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by Dokhi Fassihian
Almost two years after the Iranian government initiated a brutal crackdown against its people following the mass protests after the disputed presidential elections of 2009, the Human Rights Council established the new post of an independent human rights expert to investigate and report on violations taking place inside the country. The initiative, led by the United States and Sweden, came after many months of intense advocacy by the human rights community, as well as Iranian advocacy organizations, which worked to overcome political challenges to finally achieve international action on Iran.
The U.N. mechanism is designed to exert international pressure on the Iranian government to improve its human rights record. While the mandate’s impact is not easily predictable in the short term, such enhanced international attention could lead to improvement in prison conditions, or the emergence of a national debate about the costs of continuing current abuses. (Beginning n 1984, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights mandated a special representative on human rights for Iran. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the country saw modest improvement under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. The mandate was discontinued by a slim margin in 2002.) In being assigned its own special rapporteur, Iran has joined a handful of governments deemed so highly abusive by the international community that the U.N. has decided to monitor their treatment of their citizens. Sudan, Burma, North Korea, and Somalia also have rapporteurs, which report to the U.N. on the abysmal human rights situations in those countries. Unlike the rapid move to set up U.N. investigations into the recent crises in Libya, Côte D’Ivoire, and Syria, the crisis that erupted in Iran in June 2009 caught the world by surprise and found it paralyzed to respond. A combination of factors, including negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program and the state of the international human rights debate, caused a delayed reaction by the world.
In 2009, international attention was focused squarely on solving the nuclear dispute with Iran, which had ratcheted up dangerously during the Bush years. With the United States already embroiled in two expensive wars, Obama began his presidency seeking to reduce tensions with Tehran. In a historic address in March 2009, Obama called for an end to three decades of enmity between the two nations and a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute. What came after had simply not been predicted. Obama’s outreach fueled an already energetic Iranian electorate, which campaigned vigorously for the June presidential elections. But the decision by the incumbent to engineer fraudulent results unleashed months of street protests and developed into a major human rights crisis for which the world was unprepared.
On the international front, the human rights community was reeling from its most serious setback in years. The Bush administration had boycotted the Human Rights Council since its creation in 2006, leaving the body prey for authoritarian regimes such as China, Cuba, and Egypt, which rallied other states to block action against abusive governments and erode human rights standards. Just weeks before the events in Iran, a special session of the Human Rights Council had convened to address the massive human rights catastrophe unfolding in Sri Lanka. The session, a diplomatic effort of the European Union, was hijacked by allies of the Sri Lankan government, and instead of establishing an investigation into violations of international law, a competing resolution was adopted praising the government’s policies, which had amounted to the indiscriminate killing of thousands of civilians in a rush to end the civil war. Fearing a similar disaster with Iran, the world hit the pause button.
Among his first acts in office, Obama decided that the United States would join the Human Rights Council. He also signed an executive order banning torture and announced his intention to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. His administration then began the grueling diplomatic work of repairing relations with allies and the United Nations itself. The first human rights priority of the Obama administration was not Iran, but issues already on the international human rights agenda such as the threat to the human rights mandate in Sudan and combating an organized assault on freedom of expression by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Next, it worked to address emerging crises in smaller countries such as the coup in Honduras, the massacre in Guinea, and the violence in Kyrgyzstan.
The Iranian crisis eventually retreated from our television screens, but the repression continued. Activism among the Iranian diaspora was decentralized and largely driven through social media, without a clear policy focus. In the initial weeks and months of the crackdown, Green Movement supporters and sympathizers advised the U.S. government to keep its distance from the movement for fear of undermining its legitimacy. Meanwhile, as early as the summer of 2009, international human rights groups and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi were calling on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to dispatch a special envoy to lran.
The international community failed to respond adequately to the waves of state-sponsored violence and ongoing repression that gripped the country throughout 2009 and 2010. By the end of 2009, human rights groups estimated that up to 6,000 Iranians had been detained, hundreds tortured and raped, and dozens put on show trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms and death. Few crises of such scale in recent years had been so neglected by the world. Countries traditionally in the lead on human rights resisted calls to support concrete action on Iran despite the deepening crisis, and calls by Iranian organizations to include human rights on the P5+1 agenda were also unheeded. The U.N. General Assembly passed the recurring annual resolution on the human rights situation in Iran that December, with a substantial increase in the margin of support. But the resolution included no investigation, no reporting mechanism, and no diplomatic envoy.
The Iranian people made a few more attempts at street protests in 2010 to demonstrate that they wanted human rights to become an international priority. The Iranian government responded with a terror campaign of killings, detentions, and executions. While the Obama administration condemned the abuses, its political muscle was focused on building global pressure on Iran to convince it to give up its nuclear ambitions. Without strong institutions and a democratic opposition advancing the human rights agenda through concrete policy prescriptions at the international level, there was little hope that the democracy and human rights movement could successfully compete with the nuclear agenda.
By June 2010, there was still no international action on the human rights situation in Iran despite a consensus that the Islamic Republic represented the world’s worst human rights crisis over the preceding 12 months. The United States, frustrated at the lack of progress on the nuclear front, pushed for a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions, but resisted growing pressure from rights groups to put forward a resolution at the Human Rights Council meeting that same month. Instead — with the help of Norway — the United States worked to build support for a cross-regional statement expressing solidarity with the Iranian people.
For the remainder of 2010, international and Iranian organizations intensified pressure on the Obama administration to support the establishment of a U.N, reporting mechanism. Another resolution adopted by the 65th session of the General Assembly passed with the highest margin of support in eight years and placed the issue on the agenda of the council’s session in March. Significantly, by the end of the year, several Iran-focused nongovernmental organizations were pressing for the same policy — working separately but in tandem at the national, international, and grassroots levels: the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the National Iranian American Council, and United4Iran each called for the establishment of a U.N. human rights monitoring mechanism for the country. Efforts were made to elevate the voice of Iran’s embattled human rights defenders and opposition supporters. These strategies, along with congressional pressure, bolstered by another failed round of nuclear talks in January, led to a decision by the Obama administration to move forward with a serious human rights initiative in March.
Enlisting the diplomatic commitment and leadership of the United States was indispensable to the ultimate passage of the resolution, which was adopted by a Human Rights Council vote of 22 states in favor, 7 against, and 14 abstentions. Adoption of the resolution, establishing the council’s first country-specific rapporteur, was a seminal moment. Since its creation, and in the absence of the United States on the body, the council had only eliminated country-specific rapporteurs it inherited from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which it replaced. Building cross-regional support with the help of Sweden and other members of the European Union, and winning the support of other major regional players such as Brazil, Mexico, and South Korea were key in passing the historic resolution. More than just a major achievement for the Iranian human rights cause, the birth of a new country mandate was a critical step forward for the international human rights system.
The strong vote in favor of the resolution revealed that the regime has few friends on the global stage. Expectedly, but in a somewhat delayed reaction, Iranian officials blasted the United States and the council for acting in a “selective” and “politicized” manner — common refrains of abusive regimes seeking to avoid scrutiny. More recently, the head of Iran’s Human Rights Council, Mohammad Larijani, stated that Iran is ready to cooperate with the special rapporteur and, in the same breath, expressed concerns about the “professionalism” of U.N. experts — a common line of attack on independent experts by abusive states. His comments provide us with a preview of the tactics Iranian officials may use to discredit the work of the yet to-be-appointed expert to justify their refusal to allow the rapporteur to visit.
In another move, Larijani recently announced plans to work with other states to develop an “Islamic Human Rights Charter,” providing another glimpse of how the Iranian government is preparing to resist pressure to change its laws and practices. In 1990, members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), including Iran, adopted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam presenting what it proclaimed to be the Islamic perspective on human rights. The declaration — citing sharia as its sole source — is widely criticized for being at odds with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in failing to provide for gender equality, religious freedom, and freedom of expression. In 2007, OIC ministers announced plans to work on an Islamic charter and even develop a permanent body to promote the “human rights” provisions of the Cairo Declaration. Iran’s reintroduction of this idea now signals a self-serving move to use “religion” as a shield.
Realistically, no one expects the Iranian government to cooperate immediately with the rapporteur. Such a mechanism is usually reserved for governments that have demonstrated a persistent record of noncooperation with the international human rights system and hostility toward universal human rights standards. (Although Iran has officially issued a standing invitation to all UN special missions, it has not actually granted any requests to visit since 2005. Iranian officials regularly cite Iran’s “religion” and “culture” as prescribing a different set of values than those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) It is designed as a means of pressure to force a behavioral change. The mechanism may not work quickly, and much of its effectiveness depends on the political will of Iranian authorities. In the final analysis, Iran’s response should be measured by how genuine its cooperation is with the international human right body — specifically, whether regular, unhindered visits by the rapporteur are allowed, whether the government accepts the rapporteur’s independent findings, and most importantly, whether it implements the rapporteur’s recommendations in a measurable way.
The Iranian human rights community should make the most of the new rapporteur by engaging with him or her, staying abreast of international negotiations surrounding the reporting and follow-up to the rapporteur’s recommendations, and defending the independence of the rapporteur against attacks by the Iranian government and its allies. The Iranian human rights community should also reject any attempt by the Iranian government to prescribe a different set of standards for the Iranian people than the rights that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and companion international treaties.
These critical tasks will require direct engagement by Iranian human rights advocates with governments around the world, including traditional leaders on human rights such as the United States and the European Union, but also emerging powers such as Brazil, South Africa, and India. Civil society organizations supporting the Iranian human rights community should work collaboratively in areas of common cause to increase policy impact. Iranian human rights defenders and democratic opposition groups must overcome two destructive narratives perpetuated by the Iranian regime that serve as strategic impediments to advancing their agenda: the “anti-neo-imperialist” paradigm aimed at the United States and the “cultural relativist” narrative about Iranian society that rejects universal rights.
In the end, the new U.N. mechanism represents hard-won leverage by the international community to press for change. The mandate of the rapporteur will be subject to renewal every year, through an intergovernmental process of negotiations and voting in Geneva. The process of annual reporting provides opportunities for formal recommendations to be made to Iran on reforms it should implement and stronger accountability mechanisms for violators if the human rights situation does not improve. While the Human Rights Council is not able to compel Iran to uphold its international obligations, it can work in combination with bilateral and grassroots efforts to persuade Iranian authorities to reform. The pressure exerted by the mechanism — and the prospect for an international investigation into Iran’s possible violations of international law — provide incentive for Iran to consider the benefits of ending abuses.
Governments that supported the creation of the mandate should demand, as part of their regular bilateral relations with Iran, significant and tangible improvements to the human rights situation. Before agreeing to discontinue the mandate, improvements should include the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the removal of restrictions on civil society and the media, and measurable progress on the rights of women and minorities. In addition, as a condition for discontinuing the mandate in the future, Iran should agree to host a national office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Tehran to provide assistance to Iranian authorities to implement legal reforms and ensure accountability for violations. Such an office should continue to be in Iran until the government advances genuine democratic reforms and establishes a permanent National Human Rights Commission in line with the Paris Principles.
Dokhi Fassihian is the executive director of the Democracy Coalition Project in Washington, D.C., and serves on the boards of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), United4Iran, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. This article was commissioned by the Rahavard Journal of Persian Studies where it will appear in print.
by: Val Moghadam
“What one can say about this encounter is that the Latin American and Caribbean feminist movement forms part of the social and political map of the region; because of this it cannot avoid bleeding from the wound that affects the left and all the social and political movements of the continent; the traditional forms of doing politics, self-centered, non-dialogic, punitive, messianic, incapable of confronting s
trategies, of dissolving spaces of power without fracturing, perplexed before this enemy without a face that is neoliberalism and its
postmodernity.” [Carina Gobbi, on the schisms among Latin American feminists and in the left.]
Few debates among expatriate Iranian feminists and leftists have been as contentious as that centered on “Islamic feminism”. The very term itself as well as its referent are subjects of controversy and disagreement. Can there be such a thing as a feminism that is framed in Islamic terms? Is Islam compatible with feminism? Is it correct to describe as feminist or even as “Islamic feminist” those publishers, activists and scholars, including veiled women, whose work toward women’s advancement and gender equality are carried out within an Islamic discursive framework? Can the activities of reformist men and women – who situate themselves within the broad objectives of the Islamic Republic of Iran and seek the improvement of the status of women – be described as constituting an Islamic feminism? Is Islamic feminism part of a broad reform movement in Iran, or is it an attempt to legitimize the state’s gender policy? And are those expatriate feminist scholars who report positively on “Islamic feminism” correct to promote the phenomenon? These are among the vexed questions that have emerged in various writings, and that been met by divergent responses.
There has been a wider and longstanding debate among feminists within Middle East Women’s Studies regarding representations of Arab/Islamic women, conceptualizations of veiling and Islamic identity, and regarding orientalism, universalist values, and cultural relativism. In this article, however, I focus on the Iranian debate. Given the contentious nature of the debate and the tendency toward misrepresentation of positions, I am trying to provide balance and clarity. I am also concerned with the definition and meaning of “feminism”, its applicability to Muslim societies, and the need for a more inclusive and cross-cultural understanding of feminism and of the global women’s movement. (Note – this paper is an abbreviated version of a much longer one that also contains full citations.)
The Debate: Viewpoints of the Protagonists
Those involved in the debate on Islamic feminism form two opposing camps. On one side are those who explore the possibilities that exist within Islam (by looking at theological discussions) or within the Islamic Republic of Iran (through sociological or political analyses) concerning women’s interests. Chief among them are three feminist social scientists educated in Iran and the West, two of whom have deep roots in the Iranian left and the women’s movement. Afsaneh Najmabadi, educated in both the U.K. and the U.S., is a professor of women’s studies in New York; Nayereh Tohidi is a U.S.-trained professor of women’s studies in California; Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a Cambridge-educated social anthropologist based in London. In the 1970s and 1980s Tohidi and Najmabadi were active in the left-wing anti-Shah student movement and later in the anti-fundamentalist and feminist movements. Najmabadi is a founder of Nimeye Digar, a Persian-language feminist journal published in England. Tohidi has been to Iran several times in the 1990s, is in regular contact with women’s rights activists in Iran, and often publishes in the Iranian women’s press.
In the opposite camp are those who argue vehemently against the possibility that activists and scholars operating within an Islamic framework in Iran may be accurately described as “Islamic feminists”. Islamic feminists and their expatriate academic supporters, they argue, either consciously or unwittingly delegitimize secular trends and social forces. This camp maintains that the activities and goals of “Islamic feminism” are circumscribed and compromised; and they contend that there cannot be improvements in women’s status as long as the Islamic Republic is in place. This group similarly includes Western-educated feminist social scientists with deep roots in the left and in the women’s movement, including one man. Haideh Moghissi teaches women’s studies in Canada; Shahrzad Mojab holds a university administrative position in Canada; and Hammed Shahidian teaches sociology in the U.S. Shahidian is a prolific researcher whose writings have appeared in U.S. sociology journals; at least two have appeared in the women’s press in Iran. Interesting, despite their posturing as defenders of the secular left, Moghissi has written a book, and Shahidian an article, highly critical of the secular leftist organizations in Iran during the Revolution.
Although I have been placed (by Moghissi and Mojab) in the first camp, I (and others) situate myself somewhere in the middle of the two. In my writings I have examined the role of the Left in the revolution (critically but sympathetically), the nature and evolution of the populist revolution, the evolution of the Islamic state and its policies, and changes in the status of women since the revolution and especially during the 1990s. In particular, I have researched women’s employment patterns and measures of gender inequality before and after the revolution. I too was part of the student movement, and I remain a Marxist-feminist.
