The mullah who made me change my views on Islam

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The Independent Culture
IN TEHRAN a few days ago, an ayatollah called Mohsen Kadivar was sentenced to 18 months in prison. In Iran, his arrest and detention, his trial and now his sentence have produced waves of protest. Hundreds of students have demonstrated at Tehran University for his release; streets have been plastered with "Free Kadivar" posters; and more than 200 journalists have signed a petition demanding his freedom.

But why on earth should Westerners care if an Iranian mullah is thrown in jail? Aren't those bearded ayatollahs in their turbans the enemy of everything we care for? They run a murderous regime; they force women to cover their heads; they sentence Salman Rushdie to death; they stop ordinary Iranians drinking alcohol or dancing or listening to music.

All that is true, and yet the news of the arrest of this ayatollah gave me a sudden shock. Partly that is simply because I once met him - and rather liked him. At the end of last year, I was in Tehran to research the changing position of women. By a series of strange chances, on my last day in the city I found myself sitting in Mohsen Kadivar's book-lined study. It's hardly usual for an Iranian clergyman to give an interview to a Western feminist but, as it was, we talked for more than an hour about his views on women and Islam.

And during the time I spent with him I found myself intrigued by this mullah as I never thought I would be by any religious leader. Certainly, our views and values were miles apart, but as he spoke to me I began to see Iran and Islam not just as some immovable monolith. I began to hear whispers of change and movement rustling round the room.

"It says in the Koran," he told me, "that a woman should be paid by her husband for working in the house, for cleaning, for breast-feeding. She can even say, `I don't want to do this work, I need a servant', and her husband has to pay for this. This is in Islam, that he has to do this. But what Iranian woman is getting this?"

So this Muslim cleric was prepared to argue for wages for housework, based not on a reading of Germaine Greer or Shulamith Firestone, but on his reading of the Koran. We tend to see Islam as the great force holding women back in the East. But Kadivar wanted to convince me that it is not Islam in itself that is the problem for women in the East, but old patriarchal structures of culture and family life that stand in their way. "The problems women have in this society are cultural, habitual, not religious," he argued. "Look at the economic independence of women. In the Koran we see that women can work and earn money, but our culture is limiting women's economic independence."

And even where religious law conflicted directly with the women's demands for more justice, this ayatollah was prepared to cede ground. One of the most pressing problems that women in Iran face right now is the problem of child custody. Since religious texts state that men have an automatic right to custody of their children, women who are trapped in unhappy or even violent marriages too often feel forced to stay with their husbands. Debate and reform on that issue are currently pressing ahead, to the horror of religious conservatives. Could Kadivar see the need for fundamental reform - even if it went against the teachings of his religion? "If a father is not suitable, custody should be given to the mother," he said definitely. So he was prepared to lend his weight to one of the most vital struggles that women are now undertaking in Iran.

Mohsen Kadivar is one of the voices of a new Iran. He is a friend and aide of President Khatami, and his sister, Jamileh Kadivar, is a liberal MP and married to Ataollah Mohajerani, the culture minister who has overseen a liberalisation of the press and the film industry. This new Iran is in a process of constant struggle; Kadivar is in prison; several prominent dissidents were assassinated at the end of last year; and liberal newspapers and magazines are routinely closed down. But, in a way, it is not so much Kadivar's arrest that is so striking, as all the other voices that have been raised in his support. The protests that have been made to demand his freedom speak of the confidence that so many people find to resist the country's hardliners.

The religious sphere and the political sphere - in so far as those spheres are ever separable in Iran - are all buckling and changing as the effects of these rebellions are felt. Over the weekend the hardliners in the parliament, the Majlis, tried to carry a vote of no confidence against Ataollah Mohajerani, Kadivar's brother-in-law. They were aiming to remove him from power so that the explosion of a more liberal press could at last be reversed. They failed, by 121 votes to 135, as many independent deputies threw their weight against the conservatives. This failure will have an incalculable effect on the culture of the parliament, where the conservatives were previously assumed to have the upper hand. Above all, President Khatami remains untouchable, an inspiration for all the rebels, with his immense popularity and his ability to make gradual links with the West without abandoning Islam.

The growing confidence of the liberals has affected every aspect of everyday life. When I was in Iran last year I was struck by the women I met who nonchalantly wore nail polish and pushed their scarves back on their heads, who listened to Western music and watched satellite television. All of those actions are, in theory and often in practice, punishable, and many non-political women spoke of their arrests and the floggings they have suffered. But there is a new and growing confidence among modern Iranians that means that such rebellion is now taken for granted.

For every setback for the new Iran, there are successes. For every voice that is silenced, others are raised. For every person who is arrested, others are demanding more freedom. On the first day of Kadivar's trial, his sister, Jamileh, stood in front of the television cameras and said: "This court is worse than the executioners of the Shah's regime." It was an amazingly brave thing for an Iranian woman to say publicly, and it spoke vividly of the bravery of countless Iranians who are now prepared to act to change their society.