The Iranian Women’s Movement: A Century Long Struggle

by: Ali Akbar Mahdi

The emergence of a women’s movement in Iran goes back to the nineteenth century when Iran was experiencing some major socio- economic changes. It was in the midst of the Constitutional Revolution that Iranian society experienced an organized attempt by women to change their social conditions. The penetration of European forces into Iran and the influence of European capitalism hastened the disintegration of the feudal social structures in Iran. With the European advisors, diplomats, and goods, there also came European ideas and life styles. The increasing contact with Europe awakened many educated men and women to the repressive conditions of Iranian women and led them to view these conditions as problematic and in need of change. It was in a spirit of change that Constitutionalists such as Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, Shaykh Ahmad Ruhi, Mirza Malkum Khan and Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh wrote about women’s right to education and the evils of polygamy and seclusion — ideas also raised by Qurrat al-Ain (Tahereh) in the context of the spread of the Babi movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Early criticisms of the plight of women in the country were also echoed in efforts and writings by Taj Saltaneh, Naser al-Din Shah’s daughter, and Bibi Khanoum Fatema Astarabadi.1

The Constitutional Period

The first episodes of the organized involvement of Iranian women in political activities are found in the food riots of the late nineteenth century: the opposition to the Reuter concession of 1872, and the Tobacco Protest (1891–1892).2 The Tobacco Protest was the first organized political opposition by Iranian merchants, intellectuals, and ulama (clergy) to the Qajar dynasty and foreign domination of the Iranian economy. It was the first of a series of collective efforts that culminated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 –1911.3

During the revolution, women organized street riots, participated in some fights, joined underground activities against foreign forces, boycotted the import of foreign goods, participated in the demolition of a Russian bank,4 and raised funds for the establishment of the National Bank.5 In the course of this national struggle, some enlightened women realized the potential of women for organized political activities and used the momentum provided by the revolution as a venue for bringing women’s causes into the open.6 Becoming increasingly conscious of the oppressive conditions of women, these pioneering feminists established secret societies (anjomans and dowrehs), commonly held by Constitutionalists at the time in order to discuss the situation of women by sharing their personal problems, experiences, and feelings. Two of the most important such early secret societies were Anjoman- e Azaadi-ye Zanaan (the Women’s Freedom Society) and Anjoman-e Zanaan-e Neqaabpush (the Society of Masked Women).7 The argument to give women the right to vote was made in numerous writings in papers

such as Sur-e Esraafil, Habl al-Matin, Mosaavaat, Iran-e Nu. In 1911, the representative from Hamedan, Vakil ul-Ruaayaa, proposed a bill in Majles that would grant women the right to vote and establish their own associations. These efforts were often countered by religious leaders who saw such suggestions as contrary to the laws of Islam. Two major figures opposing women’s liberation at this time were religious figures Shaykh Fazlullah Nuri and Seyyed Ali Shushtari, who both saw schooling for girls as detrimental to women’s status and against religious principles.8 Since Qurrat al-Ain had converted to the Babi religion, Muslim female activists were often accused of being affiliated with Babis and of being subservient to foreign interests and cultures.

In 1906, the nationalist movement succeeded in establishing a constitution demanding the “equality of all citizens in law.” However, women were not included in the definition of “citizen.” They were instead put in the same classification as criminals, minors, and the insane. Religious leaders involved in the movement did not think of women as being capable of political and legal insight — a view shared by many male constitutionalists, as well. With the later setbacks in the constitutional movement and the suppression of activists, most associations and societies formed during the revolution fell apart; the majority of the women involved in the movement went back to their homes. The task of carrying the struggle was left to a few educated women who dedicated themselves to the development of an independent women’s movement concerned with improving the social status of women in the country. Finding themselves in an uphill battle, female constitutional activists targeted education as their primary battleground for improving women’s status. Despite the ulama’s opposition (and even harassment), efforts for establishing schools for girls succeeded in major cities such as Tehran, Tabriz, Mashhad, Rasht, Hamadan and others. In 1913, Tehran had 63 schools for girls and 9 women’s societies.9

The emergence of the women’s movement in Iran can be seen in the formation and growth of women’s associations and publications over a period of twenty years, from roughly 1910 to 1932. During this period, women established a number of organizations and published many weekly or monthly magazines dealing specifically with issues related to the conditions of women’s lives. Some of these publications included Daanesh, Jahaan-e Zanaan, Shekoufeh, Zabaan-e Zanaan, Zanaan-e Iran, and Naameh Baanouvaan. In the mid-1930s, there were 14 women’s magazines discussing women’s rights, education and veiling.10 Throughout these early developments, the movement remained dependent on the supportive efforts of influential male intellectuals such as Mirzadeh Eshqi, Iraj Mirza, Malak ol-Shuara Bahar, Yahya Daulatabadi, Abolqasem Lahooti, Ali Akbar Dehkhuda, Vakil ul-Ruaayaa, Ahmad Kasravi, Seyed Hassan Taghizadeh, and later personalities such as Saeed Nafissi, Ebrahim Khajehnouri, Rezazadeh Shafaq and Khalili. Using their writings and offices, these intellectuals advocated education for girls, freedom of women from seclusion, and the abolition of polygamy. The most influential women in the movement of this period included Mariam Amid Mozayyen ol-Saltaneh, Mah Sultan Khaanom, Sediqeh Daulatabadi, Khaanum Azmodeh, Rushanak Nudoost, Shahnaz Azad, Muhtaram Eskandari, Shams ol-Muluk Javahir Kalam, Huma Mahmoudi Afaaq Parsa, and Zandokht Shirazi.11

Among the most important factors contributing to the development of women’s organizations and the increase in their activities, in addition to the devotion of the early Iranian “feminists,” are (a) the emergence and spread of the Baha’i religion, which emphasized women’s freedom, (b) the influence of Western liberal thought on Iranian intellectuals, (c) the existence of Europeans in and their increased contact with Iran both before and after the First World War, (d) the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its influence on some Iranian intellectuals, (e) the emergence of the women’s movement in neighboring Turkey and Egypt, and finally (f ) the American and British women’s victories in achieving the right to vote in the late 1910’s.12

Reza Shah’s Period (1925–1941)

With the rise of Reza Shah to power in the 1920’s, the movement began to suffer the constraints of a newly emerging dictatorship. Being another patrimonial despot, Reza Shah had no tolerance for any independent and non-conforming organizations, let alone anti-patriarchal women’s groups.

Although he favored some changes in women’s status, as will be discussed later, he gradually pressured women’s organizations to withdraw their political demands and concentrate on their welfare and educational activities. The continual opposition to women’s activities by the ulama and the government forced many women’s organizations into closing to the point that in 1932, Reza Shah banned the last independent women organization, Jamiat-e Nesvaan-e Vatankhaah-e Iran (The Patriotic Women’s League of Iran).

In 1928, the parliament (Majles) passed a new dress code requiring all males working in government institutions to dress like Europeans, except the ulama. In 1931, the government introduced a number of changes in marriage and divorce laws. A bill was passed in the Majles that gave women the right to ask for divorce under certain conditions and set the minimum marriage age for girls at 15 and for boys at 18. This legislation, according to Amin, proved to be far more important than any other changes introduced by Reza Shah’s government in later periods.13 Efforts to support women’s participation in public affairs were expanded. The government invested a great deal of money and resources in the expansion of schools for girls.14 In 1932, Tehran was the site of the Congress of Oriental Women. A year later some Iranian women submitted Congress’ recommendations for electoral rights to the Iranian parliament. The Majles rejected this demand but the government began a series of reforms encouraging more protection for women in various social arenas. In 1934, Reza Shah initiated the development of a government- controlled women’s organization called Kaanoon-e Baanovaan (The Ladies Center), headed by his daughter Ashraf Pahlavi. This organization began a series of welfare activities designed to both depoliticize the women’s movement and create an image of women’s involvement and participation in society as a sign of modernity — the latter being a major concern of the new king.15

In 1936, Reza Shah forcefully ordered women to unveil — a decree that had serious negative effects on the movement. On the one hand, the ulama used the decree as proof that the women’s movement had no other aim than “making women naked” and “showing their bodies in public” — acts contrary to Islamic ethics. On the other hand, the state’s determination in issuing the decree and implementing it vigorously, despite widespread opposition by public and religious leaders, convinced many early “feminists” to support the decree as a “progressive” measure necessary for confronting clerical misogynistic approaches to women’s concerns. The success of the state in winning the support of women activists and some intellectuals resulted in further alienating clerics and a larger segment of secular intellectuals and activists from Reza Shah’s modernization program.

Mohammad Reza Shah’s Period (1942–1978)

World War II opened another page in the history of the women’s movement in Iran. The occupation of the country by the Allied Forces and the forceful abdication of Reza Shah from the throne weakened government control over the opposition and created an opportunity for the development of political parties and organizations. Again, several new women’s organizations emerged, of which the following were the most influential: Tashkilaat-e Zanaan- e Iran (The Organization of Iranian Women), Hezb-e Zanaan (Women’s Party), and Jamiat-e Zanaan (Women’s League).16 To these should be added women’s organizations affiliated with political parties: the Sazmaane Demokraatike Zanaan (Women’s Democratic Organization) of Tudeh Party, Nehzate Zanaane Pishro (Women’s Progressive Movement) of Society of Iranian Socialists, and Komiteh-ye Zanaan (Women’s Committee) of Nation’s Party of Iran (Hezbe Mellat). Women’s calls for freedom, education, the abolition of polygamy and the veil received enthusiastic support from intellectual men such as Mohammad Hejazi, Sadeq Hedayat, Ali Dashti, Mahmood Beh-Azin, Ahmad Sadeq, and Bozorg Alavi.17

The most important feature of women’s organizations in this period, in addition to their independence from government, as Sanasarian mentions, was “their close and inalienable association with various political parties.”18 Affiliated with the communist Tudeh Party, the Women’s League was the most organized with branches in many major cities. Women again became active in the national struggle against foreign forces and were even involved in the political events of 1945 in Azarbaijan. A new development in this period was the participation of younger females in the student movement in universities. Many women joined student organizations and took part in repeated demonstrations associated with political events in this period.

In 1951, two influential women, Mehrangiz Daulatshahi and Safeyeh Firouz, met Mohammad Reza Shah and appealed to him for electoral rights. In 1952, various women’s organizations again sent petitions to Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, the Majles, and the United Nations demanding equal political and economic rights, especially enfranchisement. In all cases, these demands were met with silence in fear of opposition by the ulama.

After the CIA-engineered coup d’etat of 1953, the young Shah began to assert his power more aggressively. He eliminated all oppositional and independent political parties and organizations. Since most of the women’s organizations in the 1940s were attached to various political parties, they became subject to elimination by default. However, women’s organizations controlled by the central government continued to live and influence the nature and direction of women’s activities in the following three decades.

During this period, the government centralized women’s organizations, unified their leadership, and de-politicized their demands. According to Sanasarian, this was the “co-optation and legitimation” period of the women’s movement:

Henceforth, the women’s rights movement entered an institutionalized and legitimate sphere of activity in which demands were still made upon the authorities, but in this instance the changes asked for were in accordance with the ones received. In other words, women’s organizations did not make demands that could not or would not

be met; their activities were quite compatible with the government’s stand.19

In 1959, fourteen women’s organizations were brought under the umbrella of the Federation of Women’s Organizations — a federation later transformed into a new and more centralized organization: Shoraa-ye Ali-ye Jamiat-e Zanaan-e Iran (The High Council of Iranian Women). In 1966, the latter was again replaced by a new organization called Saazemaan-e Zanaan-e Iran (Women’s Organization of Iran) — an organization that lasted until the end of the Pahlavi regime in 1978. The organization developed branches in major cities with numerous smaller health and charity offices under its supervision. In the three decades of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, all women’s activities were channeled through these government-controlled organizations. These organizations were incorporated into the government bureaucracy and were basically involved in charity, health, and educational activities. The only political demand these organizations made was that of women’s enfranchisement — a right granted to women by the government in 1962 in the face of opposition by the ulama. Women’s political activities, like those of men, were banned and violators were punished with harassment, imprisonment, and even execution (the latter practice started in 1975).

From 1966 to 1977, women’s organizations and associations, as they were officially acknowledged and openly in existence, became apolitical, charitable, educational, and professional units under the surveillance of the state.20 However, the state remained the major source for change in the status of women — a policy supported by the belief that “. . . without the support of the modernizing state and its political organs, which were controlled by men, women’s rights are unattainable in an Islamic society. The law as the expression of the will of the state was indispensable to the securing of women’s rights in Iran.”21 Thus, access to education and work outside of the home was made easier for women, despite the lack of any serious efforts to create job opportunities for them. In 1967, the Shah expanded his White Revolution programs allowing female graduates to serve in education and health corps. A Family Protection Law was passed that set tougher conditions for polygamy, raised the age of marriage for girls to 18, put divorce under the authority of family courts, and created more safeguards against male vagary in divorce.22 The state continued to increase the number of women in executive positions, enhance their opportunities in the public arena, and appoint women as judges — a practice condemned by Shia theologians. A woman was appointed as the Minister of Education. In 1975, family laws were further modified to give women custody rights, ease earlier penalties against abortion, and offer free abortion on demand. In the same year, women’s affairs gained ministerial status and a woman was appointed to the position.

While important, these appointments were symbolic and minuscule in their scope. In the last 20 years of the Pahlavi reign, the number of women in managerial positions in the government never passed 2.8 percent (the same has been the case in the past two decades in the Islamic Republic).23 All these developments took place in an atmosphere of contradictions between women’s freedom and patrimonial repression. Women were appointed to executive positions in male-dominated environments with strong male cultures and structures. Imperial bureaucracy was a male institution intolerant of independent decision-making by women. Opposition to male decisions was not tolerated, especially on political issues. Opportunities came with limitations, social freedom with political docility. While at the end of the Pahlavi era (1978), 333 women were in local councils and 24 in two houses of the parliament,24 there were 323 female political prisoners serving time in Iranian prisons! In the last 7 years of the Pahlavi reign, 42 female guerrillas lost their lives in street fighting with military forces.25

The Revolutionary Period (1978–1981)

During 1977–78, when the movement against the Shah was formed, women again became a major force for change. To mobilize a strong force against the Shah, religious activists working closely with Ayatollah Khomeini, a formidable opposition leader against the Shah, tapped into the reservoir of religious women who had always supported them but remained secluded in their homes.26 Using religious themes and rituals glorifying women, especially those revolving around Fatima Zahra and Zaynab Kobra as symbols of resistance to unjust rule, the ulama were able to bring these women out to open demonstrations against the Shah.27 Seeing this massive outpouring of women against the Shah, some younger, secular, unveiled women resorted to the chador (veil) in a symbolic defiance of the Shah’s Westernized dictatorship and in solidarity with the massive women’s participation.28 Women of all classes and ideological persuasions participated in these anti-government demonstrations.29 Where some young women engaged in armed confrontations with police and military forces, older women offered them support and protection against police chase.30 The latter were mostly members of various underground political organizations such as the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedayee Guerrillas and the Iranian People’s Mujahedin Organization, both formed in the early 1970s. During the years 1978–79, the Women’s Organization of Iran was abolished, several new ones were established, and some old ones re-emerged. These included the National Union of Women, the Committee for Solidarity of Women, the Organization of Iranian Women, the Women’s Populace of Iran, women’s branch of National Democratic Front, the Association of Women Lawyers, the Women’s Society of Islamic Revolution, and the Muslim Women’s Movement. The latter two, along with a number of small but influential other associations affiliated with the Islamic Republic Party and other Islamic charities, represented Muslim women loyal to the Islamic revolution and the newly established Islamic Republic.

