Misreading Feminism & Women’s Rights in Tehran: Beyond Chadors, Ninjabis, & Secular Fantasies

It is nearly impossible to read any article about Iranian women and not spend the entire time rolling your eyes. Historically, the Western media has tended to make liberal use of Orientalist and infantilizing depictions of Iranian women as, alternatively, trapped in the harems of their turbaned overseers (a historically pre-1979 trope applied liberally to all Middle Eastern women) or militantly crazed and clad in black “traditional garb” (a post-1979 trope specific to Iranian, and later Islamist, women).

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Unthinkable Thoughts in the Debate About ISIS in Iraq

What unites marginalized Sunnis in Iraq and the hardcore ideologues within ISIS is their desperation to be rid of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who has left them with no choice but to operate outside of the political system in order to better their lives.

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The Veils of Democracy: Into the thought-experiment of Steal this Hijab

Dear Steal this Hijab readers:

I launched Steal this Hijab in April 2010 as a way to communicate all that I was learning through my PhD studies on gender rights in an Islamic context. I maintain StH in my spare time, and given I work, research and am politically active – there is not much time to spare!

However, I feel the idea-experiment that StH is the fruit of, continues to be an important aspect of my development as a critical thinker (dare I say scholar?!), and activist. Steal this Hijab demands me to stay quite vigilant about searching for new ideas, movements and ways of calling for and creating a world where equality, freedom, mutual aid, and cooperation serve as the foundations onto which we sketch our lives.

One of the central commitments that I have decided on in terms of the ethos of StH is a dedication to amplifying the voices of those who struggle for justice – allowing them to speak for themselves, yet trying to make those voices heard at all levels. This commitment is ultimately in the service of my own conception of democracy as a praxis that must continuously be struggled for, even as it evolves and changes and appears in different guises over time and space. I seek to understand and promote forms of democracy that utilize a horizontal decision-making process. One that understands that fundamental and sustainable change comes best ‘from below’, from the struggle of ordinary people who take control over their own lives for their benefit, but also for the benefit of their families (in whatever configuration!), communities and larger society.

I think the tension over individual and communal needs will be addressed through a creative process that does not seek to collapse power around one pole or another – but sees that freedom (even individual freedom) as an imperative foundation of a socialist society. I think this means we draw from those models that have been won for us through thought and struggle, whilst searching for novel understandings and new ways to organize ourselves that help us to press the project of liberation forward. This sort of conception of practice in political theory is often referred to as direct democracy and forms of the basis on which many libertarian socialist organizations formulate and practice democracy.

I have felt more and more that the conversations happening in the field(s) of gender studies at its intersectional or axial points are some of the most emancipatory of any I have come across. Mainly because I think the struggle over gender, its implications and formulations of power structures both within and without, ultimately converge into a focus on issues of inclusion and exclusion. In the abstract that notion seems somewhat intangible, but when contextualized it becomes quickly apparent. A classic example from a gender studies perspective is  the debates over abortion – who should ultimately be responsible for the decision of what a person does with their body. How far does autonomy go when it comes to the question of a potential other life? Is the right to life strictly in the hands of the person bearing the fetus, or should society extend rights (even an equality of rights) to the fetus? If the fetus needs to be considered in decision, how should this be done, and to what extent does the life of the fetus have over the right to life, including quality of life, of the person bearing it?

In many countries throughout the world, the issue of abortion and its connection to issues of democracy – especially direct democracy – are fundamental. In the case of abortion the decision to continue with a pregnancy or not often does not lie in the hands of the person who is carrying the fetus. In Ireland where I live, the state is the ultimate decision maker on this question. And the state has, until this day, made the decision to exclude the right of the individual over a dated conception of the will of the whole – coming out of the dominant notions held by the Catholic Church. Catholic conceptions of societal ethics continue to influence what is perceived as the status quo in Ireland, despite a clear change in attitudes towards both ethics and the Catholic Church. But with a political system that perpetuates top down power structures in the favor of maintaining the status quo in order to maintain themselves, means that principles of direct democracy and individual freedom are subordinated to the will of a perceived majority. Rather than allowing for ‘choice’ – the right to choose what one does with their own body, the power over this decision is made by the state not, for instance, an individual woman.

The example of abortion, and the need for a robust democratic process that balances the needs of the individual with that of their community – a process that one can enter into or exit out of voluntarily, whose aim is mutual aid, means asking the question of how to organize ourselves in a horizontal manner that bring to bear the myriad of voices in our societies in a way that people are able to participate freely, with equal powers and equal say?

