I got back from Iran yesterday morning. I went to Tehran for the Tenth Asian Bioethics Conference, hosted by the Tehran University of Medical Sciences. It was a good experience and I enjoyed my stay there a lot. I went there on the 25th and arrived home on the 30th.
Before going there I did not have much of an impression on Iran. Not that I did not know that it existed, but I knew of it only second hand through media reports (much of them were rather negative, as is quite well known). I knew that it was an “Islamic Republic,” meaning the way the country is governed followed directly the rules and teachings of Islam. But I had no idea of what it was like until I went there myself.
What struck me was that Iran is a really nice place. The air was cool and pleasant (it did help that they organized it in spring), and it reminded me of my time in Europe. In fact there are many similarities between Iran and a European country in terms of the geography, the air, the land and the trees. Grasses were full of the small yellow flowers that lied close to the ground sending out a lot of pollen. This is the kind of yellow weedy flowers that everyone experiences in the West in spring. This was striking to me because we don’t have such a plant in Thailand at all. Moreover, the trees are in most cases the same. Birches, pines, maples, oaks and so on. So if one does not look at the people and the street signs in Farsi, one might think that one is in the European continent.
But then the similarities ended. Looking around in Tehran, almost every woman wore black, covering everything from their hair to their ankles. The scarf covers every hair so that not one was seen. Only the face was shown. The shoes were also always black. Only young girls did not wear scarves. Their faces also looked European, at least to Asian eyes like mine. The Persians really do share a lot of characteristics with Europeans — blond or brown hair, blue eyes, white skin, big nose (one feature that really distinguishes them from us here in Thailand). Many women were exceedingly beautiful. One wonders what they really looked like without their black gowns.
This showed how much religion pervaded everyday life here. Compare with Thailand the situation in Iran was a diametrical opposite. Women there made me think that there were perhaps nuns. So every woman was a nun. Since a nun has to observe all the rules and dress codes, so does an Iranian woman. In Thailand there are nuns, of course, but not all women are nuns. There is a very clear distinction between lay women and nuns in Thailand; whereas in Tehran there might not be any real nuns (as far as I know), but then every woman in effect became a nun through her all covering black gowns.
What does this mean? I used to have a conversation with an Iranian friend and he asked me why Thailand was a Buddhist country and people still drank alcohol and stole things and killed others. This was a bit difficult to answer, but I answered him any way that these people were bad Buddhists who do not observe the teachings. I knew that he was surprised because for him religion should have the power to control people’s outward behavior. If one of the precepts says that one should not drink alcohol, then alcohol should be outlawed, as it is in Iran. But Thailand allows alcohol to be sold freely and openly. Why?
Well, the answer is perhaps that Thailand, as a Buddhist country, took a route where religion is more toward individual preferences. If one would like to give up alcohol in order to purify oneself, that is fine. But if one still likes drinking, then as long as he does not violate the law that is fine too. It is true of course that the drinking one could well be a Buddhist, and that he even knows that this is against the Five Precepts, but he drinks it nonetheless because he is not taking the path of purification at this moment. Buddhism does not force anybody to give up alcohol. The purpose of the Five Precepts is not to force anybody or to organize social structure around the Precepts, but they are there as “guidelines” for those who are intent on eventually getting rid of their sufferings.
But the Moslems, of course, took a very different track. For them social structure and religious teaching go hand in hand, becoming more unified than in Buddhism. This has created a tension with modern liberalism, a topic which requires a lengthy discussion which I cannot do here. So what struck me was that, whereas Buddhists pay emphasis on the mind, Islam really emphasizes outward behavior. For Islam the rules are not mere “guidelines,” but they are real rules because they are laid down by God. In Buddhism, if you want to become a nun, you decide that on your own and you willingly take on the vows of a nun, which include dress codes and all that. But if somebody else does not want to be a nun, but something else, then it is fine. But Islam, in order to create a social structure which corresponds to the letter of religious teaching, really forces people to follow. In Iran every woman has to be a nun, at least in public places.
There may be advantages in the Islamic way. Through forcing women to wear all these covering clothes, both women and men are then constrained to be mindful of their desires. It is like Buddhist monks and nuns who have to obey all these strict vows, also in order to maintain their mindfulness all the time. However, the disadvantages are well known. I have heard that many women chafed under these rules, which became law of the land. In Buddhist Thailand, on the other hand, women are free to wear what they please, but then they don’t have the protection that the Islamic dress provides. They have to protect themselves and depend more on the mind to guide their behavior.