Perhaps her story is unique in today's Iran, perhaps not.
Roza Javan comes from a hot city in one of the central parts of the country. Her family lives in the lower floor of a simple house; their 1974 model car starts with a screwdriver instead of a key. Her father has always worked in the textile industry.
When Roza was nine years old, her father was sacked from the factory in which he had worked for eight years.
“He had refused to fight in the war and he always talked back at the foreman. But when he got fired he shouted “I shall get my job back!” at the foreman. When nothing happened, he took his case to a court in the city. The judge offered him a small lump sum to compensate him, but he refused to accept any money other than his wages. After six months of struggle, he finally got his job back. Then the foreman decided that he had had enough and quit.”
Roza Javan continues to talk about her father and says that he always used to come home and curse the company. Since the company was owned by the state, his curses would also be directed against the state and the “Imam” which was Khomeini’s honorary nickname.
“When I heard him swear, I used to tear out pages from my notebook and use them to make leaflets bearing the slogan “marg bar Jomhourie Islamie Iran”: down with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Then I would put them under the neighbours’ doors, ring the doorbell and run away. I have been political since I was a child. Here in Iran, children of the poor always talk about politics in school and at home, watch and follow the news and try to read the newspapers.”
Roza was born two years after the revolution and grew up in the shadow of the war between Iran and Iraq. It made her childhood - literally - black.
“When I went to school all the girls were forced to wear a black chador [a big piece of material that covers the whole body and to wear it a woman needs to pull it over her head and hold it under her chin with one hand or hold it between her teeth: the word chador means “tent”]. My shoes and all other articles of clothing were also black; including my school bag, like an old lady’s bag. Even today when I go shopping, I instinctively tend to choose black garments instead of the colourful ones – not because I like it, but because it is so deep seated.”
The 1980s was the period before the reforms, when the Islamic Revolution was in its most zealous phase. People’s social life revolved much more around the religious holidays in memory of the Shiite Imams than it does today; above all Iman Hussein, who is honoured by men slashing themselves and crying during the mourning month of ashura.
“We were always forced to take part in the school prayers, otherwise the girls would get lower grades and the boys would be punished. The teachers stopped a Bahai girl from coming to school because she didn’t want to pray. [The people of Iran believe in a religion brought to Iranians by an Iranian Muslim called Baha-allah who turned away from Islam]. She was a close friend of mine... There was no music to listen to, everything on TV was about sorrow, sorrow, sorrow and about Imam here, Imam there and about the war: “God loves those who mourn!” This is how we were raised.”
Roza Javan tells us her story with intense insight; it is as if her whole body trembles with her wish to express herself. When gesticulating, she stands up several times, in order to be able to gesticulate more freely. She hardly notices that we are taking pictures of her in the park where we are sitting. Once in a while, she realizes that she is talking too loudly and looks around, but calms down when she only sees students sitting and studying in the park.
She laughs for a long while before she is able to tell the story about what the girls in her class were taught to do when some one knocks at their door. If her father or a brother is home, of course it is they who should answer the door – but if a girl is home alone?
“My teacher said very seriously that there could be a stranger at the door and therefore you should be very careful because a woman’s voice is so soft and pleasant that a man can easily be seduced by it. Therefore, you should put one finger deep in the corner of your mouth, in order to change and deepen your voice when you ask “ki-e?” (Who is it?). If you do not do so the man will go wild!”
So one day Khatami arrived.
“He started by saying that everybody would get more freedom. We were to get freedom to move around, freedom to talk openly. I was sixteen years old at the time and I was hoping that everything would be better. I immediately started to plead for Khatami and agitated in the school. So much that my friends and I got into a fight with the neighbourhood Basiji guys. It ended with a fight – all of us fell into a hole and started hitting each other.”
After high school, Roza’s goal was to go to college. In Iran, in order to be able to get into a university, you have to take a big exam called “konkour” and pass it with a very high grade; most people study a whole year for it, in order to pass it and many people have to take it several times (before passing it). But Roza Javan managed to pass the test the first time and entered the university.