In Defense of Islamic Feminism
Writings on women and gender in the Islamic Republic were almost uniformly critical during the 1980s, but a change of tone and style could be discerned after 1990. Several studies began to argue that reforms and policy shifts were occurring in the Islamic Republic, that an incipient women’s movement was underway, and that Muslim women activists were behind much of the changes. These studies have been applauded by some and criticized by others. In the early 1980s, the writings of Parvin Paidar (sometimes under the name Nahid Yeganeh) suggested some common ground between Islamic women and left-wing women. At the time, however, her writings did not engender the kind of harsh debate that has developed since the mid-1990s. The debate proper on Islamic feminism may be said to have begun in February 1994, when Afsaneh Najmabadi gave a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in which she described Islamic feminism as a reform movement that also opens up a dialogue between religious and secular feminists. A Persian-language article ensued, and her views are contained in at least two English-language essays.
In her SOAS talk, Najmabadi focused on the women’s magazine Zanan and the quarterly Farzaneh, both published in Tehran. Zanan, which was founded in 1992 by Shahla Sherkat, the former editor of the establishment women’s magazine Zan-e Rouz, had become by 1994 the major voice for reform in the status of women. In the magazine’s inaugural issue, Sherkat writes that “We believe that the key to the solution of women’s problems lies in four realms: religion, culture, law, and education. If the way is paved in these four principal domains then we can be hopeful of women’s development and society’s advancement.” Najmabadi described how articles in Zanan challenge orthodox Islamic teachings on the differential rights and responsibilities of women and men by claiming women’s right to equality. She explained that part of her enthusiasm for Islamic feminism, and especially for Zanan, lay in her belief that they have entered a common ground with secular feminists in their attempts to improve women’s legal status and social positions.
Writers in Zanan, well-versed in the Quran, have raised the issue of the right to ijtehad (independent reasoning, religious interpretation), and the right of women to reinterpret Islamic law. Writes Najmabadi: “At the center of Zanan’s revisionist approach is a radical decentering of the clergy from the domain of interpretation, and the placing of woman as interpreter and her needs as grounds for interpretation.” This, she feels, challenges one of the foundational concepts of the Islamic Republic: deference to the rulership of the supreme jurisprudent, or the velayat-e faghih. Another reason for Najmabadi’s celebration of Islamic feminism (again, as articulated in Zanan) is her belief that it has opened up a new space for dialogue between Islamic women activists and reformers and secular feminists, thereby breaking down the old hostile divide between secular and religious thought.
Ziba Mir-Hosseini similarly offers a careful analysis of the writings of Zanan. She has focused on new discourses on gender among Islamic theologians, the challenging of Islamic family laws by ordinary women, and the emergence of reform-minded Islamic feminists. Mir-Hosseini argues that an unpredicted outcome of the Islamic revolution in Iran has been to raise the nation’s gender consciousness. “…[W]hatever concerns women – from their most private to their most public activities, from what they should wear and what they should study to whether and where they should work – are issues that have been openly debated and fought over by different factions, always in highly charged and emotional language.”
Mir-Hosseini has written most extensively about how family law, especially marriage and divorce, have constituted a contested arena. The official discourse promotes domesticity and motherhood for women as ideal roles, and the constitution promises to guard the sanctity of the family. Yet, the return to Sharia law gives men a free hand in divorce and polygamy. This “in effect subverts the very sanctity of the family as understood by women, thus going against the Constitution’s promise.” She then argues that many Muslim women who had at the beginning genuinely though naively believed that under an Islamic state women’s position would automatically improve, became increasingly disillusioned by the new discriminatory and patriarchal discourses and policies. These included intellectuals like Zahra Rahnavard and activists like Azam Taleghani, and subsequently establishment women like Monireh Gorji. Meanwhile, under the editorship of Shahla Sherkat, Zanan became the principal forum for the discussion of the injustices of current Sharia interpretations and their application to civil codes. In Zanan and elsewhere, feminist lawyers such as Mehrangiz Kar and Shirin Ebadi delineate the problems and legal tangles that women confront in terms of both the substance of the law and its implementation.
The contradictions in the Islamic discourse, the emerging feminist consciousness as seen in the women’s press, and challenges by feminist lawyers and other women led to amendments to the divorce law in 1992, whose spirit is to making divorce less accessible and more costly to men. Mir-Hosseini also notes the widespread use of concepts such as mardsalari, which refers to both male dominance and to patriarchy. Mir-Hosseini has traced the evolution of feminist social analyses in Zanan from the hesitant voice at the magazine’s beginning, to the assertion of a fiqh voice — particularly with the series of articles written by the cleric Mohsen Saidzadeh in favor of equality for women and men and the reform of Sharia laws). And like Najmabadi, she sees Zanan’s willingness to publish the secular lawyer Mehrangiz Kar as politically significant.
Nayereh Tohidi is well known in Iranian expatriate circles for her many Persian-language writings and lectures on politics and women, from her early days as a left activist to the present. Her articles in the 1980s tended to be very critical of the Islamic Republic and of its gender policies. During the 1990s, however, her writings shifted from an emphasis on the forms of gender oppression in Iran to the empowerment of Muslim women and the possibilities for reform within the Islamic system in Iran. She argues that women are able to renegotiate gender roles and codes, and find “a path of compromise and creative synthesis”. She has explained how her visits to Iran during the 1990s, and in particular her interviews and observations, have compelled her to shift her focus from repression to resistance and empowerment. As she has recently pointed out, “secular feminists, democrats, and liberals have not been alone in contesting the state’s ideology and politics on gender issues. Many proponents of Islam are playing an important role in the reformation of women’s rights in an Islamic context.”
In a recent book she has co-edited, Tohidi writes approvingly that women in the Muslim world are fighting and strategizing against two sets of pressures, “one stemming from the internal patriarchal system and the other emitted by those forces seen as external, threatening people’s national and cultural boundaries.” She then proceeds to describe one of those strategies, “the recently growing phenomenon of ‘Islamic feminism’.” She describes this as a movement of women who “have maintained their religious beliefs while trying to promote egalitarian ethics of Islam by using the female-supportive verses of the Qur’an in their fight for women’s rights, especially for women’s access to education.” Echoing Mir-Hosseini, she notes that Islamic feminists undermine the clerical agenda both within and outside the Islamist framework in a number of ways:
by subtly circumventing the dictated rules (e.g., reappropriating the veil as a means to facilitate social presence rather than seclusion, or minimizing and diversifying the compulsory hijab and dress code into fashionable styles), engaging in a feministic ijtehad, emphasizing the egalitarian ethics of Islam, reinterpreting the Qur’an, and deconstructing Sharia-related rules in a women-friendly egalitarian fashion (e.g., in terms of birth control, personal status law, and family code to the extent of legalizing a demand for ‘wages for housework’.
Tohidi warns that “secular feminists should differentiate between those Islamic women who are genuinely promoting women’s rights and hence inclusionary in their politics from those who insist on fanatic or totalitarian Islam.” And approvingly citing the feminist lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, she stresses that a “reformist or women-centered interpretation of religious laws should be considered not as an alternative to secular and democratic demands but as a component of more holistic social change.”
The Case against Islamic Feminism
Haideh Moghissi complains that “it has become fashionable to speak sympathetically and enthusiastically about the reformist activities of Muslim women, and to insist on their independence of thought. … The message is that a new road has been opened up for women – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – to gain equal rights to men: a road based on feminist interpretations of Islamic sharia laws.” Moghissi is critical of those “apologists of the Islamic government and uninformed observers” who attribute legal changes in the Islamic Republic to “the enlightenment of conservative Islamists… .” At the same time, she does not claim that there have been no achievements by Islamic feminists in Iran. In fact, she refers to the opportunities afforded to Islamic women and to the accomplishments of the female political elite. Without properly attributing these ideas to previous authors (e.g., Tohidi and Moghadam), she writes that the Islamic Republic’s gender ideology faces the imperatives of a capitalist system, which requires sexual desegregation, and that the clerical state tries to accommodate the demands of activist women. But then she also opines that the “exaggerated reports” about recent legal gains by women, and the role of Islamic feminists in bringing them about, divert attention away from societal opposition to the economic, social, and cultural conditions brought about by nearly two decades of Islamization. It serves to strengthen the legitimacy of the Islamic system in Iran and “weakens the struggle of women inside Iran”.
Moghissi claims that the term “Islamic feminist” has been used in “inaccurate” and “irresponsible” ways. Almost all Islamic and active women are designated Islamic feminist, she asserts, “even though their activities might not even fit the broadest definition of feminism.” Although she herself does not define feminism, Moghissi complains that the term encompasses members of the female political elite who believe in the Sharia and its prescribed gender rights and roles, such as three female members of parliament who have been responsible for two reactionary bills. The very term, she argues, and the emphasis on the achievements of those believing women who reinterpret the Quran, obscure the political, ideological, and religious differences among Iranian women and mask the valiant efforts of socialists, democrats, and feminists to work toward secularism. In her Kankash article, Moghissi singles out expatriate feminist authors, finds faults with their analyses, and brands them “neoconservatives”. In her book, she brands them “postmodernists” and “cultural relativists”. She writes: “Charmed by ‘difference’ and secure from the bitter fact of the fundamentalist regime, outsiders do them [Iranian women and men] a disservice by clinging to the illusion of an Islamic path.”
Hammed Shahidian similarly argues that the politics of “Islamic feminism” is problematical, whether in Iran or elsewhere. The emphasis on the achievements of Islamic women, he writes, obscures the contributions of the Left and secularists in the face of continued Islamist repression in Iran. (Like Moghissi, however, Shahidian also has written sharp criticisms of the Left.) In one article he refers to a “deepening identity crisis” among secular Middle East feminists and approvingly quotes two Iranian left-wing feminists: “… some women have found the pull towards a full or partial reconciliation with Iranian-style fundamentalism stronger. A trend is now developing among some Iranian feminists … to stand back and consider Islamic fundamentalism as opposed to stand up and fight against it.”
Shahidian is critical of attempts by Arab scholars such as Fatima Mernissi and Aziza Al-Hibri, and the Pakistan-born Rifat Hassan, to craft a feminist theology and reinterpretation of Islamic texts; these attempts are futile, he argues, given the strength of conservative, orthodox, traditional, and fundamentalist interpretations, laws, and institutions. He is especially critical of a growing trend in Middle East Women’s Studies wherein authors justify Muslim women’s veiling, domesticity, moral behavior, and adherence to Islamic precepts as signs of individual choice and identity. Even if we do not accept the notion of “false consciousness”, he asks, is it not incumbent upon scholars to situate and understand actors’ views and perceptions within the broader social, cultural, political, and economic context? This context is characterized by political repression, cultural conservatism, and the social control of women. Shahidian notes that Islamic feminists in Iran have been attentive to and influenced by Western feminism. But he is critical of them for not addressing sexual rights and veiling. Shahidian argues that Islamic feminism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.
While Shahidian has been especially critical of Tohidi, Shahrzad Mojab, like Moghissi, has focused on Najmabadi’s writings on Islamic feminism. In an article published in the Persian-language magazine Arash, Shahrzad Mojab criticizes Najmabadi for suggesting that Zanan is the new “democratic forum” and that it can help to feminize democracy. She disputes Najmabadi’s hopeful prognosis about the reinterpretation of Islamic texts and stresses that the ruling religious elite can dismiss, delegitimize, or prohibit radical or feminist reinterpretations. What Iran’s Islamic feminists have achieved is, at any rate, quite limited in content and consequence. Real change – real democratization – will come about outside of the religious framework, writes Mojab.
The Iranian left in exile is exceptionally vocal in opposing support for Islamic feminism. Left-opposition newspapers and magazines have carried articles describing the phenomenon and rejecting it as illusory or as a way of legitimizing Islamic rule. Representative of this line of thought is an editorial entitled “The Limits of Islamic Feminism”, published in 1994 in Iran Bulletin. But the criticism of Islamic feminism is not limited to certain left-wing circles. Iranians who identify themselves as liberals or monarchists are equally adamant that no change or reform is possible in the Islamic Republic of Iran (e.g., Azar Nafisi). The People’s Mojahedin Organization takes the same position.
Islamic Feminism: An Assessment and Alternative View
The Iranian debate on Islamic feminism certainly reflects — and probably reinforces — the fragmentation of the left. The quote at the beginning of this article, which comes from a Latin American feminist, may well describe the current crisis of the Iranian left and of the exile condition. But the debate is perhaps best understood as part of three broader and at times overlapping debates and political realities. The first pertains to Islamic fundamentalism (its origins, gender dynamics, contradictions), the second to the Islamic Republic of Iran (its gender regime and its political evolution), and the third to the definition of feminism (and the nature of women’s movements around the world).
Fundamentalism, the Islamic Republic, and Feminism
In the 1980s and 1990s, many of those who were grappling with the perplexing phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism were Middle Eastern academic women (like myself) who were writing in North America and Europe. Politics and disciplinary training alike informed our approaches. We faced the problem of Islamic fundamentalism from a political position (whether Marxist, socialist, feminist, or liberal), but we also sought to distance ourselves from eurocentric and orientalist approaches. Thus it became very important to refute orientalist charges that Islamic fundamentalism was the inevitable political expression of the Muslim world, and to counter cultural relativist arguments that criticism of gender practices in non-Western cultures was inappropriate and an imposition of Western values. At the same time, many of us who were social scientists used our disciplinary tools to analyze relations, institutions and processes in Muslim societies. Historical and comparative methods, for example, suggested similarities between Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East at the end of the 20th century and American Protestant fundamentalism in the early 20th century. Both movements occurred in the context of the contradictions of modernity and modernization, including growing secularization and changes to family structure. A difference between the two, however, is that Islamic fundamentalism also occurred in the regional context of Middle East politics and the international context of economic recession and growing inequalities. Scholars were also interested in the differences among Islamist movements (e.g., Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Algeria) and the evolution of political Islam. In the late 1990s, there is some consensus that the wave of movements for political Islam that swept over the Middle East and North Africa is subsiding, although the legacy of Islamic fundamentalism is not yet fully understood.
A parallel and interrelated debate has centered on the evolution of the Islamic Republic in the 1990s. Has the regime shown a capacity for reform? Is the Islamic Republic of Iran moving in a capitalistic, bourgeois direction that may augur legal reforms and changes in social relations (including gender relations and laws about women and the family)? Or is the Islamic Republic mired in a crisis that can only be resolved through complete systemic transformation? Have women’s positions improved since the highly ideological and repressive early years? Or is the fundamentalist gender regime incapable of change and reform? Again, Iranians have approached these questions both politically (“subjectively”) and academically (“objectively”). Most of the oppositional press and some books highlight the political repression, violations of women’s human rights, the archaic political system of clerical governance, and economic inefficiencies to insist on the impossibility of fundamental reform and change. Others have documented reforms in the political system, in economic policy, and in foreign policy. These changes, it is argued, began after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and have continued during the presidency of the liberal Islamic cleric Mohammad Khatami.
A third debate and political development relevant to the debate on Islamic feminism pertains to the definition of feminism and the nature of women’s movements worldwide. As feminist scholars Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor note:
“Feminism” is a contested term even in the present, and historical literature is full of kinds of feminists who would surely have had a hard time finding common ground: Nazi feminists and Jewish feminists, Catholic feminists and Islamic feminists, socialist feminists and utopian feminists, social feminists and equity feminists, imperial feminists and national feminists.
