was left to preserve from the Iranic culture. It must be mentioned that even under the Sassanid-Persians many Medo-Parthians continued to co-exist and endured extinction in different forms until the plague-like Mongolian invasion physically eradicated many of their speakers. So why all these poets, not speaking Persian as their mother tongues, did not write their poetry in their own local dialects? Maybe the earlier poets just wanted to reach as many souls by preserving at least the global Iranic cultural item (the Persian language, due to the ruthless efforts of the Sassanids), which otherwise would die out and be replaced by Arabic or even Turkish.
The Persians, (1) absorbing many elements from Elamites, Semites, Dravidians, and other non-Indo-Europeans, and by conquering many nations, created the first global indo-european imperialism, which survived for 250 years and then (2) incorporating too many foreign elements in their culture including the style of oriental despotism (that clearly lacked the tribal consensual system of the Sakas/Scythians). The Persian monarchs (Sassanid and Achamendis) eventually lost many of their Iranic traits of culture and their empires along with it.
The legacy of the Persians was to basically (though probably not intentionally) work towards the replacement of the Iranic culture in their country by a cosmopolitan culture which people still call the Persian. This Persian culture now is a mix of all possible cultures that got a chance to cross the borders of the Iranian Plateau but were inevitably shaped by the local Iranics selectivity. At the same time the Persian "globalism" created a united culture and system that enjoyed a strong unique identity of its own, which after the invasions of the Arabs, and later that of the Turks and the Mongols, prevented the total annihilation of the Iranic language (Persian) and culture in Iran. Looking back, what was the impact of the Persian culture on the culture of the Medes and Scythians? Well, those remote enough, had no direct contact with the Persians but how about those who did have direct contact with Persians? How much is left from their culture? How much is left from the cultures of the people of northern Iran, from the culture of the Medo-Schythian people of Hamadan and Kermanshah, from the once repure Medean culture of Aturpakan(Azerbaijan) in which the inhabitants nowadays for sometimes, claim their "pure Turkish heritage"? And how much is remaining from the Medean culture of the heartland of Kurdistan, of the Scythian culture of Tabarestan, Deilaman, Gilan and Talish and the Parthian culture of Khorasan? Are the names like Daiauku, Fravartish, Wlog, Surena, Blash and Tiridad as common in Iran as "Kuros", "Darius", and "Khosrow"?
Different foreign tribes have culturally and militarily "transformed" the Iranic people repeatedly, since Iran unfotunately has always enjoyed a great strategic situation. Still, many Iranic groups were assaulted repeatedly by their compatriots, the Persians, at the extremes of their power.
Modern Persian language, which is the official language of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been heavily influenced by Arabic and, to a lesser extent by Turkish, but its basic features, both grammatically and lexically, are still mainly Iranic and thereby Indo-European. In this respect, one may compare the Persian Language to English which although Germanic in its foundations has numerous loanwords from French and Latin, mostly because of the Roman and the Norman invasions. The other Iranic cultures in Iran are not totally extinct but are nonetheless heavily influenced by the Persian culture and are considered provincial and sometimes even reactionary. This is just very unfortunate.
As a conclusion and maybe as a descriptive note, let me humbly relate some personal experience as an individual with partly non-Iranic background who lived in Iran for sometime: Living in Tehran (originally in non-Persian territory) in which the so called "accent free" Persian is spoken, other ethnicities are the constant victims of abusive (and sometimes humourous) jokes and in real life are sometimes treated as second rate citizens. And having a so called "European" look, I myself was constantly referred to and harassed as khareji [foreigner]. I also had a chance to observe that this harassment extends to Iranians who naturally have a "European" look, and is doubled when they are heard to speak Persian with, say, a Kurdish accent. Whatever the root of this phenomena is, it is not limited to Iran and can only be called a social disease, one that many Iranians in the past and future have and will try to cure.
The pre-blackout Google cache of this post with comments is available [here].