I am fully aware that we dwell in a world where this must be culled from the wreckage we’ve created, and it can be a painful, insidious process. However, I fully believe that without socialism, without an answer to how we are going to share our stuff, share the resources and potential of our world fairly, environmentally, equitably . . . we will perish. This means the participation of all in our communities, not in a coercive or brutal fashion, like socialist regimes of the past (and some of the present!) but in a way that recognizes and celebrates differences whilst seeking a stronger solidarity of the whole.

I think it will necessitate a great deal or organization, of work that will not always be glamorous and a lot of experimenting. However, if we are to decide that we want our planet to live out the fullness of its life in this galaxy, if we are to survive global warming and climate change, and if we are to decide to think of ourselves not as infinitesimal glimmers of light that burst and die, but rather as connected forces in a perpetually streaming river of life we might have a better understanding of the ferocious power for good that is our potential on this planet.

The question remains about how we do this. How do we birth this world into full being? People have been asking these questions for a long time, and they continue to be important to consider anew. And these are the types of questions, observances and struggles that Steal this Hijab is keenly interested in. We seek to find novel ways people are participating positively in their communities, and have narrowed our focus to the movements that specifically look at gender and rights discourses. We see this as a lens through which we encounter the myriad of equally important issues – like class, race, ability, etc. that effect how our communities are organized, interpreted, understood and lived.

The focus on gender in Islamic contexts comes out of my own personal experience as an activist and the evolution of how I identify myself. Born in the United States to an Iranian father and an American mother, the questions about my own identity began early on, and with the intrepid journey to better understand what, by so many politically motivated accounts, was a clear divide between East and West. It’s a divide that has produced in me, an affection for the questioning of boundaries and borders. An urge engendered in the deepest part of my being to be critical and analyse and ask questions and never accept finalities. This has often landed me in trouble. . .  with my parents, with my teachers and eventually with all those in authority – be it bosses or the machinery of the state. My learning curve as a critical, active participant in my world rose exponentially with the world I inherited as an adult. A world where an autumn morning in the first few days of my university life changed the composition of power structures away from an orientation of openness (for a few), to the suspicion of the many – especially those who came from Muslim majority countries. My white skin, and non-hijab wearing head, provided me with a privilege others from my cultural and ethnic background did not have the safety of. However, my visceral urge to ask questions set me upon a unique path – one that saw me join the work of a tiny, but remarkable solidarity campaign called Voices in the Wilderness (Voices).

Voices was a campaign, whose second floor apartment that doubled as an office, organized delegations of activists opposed to the economic sanctions policy in Iraq, to travel to the country with the specific intention of breaking these sanctions. The act was for Americans, a federal crime, punishable by the potential of 12 years in prison and a fine of up to one million dollars. Because voices was a grassroots campaign of activists, it was not able to break the sanctions in any significant way in terms of providing needed supplies to desperate civilian infrastructure in Iraq. In this way, the small amounts of aid that voices was able to literally carry over in suitcases and handbags, served as more of a symbolic gesture than any practical one. However, the need to call attention to the effects of this policy on ordinary Iraqis – not the political elites – was important in raising the question of the policies’ purpose and more generally helped to bring forth more abstract queries that were important to consider.

The problem of the sanctions policy, however, was not only how it affected the lives on Iraqis – though that was the most crucial aspect. Far more insidious was what the sanctions policy illustrated about the role the U.S. played in the world more generally. The sanctions policy signaled a disregard not only for the lives of Iraqis, but what might generally be acknowledged as an incoherency in how the U.S. viewed and defined itself as a nation, and how it acted and behaved relative to other nations in the world. The sanctions policy itself was not exclusively an invention of the U.S., it was ultimately a policy invented and implemented by the United Nations. But it was one that came into being and perpetuated at the behest of the United States, because it served an important purpose in a larger regional power struggle in the region.

Unfortunately we all know the story from here, a war in Afghanistan, a second in Iraq and an ongoing regional struggle over political power that is increasingly sectarian in nature and composition. Voices has continued their work struggling to demand an end to U.S. economic and military war in the Middle East, and they are joined by many organizations throughout the world that continue to shine a light on U.S. imperialism. What has made the last years in the MENA region peek the interest of activists the world over are the uprisings and revolutions that have turned post-colonial power structures up-side down. Maybe not entirely reversed, but knocking down the notion that the region is fated to be ruled  by dictatorships funded by oil and backed up by the largest capitalist economies on the planet: America, Russia, India, China. People have been in streets (as a handful have always been), but their numbers grow, their demands becomes larger and louder  and include more and more sections of society.

