The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Women's Rights in Iran
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. Since the Ayatollah Khomeini swept to power in Iran six weeks ago on a wave of Moslem fervor and hatred of the Shah, the once-powerful nation has been in disarray. The country has appeared torn between the efforts of civilian politicians to set up a democratic state and Khomeini`s mass movement for a religious Moslem state. The two forces have clashed over the hasty trials and summary executions conducted by local revolutionary committees. Such trials were suspended two days ago by Khomeini after strong protests from the civilian government.
But another protest equally symbolic in Western eyes has not been fully resolved. It is the battle by some Iranian women for freedom from religious restrictions on their dress. Sensitive to the image going abroad, the authorities have censored some foreign television and news pictures.
Tonight, what will finally win in Iran: a government with tolerance for dissenting views, or a nation of religious absolutism? Jim Lehrer is off tonight; Charlayne Hunter-Gault`s in Washington. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Robin, last week thousands of Iranian women took to the streets in the largest demonstrations against the Ayatollah since he returned from-his fifteen-year exile. The chador, or veil, be came the symbol of oppression as the women protested what they believed were restrictions in their freedom of dress as well as curbs on their civil and political rights. One chant in particular seemed to sum up their fears:" In the dawn of freedom, there is an absence of freedom." After five days and a dozen demonstrations, the Ayatollah and top government officials moved to allay the women`s fears with clarification and conciliation. The chador was optional, they asserted; the protests ended. There were, however, new demonstrations over the weekend, only this time another group of women all wearing the chador and proclaiming their support for Khomeini`s revolution. Today the government expelled Kate Millett, the American feminist who called Khomeini a male chauvinist.
With us tonight is Shahriar Rouhani, spokesman for the committee appointed by Khomeini. He now represents Iran in the United States. Mr. Rouhani, who were the women who demonstrated against the Ayatollah?
SHAHRIAR ROUHANI: There were a few; some of them were undoubtedly inspired by the foreign intrigue, and some of them completely unaware women who were literally forced by some authorities in Iran related and connected to the regime of Shah to push the women to the streets. The irony and importance of it was this, that in some instances only in Tehran and Mashhad 800,000 women participated in demonstrations against Shah, not fearing the bullets of Shah. Where were those people? They were not present. Instead, at the most in the largest demonstration, 12,000 people gathered, some of them wearing Playboy shirts, some of them didn`t know what they wanted; and they were led by people like Kate Millett and so on.
HUNTER-GAULT: So you`re saying that there is no significant movement of independent Iranian women who share the concerns that these women demonstrated?
ROUHANI: Well, not the way these people want it. Because the ERA, Kate Millett and so on, the rest of the feminists in this country, the very simple ERA, which they have not been able to pass in the American Congress, already does exist in the draft of the constitution: equal opportunity for education, for employment, as far as the pay is concerned, equal opportunity for civil liberties, et cetera, voting, elections, et cetera. Now, the dress is something which cannot be compared, the significance and importance of it, with these fundamental rights, which are attained by the women in the process of demonstration.
HUNTER-GAULT: You said that the women were not -- in effect you said that they were not really responsible; but the government did respond to them. Why, if they were from these strange constitutencies, did they respond?
ROUHANI: There are two reasons for it. First I wanted to mention the small number of them as being not representative of the Iranian women. Because more fundamental matters than chador were in question. Second, that they responded in order to prevent a backlash of anger within the traditional society that statements by Kate Millett and so on created. Because they wanted to preserve the fundamental rights which are going to be given to women.
HUNTER-GAULT: The Ayatollah said those in their writing who continually talk of democracy are either stupid people who do not understand what they say or are traitors. What did he mean by that?
ROUHANI: It is twofold. Some of the Shah`s related people, some of the people who are related to Savak, et cetera, continue to talk of democracy. I presume they would like to revive the previous system and the authoritarian rule that existed; and some people who do believe in dictatorship are proletariat, and some of the people who believe in the systems in which 17 million people can vote on behalf of 250 million. And the talk of democracy -- what sort of democracy is this? Isn`t it a mere facade and a smoke screen behind all their intentions? We want an Islamic republic which ensures the right of minorities and the majority of people simultaneously. By the way, the last thing is this: chador is not Islamic; it is a national traditional dress and has got nothing to do with Islam. Islam says modesty of the dress and appropriate covering of the body. It`s got nothing to do with chador.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We`ll come back. Robin?