The debate on Islamic feminism is linked to the above three debates. We have seen how some feminist scholars have shifted their focus from the unrelenting oppression of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran to an appreciation of resistance, empowerment, and change. It is in this context that they now analyze the activities of Iran’s Islamic feminists, who have been responsible for some legal reforms beneficial to women in the Islamic Republic. As noted by Najmabadi, Mir-Hosseini, and Tohidi, Islamic feminists are particularly keen on removing the most patriarchal aspects of Iran’s family law, which is highly disadvantageous to women in the areas of inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody.
In the opposite camp, the detractors of Islamic feminism reject the possibilities for any improvements in women’s conditions or any reform of the Islamist system in Iran. As we have seen with Moghissi, however, they can argue, rather inconsistently, that the clerical state has undertaken legal reforms as concessions to women activists, but that the proponents of Islamic feminism “exaggerate” the potential of Islamic feminism. In general, the detractors of Islamic feminism refuse to concede the few successes that Islamic feminists have made in overturning some discriminatory policies, mainly in the areas of employment and education, that were adopted in the early years of Islamization. As such, they essentially deny women’s agency in the Islamic Republic. They also dismiss the reform movement in Iran, with which many of the “Islamic feminists” are associated, as unimportant or futile. Finally, they define “feminism” essentially as Anglo-American radical- and liberal-feminism. Nowhere does the idea of a global feminism figure into their critiques
Islamic Feminism: Strengths and Weaknesses
In my view, there can be no doubt of the importance of the activities of “Islamic feminists” such as Shahla Sherkat, Zahra Rahnavard, Faezeh Hashemi, Jamileh Kadivar, and others. Their close association with more secular feminists, such as Shirin Ebadi, Mehrangis Kar, Shahla Lahiji, and several academics (e.g., Nahid Motiee) is an illustration of their capacity for dialogue and coalition-building in the interests of the expansion of women’s rights. By maintaining a lively and widely-read women’s press (e.g., Zanan, Zan-e Rouz, Farzaneh, Zan, as well as newer ones such asHoghough-e Zanan and Jens-e Dovvom), women’s rights activists, including Islamic feminists, have succeeded in making highly visible the “question of women”. For example, in 1997 roundtable discussions entitled “What are the Most Important Problems of Women in Iran?” were organized and reported on in Zanan. The roundtable discussion that featured Farideh Farahi, Mehrangiz Kar, and Abbas Abdi discussion touched on such issues as the reform movement in Iran, the limited nature of women’s rights, and the need for the press to enjoy more freedoms. The women’s press, and those Islamic and secular feminists associated with it, are playing an important role in broadening the discursive universe of the Islamic Republic, and in expanding legal literacy and gender consciousness among their readership.
The re-reading of the Islamic texts is a central project of Islamic feminists. Out of their own religious conviction, Shahla Sherkat, Maryam Behrouzi, Monireh Gorji and the former cleric (now defrocked) Mohsen Saidzadeh engage in new interpretations of Islamic texts in order to challenge laws and policies that are based on orthodox, literalist, or misogynist interpretations. Other Islamic feminists such as Faezeh Hashemi boldly insist on the need for women judges, on more equitable inheritance law, on voluntary veiling, and on the right to engage in sports. Hashemi, Ebadi, Kar, and others have objected to the penal code for its discrimination against women, whereby the “blood money” of a woman is half that of a man. As such, Islamic feminists are addressing some of the fundamentals of Islamic doctrine and of the gender system in Iran.
Although I am sympathetic to the discursive strategy of Islamic feminists, I am concerned about the focus on the “correct” reading of the Islamic texts. I fear that so long as they remain focused on theological arguments rather than socio-economic and political questions, and so long as their point of reference is the Quran rather than universal standards, their impact will be limited at best. At worst, their strategy can reinforce the legitimacy of the Islamic system, help to reproduce it, and undermine secular alternatives. But this worst-case scenario will probably not be realized, because most Islamic feminists combine their religious reinterpretations with a recognition of universal standards, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
The limitations of Islamic feminism in its present phase are suggested by an interesting article by Anne Sofie Roald. She notes that Christian feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther, Phyllis Bird and Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza “are part of an established scientific tradition within Christian theology.” This is a historical-critical method which allows them to “perceive the Bible as written by human beings and in particular by men, … .” This is “an assumption which is not possible in an Islamic exegesis.” Islamic feminist theologians seek to evaluate Islamic sources, criticize the interpretation of Islamic sources, and stress the equality of men and women in the Quran. Their method “concentrates mainly on textual analysis and thus works methodologically in search of evidences to establish laws and regulations suitable for modern society.” Roald concludes that “The interpretation of the Islamic sources by women is a new project and the next decades will show us whether this project has any future.”
It is, at any rate, very difficult to win theological arguments. There will always be various interpretations of the religious texts, and what determines the dominance of each interpretation is the power of the social forces behind it. In this respect, I agree with Shahrzad Mojab on the limits of religious reinterpretation. Thus, although religious reform is salutary and necessary, it is imperative to develop secular institutions, including a state that defends the rights of all its citizens irrespective of religious affiliation, and a civil society with strong organizations that can constitute a check on the state. I will return to this issue at the conclusion of this paper.
Shahidian criticizes Islamic feminists for working within the Islamic system and thus helping to legitimize and reproduce it. And yet, many feminists around the world work within their system, and help to reproduce it. In the U.S., liberal feminists work within the existing political system and seek to improve women’s positions though the discursive framework of liberal capitalism. Of course, the substance of their respective gender critiques is different, and they work within two entirely different political and legal environments. Shahidian has criticized Iran’s Islamic feminists for their failure to take up such liberal-feminist issues as sexual rights and personal autonomy. Apart from the fact that there are some other issues that may have more priority for most Iranian women, one has to point out that U.S. liberal feminists have not called for economic and political transformation. American feminist demands for sexual rights and equal opportunities in education and employment are entirely compatible with the capitalist system. What liberal feminists have not called for is a change in the system of taxation and in development policy that would alter U.S. foreign policy and the distribution of wealth within the United States. Such profound changes would transform and improve the lives of American women and of women around the world.
One of the gaps I see in the discourse of the “Islamic feminists” – whether they be genuinely religious or more secular – is the lack of attention to political and economic issues. Where are the analyses of poverty, of economic policy, of governance? Where are the alternative positions on democracy (even an Islamic democracy), civil society, and citizen rights? Their position on political and economic issues remains unclear and undeveloped. Faezeh Hashemi and other Islamic feminists sometimes refer to the goals of democracy, civil society, and equality for women and religious minorities. However, to the extent that they raise these issues, their discussion of them tends to be very general and non-threatening. (I have found this level of generality and lack of specificity to be the case with male reformists as well.) In fact, Iran’s constitution – as well as family law and the penal code — will have to be revised, if those objectives are to be achieved. Moreover, the building of civil society calls for a specific kind of state. Civil society presupposes a state that enforces universal legal norms and guarantees protection of civil and human rights regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, and class.
Conclusion: On Civil Society and Global Feminism
Does Islamic feminism challenge or reinforce the fusion of religion and politics/law? Najmabadi celebrates Zanan for its receptivity to non-Islamic writers, which she sees as blurring the divide between religious and secular thought. And yet there is a need for separation of the state and mosque/church/synagogue, and for a secular political system, even though there are different paths to and models of secularism and Iran must find its own.
I cannot elaborate on these different historical paths and contemporary models in the confines of the present paper. Here I can simply point out that Mexico, Turkey, India, France, Finland, the United States, and the former Soviet Union have had very different forms of secularism. In Mexico, government officials do not invoke the name of God (partly a result of Mexico’s anti-clerical revolution earlier this century), but the masses of Mexicans are very religious. The vast majority of Turks are Muslims, and yet the political-juridical system is secular. Finnish citizens pay a portion of their taxes to the Lutheran Church, although politics and citizenry alike are secular. The former Soviet Union and countries of Eastern Europe had an official policy of atheism – which, however, engendered religious dissidence. The United States has a constitutional principle of separation of church and state – but that same constitution, as well as the American currency, refers to God. India has sought to maintain equality of its many ethnic and religious communities through the establishment of a secular political system – although its Civil Code still defers to various communities in the areas of personal and family status.
The efforts of believing women of the monotheistic faiths to subject their religious texts to a feminist re-reading, or to locate and emphasize the women-friendly and egalitarian precepts within their religious texts, are to be supported. This is a legitimate – and a historically necessary – strategy to improve the status of women and to modernize religious thought. In this respect, my position is different from that of Moghissi and Shahidian, who dismiss feminist theology and deny its wider implications. And yet, one cannot insist that the Islamic arguments are the only ones that matter, and that change will occur only as a result of the reform movement in Islam. Islam in Iran may be experiencing a kind of Reformation, but what will be equally if not more important for long-term social change in Iran is an Enlightenment. As such, the contributions of non-religious thinkers and activists, whether inside or outside Iran, will continue the process of democratization and civil society-building that was initiated by the Constitutional Revolution earlier in this century. This process, and the resolution of the political, economic, and cultural crises that we witness in Iran today, will only be overcome by major changes in the system of governance.
What are some elements of a system of governance and legal system that could ensure social, gender, religious, and ethnic equality? Religious doctrine should not be the basis of laws, policies, or institutions. Constitutions should not state that “Islam [or Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism] is the official [or state or national] religion.” Family law should not derive from religious texts, whether in Iran or in Israel. Blasphemy laws should be removed, and religion should be the subject of historical and critical inquiry. All citizens should be equal before the law, with equal rights and obligations. Civil, political, and social rights of citizens should be clearly defined, and protected by the state and by the institutions of civil society. (This includes worker participation in decision-making and an active role for independent unions, professional associations, citizen groups, and so on.) It should be noted that Islam, like the other monotheistic religions, has humane, compassionate, egalitarian, and social-justice aspects. These may inspire civil codes, political processes, social policies, and economic institutions. For example, the humanism of religious thought is an important counter-weight to the harsh discipline of the capitalist market. The ban on usury in Islam and Catholicism is in conflict with capitalism’s creation of wealth through financial transactions and speculation, and this, to my mind, is progressive and should be emphasized. Religious belief should be respected, and religious institutions should have a place in civil society, but religion should not dominate the state and the law.
I end by asking whether Islamic feminism is indeed feminism. Is Islamic feminism an indigenous alternative to secular or Western-inspired feminism? Is it an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Or is it part of the already diversified spectrum of the international women’s movement, and a contributor to a “global feminism”? There is no question that Islamic feminists have been inspired by Western feminism and are attentive to feminist writings from the developing world. Any reading of the women’s press in Iran reveals that Iranian women activists and scholars, including those who define themselves as Muslim or Islamic, are aware of or familiar with international writings on feminism.
In a thought-provoking book, Patricia Misciagno argues for a “bottom-up”, or a materialist, approach to feminist identity that hinges on women’s praxis, rather than their ideology. She defines “de facto feminist praxis” as “activity that runs counter to the ideology of patriarchy, even while not directly addressing the issue of patriarchy as an ideology.” Similarly, historian Leila Rupp and sociologist Verta Taylor note that “a concentration solely on ideas ignores the fact that feminists are social movement actors situated in an organizational and movement context.” Their historical study shows that “the meaning of feminism has changed over time and from place to place and is often disputed”. They emphasize the need to understand “what women (or men) in a specific historical location believed” but also “how they constructed, sometimes through conflict with one another, a sense of togetherness.” Feminist disputes, they argue, “take place within a social movement community that, as it evolves, encompasses those who see gender as a major category of analysis, who critique female disadvantage, and who work to improve women’s situations.” They conclude by asserting that “In every group, in every place, at every time, the meaning of ‘feminism’ is worked out in the course of being and doing.”
The above analysis may point the way toward a resolution of the debate on Islamic feminism. For if feminism has always been contested, if feminists should be defined by their praxis rather than by a strict ideology, and if a feminist politics is shaped by its specific historical, political, and cultural contexts, then it should be possible to identify Islamic feminism as one feminism among many. Indeed, in my view, it is not particularly useful to create absolute boundaries between Islamic feminism, Western feminism, Latin American feminism, African feminism, Jewish feminism, and so on. In the same way that liberal, socialist, Marxist, radical, cultural, and postmodern feminisms are part of the feminist tradition, so are the various regional manifestations part of the evolving political philosophy of feminism and social movement of women. At the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, what is emerging is a global women’s movement and a philosophy that draws on the feminist “classics” but that also reflects the social realities and concerns of women in various parts of the world. To a very great extent, the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted at the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995, is a manifesto of this global women’s movement. It describes the problems facing the women of the world and prescribes a set of actions to solve the problems that would involve government, international agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the women’s movement. That the Platform for Action was finally agreed upon by governments and women’s organizations after considerable disagreements confirms the multi-faceted nature of global feminism and of the capacity of women worldwide to overcome ideology and conflict and agree on the measures necessary for women’s equality and empowerment.
Feminism is a theoretical perspective and a practice that criticizes social and gender inequalities, seeks to transform knowledge, and aims at women’s empowerment. Women, and not religion, should be at the center of that theory and practice. It is hard to defend as feminist the view that women can attain equal status only in the context of Islam. This is a fundamentalist view, not one compatible with feminism. And yet, around the world women will pursue different strategies toward empowerment and transformation. We are still grappling with understanding and theorizing those diverse strategies. In this context, it serves no purpose to insist on a narrow definition of feminism, as Moghissi and Shahidian appear to do. Moreover, through their harsh attacks on those with whom they disagree, they impede rather than contribute to dialogue, knowledge, coalition-building, and collective action.
Val Moghaddam is director of women’s studies and Associate Professor of Sociology in Illinois State University, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Shahidian, Hammed. 1994. “The Iranian Left and ‘The Woman Question’ in the Revolution of 1978-79.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 26: 223-247
—–. 1998. “Feminism in Iran: In Search of What?”, Zanan, no. 40: 32-38.
—–. 1998. “Islamic Feminism Encounters Western Feminism: An Indigenous Alternative?” Talk delivered at the Women’s Studies 1998-99 Seminar on Globalization, Gender, and Pedagogy, Illinois State University (12 February).
—–. 1999. “Saving the Savior”, Sociological Inquiry, vol. 69, no. 2 (Spring): 303-327.
Zanan. Various issues.
Originally published at IraqLeft.blogspot.com
Maliki Runs Out of Days
June 7th has been called ‘The Day of Retribution’ by Iraqi grassroots organizers. Nation-wide protests and sit-ins are planned against the US occupation as well as Nouri al-Maliki’s regime, coinciding with the Prime Minister’s own deadline, set exactly 100 days ago, to address Iraq’s protest movement’s demands. “Changes will be made in light of the evaluation results,” Maliki said in a statement in late February, referring to his cabinet members and their performance.
In response, a recently released call to action by the grassroots organization ‘Popular Movement to Save Iraq’ expresses a broadly held sentiment among Iraqis: the government’s promises are not to be trusted. “We admit that we weren’t really waiting, and didn’t hold out during this time. We were organizing actions with other organizations before and during the countdown to June 7th.” Seeing the date as a marker to draw more dissatisfied Iraqis into the protest movement, the statement continues: “But the end of the 100 day period, [with the government] having achieved nothing whatsoever, was the fuse we were waiting for, for those that were giving al-Maliki a chance, and were waiting for reforms from him, his government and corrupt parliament, to come out and demonstrate with us.”
