Azita Ranjbar speaks on Middle Eastern cultural identity
By Christine Paquin, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, January 20, 2006
Azita Ranjbar, a recent graduate of William and Mary College, spoke to Dartmouth students and faculty Thursday on the reconstruction of Middle Eastern cultural identity in a post-Sept. 11 world.
Ranjbar, whose father is Iranian, was brought to Dartmouth by the Norwich-based effort Building Bridges: Middle East-U.S. The public education program, which began in 2002, attempts to ameliorate conditions between the United States and the Middle East through lectures, films and conferences.
Recently, Ranjbar has spent several months in both Afghanistan and Iran. She lived in Afghanistan for two months collaborating with the Afghan Women Judge's Association, and has also visited her extended family in Iran.
In yesterday's speech, she expressed her shock when first landing in Kabul.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," Ranjbar said. "The very first thing I noticed was the utter destruction that surrounded me. The next thing I noticed were all the burqas."
According to Ranjbar, the country which confronted her upon her arrival was a nation suffering on many levels. She saw destroyed infrastructure, impoverished children begging on the streets and a barren landscape. Ranjbar added that basic utilities are sorely lacking in Afghanistan, which severely lowers the morale of the populace.
Working around approximately one hour of electricity a day, Ranjbar worked with AWJA, which strives to educate Afghan women judges, to champion the rights of those oppressed under Shari'ah and encourage the spread of social justice.
Ranjbar described the difficulty of the organization's task, citing the opposition of decades of gender-based discrimination and injustice. Despite the presence of many organizations in Kabul with the intention of aiding women in need, she said that challenges exist which are deeply ingrained in the nation's culture.
"When you're illiterate, like 20 percent of Afghan women, you're in a very vulnerable position," Ranjbar said. "You don't know what your rights are."
Although U.S. media reported that the September elections were peaceful, Ranjbar, who was in Afghanistan at the time, said the situation was far from that which was portrayed for U.S. viewers and recounted instances in which women candidates were murdered.
"We're dealing with a country on the brink of civil war," Ranjbar said. "There are dozens of tribes which would love to have power."
Ranjbar cited the rampant opium trade, the discrepancy between the high standard of living for international residents versus the squalor in which Afghan citizens are forced to live and the millions of refugees living in surrounding countries as major obstacles to the reconstruction of the nation.
One such neighboring country is Iran, a place Ranjbar described as vastly different from Afghanistan.
Although the Bush Administration tends to place Iran alongside North Korea and Hussein-controlled Iraq in the infamous "axis of evil," Ranjbar said that despite Iran's conservative leaders and apparent nuclear ambitions, the nation is home to a lively subculture which exists beneath the theocratic surface.
While Ranjbar admitted that most Iranians are politically unaware, she claimed this apathy stems from a fear of the repressive government coupled with a widespread belief that they as citizens are utterly powerless to oppose the government through political participation.
Ranjbar described the negative effects of the "brain drain," through which intelligent Iranians with means are leaving their country, while widespread poverty and overcrowding of universities also contribute to the lag in intellectual development.
In spite of the repression and the fear permeating Iranian society, Ranjbar remains hopeful for the future of the nation and its youth. She described the activities of the Iranian youth as their own brand of cultural revolution.
Ranjbar also dispelled a common myth concerning the religiosity of Iran. Although the nation is a theocracy and Islam permeates all levels of society, she claimed that there is widespread discontent with the version of Islam preached by the country's leaders.
"You don't see a lot of young people in Iran practicing Islam anymore," Ranjbar said. "It's a perverted version of Islam and it's been crammed down their throats for so long they just don't want to associate themselves with it."