'Perverted' Sharia slaps artistic freedom


Marzieh Vafamehr, the Iranian actor currently detained in Iran and awaiting corporal punishment for acting in the Australian film My Tehran for Sale, is the victim of a perverted legal system that has long abandoned any pretence to public interest. Ironically, the film's protagonist, played by Vefamehr, is a young dissident actor whose stage work is banned in Tehran by the authorities.

Vafamehr is close to my age, a middle-class urban woman forging her way in a discipline that demands artistic and intellectual freedom. As an artist, and moreover as a human, her dignity and safety need to be secured, within or without the context of an Islamic state.

I'm drawn to this case as a young woman forging my own way in the arts. I can't imagine the trauma of being imprisoned and sentenced to corporal punishment simply for working.

Although my own politics are to the (sometimes far) left, circumstances have not arisen that required me to act as a true dissident. I enjoy the privilege of having an identity and nationality that afford me legal protection against persecution unless I deliberately harm others.

This liberty needs to extend to all people.

It is easy to critique Iran's judicial system from a secular, democratic position. The Ayatollah's rule of law is archaic and unjust. It is rule by terror and suppression. But perhaps it is more useful to critique the law from a better understanding of sharia, and its place in contemporary Iran. It did not arrive in a vacuum.

In its recent history, Iran saw its democratically-elected prime minister Mossadeq deposed under the orchestration of the MI5 and the CIA, and its resources de-nationalised in the interest of British and American companies. The re-installed Mohammad Reza Shah, although friendly to foreign interests, was incompetent and despotic, infamous for SAVAK, the brutal secret police force.

Under the Shah's rule, religious leaders faced incredible persecution alongside secular political agitators. The 1970s saw the development of a unique brand of Shi'a Islamism, which was as popular for its anti-western nationalism as it was for its radical theology; Iranian communists and nationalists wielded a great deal of influence in the move towards the 1979 revolution.

In contemporary times, the popular appeal of sharia to both liberal and fundamentalist Muslims is pragmatic and political as much as it is religious. In the Muslim world, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing spate of neo-colonialism, conflict, and cronyism of the 20th century saw western and non-western political actors perform gross humiliations across western asia with impunity.

In this context, the sharia proposes rule by law, through law; a viable means of holding governments to account.

As a synthesis of traditionally Islamic and secular laws, the Iranian revolutionary constitution is full of contradictions. Firstly, it advocates the sovereignty of the people through an elected assembly, and secondly, it advocates the sovereignty of God, and the law as interpreted by the religious guardians.

The traditional sources of sharia law in the Shi'a faith are the Qur'an, the example set by the Prophet Muhammad, and ijtihad, or highly informed personal reasoning, executed by religious scholars.

This third source of law, ijtihad, which is more prevalent in Shi'a faith than in Sunni Islam, opens up the legal discourse to radical and potentially liberal interpretations. It promotes reason over blind obedience, providing the impetus for reading both text and context in the construction of rulings, and acting within a spirit of human and religious justice that should advocate for the public interest and human dignity.

But in this tradition, rulings can be arbitrary and political: where the maintenance of political authority is concerned, interpretations mirror these interests.

Vafamehr's conviction is a clear example of political censorship outside the confines of Islam. Her conviction bears no value to Islam or the interest of the Iranian people. Muslims should fiercely resist the imposition of crony politics onto the slate of religiously inscribed law.

Iran's appalling human rights record has been met with some minor international diplomatic sanctions; travelling dignitaries have been refused entry to several EU countries. And yet the question of any direct international intervention in Iran is irrelevant and patronising: the construction of law in Iran is, if anything, a direct historical reaction to the violence of foreign intervention in the 20th century.

Vafamehr's conviction profoundly contravenes the nuances of an Islam that ostensibly promotes the human dignity and the spirit of the intellect. Without intellectual freedom, nothing positive can flourish. 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer and the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Iran, Islam, Sharia Law, Marzieh Vafamehr



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Existing comments

What a shame that an otherwise interesting article is marred by a kneejerk leftist slap at the West, which is blamed for Iran's brutality. Iran is a major intervener - ask the Syrians, Lebanese, Hamas etc. Such attitudes go back to Cyrus the great, which is a little earlier than US foreign policy.

David Black | 14 October 2011  

great article... i believe that the degree of impunity that the Iranian regime work under is a an illegitimate exercise of power by the military,especially when delegating the political future of their nation and the internal social boundaries they put on their citizens.

Lenny | 14 October 2011  

It was the merchant middle class, the economic base of Shia Islam, that put the Ayatollah and his Mullahs in to power. They had the most to gain then, but gradually they have distanced themselves from the Iranian theocracy precisely because they (the prosperous middle class) have most to lose now. Before Ellena lays the blame for isolation of Iran on the Western infidels, she might have run her thesis by representatives of the grougps D.Black mentions. She might also have checked out the views of the educated and prosperous emigre Iranian community in Sydney. They call their homeland, Persia! She might also question why it is that Los Angeles is called 'Irangeles.' Iranian is the third language in that city. Ask the question, Ellena, why did all these people move to the 'centres of phony politics?' Maybe it is because they have come to despise and be revolted at things like the arbitrariness of Sharia, people strung up on crane booms in public squares and even mere women being sentenced to a flogging for appearing in a movie.

David Timbs | 14 October 2011  

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