The actions and demonstrations mentioned above have varied in their size, intensity and intent. Over the past 100 days, Friday demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square have been a constant, sometimes swelling to involve thousands of participants whose grievances included the shocking lack of services like reliable electricity after nearly a decade of a new regime. Crucially though, demands have also often included the immediate withdrawal of the US occupation forces, the release of political prisoners, and the revocation of the sectarian constitution. (These facts are often omitted by the little coverage Iraq receives. A May 29th story by the new agency ‘Aswat al-Iraq’ for example, only mentions protestors “demanding an end of corruption, the improvement of public services and living standards of the people, as well as putting an end to unemployment in the country.”)
These broader-aimed protests were most prominent during a 20-day long sit-in in the northern city of Mosul, launched on April 9th, 8 years to the day after Baghdad fell to occupying forces. Iraqi blogs and facebook pages are attempting to marshal the energy of that sustained action for June 7th, recalling that it grew to the tens of thousands, contained a lively, celebratory air including political poetry and theater performances, and even pushed the governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Najifi, to openly defy Maliki’s forces and defend the right of Iraqis to demonstrate. In response to Maliki’s threats of a clampdown – backed by live ammunition – nearly the entire city (Iraq’s second largest) went on ageneral strike on May 25th, and for one of the first times the magic words of the Arab spring were heard in Iraq “The people want the downfall of the regime!”
Another significant development in the Iraqi protest movement is the coordination between groups, as well as the clarity of their demands. Mainly through facebook, a consistent source of photos, videos and statements has become ‘The Media Office of The Great Iraqi Revolution and the February 25th Revolution Coalition.’ This is in addition to their launching of an Arabic-language website on May 19th[www.iraqirevolution.com] that includes exposés of corrupt politicians and profiles of organizers and activists.
Finally, in a joint statement signed by several groups, such as ‘Movement to Liberate the South [of Iraq]’, ‘The Organization of Students of a Free Iraq’, ‘The National Organization of Tribal Leaders of the South and the Central Euphrates’, ‘Movement of Rising Iraqis’, ‘Coalition to Support the Iraqi Revolution’ and ‘Movement of Iraqi Youth’ a positive alternative to Iraq’s present reality begins to emerge: “[We] are not returning to our homes until al-Maliki steps down, the occupation leaves, corrupt politicians are held accountable, face trial, and the parliament is disbanded. We call for the formation of a transitional government of technocrats that can run the country for a temporary period, and after a period of no more than 6 months, they will set up transparent elections without regional or outside interference. [We] and the other organizations in coalition have decided not to enter into this transitional government, and limit our work to organizing sit-ins and demonstrations only, to bring down the occupation government.”
Observers of the Iraqi protest movement cannot help but notice that its numbers would swell whenever there was avisit by a US diplomat to the green zone. February 25th’s ‘Day of Rage’ followed hints from the US state department that US forces may need to remain, while many slogans in all over Iraq’s public squares were keyed to statements Joe Biden, John Kerry or Robert Gates had recently made. A key development in this regard was Nouri al-Maliki’s shift from denying the possibility of a US troop presence past the 2011 year-end deadline agreed upon in 2008’s ‘Status of Forces Agreement’, to saying on May 10th: “You want to make me say yes or no before I gather the national consensus?” al-Maliki retorted. “I will not say it.”
This combination then — of demands very similar to those of other pro-democracy movements in the Arab-world, political freedoms, transparency and lack of corruption, and due process rather than arbitrary force exercised by the police, along with a powerful call for self-determination against a US occupation that has lasted longer than 8 years, and a clear Iranian influence on the Maliki-led coalition government — makes Iraq unique, and makes Maliki’s regime especially glaring in its lack of legitimacy.
As Uday al-Zaidi, brother of shoe-throwing journalist and lead organizer of the ‘Popular Movement to Save Iraq’ puts it: “What we want is dignity. If you look, when the protests began in Baghdad, we were not [just] asking for electricity or government subsidies. You hear here and there that these people are just looking for work, or job opportunities. They are wrong. We are a country that has lost its dignity and freedom. That is why our central demand is and will continue to be an end to the occupation, and an end to this political process which is built on a sectarian quota system.”
Perhaps sensing how vulnerable the top of the pyramid is, Iraqi police (and sometimes military) have launched a severe crackdown in the run-up to June 7th, arresting, questioning and sometimes torturing activists and their supporters. The crackdown has been so blatantly repressive, that even international human rights organizations, that have often been very quiet about Iraq, like Amnesty International have released condemnations, and calls for the release of the detained, like prominent blogger Ahmed Alaa al-Baghdadi.
The tactics though, seem to be outrunning the repression, with the method of writing meeting spots and dates on currency (pictured above) for wide dissemination, which was a very effective strategy most recently in Egypt, where, like in Iraq, the vast majority are without access to ‘facebook.’
Extending the metaphor, Uday al-Zaidi adds “This has shown us once and for all that terrorism and the Iraqi government are two sides of the same coin.”
by: Manijeh Nasrabadi
[Originally published on Jadalliya.com. This interview was conducted in Tehran by Manijeh Nasrabadi of the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective one year after the green uprising. For more from the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, see their “Essential Readings: Iran”]
On June 12, 2010, the tense one-year anniversary of the post-election uprising that made the color green an international symbol of a people’s democratic aspirations, hundreds of special security forces stood shoulder to shoulder along Tehran’s major boulevards and squares with knives, batons, and walkie-talkies ready. Nonetheless, the evening traffic from Imam Square to Revolution Square swelled well beyond the normal numbers of commuters, as families, friends, and co-workers engaged in a moving protest without signs, slogans, or any visible scrap of green. “My purse was full of green balloons that my sister and I were going to release into the crowd,” said one stay-at-home mother who drove along slowly, honking her horn to show her opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. “But we saw the faces of the security forces and we didn’t dare.” The standoff described above reveals both how deeply the dissent runs in this society and how easy it would be to draw pessimistic conclusions about the possibilities for progressive change in Iran.
At this crucial moment in Iran’s history, when the gap between popular discontent and the ability of the opposition to accomplish reforms threatens to swallow what remains of the green movement’s momentum, the experiences of Iranian feminists, who have long had to organize under conditions of crisis and repression, may offer a vital perspective on how to move forward from here. Indeed, for Iranian feminists, June 12th (the 22nd of Khordad on the Iranian calendar) evokes a longer, less well-publicized history of resistance. It is also the four-year anniversary of a watershed moment in the contemporary Iranian women’s movement, when activists protested against gender discrimination in Tehran’s Haft-e Tir Square and were beaten by police. More than fifty people were arrested, but the One Million Signatures Campaign was launched in the aftermath, and it managed to develop networks of activists in cities across the country despite the toll of government repression.
Through educational workshops and grassroots petitioning in public places and private gatherings, the Campaign gathered support for changing ten key laws that constitute women as second-class citizens in Iranian society, including divorce, child custody, and inheritance laws. On the occasion of this double anniversary, I sat down with Delaram, Homa, and Nahid, veteran Campaign activists in Tehran, to solicit their reflections on the turbulent years behind them, the relationship between the feminist movement and the broader “green” movement, and the prospects for advancing the struggle for gender equality under the current security crackdown.
Far from a homogenous entity, the Campaign has been a space of vigorous debate over strategy and tactics – including over what position to take during last year’s elections. Each of the women I spoke with had taken a different approach. “We had faced so much repression previously that it wasn’t easy to judge if we should participate at all in last year’s election season,” said Delaram, who spent several days in jail after the protest four years ago. She still faces a sentence of two years, ten months and ten lashes for her role in protesting gender discriminatory laws – a sentence the government could decide to carry out at any time. Campaign workshops were attacked repeatedly over the past four years, and some members lost jobs or were kicked out of school. It wasn’t until the night of the first televised presidential debates, when support for opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi manifested in large street processions of young people decked out in strips of green fabric, that Delaram realized “the mood of the country had changed.” She decided to vote for Moussavi because it seemed like he might actually win. “It felt like our revolution, like the bad memories of the past thirty years were draining away,” she said. Most Campaign activists initially backed Mehdi Karroubi, successfully conducting their petition drive among his supporters.
Homa was studying at Tehran University at the time, the center of the ongoing student movement, and cast a protest vote in favor of the relatively progressive positions Karroubi had taken, helping political prisoners and supporting minority rights. Nahid, who was a leftist during the 1979 revolution, took the most unpopular position, boycotting the election altogether. “I thought if we voted, it would only give legitimacy to this government,” she said. No matter whether they had voted or not, or for whom, all three women experienced the shock and anger that accompanied the purported poll results, and joined the millions of people who publicly refused to accept them. But as Campaign activists were swept up by the green wave of protest, their own work ground to a halt. “People said forget about gathering signatures, let’s go into the streets,” Delaram remembered. Homa laughed and added, “People said, if you get a long prison sentence, don’t worry. This government won’t last more than a year or two.”
The Campaign risked becoming irrelevant as people could point to the mass demonstrations and say, “Women are at the front of the movement, men are following them. What more do you want?”Delaram explained. “But a movement is not feminist just because there are a lot women participating in it.”
Nahid was particularly wary of the possibility that the feminist movement might dissolve into the green movement. “I protested in front of the Interior Ministry. I visited the families of people who were arrested. I joined all of it,” she said, referring to the mass post-election demonstrations. “But I didn’t wear green. I’m part of the women’s movement and I didn’t see any of the candidates do more than pay lip service to women’s rights.”Delaram pointed out that, “before the election, some people in Karroubi’s campaign raised the slogan that the hijab should be voluntary. But after the election, this slogan disappeared.”
The tension between large mobilizations for empowering universal ideals – popular chants in Iran last summer called for freedom and an end to dictatorship – and the struggle for women’s liberation is especially pointed here given the hard lessons feminists have drawn from the last time there was such widespread resistance: the 1979 revolution. In the spring of that year, marches for women’s rights were labeled pro-Western and met with violence. As the green movement gained strength and shook the nation, “it started to feel just like thirty years ago,” Homa said. “No one focused on women’s issues.”
In an attempt to better understand how women ended up betrayed by a revolution they helped to start, Homa asked her mother why she ever agreed to wear the hijab. “She said she and her friends didn’t even think of questioning it at the time.” “I can tell you from personal experience,” Nahid offered. “At the time of the revolution, I thought we were fighting for a classless society, for full equality, and that when we achieved this, women’s problems would be solved as well.” Nahid spent seven months in jail in 1981 for her left-wing activism but it wasn’t until twenty years later that she heard the word “feminism” and joined the women’s movement (eventually landing her back in jail for five days after the June 12th protest in 2006). “Now my criteria for political struggle has changed,” she said. “It’s less important to me if you call yourself ‘left’ or ‘right’ then if you ask, for example, where the discrimination lies in the divorce laws.”
With the weight of history hanging over them, and the regime launching a full-scale attack against the popular movement – 5,000 people were arrested in the eight months following the elections, including 138 female civic activists – Campaign members struggled to figure out how to continue their work. Two months into the uprising, about fifty of them gathered to discuss what to do. “Every moment we thought security might burst in and, if fifty activists in Tehran were all arrested together, we would have lost everything we’d worked for,” she said. It was a disorienting meeting in which Campaign members raised doubts about petitioning against the ten laws – their organizational raison d’être. “We debated whether petitions had any meaning anymore,” Delaram said. “Activists who had collected signatures before didn’t feel confident to go into the streets to talk about changing laws. People were out in the millions; some people were getting killed and we’re going to say, ‘Sign this paper?’ A paper demanding change from this parliament? This administration?” More than even the threat of arrest, the idea of trying to convince people protesting their stolen votes that signing a piece of paper could change anything was paralyzing.
Last September on Jerusalem Day – one of a series of official government holidays seized by the opposition as another opportunity to protest – Delaram and others showed up with placards and slogans condemning discrimination against women. The results were disappointing. “You could talk to individuals and they might be interested or even agree, but we couldn’t make these issues a priority on the streets,” Delaram said. This was the only time it was safe enough to attempt such an open approach, as the ratio of government supporters to protestors was small enough to make a violent police crackdown impractical. In the meantime, Campaign activists were being arrested and questioned about women’s rights organizing, especially those who also participated in the student movement and the Kurdish struggle for minority rights. At least three Campaign members are still in jail. “We were and are in a crisis situation,” Delaram said. “But we have to remember that the Campaign actually began in a moment of crisis in 2006, when America was seriously threatening to attack Iran, and we didn’t know what we would do if that happened.”
I asked all three women what they thought of current US foreign policy towards Iran, including the latest round of sanctions passed by the UN Security Council. “The sanctions won’t overturn the government,” Homa said, “but they will make our lives harder.” She paused and added, “I don’t want to say all American organizations are bad; certainly the government has had a negative effect, but even many progressives have had a negative effect on Iranian civil society.” All three women voiced their concerns about the international attention the Campaign has received over the last year and a half. In particular, they were uncomfortable with what they called a distorted image of Iranian women that was taken for granted by Western feminist groups and others – an image they felt was perpetuated in part by Iranians who live abroad and publish overly negative generalizations about the situation of women in Iran. “It seems there is a fantasy in America about helping Iranian women,” Delaram said. “They say they want to help free us,” Homa said, “as if they are liberated and, if we’re lucky, we’ll someday catch up.”
The Campaign has been selected for prizes it did not seek out, including, in 2009, the Feminist Majority’s Global Women’s Rights award and the Simone de Beauvoir Prize in France. Activists in Iran decided to return all of the prize money. As Nahid explained, “We are a grassroots movement on a shoe-string budget and we are independent. If you take money from here and there, it undermines your work.” “If they want to help spread news of our activities in the foreign press, that’s great,” Delaram said, when I asked what kind of support would be useful. “But people need to have relationships with activists in Iran, to understand where we are coming from. We have a movement. It’s true that we are working in very difficult conditions, but, my question is, what are you doing to organize for women’s rights in America?”She then offered an example of what she considered to be productive solidarity – the response to Iranian feminists’ call for support on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2010. Using Facebook, Twitter, and the web site irangenderequality.com, they asked that articles, demonstrations, and other events being organized around the world on that day focus on the slogan “Freedom and Gender Equality in Iran.” Individuals and groups from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, the US, and a host of European countries signed on. “To me this said, ‘Let’s struggle together, protest together for women’s rights everywhere,’” Delaram said. “It was not about pity for women in Iran or Afghanistan.”
Not long after March 8th, the Campaign held another meeting and adapted its organizing strategy to the new realities of increased security. “No longer can we go into parks and collect signatures,” Homa said. With public petitioning out of the question, and large membership meetings too risky, they decided to divide up into smaller, more agile groups – each one focused on a particular discriminatory law – that could operate with less probability of arrest. New volunteers can join whichever group they choose and most communication happens over email, still a safer bet than using the phone. Every few months, members will try to bring the smaller groups together for an overall assessment of their progress. Campaign activists have been encouraged by some important, if relatively minor, successes. Signatures are coming in again, workshops are happening for the first time in months, and interest in the Campaign is growing again. Recently, Delaram led a workshop of eighteen people who wanted to learn about gender discrimination. This was an improvement in numbers over the last few months, and many of those who showed up were family members of protesters who had been killed or jailed over the last year. “The people who are coming to these workshops now are much more serious than those who would come two or three years ago,” Delaram said. “You get the sense they will stay committed until the end.”