Steal this Hijab has been especially heartened by the ways in which issue-orientated groups have attempted to work in solidarity with each other and with different sections of the population in order to strengthen the demands of the whole. Women’s rights groups have joined with football fans have joined with LGBT activists and folks bridge demands across class and ethnic identities. These spurts of activism are extremely delicate and not without their problems, but they kindle the project of liberation as it sparks or as it roars ahead. In Turkey activists have learned from other movements, especially Egypt, that dialogue at a grassroots level is needed before the move towards electoralism spoils meaningful dialogue on the composition of the society they endeavor to create. These community councils are the living embodiment of the ideals espoused by direct democracy, and help to prove the tangibility of the notion.

Their is much more to this story, but I will have to continue it in the future. For now, I wanted to focus on communicating some of the impulses and purposes that has led to this very spare time project, and let you know some about where Steal this Hijab comes from and where it wants to go. I would love to have the time and resources to expand the website into something more significant. Perhaps someday I will be able to do that, but for now it remains a project that shares the ebbs and flows of my own life.

I encourage commentary and (meaningful) exchanges on this blog. Hopefully some day some of you may send me stuff to publish, and we will have more regular readers and daily posts. Until then, the project continues.

In Solidarity,

Farah

for Steal this Hijab

The Shoe Thrower’s Brother: An interview with Uday al-Zaidi

On February 27 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave his parliament 100 days to “reform” their sometimes totally nonfunctional ministries or face consequences, in response “to people’s demands” as he put it. Those demands have taken the form of some of the least noted events of the Arab Spring: large mobilizations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, mass acts of civil disobedience and a general strike in Mosul, and the resignations of several governors all over Iraq, including two Basra governors. The Iraqi state has responded violently; with curfews, live ammunition, and wide scale arrests (signaled by Iraqis calling March 18th, “The Friday of Prisoners.”) That deadline ended June 7th, and many Iraqi civil society leaders are preparing for renewed protests this summer, calling June 10th, the “Friday of Resolution and Departure.” One such organizer is Baghdad-based Uday al-Zaidi, leader of an organization called “The Popular Movement to Save Iraq” and the brother of journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who gained renown for throwing his shoes at then president George Bush.

The past three months have also seen a large shift in al-Maliki’s position on the presence of US troops in Iraq, from insisting on their scheduled withdrawal at the end of 2011, to allowing for the possibility of singing a new agreement extending their stay after “a national referendum.” Iraqis have been discussing at length what they see as this double crisis of legitimacy of the present Iraqi government: an utter lack of ability or interest in providing the most basic of services, and obedience to both a deeply unpopular military occupation as well as regional forces. Grassroots organizers meanwhile have seen this as an opening to make their protests really have an impact. In the following interview, Uday discusses his brothers, what he thinks has been driving these protests, who is participating, as well as the most prominent demands. The interview was conducted and translated by Ali Issa on May 25th, and was edited and produced by Joyce Wagner.

(For more on organizing in Iraq, see http://iraqleft.wordpress.com/

 

“We weren’t really waiting”: A Fuse 100 Days Long

Originally published at IraqLeft.blogspot.com

Maliki Runs Out of Days

June 7th has been called ‘The Day of Retribution’ by Iraqi grassroots organizers. Nation-wide protests and sit-ins are planned against the US occupation as well as Nouri al-Maliki’s regime, coinciding with the Prime Minister’s own deadline, set exactly 100 days ago, to address Iraq’s protest movement’s demands. “Changes will be made in light of the evaluation results,” Maliki said in a statement in late February, referring to his cabinet members and their performance.

In response, a recently released call to action by the grassroots organization ‘Popular Movement to Save Iraq’ expresses a broadly held sentiment among Iraqis: the government’s promises are not to be trusted. “We admit that we weren’t really waiting, and didn’t hold out during this time. We were organizing actions with other organizations before and during the countdown to June 7th.” Seeing the date as a marker to draw more dissatisfied Iraqis into the protest movement, the statement continues: “But the end of the 100 day period, [with the government] having achieved nothing whatsoever, was the fuse we were waiting for, for those that were giving al-Maliki a chance, and were waiting for reforms from him, his government and corrupt parliament, to come out and demonstrate with us.”

The actions and demonstrations mentioned above have varied in their size, intensity and intent. Over the past 100 days, Friday demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square have been a constant, sometimes swelling to involve thousands of participants whose grievances included the shocking lack of services like reliable electricity after nearly a decade of a new regime. Crucially though, demands have also often included the immediate withdrawal of the US occupation forces, the release of political prisoners, and the revocation of the sectarian constitution. (These facts are often omitted by the little coverage Iraq receives. A May 29th story by the new agency ‘Aswat al-Iraq’ for example, only mentions protestors “demanding an end of corruption, the improvement of public services and living standards of the people, as well as putting an end to unemployment in the country.”)

