Iran's new order: hate Uncle Sam, embrace the hejab

January 09, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh | Gelareh Asayesh,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEHRAN, Iran -- The master of ceremonies refers painstakingly to his notes as he outlines the day's program. "First we'll have some slogans," he says. "Then we'll hear the declaration. Then we'll burn the American flag."

On the street below, the crowd shouts its approval. It is the 13th of Aban, Nov. 4, the anniversary of the Takeover of the United States Espionage Den -- remembered in the United States as the day of the seizure of its embassy and the hostage-taking.

Young children wander around freely. The sky is blue, and there is a holiday atmosphere. Marchers with bright banners end their parade at Ayatollah Taleghani Street, in front of the former U.S. Embassy, now a school for the Sepah, the revolutionary guards.

In front of the embassy wall, women in black head-to-toe veils, the severest form of hejab -- Islamic covering -- sit cross-legged on the asphalt in a section separate from the men. A visitor foolish enough to show up with only a scarf and the knee-length jacket called a manto is immediately accosted by two women with the word "security" pinned on their veils. They pull the woman's scarf down over her face and close her collar before letting her take her place with the rest of the women.

The slogan of the day is, "Marg bar Amrika."

"Death to America."

It is on the red headbands worn over the wimples of schoolgirls, who giggle as they line up. It is emblazoned in red on placards issued by the komiteh, the neighborhood committees that police observance of Islamic laws. It is blared through a bullhorn by a man on a truck draped with a banner proclaiming the same message.

In the Islamic Republic, it is an expression of patriotism. "Marg bar Amrika." Death to America.

Atop the embassy wall, speakers assemble at a podium bearing photographs of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei. On the wall are squint-eyed caricatures of Uncle Sam, a cracking American flag with footprints on it, a banner calling for "Death to America and Israel." U.S. flags are thrown underfoot.

The slogans surge from the crowd with practiced ease. Leaflets flutter down. An old man mists the listeners with rose water, which symbolizes holiness. Flags and effigies are set aflame.

The speaker exhorts the crowd: "Now, hands fisted: Marg bar Amrika! Marg bar Amrika!"

It is an annual ritual, which this year drew an estimated 10,000 people. There is a sense of routine about the event. It is difficult to discern real hatred, even anger, here.

In fact, the slogan, like the head-to-toe veils worn by the women, is more than anything else an assertion of identity. That this identity is affirmed by the repudiation of another suggests much about the Iranian experience.

During the reign of the shah, many Iranians felt that Iran was being swallowed by the West. In daily life, urban Iranians offended their more traditional brethren with Western fashions, miniskirts on the streets and bikinis on the Caspian beaches.

They danced in discotheques to Western songs, patronized the first Iranian supermarkets, watched "Charlie's Angels" and James Bond. Iranian films went so far as to show nudity and men and women in bed together. A prominent Iranian intellectual coined the term "West-struck" to describe what he and many others viewed as a contagion gripping the country.

Politically, the United States dominated Iran. It was the Allies who established 22-year-old Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the throne when they invaded Iran during World War II, ousting the shah's father because of his pro-Nazi sympathies. And when the popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq unseated the young shah in 1953, it was the CIA that engineered the coup restoring him to power.

The United States trained and equipped the shah's hated secret police, the SAVAK, and helped him consolidate power. In a country where foreign interference had been a source of bitter controversy for almost a century, U.S. dominance of Iran resulted in a burning resentment that crossed social lines.

The shah was despised for being a puppet. Iranians felt that the United States had usurped the people's power.

No wonder, then, that when complex circumstances led to the triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution was as much about ousting the West as it was about ousting the shah. Indeed, the two were viewed as synonymous. In Islam, Iranians found a force potent enough to repel the West. In Ayatollah Khomeini, they found the David who routed the American Goliath, bringing a giddy sense of empowerment to the people.

And in the hejab -- the word means covering or veil -- Iranians found a symbol. Initially a symbol of revolution, the mandatory covering today is an assertion of non-Westernness as much as it is an assertion of Islamic values.

Now, 11 years later, the hejab and the repudiation of America remain the twin pillars of this revolution. While the hejab signifies a rejection of Western values, "Marg bar Amrika" expresses a rejection of Western hegemony.

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