Once the ulama managed to establish their leadership of the revolution, they began laying the groundwork for the establishment of an Islamic Republic. Their first move in that direction was to condition the presence of women in the public sphere by demanding observance of religious laws and new ordinances issued by the clerics. Soon after the establishment of the Provisional Government of Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Khomeini demanded the abolition of the Family Protection Act, ordered the implementation Sharia laws in the country, and issued a decree demanding women dress “properly.” A female vigilante group (dokhtar”an-e Zaynab) was organized to maintain state codes of female appearances in public (and even some private) arenas. Numerous boundaries separating men and women in society were erected: “males and females were separated in higher education classes that were once coed, females students were barred from 69 different fields of study, women were banned from some professions such as the judiciary and singing groups, and female students were barred from certain disciplines in the universities, such as engineering and agriculture. A decree dismissed all women judges and barred female students from law schools. Women were forbidden to participate in some sports and not allowed to watch men in sports fields.”31 The universal Mother’s Day was replaced with Fatima Zahra’s birthday (Prophet Mohammad’s daughter). The new Sharia laws gave men an absolute right to divorce their wives without having to produce any justification. Child custody laws were also changed in favor of men: after divorce, women are entitled to keep their boys only up to the age of two and girls until seven. After these ages, fathers have the right to full custody. Women’s judgment as evidence in court was declared to be worth half a man’s. Blood money for a murdered woman was set to be half that of a man. If a murdered woman’s family demands retribution in kind (qesaas), her relatives would be obliged to pay the killer’s family the full blood money in compensation.

Understanding the implications of these laws and what Ayatollah Khomeini meant by “proper dress,” i.e., “forced veil,” women responded massively and angrily: thousands of women poured into the streets and demonstrated against the forced hejaab (veiling) and the abolition of the Family Protection Act. Their protests were often met by club-wielding, plain-clothed supporters of the revolution known as Hezbollahis. On March 8, International Women’s Day, women staged another protest against the newly imposed restrictions. Again, mobs attacked their protest and government officials accused participants of being tools of Western imperialism and a symbol of Western decadence. In the course of a year and a half after the revolution, women’s organizations pressed for equal wages, the right to choose their own dress, the revival of protective measures in the previous Family Protection Act, and the right to work in legal professions. The regime opposed all these demands and developed counter-strategies to divide the women’s movement and neutralize their struggle. Thereafter, the regime moved quickly to suppress the women’s movement, eliminate all women’s organizations, force women into the chador, segregate women in public places such as universities, schools, and government offices, and reduce women’s presence in public life by firing and retiring practices (nearly 24,000 women lost their jobs).32 While secular women opposed to the veil or the Islamic Republic were fired from their jobs, active participation of religious women in supportive and “female” occupations was encouraged.33 The new religious laws and government policies resulted in the retirement of large segments of defiant secular women from the labor force, the arrest of women who openly challenged the regime, and the migration of a large number of women who could not adjust to the new policies out of the country. Female marriage age was reduced to 13 and professional secular women were encouraged to retire from their public occupations in order to support male employment.34

For the third time in the history of the Iranian women’s movement, Iranian women participated and contributed to the process of political change. This time, however, their participation resulted in divisions among women and mixed results for women of different ideology, social class, and religious backgrounds. In what follows, I will explain some of the reasons for these developments.

Sociological Reasons for the Failure of the Women’s Movement in the Revolution

The participation of women in the Iranian revolution of 1979 was historically unparalleled, both in terms of the depth and breadth of their commitment. Yet, their achievements were hardly close to the expectations that made such a participation possible. The reasons for this gap between women’s expectations and achievements in the revolution are to be found in both the nature of the revolution and the sociological characteristics of women’s movements in the pre-revolutionary era.

Although the Iranian Revolution was a popular revolution based on the aspirations and participation of various social classes for overthrow of a dictatorship, it was the clerical leadership that could successfully mobilize even the most conservative and traditional sectors of the society against the Shah. In the past century and a half of social movements in Iranian history, no secular political party has ever been able to mobilize traditional women as extensively as religious leaders have. Religious leaders mobilized the largest demonstrations against the Shah — demonstrations that included not only secular female activists, who had been in forefront of opposition to the Shah all along, but also large number of religious women who often avoided participation in the public sphere. Ayatollah Khomeini was able to successfully unite various segments of Iranian society against the Shah.

However, these diverse cultural, ideological, class, ethnic, and religious segments participated in the revolution, each with a different vision of post- revolutionary Iran. Islamicist women participated in the revolution for bringing about the establishment of an Islamic state based on Sharia. Secular women participated in the revolution in opposition to the Shah’s dictatorship. Women associated with Marxist organizations hoped for the end to the Shah’s regime as a puppet of Western imperialist powers and the establishment of a socialist state. The majority of women, not devoted to any ideology or political orientation, joined the movement against the Pahlavi regime in the hope that their country would be free of dictatorship, foreign domination, and alienating cultural attitudes adopted by the Pahlavi regime.35 Given this diversity of expectations and orientations and the strength of religious leadership and organization, it is obvious that the strongest party in the coalition would take the lead in imposing its own agenda on the revolution. That is exactly what Ayatollah Khomeini did, despite his earlier promises of working for a future democratic Iran.36

The most important division contributing to conflicting expectations from and outcome of the revolution is the division between secular and religious women. Secular women, mostly of middle and upper classes, were the major losers of this revolution. The religious policies of the new government restricted their access to the public sphere, forced them to comply with Islamic dress codes, limited their occupational and educational activities, and were harassed or arrested if they opposed the emerging Islamic ruling ideology. The same can be said of religious minorities whose cultural traditions and religious beliefs contradicted the imposed Islamic codes of dress, social interaction, and public appearance. While the Islamic Republic suppressed religious, traditional, and mostly poorer, women found the new opportunities offered by the Islamic Republic empowering. Traditional women, who were often banned in the past by their parents or religious authorities from having a presence in the public sphere, now found the dominant Islamic atmosphere in society less socially intimidating and more religiously acceptable. Furthermore, once sanctioned by the religious authorities, these women’s husbands or parents had one less excuse for not allowing their daughters or wives to participate in the public arena.

The failure of the women’s movement to gain what it had fought for was also due to its sociological characters. Despite my later argument in this article, the classical sociological models of social movement are not good explanatory theories for explaining the developments in women’s movements in the 1990s and after, I find these theories helpful for explaining the failure of the movement until 1980. In its pre-revolutionary stage, the Iranian women’s movement never developed the sociological characteristics necessary for a successful social movement — characteristics such as a well-defined set of objectives, planned regular activities, adequate organizational structures and networks, a stable and/or organized cadre of activists, a leadership, a widespread membership with a “we-consciousness,” a set of cohesive guiding values or ideology (identity), and clear normative expectations for social change.37 The overall historical atmosphere of social change at the time, everywhere and not just in Iran, was in conformity with the classical models. The women’s movement that emerged in early 20th century Iran and moved through various stages in the next seven decades can best be characterized as urban, elitist, and often ideological organizations and were structurally dependent on larger political parties run by males.

The movement was started by urban educated women and continued to target women in urban centers. The closer the movement was to the center, the more ideological and intellectual its activities were. The farther it went to the peripheral areas, the more charitable and health-oriented its activities became. Most female activists were urban women of upper or upper-middle class origin. The majority of these women came from families in which men were active participants in social, political, and cultural affairs. The urban and “high culture” lifestyle of these women continued to diverge sharply from those of women of lower and traditional classes, thus making it harder to create a critical mass in support of the movement. The strategies adopted by the movement also had an urban bias. Women activists often published pamphlets and magazines that were not accessible to the large number of illiterate women in rural areas. Most women’s organizations were so ill defined that they could hardly command the political resources necessary for their existence. While some were mere “paper” bodies, a few established relative wide communication networks covering several districts, towns, or cities. Given its dependence on political parties and the government, the movement lacked the autonomy and independent energy to act as a pressure group.

In the face of widespread illiteracy and lack of adequate communication resources, publication and consciousness raising were appropriate means of dissemination but could not reach the majority of women in traditional households. Although certain values and normative expectations were developed by some of the better-organized associations, they did not crystallize into a unified force capable of countering the prevailing religious ideology. The issues important to the activists in the movement often differed from those advocated by the state or desired by women of lower classes. By and large, upper and upper-middle class women saw the religious ordinances as obstacles to the improvement of women’s status. Middle class women demanded mostly educational opportunities and the right to participate in social activities, while for lower class women, health, sanitation, and welfare needs were the real “women’s issues.”

One cannot underestimate the role of the state and the religious institutions in weakening the independent women’s movement in Iran. The state and religion have historically remained two sources of “value- legitimation” in Iran, each struggling to maintain a monopoly on the legitimation process. The state countered the emergence of an independent women’s movement in two ways: on the one hand, it did not tolerate any independent movement and continued to suppress autonomous activities capable of challenging its monopoly of power. Women’s demands for independent action were perceived as a political challenge to the state and a provocative issue evoking religious opposition. On the other hand, the state saw itself as the “champion” of women’s rights and was a major source of social change in the status of women in the country.38 While it engineered desired changes in lives of women, it extended state power over women’s bodies and could not tolerate changes arising outside of its own control. This, in fact, complicated the task of most “feminists” and opposition forces supporting women’s rights during the Pahlavi era. If these supporters of women’s rights opposed changes proposed by the state, they were accused of siding with religious obscurantism. If they agreed with the state policies, they would find themselves on the side of a repressive state. As much as this political impasse was a reality, it was also a strategy actively used by both the state and clerics to discredit their oppositions. To change the status of women, opposition forces often find themselves forced to rely either on the state (during the Pahlavi era) or religious authorities (the Islamic feminists in the past decade in the Islamic Republic).

Another major difficulty for the supporters of the Iranian women’s movement in confronting patriarchal culture and structures has been its inability to openly criticize religious values supporting patriarchy — a general problem confronting most Iranian intellectuals and politicians even today. The strength of religious sentiment in the country, especially among the rural and traditional segments of the society, along with the existence of a large number of Muslim intellectuals who believe that “genuine” Islam is supportive of women’s rights, have compounded the task of open cultural debates on major national issues. Often, various organizations and feminist reformers employed religious edicts, albeit with a new interpretation favorable to their desired position, for demanding a change in the status of women. This non-confrontational strategy improved the chances of the movement for public acceptability and social legitimation. However, it also reduced its effectiveness in achieving its long run goal of equality of the sexes. By accepting the general framework of society, the movement put itself in the position of working within the very institutional framework laid down by the dominant patriarchal culture and, thus, became incapacitated in its effort to pose itself as a viable alternative.

Finally, the most paralyzing feature of the women’s movement in Iran up until the revolution was its dependency on the larger movements in society. Even the early women organizations during 1890–1930 period, which maintained their autonomy from political parties and the government, still remained dependent on the general conditions created by the national struggle against foreign domination or native despotism. The movement never attained the structural allowances necessary for full realization of its potential. Dependence on the government or general political movements prevented the movement from developing its own unique identity, especially during the 1940s and 1978–81 periods.39 In both of these periods, which were characterized by an increase in the number and activities of women’s organizations, women’s activities were organizationally too dependent on various political parties dominated by male politicians — a condition that put women in supporting roles in those organizations or as the “field hands” of the movement. As Tabari mentions, many of the women’s organizations during the early years of the revolution acted as fronts for recruiting female members for the parent organizations.40 It is only in post revolutionary Iran that we begin to see the re-birth of the movement with a new identity and higher degree of autonomy.41

The Rise of Islamic Feminism and the Re-birth of the

Women’s Movement

In the first decade of the revolution, the state continued to take away the rights women had previously achieved. Women were on the defensive and the state on the offensive. In the second decade, Iranian women went on the offensive and began to put tremendous pressure on the state to retreat. During the first decade of the revolution, the state used the war with Iraq (1980–1988) as justification for suppressing dissent and crushing active opposition. All oppositional and secular organizations, including women’s, were banned. Many activists opposed to the state, both men and women, were arrested, imprisoned, and executed. Those who could manage to leave the country migrated abroad. Those who could not or did not wish to leave the country chose to either remain silent or go underground. A number of secular women activists started underground classes and consciousness-raising meetings in a very hostile anti-secular, anti-liberal, anti-Marxist environment of religious fervor.42 The majority of activists concluded that organized activity was very dangerous and thus had to be used as the last resort, and only with extreme caution and adequate safeguards. A more realistic approach, more attune with the global changes taking place around the world, especially in the environmentalist movement, was generating individualistic defiance to state rules impinging on women’s personal lives — a very effective strategy in a non-democratic, misogynistic state where any challenge to the legal definition of citizenship rights endangers life and property of the individual. These forms of resistance included non-confrontational strategies for undermining the state’s power and diluting state dress codes and public appearance requirements.

With the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, new alliances emerged and groups pressed the state for changes in social and legal policies affecting women. These efforts became more pronounced after the presidential election of 1997 when Mohammad Khatami, with massive support from women and youth, was elected as the president. Many Muslim women who had participated in the war activities and had cooperated closely with the state came to the realization that the ruling clerics’ promises of equality at the beginning of the revolution had not come true. A group of liberal Muslim female activists were able to see for themselves that the policies advocated by the Islamic Republic represented “patriarchy in Islamic clothing.”43 They, along with secular women, began to problematize the equalitarian verses of Qur’an and hadiths (statements by prophets and imams) and question the monopoly of interpretation of these texts by male jurisprudents44 — an argument developed by Islamic feminists in other continents as well.45 These women, working in different arenas and with varied voices and tactics, cleverly used the conflict between various political factions within the clerical establishment to their advantage by pitting one set of religious interpretation of texts against the other, one faction of ulama against the other, and lay intellectuals against the clerics. They questioned prevailing gender segregation, unequal division of labor, widespread domestic violence, and the organizational and exploitative biases within the Iranian Islamic family. Becoming visible and demanding across the social and political spectrum, especially in media and politics, these women focused on the tensions, conflicts, and inequalities hidden within relationships in Islamic society. To look for opportunities within a misogynistic state, women focused on “their basic rights, security against the unyielding forces of fanaticism, and dignity in face of two decades of assaults on their identity and status.”46

While there has not been a homogeneous women’s movement in the classical definition of the term, in the Islamic Republic, there has been a rise in women’s activities in various sectors of society. What has happened in Iran can be described as a creeping change, much like what happened to women seeking the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States. The ERA failed but women’s penetration into the labor market, educational arena, entertainment industry, and politics brought them gains much greater in scope than those hoped for by the drafters of the ERA. In Iran too, despite the institutional barriers put in place by the Islamic Republic in cultural and interactional domains, women have pushed the imposed boundaries further out and made concerted efforts to penetrate various professions in the public arena, especially in the film industry, literary works, and mass media.

