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.

An Ode to Islam

Upon Ali’s pillow drew odes from farmers of the Oikumene,

they whose dirges lamented silence.

Curious hands dug and sought the seeds of heaven,

they whose omens split open silence.

Jesus summons Joseph through colour of time,

to coat Potiphar’s rhyme,

draw God’s dream to deign

and thread open silence.

His majesty, the Mehdi slumped, bored with waiting.

“My progeny!” Quipped Ibn Abbas, “who will herald open heaven’s silence?”

The whirling dervish, that punch-drunk lover,

tale spinner, under wool cover.

Shari’a she does not,

the Prophet’s prayerful plot,

capriciously interpret open silence.

Today there is Islam’s infidel,

they who say he’s jihad’s occupation,

and Leila’s infidelity.

She whose intifada espouses no open lovers,

and He who built Majnun’s settlements,

though ilk of monoclonal caste,


a time to break the silence.

Arab Spring exposes Nasrallah’s hypocrisy

by Hamid Dabashi

(originally published on al-Jazeera)

Hassan Nasrallah is in trouble. This time the troubles of the Secretary General of Hezbollah, which were hitherto the source of his strength, are not coming from Israel, or from the sectarian politics of Lebanon. Seyyed Hassan’s troubles, which this time around are the harbingers of his undoing as an outdated fighter, are coming from, of all places, the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring, the transnational uprising of masses of millions of people from Morocco to Oman, from Syria to Yemen, is making the aging warrior redundant – his habitually eloquent tongue now stuttering for words. Two years ago, he thought he got away with rejecting the democratic uprising in Iran (whose brutal ruling regime is his principle patron and financier), as a plot by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. And he did – aided and abetted by the moral and intellectual sclerosis of a segment of Arab intellectuals who thought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamic theocracy were the vanguard of “resistance” to US/Israel imperialism in the region and thus should be spared from criticism. And then Tunisia happened, and Egypt, and Libya, and Bahrain, and Yemen – and then, Hassan Nasrallah and Ali Khamenei’s nightmare, Syria happened. It is a sad scene to see a once mighty warrior being bypassed by the force of history, and all he can do is to fumble clumsily to reveal he has not learned the art of aging gracefully.

Deja vu

When Hasan Nasrallah came to the defence of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, signs of frailty were all over the old fighter’s countenance. He asked Syrians for patience. He admitted mistakes had been made by Syrians in Lebanon. He promised Assad would do reforms. He pleaded for time. Deja vu: For an uncanny moment the Hezbollah fighter sounded and looked like the late Shah of Iran days before his final demise early in 1979: desperate, confused, baffled by the unfolding drama, worriedly out of touch with what was happening around him.

“Hassan Nasrallah,” according to an Al Jazeera report on 25 May 2011,“has called on Syrians to support president Bashar al-Assad and enter into dialogue with the government to end weeks of ongoing protests across Syria.”

This is a far different cry than when the democratic uprising in Iran started in June 2009 and Nasrallah readily dismissed and ridiculed it as an American plot. These were Arabs up against their corrupt and cruel leaders, not “them Persians” whose money was good but their historic struggles for their civil liberties a plot by the Saudis, the Israelis, and the US.

“Bashar is serious about carrying out reforms,” he was now pleading with his audience, “but he has to do them gradually and in a responsible way; he should be given the chance to implement those reforms.” When Nasrallah made these remarks more than 1000 Syrian civilians had been gunned down by Bashar Assad’s army and security forces, serving the Assad dynasty for about forty years.

More criminal atrocities were to follow, forcing Syrians to abandon their own homeland and flee to Turkey. The cruel and gruesome torture and murder of Hamza al-Khateeb was still in the offing, where “in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces,” as reported by Al Jazeera, the 13-year-old boy’s “humanity [was] degraded to nothing more than a lump of flesh to beat, burn, torture and defile, until the screaming stopped at last.”

Nasrallah, who could not care less for such revolting behavior by his patrons, now for second time in a row, was siding with brutal, vicious tyrants and their criminally insane security forces against the democratic aspirations of their people – once in Iran and now in Syria. A “freedom fighter”?  Really? What kind of a “freedom fighter” is that? Forget about the Shah, Hassan Nasrallah now sounded more like President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) who once famously said about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (1896-1956) that he “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Hassan Nasrallah too did not care if Khamenei and Assad tortured and murdered their own people – so far as they kept him in business.