While these efforts may seem small compared to the overwhelming nature of the Ahmadinejad administration’s crackdown, they occur within the context of persistent political dissent that continues to broaden and deepen. “Now people don’t feel like they’re in a country where no one cares or tries or wants to change anything,” Delaram said. “People feel they are in a society on edge.” The question for the Campaign is how to tap in to this widespread sentiment and introduce the subject of gender equality into the discussion. In their efforts to rise to this challenge, members are engaged in an intense period of intellectual work, producing articles for their web site, Change4Equality.com, which take stock of the history of the women’s movement in Iran, assess their own four years of work, and explore strategies for coping with increased repression. “I’m writing an article about how the center of our movement has to be maintained in Iran,” Homa said, after listing the names of Campaign members who have had to go abroad due to safety concerns. “I talk about how this is not the first time the shape of our activities has had to change,” she said. “This may be the biggest change, but we’ve had hard times before.” Reflecting on what she and the others have accomplished in the four years since the Campaign was launched, Delaram said, “It’s true that we don’t have a million signatures; we have far fewer. But we’ve spoken with millions of people. They may not all agree with us, but more people understand that these laws [that discriminate against women] are not in their interests.”
All three women took pride in the fact that the Campaign had survived a series of crucial tests – from the imprisonment and exile of leading members, to the offers of money from Western feminist groups, to internal debates and disorientation – and was still functioning. Losing the ability to operate in public spaces has forced them to rely once again on the word-of-mouth, person-to-person organizing strategy with which they began. “I first heard about the Campaign from Homa,” Nahid remembered. “After that, I never missed a meeting.” As the tension of the June 12 anniversary recedes, the perspective advocated by Delaram, Homa and Nahid – that of slow, patient educational work and signature collection combined with a long-term view of political and social change – may enable the women’s movement to survive and even deepen its impact, despite the odds. “The Campaign started from zero and now, if we got to five, this is progress,” Homa said. “We want to continue to bring women’s issues to the forefront of popular consciousness,” she added. “I am thinking about the future generations.”
Special thanks to Delaram, Nahid, and Homa for their generosity and trust, and to Nasrin for help with transcription.
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WASHINGTON, Jun 1, 2011 (IPS) – Haleh Sahabi is the latest Iranian woman to die in political violence.
On Wednesday, security forces attempting to cut short the Tehran funeral of her father scuffled with Sahabi, 55, who died of an apparent heart attack.
Sahabi had been let out of prison, where she was serving a two-year term for human rights activism, to attend the funeral. A photo of her holding a picture of her father – Ezatollah Sahabi, a prominent dissident in his own right – just before her death has now joined other iconic images of Iran’s simmering discontent.
Across the Middle East, the role of women in political protests is striking and expanding. From Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Tehran’s Azadi Square, they have marched side by side or even in front of men, chanting slogans demanding democracy and greater personal freedom.
In Iran, since protests erupted following disputed presidential elections two years ago, 10 percent of those jailed for political reasons have been female, said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. That amounts to 100 of the 500 Iranians prosecuted and serving sentences and an additional 500 in pre-trial detention, he said.
Several of those who have died in street clashes or been executed by the regime over the past two years have been women. The best known is Neda Agha-Soltan, a 27-year-old philosophy student who was fatally shot Jun. 20, 2009 on the streets of Tehran. Footage of her death went viral on social networking sites.
Among the most prominent political prisoners in Iran is Nasrin Sotoudeh, 48, a civil rights lawyer sentenced in January to 11 years in prison for defending others. Sotoudeh wrote in a letter last week to her husband Reza that was posted on opposition websites that far from being lonely in prison, she was experiencing “a new environment” created by her fellow female inmates.
“This existence is at times happy and upbeat, at times calm and demure, at times watchful and analytical, but always tolerant and willing to compromise; a tolerance that will eventually lead us to achieve our goals,” she wrote.
Women have participated and died in all of Iran’s major political upheavals, from the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution to the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution.
However, in the past they tended to walk behind or separate from men, said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In 2009, they were together if not in front, egging on the men.
Esfandiari, herself jailed for four months in 2007 on nebulous allegations of promoting a “velvet revolution” in Iran, noted in a 1997 book called “Reconstructed Lives” that women had to reinvent themselves after the 1979 revolution.
Despite the fact that they lacked legal equality, they often become breadwinners and household decision-makers when their husbands lost jobs, became too demoralised to function or were sent off to fight during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Encouraged, even obliged to take part in pro-government demonstrations, women developed a habit of political activism. They figured prominently in the successful 1997 and 2001 presidential campaigns of Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric, and in the 2009 campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who ran against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mousavi promised to end inequality of women in inheritance, court testimony and child custody – restrictions placed on women by the Islamic regime. The fact that his accomplished wife – former university president Zahra Rahnavard – campaigned alongside him was also a major factor in attracting women’s support.
Other Iranian women, such as human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who in 2003 became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, have led efforts to regain equal rights. An online petition campaign – the Million Signatures Campaign – was started in 2006 by women seeking legal equality.
The expanding profile of women in Iran is the culmination of a number of factors, said Farzaneh Milani, a professor of Persian Literature and Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia. While Iranian women have seen their rights constricted since 1979, they have also experienced “collateral benefit”, she said.
Women from traditional religious families who had shied away from higher education under the Shah began attending in greater numbers once all women were forced to wear the veil and many public spaces became segregated by sex. Now 64 percent of those attending higher education in Iran are female, Milani said Wednesday during a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “This was not the intention [of the authorities] but the outcome,” she said.
The paradoxes and contradictions of Iranian society in regard to women are a spur to activism.
Milani notes in a new book on Iranian women writers, “Words, not Swords”, “Women can vote and run for some of the highest offices in the country but they must observe an obligatory dress code. They can drive personal vehicles, even taxis and trucks and fire engines, but they cannot ride bicycles…
“They have entered the world stage as Nobel Peace laureates, human rights activists, best-selling authors, prize-winning film directors and Oscar nominees, but they cannot enter governmental offices through the same doors as men.”
The fact that so many women are incarcerated in Iran demonstrates that they are a growing threat to the regime, Milani said. “No one can stop this movement. The genie is out of the bottle.”
by: Afsaneh Najmabadi
Something happened in 2003-04: transsexuals and transsexuality in Iran suddenly became a hot media topic, both in Iran and internationally. The medical practice of sex-change by means of surgery and hormones dates to at least the early 1970s in Iran; for nearly three decades the topic had received occasional coverage in the Iranian press, including a series of reports (presumably based on real lives) published in a popular magazine, Rah-i zindigi [Path of Life], beginning in 1999. Iranian press coverage of “trans” phenomena increased sharply in early 2003, however, and it has continued intensely ever since—sometimes reporting directly on transsexuals and transsexuality, and sometimes reporting on it in the context of other people marked as “vulnerable to social harm,” such as prostitutes (both male and female) and runaway girls, who reportedly live trans-dressed lives.
It was these latter two topics that drew the attention of documentary filmmaker Mitra Farahani, to the subject of transsexuals in Iran. Her documentary Just a Woman won international acclaim at the 2002 Berlin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and elsewhere, and seems to have ignited broader international attention to the issue of transsexuality in Iran. A flurry of articles appeared in the world press in 2004-05. The Guardian, for example, wrote on 27 July 2005 that “today, the Islamic Republic of Iran occupies the unlikely role of global leader for sex change,” and noted that “Iran has even become a magnet for patients from eastern 2 European and Arab countries seeking to change their genders.” A number of television documentaries in France, Sweden, Holland and the United Kingdom followed, as well as several independent documentary film productions (Abdo 2000; Fahti 2004; Eqbali 2004; McDowall and Khan 2004; Harrison 2005; Stack 2005; Tait 2005).
The celebratory tone of many of these reports—welcoming recognition of transsexuality and the permissibility of sex-change operations—is sometimes mixed with an element of surprise: How could this be happening in an Islamic state? In other accounts, the sanctioning of transsexuality is tightly framed by comparisons with punishments for sodomy and the presumed illegality of homosexuality—echoing, as we shall see, some of the official thinking in Iran. While transsexual surgeries are not new in Iran, over the past decade such operations seem to have increased not only in publicity, but also in actual frequency.
At the first national symposium on transsexuality, “Studying Gender Identity Disorder,” held in the northeastern provincial capital of Mashhad in May 2005, Dr. Kahani from the national Legal Medical Board reported that in the fifteen years between 1987 and 2001, 200 males and 70 females had submitted sex-change petitions to the Board, 214 of which had been approved. Over the next four years, between 2001 and 2004, another 200 petitions had been received. Anecdotal statistics from a private sex-change clinic in Tehran point to similar increases—for the period 1985-1995, 125 of 153 clients went through partial or full sex-change operations; in the next decade, the numbers increased to 200 surgeries in a client population of 210. 3 The increasing frequency of sex-change petitions and operations is not an un- problematically positive development, empowering though this trend has been for transsexuals.
Many political challenges are posed by framing transsexuality within a dominant mapping of sexuality that explicitly renders as diseased, abnormal, deviant and at times criminal any sexual or gender non-conformity (including transsexuality itself, as well as same-sex desires and practices). For legal and medical authorities, sex-change surgeries are explicitly framed as the cure for a diseased abnormality, and on occasion they are proposed as a religio-legally sanctioned option for heteronormalizing people with same-sex desires or practices. Even though this possible option has not become state policy (because official discourse is also invested in making an essential distinction between transsexuals and homosexuals), recent international media coverage of transsexuality in Iran increasingly emphasizes the possibility that sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) is being performed coercively on Iranian homosexuals by a fundamentalist Islamic government (Ireland 2007).
This narrative framing (along with similar ones concerning the suppression of women’s rights and other political and labor struggles) circulates within larger reductive and totalizing Euro-American discourses on Iran and Islam that equate them both with the most conservative factions of the Iranian government, and with the views of the most fundamentalist Islamists. Conservative forces in both Iran and the West have a common stake in ignoring the lively reform discourse and history of progressive activism within contemporary Iran that offers alternative notions of rights within an Islamic society, and of alternative modes of living a Muslim life. 4
While the pressures on gays and lesbians in Iran to transition from one gender to another are very real, these pressures are not produced primarily by fear of criminality.
On the contrary: the religio-legal framework of transsexuality has been productive of paradoxical, and certainly unintended, effects that at times benefit homosexuals. Simply put, the religio-legal prohibition of same-sex practices does contribute to pressures on gays and lesbians to consider transsexuality as a religiously sanctioned legal alternative (which is particularly important for religiously observant persons), but instead of eliminating same-sex desires and practices, it has actually provided more room for relatively safer semi-public gay and lesbian social space, and for less conflicted self- perceptions among people with same-sex desires and practices. As one pre-op FtM (female-to-male transsexual) succinctly put it: “Once I was diagnosed as TS, I started having sex with my girl-friend without feeling guilty.”
A Brief History of Transsexuality in Iran
Some of the earliest discussions in Iran of transgenderism and transsexuality appeared in the 1940s, within a body of popular marital and parental advice literature translated into Persian (largely from American popular psychology authors) in which discussions of love, desire, sex, and marriage supplied occasions to write about gender disidentification, homosexuality, intersex conditions, and sex-change. (Some of the earliest discussions of transgenderism and transsexuality in Europe and the U.S. appeared in these very same sources). Surgeries to alter congenital intersex conditions were reported in the Iranian press as early as 1930 (Ittila‘at, 27 October 1930), and the intensification of 5 reporting on these surgeries in the 1940s and ‘50s forms an important backdrop to the subsequent history of transsexuality in Iran. By the late 1960s, notions of “gender disorder” and hormonal or genetic “sex and gender determination” began to enter Iranian medical discourse via translated behavioral psychology books and medical texts.
The earliest non-intersex sex-change surgery reported in the Iranian press (that I have found so far) dates to February 1973 (Kayhan, 17 February 1973), and by the early 1970s, at least one hospital in Tehran and one in Shiraz were carrying out SRS. A 1976 report by Dr. Kariminizhad of Jahanshah Saleh Women’s Hospital stated that over the previous three years, some fifty persons with transsexual tendencies had been seen at the hospital, and that 20 of them had gone through SRS (Kayhan, 11 October 1976.) Around the same time, the Medical Association of Iran (MAI), a professional state-affiliated organization of physicians, began discussing the medical ethics of surgical sex-change. In a 1976 decision, the MAI declared that sex-change operations, except in intersex cases, were ethically unacceptable—a ruling that was not reversed for more than a decade. As early as 1967, Ayatollah Khomeini had published a fatwa sanctioning sex-change, but this ruling, issued by a dissident Khomeini then still living in exile in Iraq, did not influence the policies of legal or medical institutions in Iran. (Khomeini 1967, Vol. 2: 753-755.)
There is no unanimity of opinion among leading clerics in Iran on the issue transsexuality. Numerically speaking, the majority of opinion-issuing clerics consider only intersex surgeries to be acceptable unequivocally. The opinion that ultimately matters, however, is that of the cleric(s) in political power, regardless of relative religious authority. The historically specific relationship between jurisprudential and political 6 authority that has characterized Iran since the early 1980s translates clerical opinion, sanctioned through a complex legal process, into the law. With Ayatollah Khomeini as a politically unchallenged supreme authority after the 1979 revolution until his death in 1989, the reissuance in 1985 of his 1967 fatwa on SRS, in Persian this time rather than Arabic, set in motion the process that culminated in new state-sanctioned medico-legal procedures regarding transsexuality.
From the earliest pronouncement to present-day opinions, reflections on transsexual surgery in Iran seem to have been informed in part by linking these bodily changes to similar questions posed about intersex bodies. Classical Islamic discourse categorized every human body as either male or female, yet accepted the possibility that in the case of hermaphrodites it was difficult and at times impossible to determine the body’s “true genus” (kind or type).
Jurisprudents then elaborated rules of behavior to deal with the possible threat of gender transgressions that such impossibility of knowing would produce (Sanders 1991). In its modern reconfiguration, jurisprudents argued that new medical sciences could help unravel the puzzle of proper genus in difficult cases of hermaphroditism, and that medical technology could correct the manifestation of that genus. Importantly, by the 1960s, the approval of medicalized means for manifesting the proper genus of the hermaphroditic body converged with, and eventually (in the post-1979 period) acted as, religious sanction for the emerging medico-psycho-behavioral discourse on gender and sexual dimorphism. Not only did the true sex become knowable in spite of 7 ambiguous genitalia; a determinate relation among gender identification, gender role behavior, sexual desire, and subjective gender identity was envisioned for each and every body.
The convergence of these discourses consolidated a powerful religio-legal-psycho- medical notion of “unnatural and deviant” sexualities that now circulates in the Iranian national press, in religious texts, in bio-medical and psychological writings, and in marital and parental advice literature. With the establishment and consolidation of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s, this discourse gained state support, finance, and force of law, providing the conditions of possibility for transsexuality in Iran on a new scale, while setting the contours within which transsexuals fight their battles and live their lives, often with imaginative successes, and at other times with frustration and terrible loss. The “trans-friendly” jurisprudential discourse on transsexuality that began as an elaboration on intersex discourse now approves of transsexuality on the discretionary grounds that it has not been specifically forbidden in the Qur’an.
Invoking a distinction between the physical body and the soul, this discourse argues that in most people there is harmony between the two, but that in a small number of people a disharmony produces transsexuality; since we cannot change a person’s soul, but medical advances have made it possible to change a person’s body, transsexual surgery is a permissible solution to this disharmony between soul and body. As a discretionary matter, SRS is not required—nor even recommended—for a person diagnosed as transsexual, unless a religiously observant transsexual fears falling into sinful deeds. Some of the more accepting people among the friends and kin of transsexuals have come to terms with transsexuality through understanding it as a “wonder of creation,” or sign of God’s power. Some trans- 8 friendly and gay-friendly psychotherapists use the same language in working with families. While this may sound to many of us terribly “essentialist,” I have come to hear it as an alternatively enabling script, especially as compared to the more dominant (and no less essentialist) psycho-medical discourse. Public knowledge of transsexuality has been shaped not only by jurisprudential and biomedical discourses, but also by intensive coverage in the Iranian press (and to some extent by satellite television broadcasts).
