Despotism or Feminism

Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a legal anthropologist specializing in Islamic law, gender, and development. She is currently Professorial Research Associate at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Law, University of London. In this lecture, Dr. Mir-Hosseini explores the Islamic feminist movement’s potential for changing the terms of debates over Islam and gender, arguing that the real battle is between patriarchy and despotism on the one hand, and gender equality and democracy on the other.

 

Advertisements

Iran’s Cinematic Revolution

by: Reza Aslan

At [the 2010] Sundance Film Festival, two Persian-language films—both by female filmmakers—once again demonstrated why Iran’s vibrant film industry remains among the most celebrated in the world. And Women Without Men—a feature film by Iranian director Shirin Neshat which opens on Friday—also adds to the canon.

Kick in Iran, a documentary by Fatima Abdollahyan, follows the triumphs and travails of 20-year-old tae kwon do champion Sara Khoshjamal, the first Iranian woman to qualify for the Olympics, as she competes for a medal in Beijing. Kick is a sobering documentary, representing the very real struggle of Iranian women to succeed in a society dominated by men.

Years before our television screens were flooded with images of green-clad protesters, the only access that most Westerners had to Iran’s dynamic culture came from movies.

The second Persian-language entry, Women Without Men, is the feature film debut by Shirin Neshat, arguably one of the most celebrated visual artists of the last decade. (Neshat has already won the Best Director Award at the Venice Film Festival.) Set in the backdrop of the CIA coup that toppled Iran’s first democratically elected government in 1953, the film elegantly interweaves the lives of five women as they struggle to cope with the dramatic political and social forces shaping the world around them.

Iranian films have long had a presence at Sundance, often playing to packed houses and taking home major awards. According to John Nein, senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, there were half a dozen Persian-language films to choose from this year.

Persian cinema has a long and rich tradition,” Nein says, “but it’s been evolving recently in interesting ways—in its formal qualities and how it engages with important contemporary issues. Iranian filmmakers are not only experimenting with form, but they clearly have a lot to say. They’re engaging in the issues of their own society, but also constructing a bridge for other people to understand what is happening there.”

Indeed, years before our television and computer screens were flooded with riveting images of green-clad protesters—many of them women—fearlessly facing down Iran’s brutal security forces, the only access that most Westerners had to the country’s dynamic social, religious, and political culture came from the hypnotic images captured by Iran’s filmmakers, widely viewed as the most accomplished in the developing world.

Iranians take enormous pride in a flourishing film industry that produces nearly 150 commercial and art-house films a year, an astonishing figure given the deeply mismanaged, poorly financed, and heavily restrictive environment under which Iran’s filmmakers must work. Nevertheless, Iranian films regularly compete in festivals around the world, winning top prizes at Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Berlin, etc. Iran even has a number of its own annual film festivals, the most prominent of which, the Fajr Film Festival, premieres both domestic and international films from across the globe. (Last year, the International Prize went to the Bosnian film Snijeg by acclaimed female director Aida Begic, who also took home the Best Director Award.)

Iran’s artists, writers, and filmmakers have been considered a troubling voice of dissent long before the 1979 revolution and the subsequent founding of the Islamic republic. This was especially the case in the turbulent decades of the 1960s and ’70s, the era that launched what is commonly called the Iranian New Wave, a cinematic movement that gave birth to the careers of some of the country’s most acclaimed contemporary filmmakers. Heavily influenced both by the French New Wave and by Italian Neo-Realism, these films took as their subjects the repressive political atmosphere that existed under the rule of Iran’s long-serving dictator, or shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. The shah, though reportedly a fan of American films, dealt harshly with these filmmakers, throwing them into prison and banning and censoring their films.

But if life was difficult for Iran’s filmmakers under the shah, it has become almost intolerable under the Islamic republic. Since 1979, Iran’s censorship laws have become both more severe and more haphazardly applied. In fact, the laws are now so baffling and inconsistent that they make Hollywood’s opaque MPAA rating system seem downright transparent. So, for instance, The Lizard, an uproarious comedy of errors about a petty criminal who poses as a mullah, originally passed all government censors and was allowed to screen throughout the country. But after breaking all box-office records in Iran, the movie was immediately and inexplicably pulled from  screens by the same censorship office that passed it in the first place.