MacNEIL: The question of freedom for Iranian women goes well beyond the wearing of a veil, or chador, as Mr. Rouhani just said. One American who`s studied the matter extensively in Iran is Lois Beck, co editor of the book Women in the Moslem World. Ms. Beck is professor of anthropology at the University o Utah, and she`s with us tonight in Chicago. Ms. Beck, do you think the women who demonstrated last week were not representative of Iranian women?
LOIS BECK: I think they were not representative of Iranian women since they were primarily urban women, middle- and upper-class women, women who were professional in some way -- many students, lawyers, doctors, nurses and so forth. Most of the Iranian population is lower class and is rural; and these women, to my knowledge, were not demonstrating in Tehran.
MacNEIL: Would you agree with Mr. Rouhani that they might have been inspired by, as he put it, foreign intrigue or by pro-Shah forces?
BECK: Again, I wasn`t there, but I don`t think the foreign intrigue would have been a major factor. The Iranian women have a long history of protests against what they regard as injustice, and they don`t need for engineers, especially foreign women or American women, there to help them to organize their revolution. Now, as far as pro-Shah women having an involvement in this, I would not know; but I would assume not.
MacNEIL: What, apart from the freedom from dress restrictions, were they demanding, in your view?
BECK: Well, the dress, as one must know by now, is a very symbolic sort of thing; it in itself is not very important. Women were asking for the right to wear what they chose. Those women who do choose to wear the veil want to continue to do so; those women who choose not to wear it wish to wear what they decide to wear. Other issues are more essential issues connected with family rights, with legal rights, with rights over children and so forth; and then a series of rights in politics, economics, general social participation. The Iranian women who were protesting were wishing to have full rights in the new society that Iran is creating; and with the issuance of proclamations from Khomeini and others, they were feeling that perhaps they wouldn`t be given full rights and hence went to the streets to protest. But again, these were not necessarily representative of all women in Iran.
MacNEIL: Is this just a woman`s question, or does it reflect a wider issue of what kind of civil rights generally Iran will have?
BECK: Well, it`s not just a women`s issue, and that`s a major problem, I think, with the Western media, which thinks that anything that involves women is just peculiar to women. As we should know also, what affects women also affects men and families and society in general. These are very alert and aware women who are protesting; they are not out for their own selfish interests, they are out for the society as a whole. So it has then the implications in economics, politics and social life.
MacNEIL: I wonder, since they were a minority, the kind of women you were describing, whether we are guilty, with our Western views, of trying to make Iranian society something like what we approve of.
BECK: Well, what we know from our own society, I think what I`ve just said is more appropriate; we know a certain culture and society here in America, and if we think of some situation for women in another country we only apply our own model. The problem with Kate Millett and other people going to Iran is that they do not understand the workings of a society like Iran and hence don`t have the good ability to help out or give suggestions and so forth.
MacNEIL: So do you think this issue has now been settled by the issue of the declaration saying that the wearing of the chador would be optional?
BECK: Again, no, I don`t think it`s settled because again, the chador is just a symbol, and it`s a symbol of these broader rights which we don`t know yet what will be happening with them. I think the Iranian women who have played an active role in fighting injustice in the past will continue to fight as they see various reforms or programs detrimental to society in general, including their own position.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you; we`ll come back. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: As the women protesters focused on issues relating to individual freedom, new political coalitions were emerging in Iran. Jim Yuenger, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was following these developments. He has just returned from Iran and is with us also in Chicago. Jim Yuenger, do the issues the women were demonstrating about last week have implications, as Ms. Beck suggests, for other Iranians?
JIM YUENGER: I think they certainly do, Charlayne, because just as a number of women`s groups have sprung up all across the ideological spectrum in the past couple of weeks in the general explosion of freedom and independence that followed the exile of the Shah, there are various groups of new political parties being put together all the time, some big ones, some small ones, all kinds of different coalitions; and there`s a general free- for-all politically in Iran right now.
