Journalist Laura Secor has been reporting about political and economic issues in Iran since 2004. Secor is a former staff editor of the New York Times op-ed page; before that, she was a reporter for the Boston Globe, acting executive editor of The American Prospect, and a senior editor and writer for Lingua Franca.
This Tuesday, we’re lucky to have her at the Walker to discuss some of the issues being depicted in the series Views from Iran, which starts tonight with the film About Elly. Secor’s talk will move Walker audiences behind the sound bite and into the lives of Iranian’s caught between their government and their own desire for personal freedoms. I talked with her about some of these issues in this great interview I did with her earlier this week.
What initially drew you to reporting about Iran?
My first job in journalism was at a small magazine called Lingua Franca, which was geared toward academics but had really evolved into a magazine that covered the intersection between intellectual life and politics. I reported on the intellectual currents in the Balkans and Eastern Europe in the late 1990s, during a time of war and transition when these debates – particularly those over the role of nationalism – really seemed to matter in those countries. My first major story was about an influential intellectual circle in the former Yugoslavia, which splintered along ethnic lines after Tito fell. Some of its members became the ideologues of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Serbia. Through this work I became interested in the role, both intended and unintended, of ideas and their purveyors in making history.
After 9/11, the focus of the American media shifted decisively to the Middle East. It was during that time that my gaze naturally fell on Iran, because of all the countries of its region, this was the one where ideas mattered as much as, and frankly more than, they had in Eastern Europe. Iran was a country with a rich intellectual tradition, engaged in a very complex and ambivalent way with the intellectual traditions of the West, particularly France and Germany. Philosophy was a real currency there, in a way that is hard for us to imagine. Thousands of young Iranians show up to hear philosophers speak on university campuses. Like poetry, philosophy provides coded language that offers cover for forbidden politics.
I was interested in trying to understand the content of the debate over Islamic reform that was percolating through Iran’s campuses and journals. At a time – after 9/11 – when Americans were desperate to make sense of what united and what divided the West from the Muslim world, I was drawn to the stories that showed that our histories, and our trains of thought, were intertwined nearly from the root. Iran seemed like such a place. These were the years when a handful of Iranian religious intellectuals had come out with a revised, more moderate and democratic vision of the role of Islam in politics, and their work produced first a political movement and then a social one which drew on sources both Iranian and Western.
I went to Iran for the first time in 2004, expecting to see an Islamic reformation in full flower. Instead, I arrived at a moment of closure. The highest leadership in Iran had decided that it could not tolerate the movement – intellectual, political, cultural – for reform, and starting that winter, it had begun to attempt to stuff the genie back in the bottle. When I showed up in October of 2004, reformist activists and journalists were caught off guard by a wave of arrests and of closures of newspapers and NGOs. I came back for the presidential election in 2005 that brought Ahmadinejad to power. By then I was hooked on the story of the reform movement – its promise, its contradictions, its generational rupture and what appeared to be its tragic end. More than that, I was deeply invested in the lives and shifting fortunes of some of the people I met and continued meeting on my trips to Iran.
In Rakshan Bani-Etemad’s film We Are Half of Iran’s Population, she asks the question, “What do Iranian women want?” In your experience reporting there, what do you think women want from the government and is it attainable given the political climate there now?
I wouldn’t presume to speak for half of Iran’s population, as the film’s title puts it; Iran’s is a complex society from nearly every point of view, and generalizations tend to be dangerous. But we can maybe address this question from the point of view of the women’s movement, which represents the interests of a great many Iranian women, though we have no way of knowing specifically what proportion. The demands are for redress of the laws that discriminate against women, and there are many, from family laws that do not permit women to initiate divorce and which confer custody on fathers, to laws that require women to have permission of their fathers or husbands in order to obtain passports, to criminal laws that assess the value of a woman’s testimony, and of her life, at less than those of a man’s. The women’s movement has been circulating petitions in the effort to gather a million signatures in support of repealing these laws. Activists have even had some successes in lobbying conservative women in parliament to support their cause. Since Ahmadinejad came into office in 2005, the women’s movement has been the most dynamic and effective force in the opposition, even though it has also been under severe pressure, with many of its activists imprisoned.
The film articulates these demands in more depth and detail than I can do here. But one of its most interesting moments comes at the end, when the presidential candidates, their wives and advisors discuss the questions raised in the film. Mir Hossein Mousavi sounds a bit evasive, first saying that there are more pressing issues to address before this one, mainly poverty, deprivation, addiction; these are familiar notes from his leftist rhetoric of the 1980s. Then he waxes philosophical, saying that the problem is a cultural one that cannot be fixed by the government alone; there has to be a slow process of cultural change. This is certainly true, but surely would leave the women in the film unsatisfied in their concrete demands. But then Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnevard jumps in. Alone among the assembled politicians, she speaks with directness, clarity and passion. The problem, she tells us, is systematic discrimination, and this must be addressed before any other change will stick. Zahra Rahnevard is hugely popular among young Iranian women, many of whom say they voted for Mousavi because of her. This was a great bit of footage.
The films in Views From Iran all portray a variety of issues ranging from sexuality, underground rock music, economic woes, drug addiction and prostitution. Have you had any experience reporting on these issues? How do you give an accurate account in a society like Iran, given that a lot of those topic are taboo?
My reporting has been more political than social, though I did report a piece on the economy in March, 2008. It’s true that the Iranian government would like to conceal social ills from foreign reporters, but to do that would require restricting our movements more than even they are able. As you saw in the film about the Iranian women’s movement, even political candidates talk openly about Iran’s social problems. And among ordinary Iranians, such subjects are not at all taboo. Iranian friends and sources have been eager to take me to see blighted neighborhoods, to have me talk to drug addicts and prostitutes, or to show me the youth counterculture. The extent of drug abuse in Iran is staggering, and nearly inescapable; it is one of the most disturbing and depressing things one sees there. So it isn’t hard to catch a glimpse of these aspects of Iranian life, though it is always hard to suss out the real dimensions of the problem when statistical information is unreliable or unavailable.
When I reported on the economy, I turned frequently to an economist named Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, who lives in the United States but does extensive work in Iran and has crunched the micro-data, as it is called. Some of his numbers and insights were really surprising – indicating that the Iranian economy is not in quite as bad shape as ordinary Iranians believe it to be, though the Ahmadinejad administration has made it appreciably worse by stimulating inflation. What I learned from matching up Salehi’s numbers with the obvious malaise among most Iranians I spoke to was that Iran has an interesting and counterintuitive economic problem. It is not that poverty has been getting worse. Actually, poverty has fallen steadily since 1989, with just a slight uptick in the big cities since Ahmadinejad came in. It is that the way the economy is structured has been systematically disenfranchising the middle class. So you have a very large population that has middle class values, aspirations, and consumption patterns, but which increasingly survives on multiple, short-term contract jobs, or by selling property, or by brokering deals among third parties. The middle class forms the backbone of most economies, but in Iran, it is an insecure, unproductive class with no purchase on the country’s economy, culture or politics. This gets to the heart of Iran’s political problem as well as its economic one.
What is the book you’re working on right now?
I set out, in 2007, to write a history of the reform movement, through the life stories of some of its protagonists. Since that time, the book has morphed and expanded into an intellectual and political history of the liberal idea under the Islamic Republic. Through the lives of individuals, I’m attempting to take the reader from the origins of the 1979 Revolution, through the achievements and failures of the reform movement, up to the Green Movement of today. It’s the story of the coming of age of two overlapping generations of intellectuals and activists in Iran, as they grapple with the elusive nature of freedom.