“When I started going to college, I realized that the majority of kids who had gotten in came from middle class families. I compared myself to my classmates and saw that I had worked twice as hard as them for the konkour and gotten just as good results as them. They could afford to pay for private lessons especially arranged for the konkour exam. It is a market economy. Suppose we were going to run 100 meters and you bought yourself some training lessons before the competition. Who do you think would win? The middle class is eliminating the working class. The only universities in Iran that the working class children have a chance to get into are the state universities. But they are getting fewer and fewer and the private ones are becoming more and more. Therefore, the competition becomes harder even there.”
Roza Javan’s favourite subjects were sociology and philosophy, but getting a degree in those fields would not have given her a chance of supporting herself. She was forced to study chemistry; “you have to take the path that they have laid down for you.” In her class, only 2 students out of 25 had chosen chemistry because they liked the subject. Of the rest several became depressed at the thought of a life without freedom and some started taking drugs.
Roza Javan discovered the Internet at the university. She started reading web logs where people wrote under pseudonyms so that they could discuss freely. Before this, she had only read books from the Islamic Republic’s censured library; the Internet was liberation. At the same time, she came in contact with feminism and joined a group that had hot discussions on marriage and women’s rights, followed political events in the country and soon, disillusioned, started to see through Khatami.
“When that first student died during the 1999 protest, Khatami did not say a word. The students carrying his portrait close to their hearts put it down. Since Khatami became the president, the situation for the poor has not become better. On the contrary, it has worsened. Our generation has no jobs; they are drug addicts instead and even if you have a job, you still cannot make ends meet. Rent is around 100,000 rial while wages are 150,000 rial a month; a kilo of meat costs 7,000; clothes are expensive, taxis and busses are expensive, everything is expensive.
By Roza’s second year at university, all discussions had died down. Disappointment over the fact that nothing came out of Khatami’s promises spread in the form of a huge silence. But Roza Javan continued to go to the university library and take down books from the shelves and read them randomly.
One day, she took a book off the shelf on political ideologies, from A to Z.
“I read about all different kinds of ideologies such as Liberalism, Pragmatism, and Conservatism. When I came to Socialism I devoured the words – it was this that I had always wanted! It was this that I had always believed in, without even knowing about it! I became utterly excited and glanced through the rest of the book and then sat by the computer to look up ‘Socialism’ on the Internet. A lot of links came up in Persian and I became even more exalted.”
Roza Javan e-mailed all the Iranian Socialist groups she could find. It became a total of fifteen e-mails; most of them went out of the country. She received only two answers, one of them from an Iranian in a Nordic country who took his time to answer her questions. They exchanged e-mails back and forth quite intensively and today she calls him her “mentor”. She tried to find all of the socialist literature that existed in Persian. She went through all parts of Capital, Grundrisse, The economic and philosophical manuscripts, Theses on Feuerbach, and Engel’s Anti-Duhring. In her room at home, she gently brings out those volumes that she has been able to purchase. She has made no pencil marks or folds in any of them.
“I don’t dare to write any notes for myself in these books because they are so very expensive. As I read, I take notes in a notebook on the side. Marx is hard to understand; sometimes he goes into your head through one side and comes out the other. So I usually do as I do when I study Chemistry: make formulas on the side. I would not have understood much, if it was not for Ernest Mandel’s Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory – which I have read four times! But I like the Manifesto best; it is so radical and Marx and Engel’s were young when they wrote it.”
A keen pleasure rushes through Roza Javan’s eyes, when she talks about Marxist literature. She says that she still has not understood everything and that she sends her questions to her mentor – “but I am good at explaining the Theory of surplus value! If a worker needs six hours to produce his wage…”
We can’t remember when it was the last time we ran into such commitment. She seems to be bubbling over with a thirst for knowledge; she asks questions and she wants to know everything about the Swedish left; she asked us to write down the word “queer feminism” in her notebook.