Although women’s participation in the labor force has not made much progress from that of the past decade (12.1 percent during 1987–1997), the female occupational profile has changed dramatically. Women are now found in commercial, industrial, educational, agricultural, cultural, political, and entertainment sectors. Given that electoral rights have been achieved, women are focused on equal opportunities in and access to leadership and executive positions, both in government and industry. In 2001, the same year, there were 500,000 employed women who either managed their own businesses or supervised other employees.47 Women’s achievements in education have surpassed men’s on many levels and in many positions. In the first decade of the revolution, enrollment in girl’s primary schools had a 50 percent increase. Today, 60 percent of girls of 15–18 years age are attending high schools. In 1998, 51 percent, and in 1999, 57 percent of students entering universities were females (only 25 percent prior to the revolution).48 The literacy rate among women is up to 80 percent. In 1945, only 1.0 percent of employed men and women had graduate degrees. In 2001, this number increased to 22 percent for women, and only to 7 percent for men. In the political sphere, women have opened more space for themselves. In local council elections in 1998, 297 women were elected to city councils and 484 to rural councils. In the social arena, women have had the biggest gains by becoming active in the entertainment industry, journalism, and literary fields. There are 13 women’s magazines publishing at the national level (Neda, Payam-e Zan, Payam-e Haajar, Zane Rooz, Farzaneh, Nameh-ye Zan, Nesa, Shahed-e Baanovaan, Al-Mahjoobeh, Al-Tahereh, Hoqooqe Zanaan, Jense Dovom, and Zanan) and numerous smaller ones in small towns and local areas. There are four student magazines published by university students (Zanaane Daaneshjoo, Morghe Sahar, Sahar, and Rastaaraan). There are three feminist magazines published on the internet (Zanaan dar Iran, Zanaan, Bad Jens).

All groups of women, Islamicist or secular, skilled or unskilled, educated or uneducated, and old or young have begun to show a higher level of awareness to their conditions and to demand more control over the processes of their daily living, their relations with their parents, husbands, children, and men outside of their kin. This awareness, and its subsequent activism, are aimed at ameliorating women’s social conditions, denouncing violence against women, resisting repressive policies of the state, and opposing discriminatory laws affecting women’s lives.49

While the strategy of women’s groups in pre-revolutionary periods was based on participation in a general social movement against the state, as expressed in anti-government demonstrations in the late 1970s and early 80s, the strategy adopted by women activists in the post-Khomeini period involves accommodation, negotiation, and resistance. These strategies are gradual, incremental, and penetrative. Women activists “move in diffused directions, focus on incremental gains, empower local groups, and aim for smaller but sustainable changes. They are concerned with tangible issues affecting their lives, such as the right of divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Suspicious of the ‘vanguardism’ and ‘practical rigidity’ of leftist and nationalist movements of earlier periods,50 post-revolutionary women’s activism has a ‘self-reflective’ dimension through which women become active agents in their own lives by recurring and reinterpreting the imposed structures and relationships.51 Women are less committed to totalizing ideologies, grand theories, and broad organizations. Instead, they devote more of their political energies to the localization of global values that remove parochial obstacles to their growth, preserve their identities and dignity against the assaults by the restrictive gender policies of the state, and prepare a taller stand from which they will make their next move.”52 For instance, ceaseless complaints by women against the custody laws have not changed the religious laws governing custody. However, it has forced the state to make enough room for women to reduce the negative effects of these laws. In 1985, the parliament passed a bill giving the right of fostership of a minor to the mother, if the mother is deemed competent by the court. Recently, women parliamentarians were able to convince their male colleagues to pass a bill equalizing the pension for male and female retirees.53 Currently, a major effort is underway by women activists, both inside and outside of the state, to have the Islamic Republic join the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

There is greater individualism in the current women’s activism than has existed anytime before in the past century — an attitude grounded in and fostered by the globalizing forces of modernity. The state’s efforts for imposing a collectivist identity on Iranian women backfired and gave rise to a desire to find a balance between the extremes of Western individualism and Islamic collectivism. More and more women are trying to de-couple their identity from group affiliations (i.e., religion, family, and ethnicity) to individual definitions based on their own achievements. A more pronounced aspect of this attitude has shown itself in less interest in totalistic ideologies, political power, and revolution among women activists. Liberal Muslim women, even those with Islamic revolutionary credentials, are very pragmatic about changes in Islamic laws regarding women’s status. While some of them avoid the label “feminist” for the stated reason that Islam offers them their full rights and no external ideology is needed for restoration of their God-given rights, some others do so due to political expediency.54

Secular women have become concerned about control over the definition of their identities and their bodies as ideological battlegrounds in the Islamic Republic, and the structures conditioning their lives. In response to the government’s rules for hiding their physical and social identities, secular women have creatively devised strategies for peeling off the layers of physical and ideological covers imposed on them. As one Iranian woman has observed, “Lipstick is not just lipstick in Iran. It transmits a political message. It is a weapon.”55 In a study of divorce in Iran, Zib Mir-Hossein shows how women manipulate the law, the court, and their facts in order to reduce the negative effects of religious laws on themselves at the time of divorce.56

Issues and interests energizing the new Iranian women’s movement are nuanced and varied. They include a greater awareness of human rights, individual rights, individual autonomy within marriage, family independence within the kinship network, and a form of national consciousness against the global diffusion of modern values. The movement can be best characterized as “collective action without actors.”57 It has gained the capacity to retransmit the domination of the state’s own contradictions by reversing its imposed codes of meanings, subject imposed boundaries to pressures and

inevitably contraction, and expose the restrictive nature of state laws by personal declaration of their cruelty through various mediums available to women.

As a new social movement, the current movement lacks the necessary ingredients of the classical social movements, such as clearly defined goals and direction, strong leadership, and necessary organizations. However, despite the lack of coordination between different forms of women’s activism in different sectors of society, thus little predictability associated with them, the gradual and evolutionary effects of these activities on both women and the Islamic state are undeniable. On the government’s part, this social activism has increased the cost of its social control, requiring higher energy and social investment at a time of declining effectiveness in policy and lower compliance by women. By effectively de-legitimizing state gender ideology, the movement has reduced state control mechanisms to the use of violence. Many legitimization tools used by the state in the 1980s have become ineffective. On women’s parts, their higher self-consciousness and self-activity has resulted in a penetrating change in the public’s attitudes towards women, especially within the government and media. Women’s activism, empowered by a higher level of awareness and access to education and modern technology, has put tremendous pressure on the Islamic state to ease up on its control and restrictions.

The past dependency of women’s activism on male organization has been replaced by a highly confident attitude and determination to fight this battle for women’s rights mostly by women themselves. Despite efforts by dominant religious intellectuals in Iran and Islamic feminists,58 women activists rely on women for fighting male domination and patriarchal structure rather than on men.59 The past experiences of depending on men, political parties, and the prior success of national struggles against dictatorship and imperialism have proven to be ineffective for achieving women’s emancipation. Change through executive order has been precarious and often undesired. Women are fighting hard through NGOs and civil society organizations to build steps necessary for climbing to the height of their strength and demands. Now, women are forming their own organizations, forums, and groups, away and separate from men’s organizations. “These organizations, groupings, and collective endeavors allow them to discuss universal and national issues from their own particularistic perspective so that their specific concerns receive focused attention. Working in all-women organizations may reinforce the separatist policies of the IRI, but is an effective strategy in a traditional society with sensitivity to male-female interactions. First, it makes it much easier for women activists to establish communication and interact with traditional women, who are less comfortable mixing with secular women. Second, it provides a shield against the government’s suspicion against women’s participation in organized activities outside of the home. Third, it helps to gain the support and cooperation of religious female activists who do not wish to cross the prescribed religious interactional boundaries.

Finally, it needs to be mentioned that the current movement is broad but uncoordinated. It is broad because it includes activities of women all over the country and in almost all sectors of society: secular, religious, modern, and traditional.60 Some women have discovered the potential power of traditional formations for achieving modern objectives.61 Religious circles, gatherings for holidays, athletic and sports gatherings, musical concerts, and mountain-climbing get-togethers have all been used as venues for exchanging ideas and meeting with other activists.

In the public sphere, women are pushing for space in city councils, parliament, ministries, and mid-ranking to executive positions in economic organizations. Moreover, the politicization of women’s positions in Iran, by both the Islamic government and its opposition, transforms every action taken for or against women into a new social energy for further change. Given the wide spectrum of women’s activities and focused demands on the state, the interaction between the state and women has become a major source of change in the country. However, despite the broad spectrum of women’s activism, the movement is diffuse and uncoordinated. Different sectors of the movement pave the way for the activities of the other sectors without any direct coordination. For instance, cultural and legal activities of secular women, such as those of Shirian Ebadi, Mehrangiz Kar, Shahla Lahiji and Simin Behbahani, created grass root demands that in turn gave direction to the political agenda of religious women working within the system. Many of the issues targeted for legislative change by female parliamentarians had been debated in the publications and forums of secular and Islamic feminists. These uncoordinated activities have a high rate of iteration, multiplying each other’s effect across a wide spectrum of the social scene.

Endnotes 1. See Nateq, Homa, “Negaahi be Barkhi Neveshteh-haa va Mobaarezaate Zanaan

dar Duraane Mashrootiyat,” Ketaabe Jom”eh, No. 30, 1979: 45–54. 2. Bayat-Philipp, Mangol, “Women and Revolution in Iran, 1905–1911,” in Lois Beck

and Nikki Keddie (eds.), Women in the Muslim World, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).

3. Browne, Edward G., The Persian Revolution of 1905 –1909, (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1910).

4. Kasravi, Ahmad. Taarikh-e Mashroteh-ye Iran (The History of Iranian Constitutionalism), (Tehran: Amir Kabir, Vol. 1, 13th edition, 1356).

5. Bayat-Philipp, Ibid.; Sanasarian, Eliz, The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran: Mutiny, Appeasement, and Repression from 1910 to Khomeini, (New York: Praeger, 1982), 19 –24.

6. For an excellent account of the rise of feminism in Iran, see Afary, Janet, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906 –1911; Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origin of Feminism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

7. Sheikholeslami, Pari, Zanaan-e Rooznaameh-negar va Andishmand-e Iran (The Women Journalists and Thinkers of Iran), (Tehran: Muzgrafic, 1972), 143–52.

8. Bayat-Philipp in Keddie, 1978.

9. Quoted in Price, Massoume. “Women’s movement; A brief history 1850–2000,” The Iranian (www.Iranian.com). March 7, 2000.

10. Yaukacheva, M., “The Feminist Movement in Persia,” Central Asian Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1959; Sheikholeslami, 1972; Browne, Edwards G., The Press and Poetry in Modern Persia, (Cambridge: The University Press, 1914).

11. Bamdad, Badr al-Moluk, Zan-e Irani az Enqelaab-e Mashrootiyat taa Enqelaab-e Sefid (Iranian Women from the Constitutional Revolution to the White Revolution), (Tehran: Ibn Sinaa Publications, 1968), ii.

12. Sanasarian, 1982: 36–38.

13. Amin, Camron Michael, The making of the modern Iranian woman: gender, state policy, and popular culture, 1865–1946, (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida), 2002.

14. Arasteh, Reza, “The Struggle for Equality in Iran,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1964.

15. See Mahdi, Ali Akbar, Women, Religion, and the State: Legal Developments in Twentieth Century Iran, Working Paper No. 38, Women in International Development, Michigan State University, 1983.

16. Woodsmall, Frances, Women and the New East, (Washington, D.C.: Middle East Institute, 1960), 80–83.

17. Yaukacheva, 1959. 18. Sanasarian, 1982: 73. 19. Sanasarian, 1982: 79. 20. Sanasarian, 1982: 79 –105. 21. Afkhami, Mahnaz, “Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran: A Feminist Perspective,” in

M. Afkhami and Erika Friedl (eds.), In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran, (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1994), 14.

22. Paidar, Parvin, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran, (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 118–147.

23. Jahani, Maryam, “Jaayegaahe Zanaan dar Bakhshe Eqtesaadiye Keshvar,” (Women’s Status in the Economic Sector), Hoqooqe Zanan, Mehr and Aban, 1379.

24. Price, 2000.

25. Hajabi Tabrizi, Vida. “Tajrobe-haaye Zendaan-e Zanaan-e Siyaasi,” (The Prison Experiences of Political Women), Jense Dovvom, Vol. 10, Abaan, 1380.

26. Kar, Mehrangiz, Hoqooqe Siyaasi-ye Zanaane Iran (Political Rights of Iranian Women), (Tehran: Roshangaran & Women Studies Publishing), 1376.

27. Afkhami, 1994.

28. Azari, Farah, “Islam’s Appeal to Women in Iran: Illusions and Reality. The Post-Revolutionary Women’s Movement in Iran,” in Farah Azari (ed.), Women of Iran. The Conflict with the Fundamentalist Islam, (London: Ithaca Press, 1983).

29. For a discussion of leftist women see Shahidian, Hamed, “Zanaan va Mashye Siyaasiye Makhfi dar Iran, 1970–1985,” (Women and Secret Political Activism in Iran), Avaye Zan, No. 30, Autumn, 1997. Also, Higgins, Patricia J., “Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Legal, Social, and Ideological Changes,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 10, No. 31: 477–494.

30. For rural women supporting guerrilla women, see Hegland, M.E., “Women and the Iranian Revolution: A Village Case Study,” Dialectical Anthropology, No. 15: 183–192.

31. See Mahdi, Ali Akbar. “Reconstructing Gender in Post-Revolutionary Iran: Transcending the Revolution?” Middle East Insight, Vol. XI, No. 5, July-August 1995.

32. A look at employment data shows that in 1335 there were 573,000 employed women in the country. This increased to 1,212,000 (14 percent of labor force) in 1355 (two years before the revolution). After the revolution, this number first declined to 975,000 (8.9 percent) in 1365, and then picked up to 1, 765,000 (12.1 percent) in 1375. See, Jahani, Maryam, 1379. In a different table, Behnaz Movahedi reports these numbers as follows: 12.5 percent in 1345, 12.9 percent in 1355, 8.2 percent in 1365, 8.7 percent 1370, 9.1 percent 1375, 11.7 percent 1378. See Behnaz Movahedi, “Chaalesh-haaye Eshteqaale

Zanaan No. 21, 33.

dar Iran,” (The challenges of Women’s Employment in Iran), Hoqooqe Zanan, Farvardin, 1381.

Paidar, 1995.

See Sh. Saidi, “Daanesh Aamokhteghaane Zan va Baazaare Kar,” (Educated and the Labor Market), Hamshahri, No. 1394, 7 Aban 1376.

See Mahdi, 1995.

For a list of unfulfilled promises made by Khomeini, and reported by one of his revolutionary supporters, look at Ganji, Akbar, Maanifest-e Jomhuri-khaahi, 2002. Published on Internet at http://news.gooya.com/2002/09/10/1009-ganji-00.php.

37. Blumer, Herbert, “Collective Behavior,” in Alfred McClung Lee (ed.), Principles of Sociology, (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1951), 202.

38. Amin, Camron Michael, 2002.

39. For an analysis of women in Marxist organizations in the 1970s, see Haideh Moghissi, Populism and Feminism in Iran; Women’s Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolutionary Movement, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

40. Tabari, Azar, “Islam and the Struggle for Emancipation of Women,” in Azar Tabari and Nahid Yeganeh, In the Shadow of Islam; The Women’s Movement in Iran, (London: Zed Press, 1982), 16.

41. In this paper, I have characterized this movement as a “new social movement.” There are those who use the classical model of social movement and do not see a women’s movement in Iran today. See Shaditalab, Jaleh, “Ba-id ast keh dar Aayandeh-ye Nazdik Shaahede Jonbeshe Zanaan Baashim,” Zanan, No. 89, Tir, 1381 and Moghadam, Valentine, “The Two Faces of Iran: Women’s Activism, the Reform Movement, and the Islamic Republic,” in Betsy Reed (ed.), Nothing Sacred: Women Respond to Religious Fundamentalism and Terror, (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002), 91–104.