The irony is that part of what makes Iranian cinema so unique are the ingenious ways in which filmmakers have learned to sidestep the draconian censorship laws that, for example, forbid male and female characters from touching one another on screen. Such restrictions have forced Iranian directors to stretch their aesthetic powers in clever and creative ways, allowing them to develop a distinct and highly symbolic cinematic language that is instantly and universally recognizable as Iranian. Perhaps the most notorious aspect of this distinctly Iranian cinematic style is the use of visual poetry and metaphors to express views and emotions that would otherwise land the filmmaker in jail. Indeed, the use of metaphor has become so prevalent in Iranian cinema that plot is merely an afterthought, a fact that can sometimes confound Western audiences (and critics) who are used to the plot-driven, fast-paced action of an American movie.

What happens in the typical Iranian film? Well, nothing much:

A middle-aged man drives through the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to bury his body later that night after he commits suicide in Abbas Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece,Taste of Cherry.

A poor laborer at an ostrich farm loses an ostrich and spends the rest of the film searching for it in Song of Sparrowfrom Majid Majidi, the Oscar-nominated director of Children of Heaven.

An Afghan refugee in Iran rides his bicycle in a circle for a week in hopes of earning money for his wife’s operation in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Bicycle. (Makhmalbaf’s 2001 film Kandaharwas named one of the top 100 movies of all time by Time magazine.)

Two mentally unstable sisters live locked up in their impoverished parents’ tiny home, where their interior lives clash with the world outside in The Apple, the directorial debut by Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s daughter, Samira Makhmalbaf. Based on a true story, The Apple features the actual sisters and their real parents, who “act” in the movie opposite professional actors. The dialogue of the actors is scripted; the dialogue of the sisters and their parents is unwritten and spontaneous.

Samira Makhmalbaf’s achievement in The Apple is indicative of larger trends in contemporary Iranian cinema: The boundary between fiction and reality is often blurred, and the wall between the camera and the audience completely removed. So, for instance, Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry ends with the film crew bursting into the scene to help the actor playing the main character out of his grave. Everyone shares a smoke as the credits role.

Samira’s success also points to the increasing role in Iranian cinema of female filmmakers, many of whom are grappling with the thorny issues of women’s rights. It is not that this subject has been ignored by male directors. Jafar Panahi’s two recent films— The Circle, a film about the lives of poor women in Iran that won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2000, and Offside, about a group of young female soccer fans who sneak into a match—have both been lauded for their searing criticism of the treatment of women in Iran. But it has been women themselves who have most forcefully challenged Iran’s censors by exploring themes of gender relations and social inequality. Indeed, some of Iran’s best filmmakers are now women: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, the country’s most famous and prolific female director ( The Blue-VeiledMainlineOur Times); Tahmineh Milani, who directed The Hidden Half(a film that landed her in prison in 2001); Manijeh Hekmat, director of Women’s Prisonand, most recently, Three Women; Pouran Derakhshandeh; Parisa Bakhtavar; the list goes on and on. Through the quality their work and the passion of their artistic achievements, women filmmakers like Neshat and Abdollahyan have placed themselves at the forefront of the revolutionary changes rocking Iranian society.

Of course, women have some way to go—both in Iran’s film industry and in Iranian society—before they will finally be considered equal to men. At the end of Abdollahyan’s documentary Kick in Iran, a journalist asks Sara Khoshjamal’s indefatigable coach, Maryam Azamehr, if sports and the success of female athletes can have a lasting impact on the role of women in Iranian society. Azamehr scrunches her nose and looks up to the rafters. She thinks for a long moment.

The question goes unanswered.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to The Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestsellerNo god but Godand How to Win a Cosmic War.

©2012 The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC

 

Equal Education, Unequal Pay

It’s 2012 and close to four years after the Lilly ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law. Surely, the gender wage gap has been closed, right? Wrong.

Even with moves toward equalizing pay between men and women, men still make almost 20% more than women in nearly all industries. This is despite the fact that women receive the same education, with the same tuition price tags and levels of debt upon graduation. The only major differences are that there are more ladies in college and they have better average GPAs to boot. The benefits of paying women their fair share include increasing the GDP while reducing the poverty rates for families.

