Hope for Democracy in Iran

By Emadeddin Baghi
Monday, October 25, 2004

Originally at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A59941-2004Oct24.html

TEHRAN — Many people in the West believe that the deadlock in Iran’s
domestic politics blocks any hope for societal reform. But from my viewpoint
here in Iran, there is hope. Let me tell you why.

Society itself, not the government, creates change. And there are deep
transformations occurring in Iran. Out of sight of much of the world, Iran
is inching its way toward democracy.

The length of higher education in the country has been extended, absorbing
the flow of job-seeking youths. This has hastened the transformation of
thought and expectation in every corner of the country.

In military colleges, talk of human rights was, until very recently, totally
unacceptable. Now courses on human rights have become part of the
curriculum.

A 20 percent increase in the divorce rate is regrettable and worrisome, but
it is also a sign that traditional marriage is changing as women gain
equality. Other figures confirm this. Approximately 60 percent of university
students are women, 12 percent of publishing house directors are women and
22 percent of the members of the Professional Association of Journalists are
women.

In recent years some 8,000 nongovernmental organizations have been
established throughout the country. These NGOs undercut the power of the
state and fundamentalist ideas. Strengthening NGOs and civil institutions is
one of the principal and most practical strategies to achieve social
transformation.

In Baluchistan, one of the most deprived regions in the country, I was
astonished to find several nongovernmental organizations led by women.
“These women are so confident in what they are doing that they challenge
high officials and insist on their demands,” a local official told me.

In a village 80 miles east of Tehran, the people have established their own
local council. According to a prominent Iranian urban sociologist, “In terms
of its democratic structure this council could be regarded as exemplary.
Every decision is made through democratic procedures; NGOs are created to
support and inform the council on local affairs.”

Not long ago traditional religion held that only believers were entitled to
certain civil rights. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, one of the most
prominent Shiite leaders, says that all people, regardless of their faith,
are equally deserving of civil rights.

These are signs of a movement that will be impossible to stop. The state is
facing powerful, irreversible social pressure for reform. If this movement
is not responded to — or, even worse, if it is repressed — we would
welcome another revolution. We’ve learned from experience that a nonviolent,
smooth domestic transformation would be far preferable to any change imposed
from external sources.

Hope and courage are the main motives for change. I remain hopeful and
active in the Iranian movement to establish a democratic civil society.

The writer, a leading journalist and democracy advocate in Iran, was
prevented by authorities in Tehran from traveling to the United States this
month to accept the 2004 Civil Courage Prize. The State Department condemned
the action.