It strikes me that I have a very different attitude towards what is going on in Egypt right now than I would have if I were younger and hadn’t witnessed the media coverage of the 1979 revolution in Iran.
I’m no expert on either situation, nor do I claim to be. I am merely writing from the perspective of a relatively aware and well-informed citizen of the United States, watching and reading news of events as they unfold. Granted, this is a highly incomplete and flawed picture; maybe that’s part of my point.
Iran got my attention back in 1979, even though, as a rule, I spent a lot less time then than now monitoring such things. It was a huge story, filled with drama: the Shah (who, along with his family, had been a telegenic media personality); the demonstrating youths; the creepy Khomeini, who looked like the Sorcerer in “Fantasia” (see photos here); and most of all the then-puzzling support of the left and the militant, modern-seeming women marching in the street and embracing the chador.
It was that last contradiction that floored me, although it would not make me blink an eye today. I have long grown used to the merging of those once-seemingly contradictory strains of human thought: leftists and feminists (somewhat redundant, I know) supporting an Islamic religious fundamentalism that would war against both movements the moment it got the chance.
To most of us, it didn’t seem possible that a modern country such as Iran would embrace the restrictive and despotic religious fanaticism of Khomeini and company. But it did, if only for a moment, just as Iranian women embraced the chador—at first. That was a fateful moment for Iran and the world, because the ayatollahs’ power, rapidly solidified and entrenched, has allowed no turning back (or you might say forward) for the over thirty years since. It turns out that those women and leftists were the ayatollahs’ useful idiots.
About the role of the chador in 1979:
During the 1979 Islamic Revolution many women deliberately chose to observe the Hejab, either in the form of wearing the veil or a scarf, as a sign of solidarity with Ayatollah Khomeini and a symbol of opposition to the Shah’s regime…For many women making the decision to wear the chador was not based on religious grounds, but it was a conscious effort to make a statement against the Pahlavi regime. It was against this backdrop that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 took place; a revolution, which one could argue, could not have taken place without the active involvement of women.
Ironically, Khomeini’s decree, requiring women to wear the chador, came on March 7th, 1979, a month after his return to Iran and one day before International Women’s Day. Energized and excited that they had achieved what they had fought so hard for, various women’s organizations in Tehran and all across Iran, had planned celebrations for marking International Women’s Day.
As Parvin Paidar notes, those celebrations quickly morphed into massive protests and demonstrations; “the protesters included young and old, rich and poor, veiled and unveiled”, just as women from all walks of life had marched in support of the revolution and Khomeini, they now were protesting against his policies on women’s rights. Thousands of women participated in spontaneous and massive protests against the Hejab.
Once again women were demanding their rights, only this time they were demanding it from the very government that they had hoped (and had promised) would ensure the protection of their rights. Despite the numerous meetings and protests that were held on Tehran University campus, the streets, and even at the Ministry of Justice, the women were unsuccessful in reversing the compulsory veiling decree.
To make matters worse, most of the political action groups, which many of the women were members of, failed to fully support the women in their opposition to the compulsory veil. Although some of these political parties condemned compulsory veiling in writing, they failed to support their words with action…
Something about the process of watching the Iranian Revolution unfold in real time, even from afar, made a deeper impression than any newspaper or history book ever could. Those of us who are old enough to remember the trajectory of events—the promises, the sanguine predictions, and the betrayals—that led to current-day Iran, are less likely to look on current events in Egypt with equanimity.
It is possible, of course, that the endgame in Egypt will not resemble that in Iran in any way. It is a different country and a different time. But those who watched the unfolding of Iran in the late 70s and early 80s cannot possibly shrug off the idea that there are ominous parallels.