In addition to the previously mentioned reports in Rah-i zindigi, the topic of transsexuality has been covered in a number of magazines, such as Zanan, and Chilchiraq, and important dailies, such as I‘timad-i melli, I‘timad, Hamshahri, and Sharq, where long articles and interviews have appeared in medical and science sections.
The “yellow press” also covers transsexuality, and for a brief period in 2004-05 gave the topic frequent full-page coverage, sometimes featuring translated articles that had appeared in the international press. This sustained coverage, despite the lean quality of the content—sometimes repeating the same story in various issues of the same journal—has made transsexuality one of the stock attention-grabbing stories for the scandal sheets, along with stories about film stars’ lives, and various sexual and social scandals.
The combination of kinds of coverage—with the dailies and science journals making transsexuality a respectable topic of social conversation, and the sensational press bringing it into popular knowledge—has made transsexuality a widely recognized topic, though by no means a generally approved-of one. It is possible that the increased frequency of SRS in the past decade has been enabled by this expansion of public discourse. Many transsexuals I listened to, especially those coming to Tehran from 9 provincial towns, said they had found out about SRS clinics through the press coverage (including satellite broadcast of documentaries). What kind of subjectivity is afforded to transsexuals through their public recognition as strange creations or scandalously diseased bodies, and how do transsexuals themselves respond to these representations? Some of the intimate details of transsexuals’ lives reported in the tabloids would be unimaginable if the subjects were recognized as “normal heterosexuals.” It is only as transsexuals that their sexual lives become printable stories.
What effects do this possibility of scandalous or “strange” public intimacy generate for conceptions of gender and sexuality more generally—especially given that the scandal sheets, like the rest of the press, have to be wary of violating the restrictions of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance?
As Dupret and Ferrié have written of Egypt and Morocco, what happens when claims for certain intimate lives become possible largely through “publicizing the private,” their regulation justified through their potential criminality? (Dupret 2001; Ferrié 1995) When the cover of the tabloid visually frames the headlines about transsexuals with headlines about murder, urban crimes, and cannibalism, what kind of empathy can even a sympathetic transsexual story generate, bordered as it is by stories designed to provoke urban panic and moral revulsion?
Venturing into Ethnography
It was with these uneasy thoughts that I began my research in Iran in May 2006. Two questions formed my initial thinking: First, in a cultural-legal context where same-sex desire is considered shameful and same-sex practices are illegal, but within which 10 transsexuality, even if overwhelmingly understood as shameful, is nevertheless legal and state-subsidized, how does this configuration shape sexual and gender subjectivities? Second, how do insistent state regulations and religio-cultural codes and rituals concerning proper gender conduct shape sexual desires and gender subjectivities? How does this context map the terrain on which individuals come to identify as TS and decide how far to go in their transitions? For instance, the protocols of sex-change often involve a prolonged period of supervised transition, during which the person lives socially as the other gender. In Iran, I had imagined, this procedure would face difficulties because of a whole series of state regulations on gender segregation. How do people in transition, I wondered, how do they navigate gender regulations?
Religious and state regulations aim to produce a sense of bodily appropriateness through daily observations of gendered homosocializing practices, whether at home (for religiously observant families), in streets and parks, or in offices and universities. What is the legally sanctified gender of a trans-dressed in-transition person, given that the public dress-code is so insistently gender-regulated? What might the “impossibility of living as the other gender” mean for the concepts and practices of sex-change?
Despite my initial forebodings, my ethnographic research (the results of which are summarized in what follows) soon made it clear to me that the explicit framing of transsexuality as linked with, and yet distinct from, homosexuality and other sexualities rendered deviant and sometimes criminal, has produced some highly paradoxical effects. 11 The typical autobiographical narrative, as well as the diagnostic psychological symptomization and the supervised process of legal certification of transsexuality, have all keyed themselves to the distinction established between transsexuality and homosexuality. A typical autobiographical narrative begins with the familiar recounting of a childhood in which the subject did not wish to dress and play gender-appropriately. Popular parental advice psychology literature now routinely warns parents about such early symptoms. Parents are advised to not encourage such childhood tendencies by thinking of cross-gender behavior as cute; they are told to consult child psychologists to get help in dealing with this “problem” as early as possible, to prevent the “full blown stage” of adult transsexuality.
In the dominant narrative of the transsexual life-course, a cross-gendered childhood usually leads to a troubled adolescence in which same-sex desires torment the subject, especially given that all schools in Iran are gender-segregated. The strong relationship between childhood “transgender symptoms” and adolescent “sexual symptoms” signals the many ways in which gender and sex are not taken to be distinct categories in all registers in Iran. Indeed, in some registers, lives are made possible through that very indistinction – as in the case of certified non-operated transsexuals who would become illegal subjects should “transgender” (i.e., non-medicalized cross-gender living) become widely accepted as distinct from transsexual.
Transsexuals who profess religious beliefs usually emphasize that they had not engaged in any same-sex acts despite persistent desires. Others hint at same-sex activities as a 12 further corroboration of their transsexuality. Both groups tend to recite a series of school troubles, leading to parents being informed that their child has “problems,” referrals to psychologists, possibly dropping out of school or being expelled if suspected of improper sexual activities. These troubled years begin the long process toward eventual gender transition. Often this is the beginning of long family battles. Parents resort to sometimes horrifying measures to dissuade their adolescent teenagers from their contrarian sexual/gender desires. Some transsexuals succeed in hiding their sexual/gender desires from parents and improvise their own livable patterns. Even post-op, some live complicated multiple lives to be able to stay connected to their families.
They leave home dressed as one gender, then change to the other. This strategy is easier for FtMs who can just take off their outer covers, than for MtFs who must not only adjust clothes, but also apply make-up under bridges, in garages, in public toilets in parks, and other available public spaces–all of which are potentially dangerous for them, with regular reports of MtF transsexuals who have been attacked and occasionally murdered in such locations. Adolescents sent by school authorities or concerned parents for help from therapists and physicians are sometimes diagnosed as “afflicted by GID,” and often find themselves thrown into a combative situation with therapists who decide to cure them of these wrong gender/sexual desires. The latter include both mainstream psychologists as well as a vocal group of psychotherapists who advocate and practice Islam-therapy (sometimes called spiritual therapy).
Adolescence is the period in which many transsexuals, 13 especially MtFs, find family life either unbearable and leave, at least temporarily, or are thrown out by families. Family severance is a very serious social issue, as so much of one’s life is defined and made possible (or impossible) through one’s location within an intricate network of extended family members, family friends, and acquaintances. Thus, severance from family often means not only emotional hardship and homelessness for prospective transsexuals, but also a loss of education and job opportunities. While transsexuals tend to find each other and form alternative kin worlds of their own, they often face enormous problems in the immediate period of being thrown out into a hostile world. MtFs are much more likely to face this predicament than FtMs.
Correspondingly, family reconciliation is often easier for FtMs than MtFs. Several close relatives of (pre/non/post-op) FtMs explicitly said their acceptance of their daughter/sister becoming a son/brother would have been unimaginable if it had been the other way around. The reason for this disparity is not simply gender bias, though it is that too—namely, the preference for a male off-spring. More importantly, the disparity arises from the repugnance and shame that the culture associates with “passive” male same-sex practices. MtFs seem, sadly and ironically, to live forever under the sign of being kunis (literally meaning “anal,” but in Persian connoting receptive of anal penetration), even though that is precisely what in many cases they are trying to disavow and move away from through sex-change.
In their autobiographical narratives, many reiterate that they have never allowed themselves to be anally penetrated even with their long-time boyfriends, and that they have been patiently going through the legal and medical changes in order to acquire a vagina before they get married. Yet, their physiological changes and their 14 insistent self-narrativizations notwithstanding, they continue to carry the burden of that stigmatization with them even post-operatively. For their families, they remain a life-long source of shame among their kin and neighborhood networks. Even families that have not reconciled with their offspring “lost” to sex-change sometimes move to a new neighborhood or town in order to live again without shame. The insistence of many transsexuals to distinguish themselves individually and as a group from homosexuals is thus not simply because of the religio-legal status of transsexuality, and their need to protect themselves from charges of homosexuality; this attempted disarticulation nevertheless carries with it, and participates in regenerating, a sign of stigmatization.
It is a delineating move that in fact reinforces a burden they cannot shed. Filtering The legal process of gender transition is firmly framed by the pivotal distinction between homosexuality and transsexuality. Colloquially referred to as “filtering,” legal gender- transitioning involves a four-to-six month course of psychotherapy, accompanied by hormonal and chromosomal tests. It aims to distinguish and segregate “true transsexuals” (for whom any same-sex desire and even hints of same-sex practices are considered symptomatic of their transsexuality) from misguided or opportunist homosexuals (whose same-sex desires and practices are viewed as signs of moral deviancy) seeking to avoid anti-homosexual censure.
In the worst cases, filtering establishes a very hostile and at times terrifying relationship between the therapist and the client. This is particularly the case with those therapists who practice Islam-therapy. Several transsexuals recounted contemplating or attempting suicide during the filtering process. Other therapists, 15 however, actually have used filtering to support their gay and lesbian clients, and to form separate individual and group sessions for them, thereby providing important social venues. As I have already hinted, the very process of psychological filtering and jurisprudential wall-building between gender and sexual categories, far from eliminating gays and lesbians (if that is indeed what the authorities hope for), paradoxically has created new social spaces. Instead of constructing an impassable border, the process has generated a porously marked, nebulous, and spacious domain populated by a variety of “not-normal” people. In order to persuade some gays and lesbians (“symptomatic homosexuals”) to consider transing bodily, and to filter out the true (“morally deviant”) homosexuals, this process needs to offer a safe passage between categories.
As the filtering and sorting processes depend above all on individual self-narratives, the potential uses of this “nebula” are limited only by each involved person’s creativity—a decidedly abundant resource. As a wise friend urged me back in 2005, before I began my field research, “Don’t worry, people are very creative and make their own uses.” And this is what I have in fact learned: not to underestimate the real problems and challenges, and at times dangers, that transsexuals, gays, and lesbians face in Iran, but also to see the productivity (in a Foucauldian sense) of the power of legal-medical-religious regulations, as well as the creativity with which transsexuals, gays, and lesbians use the spaces such regulative 16 power provides, and the ways in which their active participation and struggles change things. Here is where refusing a distinction between sex and gender has been very productive.
One can live what we may name a transgendered life (that is, non-operated yet sex/gender discordant) as a certified transsexual. This is perfectly legal and religiously permissible. As one trans-friendly cleric, Hujjat al-Islam Kariminia, agreed in the course of our many conversations and written communications, physiological transitioning is something that is allowed but not required. This means that a certified transsexual can, but does not have to, take hormones or go for surgery. S/he can legally live as the other gender. While legal and religious officials do not like this, they cannot do much about it. They are not being lenient and tolerant; rather, the very mechanisms of their project to filter and sort homosexuals from transsexuals depends on turning a blind eye on the “space of passing” across the very walls they have tried to erect. Indeed, one doesn’t even have to engage with the filtering process to be able to speak, at least in some spaces, as openly gay. In official circumstances, homosexually-oriented persons, with or sometimes without certification as transsexual, refer to themselves in a variety of ways. For example, one man who, in a safer space, self-identified as gay, would say in a weekly TS group session held at the Social Emergency Unit of Welfare Organization, “I am not sure what I am, maybe I am gay, maybe I am TS, I am here to find out.”
In the 2005 Mashhad seminar on gender identity disorder, an MtF-looking person from the audience asked Hujjat al-Islam Kariminia about rules for certain 17 religious observances for “those of us who are bilataklif [undecided, ambivalent, in a conundrum]. Do we enter the Imam Riza Shrine through the men’s entrance or the women’s?” Hujjat al-Islam Kariminia’s response was very telling: “You should go through the entrance that is appropriate for how you are dressed.” This would, of course, not resolve their actual dilemma, in contrast to their hypothetical jurisprudential one; for upon entering the apparently-gender-appropriate entrance, one is subjected to bodily security searches which would result in serious trouble for a TS. Yet Kariminia’s answer itself was what astonished me, because in a conversation in his office in Qum, in response to my suggestion that transsexuals should be allowed to live as transgender and not necessarily be pushed to hormonal and surgical treatment, he had insisted that the anatomical body defined maleness or females in Islam. In a later conversation, however, he agreed that certified transsexuals could trans-dress, and in a written communication he confirmed that they could even live as the other gender in all ways except for having sex with someone of their own bodily sex.
Clearly, the context of asking made for different responses, as anyone familiar with the tradition of Islamic (or Jewish) responsa literature would immediately recognize. The legal and religious authorities, in short, have a stake in keeping open the nebulous domains of passing, even as they try to clear them of any “opportunistic squatters” and keep their population under surveillance. The passageways across the porous boundaries between homosexuals and transsexuals at times fuels the hostility of some MtFs (especially those who are post-op) towards gay men. In keeping with general social attitudes, they consider gay men to be shamefully anally receptive, and suspect them to 18 be actual or potential sex workers and HIV-carriers; “They give us all a bad name” was an oft-repeated phrase. Despite all these challenges, however, these passages ought to remain open.
Recently, an alternative alliance has emerged between some MtF transsexuals and gay men. They argue that they share much in common as people who differ from social norms and expectations, and that the state-regulated filtering process should not become a hostile division among them. In 2006, one transsexual group began to welcome gays and lesbians to its weekly meetings. These emerging openings and alliances have begun to create conditions for re-thinking and re-appropriating dominant cultural concepts.
In the TS meeting held in the Welfare Organization, a gay man argued before a government- appointed social worker that since the culture named them all as deviants, those who were thus labeled therefore possessed the power to redefine what that label might mean. Think metaphorically of driving, he argued that most people take the straight highway to get where they want to go, but gays, lesbians, and transsexuals deviate from the straight path and take some side roads—a much more interesting way to travel than the boring straight highway. Even within such relatively open and hospitable spaces, however, the overall social stigmatization of gay men and transsexual women produces enormous pressure to police each other’s lives.
The public appearance of MtFs, many of whom often display their femininity by “excessive” styles of clothes and make-up, in a social context where female public visibility is heavily scrutinized, is a continuous subject of 19 approbation by others. MtFs who are even rumored to engage in sex-work are a continuous target of harsh criticism. I do not wish to deny the enormous pressures on gays and lesbians to physically transition, which some gays and lesbians do consider in order to make their lives more livable. Their decision to transition derives not merely from religious sanctions nor as a result of enforcing laws against same-sex practices. It cannot be dismissed simply as a “false recognition” achieved under therapeutic duress, nor incited by the media (as in the formula, “I read an article or saw a TV program and now realize I am TS”). Nor does it represent a “lack of imagination,” as one diasporic self-identified queer Iranian once put it to me. Such moments of medico-psychological diagnosis or self-recognition are occasioned by larger social and cultural patterns of gender and sexual life, in particular the pressure to marry and form families. They are informed by all the simple pleasures of daily life from which same-sex partners are excluded; as one such woman said, “We can’t be together at Nawruz [Persian new year]; each of us has to be with her family. We start every new year in separation.”
