Inside the Islamic Republic: Iranian reformism

Iran is a mysterious entity. Understanding how the theocracy and its institutions work and relate to the public is extremely complicated. Yet,  as a former history student, I have always been fascinated by ‘the land of the Ayatollahs’, a Shia Islamic Republic mainly surrounded by Sunni Arab nations. Most of all, I am really interested in the development and the evolutional trajectories of the diverse Iranian people after the 1979 Revolution.

How is life inside the Islamic Republic?

It’s extremely difficult to get an authentic glimpse into the life or Iranians – especially in the West. This is why the New York Times’ channel“Our Man in Teheran” is a unique and precious entrance into the new Persia. The NYT’s correspondent in Iran, the Dutch journalist Thomas Erdbrink, has been living in the country’s capital for almost 12 years, is married to an Iranian and speaks fluent Farsi. As he explained in his first video, however, he’s just starting to truly understand Iran and Iranians, a place and a people that are often identified with idyllic and “mythological” stereotypes and misconceptions.

Most of the videos featured on the channel tell a story behind a social or political issue by interviewing people and showing the public short cuts of everyday life. One of the main issues that has been central in the public discourse over the past decade is the role of women in the republic and their quest for equal rights. In the “The Martyr’s Daughter”, Najiyeh Allahdad, a supporter of the Islamic Revolution, explains why she thinks it’s her duty to fight for the ideals of the 1979 uprisings  and to confront the government when it doesn’t live up to them.

Najiyeh’s will to “protect” the revolution is part of a broader movement: reformism. Reforms embody the ideological continuation of revolutionary politics: the movement is in fact deemed to pursue collective liberal policies of the same political stamp of the monarchical and authoritarian dissent that brought Iranians to the street in 1979.

Throughout the 1980s, the forces that composed the core idealistic base of the 1979-8 uprisings, calling for freedoms and social justice, were removed from institutions and replaced by new actors, strongly connected to the radical clerical elites who set the framework to the revolution. This phenomenon contributed to the further polarisation of society and resulted in the emergence of reformism on a popular level.

As a consequence, throughout the 1990s, social movement emerged. Reformism spurred from this scenario: the growing consciousness of the people’s subordination to the state inflamed revolutionary politics. After the election of Katami in 1997 – the first reformist to become president – women’s movement became formally engaged in politics and challenged the view of what was perceived to be the “ideal” Muslim woman and her role.

The idea that people are not active players in the decision-making processes and in the evolution of Iran as a whole, is therefore a very simplistic vision. As a matter of fact, the relationship between the state and the people has increasingly changed over the past decades and is embedded in a greater phenomenon: the emergence of an Islamic civil society, increasingly capable of influencing the political discourse of Iran, in a system were contradictory polities will continue to be extensively challenged.

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