In the beginning Roza Javan felt lonely as a Socialist.
“I wanted to announce to everyone around me that I had become a Socialist. I wanted to advertise using the cover of my books; I drew a picture of Marx and attached it to my notebook binder, then passing by someone in the corridor, I would lower my arm for the picture to be seen. I could not let go of the idea of getting a marker and going around in the toilets and writing “down with the Capitalism on the walls!” On the entrance door to my corridor, I put up a text about economics by Rosa Luxemburg and I continued doing so until I told my mentor about it. He got angry with me: “They kill Socialists in Iran; in 1988 the regime executed thousands of leftists – are you crazy?” Then I decided to be more discrete. But it was too late, for everybody around me already knew…”
Roza Javan discovered her socialism only a few months before Mayday, 2004. She heard a rumour about a Mayday demonstration in Teheran and decided to go there. A few weeks before Mayday, Roza Javan made up some credible lies to tell her parents in order to have their permission to travel. She left for Teheran and made it to the industrial area between Teheran and Karaj and was met by the sight of the three hundred workers who had lined up for a demonstration on the main road.
“The first communist that I met, I fell in love with! That was Sina whom I am married to now. I went around the Mayday demonstration wide eyed and not knowing whom to grab hold of…”
Since then, Roza Javan has been active in the Iranian Workers’ Movement.
But some of her expectations have already not been fulfilled.
“As a young woman I always have to fight my way into the circle that leads the progressive workers. It consists almost only of men and sometimes they have a condescending attitude during the discussions: ‘Who are you coming here, are you a real worker?’ When I ask them their opinion on the revolution, I don’t get a good response: ‘What do you mean when you say ‘abolishing wage labour? What does that mean? Either you work and receive wages or you work and get paid by receiving a chicken and bag of rice. What is it that you want?’ They can’t answer that; they don’t explain what they mean.
At the same time, Roza Javan criticizes what she calls “middle class Feminism” in Iran: the highly educated women who are satisfied with discussing their rights within the framework of marriage. She made her husband sign a pile of papers – on equal rights for her to file for divorce, on her right to travel without her husband’s permission and much more – but she strongly believes that Feminism should not stop at this.
“The middle class Feminists are only interested in equality with their own husbands. They do not care about making contact with working class women or cooperating with them, despite the fact that working class women suffer under a much worse oppression. Economically they are completely dependent on their husbands and cannot do anything if they are raped or abused, as they have no social security.”
Today Roza Javan spends a few hours a day in front of her computer. Her computer’s hard disk is full of material she has downloaded from the Marxist Internet Archives, links to left pages in Persian, e-mail addresses of Iranians around the world, her own short stories and articles about all kinds of things – from the significance of the shootings in Khatoon Abad, to the political weaknesses of the Nobel Prize winner Shirin Abadi. Without money for a printer she has started to get a pain in her eyes because she has to read everything on the monitor.
Nowadays, she is the editor of a site for young Iranian Socialists.
“There are many students who have become curious about Socialism and have begun to think along the same lines as I after losing their illusions in Khatami. But they do not receive any nourishment! They do not know where to turn to; there is no organization reaching out to them; they have a hard time finding others who think alike. As a result of the dictatorship, everything has died down.”
Thousands of the new university graduates leave the country every year. This is probably the most popular way of showing disappointment about the democratisation which never took place – but for Roza Javan this way out is unthinkable.
“When I was younger, my biggest dream was to take my hijab off, put on a short skirt and run in the wind with my hair blowing away freely. Not even a little dream like this can be fulfilled in our country. But I am going to stay here. What we need is a revolution, so that we women and workers can achieve our demands one hundred percent.”
*NOTE: This interview was originally published in number 51-53, 2004, of the Swedish magazine Arbetaren under the title “With the hard disk full of socialism”.