Check out the infographic below to see what else the gender wage gap affects.

For more info graphics, and to visit the page this one was originally posted please visit this link.

equal_education_unequal_pay

The Arab Spring: The end of postcolonialism

by; Hamid Dabashi

The world keeps discovering, keeps inventing, keeps overcoming itself. Because of the Arab Spring, the world is once again pregnant with better and more hopeful versions of itself. The crescendo of transnational uprisings from Morocco to Iran, and from Syria to Yemen, are turning the world upside down. The task facing us today is precisely to see in what particular way our consciousness of the world is in the midst of transforming itself – by force of history. The world we have hitherto known as “the Middle East” or “North Africa”, or “the Arab and Muslim world“, all part and parcel of a colonial geography we had inherited, is changing, and is changing fast. We have now entered the phase of documenting in what particular terms that world is transcending itself, overcoming the mystified consciousness into which it was colonially cast and postcolonially fixated.

In understanding what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East, we are running out of metaphors. We need new metaphors. Even the word “revolution” – understood anywhere from Karl Marx to Hannah Arendt – needs rethinking. Such a new language of the revolution will cast the impact of “the Arab Spring” on national and international politics for generations to come. These uprisings have already moved beyond race and religion, sects and ideologies, pro- or anti-Western. The term “West” is more meaningless today than ever before – it has lost its potency, and with it the notion, and the condition, we had code-named postcoloniality. The East, the West, the Oriental, the colonial, the postcolonial – they are no more. What we are witnessing unfold in what used to be called “the Middle East” (and beyond) marks the end of postcolonial ideological formations – and that is precisely the principal argument informing the way this book discusses and celebrates the Arab Spring. The postcolonial did not overcome the colonial; it exacerbated it by negation. The Arab Spring has overcome them both. The drama of this delayed defiance Arabs have now called their spring; and I will use the occasion to make a case for our having entered the phase of the end of postcoloniality, delivered from exacerbating a historic trauma.

The transformation of consciousness, and precisely not through dogma or violence, is the inaugural moment of discovering new worlds – not by willing what does not exist but by seeing what is unfolding. As I write, the Arab revolutions, each with a different momentum, are creating a new geography of liberation, which is no longer mapped on colonial or cast upon postcolonial structures of domination; this restructuring points to a far more radical emancipation, not only in these but, by extension, in adjacent societies and in an open-ended dynamic. This permanent revolutionary mood has already connected the national to the transnational in unexpected and unfolding ways, leading to a reconfigured geopolitics of hope. That the Arab revolutions are changing our imaginative geography is already evident in the interaction between the southern and northern coasts of the Mediterranean in terms of modes of protest, with the spread of Tahrir Square-style youth uprisings evident from Greece to Spain, and indeed to the United States and the Occupy Wall Street movement – with even Aung San Suu Kyi comparing her campaign for democracy in Myanmar with the Arab Spring. These revolutions are not driven by the politics of replicating “the West” – rather, they are transcending it, and thus are as conceptually disturbing to the existing political order as to therégime du savoir around the globe. The ground is shifting under the feet of what self-proclaimed superpowers thought was their globe. These variations on the theme of delayed defiance hinge on the idea that the revolutions are simultaneously a rejection not just of the colonial oppression they have inherited but, a fortiori, of the postcolonial ideologies that had presented and exhausted themselves as its antithesis in Islamist, nationalist or socialist grand narratives.

The mystical consciousness our world has inherited hangs around the binary of “The West and the Rest”, the most damning delusion that the European colonial map of the world manufactured and left behind, with “Islam and the West” as its most potent borderlines. It is precisely that grand illusion that is dissolving right before our eyes. But that is not all: the challenge posed by these revolutions to divisions within Islam and among Muslims – racial (Arabs, Turks, Iranians, etc), ethnic (Kurds, Baluchs, etc), or sectarian (Sunni and Shia in particular) – has at once agitated and (ipso facto) discredited them. These revolutions are collective acts of overcoming. They are crafting new identities, forging new solidarities, both within and without the “Islam and the West” binary – overcoming once and for all the thick (material and moral) colonial divide. The dynamics now unfolding between the national and the transnational will, as they do, override all others. The synergy that has ensued is crafting a new framework for the humanity they have thus embraced and empowered. Those dynamics are checked, to be sure, by counter-revolutionary forces that are now fully at work – and that have much to lose from these revolutions.

