- Women and the 1979 Revolution: Refusing Religion-Defined Womanhood
There were unforgettable moments in the last few days of the 1979 uprising in Iran that after thirty years are vivid in my mind, notably the capture of the notorious Evin prison. After the collapse of Tehran’s military barracks, we had left the exuberant crowds on the streets and gathered at a friend’s house. At around six o’clock on the evening of 22 Bahman (11 February) the collapse of the Pahlavi regime was announced on the radio. At dawn the next morning it was further announced that Evin prison had fallen to the revolutionary forces. We soon joined the crowd waiting outside the prison and were swallowed in along with everybody else when the gates opened. Some people were crying; some were shouting for no apparent reason. We ran from one empty cell to another, from the interrogation rooms with their two-sided mirrors to the prison’s kitchen, where large pots of rice were still cooling on the counters, and from there to the prison’s rooftop, an intoxicating sense of triumph and joy prevailing in all the commotion. The shah’s regime had collapsed, and Evin prison had been captured by the people! The sense of guilt at exposing my ten-year-old son to such emotional turmoil and potential danger hit me only when the terrifying sounds of bullets fired at us from a hotel rooftop across the street forced us to the ground, where I tried to shield his small body. We managed to leave the prison unharmed. Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani’s words while visiting the prison that afternoon, that Evin would “be turned into a museum,” reflected the naive hopes and false sense of confidence that many felt on that cold and unforgettable February morning. But Evin’s gates were closed to the public the very next day, only to be reopened a few weeks later to new groups of prisoners whom the new regime considered guilty of various crimes. Thirty years after the revolution, and despite tons of scholarly and journalistic analyses and commentaries examining the Iranian revolution from different angles, one question still seems too complex to answer: could the uprising have taken a different turn, or, as is often suggested, given the hegemonic religious and political influence of the clergy, along with its effective networks and manipulative skills in appealing to the masses, could nothing the opposition did have blocked the Islamists’ ascendance to power?
Many of us who experienced and survived the memorable events of the revolution disagree. To me, and I know I am not alone in this assessment, the secular forces’ miscognition of the true character of the Islamists’ agenda and their remarkable manipulative talents, combined with their ability to use unthinkable forms of violence to oust the opposition, played a crucial role in the turn of events. The underlying assumption here is that the establishment of a religious autocracy was not inevitable in post-1979 Iran. Not to take into consideration the processes that made Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini the unchallengeable, sacrosanct leader of the revolution and that facilitated the ousting of all opposition, leading to the formation of an absolutist clerical state in place of the authoritarian monarchy, would be a mistake. [End Page 63]
We need to go beyond the taken-for-granted historical tales about the appeal of religious beliefs as the reason for the formation and consolidation of clerical power in Iran. The clerics’ skillful exploitation of religious beliefs granted, it was only one of many determining and detrimental elements in this process, including the regime’s success in overcoming women’s resistance to hijab (the Islamic dress code) and the Islamization of their social and legal rights, which indicated to the new ruler the tenacity of the opposition forces in standing up for democratic rights. What followed were the suppression of national minorities’ demands for self-determination; the suppression of the independent press; the takeover of the American embassy and the ensuing hostage crisis; the lengthy, futile war with Iraq; the brutal clampdown on the Left and other secular political organizations; and the clever use of existing police and...