Activists for women’s rights are prominent among the many Iranians who fear a reinvigorated crackdown on personal and social freedoms in the wake of the surprise election of the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency of the Islamic Republic. Though Ahmadinejad sought to soften his image on gender issues during the week before the runoff on June 24, 2005, even speaking against “sexist attitudes,” his electoral base on the far right continually agitates for a harder line. His base is particularly offended by the looser standards of “Islamic dress” for women and the freer mixing of the sexes in public places that have slowly developed over the two terms of President Mohammad Khatami, who will vacate his office on August 4.
Prosperous and possessed of a spirited parliament, Kuwait has prided itself on being a standard setter among the Arab monarchies on the Persian Gulf. With respect to women's rights, however, today Kuwait ranks just above Saudi Arabia. Kuwaiti women are allowed to drive and they occupy positions in public life ranging from secretary to second-level government ministers, but like their sisters in Saudi Arabia, they can neither vote nor run for political office.
Not so long ago in Egypt, elections for the parliament, bar association and press syndicate, as well as presidential referenda, were dismissed as mere beautifying accessories for an incorrigibly authoritarian regime. In 2005, several developments promise to accentuate the significance of these once nugatory rituals.
Student demonstrations in December 2002 revealed yet again the depth of public sentiment favoring political and economic reform in Iran. But the loose coalition of reformists under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami has been unable to harness this “reserve power of revolution” to push its program through to fruition. Crises engendered by the conservatives, a persistent sense of encirclement by foreign enemies and the reformists’ own failures have all contributed to the Iranian impasse.
From Washington to the Arab summit, there has been much discussion lately of reformism in Saudi Arabia, but few have heard from grassroots voices within the pro-democracy movement itself.
The United States has acted as though it were introducing reform notions where they previously did not exist. But the truth is that for decades there have been intellectuals and citizens within Saudi Arabia pushing tirelessly and against great odds for change.
After a court in Iran sentenced dissident academic Hashem Aghajari to death for challenging clerical rule, several thousand university students took to the streets in Tehran. They protested for about two weeks before the government threatened to crack down and declare a state of emergency. No one has forgotten the government’s hard-line response, in July 1999, to crowds rallying against the closure of a liberal newspaper. Most of the student protesters rounded up then remain in jail.
Sai’id Hajjarian, a leading theorist of the democratic Islamist new left, is one of President Khatami’s closest political advisers. In 1998 he ran for the Tehran City Council, receiving the second largest number of votes. Hajjarian is also the official permit holder for the daily Sobh-e Emrooz and serves on the central committee of the Participation Front, the main left-wing Islamic democratic party. In the early 1980s he was a vice minister in the Intelligence Ministry, and later headed the political bureau of the president’s Strategic Research Center. This interview was conducted on May 19, 1999 and translated from Persian by Kaveh Ehsani.