Iran: the Veiled Civilisation

A Precise Look behind the Scenes

The people's protest which followed the recent elections in Iran has led to revision of the image which the world has of the country. In her new book, Andrea Claudia Hoffmann shows how varied and contradictory Iran really is. Claudia Mende has been reading it

​​ Ever since the Islamic Revolution thirty years ago, the world has looked on Iran with a mixture of fascination and fright. It's the nuclear dispute and the anti-Israel excesses of President Ahmadinejad which define the image of Iran which is currently held by the West. The theocratic state is often described using terms such as mediaeval and backward.

Now, after the government put down of the protests against election fraud, hopes are fading that things will change any time soon.

"Iran: the veiled civilisation" ("Der Iran. Die verschleierte Hochkultur") (Diederichs, 2009) was written before the demonstrations in Tehran. Its author, Andrea Claudia Hoffmann, is a foreign correspondent for the German news magazine Focus; she has often been in Iran over the last ten years, and speaks fluent Farsi. The publisher's blurb promises a look behind the usual clichés, and readers will not be disappointed.

Iranian variety

They will find out about unexpected aspects of the country, and the book is a good introduction for all those who are not prepared to rest content with the superficial pictures of Iran which they get from most of the media.

Hofmann begins by describing the history of the ethnic mix of Persians, Arabs, Kurds, Azeris and a whole host of other smaller minorities. She explains the tensions between the country's pre-Islamic heritage and its Shi'ism, as well as the centuries-old cultural rivalry between Persians and Arabs, right up to the curious conflict over the use of the term "Persian Gulf" for the sea to the north of the Strait of Hormuz.

Tense relations with the West

Mohammad Mossadegh in military court after he was forced to resign in 1953 (photo: DW)
Mohammad Mossadegh: under his prime ministership Iran had been on the way to becoming a Western-style democracy. Mossadegh was toppled by the CIA and the British MI5 in 1953

​​ The country has been once before on the way to becoming a Western-style democracy. Under the prime ministership of Mohammad Mossadegh, the clergy were largely deprived of their power and a separation of religion and state seemed to be within reach.

Then Mossadegh nationalised the Iranian oil-fields and found himself on the wrong side of the United States. The CIA organised his fall in 1953 and brought the corrupt Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was to be a compliant partner for the West, back to the throne.

The putsch against Mossadegh led to massive mistrust of the West in Iran which continues to this day. In the end, the Shah attempted to bring about a brutal modernisation of the country from the top down, and that led, as is well known, to the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Hoffmann has no doubt as to the dictatorial nature of the Islamic Republic as Ayatollah Khomeini founded it. With welayat-e faqih – rule by Shiite scholars – as the country's governing principle, Khomeini was able to legitimate the clergy's monopoly on power and despotism at the head of the state in religious terms. Surprisingly, it was the Shiite clergy which was the only social group which was able to remain at least partly independent of this authoritarian system. As a result, among the sharpest critics of the system come from their ranks.

A Jewish old people's home in Tehran

A traditional Jewish wedding ceremony in Iran (photo: AP)
Even though Iran is virulently anti-Israel, Jews are allowed to build synagogues and hold services and other events without disturbance

​​A particularly interesting chapter is devoted to the position of religious minorities. Even though Iran is virulently anti-Israel, Jews are allowed to build synagogues and hold services and other events without disturbance. With 35,000 members, the Jewish community is in fact the largest in any Muslim country.

The synagogues are full and the communities are more active now than they were in the time of the Shah. There are eleven synagogues in Tehran alone, as well as a Jewish library, an old people's home, a cemetery and two Jewish restaurants. Hoffmann writes, "Jewish life is flourishing in the capital city of the Mullah's state."

She describes in detail the paradoxical situation of Iranian women, who find themselves between mediaeval law and a social emancipation which they ironically owe to the Islamic Revolution. Against the stereotypical picture of the oppressed woman in a black chador the author sets her own observations about the reality of women's lives in Iran, and comes to a more subtle conclusion.

Women's emancipation

The Mullahs themselves have inadvertently strengthened the position of Iranian women with literacy campaigns and free access to education. And in this lies a major difference between Iran and its Arab neighbours. There is virtually no illiteracy in the country: since schools and universities teach the sexes separately, parents have no longer any excuse not to send their daughters to school.

Two Iranian headscarfed women in a mosque (photo: DW)
Around 100 percent of Iranian women under thirty are literate. Ironically, they owe many achievements of their social emancipation to the Islamic Revolution

​​Around 100 percent of Iranian women under thirty are literate, and men are a minority at the universities, with around two thirds of students being women.

Hofmann describes women lawyers advising women clients as to how they can avoid the stringencies of Muslim law, by, for example, insisting on a list of special rights which future husbands have to sign before the wedding, so that the woman can continue to hold a passport, travel abroad or seek a divorce.

The young people will change Iran

Behind the pious exterior, the author finds an entirely different social reality. It's the strength of the book that it makes this reality visible with many concrete examples.

Iranian young people are well educated and well informed. Young people can speak foreign languages and surf in the internet. They make themselves independent of the information policies of the government with chat-rooms and blogs.

For Hofmann, the young people of Iran are "A sleeping tiger which will take the future of the theocratic state into its own hands." The heirs of the revolution will soon change their country – and that was something which Hofmann prophesied even before the current protests against the election.

Claudia Mende

© 2009

Andrea Claudia Hoffmann: "Der Iran. Die verschleierte Hochkultur" ("Iran: the veiled civilisation") Diederichs, 2009

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