“Peaceful Syrian citizens,” declared a statement by hundreds of Syrian filmmakers and their colleagues from around the globe, “are being killed today for their demands of basic rights and liberties. It is the same oppression and corruption that kept Syrians prisoners and swallowed their freedom, properties and lives for decades, that is assassinating their bodies and dreams today.” Hassan Nasrallah would have none of this, as he had no patience or sympathy for the kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered bodies of scores of young Iranians during the civil rights uprising of 2009. A belligerent segment of Arab and American intellectuals (ignorant or indifferent to the historic struggle of Iranians for their civil liberties) sided with him in dismissing the Green Movement in Iran as a Saudi-CIA plot. Shame, everlasting shame on them!

“Peaceful Syrian citizens,” declared a statement by hundreds of Syrian filmmakers and their colleagues from around the globe, “are being killed today for their demands of basic rights and liberties. It is the same oppression and corruption that kept Syrians prisoners and swallowed their freedom, properties and lives for decades, that is assassinating their bodies and dreams today.” Hassan Nasrallah would have none of this, as he had no patience or sympathy for the kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered bodies of scores of young Iranians during the civil rights uprising of 2009. A belligerent segment of Arab and American intellectuals (ignorant or indifferent to the historic struggle of Iranians for their civil liberties) sided with him in dismissing the Green Movement in Iran as a Saudi-CIA plot. Shame, everlasting shame on them!

The only language that Hassan Nasrallah understands is the language that keeps him in power, condemning the US, the EU, Israel, and the Saudis – all hitherto truisms that have, thanks to the Green Movement and the Arab Spring, lost their grip on reality even more than Nasrallah.


Nasrallah’s predicament with Syria had been moving towards him apace. He has been dillydallying since the commencement of the Arab Spring as to how to calibrate his positions. When Tunisia happened he said,“we must congratulate the Tunisian people on their historic revolution, their struggle, and their uprising.”

He thought this was happening only to European allies, and he thought this was good. When Egypt happened, he said, “in Tunis and Egypt, tyrants have gone away… we call on the people of Egypt and the people of Tunis to unite, because division could be a prelude to the resurrection of the ruling regimes.” This is when he thought these were happening only to the US allies. Nobody was watching him, but he was already in trouble. How come he never sent any encouraging word to “the people of Iran,” when they did precisely what Tunisians and Egyptians had done – rising up against tyranny?

He (and he had his allies on this matter among the leading Arab and non-Arab “left”) categorically denounced the Iranian uprising. He sided with identical tyrants like Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. He said Iran was in the capable hands of his friend “Grand Ayatollah Khamenei”. He did not even blink on al-Manar when he said that. It was payback time for him.

When Libya happened, Hassan Nasrallah said, “a group of young men and women rose and they were faced with bullets; war was imposed on the popular revolution. What is taking place in Libya is war imposed by the regime on a people that was peacefully demanding change; this people was forced to defend itself and war broke out in the east and the west, with warplanes, rocket launchers, and artillery. It brought back to our memory the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and all of Israel’s wars. Such serious crimes should be condemned and the revolutionary people of Libya should be helped so as to persevere.” How splendid!

But what is the difference between Iranian or Syrian and the Libyan people? In Iran and Syria too: “a group of young men and women rose and they were faced with bullets.” Were arbitrary arrest, torture, and even rape not “imposed by the regime on a people that was peacefully demanding change” in Iran and then Syria too? Is Iranian or Syrian blood any thinner than Libyan blood in the mighty warrior’s estimation? Is there a word for this barefaced hypocrisy in any language? What sort of “resistance” is this – and resistance to what?  Resistance to Israeli expansionism by a band of militant thugs maiming and murdering their own people in Syria and Iran? Is this the choice that our people must make?

When Yemen happened, Nasrallah said, “it is not possible to keep silent about killing and oppressing the demonstrators. We praise the steadfastness of the Yemeni people and their commitment to their peaceful movement, although we know that Yemen is full of weapons.” But how come it is possible to “keep silent about killing and oppressing the demonstrators” in Iran? No, sorry, he was not silent at all about Iran. He was positively elated and quite verbose that his dear friend Ayatollah Khamenei had managed to oppress those identical demonstrators. As masses of millions of Iranian were pouring into streets calling the presidential election of 2009 a charade and a fraud, Hassan Nasrallah was quick to congratulate Ahmadinejad, calling the result a “great hope to all the mujahedin and resistance who are fighting against the forces of oppression and occupation”. As even more millions of people took to streets risking arrest, incarceration, torture, and even cold-blooded murder, Nasrallah assured the world that “Iran is under the authority of the Wali Al Faqih and will pass through this crisis.” He never praised “the steadfastness” of the Iranian people “and their commitment to their peaceful movement.” Why? What’s the difference between Iranians and Yemenis?