42. For the latest report on these kinds of underground educational groups, see recent reports about Azar Nafici’s secret teaching of Western literature in her home. Salamon, Julie, “Teaching Western Books in Iran, and in U.S., Too,” New York Times, March 30, 2003.

43. I am borrowing a term from Homa Hoodfar, “Bargaining with Fundamentalism: Women and the Politics of Population Control in Iran.” The article is found at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/rt21/globalism/hoodfar.html.

44. Kian, Azadeh. “Iranian Women Take on the Mullahs,” Le Monde Diplomatique, Internet Edition, November 1996.

45. Mernissi, Fatima, Can we women head a Muslim, (Lahore, Pakistan: Simorgh, Women’s Resource and Publications Centre, 1991); Mernissi, Fatima, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, translated by Mary Jo Lakeland, (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1991); Ahmed, Leila, Women and Gender in Islam; Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992); Afshar, Haleh, Islam and Feminisms: an Iranian case-study, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998). For Iranian Islamic feminism, see Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Feminism in an Islamic Republic: ‘Years of Hardship, Years of Growth’,” in Yvonne Y. Haddad and John Esposito (eds.) Women, Gender, and Social Change in the Muslim World, (New York: Oxford

34. Women 35. 36.

University Press, 1998) and Nayereh Tohidi, “‘Islamic Feminism’: A Democratic Challenge or a Theocratic Reaction?” Kankash, No. 13, 1997.

46. Mahdi, Ali Akbar, “Iranian Women: Between Islamicization and Globalization,” in Ali Mohammadi (Ed.). Iran Encountering Globalization: Problems and Prospects, (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 66.

47. Jahani, Maryam, “Jaayegaahe Zanaan dar Bakhshe Eqtesaadiye Keshvar,” (Women’s Status in the Economic Sector), Hoqooqe Zanan, Mehr and Aban, 1379.

48. Eric Rouleau, “Islam Confronts Islam in Iran,” Le Monde Diplomatique, June, 1999. 49. Ibid. 50. See Haideh Moghissi, 1994. 51. Kar, Mehrangiz.

52. Mahdi, 2003, Ibid.: 67. 53. Roshangari, Internet Edition, 2003.02.11. 54. See my interview with Azam Taleqani, “The First Woman Candidate for President;

An Interview with Azam Taleghani,” Pazhvak, No. 59, October 1997; and the declaration by the parliamentarian Fatema Rakei, that female Muslim activists should not be called “feminists,” Zanan, August 2000: 71. For a more nativistic approach to feminism by Muslim women, see Motie, Nahid. “Feminizm dar Iran: dar Jostejoye yek Rahyaafte Boomi,” (Feminism in Iran: In Search of Native Solution), Zanan, No. 33, Farvardin 1376.

55. Quoted by Farzaneh Milani in “Lipstick Politics in Iran,” New York Times, August 19, 1999.

56. Mir-Hosseini, Ziba, Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000).

57. Melucci, Alberto, Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society, (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989), 75–8.

58. Although the Islamic feminists have been successful in putting pressures on religious male authorities for offering less rigid interpretation of Islamic laws, they have never been able to challenge the law itself or the right of male theologians in establishing those laws. Religious intellectuals, like secular intellectuals in pre-revolutionary period, keep emphasizing the primacy of citizenry rights over “women’s rights.” Abbas Abdi and Emadeddin Baqi express these views in an interview with Zanan, No. 58, Novemeber 1999. A recent interview by Mahtab Rahimi with a reformist, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh is also revealing, see Zanan dar Iran, Internet Magazine (www.womeniniran.com). See For a discussion of reformist views on women, see Farideh Farhi, “Religious Intellectuals, the ‘Woman Question,’ and the Struggle for the Creation of a Democratic Public Sphere in Iran,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society Vol. 15, No. 2, January 2001: 315–339.

59. For example, look at Hamidreza Jalaipour, “Ekhtelaate Maf-hoome Feminizm baa Jonbeshe Zanaan, baa eshaareh be Iran,” (The difference between feminism and women’s movement, with a reference to Iran) Nuorooz, No. 27, Khordad 1381.

60. Mahdi, Ali-Akbar, “Women’s Movement in Iran: Collective Action without Actors,” Zanan, No. 92, 1381.

61. Nahid Motie has emphacized this aspect of the movement. See Motie, Nahid, “Zanaan-e Iran: Harkate Tadriji, Solh-aamiz va Madani,” (Iranian Women: A Gradual, Peaceful, and Civil Movement), Zanan, No. 90, Mordad, 1381.

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Reflections on Ideology After the Arab Uprisings

A key conceptual problem for observers of the Arab uprisings–academics and journalists alike–continues to be how to classify and assess the ideological transformations taking place. “The people want the downfall of the regime,” the central slogan of the uprisings, has been interpreted as anything from a return to pan-Arab sentiments to a new Arab liberalism. For some, it signaled the unification of action around a single idea that resisted the atomization of Arab societies under the neoliberal-military-Western nexus of power. Many in the West now regard the revolutionary potential more skeptically, not least due to Islamist parties winning elections. The question is whether the uprisings have produced original ideas that can foment new ideological formations, or if things have merely changed in order to stay the same? In attempting to answer the question, liberal, secular, Islamist, nationalist, along with a whole swarm of other isms (like salafism, neoliberalism and imperialism) are being thrown around rather too easily, as always. Whether we like it or not, ideology is habitually invoked to explain society and politics in the Middle East. Ideologies are both analytical categories that help scholars make sense of political ideas, and social imaginaries that help Arab individuals and societies make sense of the political worlds they occupy. They are constructs, but constructs with a life of their own that we cannot afford to ignore.

Before the uprisings, two narratives about the history of modern Middle East dominated scholarship as well as popular discourse. One claimed that secular Arab ideologies have declined since the 1970s, and the other that Islamic revivalist ideologies have become the new hegemonic force. These broad observations were rarely substantiated by studies of how ideology is produced, or by considerations of how secular and religious ideologies have borrowed from each other throughout the modern period. Furthermore, few scholars of the Middle East sought to bring recent advances in cross-disciplinary ideology theory into communication with textured social, intellectual, and political history. There have been exceptions, particularly in recent years. As Michaelle Browers showed in her groundbreaking 2009 book, Political Ideology in the Arab World, an accommodation has been taking place between liberals, socialists, Islamists and nationalists since the 1980s (albeit an accommodation often based on mutual enemies rather than common political visions). Others have made an effort to move beyond and challenge the dominant focus on intellectual history and political movements. Asaf Bayat’s Life as Politics and Tarik Sabry’s Cultural Encounters in the Arab World are two recent attempts to incorporate everyday life into our thinking about how political ideas are formed, transmitted, and lived in the region. These and other books formed the basis for my own thinking as I worked on ways to reform Middle East ideology studies from a vantage point somewhere between anthropology, media studies, intellectual history, and more traditional political science.

Then the uprisings happened. We witnessed popular mobilization on a whole new level, but phrased in terms that seemed to fall between liberalism, leftism, and Islamism, but perhaps having had nothing to do with ideologies in the first place. Maybe the compulsion to plot the uprisings into existing ideological registers merely displays the poverty of our analytical categories, or a lack of imagination. At the same time, it is equally facile to simply say that ideologies have gone away because of the popular call for a new order. As Michael Freeden has put it, there is no such thing as “post-ideology,” for ideologies are not just visions of alternative worlds, but conceptualizations of the political worlds we already inhabit. In other words, ideologies do not have to be fleshed out in neat programmatic form in order to qualify as ideologies. It also seems blatantly clear that liberalism, leftism, and Islamism—in their different varieties—have not disappeared overnight. Rather, Arab politicians, intellectuals, and activists are adapting to the new political landscapes and producing reflections on the uprisings in conversation with existing ideological traditions.

What is new, compared to the period before 2011, is the sense that something radically transformative is at play in the ideological landscape of the Arab Middle East. Many in our academic community are convinced that the “old” system of labeling fails to capture the new fluidity. A number of open questions are being posed by observers and often by events themselves. To what extent are demonstrators motivated by ideologies? Are the uprisings producing new ideological directions? In which ways are they empowering existing ideologies? Do we need to first ditch the old ideological map before we can invent anew, or do we give up on ideological signifiers altogether like the “post”-theoreticians of post-secularism, post-Islamism, and post-ideology suggest? The aim here is not to give exhaustive answers to any of these questions, but simply to offer some reflections on a possible starting point for a new conceptualization of ideology in the Arab Middle East after 2011.

Towards Cultural Ideology

To be clear, my argument is not that the uprisings were driven by ideology in the sense of elaborate strategies for a political order. My suggestion is that we adopt a more flexible concept of “ideology of everyday life,” along the lines of Bayat and Sabry, and inspired by theorists like de Certeau, Zizek, and others who have followed Althusser’s assertion that ideologies should not be seen as descriptions of the world, but rather embodied and often unconscious practices constitutive of political subjectivity. Doing so makes it possible to see how the lived experience of autocratic regimes produced registers of political language and potentials for mass mobilization. The ideology of everyday life, however, is not a completely separate entity from formalized political ideologies represented by intellectuals and politicians. The key to reforming ideology studies in the Middle East, I believe, lies in a marriage between the traditions of what Michael Herzfeld has called “cultural ideology” and more traditional intellectual history and political science.

Following this cue, and despite the drastic changes in Arab political culture over the last year, I think it makes sense to retain the big families of Arab ideologies: leftism, liberalism, Islamism, and (Arab) nationalism. The challenge is to use the terminology in a careful way that allows for cross-fertilization, fluid boundaries, and historical exchanges between the “families” of ideologies, and that speaks against common misperceptions. To take the most common, Arab leftism cannot just be grouped as secular and therefore opposed to Islamic currents. Nor can we say that liberals hold a monopoly on individual freedom. As a rule of thumb, zero-sum game descriptions of Islamism versus secularism as well as liberalism versus leftism fail to account for the many individuals and groups who borrow from each other, and who converge on particular ideological core beliefs such as social justice, individual freedom, and—of course—the need for political reform. Who can forget the image of a veiled woman in Yemen holding a placard of Che Guevara? Ideology must account for such crossovers. The key challenge is to historicize the overlaps in their different national and transnational contexts so we can begin to gain a proper understanding of the histories of Arab ideologies. Historicization is the best tool against simplistic depictions of “cultural battles” between neatly defined ideological groups.

If popular usage of ideological categories obfuscates reality, ideology theory does not automatically add any more clarity. Schools of thought and social scientific disciplines vary significantly and lead to different results when they are used in the study of ideologies. In a Marxist tradition, ideology is paramount to false consciousness used and abused by powerful actors to disguise the “base”—the real social relations of exploitation. In political science, the stark ideological contests of the twentieth century have created a legacy, where ideologies are often seen much like cultures: bounded human groups characterized by a high degree of homogeneity. This is the tradition that produces zero-sum game descriptions not just of capitalism versus communism, but—more troubling for us—Islamism versus secularism and/or liberalism. Such descriptions collapse categories of power and culture into neat packages that conform to already-taken-for-granted ideas of ideological groups, peoples, nations, and similar large-scale categories. In contrast, the way most anthropologists and social historians today look at ideology is informed by insights of the constructivist and linguistic turns in the social science of the last three decades. Rather than looking for boundedness, social historians see the existence of communities as a result of particular work aiming at producing internal coherence. This work does not just take place in political forums or in lofty political theory, but everywhere in society, and even within individuals. They stress that, like culture(s), ideologies cannot be taken as pre-given but must be critically deconstructed and contextualized when we study them historically. If ideology is a framework for the social imaginary that relates to the ideal organization of politics, then we must study it as we study social imaginaries: through broad, historicizing surveys of the public sphere.

Accepting the fluidity of the ideological landscape means that we must abandon the idea that ideologies are finite and cohesive, and instead study the processes of boundary making between them and the re-reading and re-writing of history that contributes to the formulation of new ideological positions. This can be done most productively through a combination of ethnography and analysis of mass-mediated texts and images. Simply put, if we want to comprehend how ideology is formed, we must look at life-worlds, ontologies, and the public spheres in which they are shaped, examining a variety of public culture that informs public debate, as well as less public formations such as political parties, fan cultures, and media with limited circulation. The wonderful ethnography and documentation produced in the Arab uprisings is a smorgasbord for researchers of ideology.

Ideologies in Their Middle Eastern Place

Another knotty issue in ideology theory is the universal or local nature of ideologies. Many from a liberal school of thought stress that ideologies are, by definition, ideals for a future society which easily transcend cultural and geographic boundaries–and that they derive their power from that translatability. Others would argue that, although ideologies have a common mooring in the modern era, they have found local expressions and adaptations that force us to approach them as distinct ideological traditions. Islamism is an obvious case of a modern ideological family with non-European origins. The important point is that the way Islamism, but also communism and indeed secularism, is lived and experienced varies significantly with its national, regional, and religious context. Translating this insight to secularism, Jakobsen and Pellegrini,Fenella Cannell, and others have suggested that we talk about secular traditions rather than secularism, secularization, or “the secular” in India, Turkey, France, and other places with more or less homogenous histories of secularization and debates about secularism.

If we apply this approach to the Arab countries, it might be possible to identify three interconnected secular traditions in the Levant, the Gulf, and North Africa. Reflections on the need for a secular state first emerged in the late Ottoman period–either in the Young Turk movement, or in the concurrent Arab cultural movement known as the Nahda. In the early twentieth century, a number of ideological currents influenced Arab intelligentsias. Arab nationalist and Islamists both stressed the need for a common cultural community in the Middle East. And Marxist, Ba’thist, and socialist ideologies informed political life in the Arab states that came into being on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and Western colonialism. Secular ideologies were partly inspired by forms of Western modernism–tiermondism, socialist distribution policies, and state centralisation–but also by ordinary people’s experience of Western colonialism, and by existing forms of social organisation and institutions that predated the European colonial presence. They competed with Islamism and Arab nationalism for influence, and resulted in a plethora of groups and intellectual trends, of which Nasser’s Arab nationalism became the most popular and successful.

Since the high tide of Nasserism, there has, in Browers’ words, been a retreat from secularism both in Arab nationalist and socialist thinking. In the process, many key concepts of the old left such as anti-imperialism and social justice have fertilized Islamist ideologies. Because the decline of leftist parties has coincided with a religious revival in the Middle East, giving strength and support to Islamist groups, ideology in the Middle East is today mainly examined from the vantage point of the Islamic revival, or, alternatively, as a competition between secular and Islamic tendencies. What has been lost in this paradigmatic shift in Middle East studies is the extent to which leftism remains a strong identification that has inspired both Islamists and liberals. If we want to understand how ideology is produced in today’s Middle East and what role it plays for society and politics, Arab leftism must be part of the picture. It has been sorely understudied to date and the Arab uprisings are the perfect occasion for a comprehensive revaluation.

Secular/ization/ism in Middle East Studies

The emphasis on Islamism in our field has also had an effect on the way we discuss Arab secularism. Outside of Middle East studies, secularism has attracted significant attention in anthropology, social theory, and religious studies. Generally speaking, the interest in secularism –dating roughly from the late 1980s–does not come from a deep engagement in secularist traditions, but from the recognition that a new language of politics is needed to understand the role of religious self-expression in the public sphere. Long gone is the time when secularism seemed to have no ideological significance on its own other than the taken-for-granted absence of religion. This need for religion as the lens through which we view the secular is particularly pronounced in works on secularism in the Arab Middle East due to the perceived centrality of Islam in shaping debates about state, society, and subjectivity.

