The Bride Wore Green: What a Wedding Says about Iran’s Future
Wearing a flowing green gown and a string of pearls that hung, flapper-style, below her waist, Narges Mousavi was married Friday, in Tehran. The bride, a painter, was born into the revolutionary élite. Her father, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was Iran’s Prime Minister for eight years. In the eighties, he led the new Islamic Republic through a grisly eight-year war with Iraq at a time when the world sided largely with Saddam Hussein, and in 2009 he ran for the Presidency. The bride’s mother is Zahra Rahnavard, a sculptor and the Islamic Republic’s first female university chancellor. During her husband’s campaign, the Iranian media compared Rahnavard’s lively appearances to Michelle Obama’s.
Neither of Mousavi’s parents attended the wedding. For the past five years, they have been under house arrest for their role in the Green Movement protests that challenged the 2009 election results. They have never been charged, never tried—just isolated. Narges, the youngest of their three daughters, can see her parents only when she receives a call telling her to visit. Visits are limited to an hour.
Former President Mohammad Khatami—a friend of the bride’s family (the groom is one of his advisers)—also missed the wedding. Security forces prevented him from leaving home at the last minute, the Associated Press reported. Khatami won the popular vote in 1997, and again in 2001, but after his 2009 support for the Green Movement he was banned from appearing at public events or being quoted. Last month, he defied the ban by posting an election video on social media that called on Iranians to participate in (rather than boycott) the elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts. He also counselled voting moderation.
In a second message, after the election, Khatami demanded that the new parliament finally deliver. “It’s the turn of government and other parts of the system to provide for the people’s requests,” he said on social media. “Especially in creating an economic boom and an open and healthy political environment.” As a result, it seems that Khatami is also now forbidden to attend private weddings.
The fate of the Mousavi family—as well as their political allies and public sympathizers in the quashed Green Movement—will tell a lot about Iran’s future. Despite their banishment, the bride’s parents announced last month that they, too, were voting—in a mobile booth taken to their residence. They have not opted out of the theocracy. Nor have several other political prisoners jailed on various charges of undermining state authority. Mostafa Tajzadeh, who, as deputy interior minister, once helped run Iran’s elections, has been jailed for his support of Mousavi and the Green Movement. His wife posted a message from him on her Facebook page last month saying that he also intended to vote at a mobile booth—in Evin Prison.
Mousavi and Khatami are two of a troika of heavyweights who, over the decades, have stubbornly attempted to open up Iran’s rigid theocracy. The third is Hassan Rouhani, the country’s current President.
Since Rouhani’s election, in an upset, in 2013, he has talked big but accomplished little that is tangible. “Civil liberties have not improved at all during Rouhani’s Presidency,” Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told me. “The Iranian people want change, and they expect Rouhani to deliver on his promises of domestic reforms. He has no more excuses. Now is the time of reckoning for Rouhani.”
The list of abuses is long. Iran has one of the highest execution rates in the world. Shirin Ebadi, a human-rights lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, chronicles the pernicious tactics used to intimidate critics in her book “Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran,” released today. In Iran, she spearheaded a report on the execution of minors, including that of a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl for premarital sex, or “crimes against chastity.” The girl was blindfolded, a noose was slipped around her neck, and her body was hoisted by a crane, from which it hung for nearly an hour, her chador flapping in the breeze.
While Ebadi was writing the report, to be delivered to the United Nations, she arrived home one evening to find a note tacked to her front door: “If you go on as you are now, we will be forced to end your life,” it read. “If you value it, stop slandering the Islamic Republic. Stop all this noise you are making outside the country. Killing you is the easiest thing we could do.” Her office was raided, and eventually it was forcibly closed and the equipment confiscated. Her husband soon lost his job—”retirement granted immediately,” on the suggestion of Iranian intelligence. He was later ensnared in a sex sting, which was videotaped, while she was abroad. Given the choice of renouncing his wife publicly or facing the death sentence for adultery, he renounced. They divorced. Ebadi now lives in exile.