When Bahrain happened, Nasrallah said, “why is the movement [in Bahrain] condemned and the injured accused? Just because they are Shias?… We’ve always been with the Palestinian people, but the sect of the Palestinian people was never an issue for us. Nobody asked about the confession and sect of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples; we have an obligation to stand by the downtrodden. Iran stood by the people of Palestine, Tunis, Egypt, and Libya; was this based on secular considerations? I find it very weird to hear some people calling on Egyptians to take to the streets, Libyans to kill Gaddafi, but when Bahrain is involved, their ink dries out, and their voices dampen.”

This was indeed very ecumenical of the Hassan Nasrallah. But was his own ink dried and his own voice dampened when Iranians were being clubbed to death, tortured, and even raped by the security forces of his friend “Ayatollah Khamenei?”  How come he did not feel obligated to stand by millions of human beings for whom spoke two bona fide Shias, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi? Were they not Muslims, Shias, human beings? And yes, Iranians have “stood by the people of Palestine, Tunis, Egypt, and Libya” – but not because they are Muslim, or Sunnis, or Shias, but based on their shared aspiration for a free and democratic future. Will Hassan Nasrallah have a place in that democratic future, with this kind of record, of siding with criminal thugs that deny and seek to prevent it?

And then Syria happened, and Hasan Nasrallah began stuttering. “First, we should be committed to Syria’s stability, security and safety.” Syrians’ security and safety – or Bashar al-Assad’s? Scores of Syrians are being gunned down, tortured, and killed. There is a massive humanitarian crisis on the Syrian-Turkish border, finally forcing Turkey to sever its ties with Syria. Syrians are fleeing their homeland en masse, fearing for their lives from Bashar al-Assad’s murderous army. What about their security and safety?

“Second,” he said, “We call upon the Syrian people to maintain their regime of resistance, as well as to give way to the Syrian leadership to implement the required reforms and to choose the course of dialogue.” Really? Isn’t that what Clinton also says about Bahrain? How come if Clinton says it about Bahrain it is bad and imperialistic, but if Hassan Nasrallah says it about Syria it is good and revolutionary – while both Bahrainis and Syrians are being slaughtered by identically corrupt ruling regimes? The magnificent aspect of the Arab Spring is that it exposes the identical hypocrisy of both the US (on Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) and Hassan Nasrallah (on Iran and Syria).

“Third, we as Lebanese shouldn’t interfere in what is going on in Syria, but let the Syrians themselves to deal with the issue.” Truly? How come “you as Lebanese” interfere anywhere from Morocco to Iran, from Bahrain to Yemen, but not about Syria? Why? Aren’t Syrians humans? If you shoot them do they not bleed? If you torture and mutilate them do they not suffer and die? “Fourth, we should reject any sanctions led by US and the West asking Lebanon to abide by them against Syria, which is the most important goal of [Assistant US Secretary of State Jeffrey] Feltman’s recent visit to Lebanon.” Why? How come UN resolutions against Israel are good, but UN resolutions against Syria are not good? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Right?

Promoting democracy?

There is an old expression in the film industry, “continuity clerk”, which refers to a member of the crew responsible to ensure that there is continuity and consistency – especially in matters of dress, make-up, etc. – in successive shots of a film, particularly when these shots are filmed on different days. The grand Hezbollah leader badly needs a “continuity clerk”. You cannot wear a revolutionary garb one day and then a pathetically apologetic disguise another.

That Hassan Nasrallah is not altogether aware of what is happening around him is also evident in the fact that it seems just to have dawned on him that the US is “seeking to hijack the wave of pro-democracy popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world.” Of course they are – but what is Hassan Nasrallah doing to safeguard and promote it, siding with Bashar al-Assad and Ali Khamenei? Hassan Nasrallah is now outmaneuvered, checkmated, made redundant by history, by, of all things, a magnificent Arab Spring, in which he has no role, no say, and no decision. Nothing. He could and he did dismiss Iranian uprising and he got away with it.  Syria and the rest of the Arab Spring are doing away with him. He has failed the test of history—of knowing when to abandon tyrants benevolent to him for their own reasons but abusive and criminal to their own people.

It is not accidental that Iran’s Ahmadinejad is on the same page with Hassan Nasrallah in defending the Syrian regime – for they are all made of the same cloth. What is happening in Syria, Ahmadinejad believes, is a plot by a number of countries in the region, “because Syria is in the frontline of resistance and the Islamic Republic is standing shoulder to shoulder with the Syrian state and nation”? Not so fast. The Syrian state is now murdering the Syrian nation. You cannot be on both sides. Siding with the regime is endorsing its murderous record of killing its nation, as indeed the Islamic Republic, on Ahmadinejad’s own watch, has done against Iranians, with Nasrallah’s approval.

