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Monday, 29 July, 2002, 14:39 GMT 15:39 UK
Iran: The pressure for change
In the third of his series on Islam and modernity, Roger Hardy visits Iran to find out where the Islamic revolution is heading.
Five years ago young men and women flocked to the polling stations in Iran to elect a new president.
They voted for Mohammad Khatami, a gentle, smiling cleric who offered them a better life. But five years on, the better life has not arrived.
Or is it trapped between tradition and modernity?
Nazila Nobashari works for an international transport company which belongs to her family.
She is a successful businesswoman from a middle-class family. But it is not just women like her who have entered the workforce since the Islamic revolution 23 years ago.
Empowered by revolution
The lives of ordinary women - women from conservative backgrounds - have also changed dramatically.
"I believe it started with demonstrations in the streets against the regime - the Shah's regime. All over, it was being done by women, and they were very much present in these demonstrations," Nazila Nobashari.
The empowerment of women is an ironic consequence of a revolution led by bearded old men.
But as you walk in the streets of Tehran, two things are especially striking.
One is how visible women are, and how openly they flout the Islamic dress code, with their expensive make-up and jewellery, and their colourful headscarves, often worn far back on the head.
The other thing that is striking is the youthfulness of the population.
Three-quarters of the people are under 30.
According to some students at Tehran University, the process of change has not gone nearly far enough.
"There are some common demands, like democracy. But there are others, like the deep need for people to be allowed to express themselves without pretending something - just freely express themselves," one female student said.
The conservative clergy have - implicitly at least - acknowledged that they have alienated the younger generation.
Over the last few years, they have tried to ease some of the restrictions that have really irked young people in Iran - for example, by relaxing the dress code - at least a little, and by allowing the emergence of an officially sanctioned pop music.
The mullahs are on the whole slow to change - and they also disagree among themselves about the pace and direction of change.
The city of Qom, about one-tenth the size of Tehran, is at the centre of Islamic learning in Iran.
It is a lot more conservative. Here, the black chador - the head-to-toe covering - is universal.
Ayatollah Mehdi Hadavi, who teaches in the seminary at Qom, is young, educated and media-savvy.
In fact, he has been nicknamed "ayatollah.dot.com".
He disagrees that it is necessarily anti-democratic for conservative Muslims to close down a reformist newspaper or use the courts to lock up people who take a different point of view.
"If it is outside the judicial system, or it is outside the framework of the law - yes, it is against democracy, and it is not accepted by Islam," Ayatollah Mehdi Hadavi said.
"But if it is inside the framework of the law, and if it is within the responsibilities of the judiciary system, I think it is not against democracy."
"When you're talking about equal rights, you're looking at the issue from a Western point of view. You think that, if the woman and man are equal in rights, then this is justice. But I don't think so, because Islam has accepted the differences between men and women," Ayatollah Hadavi said.
"If we accept they are different, from a physical point of view, and also from the point of view of their role of society, then the law should try to take care of their main roles in society. And Islamic law has tried to take care of these roles."
Series of autocratic rulers
For most of the 20th century, Iranians experienced a series of autocratic rulers, with only brief intervals of democracy.
Last in line was Mohammed Reza Shah, who came to the throne during World War II - the Shah who was toppled in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
To its critics, the Islamic revolution of the late 1970s was a retreat into the past.
The Majlis, the Iranian parliament, is a stronghold of the reformists - the allies and supporters of President Khatami.
Out of 290 MPs, there are 12 women. But Iranian feminists know that equality is a long way off.
The reformist camp has fought a series of battles with the conservatives over the age of consent for marriage (nine for girls, 15 for boys), the equality of women before the law, press freedom, human rights and a host of other issues.
He is an important figure not just because he is an outspoken intellectual whose views have landed him in jail.
He matters because he is a cleric who criticises the system from within. So does he see a contradiction between modernity and Islam?
"There are two ways of looking at modernity. The first is to say it's like a suit made by a Western tailor - a suit that only fits Western society," Mohsen Kadivar says.
"The second way is to look at modernity as a concept which started in the West but doesn't have either a Western or an Eastern identity.
"A religious society can never accept everything that modernity might provide. In implementing modernity you can't override Islamic values. So if you see modernity as an ideology then, yes, it's Western. But if you see it as a process, then it's not tied to any specific place."
The reformists have the majority of the people on their side, but the conservatives - unelected but well-entrenched - have shown, time and again, that real power resides with them.
So will change - which many see as inevitable - be violent or peaceful? Will it be gradual or abrupt?
Mohsen Sazagara, was one of the founders of the Pastaran, the Revolutionary Guard - the shock troops of Khomeini's revolution.
"If you involve religion in governmental affairs, if you involve religion in military affairs and you make religion an ordered religion, then you can be sure that you will damage the religion more than everything. I think that it would be better to get rid of Islamism to save Islam," Mr Sazagara said.
This is a radical view, implying that the marriage of religion and politics in Iran has failed - and there should now be a divorce.
The reformists argue the country has to become a democracy in which the clergy share power with others.
When asked how long this might take, a leading reformer confidently said five to six years.
The mullahs have failed to find a formula for running a modern country, and in the process have alienated large sections of society.
One of the consequences of this failure - paradoxically perhaps - is that it is producing some bold new thinking about Islam and modernity.
The reformists are offering a way out and a transition to full democracy.
But this is a solution which, for the moment, their opponents are unwilling to accept.
Waiting for the dawn: Muslims in the Modern World will be broadcast on BBC World Service at the following times:
Programme One: Egypt
Broadcast time: Fridays 1830GMT/1930BST
Repeats: Tuesdays 0930GMT/1030BST
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