Portraits of Two Islamist Women: Escape from Freedom or from Tradition?1



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Rahnavard and the Retreat from Modernism and Secularism

Dr. Zahra Rahnavard is married to Mir Hosain Musavi, a protégé of Khomeini in the early years of the Islamic Republic, and a former Prime Minister. She has an MA in the arts and a Ph.D. in politics. She is the author of a number of publications on art, literature, poetry, religion, and politics. Her writings have been translated into Turkish, Arabic, Urdu, and English. These include essays with titles such as, “The Uprising of Moses,” “The Colonial Motives for the Unveiling of Women,” “The Beauty of the Veil, and the Veil of Beauty,” “The Philosophy of Islamic Art,” “Islam, Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Arts,” and “Women, Islam, and Feminism in Imam Khomeini’s Thought.21 Rahnavard also has held several exhibits of her artistic works. Her large sculpture, “Mother,” is situated prominently in the middle of a busy Tehran square.22 In January 1999 she became president of the influential al-Zahra Women’s College in Tehran (previously called Madreseh-ye Ali-ye Dokhtaran), at present the only women’s university in Iran.23


Rahnavard was born in a religious family with Sufi inclinations and defines her life as a constant struggle between “modern and traditional” values.24 She grew up in the early 1950s in a large extended family where forty to fifty relatives – uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, parents and grandparents – all lived in one large house. Both her powerful grandmother, who headed the clan after her grandfather’s death, and her mother were intensely religious.25 Orthodox Shi’ism is a religion of rituals and one’s piety is measured by one’s observance of such rituals. Rahnavard describes her grandmother as a scrupulous observer of the religious rituals of pollution and purification. She was a constant presence in their lives and insisted that the grandchildren follow her example. She also took them to visit the shrines of Shia saints: “Through religious narratives she repeated the lessons of ritual purity and cleanliness over and over.”26 Rahnavard’s mother came from an artisan family. She believed that all actions on earth were preordained by God and were a daily response to the worldly sins we committed: “If my foot hit the door accidentally and hurt she would immediately ask, ‘What sin have you committed?’ She constantly reminded us of God’s punishments.”27
Rahnavard’s father was a military instructor at the War Academy who was torn between his religious devotions, his tribal affiliations, and his commitment to the military and the nation. His resentment toward American military officers in Iran eventually led to his forced retirement at age forty.28 He then began to give clandestine military instructions to religious dissidents who had joined the camp of Khomeini. On the maternal side, Rahnavard’s family claimed to be related to Navvab Safavi (1923-56) the influential religious leader of the militant Feda’iyan-e Islam, the group responsible for the assassination of the prominent historian, Ahmad Kasravi, in 1946. The Feda’iyan-e Islam also opposed many of the cultural innovations associated with modernity in the 1940s and the 1950s.29
A very bright student who ranked first in her classes, Rahnavard was like many others introduced to an underground stream of Existentialist and Marxist literature in high school in the 1960s. She claims that, “except for Marx’s Capital I have read nearly all other works by Marx and Engels.”30 She also became interested in psychology and the arts. Rahnavard had great trouble, however, reconciling her new found political and philosophical interests with her religious commitments and artistic inclinations. The democratic principles of a modern society, plurality of organizations, of newspapers, and of institutions were appropriate goals to her. But Rahnavard could not accept the alternative value system that modernity brought about. “Like two edges of a pair of scissors, Marxism and Modernism had declared a war against traditions and Islam.”31 What she particularly abhorred in modernity was the rejection of religious rituals and traditions and the advocacy of “sexual and moral freedoms”: The modernization that the Shah and his American masters had planned for Iran involved opposition to religion, the elimination of beautiful Islamic and national symbols, an emphasis on appearance and frivolity, Westernization, and sexual and ethical freedoms. Alongside such cultural goals, the political autocracy, dependent capitalism, the lack of political parties, the chaos in the government continued. Despite the efforts of many authentic [Muslim] families, this modernization was infecting families and corrupting the young generation.32
By her own account, Rahnavard did not find much support for her views among her high school teachers and college professors; as a result, she felt even more isolated. The progressive teachers of her high school in the 1960s, many of whom also had leftist sympathies, encouraged her greater political awareness, but frowned upon her religious explanations of events and insisted that she abandon what they considered to be her irrational, simple, and mystical beliefs.33 She reports that at the Teachers’ Training College of Tehran, one of her teachers accused Muslims who participated in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and circled the shrine of the Ka’bah of actually being “idol” worshippers, something severely proscribed by Islam.34
Iranian society had experienced a period of greater political freedom from 1941 to 1953. A number of liberal and left-wing political parties, such as the social democratic National Front or the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party were formed in this period and attracted tens of thousands of young students to their ranks. After the progressive nationalist government of Dr. Mohammad Mosadeq was overthrown in a U.S.-British orchestrated coup in August 1953, the reinstated Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi banned political parties and set up an extremely authoritarian political system. Many leftwing and liberal activists of the 1940s, however, had become teachers and professors by the 1960s and 1970s. They continued to express a fervent belief in social and scientific progress and an equally passionate opposition to Western imperialism, aimed especially at the United States. Rahnavard was attracted to these left-wing ideologies and began to explore the class contradictions of Iranian society. As a teacher, she was particularly appalled by the impoverished lives of her young students, whose parents often were unemployed and addicted to drugs. At the same time, however, she could not accept the secular perspectives of her own professors, or many of her college classmates at the Teachers’ Training College and was convinced that they had been “brainwashed” by the government and by the West. When Rahnavard began to politicize her young students against the U.S. backed government, she was fired from her teaching job; authorities accused her of mental instability.35