Iran was also the world’s third-worst jailer of journalists last year, after China and Egypt, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post correspondent who was freed in January, in a prisoner swap, was luckier than many of his peers. The world took an interest, and he held dual citizenship, which led the United States to intervene. Other Iranians have languished in prison longer; some have done multiple stints. Many were Mousavi supporters; others were unaffiliated but backed reforms or criticized regime practices. Charges against them have ranged from “propaganda against the state” to “creating public anxiety” and “acting against national security,” C.P.J. reported. Many have been held in solitary confinement.
The regime’s repression—carried out by the judiciary, the intelligence agencies, and the Revolutionary Guards—has recently started targeting a new generation. “While past crackdowns had focussed more on journalists, human-rights defenders, or political activists, the clampdown that started in 2015 was different, in that it was directed also at the creative sector, targeting a range of artists such as poets and filmmakers, many of whom were producing work that was not overtly political and focussed more on social themes,” Karin D. Karlekar, the Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America, told me.
Two young poets—Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi—are among the best-known cases. They escaped in January after being sentenced to a combined total of twenty years in prison for “propaganda against the state” and “insulting sanctities.” Both were noted for their candid examinations of contemporary Iranian life. Each also faced ninety-nine lashes, for shaking hands with the opposite sex (illegal unless you are related by blood or marriage). Late last year, the award-winning young director Keywan Karimi was the latest filmmaker to face charges. He was sentenced to six years in prison—and more than two hundred lashes—for “insulting sanctities” in a documentary about Tehran’s political graffiti. In 2014, a group of young people were detained simply for making a cell-phone video dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” They were forced to repent on national television.
“Artists are getting caught up in larger battles being played out within the Iranian leadership structures,” Karlekar said. “Conservative elements in the judiciary are trying to send a clear signal that they do not intend to ease along a path to reform, even in the wake of the nuclear deal.”
In 2013, Rouhani’s pledge to improve opportunities for women was a major contributor to his surprise win. But a hard-line parliament has since undermined his promises by passing or proposing bills to curtail women’s rights. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the proposed Plan to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, as it is known, requires citizens to act—and forbids them to refrain from acting—to check violations of Islamic law “by heart, verbal, written, and practical action.” The legislation could apply to anything from the dress code to social behavior. It would empower the Basij, a paramilitary wing of the Revolutionary Guards, as the principal enforcers of the law—effectively legitimizing vigilante action.
The proposed Comprehensive Population and Family Excellence Plan encourages young people to marry earlier and women to be mothers. “It’s problematic because it gives priority in hiring practices to men and women who already have children,” Tara Sepehri Far, of Human Rights Watch, told me. It could hinder women’s access to advanced education. It would encourage judges to advocate reconciliation over divorce. “The discriminatory nature of the law affects every aspect of a woman’s life,” Sepehri Far, a former student activist during the 2009 Green Movement, said. (She now lives abroad; she was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison and seventy-four lashes.)
Iran’s parliamentary election last month shifted the balance of power. Key hard-liners were ousted. The major winners so far—a runoff is due in April—are centrists, moderate conservatives, and independents. The question is whether Rouhani can get any further than his predecessors with the new parliament.
Rouhani took an initial step on Monday, by breaking the ban on mentioning Khatami in public. In a speech broadcast live on national television, Rouhani cited his predecessor as “the honorable leader,” who, through his defiant video, “had the main role in mobilizing people to the ballot boxes to create a great epic.” He went on, “Heroic Iran shall never forget its servants, those who worked for Iran’s glory. They are, today, regarded as the pride of the land, and no one can silence their name and their greatness.”
But Rouhani has not yet dared speak publicly about Mir-Hossein Mousavi, with whom he also once worked closely. And he did not attend Narges Mousavi’s Green wedding.