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Iran’s Islamic Evolution Through the Ballot Box

Both conservatives and reformists consider the ballot box an essential instrument.
Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at a campaign rally in Tehran on May 16.

Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at a campaign rally in Tehran on May 16.

Photographer: Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

Maryam was 22 days old when Iranians dethroned their king in 1979. The Islamic regime that followed—with its black and brown robes, covered heads, and dour religiosity—was “just a fact” of life, she says. “We never thought about anything different, because we hadn’t seen anything else.” Thirty-eight years later, that acceptance is wearing thin.

The May 19 presidential vote—and the jubilant street celebrations that followed the reelection of President Hassan Rouhani, the nearest thing to a liberal allowed onto the ballot—showed an Iranian society much changed since the days of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution and unwilling to turn back. “One of my teachers used to tell us that if any strand of your hair showed, you would be hung up by it,” says Maryam, who like others interviewed for this article declined to give her last name for fear of retribution. “Now you can drive around in a car with your boyfriend, and no one says anything.”