The theorization of secularism can be divided into three currents: state doctrine (secularism), historical process (secularization), and political/ethical ideal (the secular). Even in very careful and considered analyses, there is inevitably a degree of confusion between these three categories, stemming from the popular usage of “secularism” to cover all three. An additional problem with the three categories is that none of them fully capture perhaps the most common-sense understanding of secularism, namely as social identity, that is, secularism as a blueprint for the individual’s life and place in the world. When we hear in the media that so-and-so are “secular” demonstrators, it is often with reference to this understanding of a group of people who not only hold certain views about the prescribed minimal role of religion in public life, but also conduct themselves and appear in a way that is (to a Western eye) non-religious. This is the opposite of what the literature commenting on secularism in Arab countries like Egypt has actually been concerned with, namely, individuals who make choices outside the box of Enlightenment-based liberal secularism and, again, appear “religious.” Their agency is political, not by directly affecting elections and state, but in the way that they enact a new political language based on comportment, behavior, modesty, and piety. This is what Asaf Bayat calls the politics of everyday life, and Saba Mahmood has labeled the politics of piety.

Another important writer on Islamic piety, Charles Hirschkind, has recently turned to the question of secularism in light of the Egyptian uprising. He sees Egypt in 2011 as a “post-secular”, or “asecular” moment (borrowing from Hussein Agrama) in the sense that the demonstrators defied a secular-Islamist distinction which the Mubarak regime had carefully maintained for decades in order to undermine the possibility of a unified opposition. This moment built on an intellectual and political tradition going back to the Kifaya movement and even further back to the 1980s, when a number of thinkers and activists paved the way for inscribing Islam in nationalism and, increasingly, liberalism. Because Islamic identity had become so inscribed and taken for granted as part of the politics of everyday life, and because Islamist slogans by and large were not heard in the uprisings, secularism versus Islamism simply was not an issue, Hirschkind argues. It has, of course, very much become an issue again in the aftermath as established political forces have moved into the political territory cleared by the uprisings. Like in Egypt, there is in Tunisia today a looming fear of a secular-Islamist “battle of cultures,” even though it was not an important factor in the popular push to overthrow the Ben Ali regime. Decades of secularist state rhetoric does not go away overnight. Nor should we be blind to the fact that Islamist actors, some of them distinctly illiberal, see this as their moment to bring their claims to the fore.

Beyond the Islamist-Secular Paradigm

Salafists clamouring for public morality should not blind us to the crucial problem concerning ideology studies of the Middle East, namely that scholars have tended to separate Islamist and secular positions too neatly. In the crudest rendition of this ostensible zero-sum game, a dejected Arab East has today turned its back on its own modern advances during the age of colonialism and post-colonial developmentalism and returned to a pre-modern culturalist mode of Islamic politics (Bernard Lewis). A more nuanced but also flawed strain of analysis places Middle Eastern contentions over Islam in the context of a global struggle where “secularism confronts Islam” in today’s world (Olivier Roy).

Both approaches assume cohesion within each of secularism and Islamism, respectively, that becomes untenable upon closer inspection. Furthermore, the very idea that secularism is a separate ideology often obfuscates, more than it clarifies, social reality. As the 2011 uprisings made visible, an Islamic leaning does not preclude leftist positions and ambitions for democratic change, social justice, and even for secularization. In other words, the degree of individual religiosity does not predetermine political positions. There are many shades of Islamism, and while some display anti-secular stances, others take inspiration from and work with secular leftist groups. The same can be said about many leftist political movements that have abandoned previous laic stances and instead appropriate Islamic rhetoric about cultural authenticity and nationalism. In Lebanon, a note on AUB’s wall that I spotted in 2009 reads: “I am against sectarianism, but I am not secular.” It points to heated debates in Lebanon over how to reform the sectarian system–a reform process promoted both from a pious (e.g., Hizbollah) and proto-secularist (e.g., the Laique Pride movement) viewpoint.

The interventions of Mahmood, Hirschkind, Deeb and others have been crucial for our understanding of Islamism but also of the place and meaning of secularism vis-à-vis Islamism. In reaction to what many see as a secularist bias in ideology studies, their works challenge the common perception that the link between modernity and secularism is somehow obvious. Instead they have declared the pious subject as a neglected and potentially more authentic Middle Eastern modernity. These works have contributed to inscribing Islamism where it belongs: in the realm of modern phenomena. However, their insistence on a reified pious subject is as problematic as the secular bias in understandings of modernity that they challenge. Like others such asGregory Starrett who have recently criticized the “piety” literature, I believe that the usefulness of “the secular” as an analytical antidote to the Islamic revival is suspect, simply because the things we might identify as religious and secular are often entwined, and are essentially aspects of the same experience of modernity. Moreover, in Islamic circles the supposed de-secularization in Arab societies, the withering away of “belief” in secularism, paradoxically tends to dovetail with secularization in the sense of transfer of moral and cultural authority away from religious institutions. Similar trends can be observed in mass media, where the rise of an Islamic web-based umma has undermined traditional ‘ulama.

In these and other ways, the Islamic revival and its grassroots activism is producing a pious modern, but at the same time it is also engendering other social processes, which could be said to be secularizing. Indeed, the extraordinary recent expansion of mass media in the Middle East is a reason for some of the disquiet that may partly account for the new pious subject. Conversely, people who define themselves as secular are concerned about the influence of Islamist media in specific local social domains where they have traditionally held power, like the Arab media industries and the art scene. Their historical experience of having been in charge of the mighty ship of modernization is producing a secular élan–what Esra Özyürek calls a “nostalgia for the modern,” emotionally charged with longing for a period before the Arab left lost its influence. Nostalgia feeds on romantic notions of an earlier, revolutionary phase of leftism that has now been superseded by Islamism, authoritarian regimes, and neoliberal economies. If Arab leftism has been reinvigorated in the uprisings, which I believe it has, it is because leftists sense a possibility of overcoming nostalgia and finally delivering on the promises of ideological and organisational reform.

Islamist groups are tied to the modern history of the left primarily in the way they build on the rhetorical foundations of populism laid by secular Arabism, but with an added element of religiously based cultural identity and symbolism. The Iranian revolution in 1979 marked an important turning point in that respect by providing common ideals of anti-Imperialism and popular revolution. As a result, many of the secular left’s ideological focal points have merged with those of the Islamists, producing, among other things, an “Islamic left” in countries like Egypt and Lebanon, “conversions” of prominent leftists such as Palestinian writer Munir Shafiq to the Islamic cause in the 1980s, a shared human rights agenda since the 1990s, and a comprehensive attempt by leftist intellectuals to analyze what Islamism means for their societies. Similar views on the United States, Israel, and authoritarian Arab regimes have given occasion for common ground between Islamists and secular leftists. Moreover, overlaps between religious and secular ideologies and the social institutions producing them can be traced back to the early twentieth century, which points to a deeper correlation between secular and religious ideologies than what is assumed by classic secularisation theory. If historians pay attention to these deeper correlations, we will have a better chance to understand the transformations and conversations taking place in the ideological landscape after 2011.

‘We live in fear of a massacre.’

Editor’s Note: Marie Colvin was a reporter with the Sunday Times and died of wounds sustained from an IED less than 48 hours after authoring this article. She had defied the Syrian government’s prohibition against international journalists coving the protests in Homs, Syria – and ultimately that protest would cost her life. The following is her final transmission. 

by: Marie Colvin and Paul Conroy 

They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.

“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.

“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”

For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.

Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

The city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.

A baby born in the basement last week looked as shellshocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-storey house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatised that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.

Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.

The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concrete-block homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random

Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.

Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.

It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.

Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.

The Syrians have dug a huge trench around most of the district, and let virtually nobody in or out. The army is pursuing a brutal campaign to quell the resistance of Homs, Hama and other cities that have risen up against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose family has been in power for 42 years.

In Baba Amr, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed face of opposition to Assad, has virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders. It is an unequal battle: the tanks and heavy weaponry of Assad’s troops against the Kalashnikovs of the FSA.

About 5,000 Syrian soldiers are believed to be on the outskirts of Baba Amr, and the FSA received reports yesterday that they were preparing a ground assault. The residents dread the outcome.

“We live in fear the FSA will leave the city,” said Hamida, 43, hiding with her children and her sister’s family in an empty ground-floor apartment after their house was bombed. “There will be a massacre.”

On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”

Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said last week: “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.

Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. “Please tell the world they must help us,” he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. “Just stop the bombing. Please, just stop the shelling.”

The journey across the countryside from the Lebanese border to Homs would be idyllic in better times. The villages are nondescript clusters of concrete buildings on dirt tracks but the lanes are lined with cypresses and poplar trees and wind through orchards of apricot and apple trees.

These days, however, there is an edge of fear on any journey through this area. Most of this land is essentially what its residents call “Syria hurra”, or free Syria, patrolled by the FSA.

Nevertheless, Assad’s army has checkpoints on the main roads and troops stationed in schools, hospitals and factories. They are heavily armed and backed by tanks and artillery.

So a drive to Homs is a bone-rattling struggle down dirt roads, criss-crossing fields. Men cluster by fires at unofficial FSA checkpoints, eyeing any vehicle suspiciously. As night falls, flashlights waved by unseen figures signal that the way ahead is clear.

Each travelling FSA car has a local shepherd or farmer aboard to help navigate the countryside; the Syrian army may have the power, but the locals know every track of their fields.

I entered Homs on a smugglers’ route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city’s plight to the world. So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.

When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable. As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover.

The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.

Khaled Abu Salah, an activist who took part in the first demonstrations against Assad in Homs last March, sat on the floor of an office, his hand broken and bandages covering shrapnel wounds to his leg and shoulder.

A 25-year-old university student, who risked his life filming videos of the slaughter of Baba Amr residents, he narrowly escaped when he tried to get two men wounded by mortar fire to a makeshift clinic.

He and three friends had just taken the wounded to the clinic, which was staffed by a doctor and a dentist, and stepped away from the door when “a shell landed right at the entrance”, he recalled last week.

“My three friends died immediately.” The two men they had helped were also killed.

Abu Ammar, 48, a taxi driver, went out to look for bread at 8am one day last week. He, his wife and their adopted daughter had taken refuge with two elderly sisters after their home was hit by shells.

“When I returned the house was obliterated,” he said, looking at all that remained of the one-storey building. Only a few pieces of wall still stood. In the ruins a woman’s red blouse was visible; bottles of home-made pickled vegetables were somehow unscathed. “Dr Ali”, a dentist working as a doctor, said one of the women from the house had arrived at the clinic alive, but both legs had been amputated and she died.

The clinic is merely a first-floor apartment donated by the kindly owner. It still has out-of-place domestic touches: plasma pouches hang from a wooden coat hanger and above the patients a colourful children’s mobile hangs from the ceiling.

The shelling last Friday was the most intense yet and the wounded were rushed to the clinic in the backs of cars by family members.

Ali the dentist was cutting the clothes off 24-year-old Ahmed al-Irini on one of the clinic’s two operating tables. Shrapnel had gashed huge bloody chunks out of Irini’s thighs. Blood poured out as Ali used tweezers to draw a piece of metal from beneath his left eye.

Irini’s legs spasmed and he died on the table. His brother-in-law, who had brought him in, began weeping. “We were playing cards when a missile hit our house,” he said through his tears. Irini was taken out to the makeshift mortuary in a former back bedroom, naked but for a black plastic bag covering his genitals.

There was no let-up. Khaled Abu Kamali died before the doctor could get his clothes off. He had been hit by shrapnel in the chest while at home.

Salah, 26, was peppered with shrapnel in his chest and the left of his back. There was no anaesthetic, but he talked as Ali inserted a metal pipe into his back to release the pressure of the blood building up in his chest.

Helping tend the wounded was Um Ammar, a 45-year-old mother of seven, who had offered to be a nurse after a neighbour’s house was shelled. She wore filthy plastic gloves and was crying. “I’m obliged to endure this, because all children brought here are my children,” she said. “But it is so hard.”

Akhmed Mohammed, a military doctor who defected from Assad’s army, shouted: “Where are the human rights? Do we have none? Where are the United Nations?”

There were only two beds in the clinic for convalescing. One was taken by Akhmed Khaled, who had been injured, he said, when a shell hit a mosque as he was about to leave prayers. His right testicle had had to be removed with only paracetamol to dull the pain.

He denounced the Assad regime’s claim that the rebels were Islamic extremists and said: “We ask all people who believe in God — Christians, Jews, Muslims to help us!”

If the injured try to flee Baba Amr, they first have to be carried on foot. Then they are transferred to motorbikes and the lucky ones are smuggled to safety. The worst injured do not make it.

Though Syrian officials prohibit anyone from leaving, some escapees manage to bribe their way out. I met refugees in villages around Homs. Newlywed Miriam, 32, said she and her husband had decided to leave when they heard that three families had been killed and the women raped by the Shabiha militia, a brutal force led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher.

“We were practically walking on body parts as we walked under shelling overhead,” she said. Somehow they made it unscathed. She had given an official her wedding ring in order to be smuggled out to safety.

Abdul Majid, a computer science student at university, was still shaking hours after arriving in a village outside Homs. He had stayed behind alone in Baba Amr. “I had to help the old people because only the young can get out,” said Majid, 20, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He left when his entire street fled after every house was hit.

“I went to an army checkpoint that I was told was not too bad. I gave them a packet of cigarettes, two bags of tea and 500 Syrian pounds. They told me to run.”

Blasts of Kalashnikov fire rang out above his head until he reached the tree line. He said the soldiers were only pretending to try to shoot him to protect themselves, but his haunted eyes showed he was not entirely sure.

If the Syrian military rolls into Baba Amr, the FSA will have little chance against its tanks, superior weaponry and numbers. They will, however, fight ferociously to defend their families because they know a massacre is likely to follow any failure, if the past actions of the Assad regime are anything to go by.

The FSA partly relies on defections from Assad’s army because it does not accept civilians into its ranks, though they perform roles such as monitoring troop movements and transporting supplies. But it has become harder for soldiers to defect in the past month.

Abu Sayeed, 46, a major- general who defected six months ago, said every Syrian military unit was now assigned a member of the Mukhabarat, the feared intelligence service, who have orders to execute any soldier refusing an order to shoot or who tries to defect.

The army, like the country, may well be about to divide along sectarian lines. Most of the officers are members of the Alawite sect, the minority Shi’ite clan to which the Assad family belongs, while foot soldiers are Sunni.

The coming test for the army will be if its ranks hold if ordered to kill increasing numbers of their brethren.

The swathe of the country that stretches east from the Lebanon border and includes Homs is Sunni; in the villages there they say that officers ordering attacks are Alawites fighting for the Assad family, not their country.

The morale of Assad’s army, despite its superiority, is said to be low as it is poorly paid and supplied, although this information comes mostly from defectors. “The first thing we did when we attacked the house was race to the refrigerator,” said a defector.

Thousands of soldiers would be needed to retake the southern countryside. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and former president, crushed his problems with Islamic fundamentalists in 1982 by shelling the city of Hama into ruins and killing at least 10,000 men, women and children. So far his son appears to have calculated that a similar act would be a step too far for his remaining allies of Russia, China and Iran.

