“It’s not as conservative as people make it out to be,” says Dr. Sara Bazoobandi, an Iranian-born scholar at MEI. Having grown up and completed her undergraduate studies in Iran, Bazoobandi disputes the popular stereotype of a highly traditional and reclusive Iranian society.
“Yes, there are anti-women laws and various restrictions in place,” she concedes. “But the pace of modernization, both materially and socially, has nonetheless been phenomenal.” Bazoobandi notes that a growing segment of the population is cosmopolitan in its outlook. “The radically conservative and religious portrayal of Iranian society is not representative of reality and masks its diversity,” she maintains.
Bazoobandi makes a case for civil society in Iran. “I was involved in the One Million Signatures Campaign to raise awareness of discrimination against women in Iran,” she says. The campaign was a social movement within Iran that tried to push the government to change various discriminatory laws, such as inheritance laws, through which men inherit twice as much as women. The campaign has been interrupted due to government pressure, and Bazoobandi accordingly notes that though on the rise, civil society remains relatively weak vis-à-vis the state.
Economically, she is less optimistic. Sanctions have caused the rial to crash, leading to spiraling inflation over the past ten months. “The gap between the rich and the poor is rapidly widening, heightening inequality,” Bazoobandi explains. If this continues, she notes that the middle class—often described as the hope for democratic reform in authoritarian states—would suffer and perhaps even disappear.
With the mainstream discourse often demonizing and isolating Iran, perhaps it is time to take a second look at Iran’s diversity. Only by looking deeper into the country’s society and economy can we engage with it on more accurate terms.
MEI’s Conversations Series features informal interviews with prominent individuals about current events and/or their experience and work relating to the Middle East, Asia, and the Institute.
Interview by MEI intern David Wong De-Wei.