Out of a job, and unwilling to marry immediately, Rahnavard decided to pursue graduate studies in Islamic Arts. Tehran University in the early 1970s was a hotbed of left-wing ideologies, ranging from Existentialism to various forms of Marxism, such as pro-Soviet Communism and Maoism.
The overthrow of Mosadeq in 1953, the US war in Vietnam, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, all helped produce a new generation of left-wing intellectuals who were highly critical of the West. They attacked not only Western political and economic domination, but also Western cultural values. An exception, however, was the Art Department, which was supported by Empress Farah Diba and received substantial funding from the government for projects aimed at modernizing Iranian art. According to Rahnavard, “It was one of the Shah’s greatest investments. [He hoped] to train a new generation [of artists] who could revamp the art and culture of this nation and defile it with cultural colonialism.”36 During these years Rahnavard studied art history, exhibited her works, became involved in the student movement, and joined clandestine left-wing groups. However, she defines these years as some of the “bleakest” and loneliest ones of her life, calling them her “period of annihilation,” and suggests that, once the religious scaffolding of her thinking cracked, she was no longer capable of making any sense of her world. Good and bad, proper and improper, sin and virtue, all became one big muddle:
I was like a speck of dust floating between the sky and the earth ... Nothing seemed to be in its proper place. An unrelenting earthquake, spewing tormenting verses everywhere ... if someone, in describing an event, said that such and such an incident was good, I would be baffled by their ability to judge. Good and bad were ambiguous terms to me. I would ask, `by what measure is it good or bad’ and my friends would laugh at me... I only had one clear classification in my mind. Based on my old teachings in the family I divided all events and things into two types: Worldly and Godly. Foods, objects, colors, accidents, people, shapes, even times of the day, clothing, directions, were either of a material, worldly nature or of a godly nature.37
Rahnavard, who was brought up in a strict religious environment, where everything and everyone had its proper place, had entered a new phase of her life. She was being influenced by her teachers and her more modernist classmates to abandon some of her basic religious beliefs, re-evaluate others, and develop a new secular concept of ethics that was in more harmony with the expectations of a modern world. Unable to do so, she initially withdrew into herself and her studies, while her sense of isolation from others intensified. Eventually, she turned to religious studies. By the late 1960s, Rahnavard had found a group of like-minded friends, both inside and outside the university, and had become an Islamist political activist. In 1969, she married Mir Hussein Musavi, who shared her strong religious devotion and criticism of Western cultural values: “I thought he was a godly person whose eyes were focused on the heavenly horizon. There was something in him other than materiality.”38 They married in a very simple ceremony. She wore no wedding gown and there was no customary feast for friends: “We were not happy. How could one be happy when the fully armed government tortured the youth?” It was “just the union of two people who were moving in the same [political] direction,” a struggle to the point of “martyrdom.”39 In this description of her marriage, she, therefore, plays down any sexual or emotional feelings and also the fact that this was a non-traditional marriage, hardly arranged.
Eventually, Rahnavard joined the circle of Ali Shariati, the Sorbonne educated Muslim theologian, whose lectures at the Hoseiniyeh Ershad Theological Seminary, as well as his publications, helped to galvanize a new generation of students. Shariati called for a revolutionary interpretation of Shi’ism, one that was based on social justice and concern for others. He advised the acceptance of Western technology and science, but rejected much of the rest of Western culture, particularly its sexual mores.40 In the early 1970s, Rahnavard began to teach art to women at the Hoseiniyeh Ershad. By 1974, Rahnavard had organized an Islamist art exhibit at the Hoseiniyeh Ershad, was running a study group in which students read Shia religious texts, and had published two small books, The Migration of Joseph and The Uprising of Moses. During these years, when Rahnavard maintained an active political life, her mother helped raise her two small children. When the government cracked down on Shariati’s Seminary, Rahnavard, who was known as one of the first Islamist woman writers to challenge the Pahlavi regime, fled abroad with her children.41 In 1976, she joined the left-wing Confederation of Iranian Students in the United States. In 1977, when the Confederation splintered into various subgroups, Rahnavard sided with the Islamist wing. She returned to Iran shortly before the Revolution and through Musavi’s personal acquaintances, joined the circle of Khomeini supporters.42
Erich Fromm had turned to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to express a common human sentiment, wherein a person has “no more pressing need than the one to find someone to whom he can surrender, as quickly as possible, that gift of freedom which, he, the unfortunate creature was born with.”43 Eliminating the self-reduced burden of freedom. Fromm argued that, for some individuals, “moral aloneness” and “lack of relatedness to values, symbols, and patterns” were as “intolerable as psychical aloneness.” As a result, human beings turned to “religion or nationalism for refuge from what man most dreads: isolation.”44 Likewise a generation of Iranian students (though not all) willingly placed their fate, and that of their nation, in Khomeini’s hands. The radical intellectual rupture with modernity and the task of rebuilding Iran after the Shah’s departure were simply awesome projects. Many unquestioningly followed Khomeini’s leadership, claiming he could build an entirely different society by returning to traditional religious values and breaking decisively with the cultural legacy of the West. As a young urban Iranian woman who lived in Iran in the 1970s, I also remember the intense sense of alienation that my classmates and I experienced. The new reforms in education, health, and hygiene, the possibility of attending college and delaying marriage, and the new mass media that exposed us to the more open gender roles of the West, all alerted us to new social and economic choices available to women. These changes had begun to redefine gender relations, family values, and the whole concept of sexual morality. Rahnavard belonged to this generation of Iranian women who attended modern schools, went to the university, and lived a life that seemed to offer many new choices, certainly more than those available to her mother and grandmother. By becoming a political activist in the Islamist movement, Rahnavard found a compromise solution. She retained many of the old ethical principals, without abandoning her desire for new ones, such as an advanced education or professional and economic progress for women.

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