For now it is a violent and deadly standoff. The FSA is not about to win and its supplies of ammunition are dwindling.

The only real hope of success for Assad’s opponents is if the international community comes to their aid, as Nato did against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. So far this seems unlikely to happen in Syria.

Observers see a negotiated solution as perhaps a long shot, but the best way out of this impasse. Though neither side appears ready to negotiate, there are serious efforts behind the scenes to persuade Russia to pull Assad into talks.

As international diplomats dither, the desperation in Baba Amr grows. The despair was expressed by Hamida, 30, hiding in a downstairs flat with her sister and their 13 children after two missiles hit their home. Three little girls, aged 16 months to six years, sleep on one thin, torn mattress on the floor; three others share a second. Ahmed, 16, her sister’s eldest child, was killed by a missile when he went to try to find bread.

“The kids are screaming all the time,” Hamida said. “I feel so helpless.” She began weeping. “We feel so abandoned. They’ve given Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill us.”

Asma, the British-born wife of President Bashar al-Assad, may well be feeling a sense of divided loyalty as the violence continues in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family are from the area, which has been a focal point for many of the recent protests against her husband’s regime and the Syrian army’s brutal response.

Despite growing up in Acton, west London, Asma visited her family’s home in Homs every year throughout her childhood. She is also a Sunni Muslim, unlike her husband, who comes from the country’s minority Shi’ite community.

Asma, 36, has been criticised for displaying an “ostrich attitude”, keeping a low profile as the conflict has intensified. She has refused to comment on the way her husband’s regime has used tanks and other lethal means to crush protesters. In an email sent earlier this month, her office merely said: “The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with as well as rural development and supporting the President as needed.”

The daughter of a consultant cardiologist and a retired diplomat, Asma was born in London. She attended a Church of England state school in Acton and gained a BSc in computer science and a diploma in French literature from King’s College London.

She went on to work for Deutsche Bank and married Assad in Syria in 2000. Now a mother of three, she was once described by Vogue as a “rose in the desert”.

In Homs, the beleaguered people may now take a different view.

2011, A Memory From Lebanon

by: Maya Mikdashi

When the revolutions began in March of 2011, I was envious. It is not easy to admit this. Back then, before the revolutions turned bloody, before Libya and Bahrain and Syria and before the continuation of a military state in Egypt, the possibilities seemed contagious. But even then, while in the fever of January, beneath a desire for revolution, I understood that I would not see a similarly broad based and successful uprising in Lebanon. Watching the swell of people in Tahrir Square on television, I was envious of the memories they would have of that moment. Where were you the night Mubarak was finally overthrown? What were you doing when Ben Ali finally boarded that plane? These “lightbulb memories,” translated into Lebanese, usually refer to political assassinations, invasions, and outbreaks of civil violence. Watching a million people celebrate in Cairo, I understood that we in Lebanon can never emulate the Tunisians or the Egyptians for two interlinked reasons: (1) the Lebanese state is not authoritarian or brutal; and (2) instead of coalescing against a common enemy, Lebanese of different factions are pitted against each other and fear each other more than they fear any one ruler or regime. Each of these factions has a different narrative of the past, and thus they have different desires and possibilities of a future. These different pasts, each inviting a different desire for the future, are old. But they are potent.

When the war began in 2006, I was swimming laps at a beach in North Lebanon. My phone was beeping incessantly as I exited the pool and walked towards my towel and towards my friend. The first text message I received read: “Israelis in Lebanon!” Minutes later, we were watching Israeli tanks rumble through South Lebanon on television, churning the ground as they moved centipede-like into the country. Lebanon was being invaded. A war had begun. We were not surprised, but for a few minutes, watching Israeli soldiers cross a border they had last fled in 2000, I felt I was sleepwalking, dreaming another Israel-Lebanon war. I called my father and asked him if we should return to Beirut or wait for a few hours in a beach club that suddenly felt like a compound to me. He said a sentence that I remember from my earliest memories: “This is nothing. There is nothing to be scared of. You will see.” My siblings and I describe my father as cold blooded and for us, it is a compliment. During the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War it seemed as if ice water ran through his veins as he shrugged off nearby violence to his three young children and their American mother. Two weeks into the 2006 war, our roles would be reversed. Hearing rumors that a bridge near my childhood West Beirut home would be bombed, I packed a bag for my parents and herded them into their car, promising to follow them soon to our rented summer house in a mountain overlooking the city. I think they knew I was lying, but they allowed themselves to believe that I would follow them. They left me on the road, waving at the windows of their passing car. I felt like an adult that day.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Memory is not linear. Instead, it folds against, moving through time and space gracefully, revealing the past, present and future to be the feedback loop that is. Less gracefully, memory also stumbles across the five senses. A vision of a memory is closer than its taste, smell, feel or sound, yet it takes all of these senses to be there, or here. Memory shares the impossibility of repetition, this sense of incompleteness, with the medium of film. I remember, three weeks into the war, walking through the ruins of Beirut’s Southern Suburbs (Dahieh) with a camera connected to a microphone connected to a friend. I can see myself now, standing with a camera, but perhaps, now as I write, I am actually remembering myself on camera, on a screen somewhere in New York City before an audience assembled for a “panel” on war. As we walked, then, through roads lined with the insides of fallen buildings, it was the smell that most effected us and those few that were around us. During one scene, I was standing on a pile of concrete entrails filming an interview with a man standing on the street. He waved my friend towards where I was standing and spoke of his neighbor who was (probably) rotting silently below my dusty puma sneakers. The smell, flesh and garbage and death and sewage and burning-the inescapable scent of the human and the nonhuman mixed together in their decomposition- was everywhere in Dahieh. When I think of the war, I think of that smell and can see myself fighting the urge to wretch in front of people looking for loved ones within the ruins of a life world. But I cannot smell that stink of war, here as I sit on my desk in Beirut and write these words five years later. Words can only point to what cannot be said, seen, heard, smelled, or touched. And so we write and we remember and we speak, knowing that we can never convey this presence of absence that is the past. Memory and film are both desires for recapture, and through them we try without hope to defeat the impossibility of being there ever again.

The Lebanese civil war ended when I was eleven years old. Back then, downtown Beirut was still a frightening place filled with rabid dogs who had, it was rumored, perhaps liked the taste of human flesh. The buildings and shops of Hamra street were still pockmarked with bullet holes, the city still stunk of garbage, the streets were still veined with cracks, and billboards did not stare down at you from every vantage point. West Beirut was much less crowded than it is today, and I remember being surprised by all these people who were suddenly coming back, many of them now fleeing to Lebanon from the war in a different country, Kuwait. I remember feeling disoriented as the landmarks of my childhood were replaced with shiny new restaurants, cafes, and advertisements. As Downtown Beirut was remodeled into a living postcard, it was difficult to talk about the structural violences that pervaded the post-war “reconstruction” of Lebanon. It was difficult to resist the seduction to not remember, just as it was difficult to resist the desire to fill a nation-wide scar with promises of a shiny new future that would come to us if we would just blame “outsiders” for the war and above all, remember to buy things, things, and more things. But writing this essay, I remember the first time I travelled with my friends (and without my parents) across what used to be the “Green Line” separating the warring “East” and “West” Beiruts in order to go to the cinema. I now live in an apartment on that Green Line, but now, instead of being shorthand for “Christian-Muslim” tension, my section of the green line is riven with Sunni-Shiite tension. I am skipping ahead of myself again. In 1991, it was the first time I had been to a cinema in Lebanon. As the car, filled with twelve-year-old girls and owned by an expatriate family that had returned after the war, entered Jounieh, I remember being silenced by how clean everything was. I was shorter then, with long blonde hair, and I can see myself now feeling like a stranger then, unrelated to the shops and the roads and the people around me. I was angry, seeing these shiny shops and restaurants and clean streets pass by my window. Even then, I knew what the price of Jounieh’s relatively peaceful existence had been for the past fifteen years. I was a foreigner there, and it was not until much later that the strength of this feeling abated and I knew that in 1991 “West Beirut” produced just as much of a child’s anxiety for others as “East Beirut” did for me. But as a child, I felt that the country was an interlocking and shifting terrain of places where I was safe and where I was not safe. These places mapped easily into where I felt I belonged and where I did not. In 1991, I did not belong in Jounieh.

Twenty years later, as the uprisings succeeded in Egypt and Tunisia, a group of Lebanese citizens came together under the slogan “For the Fall of the Sectarian Regime in Lebanon: Towards a Secular Regime.” Soon their enthusiasm ebbed and flowed over their Facebook page and onto the streets of Beirut. Thousands of people walked through the city demanding an overhaul of political sectarianism in Lebanon. Inspired by the broad based uprisings that were happening across the Arab world, Lebanese of all ages, genders, classes and regions came together to try to at least force a debate on the Lebanese political system. However, this movement had a fatal flaw; in order to preserve a broad coalition the group decided to ban any discussion of either the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) or the question of Hezbollah’s arms. With this decision, a group that was dedicated to highlighting and changing the political and economic injustices endemic to the system of political sectarianism censored debate on the two most salient political issues in Lebanon today. Any discussion of the STL or Hezbollah, it was said, might splinter the group into the polarized (and overtly sectarian) camps of March 14, headed by the Mustaqbal Party, and March 8, headed by Hezbollah. In addition to this crippling self censorship (and finally, the coalition did implode when established political parties infiltrated it and there was no common political mandate to meet this infiltration with), many of these activists ignored what is perhaps the biggest lesson of Lebanese history: the individual does not alone determine her identity. We cannot ignore the roles played by other people, institutions, and histories in the formation of who we are. We can not “choose” to unbecome these classes, genders, and sectarian identities that have been forged through law, life, and the liminal space between killer and victim that saturates the war scape of Lebanese history. At least, we cannot expect to succeed at this unbecoming, particularly if we keep trying to forget and suppress all that tears us apart in order to imagine a horizon that appears at the edges of a mirage where the only causal factor in life are one’s autonomous “choices.” We cannot change the political system in Lebanon if we refuse to explore and understand how the breakdown of that system is fought, lived, and remembered differently by Lebanese citizens.

When the 2006 war began, I was with someone who had helped me put the pieces of this country together. We had grown up on opposing sides of the “Green Line” in the 1980s (back when that line denoted a Christian-Muslim divide) and met in the United States when I was eighteen and she was nineteen. I would often visit her family in Lebanon and there, I came to feel at home. We traded stories and were for years each others’ memory keepers. Stories of being children in a war, of the joys and eventual complications of having missed so much of our grade school education (bad spelling for me, less than perfect grammar for her), and stories of what life was like back then “for me” and “for you” “on this side” and “over there.” We sutured our memories together, and I felt the country whole for the first time. Her words and wounds enfleshed people, places, hopes, and fears that I had never truly, and honestly, wanted to feel. Driving to my family home in Beirut after having watched Israeli tanks on a black and white television in a beach chalet, we thought about other friends who had grown up in South Lebanon or in Beirut as refugees of southern Lebanon. We talked about how different memories of the wars had formed their childhood, and how children living in South Lebanon then would have a wholly different vision of the past, and thus the future, than their counterparts in other areas of the country. I thought of her nephews, who lived in the north and who were surely watching this invasion from the comforts of their living room. I realized that I was happy that the war was not likely to reach where they lived. I did not want them anywhere near war, and I was thankful that they were not from the south. Again, it is not easy to admit this because even then, one hour after watching Israeli tanks on television, I felt stronger knowing the war would not come to them in “their area.” The war would be elsewhere.

In Beirut that night, when it was certain that the aerial bombardment of southern Beirut would come, I was anxious. I did not want to leave this balcony that had been destroyed in 1987, until I heard the first bomb and felt its vibrations rubbing against the windows that had been replaced in 1989. I stood by the railing, craning my neck past other buildings and southwards, until the first announcement of fire. I then walked down the hallway and stared at my mother sleeping until she woke up, and together we watched the rest of the bombardment on television. Throughout 2006, this pattern would be repeated. No matter what I was doing during the day, working in displaced centers or filming, at night I would watch the war taking place one kilometer away on television. When there was electricity, of course. After the lights went out we would sit, my friends and my siblings and I, weaving fragments of information gathered from different sources into a Frankenstein of possibilities. We would talk about how different this war was from those past, guess the type of war machinery that was the author of the latest sound, and we would talk about who had left, to a different country or to a different part of this country that was still offering all of the promises of a summer in Lebanon. Our cellular phones would beep with the arrival of text messages, their information shaking our phones with urgency. When I was younger my father used to carry with him a red transistor radio. It was always in his pocket with its antennae peeking out, and he would press it to his ear to hear reports of what was happening around us as we slept in hallways and make shift bomb shelters/parking garages. And this is also how memory works, not only through incompleteness but also through time travel. Thinking of what happened five years ago will take you back twenty years. Sometimes it will you bring you forward, to two years ago or to the “mini” civil war of 2008. Sometimes a memory will even lead you to guess the future. One memory leads to another, and in Lebanon, one memory of war leads you to yet another memory of war. This impossibility of disentangling the history of the Lebanese nation state from a history of violence is precisely what inspires many activists to try to change the system of political sectarianism. However, it is important to remember that wars are fought for many reasons, by different actors, and for a plurality of incommensurate interests and ideologies. Sectarianism is not always the engine of violence in Lebanon, but it is (along socio-economic class and gender) one of the conduits through which violence is articulated, understood, planned, and executed in Lebanon.

One night in 2006, I was sitting on my favorite chair on my balcony. I was watching, and listening, to the Israeli war machine. I was not afraid. I knew that I-living in a middle class West Beirut neighborhood, was not their target. Once again, I was reminded of the lack of control one has over both their identity and their safety. I knew that despite the fact that I was an agnostic supporter of Hezbollah in 2006, I was being “read” by the Israeli war machine, the international community, and even the Lebanese government as a “Sunni Beiruti.” Moreover, I knew that this metaphysically violent misrecognition was in fact keeping me safe from the direct violence of yet another war. I had never felt so implicated in the violence wrought upon others. And yet, despite the intent to fragment and target particular sections of Lebanese citizens, there was a countermovement led by what a political scientist would call “civil society.” People from all classes, regions, and socio-economic communities raised money, bought supplies, distributed food, blankets, diapers, baby formula and sanitary napkins. They worked through days and nights trying to provide for the quotidian needs for the quarter of the Lebanese population that had fled their homes and lived in crowded apartments, schools, community centers, and public gardens both in and outside of Beirut. But this solidarity was fleeting. Soon political arguments took root, different groups refused to work together, international aid groups came in with resources that we could only dream of, and finally, the state was shamed into acting. People fought about the war, its causes and its consequences. People worried about the strain these displaced people would have on them financially, morally, and spatially. Memories of past refugees fleeing the destruction of South Lebanon to Beirut and building lives there made people anxious in 2006. Would they go home? Would they leave “our city”? Was this another form of invasion, a poor horde that would change the city’s demography and blemish its image as an open, fun, and well dressed playground for the rich? Finally, when a cease fire was declared, in Beirut the war ended. But in South Lebanon, the war continues until today, with Israeli mines still killing and maiming people and separating people from their homes and their lands. In 1990, when the civil war ended, I remember being happy. It was later that I realized that as my life moved into what others told me was “normalcy” the war continued in South Lebanon until 2000. Peace had not come to the whole of Lebanon until the Israeli army withdrew from the occupation zone. And today, the 2006 war continues, as long as Israeli weapons of destruction lie in wait under the ground, concrete and grass. Sometimes they achieve their purpose and destroy. Most of the time they lie there, smirking in the sun as the world says that the war is over.

