Land where women can really clean up

July 2, 2004

If Iranian men divorce, they have to give their wives back pay for housework. As the West pushes for democracy in Iraq, Huw Richards asks if we should be focusing on its more liberal neighbour, in our democracy around the world series.

Supporters of the war against Iraq may have been right in arguing that there is a Middle Eastern state capable of developing into a functioning democracy. It is just that they chose the wrong country.

Despite last week's debacle over the seizure of the British patrol boat crews, many academics believe that Iran might provide a "more promising" model to take democracy forward, given its pluralist political system. This may come as a surprise to those of us whose images of Iran were largely formed during the last of its three 20th-century revolutions, in the late 1970s. Memories of bemused US hostages, rampantly rhetorical mullahs and of the Ayatollah Khomeini pronouncing his fatwah against Salman Rushdie resonate most clearly.

The theocratic reaction that generated those images still wields considerable power, and Iran is clearly not a democracy yet. But the reality, like Khomeini himself - as Ali Ansari of Exeter University points out, a much more sophisticated and broad-minded figure than was generally credited - is more complex. Anoush Ehteshami, professor of international relations at Durham University and head of its Centre for Iranian Studies, says: "Iran is a unique case globally, where theocracy cohabits with democratic forms."

Haleh Afshar, professor of politics at York University, points out: "If you define democracy at the basic level of people voting, then Iran is as democratic as the US or Britain. There is universal suffrage from the age of 16, with regular presidential, parliamentary and local elections. Those at local level are relatively free and democratic, but they become more complicated as you go up the scale."

Ehteshami says: "There are regular elections, and officials rotate through the system. Presidents and parliaments come and go. Councillors and mayors are elected, and people move from office to office. Parliament can quiz ministers, while there are checks and balances in the system that appear to be working."

Voting is at a high level in Iranian elections, unlike the falling participation in the West. "People do not feel that their vote will make no difference. Young people are particularly committed and will follow their votes with action," Afshar says.

That vigour is reflected in debate and through the press. "There are debates of a level and intensity that simply don't happen elsewhere in the Middle East," Ehteshami says.

Afshar, a former journalist, points to a strong, independent media. But "the press is not totally free," she says. "Critical papers are put under pressure and may be closed. But for each one that closes, another opens."

Magazines such as the campaigning feminist journal Zanan have, she argues, wielded considerable political influence.

The limits of pluralism were, however, exposed by the parliamentary elections in February. The Council of Guardians, a 12-strong body is, in theory, divided evenly between the appointees of religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamane'i and those of Parliament. "If it worked as it is supposed to, according to the constitution, it would be a good idea. In practice, it works as a packed Supreme Court, and the parliamentary nominees have no influence," Ansari says.

The Guardians, whose role is to ensure that the actions of the state conform with Sharia (Islamic law), ruled out more than 2,500 candidates for the 290 seats in Parliament. And, Ehteshami points out, "they have still to explain their reasons for doing so". It was, he says, "a cynical use of religion for political ends".

The previous Parliament had a majority of about 160 defined as reformers.

Ehteshami points out that one of the characteristics of Iranian politics is a multiplicity of overlapping factions, as opposed to a formal party structure, but most will have been broadly supporters of the reform programme associated with President Seyyid Mohammed Khatami. The new house has a conservative majority of about 40.

The rule of law is also far from uniform. Ehteshami says: "If you fall foul of a local judge who thinks that you have in some way insulted Islam, you can be in very serious trouble."

Afshar adds that political activism takes courage - Amnesty reports that there are scores of political prisoners, many who are being tortured and some who face execution. "Dissent is not easy in any society. I know that in Britain it is possible to be arrested, possibly unreasonably, and ill-treated. But I do know I will not be tortured. That is not the case in Iran, and it makes a great deal of difference," Afshar says.

A move by Parliament to outlaw torture was vetoed in 2002 by the Council of Guardians.

But there has been much progress despite these drawbacks, not least in women's rights. "Women now comprise more than 50 per cent of students. They used to be banned from large parts of universities, but there are now only two or three such faculties left," Afshar says.

Similarly, after being removed from judgeships, women have worked their way back into the legal system and there is a handful of female parliamentarians.

Afshar points to legislation on women's rights and divorce as particularly significant. "Under Islamic law, women should be paid by their husbands for housework. That doesn't happen very much in Iran, but legislation has been passed that, when a man divorces his wife, he has to give her back pay."

That eye-catching law illustrates two points - first the sheer persistence of Iranian feminists. "It had to be introduced four times. Every time it was rejected, they went back and eventually wore down resistance," Afshar says. The second is that Islam is not as inflexible as it might look from the outside. "Nobel peace laureate and feminist Shirin Ebadi and her allies argue that Islam and human rights are not just compatible but that they cannot be separated and have been very successful in piloting laws through Parliament."

However Iran develops, Afshar expects it to remain an Islamic state.

Nevertheless, she says: "There are a large number of young people, totally disillusioned with Islam, who will create pressure for change."

Ehteshami similarly notes secular attitudes: "Iranian society is in fact quite materialistic, like the US, with people wanting to make a quick buck and progressing socially by making money. Much of the population loves American-style fast food and music and has no phobia about globalisation."

He thinks it is possible that Iran might evolve over the next 20 years into something like a constitutional monarchy, with the religious leader as a sort of monarch operating alongside more democratic structures. "We must not assume it would look like a Western democracy," he says. "Iranians would want something that suits them, not an imitation of Britain or France."

But has a good chance already been missed? Ansari argues that the West missed a historic opportunity after the first election of Khatami in 1997.

"If they were serious about helping democracy in the Middle East, this is where all the pieces were in place. Something like a favoured-nation trade agreement would have helped Khatami enormously when he was wrestling with the consequences of low oil prices. Iran was open to better relations, and it would have been much harder to defeat the Taleban in the war on Afghanistan without its assistance. Instead, the next thing Iran heard was the 'axis of evil' speech."

He argues that Khatami and his government failed - "They're more than capable of missing opportunities by themselves," Ansari says - but the West also failed to engage or try to understand the difficulties facing reformers in the Middle East. "This isn't Eastern Europe, and this wasn't going to be some Velvet Revolution. It would have been much tougher, but the opportunity was there. Instead they played into the hands of the hardline conservatives in Iran."

Western eyes will be on Iraq as we wait to see how this week's handover of power plays out. But a little more attention to the country next door may yet pay better democratic dividends.

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