The social expectation for every adult to get married, later if not sooner, affects sexual and gender relations in important ways. While there has been a great deal more open pre- marital sexual experimentation (including same-sex activities) among adolescents and young adults in recent years, these remain just that: pre-marital. Male-male and female- female couples live under, and compete with, the severe threat of the marriage demand. At times, “passive” males overact their femininity in a desperate attempt to avert the 20 threat of a “real” woman and the loss of their male partner to marriage. The same is true of female-female couples: there are abundant sad narratives of long-term lesbian relations breaking apart because the “femme” partner finally opted for marrying a “real” man (or finally gave in to familial and social expectations to do so), in spite of the heroic butch performance of her former lover. This same pressure for marriage informs the dominant culture’s deep investment in the performance of masculinity and femininity, and partially accounts for heavily gender-coded roles within same-sex partnerships.
This, perhaps even more than the illegality of same-sex practices and the legality of transsexuality, pushes some people who may otherwise define themselves as butch lesbians and effeminate gays towards transing.
They expect transing to make marriage available to them and, in a few instances, to salvage a threatened same-sex relation. Nevertheless, relationships involving transsexuals still always exist under the threat of inauthenticity. Post-op transsexuals, even though they have aspired to be bodily like the other sex, are often dismissed as “plastic replicas,” and social pressures sometimes lead the partners to contemplate leaving a “fake” man or woman for a “real” one–as many post-op break-up stories reiterate and repeat.Despite the circulation of such sad stories, the larger social pressures for marriage continue to push some people in the transsexual direction.
Having provisionally mapped some configurations of sexuality and gender in contemporary Iran, I will conclude with a few questions that may be of interest for transnational comparison. What does it mean that concepts of gender, sex, and sexuality—along with their (in)distinction from, and relations to, one another—have been 21 formed in a context that has not been shaped to any substantial degree by the identity politics of gender and sexuality, or by queer activism and queer critical theory? Some of the distinctions between these categories within Euro-American contexts, including the distinction sometimes made between transgender/transsexual (based on the body that has been surgically modified), have been shaped over the past couple of decades by a particular set of political struggles and debates.
How do seemingly similar assignations mean differently (or not) within a different politics of sex, sexuality, and gender? While identity struggles have raged within transnational diasporic Iranian communities, many gays, lesbians, and transsexuals in Iran wish to keep national and international politics out of their daily lives. Indeed, some have become quite wary of international coverage of transsexuality in Iran, feeling that the effects of such coverage, within this volatile scene of meaning-making, is beyond their control. Despite their aversion to the international politics of human and civil rights for sexual and gender identities, some of these global discussions have nevertheless reached Iran through web-logs, satellite TV broadcasts, and other transnational media. Loan-words such as straight, gay, lesbian, transsexual, homosexual, top, bottom, and versatile, among many other expressions, pronounced in Persian just as they are in English, are freely used in these discussions. How do these enunciations mean differently, and do a different cultural work, in Tehran compared to New York? Perhaps, one of the problems with the current heated debates between proponents of “global gay” and opponents of “gay international” resides in their common presumption that “I am gay,” or that “I am transsexual,” means the same thing anywhere it is pronounced. 22
This essay has been enabled through numerous conversations with transsexuals, gays, and lesbians in several cities in Iran during 2006-07. It has also taken shape through discussions after its presentation at several campuses: Tehran University, Barnard College, Harvard School of Public Health, University of Connecticut, Princeton University, University of Washington, University of Illinois, several campuses affiliated with the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Studies Consortium, University of Pittsburgh, Yale University, University of Delaware, Stanford University, University of California (Berkeley), Harvard University (Center for Middle Eastern Studies), Simon Fraser University, Dalhousie University, Wellesley College, and Williams College. I am deeply indebted and grateful to all the people involved, but as at present I cannot thank the first group by name, I opted for skipping all names; except for Susan Stryker whose critical feedback and skillful editing transformed a very raw essay into a more readable text.
Afsaneh Najmabadi teaches History and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. Her last book, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), received the 2005 Joan Kelly Memorial Prize from the American Historical Association. She is currently working on Sex in Change: Configurations of Sexuality and Gender in Contemporary Iran, and Genus of Sex: How Jins Became Sex. Notes 23
1. These reports ran from 4 February 1999 to 5 January 2000. The same journal ran another series of autobiographical essays from 22 November 2003 to 22 November 2005. This body of writing constitutes the most extensive published transsexual narratives we have.
2. I say “presumed illegality of homosexuality,” because what is a punishable offense is sexual acts between members of the same sex, with anal penetration of one man by another (liwat /sodomy) being a capital offense. In international coverage, liwat is almost always translated as homosexuality. The problem with this translation is that such reports find their way back into Persian, and in their Persian effects they converge with the medical and psychological discourses in which the dominant concepts are sexual orientation and typologies of desire, centered on the naturalness of heterosexuality. In that domain, instead of the legal-jurisprudential category of sodomy, it is homosexuality [rendered in Persian as hamjisgara’i, being inclined to a person of one’s own sex] that is discussed as a sexual deviation along with a whole gamut of other deviations. While most theologically trained persons use liwat, more often than not, professionals (social workers, surgeons, and therapists) use hamjisgara’i.
It is this slippage between the two concepts in different registers that are increasingly crossing paths — especially within various state institutions that deal with transsexuals-transgenders and with some individuals who do name themselves gay or lesbian — that makes me cautious about a simple usage of this term. I am concerned about keeping this distinction because in conversations in Iran it became quite clear that this is a productive distinction for many Iranian gays and lesbians, who find a degree of safety in insisting that homosexuality is 24 not illegal, providing them with a sense of possibility of testing public spaces where some indication of their sexual desires (keeping it clear of what sex they do) may be a worthy risk. When I quote from English documentary sources, I have no way of knowing which term had been used in Persian, except in case of documentaries that have Persian sound track.
3. Shakhis, 24 May 2005. More recently, the Welfare Organization reported that it received three new TS applications a day. Other reports estimate the total number of transsexuals in Iran anywhere between 3000 to 5000, and sometimes as high as 25,000. My use of TS in this article is occasioned by its usage as a self-identification category among Iranian transsexuals. It is used in Persian pronounced ti-es.
4. I realize this is a controversial claim, since much of the current coverage of transsexuality in Iran claims otherwise. My conclusions in this paper are based on field- work in Iran over 2006-07 which is impossible to present at any length within the scope of an article. While transsexuals, gays, and lesbians whom I listened to over that period expressed many anxieties, fears, desires, and dreams, none was related to anything that was linked with fear of criminality. The issue of criminality is of course not trivial: criminality, and in particular capital punishment of sodomy, dynamizes many other legal restrictions and social fears.
5. Among them: Christian Jorgensen, Elizabeth Call, Vince Jones, Juliet (formerly Julius, no last name given in report), Robert Allen, Edwin Emerton, Roberta Cowell, Rollando 25 Cassioti, April Ashley (formerly George Jameson), Gino Malti, Jeanette Jiousselot, and Phoebe Simple.
6. Favorable commentators often contrast Iran with other Muslim countries; the legality of certain medical technologies (not only SRS, but also a wide array of reproductive technologies) in the former and their illegality in some of the latter countries is narrated as if somehow linked with an ahistorical Shi‘i-Sunni divide. This perpetuates such historically unsound arguments as the claim that the gate of ijtihad [issuing jurisprudential opinion] was closed in the Sunni world, thus making Shi‘ism more open to change. While this argument may seem almost commonsensical (especially to many Shi‘is), it misses the key issue of the historically specific relationship between jurisprudential and political authority that has characterized Iran since the early 1980s, which translates clerical opinion into the state’s legal code.
7. I use the word genus for jins in this context to highlight the distinction between what today is commonly referred to as sex [jins] and the earlier connotations of the same term in classical Islamic writings on this topic – an issue further elaborated in Najmabadi 2008.
8. Despite my own earlier foreboding (Najmabadi 2005; see also my critical self- reflections on this piece in H-Net discussion. Posted on Sat, 19 May 2007, H- Histsex@H-Net.msu.edu, Subject: Re: Reportage: Iran: Change Sex or Die), I know of 26 no case in which a homosexual has been forced to change sex. Nor have I seen such evidence offered by commentators who claim punitive use of SRS for gays in Iran.
9. Some of my thinking here has been deeply influenced by conversations with Judith Surkis on her current research project, “Scandalous Subjects: Indecency and Public Order in France and French Algeria.”
10. The entry into Persian and wide circulation of “gay” (pronounced as in English) and less frequently “lezbish” (lesbian butch) may indicate (contrary to the presumption of imitation of or imposition by the “Gay International” on unsuspecting naïve Iranians) in part an attempt to move away from the burden of the stigma that kuni (and to a lesser extent baruni, used for the “active” partner in a lesbian relationship) carries with it. In other words, to the extent that the adoption of gay and lesbian into Persian nomenclature can be viewed as some sort of mimicry, it is a strategic move to shed the cultural stigma of kuni (and baruni). Other Englishisms serve similar cultural effects, as the wide use of bi-ef [BF] and gi-ef [GF] for boyfriend and girlfriend. Whether these language moves work or fail is not determined because of the presumed shortcoming of “mimicry,” nor because of the cultural power of domination by a presumed “gay international” that is exporting its identity categories in imperial fashion. Its potential source of trouble is the tight gender grid within which same-sex relationships in contemporary Iran are configured. This configuration is in turn an effect of the marriage imperative (see below) which shapes particular notions of masculine and feminine performance (within heterosexual relationships as well). Same-sex partners, however, are prone to “over- 27 performance” because of dominant pressures and hazards of marginalized lives. In the context of South Asia, the adoption of such English words is sometimes seen as “a class- specific rejection of indigenous categories.” See the thread Homosexual/gay/queer in June and July 2007 on H-Net Histsex. I am not convinced that such straight forward class delineations can be made.
11. The process includes a series of written tests for which translations of MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index) and SCL-90-R (Symptom Checklist-90-R) are used to make sure the TS is not suffering from other mental disorders, and if so, to be treated first for these problems to make sure the presumed line of causality runs from TS to other symptoms rather than the other way around. TSs prepare for these tests and coach each other for oral interviews, much as graduating high-school students in Iran prepare for the national entrance exam to universities. Oral interviews cover questions about details of life stories, but also totally idio(syncra)tic questions and gestures, such as checking what kind of watch the person is wearing, if they have shaven legs, color preferences, how they squeeze a toothpaste tube (from bottom up or from the middle), etc. When TSs were recounting these questions, their laugher expressed better than anything else the performativity of this procedure – something that the officials are fully aware of, including therapists I interviewed.
12. The legal and social scene is highly fluid as I write these lines. Some authorities try to tighten what they see as unfortunate loopholes; others in different ministries and state organizations have formed supportive working relations with TS activists and help them 28 to neutralize or go around restrictions and get legal, medical, housing, and other material benefits. One of the challenges of my project, practically and analytically, is that over 29 years after the revolution, the Iranian state remains highly fractured, internally changing, and volatile. While a lot has been written on the fractured nature of the Iranian political system since the revolution of 1979, early in my research it became clear that thinking of the state even as a fractured mosaic of competing and at times conflicting mini pieces would not do; perhaps a better visual imaginary would be pieces that are continuously shifting and changing colors, with no well-defined edges of any sort. How such a structure does not burst at the mobile junctions of these shifting pieces, how it does its stately work so-to-speak, is a question I put aside for now. This situation allows transsexuals (and other activists) to cultivate their own horizontal and vertical networks in and out of various governmental bodies that do not fit neat categorizations as governmental and non-governmental. While permitting a vast degree of creativity, it also makes their work highly susceptible to the ebbs and flows of rapid political changes that mark the country. Several trans-rights activists have emerged from the transsexual community over the past four or five years, and the current changes are above all their achievements. Their efforts to challenge and change the medical, legal, and police abuses that transsexuals and gay men (and to a much lesser extent lesbians, for a complicated set of reasons) face are very impressive. They go to various government bodies on an almost daily basis and lobby for their rights and the benefits they expect the government to provide for them. There are often setbacks. The legal hoops that they are often made to go through are mind-boggling, and it is a testament to their fighting spirit and their sense of citizenship that they continue their work. One major issue is the understandable desire 29 of many post-op transsexuals to become “invisible” and live “normal lives.” This has meant a huge turnover of activists, and the loss of continuity and organizational experience. The legal process, and the existence of some social welfare support for transsexuals, does not of course mean transsexuals are not targets of threats, harassments, and arrests by police and paramilitary forces—but these attacks do not have a uniform pattern. There are highs and lows. In this, the transsexual community’s situation is not different from others who cross various “red lines” in Iran. Whether the attacks on gays and transsexuals are more severe than on other groups, or on other moral or political grounds, I do not know. I don’t know of any study that has actually brought together all the rape, adultery, and sexuality-charged trials and figured out if there is a pattern. I don’t know of anyone who has systematically studied the attacks on workers and students rights activists, women’s rights activists, journalists, political dissidents, and those on more ordinary daily ones, such as arrests of women on charges of bad-veiling and assaults on parties, with those of gays and gay parties, to know if there is a difference.
13. Lesbians are largely absent from this scene. There seems to be a pattern in which f-f sexual and affective relationships and socializing networks take shape largely in non- publicly-visible spaces.
14. This was opposed by other MtFs and became a subject of much debate. The group subsequently had to cease its meetings, because the magazine in whose office the meetings were held was closed down. The magazine itself had been charged with 30 crossing “red-lines” in its coverage of explicitly sexual topics in the language of psychology.
15. Altman’s Global Sex (2001) as well as Massad’s Desiring Arabs (2007) and his 2002 article are perhaps the most polarized points of this debate. Publication of these writings has generated a much larger conversation, especially among scholars and activists concerned with issues of sexuality in non-Euro-American cultures. See Rofel (2007) for example.
Abdo, Geneive. 2000. “Sex-change Iranian Hates Life as Woman.” The Guardian, June 20, World News section.
Altman, Dennis. 2001. Global Sex. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Dupret, B. 2001. “Sexual Morality at the Egyptian Bar: Female Circumcision, Sex Change Operations, and Motives for Suing,” Islamic Law and Society 9(1):42-69.
Eqbali, Aresu. 2004. “Iran’s Transsexuals Get Islamic Approval, But!” Middle East Online, September 30, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=11423.
Fathi, Nazila. 2004. “As Repression Eases, More Iranians Change their Sex.” New York Times, August 2, World section.
Ferrié, J. N. 1995. “Lieux intérieurs et culture publique au Maroc,” Politix 31:187-202.
Harrison, Frances. 2005. “Iran’s sex-change operation,” BBC Newsnight, January, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/4115535.stm.
Ireland, Doug. “Change Sex or Die.” http://direland.typepad.com/direland/2007/05/change_sex_or_d.html. 31
Khomeini, Ruhallah. 1967 (or 1968 — 1387AH) Tahrir al-wasila. Najaf: Matba‘at al- Adab.
Massad, Joseph. 2007. Desiring Arabs. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Massad, Joseph. 2002. “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World.” Public Culture, 14(2):361-385.
McDowall, Angus and Stephen Khan. 2004. “The Ayatollah and the transsexual,” The Independent, November 25, World section.
Najmabadi, Afsaneh.2008 “Genus of Sex: Configurations of Sexuality and Gender in Twentieth-Century Iran.” Unpublished paper.
Najmabadi, Afsaneh. 2005. “Truth of Sex,” Iranian.com, January 12, http://www.iranian.com/Najmabadi/2005/January/Sex/index.html.
Rofel, Lisa. 2007. Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sanders, Paula. 1991. “Gendering the Ungendered Body: Hermaphrodites in Medieval Islamic Law.” In Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting boundaries in Sex and Gender, eds.Beth Baron and Nikki Keddie, 74-95. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Stack, Megan K. 2005. “Changing Their Sexes in Iran,” Los Angeles Times, January 25.