When you have been through several wars, it is no longer cause for much excitement. Only later is there time to be still, to be afraid, and to question the way that one’s autobiography is interlaced with a history of violence. You can find evidence of the interstitial nature of autobiography and violence in the unthought mechanics of a reflex. One night in Beirut, I was in a deep sleep when an Israeli plane dropped a four-ton bomb less than a kilometer away. My friend was awake, reading next to me in bed. I shot up, pushed her to the ground and shouted non-sensically, “go go go.” I pulled her down the hallways and into the apartment’s foyer, the scene of many nights spent as a child because my parents believed (or perhaps they wanted us to believe) that the lack of windows there made it safer than a bedroom or living room. After she was in that windowless room, I went back to my brother’s bedroom and with one hand lifted his queen sized mattress (I am not, by any account, a large woman) over my shoulder, dragged it to the foyer, lied down on it, and fell fast asleep. The next day I asked my war partner why my shoulder was sore, and she gave my sleepwalk a memory, a consciousness.

During a war, it seems impossible that life will ever go back to being normal, but there is also the bitter knowledge that it will and that it must. That life will go on, and all of this will one day be a memory that will always be failing to capture what happened, and how it felt, to be there, to be here. It seems impossible that you will again chat lazily with your neighborhood baker on a sunday morning, to feel a freedom of movement around the country, or to go out for food and laughter with friends and not feel the nagging of guilt. But somehow, beneath this subcutaneous layer of thought, you know that when wars end, routine returns to the living-that this will be the past one day. You also know that you are not alone in this, that in fact you live in a country full of people whose biography is also a history of war, of being sometimes victims and sometimes perpetrators, and of being afraid of both foreign states and Lebanese militiamen of all political persuasions. These stubborn pasts pose challenges to people working towards a common future. If the the project is to fashion a common future, then what do we do with the weight of all these different pasts, different historical injuries, and different memories? Do we shrug them off and hope than the next generation will somehow be immune to them? Do we dwell on the past and pick at our scabs until they bleed catharsis? These are questions that have not been publicly debated yet, and yet these are the debates that determine the field of possibility for an alternative Lebanon. And so from here, writing from my room in Beirut, the “Arab Spring” does not marshall images of revolution. Instead, in my room in Beirut, I wait, listen, and feel lethargic. It has been five years since I wrote some of these thoughts in a black notebook that I put in a drawer when the 2006 war officially ended. It has been a year of hope, of possibility, and of disappointment throughout the Arab world. But sitting at my desk in 2011 and trying to remember war and trying to separate one war from all the others that came before and after it, I think of the way you cannot smell death on film or in memory. I think of how these words can only gesture at what I cannot say. I think of how my memories, the archive of my life, are implicated in the violence wrought against others. I think of how the memories and archives of friends and lovers are implicated in violence wrought against me. I think of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, I listen to the news spilling over from Syria, and my body, that once felt envious, now feels heavy. Too tired to experience jealousy.

My Lonely and Beautiful Country: Recent Work on the Cinema of Turkey I

by: Anthony Alessandrini

Upon being awarded the Best Director honor at Cannes in 2008 for his film Üç Maymun [Three Monkeys]—becoming the first Turkish director to receive this award—Nuri Bilge Ceylan declared that he wanted to dedicate the award “To my lonely and beautiful country, which I love passionately.” Ceylan’s words are very much in keeping with the melancholy quality of his films themselves: one thinks of the protagonist of his previous film, İklimler [Climates], played by Ceylan himself, a solitary figure wandering through the almost unimaginable mountainous beauty of Ağrı, in the snowy eastern province of Turkey, or the two heroes of his 2002 film Uzak [Distant], who take turns staring out across the Bosphorus, shot by Ceylan to maximize its almost painful loveliness. (I have not yet had the chance to see Ceylan’s latest film, Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da[Once Upon a Time in Anatolia], reviewed here, which was recently honored at Cannes, but it is clearly a continuation of his melancholic project.) But what exactly is this “loneliness” of Turkey that Ceylan wished to share with that audience in Cannes?


[Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s İklimler (Climates)]

A full answer to this question would have to consider the particular nature of Turkish national identity, located in the most literal sense between East and West, bridging Asia and Europe. In the much more narrow terms of literary and cultural studies, the particularity of Turkey, and of Turkish literature, film, and culture, has sometimes caused it to be marginalized, in part because it does not fit any of the existing paradigms: not part of the traditional sense of “European” culture, but also not able to fit into a new category such as postcolonial culture. If it was to be found anywhere, it would be within the category of Middle Eastern culture, but even here, the fit has hardly been a comfortable one.

In terms of the cinema of Turkey (I follow Asuman Suner in using the designation “the cinema of Turkey” rather than “Turkish cinema,” since the former phrase “places the emphasis not so much on ‘Turkishness’ as ethnic identity, but on Turkey as a geopolitical entity and a locus of divergent ethnic, religious, and cultural identities”), this problematic takes on a very particular form. Until the past decade, there were almost no Turkish auteurs receiving international attention. Occasionally, an individual film would receive international acclaim—Metin Erksan’s Susuz Yaz [Dry Summer] won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1964, and Yılmaz Güney’s masterpiece Yol [The Way] shared the Palme d’Or 1982—but by and large, in spite of a large body of strong work (particularly work influenced by the social realist and neo-realist traditions), the cinema of Turkey has generally not figured on the map of international cinema, neither acknowledged as part of the European artistic tradition nor recognized in the way that the various national cinemas that have contributed to the “Third Cinema” tradition have. At the same time, while it has boasted a large and influential popular film industry since the 1950s, Turkey’s Yeşilçam (the industry’s nickname, which comes from a street in the Beyoğlu section of Istanbul that was the heart of the film industry) has also not received much international attention, in part because, despite its size, it never achieved the sort of regional influence that the industries of India or Egypt achieved through the dissemination of films outside their national borders. For all these reasons, cinema studies, particularly cinema studies in English, has by and large produced very little work dealing with the cinema of Turkey.

This attitude may be beginning to change. The work of contemporary filmmakers such as Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, Yeşim Ustaoğlu, and Semih Kaplanoğlu, not to mention the growing reputation of the Turkish German director Fatih Akın, has caught the attention of cineastes. Meanwhile, the popular film industry in Turkey, which had suffered a period of decline in the 1980s and 1990s, has grown much stronger in recent years, and the growing Turkish communities in Europe and the United States has meant that Turkish popular films have begun to find a wider audience outside Turkey. This moment might allow us, not just to consider the current cinema of Turkey, but also to take the opportunity to revisit the full history of a national cinema that has not as yet received the international attention that it deserves. The three books under consideration in this two-part review essay—Gönül Dönmez-Colin’s Turkish Cinema: Identity, Distance, and Belonging (considered here), Asuman Suner’s New Turkish Cinema: Belonging, Identity, and Memory, and the edited collectionCinema and Politics: Turkish Cinema and the New Europe (both of which will be considered in part two of this review)—taken together, do an admirable job of laying the cornerstone for a new generation of work in English on the cinema of Turkey.

In her introduction to Turkish Cinema: Identity, Distance, and Belonging, Gönül Dönmez-Colin notes that “Scholarship on Turkish cinema is rather new and the sources available in languages other than Turkish are limited”; she cites this general lack of scholarship as her “motivation in venturing into a study of a film industry that offers challenges in its diversity, originality, and uniqueness.” Dönmez-Colin comes to this challenge having written two previous books on film from the Middle East and Central Asia and having edited the collection The Cinemas of North Africa and the Middle East. In Turkish Cinema, she displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the cinema of Turkey from its inception in the early years of the twentieth century to its twenty-first century developments. While it is not without its weaknesses, Turkish Cinema is precisely the sort of book that could help to anchor the developing field of Turkish cinema studies in English.

Dönmez-Colin frames the book around the themes of identity, distance, and belonging (although, I would argue, one of the book’s strengths is that it does not force its analysis of the films she discusses into any sort of tight coherence around these three themes), and she returns repeatedly to a sense of the dissonance to be found in Turkish identity itself. She opens with an example from a classic and hugely popular film from 1970, Atıf Yılmaz’s Kara Gözlüm [My Dark-Eyed One], starring Türkan Şoray, “the sultana of Turkish cinema” (to use Dönmez-Colin’s phrase). The film follows a familiar “star is born” narrative, with Şoray playing the daughter of a fisherman who becomes a famous singer. To prepare her for her new life, she is—in a scenario repeated again and again in Turkish popular culture—assigned to learn from a teacher of etiquette, setting up the inevitable conflict between her old “à la turca” lifestyle and the new “à la franca” culture represented by “Madame” in her cultural lessons.


[Kara Gözlüm (My Dark-Eyed One)]

Dönmez-Colin finds in this oft-repeated scenario a representation of the “polarity of identities” that continues to affect Turkish cultural identity to this day, the polarity between East and West and, more recently, between religious and secular identities. Implicit here as well is the literal, geographical split in the city of Istanbul itself, between the “European” side and the “Anatolian” side (represented nicely, in Dönmez-Colin’s book, by a still from Ceylan’s film Uzak, in which, as Dönmez-Colin’s caption puts it, “the disillusioned artist/intellectual has a moment of reflection on a bench facing the Anatolian coast and perhaps begins to see the point of view of the provincial, his suppressed ‘other’”). Indeed, one of the striking points about the cinema of Turkey is that it often reflects some of the themes and styles found in what Hamid Naficy has called “exilic cinema” (Naficy’s work is a point of reference for both Dönmez-Colin and Suner), but the “distance” represented in films such as Ceylan’s Uzak is reflective not of the sense of displacement found through literal exile outside the boundaries of the nation, but rather of a pervasive displacement within Turkish society (and, indeed, even within the city of Istanbul) itself.

Rather than taking an auteurist approach and focusing on specific filmmakers (with the exception of a chapter dedicated to the work of Yılmaz Güney—although, even in this chapter, Dönmez-Colin seems more interested in viewing Güney’s films as symptoms of their historical moment rather than as examples of the interconnected body of work of an auteur), Dönmez-Colin divides the book into a series of thematic chapters, organized around interlocking themes: “In Search of Identity”; “Migration, Dis/Misplacement and Exile”; “Denied Identities”; “Gender, Sexuality and Morals in Transition”; and “A Modern Identity or Identity in a Modern World.” As the chapter titles suggest, Dönmez-Colin’s interest is in large themes, and each chapter moves through several decades in tracing these themes.

Indeed, the first chapter traces the history of the cinema of Turkey back to its origins before the founding of the Turkish Republic. Her fascinating (if brief) overview of these early origins provides, in miniature, some of the social and political themes that will recur throughout the book, including the government’s involvement with the film industry. For example, Dönmez-Colin suggests that a documentary called Ayastefanos’taki Rus Abidesinin Yıkılışı [The Demolition of the Russian Monument at St. Stephan], shot by Fuat Uzkınay, an Ottoman army officer, in 1914 and considered as the first national film according to the official history of Turkish cinema (although there are no surviving copies of the film, and some researchers have questioned whether its existence is anything more than a myth), was made as part of a series of propaganda events “organized by the Union and Progress Committee to improve public opinion.” The first official cinema institutions were placed under the control of the army, and the shooting of the first feature film, Himmet Ağanın İzdivacı [The Marriage of Himmet Ağa] (1918), was suspended when most of the cast and crew were recruited to serve in the Dardanelles. Once shooting was resumed, the film’s Romanian director, Sigmund Weinberg, was replaced by Uzkınay after war broke out between Romania and the Ottoman Empire. This early history, Dönmez-Colin argues, was central in “establishing a solid relationship between the army and cinema, which has manifested itself overtly or covertly over the decades.” It also reveals a deep interpenetration between cinema and state politics in the very origins of Turkish cinema.

These early years were followed, during the first two decades of the Republic, by a period dominated by films made by theater directors, in particular Muhsin Ertuğrul, who made the first sound film in Turkish cinema and was also the first Turkish director to receive international acclaim, winning an award at the Venice Film Festival in 1934. Dönmez-Colin likens the hegemony of Ertuğrul during this “Period of the Theater Men” to “the one-party system of the early years of the Republic”; similarly, she suggests that the next cinematic era, “The Period of Transition,” “was a transition period for Turkish politics as well.” The guiding event that she uses to mark the third period in the cinema of Turkey, the rise of the Yeşilçam film industry, is in turn linked to the ascendance to power of the Democrat Party in 1950, since the DP advocated a form of populism that was reflected in classic Yeşilçam films by directors such as Lütfi Ö. Akad, Atıf Yılmaz, Metin Erksan, and Memduh Ün. The 1960s signal the next phase in Dönmez-Colin account, with the emergence of “a new kind of cinema…influenced by social and political changes in the country,” particularly the military coup of 1960. The ouster of the Democrat Party and the establishment of a progressive constitution, in Dönmez-Colin’s account, ushered in a more relaxed atmosphere, reflected in films that experimented with social realism, including Erksan’s Susuz Yaz [A Dry Summer], Güney’s widely-praised first film At, Avrat, Silah [Horse, Woman, Gun] (1966), and Akad’s Hudutlarin Kanunu [The Law of the Borders] (1966), co-written by and starring Güney, which eventually received wide international acclaim. However, in a sign of things to come, Hudutlarin Kanunu was banned by Turkish censors and prevented from participation in foreign festivals.


[Hudutlarin Kanunu (The Law of the Borders)]

For Dönmez-Colin, the high point of this period of social realist filmmaking, 1960 to 1965, “reflected the search for identity in a period of rapid transition from traditionalism to modernism.” She sees the period that follows as marked by a split between directors like Halit Refiğ, who saw Yeşilçam as the true national cinema and advocated a rejection of Western avant-garde forms, and advocates of the “New Cinema,” who hoped to introduce modes borrowed from European art cinema into the cinema of Turkey. The films of Yılmaz Güney were rare exceptions that managed to bridge this split—his work, such as the 1970 film Umut [Hope], managed to achieve commercial success and was also revered by the New Cinema group—but his career was decimated by political repression and cut short by his untimely death in 1984.

There followed a period of general decline; while directors influenced by Güney continued to draw praise from international audiences, the late 1970s are generally seen as the end of the Yeşilçam era, as the industry succumbed to the loss of audience occasioned by the arrival of television and the flooding of the market by Hollywood films. The coup of 1980 put a close to this phase; what followed, according to Dönmez-Colin, was “another crisis of identity in Turkish cinema.” The split that emerged from this moment of cultural and political crisis was similar to the one that marked the previous era—between those, like Şerif Gören and Sinan Çetin, who argued for a robust popular national cinema, albeit one that followed the box-office formulas perfected by Hollywood, and those, like Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, Yeşim Ustaoğlu, and Semih Kaplanoğlu, associated with the “New Turkish Cinema” (or the “New New Cinema,” as some called it) and its art house tradition—although the contemporary contestation lacks something of the politically-charged nature of the debates of the 1960s and 1970s. “Corresponding to the geopolitics of the country,” Dönmez-Colin concludes, falling (as she occasionally does) into the realm of the cliché, “Turkish cinema has turned its head towards the West while its feet are grounded on the soil of the East.”