Ahmadinejad’s protestations in support of the Syrian regime, however, should not muddy the clear conception of why the Islamic Republic supports Hamas or Hezbollah. In defending the allocation of funding for Hamas and Hezbollah, the military strategist of the Islamic Republic make no bones about why is it that they support the Palestinian and Lebanese causes. “The Palestinians are not fighting for Palestine,” one leading Iranian military strategist is seen recently explaining to a captivated audience, “they are fighting for Iran; the Lebanese are not fighting for Lebanon; they are fighting for Iran. To have the courage to say this and the courage to demonstrate this means to provide a strategic conception [of what we do].”  Does Hassan Nasrallah know this, or is he taking advantage of the Islamic Republic the way the Islamic Republic is taking advantage of him. And what do millions of human beings caught in this massive hypocrisy have to do with these political and strategic machinations?

During protests in Iran, when scores of young Iranian men and women were being brutally tortured and killed in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic, Nasrallah was not keeping silent. He was voluminously loquacious in siding with tyranny, exposing his utter and pervasive hypocrisy.

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Dasht-e Leili

(originally published at Words without Borders)

After the doors were shut, the tomblike cargo container had become dark. With our hands and feet bound with the fabric of our own turbans, we had fallen on top of each other and the only thing we could see was the glitter of each others’ eyes. Outside, the sun was shining, which made the air inside the container hot and close.


They had given us nothing to eat or drink all day. Before, the soldiers in camouflage uniforms, some of whom were constantly riding around us on motorcycles, used to give us bread and water. The soldiers were either Americans or from different countries. We were in Yerganak; for two days we had experienced the burning sun of Yerganak. After we gave up Kunduz and had surrendered to them, they gathered us there,and sat us down on the hot yellow sand in our bare feet. The first day, they divided us into smaller groups, tied a rope around us, and left us there on the burning sand. The rope around us was so tight that every one of us was pressed against another and none of us could move. Those among us who had a qadifa put them over our heads and we found relief under the shade. The sun was burning; our hot bodies stuck to each other and the heat from our bodies became one and the same. We could only sit still, staring at the others being tied up. After this, a few Kamaz trucks arrived, some of them open and others with cargo compartments, and some of us were taken away. We were getting boiled under the sun and no one could say anything. And even if we could have talked, we would not have understood each other anyhow. All of us, including me, had come from different and faraway places to engage in jihad and to reach paradise. I had seen every one of these black ghouls back in Kunduz, but only from a distance. They were in a separate group and not with us. At night, in the beams from the headlights of some cars circling around us, we shivered with cold but none of us could move. If we made even the slightest movement, a shot was fired and all of us were paralyzed, though the shivering went on.

The second day we were next in line. A container was pulled up toward us. Some soldiers babbling in Suzbek-Uzbek came up to us. They released the rope around us. I said in Persian that I did not belong with the others but they went on in Uzbek and started kicking me, and beating me with rifle butts. The soldiers took off everyone’s qadifas, vests, shoes, and turbans, and left us there with only our shirts and trousers on. After they had removed all of our belongings, these men whose language I could not understand said something. Still I could not make out one word. Then they began to bind our hands and feet with our turbans. Our group was the first to be tied up. They did the same thing with the others, in groups of hundreds or more, they were thrown in containers or loaded on Kamaz trucks, and then taken away. I was the third one whose turban they removed. They tore it in two. With the one part my hands were tied up in front of me, and with the other, they tied my feet, then threw me down on the hot yellow sand. Once again I said that I was not with the others, that I was an Afghan like them. I said it in Persian so that they might understand; they did not. I tried again, this time in Pashto, but they just went on with their Uzbek, as they were tying up the others’ hands and feet. Still in the same position as after I had fallen on the hot yellow sand, I watched as the others were stripped of their turbans one by one, bound hand and foot, and thrown down on the ground next to me. One big dark man began resisting and did not let them tie his hands. I got the impression that he was reciting the Qur’an. The soldiers threw themselves on top of him; kicking and beating him with the butts of their rifles, they fettered his hands behind his back with his own turban, which had fallen from his head. Still, he resisted. When they had tied up his feet, they pushed him down on the ground next to me. His head and face were smeared with blood. He was talking in the same manner as before; perhaps he was reciting the Qur’an after all. Again, the soldiers spoke with each other in that strange Suzbek-Uzbek, tied the hands of the rest behind their backs, and . . . as the red doors of the container were opened, we looked at each other and then fixed our eyes upon the soldiers. They hurled us into the container one by one. After I had been thrown on the container floor, I curled myself up, slithered to the side, and leaned against the metal wall. The wall was hot, but not so much that it burned my back. Everyone was twisting and bending their bound hands and feet, and pushed to make some space for themselves. But there were so many of us that we all lay piled up on top of each other. My stretched-out legs had ended up beneath two bodies and were impossible to move. One of the men on top of me was the one who had been beaten. I tried to pull up my legs. I could not. I shook them a little. The two men were staring at me but did not say a thing. Then they started moving as if they were trying to get up. I managed to get my legs out from beneath their bodies, pulled my knees against my chest, and wrapped my hands around my legs.