Tait, Robert. 2005. “A fatwa for freedom.” The Guardian, July 27, World News section.
(originally published by BBC News Europe)
by: Zlata Filipovic
Among the charges levelled at General Ratko Mladic, the former head of the Bosnian Serb army awaiting extradition to The Hague, are those relating to the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo. Zlata Filipovic, who was growing up in the city at the time, gives her reaction to his arrest.
The overwhelming view on the detention of Ratko Mladic – finally caught 16 years after he was indicted – was that those who had suffered through his battles must be elated, celebrating the end of something.
For those less acquainted with the war in former Yugoslavia, the line of thinking is: You wanted this, you got it, now let’s finish this chapter and turn the page.
I was that 11-year-old girl that some of Gen Mladic’s 18,000 soldiers and snipers could see running across the bridge in front of my house ”
“Closure” is a word that trips off the tongues of those who ask what I think.
I wish I had leapt from a chair when I heard the news, or that this arrest would represent some sort of closure for me.
But at the risk of disappointing people, while I consider the arrest good news, the effect of the bloody and warped military campaigns waged by Gen Mladic (and I feel uncomfortable calling him a general, as it indicates an element of respect) is something that remains and defines my life, and the lives of so many.
‘Hopeless and broken’
Darko Mladic, the general’s son, has said that the siege of Sarajevo was a legitimate military operation.
But I lived in Sarajevo for almost two years of a siege that lasted 44 months. It was the darkest, most hopeless, broken, dangerous, deprived period of my life.
I was that 11-year-old girl that some of Gen Mladic’s 18,000 soldiers and snipers on the hills around Sarajevo could see running across the bridge in front of my house.
Ratko Mladic played a leading role in the 44-month-long siege
My father was the one carrying plastic containers from the pump that was providing drinking water for a city of half a million. My mother is the one who was on her way to stand and wait in a bread queue that soldiers bombed from the hills, killing 19 civilians and wounding more than 150.
I was also one of the lucky ones who survived, and avoided becoming part of the grim statistic of 10,000 dead – including 1,500 children – victims of bombs, mortars, snipers and the lack of food, water and medication.
We lived through apocalyptic times, shelled heavily on a daily basis regardless of our nationality or ethnicity.
We were being killed because we were civilians in a city that Gen Mladic and his henchmen hated – for everything multi-ethnic and multicultural that it represented.
Gen Mladic is one of those who has given Serbs a bad name, even those like our friends and neighbours who stayed in the city and shared every dark reality of Sarajevo siege along with everyone else.
He will hopefully be extradited and tried in The Hague for all the crimes for which he is indicted.
But for me personally, his responsibility lies in the fact that his soldiers killed my 11-year-old friend Nina in a park in front of our house, that my mother’s cousin is dead, that my uncle almost lost his leg and that my city and all the lives in it were broken and still suffer the consequences of the bloodthirsty hate and madness of the siege.
A trial, whatever the outcome, will never provide full satisfaction.
I always use the analogy of a minor crime. If someone steals your handbag, and they are found, and tried, this is correct and proper.
But the handbag your boyfriend gave you for your birthday, and the only picture of your family from a holiday that was hidden in the wallet, will never be found.
Some things are lost forever, and law and the courts will, alas, never be able to reverse that.
What can be said about Gen Mladic? His deeds speak for themselves.
All that I and the other citizens of Sarajevo and Bosnia who needlessly and unjustly suffered can do now is watch international justice be carried out.
He may survive or pass away, he may fight in the court or stir nationalist sentiment on the ground in the former Yugoslavia.
But whatever happens, may he and people like him never feature in our lives again.
Zlata Filipovic is the author of Zlata’s Diary, her account of the siege of Sarajevo.
(originally published in Jadaliyya)
by Aslı Ü. Bâli and Ziad Abu-Rish
Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council held a formal meeting in which they condemned the violence in Libya and threatened to hold violators of international law accountable. At the same time, the Arab League held an extraordinary session in which it suspended Libya’s membership. These measures, and others, come eight days into the Libyan people’s courage and persistence in the face of shoot-to-kill policies by police, military, and mercenary forces as well as the use of helicopter gunships, fighter jets, and other artillery to indiscriminately attack unarmed demonstrators. While this violence may have initially been intended as a strategy for maintaining power, it now appears to be the regime’s revenge for its ongoing unraveling. As credible reports of civilian death tolls mount, so too have demands on Western and Arab powers that they lend greater support to protesters, through humanitarian and other assistance.
While the Libyan regime has entered its eleventh hour in the face of ongoing popular protests and official defections (which is one reason why Western and Arab powers have begun their chorus of open condemnation), al-Qaddafi may yet retain the ability to inflict deadly violence on the Libyan people. Further, al-Qaddafi’s speech, together with that of his son, Saif al-Islam, have made clear that the regime is willing to resort to massive escalation of violence in its desperation, rather than stepping down. Against this context, calls for “international intervention” have emerged from many quarters, ranging from policy analysts and academics to progressive activists and ordinary people watching in horror as events unfold and stories of atrocities emerge.
If al-Qaddafi’s regime falls today or tomorrow, debates about intervention will be moot. But unfolding events present an interesting opportunity to engage with interventionist arguments. The very fact that calls for intervention come at the eleventh hour and rarely emerge in time to make a meaningful impact or stave off the worst of atrocities in situations of crisis is itself worth noticing. Beyond that, we offer some reflections on the merits of different interventionist scenarios in the Libyan context specifically.
In evaluating calls for intervention, the first question we might ask is how the Libyan case differs from recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, where intervention of this type was not invited. In both of those countries authoritarian leaders who were erstwhile Western allies were pushed out when their military institutions refused to turn on protesters. But situated in countries long allied with the West, the self-preservation calculation of those military institutions might have been quite different than in the Libyan case. When Ben Ali and Mubarak became focal points for opposition groups and liabilities to regime maintenance, the military leadership in each country may have had reason to believe that their institutional interests were better served by transition. The continuing role of both the Tunisian and the Egyptian military in overseeing transition speaks powerfully to this calculation. By contrast, the Libyan military, embedded in an isolated regime without strong ties to the West, may not expect as secure of an institutional trajectory in the event of a transition.
Indeed, despite various defections—including those by ministers, diplomats, military officers, and air force pilots—we have yet to see the collective decision on the part of the Libyan armed forces to champion the demands of protesters. In fact, there is little indication of whether the Libyan armed forces have the institutional capacity for disciplined collective action. These dynamics, coupled with the realities of deaths, injuries, and disappearances (reportedly occurring at a much higher rate than in either Tunisia or Egypt), add to the sense of urgency for those of us outside of Libya. On the one hand, international inaction in the face of atrocities in Libya seems unacceptable. On the other hand, the deplorable record of past international intervention inspires little confidence.
The first test of any would-be interventionist is this: do no harm. And there is very little evidence that direct intervention in the Libyan case could meet this test. For instance, calls for a no-fly zone by Libya’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. (drawing on the Iraqi precedent of the 1990s) and an air campaign by others (drawing on the Kosovo precedent from 1999) would surely fail this test. Neither option would shield the Libyan civilian population from the regime’s coercive apparatus (which is not principally aerial) and both options may entail serious costs to civilians by freezing or exacerbating the situation on the ground. Beyond raising questions of enforcement (would international forces fire on Libyan aircraft?), a no-fly zone might well block one method of escape for Libyan civilians or close an avenue for defections by members of the air force, such as the four pilots that are known to have flown out and defected in disobedience of direct orders to bomb civilians. Alternatively, air strikes run the risk of serious damage to both the civilian population and infrastructure. In short, any intervention must be crafted to offer real support to the civilian population of Libya, which direct forms of coercive intervention like no-fly zones or air strikes would not. But are there other forms of intervention that would be better suited to the task? Given limited knowledge of Libya’s internal dynamics at present and the heavy-handed interventionist toolkit developed to date by the international community any such option must be approached with caution.
Coercive options should be taken off the table. Absent the political will to commit ground forces to serve as a meaningful buffer between the regime and the population, any coercive intervention will do more damage (particularly to civilians) than good. Further, even if the political will existed for forceful intervention to offer direct protection to Libyan civilians, history suggests that the ultimate outcome of such intervention would still be harmful. Aside from the obvious potential threats to the civilian populations from the presence of foreign troops on their soil, including risks from a ground conflict and risks associated with the possibility of a prolonged presence, there are additional considerations that weigh against such intervention. At a time when the regime appears to be crumbling from within, as a result of the courageous mobilization of its own people, to engage in an eleventh hour intervention runs the very serious risk of depriving the Libyan people of their control over the hard-won transition they have initiated. To rebrand the Libyan uprising with the last minute trappings of international liberation (read: “Made in the West”) would do a serious disservice to the achievements of the protesters. Of course, none of this is to absolve the international community of its obligation to support Libyan civilians. Rather, we seek to identify a principled course of action that speaks to the dire situation, our responsibilities towards it, and the power relations that frame it.
In the immediate context, the most appropriate role for the international community is in providing humanitarian assistance and desisting from any further support to the regime. In addition to condemning the regime’s resort to violence, there are at least five modalities for the provision of such assistance, all of which should be employed immediately, with the support of the Security Council. First, all borders should be opened and appropriate facilities created to allow Libyan civilians to flee regime violence. If various governments are going to create exit routes through charter flights and land crossings for their own citizens, they also need to create a mechanism for Libyans to get out. Second, all available means for providing direct humanitarian assistance on the ground to the Libyan population should be utilized, including aid convoys to eastern Libya through Egypt and to western Libya through Tunisia. Third, al-Qaddafi’s assets and those of remaining elements of the regime should be frozen and kept in safe keeping to be given to whatever post-Qaddafi system emerges. Fourth, governments with ties to Libya should immediately sever all military ties, withholding delivery of materiel and cancelling all outstanding contracts. Finally, an arms embargo should be imposed preventing the sale or delivery of military equipment or personnel (including foreign mercenaries) to the Libyan state security forces. Sanctions that target military materiel, services and the movement of reinforcements from among foreign mercenaries are essential. Sanctions that go beyond these aims would run the risk of causing more harm to civilians than to the regime.
Beyond these measures, several other recent suggestions for intervention – ranging from direct coercion to demands for immediate international criminal accountability – raise a number of troubling implications that should give pause to those acting in solidarity with the Libyan people. Returning to our earlier consideration of what distinguishes the Libyan case from those of Tunisia and Egypt, it is important to underscore the international context when considering outside intervention. Tunisia and Egypt were both regimes with strong ties to the West and central to the regional order. The Libyan regime’s position is at best isolated and at worst adversarial with respect to the West. The difference this makes in the risk calculations of the regime and the dangers associated with calls for intervention is significant. Intervention in support of regime change in Libya presents the West with a window of opportunity to shape the transition of a relatively oil-rich North African country, potentially replacing an irritant with a new client. Where the emphasis of Western interests in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases has been on stability, in the Libyan case the goals will likely be rapid transformation. For instance, in a post-transition Libya, individuals with ties to the West or experience with energy markets might emerge as favored interlocutors, identified with international approval as “moderate” and “appropriate.” To invite forceful international intervention in the last days of the current regime might empower external interveners to make such choices, potentially at the expense of the preferences of the Libyan people. Particularly in light of how little is known about the current political dynamics among opposition groups within Libya, international intervention may entail a particularly high risk that the narrative framing of events will be captured by external actors in ways that are adverse to local Libyan choices.
Even more troubling, however, are the implications for regime risk calculations associated with the differential international position of the Libyan state as compared to Tunisia and Egypt. As we have seen, despite clear evidence that the regime has lost its grip on power as a result of the scale of the popular mobilization and defections, al-Qaddafi appears to be upping the ante rhetorically and in practice with escalations of violence. The likelihood that he will continue to raise the stakes is a real one that turns on two factors. The first is al-Qaddafi’s continued control of at least a proportion of his security forces, including parts of the military. The second is the absence of alternatives to a desperate bid to retain power through force. There is little that international actors can do to influence the first factor other than make clear that anyone who commits acts of violence against civilians, whether or not under orders, will be investigated and held liable under standards of international accountability. International measures designed to influence those within the chain of command of the military or security forces to switch sides and support the demonstrators are certainly legitimate. In practice, however, internal dynamics are far likelier to impact these immediate calculations than threats of future prosecution. There is, however, a chance to influence the second factor more decisively.
What differentiates al-Qaddafi from Ben Ali and Mubarak is the degree to which the latter two were entrenched in regional and international alliances with Arab leaders and Western powers. By contrast, Qaddafi is an isolated—if not adversarial—anomaly. Further, this Libyan regime is well-acquainted with international measures such as sanctions and threats of prosecution based on prior experience in the context of Lockerbie. Outside of Sudan, few leaders in the region are likely to have as keen an appreciation of the prospects of imprisonment, prosecution, and sentencing by an international court as al-Qaddafi. In fact, this scenario is quite plausible should al-Qaddafi physically survive the end of his regime, since he would offer the international community an excellent opportunity to symbolically stand with protesters across the region at low cost. Whereas meaningful accountability for deposed former Western allies might prove embarrassing, the prosecution of al-Qaddafi would vindicate calls for international justice without similar risks. Unlike the final indignity of a forced but comfortable resignation in Egypt and Tunisia, al-Qaddafi might well appreciate that his final days will more closely resemble those of the deposed Iraqi dictator made to stand trial. The prospect of retirement in a prison cell in the Hague may factor into al-Qaddafi’s incentives to make good on his threats to fight to the last of his capacities, visiting untold atrocities on Libyan civilians in the process. Paradoxically, then, providing al-Qaddafi with an immediate exit strategy to a safe haven might be the right choice from a humanitarian perspective. Shifting the regime’s incentives by offering an option that is neither death nor prosecution may well be the most humanitarian of presently available options for international intervention. Working with Venezuela, neighboring countries or others that would be willing to provide safe passage to Qaddafi would be far preferable than the apocalyptic endgame that the regime might otherwise pursue for lack of alternatives. The missed opportunity to pursue immediate prosecution pales in comparison to the death and destruction that might be avoided by shifting the regime’s risk calculation in this way. Moreover, little is lost by pursuing an immediate exit strategy today while leaving open the possibility of international criminal accountability down the line. In truth, international prosecutions take significant time and resources and do not represent an immediate alternative regardless. Threatening al-Qaddafi with war crimes prosecutions today may create perverse incentives with little strategic benefit. Securing him an exit option now may have the strategic benefit of sparing the Libyan people the violent death throes of their doomed regime.
We thus return to our original do-no-harm principle. We neither advocate abandoning the Libyan people to the violence of the regime nor protecting al-Qaddafi from accountability. But as calls for international intervention grow, we must worry about the risk of counter-productive results for Libyans on the ground of some of the options being considered. A combined strategy of humanitarian assistance, severing existing military ties with the regime, and generating exit options for al-Qaddafi and his family may well be the best course for accomplishing the goal of supporting Libya’s civilian population. An exit strategy for al-Qaddafi in the short-term does not foreclose the possibility of accountability thereafter. While this course may seem less satisfying in terms of an immediate answer to calls for international justice, a grounded understanding of the humanitarian costs of other strategies of intervention should counsel against appeasing our (international) conscience at the expense of the lives of those we purport to save. If al-Qaddafi retains the capacity to do harm to his people, the priority must be to take whatever measures will most quickly address that threat. Of course, if today’s defections bring the regime down then the belated calls for intervention will be moot in the Libyan case. Nonetheless, careful consideration of what constitutes legitimate intervention will remain pertinent as similar calls may yet emerge with respect to the many other tottering regimes in the region and beyond.