Dönmez-Colin manages to make her way through this history in approximately fifty pages. As this suggests, her strength, as a critic, is in painting with a broad brush, which makes Turkish Cinema an ideal book for readers looking for an overview of the cinema of Turkey. Particularly excellent is her chapter “Gender, Sexuality, and Morals in Transition,” where she moves through literally decades worth of films, tracing the changes (and lack thereof) in the representation of women. One particularly admirable aspect of this chapter is that it manages to suggest the powerful performances and pervasive cultural influence of iconic actresses such as Şoray, Fatma Girik, and Müjde Ar, while at the same time not ignoring how the films in which they appeared helped to perpetuate a patriarchal viewpoint. Dönmez-Colin also includes an interesting analysis of the portrayal of same-sex desire in Turkish cinema, beginning with several films of the 1960s that included scenes of lesbian desire, and focusing on the contemporary work of the filmmaker and video artist Kutluğ Ataman. Dönmez-Colin’s chapter on Yılmaz Güney, who she clearly admires both for his films and for his political example, is informative and quite moving, and her analysis of the representation of suppressed cultural and political issues in Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s films Güneşe Yolculuk [Journey to the Sun] (1999) andBulutları Beklerken [Waiting for the Clouds] (2004) is also quite strong.


[Güneşe Yolculuk (Journey to the Sun)]

Dönmez-Colin’s weakness, however, is as a reader of individual films. Given her large-canvas approach, this is perhaps an inevitable problem for a book such as Turkish Cinema. Individual films often come up more as examples of larger trends or themes than as cinematic texts to be analyzed in and of themselves; given the sheer number of films that she writes about, her attention to particular films sometimes goes no further than a general overview or plot summary. Issues of form and style seem not to be of much interest, except as they might be analyzed as reflections of larger social realities or as indicators of a film’s belonging to a particular “stage” in the development of Turkish cinema. When she is addressing filmmakers whose work she clearly admires—Güney, Ustaoğlu, and Ataman appear to be particular favorites—she will stop to linger over stylistic details and narrative nuances. With other filmmakers, she has less patience, and she can be downright dismissive when addressing the films of filmmakers such as Ceylan and Demirkubuz (although in fairness she spends a significant amount of space on both of them). This unevenness appears to reflect more on her own preferences than on the significance (or lack thereof) of particular filmmakers to the narrative of Turkish cinema that she presents. This is not a complaint in and of itself; indeed, it is rather refreshing to see a book such as this one that is so stamped by the author’s individual preferences, and it reveals her to be a critic with a passion for cinema. It does mean, however, that certain readers may come away disappointed with the treatment accorded to particular films and filmmakers (since I am a great admirer of the films of Ceylan and Demirkubuz, I would include myself in this category). However, Dönmez-Colin encyclopedic knowledge of Turkish cinema and her apt encapsulation of large swathes of cultural history help to make up for these shortcomings.

The Uprisings Will be Gendered

by: Maya Mikdashi

Women’s rights and the regulation of gender and sex norms in the Arab world have long been put under the spotlight by local and international activists in addition to local and international politicians and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This year, the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world have brought into focus some dominant ways that sexual and bodily rights are framed, gendered, and politicized. These can be grouped under three loose themes, each of which deserves further study: One is the equation of gender with women and/or sexual and gender minorities. Two is the fear of Islamists. Three, is the use of gendered and sexed violence to discourage or discredit protests and revolutionaries. Such a selective focus on sexual and bodily rights obfuscates power dynamics and contexts that are always also at play when discussing a particular political, historical, or economic issue.

It is an old complaint that the study of “gender” is in fact the study of people who are not “white” (i.e., not racialized) hetero-normative men. Such an equation hides that gender is not something one can be outside of. It is not an analytic lens that can be withheld and deployed according to the genitalia and/or sexual practices of the group or topic under study. Thus we have seen journalists and academics write about “protestors” without mentioning gender until they get to the “female protestors.” The same deployment of gender is used to talk about citizenship more generally, where the “citizen” apprears as an unmarked and universal category until studies of “female” and/or “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ)” citizens (and non-citizens, by the way) disturb this chimera. When we read of these “female protestors” are we to assume that all previous analysis of “protestors” has been about men? If so, why does this not factor into analysis? Are men not gendered? Is citizenship an ungendered and undifferentiated category except when talking about female citizens? If we believe that an attention to gender is important to understanding how women live their lives, then why not extend the same courtesy to men? What power dynamics and hegemonic discourses are being reproduced with every selective deployment of “gender” in the media and in every syllabus on “politics” or “citizenship” that includes one or two weeks (yay!) about “women” or “gender?” The equation of gender with non-hetero-normative males is as old as the genesis of “gender studies” itself. We are seeing this equation play out again in coverage and analysis of the Arab uprisings, where a study of “gender” has become a synonym for the study of women and LGBTQ Arabs.

Masculinity studies is a growing and robust field that teaches us to be vigilant in questioning the ways that a gender analysis is deployed and withheld. Everyone is gendered, just as everyone, rich and poor and middle class, is “classed.” In fact, the current deployment of a gender analytic is akin to studying the class grievances, backgrounds and anxieties of only half of the Egyptian or Syrian population, for example. The assumption that socio-economic class is only an analytic to study those that are notmembers of the privileged classes reproduces international and national political and economic dynamics, alliances, and interests. Likewise the division of gender justice from economic justice lends itself to debates on female “quotas” in various parliaments that do not take into account the need for economic diversity among parliamentarians.

A second prevailing mode of framing, gendering, and politicizing the uprisings is the fear of Islamists. As Islamists gain ground in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria concerns over their potential gender policies continue to fester. While such concerns and interest are certainly important, why do they gain such momentous traction only when it comes to Islamists? After all, have non-Islamist Arab political parties and powers had such wonderful and progressive gender policies all this time? This selective fear of Islamists rests on familiar assumptions about Islam (scary) secularism (redemptive and progressive) and other religions (huh?). Thus the victory of Islamists in Egypt’s elections is cause for anxiety (about what they might do) among international feminists and gender activists, in addition to groups and individuals such as The Center for Secular Space and Hillary Clinton. But spitting on eight-year-old girls or stoning women (yes, stoning) who violate the gender code of Orthodox Judaism is a headline, not a discourse on women’s rights and patriarchy in Israel or in Judaism. But I am sure that if women were stoned and/or spit on in he streets of Homs for not wearing the hijab it would be about Islam and about the dangers that the Syrian uprising poses to Syrian women. Similarly, the victory of Islamists in Tunisian elections is scary because of what they may do in regards to women’s and LGBTQ rights. But Rick Santorum’s bible-fueled anti-woman and anti-gay campaign/crusade says nothing about the gender politics of Christianity. In addition, many Arab secularists dismiss the Egyptian and Tunisian elections primarily because Islamists won, and many try to dismiss the Syrian uprising by branding it “Islamist.” Interestingly, many of these thinkers were (rightly) quick to condemn Israel and the United States’ refusal to work with Hamas after their electoral victory. To paraphrase Fawwaz Traboulsi: Islamists won. Deal with it. Traboulsi also makes the important point that now that they are in power, Islamists will actually be held accountable for all the fantastical promises they have made for decades. We will now get to see, for example, if Islam, or this brand of it, is truly the answer to a chronically clogged sewage system in Cairo. For their part, some mainstream journalists have become obsessed with finding the women on the streets of Syria. When they find them they describe their clothing with the type of attention to detail that can only indicate something of deep significance. Thus women protesting in Syria are in “western dress” or not, they are “secular looking” or not, and some of them (believe it or not) have boyfriends and drink alcohol.

Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do withIslamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.

The third frame we can employ to understand dominant discourses related to the uprisings are the uses of gendered and sexed violence to discourage or discredit protests and revolutionaries. The Mubarak regime and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have used sexual violence to discourage and discredit Egyptian protestors and revolutionaries. Female protestors and activists have been subjected to “virginity tests,” vicious beatings, and charges of immorality. In fact, everywhere there has been an uprising, the regime in question has propagated a discourse of immorality among male and female protestors. In Yemen women were actively discouraged from joining protests by security forces who targeted them for repression. In Bahrain a cry for “public morality” was thrown against men and women fighting to overthrow a repressive monarchy. Such statements are meant to discredit protests and protestors as cesspools of immorality and sexual licentiousness. In turn, the spectacle of Egyptian security forces publicly beating and dragging a woman down a street is a warning to others. It is forcefully implied that women and men should stay at home and away from the impunity with which (secular) security forces can violate a protestors’ body.

Arab regimes are not the only actors using sexed and gender violence to discredit protestors and revolutionaries in the Arab world. As the hysteria surrounding the sexual assault of Lara Loganrevealed in the days when the United States was still trying to assure Mubarak’s longevity, the protestors were in fact a sex crazed reactionary and dangerous mob. In addition, “women’s rights” in Egypt and Tunisia have been twinned with the type of state feminism advocated by their respective former first ladies, a cynical use of gender rights by authoritarian regimes that were thus branded ‘reformers’ by their western allies. In fact, reading the American press, it seems that the daily reality of sexual violence is important only to the extent that it can be harnessed to other political causes and projects. Furthermore, a selective emphasis on some sexual and gender violence decontextualizes those violences from the larger infrastructures of oppression that people live under. For example, Israeli attempts at “pinkwashing its settler colonization of Palestine highlight how Israel saves gay Palestinians from their Islamic culture. In this way, the Israeli state hopes to paint Palestinians as homophobic Islamic fundamentalists in order to discredit now well over a century of resistance against settler colonialism and apartheid.

These are frames that have been used to discuss “gender” in the Arab uprisings: One, gender means women and gays. Two, Islamists (and only Islamists) are scary and dangerous to women and sexual minorities. Three, the legitimacy of a popular uprising and/or revolutionary struggle can be gauged by how it treats “their women” and “their gays.” All three of these frames are highly selective and politicized. Furthermore, each reproduces and invites practices of patriarchy, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, and colonialism. By using these frames gender justice is divorced from struggles for economic and political justice, and the revolutionary potential of this three way marriage is once again smothered.

How Not to Study Gender in the Middle East

by Maya Mikdashi

The Red List, Manal al-Dowayan

One: Gender is not the study of what is evident, it is an analysis of how what is evident came to be.

Two: Before resolving to write about gender, sexuality, or any other practice or aspect of subjectivity in the Middle East, one must first define what exactly the object of study is. Be specific. What country, region, and time period forms the background picture of your study? Furthermore, the terms “Middle East,” “the Islamic World” and the “Arab world” do not refer to the same place, peoples, or histories, but the linkages between them are crucial. Moreover, the “state” is a relatively new phenomenon in the Middle East. In order to study gendered political economy in Syria, for example, one must be aware of the Ottoman and regional history that has produced this gendered political economy in the area that we now call “Syria.”

Three: A study of gender must take into account sexuality. Likewise studies of sexuality cannot be disarticulated from gender analysis. To do so would be akin to studying the politics and history of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) without reference to the role of idealogy or the socio-economic policies of the Iraqi state.

Four: Gender is one aspect of individual and group subjectivity. It is also just one technology of governmentality—the production and regulation of ties between the individual body, populations, and structures of power and quantification. Moreover, studies of politics, history, and law must take into account gender and sex, just as such studies must be attentive to class, race, political economy and-crucially- how all of these factors interact.

Five: The ungendered body does not exist, just as the unclassed body does not exist. Such disarticulation reproduces the false tropes of the ungendered body and of ungendered politics and the unclassed body and unclassed politics. These in turn reaffirm the positioning of normative male political practices as somehow “unmarked” and universal. Such an equation hides that gender is not something one can be outside of. It is not an analytic lens that can be withheld and deployed according to genitalia and/or sexual practices of the people being studied. When an attention to gender  is limited to female and/or LGBTQ people in the Middle East, it reproduces the study of gender as the study of how (other) men treat “their” women and gays.

Six: Avoid tokenism and broad generalizations. Sometimes a hijab is just a hijab, and sometimes it is not.

Seven: Do not assume that gender politics or feminist concerns come in neat and familiar packages. Instead, allow your research to expand your view of what a “feminist politics” may be. It could be, for example, that protests against neoliberal market restructuring in Egypt are understood within a broad political framework that includes notions of gender justice. As Saba Mahmood and Lila Abu Lughod have taught us, liberal feminism’s assumptions as to what constitute “feminist politics” or “feminist causes” are at best flawed. At worst they are exercises in epistemological hegemony and the violent remaking of the world according to secular and neoliberal rights frameworks. Furthermore, do not assume that what we call the “feminist canon” is exhaustive or that it is not constituted through a series of exclusions, hierarchies, and imperial histories. After all Simone de Beauvoir, who taught us all that a woman is not born but made, also wrote in terms we now recognize as “Islamophobic” about women “under” Islam in Algeria at the time when Algeria was a French settler colony. This does not mean we should dismiss de Beauvoir, just as it would be too easy to condemn Hegel or Marx for their “views” on Africa. Rather, it is crucial to critically inhabit and navigate the reality that the western canon was, and is constituted through producing a series of “selves” and “others.”

Eight: I know this is hard to believe, but Islam may not be the most important factor, or even a particularly important factor, when studying gender in Muslim majority countries or communities. For example, I have studied the Lebanese legal system, focusing on personal status, criminal and civil law, for years now. Despite the intricate ways that these interconnected bodies of law produce citizenship in Lebanon, whenever I discuss my work my interlocutors invariably want to know more about shar‘ia and its assumed “oppression” of women. These questions always come after I have carefully explained that in Lebanon certain Christian and Jewish personal status laws are much more stringent in their production and regulation of normative gender roles than codified Islamic personal status laws (which are not the same as shar‘ia, historically speaking). In addition, civil laws have more wide reaching “gender effects” than any religious personal status law. More broadly, Islam is not the only religion in the region, although it often seems to be in mainstream media coverage. When an action such as the hitting of women by men for not conforming to “proper” gender roles in ultra orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem or in conservative neighborhoods of Riyadh is scripted in radically different terms the reader should pause. At these moments you are not reading about Islam, you are reading within a discourse about Islam.

Nine: Questions of gender rights and gender justice are not new to the Middle East, and neither are struggles that we now read under the sign of “feminism.” In fact, a large portion of the laws that are often regarded as oppressive to women and LGBTQ Arabs and/or Muslims are relatively new. They were introduced to the region via the Napoleonic code and the codification and the severe hollowing out of the shar‘ia in modern history. For example abortion, long considered a question of women’s rights in the Western world due its twinned history with Catholicism and Christianity more broadly, was not illegal across the Arab world until the rise of the nation state. Some traditions of fiqh continue take a position on abortion that American feminists might wish could be extended to the United States today. In addition, jurists have and do struggle to understand and promote “progressive” notions of male and female relations and to make room for nonconforming gender persons in the region. In fact, scholars such as Paula Sanders have shown us that several centuries ago Islamic jurists were developing a system of accommodation for hermaphrodites and nonbinary gendered peoples in Islamic communities.

Ten: Do not assume that you know the actors and factors affecting gender in the Middle East, or the productive role your scholarship might play in this dynamic. Institutions such as the IMF and Human Rights Watch have long been engaged in the production of normative heterosexuality and heterosexual families, for example. The Israeli settlement of historical Palestine also intervenes into the gendered and sexual fabric of indigenous Palestinians, as pinkwatcing activists have recently reminded us. Similarly, the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan function in part through the construction of interventionist platforms in the name of women’s and LGBTQ rights. Other factors affecting the practice of gender and sexuality in the Middle East include technological innovations such as in vitiro fertilization, viagra, and reconstructive hymen surgery in addition to pop culture, the rapid tranformation of the global economy, and the international circulation of people, discourses and goods.