The world, and not just “the Muslim world”, has long been dreaming of these uprisings. Since at least the French Revolution of 1789, the European revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution of 1917, since the British packed their belongings and left India in 1948, since the French left Algeria, the Italians left Libya, the world has been dreaming of the Arab Spring. From the time the colonial world began lowering European flags, and as the postcolonial world was raising new ones, the world has been dreaming of the emblematic slogan, now chanted by people from one end of the Arab world to another: Huriyyah, Adalah Ijtima’iyah, Karamah, “Freedom, Social Justice, Dignity”.

To pave the way for an open-ended unfolding of these revolts, the public space has been expanding for a very long time, and the political act is now being charged and redefined to accommodate it. But the public facade of unity across social classes and between different political tendencies, which has characterised the uprising from the very outset, has been and will continue to be fractured. But these fractures will expand the public space, not diminish it. That societal expansion of the bedrock of politics will not be along ideological lines. In the world beyond Christian dogma, people are not born in a state of sin, for this to be forgiven by way of communal declaration. As there is no original sin, there is no final forgiveness – and thus no grand illusion, no master-narratives of emancipation. The ideals remain open and grand, as they must, but demanding and exacting their realisation require painstaking and detailed work by particular voluntary associations beyond the reach of the state – labour unions, women’s rights organisations, student assemblies – all by way of forming a web of affiliation around the atomised individual, thus protecting her, thus enabling him, to resist the ever increasing power of the emergent state.

The spectre of that emerging state will keep the democratic muscles of these revolutionary uprisings flexing – for a very long time, and for a very simple reason. The world we have inherited is mystified (Marx’s term) by the force fields of power that have at once held it together and distorted it. Fighting the military and economic might of counter-revolutionaries goes hand in hand with deciphering the transformed consciousness that must promise and deliver the emerging world. The colonial subject (now revolting beyond the mirage of the postcolonial state) was formed, forced, and framed as the object of European imperial domination, with multivariate modes of governmentality that extended from the heart of “the West” to the edges of “the Rest”. Europe colonised the Arab and Muslim world from one end to the other precisely according to the model of power by which it was itself being colonised by the self-fetishising logic of capital. It was, by way of partaking in the making of the fetishised commodity, being alienated from itself as it was forcing that massive alienation on the colonial world. Postcolonialism was instrumental in conceptually fetishising colonialism as something other than the abuse of labour by capital writ large. It is not, and never has been.

The postcolonial subject, which was none other than the colonial subject multiplied by the illusion of emancipation, was thus released into the force field of that very same colonial history on a wild goose chase of ideological certainty before and after political convictions. For more than two hundred years – the 19th and 20th centuries – colonialism begat postcolonial ideological formations: socialism, nationalism, nativism (Islamism); one metanarrative after another, ostensibly to combat, but effectively to embrace and exacerbate, its consequences. As these postcolonial ideological formations began epistemically to exhaust themselves, the position of “subalternity” travelled from South Asia and became a North American academic fanfare, before it was politically neutered and soon turned into the literary trope of a “native informant”. Thus colonialism and postcoloniality combined to place the Arab and the Muslim (as its supreme and absolute other) outside the self-universalis

ing tropes of European metaphysics, where the non-Western (thus branded) was never in the purview of full subjection, of full historical agency.

The world was thus sealed in a self-sustaining binary that has kept repeating, revealing, and concealing itself. Finally coming to full historical consciousness in terms of their own agential sovereignty and worldly subjection, “the Arab” and “the Muslim” are now exiting that trap, having identified it as the simulacrum of a renewed pact with humanity – beyond the European entrapping of “humanism”. Arabs and Muslims in revolt have no crisis of the subject, no problem with their cogito.

“The work of our time,” Marx rightly declared is “to clarify to itself the meaning of its own desires”. Indeed – and in that spirit I have written The Arab Spring.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism is now released in London by the Zed Books.