After the doors had been shut, the tomblike container was filled with darkness, and the only thing we could hear was our own heavy breathing. I placed my bound hands on the turban knot, with which my feet had been fettered, and tried to undo it. For a moment it felt as if it would open and hope sparked inside me. I fixed my eyes on the man who had been knocked about and now had fallen down next to me. I could hear him breathing and felt how his chest, pressing against my legs, was rising and falling. He seemed to be staring at something. When I followed his eyes, my sight fell upon a thin streak of light shining through a crack in the wall, flickering in the stale air of the container. In the darkness, I followed the thin streak of light—from his eyes—and spotted a crack just above my head; not more than an inch, possibly from a bullet. I tried to stretch upward but I could not. My back was pressed against the wall, which was getting warmer and warmer; I was sweating and having trouble breathing. Everyone was silent. The space inside the container was filled with the changing stench of bodies that had not seen even the color of water for many days. The air was getting thicker and I could breathe only with difficulty. After a while, the sounds we were making increased and I could feel the blows of bodies hitting the container’s wall. Everyone tried to strike with any part of the body that could be moved, and gradually the banging sound of fettered hands, tied-up feet and heads hitting the walls, resounded in the container. Everyone was screaming and the sound of heads banging against the container grew stronger. I breathe heavily. I scream. I am banging my head against the wall. Bang . . . bang, everyone is screaming, pounding at the walls with their fists, their feet, and probably also with their heads.

They, inside the container, beneath the sun. We, outside, in the wall’s narrow shadow. We watched the container, listening to the thumping from inside, possibly from their heads banging the walls. When we seized Mazar everyone had fled. In the city, nobody was to be seen. No one came out from their homes, as they had done in the other cities we had seized. The heat was merciless. It was early summer and I experienced the heat here in Mazar much worse than on the plains of Helmand and Nimruz. Those people we had found out on the streets, or had dragged out from their homes, we threw in the container. They were yelling that they were being boiled and that the door should be opened. We had placed ourselves in the shadow from the wall and our bodies were dripping with sweat. Everyone we had stumbled upon had been thrown into the container. The burning sun of Mazar stood right above us and the shadow falling from the wall was growing shorter, and every gust of wind that met our dripping bodies felt like a blessing. We were still sitting there, listening to the noise they were making. My friends did not know Persian that well so they just sat there staring at the container chatting with each other. Everyone was occupied with his own doings. The man next to me had opened his beloved Qur’an to read from. Occasionally he took his eyes from the book, and while his fingers were stroking and scratching his long beard, he stared at the container for some time, before he returned to his reading. I was the only one who understood what they said. “We are choking. Oh, you nonbelievers, open the doors. We are being boiled, we are being grilled.” That man next to me who was reading from the Qur’an raised his head. Scratching his beard in the same manner as before he said, “They are still alive.” Once again, he sank into the pages of his dear Qur’an. And the others were still screaming.