HUNTER-GAULT: Is the government going to tolerate opposition from parties that are now forming?
YUENGER: That remains to be seen. I don`t think we will know the answer to that for certain until the choosing of people who will attend a constitutional convention. But I would guess at the moment that...
HUNTER-GAULT: That`s going to be at the end of March, right?
YUENGER: I think it`s March 30th, is what the date is.
HUNTER-GAULT: March 30th.
YUENGER: That`s when the referendum is. The whole constitutional convention will come after that. The point is that some quite large political groups are being formed -- the largest, I think, called the National Liberation Front, I believe it is, and the kind of saint of that is Mohammed Mossadegh, who, as you know, back in 1953 helped drive the Shah into exile for several days, then came back and was a non-person for the rest of his life until his death five years ago. Quite a large coalition, a growing coalition, is being formed with him as the symbol, and I would guess that the people in the government are very concerned about that.
HUNTER-GAULT: Do you see the opposition proceeding primarily in terms of the kinds of peaceful demonstrations that the women had last week, or do you feel that there`s a possibility that they could break into armed conflict?
YUENGER: I`m very concerned about that, Charlayne, for a couple of reasons. One is that there are so many guns around; it seems that everybody -- every kid, every adult, every man -- has a gun. And so the possibility of armed conflict really could break out. I would guess initially that they will try to go through a peaceful political process, but if they don`t get their demands -- at least their minimal demands -- there could be very serious trouble and I would fear that Iran would slip inexorably towards civil war.
HUNTER-GAULT: You were just in Iran. What is your sense of who is in control of the streets? You said everyone around has a gun; who is in control of Iran`s streets?
YUENGER: I wrote a story about a week ago saying the biggest question in Iran is who runs Iran. And the answer was, nobody. It`s very difficult to say. There`s really a dual administration: one, the religious forces, the Islamic forces aligned behind Ayatollah Khomeini; the other, the technocrats, the bureaucrats aligned pretty much behind Prime Minister Bazargan. They tend to be far more pragmatic in their approach to try to get the country back into proper running order, get the oil wells producing again, get everything back to normal, the banking, general distribution of goods and that sort of thing. There are all kinds of crosscurrents, however. There are, I think it was mentioned earlier, a lot of ethnic troubles. There was a demonstration just today in which it was reported that dozens of people were killed in Kurdistan. I was in Kurdistan a couple of weeks ago, and I know how strongly those people feel about getting some measure of autonomy; and they`re not the only ones. There are people in Baluchistan and various other areas of Iran who also want a degree of independence, and all of this is in ferment now.
HUNTER-GAULT: In a word, are they a serious threat, these groups? Yes? No?
YUENGER: I wouldn`t say yes, I wouldn`t say no. I would say potentially yes. In fact, remember that it`s still very early days, and a great deal can happen over the next two or three months.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right, thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Mr. Rouhani, you heard Ms. Beck saying that the women who were demonstrating last week were concerned -- apart from the chador -about what rights they would have in the new society. You said earlier that the new draft constitution grants them certain rights. Do they not know about that new constitution yet?
ROUHANI: They do know it; most of the Iranian women do know it, it has been declared over and over in Iranian radio by Ayatollah Talaghani, by Ayatollah Khomeini. But unfortunately, repeatedly the Western press tends to distort and discredit the movement -- I mean, distorts the fact. The very same press which made a saint and an avant-garde of freedom out of Shah and gave a completely improper notion of what was going on in Iran, the same press is completely trying to discredit the movement in the same genre. And I`m amazed that Miss Beck, in spite of saying that she doesn`t know, nonetheless she went as far as saying that these were the people who voluntarily came and participated in the demonstration.
MacNEIL: Ms. Beck, why don`t the women know about the new constitution yet if it`s been so widely promulgated?
BECK: They may have felt that there was a conflict between this new constitution and specific things that were being stated, like women no longer being allowed to serve in the various educational and health corps programs, not being able to have the same sorts of rights in marriage, divorce, inheritance as they had under the previous regime, and so forth. There are specific things in Islam which do not give completely equal rights to women, and it may be that these women are reflecting some of those tensions or conflicts.