Mosul – April 25th

These broader-aimed protests were most prominent during a 20-day long sit-in in the northern city of Mosul, launched on April 9th, 8 years to the day after Baghdad fell to occupying forces. Iraqi blogs and facebook pages are attempting to marshal the energy of that sustained action for June 7th, recalling that it grew to the tens of thousands, contained a lively, celebratory air including political poetry and theater performances, and even pushed the governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Najifi, to openly defy Maliki’s forces and defend the right of Iraqis to demonstrate. In response to Maliki’s threats of a clampdown – backed by live ammunition –  nearly the entire city (Iraq’s second largest) went on ageneral strike on May 25th, and for one of the first times the magic words of the Arab spring were heard in Iraq “The people want the downfall of the regime!”

Another significant development in the Iraqi protest movement is the coordination between groups, as well as the clarity of their demands. Mainly through facebook, a consistent source of photos, videos and statements has become ‘The Media Office of The Great Iraqi Revolution and the February 25th Revolution Coalition.’ This is in addition to their launching of an Arabic-language website on May 19th[www.iraqirevolution.com] that includes exposés of corrupt politicians and profiles of organizers and activists.

Finally, in a joint statement signed by several groups, such as ‘Movement to Liberate the South [of Iraq]’, ‘The Organization of Students of a Free Iraq’, ‘The National Organization of Tribal Leaders of the South and the Central Euphrates’, ‘Movement of Rising Iraqis’, ‘Coalition to Support the Iraqi Revolution’ and ‘Movement of Iraqi Youth’ a positive alternative to Iraq’s present reality begins to emerge: “[We] are not returning to our homes until al-Maliki steps down, the occupation leaves, corrupt politicians are held accountable, face trial, and the parliament is disbanded. We call for the formation of a transitional government of technocrats that can run the country for a temporary period, and after a period of no more than 6 months, they will set up transparent elections without regional or outside interference. [We] and the other organizations in coalition have decided not to enter into this transitional government, and limit our work to organizing sit-ins and demonstrations only, to bring down the occupation government.”

Whose “Regime”?

Observers of the Iraqi protest movement cannot help but notice that its numbers would swell whenever there was avisit by a US diplomat to the green zone. February 25th’s ‘Day of Rage’ followed hints from the US state department that US forces may need to remain, while many slogans in all over Iraq’s public squares were keyed to statements Joe Biden, John Kerry or Robert Gates had recently made. A key development in this regard was Nouri al-Maliki’s shift from denying the possibility of a US troop presence past the 2011 year-end deadline agreed upon in 2008’s ‘Status of Forces Agreement’, to saying on May 10th: “You want to make me say yes or no before I gather the national consensus?” al-Maliki retorted. “I will not say it.”

This combination then — of demands very similar to those of other pro-democracy movements in the Arab-world, political freedoms, transparency and lack of corruption, and due process rather than arbitrary force exercised by the police, along with a powerful call for self-determination against a US occupation that has lasted longer than 8 years, and a clear Iranian influence on the Maliki-led coalition government —  makes Iraq unique, and makes Maliki’s regime especially glaring in its lack of legitimacy.

The writing reads in the currency reads: “I am Iraqi – June 7th”, “6/7 We are waiting for you. Don’t be late”

As Uday al-Zaidi, brother of shoe-throwing journalist and lead organizer of the ‘Popular Movement to Save Iraq’ puts it:  “What we want is dignity. If you look, when the protests began in Baghdad, we were not [just] asking for electricity or government subsidies. You hear here and there that these people are just looking for work, or job opportunities. They are wrong. We are a country that has lost its dignity and freedom. That is why our central demand is and will continue to be an end to the occupation, and an end to this political process which is built on a sectarian quota system.”

Perhaps sensing how vulnerable the top of the pyramid is, Iraqi police (and sometimes military) have launched a severe crackdown in the run-up to June 7th, arresting, questioning and sometimes torturing activists and their supporters. The crackdown has been so blatantly repressive, that even international human rights organizations, that have often been very quiet about Iraq, like Amnesty International have released condemnations, and calls for the release of the detained, like prominent blogger Ahmed Alaa al-Baghdadi.

The tactics though, seem to be outrunning the repression, with the method of writing meeting spots and dates on currency (pictured above) for wide dissemination, which was a very effective strategy most recently in Egypt, where, like in Iraq, the vast majority are without access to ‘facebook.’

Extending the metaphor, Uday al-Zaidi adds “This has shown us once and for all that terrorism and the Iraqi government are two sides of the same coin.”