It is often thought that what is currently taking place in Iran, the continuation of what has unfolded there over the past three decades – violation of human rights, systematic discrimination against women, and belligerence toward the west – constitutes a rejection of modernity and its fruits. There are many reasons to find this view plausible. Soon after the victory of the Islamists in the revolution of 1979, most of the modernising efforts and institutions of the 55-year-old Pahlavi dynasty were either abandoned or completely reversed. Some of the most visible of these institutions pertained to women. During the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah, the state had taken some positive steps regarding the status and welfare of women. Some of the most flagrant institutionalised forms of discrimination and abuse were curbed, if not abolished, through the curtailing of arbitrary divorce by men, the institution of more women-friendly custody laws, and the restriction of polygyny.
With the establishment of the Islamic republic, most of the provisions of the Pahlavi era’s Family Protection Law were abandoned. Personal freedoms, which before the revolution were more or less tolerated, came under severe attack by the revolutionaries. Women were forced to don the hijab, and any form of resistance to the closely monitored dress codes for both men and women was met with harsh punishment, including public flogging. Ancient retribution laws that entailed the cutting off of thieves’ hands and the stoning of adulterers – which, in fact, had rarely been performed in medieval Iran – were enforced in many parts of the country.
Human rights, including freedom of belief, among the fundamental features of the modern world, received a fatal blow under the Islamic republic. Adherents of the Baha’i faith, for example, came under savage attack by the government and zealots soon after the revolution. Some 200 to 300 Baha’is were killed merely because they were not willing to recant their faith. Many more received long prison sentences. The property of thousands of Baha’is was confiscated and their children were deprived of education, especially of access to higher education. Even today many members of the Baha’i Faith face gross discrimination and many of their leaders are serving long prison sentences. After the brutal repression of the Green Movement, many more journalists, lawyers and civil society activists are in jail or under house arrest.
There is no doubt that the revolution and the Islamic republic that was established in its wake militated against and negated some of what we take to be the most important aspects of modernity. Yet, modernity is complex. Under closer analysis, it could become evident that what has been taking place in Iran over the past three decades might very well be the initial phases of modernity, whose emergence has often been Janus-faced in other parts of the world. The notion of modernity is a contentious one, surrounded by conflicting methods of analysis, value judgments, and sentiments.
Of particular relevance to Iran’s situation, there are some intellectual traditions that tend to view modernity in terms of transformations in the human psyche that empower individuals so that they are no longer passive, inactive, docile, compliant, idle, suffering, and resigned. From this point of view – shared in varying ways by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and Jürgen Habermas – modernity begins when a critical mass in a society abandons the life of passivity and acquires a sense of assertiveness, vigor, volition, resolve, and action. In a nutshell, modern people are not passive. They possess agency and power. They act upon the world. Moderns’ intervention in and acting upon nature constitutes the foundation of technology, which has liberated humans to some extent from the whims of nature and at the same time brought us close to thedestruction of both nature and ourselves.
Modern people also act upon society and politics as they assert their individual and collective power. This aspect of human agency and empowerment underlies the democratic institutions of modern societies. Democracy in the modern world is not possible without these fundamental transformations in the psyches of the people in a given society. We can install all the institutions of modern democracy, but without a critical mass in the society that has a sense of agency and empowerment these institutions will not survive. This happened in Iran (not to mention other countries) in the early 20th century. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906 laid the foundations of a restricted, constitutional monarchy, a parliament, a more or less free press, and free elections. But because a sense of agency and empowerment had not developed among the bulk of the Iranian people, none of these institutions could preserve their democratic character.. The Pahlavi period (1925-1979) witnessed some important degrees of development in the economy and education, as well as expansion of a centralised bureaucracy, military and urbanization. All of these promoted the sense of empowerment and agency among a growing number of Iranians, especially in the large cities and among the middle and the upper middle classes. Nevertheless, this sense of agency and thereby possessing human and citizenship rights was for the most part confined to the upper echelons of society and even among them it was experienced as a gift bestowed by the monarch and therefore not deeply internalized.
The observation may at first seem very counterintuitive, but the experience of Iran in the past three decades has brought a significant sense of agency and empowerment to average Iranians, especially those of the lower and lower middle classes. Ironically, this development may ultimately challenge the very existence of the Islamic republic as we know it. The revolution of 1979 galvanized and mobilized the “masses” of Iran like no other event in the country’s recent history. The participation of Iranians from all walks of life, especially the lower and lower middle classes, in political rallies, consciousness raising (as well as ideological indoctrination), formation of protest groups, and many other forms of social and political struggle toppled the Pahlavi dynasty. This collective action jolted ordinary Iranians and catapulted them into a form of agency, albeit rudimentary and contradictory.
The eight years of war with Iraq in the 1980s further promoted the sense of agency among Iran’s men, and to some extent its women (female participation in the war effort behind the front was significant). The conflict was inarguably devastating: it took a massive human toll, with between a quarter of million and one million Iranians killed or injured. It also further devastated what remained of the country’s physical infrastructure after the revolution. Yet, despite the massive human and physical damage that the war inflicted on Iran, it served to increase the sense of boldness and agency among its people.