We are screaming. We have not been boiled yet. We are screaming, begging them to open the doors. Everyone is loud, but I do not understand what they are saying, only God knows in what kind of language they speak, I do not know. I think some of them are reciting the Qur’an, I do not know. Everyone is knocking loudly in the container. Perhaps, it is their heads pounding against the walls of the container that brings about this banging sound. As my breathing deteriorates, I pound my head into the wall and a banging sound fills my head. I can taste blood. It is my own blood. At that point I stop banging my head against the wall; I taste the warm and salty blood and swallow it. I lick my lips and swallow the blood that streams down from my head. As my throat becomes moist, I feel that I can scream even more. I scream and I scream and I scream and I scream . . . and then, I calm down and listen to the voices gradually die out. I let my eyes wander around in the darkness. Someone is still reciting the Qur’an. This is something I can understand but I cannot remember from which Sura he reads. The man who had fallen over my legs is quiet. I can see him staring in the darkness. His eyes seem to be fixed on something. I remember the thin stream of light and the crack in the wall. I follow his eyes and my sight falls upon the thin stream of light that flickers in the container’s stale air. At the sight of the light a longing stirs in my heart. I look up and forget the hot walls of the container that are burning my back. I forget how thirsty I am, how many hours I have been imprisoned inside this container, and how difficult it is for me to breathe. It feels almost as if I could pull myself up to that crack and inhale the air from the outside. Though, if I did move and stand up, I would not be able to sit down again. It would be enough if I could move even a little, but I have still not found a position from which I could get up. So many hours since they threw us in the container . . . how long has it been? I do not know really, I do not remember. It is still morning. Or can it be afternoon, now that the air is so hot. I can still hear the sound of the three-wheeled motorcycles, those who used to go around and guard us, always carrying two soldiers in camouflage uniforms. Other than those Uzbek-babbling soldiers to whom we had surrendered, no soldiers seem to come. I shake my bound hands that hug my fettered legs pulled up against my chest. All the feeling in my fingers is now gone. I touch the turban knot with which my feet have been tied up, but I have trouble moving my numbed fingers. I twitch my fingers so that the blood will begin to flow again. Once more, I look up toward the crack above me, which the man next to me is still probably gazing at. Now I can also hear the sound of his deep breathing. I want to stand up. I pull myself upward; perhaps I can reach the crack with my mouth and make my breathing easier. Maybe the air outside . . . I cannot, I remain in the same position, inhaling the stale and stinking air only with difficulty. It is impossible to breathe deeply; the odor from our sweating bodies has become rank and suffocating. Everyone breathes loudly and the sound of their breathing disperses through the container’s oxygen-deficient space. Everyone’s hands are tied up, all of our feet fettered. No one can move even the slightest distance. There is no spirit left in any of us to summon the strength it takes to move oneself. If only my hands had been free. When I touch the knot with my fingers, it feels as if I can undo it. I am working the knot little by little. Those bastards, they have used a blind knot! The knot around my feet is also tight and I cannot feel a thing in them. The soles of my feet are stuck to the container floor and are burning from the heat. I cannot lean against the wall any longer. I want to detach my back from it but I cannot, there is no room to move. I am thirsty, the sweat is pouring down from my head and face, and my breath is burning. I can feel someone licking my arm where my sleeve is torn; he is licking. When I turn toward him, I see that it is the man next to me that is licking the sweat on my arm; the salty sweat of my body, a body that has not seen even the color of water for many days. It feels as if this is making me thirstier. The man next to me stops licking my arm and looks at me. I see the sparkle in his eyes and then I feel his tongue passing over my arm as it collects my sweat. I twist my tongue around in my mouth and the thirst seems more intense now as I feel that my dry tongue is stuck. When I turn my eyes away from him I see the dancing light in the dark space of the container. Again, I begin to work the knot around my feet. The knot is getting looser and I can move my feet; the knot slackens even more. Then it opens. I quickly undo it and unwind the turban around my feet. I can even stand up now. I slide the unwound turban under my buttocks and can feel its softness. Then I turn around and put my knees on the turban; I stand up and put my mouth against the crack in the container wall. I open my mouth and press my lips around the opening; my lips are burning, burned by the heat of the container wall. I pull back, but my breathing is still heavy so I put my lips back around the crack and let them burn. I take the warm air from the outside into my lungs and my inside is cooled down a little. The container starts to move and the heavy swaying throws my head back. When I try to press my lips around the opening again, the container keels once more and my face is slammed into the container’s metal wall. My nose and teeth take the hit and it feels as if something has broken. I swallow the blood in my mouth and pass my tongue over my teeth, and spit out the broken pieces. Once again I gulp the warm and salty blood. My throat feels refreshed.