MacNEIL: Mr. Yuenger, who`s sitting beside you there, were those the concerns of the women: although the new draft constitution which has been promulgated guarantees them rights, there were statements by certain leaders in conflict with those provisions?
YUENGER: Well, it`s very difficult to put your finger on it, because everybody is trying to figure out just what an Islamic government is going to be. It`s hard to say. I would like to respond to something Mr. Rouhani said earlier, first, and that is that the Western press is forever being accused by people with specific interests of distorting what`s happening there. I honestly don`t think that`s true. What we do is reflect what people are telling us in Iran when we say that, for instance, people are worried about the exchange of one despotism for another.
MacNEIL: Mr. Rouhani?
ROUHANI: Well, I wonder why, you know, the Western press -- not the Western press, because Le Monde and the French press and so on, I do make a distinction -- why the same ladies and gentlemen of the press then talk about the tortures which went on in Iran under the dictatorship of Shah. Only in the past few months they`ve been talking about it. So -- well, I don`t want to get into that and whatever the reasons are that that happens. However, I`d like to mention this: at first we were slandered for being against modernization, whereas the people like Bazargan, who`s the head of the human rights, a technocrat and so on, became the Prime Minister. Then we were slandered for being against minorities and against women, which was not the case because women and minorities both participated in and supported the movement. Then the question of army; now the army were completely destroyed, now there came the question of anarchy and then the oil and then the women, et cetera. This is a revolution. A revolution has occurred; it takes a while for men to form the very basic foundation of it and create a society on it.
MacNEIL: Mr. Yuenger, you`ve just been in Iran. Other minorities in Iran -- racial minorities like the Jews or the Baha`i -- have expressed and been reported to fear greatly what their future will be. Were you aware of those concerns when you were there?
YUENGER: Yes, I was, and I remember during the rioting last November I was absolutely horrified and I remained haunted by the sight of signs on houses during the rioting that said on the front door, "No for engineers, no Jews, no Baha`is live in this house." I think that`s very scary, and I think it`s continuing.
MacNEIL: Mr. Rouhani, what is the position of the Jews and the Baha`is as minorities going to be?
ROUHANI: The minorities -- Jews, Christians, anyone -- anyone who`s in Iran in Muslim majorities, they`re Iranians, and they have as much right to Iran and to freedom as anybody else in Iran. And those isolated incidences that the other gentleman mentioned certainly cannot be generalized.
It is to be mentioned, when Ayatollah Khomeini went to Iran, even prior to his return to Iran, there have been strong statements of support from the Jewish community and the Jewish religious leaders.
MacNEIL: And what about the Baha`is?
ROUHANI: Well, we do not recognize Baha`is as a religious community, but they themselves can consider themselves a religious minority. They can have full religious freedom, political freedom, et cetera. And no one in Iran has ever done that and will, you know, just come and jeopardize the freedom, based upon their belief, whatever that is.
MacNEIL: In other words, you`re saying, Mr. Rouhani, that the Islamic state that you hope will materialize when all the constitutional process is gone through will tolerate dissent, political and social dissent.
ROUHANI: Precisely. So long as -- in fact, they can form parties, they can present nominees, et cetera -- so long as they do not conspire and engage in armed struggle against the right of the majority, then they`re allowed to do that. In fact, we think they should not do that because they will destroy the rights of other minorities and the majority. So it is a genuine full participatory democracy, and we`re resolved to that to the end.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Yuenger, let me just ask you, you said earlier that in Iran right now no one is really in control, and then you said there was a dual control. Who really is in control in Iran right now, from your observation?
YUENGER: Well, you`ve got two things going, Charlayne. One, you`ve got a rough form of sort of vigilante justice with armed bands of people going around making arrests, staging summary trials and executions and in general acting as police; that`s one half of it. The other half of it is what I referred to earlier as the technocratic side, the people who are trying to get the country moving again bureaucratically, getting the ministries working, getting the oil fields pumping and getting things back to normal.
HUNTER-GAULT: And do you see any conflict there between the Prime Minister, Bazargan, and the Ayatollah Khomeini?
