My Name Is Iran
by Davar Ardalan and Rasool Nafisi
The World Turned Upside Down
My name is Iran. Iran Davar Ardalan. Like the country I'm named for, my life has been filled with contradictions.
Here's a picture of me in my photo album from March of 1982 posing like Brooke Shields. "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins" - remember that? It was taken at a photographer's studio in Boston where I was going to high school for a time. The next photo was taken two years later in Tehran. I'm veiled and somber, a young bride in Ayatollah Khomeini's new revolution.
I've spent much of my life traveling back and forth between Iran and the United States. After college, I worked as a newscaster for Iranian State television. Today, I'm a journalist in Washington, D.C.
1979 was the year my world turned upside down.
A popular uprising forced the Shah to leave Iran. From the large windows of my family's three-story home near Tehran University, I could see the Shah's army going through our street as they clashed with student demonstrators. It was clear that the country was in turmoil. And before we knew it, we woke up to a revolution.
After nearly 15 years in exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran. The airport was closed, but an estimated two million people gathered to greet him.
I was one of those 2 million, curious to see the famous exiled leader of the clerical movement against the Shah.
Having grown up in a secular country, I felt scared and confused by the militancy around me. I had gotten some religious education growing up but I didn't understand this Islamic fervor. I'd go to school only to find a classmate wearing black - his father - a member of the Shah's cabinet having just been executed by the infamous hanging judge Khalkhali. The Shah was a close ally of the United States and my family had close ties to America.
My maternal grandmother, Helen Jeffreys, was from Boise, Idaho. She met my Iranian grandfather when they were both students in New York. After they married, Helen converted to Islam and lived in Iran. In the 1950s she was a public health nurse in President Truman's Point Four Program and when she visited the United States, she gave interviews and talks about her family and travels through distant villages in Iran.
But my grandmother and our family weren't attuned to the political tensions in Iran. In 1953, a coup organized by the CIA restored the Shah to power. Human Rights organizations documented the use of torture by Savak (the Shah's secret police) and the execution of political prisoners. However, the Shah did bring with him decades of modernization, and with that, rights for women. His reforms ushered Iran into a modern state in the Middle East.
After the revolution in 1979, the fundamentalist Islamic clerics who had scorned the Shah's modernization, dismantled everything that had to do with the previous era. They took over the justice system and instituted a strict version of Islamic law. This move effectively wiped out all the legal reforms in the country. They made women wear the veil, brought back harsh punishments, and denounced everything western.
In protest, Iranian students occupied the American Embassy in Tehran. They wanted the Shah returned to Tehran to stand trial. The main spokesperson for the students had attended the same international high school as I did. When it became obvious that the school would be closed, I left Iran to finish school in the United States. That first day at Brookline High, I found myself standing in the courtyard surrounded by yellow school buses and the American flag at half-staff. Fifty-two Americans were being held captive at the embassy in Tehran. I just couldn't see introducing myself in class as Iran, so I registered using my middle name, Davar. The name means "arbitrator" in Persian. My parents named me Davar in memory of my great grandfather, Ali Akbar Davar.
My great grandfather, Ali Akbar Davar, was responsible for reforming the laws of Iran in 1927 during the time of the first Pahlavi Shah. His reforms merged Western and Islamic law. I've always been aware he was an important figure in Iran's history. A U.S. diplomat told me recently that Davar was one of his heroes.
I wondered if his ideas could be useful today when Muslims are trying to figure out how to reconcile Islam and democracy.
I went to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. to study Iran's legal history and to meet Ibrahim Pourhadi, the curator and founder of the Persian section. Books and newspapers going back to the 1900s tell of an Iran already searching to accommodate modernity and tradition.
In 1906 Iran had a constitutional revolution. The movement was led by Iranians of all classes, merchants, clerics and tribal leaders who demanded a limited monarchy and the creation of an elected parliament.
Microfilms date back to the 1920s, when Iran was ruled by the first Pahlavi Shah called Reza Khan. There are official notices from the Justice Ministry and my great grandfather, Davar himself. One is about changing the laws on punishment.
I've brought an Iranian lawyer named Mehrangiz Kar with me to the Library. She says before Davar's reforms, punishments came from a mix of the Quran and ancient tribal customs.
"All punishment was very violent," says Kar. "It was against human rights. we had stoning, lashing, but after Davar I think it was a big step towards separation between Church and State."
Kar is in the United States getting medical treatment. She was thrown in jail in 2000 after criticizing the structure of the government under the current constitution. Kar says under the clerics, Iran has been set back a century.
"The 1906 Constitution stated that the Parliament, where laws were made, was completely independent but in Iran today the Parliament is not independent and a body known as the Guardian Council can veto all the laws and demand that they are according to Shariah law. Therefore we have turned back in time."
My great grandfather was only 14 when he entered politics. By 24, he was Tehran's Prosecutor General. He later studied law in Belgium. In 1927, he shut down Iran's Justice Ministry to revamp it completely. A year later, a new system was born. It combined European legal code with Islamic jurisprudence. The new system had local courts, regional ones and a Supreme Court. Judges decided which cases should be handled by the clerics.
Davar was not without controversy - his reforms triggered protests. He was also criticized for promoting the Reza Shah's autocratic rule.
In 1979, all of Davar's reforms were thrown out. But he hasn't been forgotten.
Radio Farda, the Persian service of Radio Liberty recently reported that a prominent journalist in Iran had said publicly that the judicial system was so corrupt that it should be completely shut down and revamped like the in the time of Davar.
Many voices in Iran are challenging the institution of the Judiciary. Over seventy years after Davar's reforms, they find themselves once again struggling to reinterpret Shariah law to make it more compatible to modern times.
A year after the Islamic revolution, I left Iran. The country embarrassed me. I had to get away from the rigidity. But it was hard being Iran Davar Ardalan in Brookline, Mass. I wasn't sure where I fit. So a year later, I went back to Iran to visit my family and without expecting it, I got swept up in the Islamic fervor and traditional ways. That's how I ended up getting married to someone I'd known for only a month. I was married according to Shari’a law. At my wedding, men and women were in separate rooms. The cleric reading the vows sat behind a wooden door. My family and friends back in the United States were stunned at my sudden change. I wore the veil and prayed five times a day. And I was starting to doubt whether the role of traditional submissive wife was going to work for me.