I look around, in the darkness of the close air, everyone is panting; as if they all are licking the sweat off each other’s bodies. I feel someone drag his body over my legs; with my legs pressed against the container floor, I feel an acute pain in my knees. I turn my head to look. It is him, that enormous man who apparently has tipped sideways and fallen on my legs. I ask him to get off me. In the darkness of his face I can see his eyes glittering. He does not move. In spite of my pleas to get off me, he only keeps staring at me. He says something I can’t understand; he is not speaking Pashto. God knows where this man comes from. I feel that the blood has stopped flowing through my legs and sit on the chest of the man who cannot get off my legs can feel his fleshy ribs and wet clothes under my buttocks. He moves a little, to the degree that it is possible, and I remain seated on his sturdy chest. The pressure from his weight has made my knees and thighs press against the container wall and I can sense the heat ascending from my sweat-dripping pants. I turn my face and look behind me. The spot from where the man whose chest I am sitting on had fallen a few moments ago has been taken by another man, and he cannot move back. All of us are moving back and forth as the container sways, and the fleshy chest of the man under my buttocks is wobbling. Everyone is moaning and I can hear their loud breathing. I open my scorched lips and draw the fetid air into my lungs, but I still have difficulty breathing. I stand up on my knees and press my chest and thighs against the hot container wall; the heat in my clothes sizzles as it vaporizes, and I feel the hot fumes rising. I have lost all feeling in my legs under the man whose chest I am sitting on. He does not move. I try to shake my numbed legs but I cannot. In every swaying motion of the container, his body presses my legs and I feel like screaming. I raise my bound hands and hit him. He twists his head a little and starts to scream but I do not understand what he says. My hands begin to hurt so I stop. Gasping for air, I bring my mouth closer to the crack and try to close my lips around the opening. The man, whose chest I am sitting on and whose face most likely is covered with blood as a result of my punches, manages to move himself a little; my nose, mouth, and teeth hit the container wall once again and a sudden pain rushes through my whole body. I pant for breath, swallow the blood in my mouth, and put my scorched lips around the crack. As I inhale the air from the outside, my lungs are filled with dust, and I begin to cough. The blood in my legs must be clotted by now, since I cannot feel a thing in them. My hair and beard are soaking with sweat that flows down over the rest of my body. Once more I feel the tongue of him whose hands are tied behind his back, against my sweat-dripping pants. I take another breath from the crack but dust and sand rasp my throat, so I lift my burned lips from the crack and begin to cough—and cough. I feel the grains of sand in my mouth. That is OK since it does not really matter, I will swallow it anyhow. It burns and lacerates my lungs.


It is quite nice now that autumn has arrived; it was summer in Mazar and even though we used to sit in the shade, we were heat stricken. They were not beating at the container any longer. We had thrown them into the container hours ago, and now they were silent. I had walked up to the container and touched it, and my fingertips had been burnt I looked at the others who had sat down in the shadow of the wall and were fanning themselves with the loose end of their turbans. The man who had been reading the Qur’an was still scratching his beard and reading from his Qur’an. At one time he had raised his head and asked if they were still alive.


We are still alive. It is the autumn that has kept us alive. I have trouble breathing. The moaning voices are gradually decreasing. I sit down on the chest of the man who had fallen over my legs; under my buttocks I can feel that his chest has stopped moving. Perhaps he cannot breathe any longer. I lay my hands on the shoulders of the man next to me, he who earlier was licking my sweat, and collect all my strength and try to get up. His body gives way and together we fall down. I take hold of the arms of the man who previously had been licking my sweat and now is breathing heavily, and drag myself forward; perhaps I can get my legs out from beneath the dead body on whose chest I have been sitting. I cannot do it, I cannot breathe. Since he stopped breathing, it feels as if he has become heavier. My thighs and knees are stuck against the container wall and are impossible to move. Breathing is not getting any easier. With a lot of effort I manage to stand up, put my scorched lips around the crack, and take in the warm and dusty air from the outside into my lungs and begin to cough—and cough. I listen to the sound of my coughing, twirling through the air inside the container. As the coughing ends I put my lips around the opening again. I must survive. I cannot suffocate like the others. I need to stay alive. I must live. There is no air left inside the container, I must breathe from that crack, but my lips, my lips are parched. Oh my God, what can I do? My lips are being grilled. My mouth is dry. If only it had a drop of saliva, if only my mouth was filled with blood again, if only . . . hands and chest are pressing against the hot container wall, and I feel the heat of sweat as my clothes touch the hot container wall, rising and touching my sweat-dripping face. The sweat is pouring down from my head and face, enters my eyes and burns. My God! I need to scream, I must pound at the hot wall. I must beg those Suzbek-Uzbek-speaking soldiers to open the doors. Everyone has suffocated and soon I, too, will be gone. My God, I have lost my voice. Is there not anyone there who can tell them to open the door? I pound at the metal wall with my bound hands and bump my head against the wall. Perhaps they can hear me. It is as if my head was made of stone; as I pound it against the wall a banging sound resonates.