YUENGER: An enormous conflict, an enormous one. As a matter of fact, just about a week ago, a bit more: the Prime Minister went to Qom, the holy city, where the Ayatollah Khomeini now lives, and I was having a conversation with a man who was there; and he told me that Bazargan said to Khomeini, "Look, this has gotto stop; I cannot run a government with this constant criticism that you are making." Just a couple of days earlier Khomeini had broadcast statement saying, "You are weak, sir, you are weak."
HUNTER-GAULT: And you don`t feel that`s been resolved.
YUENGER: I certainly do not.
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Rouhani, who`s running the government in Iran?
ROUHANI: The government is run by the Iranian people, the small committees which have been created by people; it is a popular mass revolution by people. It is not Bazargan`s movement, it is not any individual`s movement, it is the people`s movement. These committees in the course of time will join the government of Bazargan and thus create a sound government which is rooted in the society and is not...
HUNTER-GAULT: What about the vigilante justice Mr. Yuenger just referred to?
ROUHANI: Well, I do not see it in that way. They have sufficient documents in every trial, and the only reason that they did not make the trials public was because in case they had made it, the extent of the in formation was so moving that there would a wave, a mass of anger within the society that they would just take out and kill any people that they thought were Savak agents and so on. So that`s why they kept it secret, and even that they have stopped.
I`d like to mention that this duality in criticism, this is a real, genuinely democratic state. We do reserve the right of criticizing Bazargan and anybody else we want as Iranian people. By far Ayatollah Khomeini will have that right, and Bazargan will have that right. And it`s not like China, that the mere verbal attack at someone is going to create a purge or destruction of the government. It is the price of democracy; that this must be understood.
HUNTER-GAULT: Ms. Beck, do you have a view on that?
BECK:I think I agree with much that he says. I think I need to make the point that perhaps has not been made adequately enough, in that the revolution is still happening; it`s much too soon for many of us who sit here to make judgments on the situation. There are hopeful and good signs in many areas of the new government, and I think if we let the Iranians make their own society without repeating the past events of imperialism and so forth, the Iranians will manage to solve many of these problems on their own.
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Yuenger, do you agree with what both Ms. Beck and Mr. Rouhani seem to be implying, that a lot of what we`re seeing now is just the post-revolutionary shaking out, or do you feel that the country may indeed have more serious problems?
YUENGER: Well, I would agree to this extent, that revolutions are messy businesses and there always is a shaking-down period. What I`m worried about is that the current period of messiness, of indecision, of what appears to me really to be despotism at this point, is going to continue to the point that the country is going to have such serious economic troubles that it may be not able to recover for years, perhaps decades. That`s the next step, and I think that`s what everybody has to look forward to.
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Rouhani? Despotism?
ROUHANI: There`s certainly nothing of the despotism. How could a despotic regime allow such expression of the ideas and thoughts? Quite contrary to that which the gentleman said, the oil workers went back by the request of Ayatollah Khomeini, and it was the people of Iran who decided to run the economy; and it will be the people who will create the destiny in spite of all the things and slanders which are going to be made. And the supreme leader is Ayatollah Khomeini and the Prime Minister is Bazargan. And it`s the totality of this triangle which is going to create Iran for tomorrow.
HUNTER-GAULT: Do you foresee similar problems in terms of Iran rebuilding its economy as those that Mr. Yuenger referred to?
ROUHANI: Nothing of that extent. The oil, which was supposed to flow in eight weeks at least, they tried to resume it within four weeks and they did that. I think much sooner than most people would think, things are going to recover in our economy.
HUNTER-GAULT: How soon?
ROUHANI: Probably within a year everything will be normalized.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right; thank you.
ROUHANI: Thank you.
MacNEIL: Yes; thank you, Mr. Yuenger and Ms. Beck, for joining us in Chicago; and good night, Mr. Rouhani in Washington. Good night, Charlayne.
HUNTER-GAULT: Good night. Robin.
MacNEIL: That`s all for tonight. We`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
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- This episode features a discussion on Women's Rights in Iran. The guests are Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Shahriar Rouhani, Lois Beck, Jim Yuenger. Byline: Robert MacNeil
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