I could hear how they pounded their fists and feet, and possibly also their heads, against the container wall. I was seated in the narrow shade of the wall. We had taken our places in that shadow and were listening, under the burning sun of Mazar, to them hitting the metal walls with their fists, feet, and perhaps also with their heads. Bang bang bang . . . I stood in the shadow of the wall, sweating, and whenever a gentle breeze touched my body, I shivered and enjoyed it. I felt pretty good.


I can feel that the wall has cooled down and through the crack cooler air finds its way down into my lungs. After some time, the stinking air in the container becomes cooler and I do not sweat any longer. I can feel the dried sweat and the coarseness in my clothes against my skin. Longing stirs in my heart and the coolness of the air infuses new life into me. It feels as if I will survive. The container is moving more smoothly now and my legs, still wedged under the dead man’s body, are not troubled by the gentle and monotonous swaying of the container. My body has cooled down and the thirst is not that intense anymore. I lick my scorched lips and feel the roughness of the dried blood around my mouth. The light entering the container from the crack in the wall does not shine any longer. I put my mouth against the opening and feel my burned lips being met by the cool air that blows in through the crack; cravingly I suck in the air into my lungs. Time after time, I inhale the fresh air into my lungs and a sensation of survival stirs up inside me. Perhaps everyone but me is dead. Not a sound can be heard from them, and from the outside, I can only hear the sound of wheels running over asphalt at high speed. I open my mouth and ask if someone is still alive or not. I hear a shrill voice struggling up from my throat but it quickly dissolves into the putrid and suffocating space inside the container. A couple of times I ask, “Is anybody alive? Are you still alive? Is anybody alive here? Anybody . . .” From one of the corners inside the container I hear a weak voice fighting its way out of somebody’s dried-up throat. The voice is completely incomprehensible, as if it emanated from the bottom of a deep well, and it does not make any sense at all. Perhaps he talks in another language. The voice is more like a moaning. Then, the container fills with silence once again. I press my head against the cold container wall and the coldness of the metal enters my skin. Every now and then a light shines into the container through the opening, but only to disappear just as fast. Gradually I feel I am getting colder. The fetid smell inside the container has lessened. My clothes, which are glued to my body, send cold rushing through me. I have become very tired and want to sleep. That is good; if I fall asleep I will forget everything. No, no, I cannot fall asleep. I cannot sleep. If I fall asleep I will suffocate too. I must press my lips around that crack as often as I can and force down the outside air into my lungs. I must survive. I must live. I must live. I must live. Must . . . must . . . must . . . must. I have trouble breathing, must put my lips around the crack and breathe. With every breath I take, dust and sand follow. I can feel the grains of sand under my tongue. The cold has embraced my very existence. How fast they cooled down, the container walls . . . the cold quickly disperses throughout my body. I feel drowsy. No, I can’t sleep. If I fall asleep the cold will kill me for sure . . . during the day we had all been suffering from the heat. The others had been boiled by the heat and had suffocated from lack of air. But I, I will die from cold. The coldness will kill me. That crack which up to now has kept me alive will kill me. When my face is met by the outside air I can sense its coldness against my skin. It feels as if I am in Dasht-e Leili. Dasht-e Leili, Dasht-e Leili . . . We had gotten out of Shibirghan and taken off toward the plains. We did not know where to go or where we were going to. A few days after we had taken Shibirghan, the fighting began. Shots were being fired at us from all around. None of us was familiar with the city and we did not know where to run. Mounted on a Datsun, we drove around aimlessly until we managed to find a way out. On that truck we fled out into the plains. At a high speed, the Datsun carried us away— without us knowing where we were going to. It had become night and we were still going. Then we found ourselves out on a plain. The night of the desert plain was getting cooler but none of us had a qadifa to cover himself with. When the fighting broke out and we were being shot at from all directions, we took flight, we had thrown ourselves up on the Datsun in confusion and fled just like that. In the desert night we shivered and huddled up against each other on the Datsun’s rear bed. The driver drove at the same speed as when he had managed to get us out of the city and drove on into the heart of the desert. The headlights on the Datsun were switched off so we could not see a thing. Then, the car went silent and stopped moving. As the driver got out of the Datsun and went to fetch the diesel can, we understood that we had run out of fuel. The driver picked up the diesel can and then threw it angrily on the ground—the empty can emitted a hollow sound before it settled down on the ground. We were forced to spend the night in the Datsun. But with fear and cold none of us could get any sleep. Our eyes wandered about in every direction. Then we took turns keeping watch and resting. Early in the morning, as soon as it dawned, we looked around us; we noticed the wheel tracks from our Datsun that had run all over the dry and arid desert plain and had cut one another at places. We had been going round in circles. It was getting warmer and we were still wavering in which direction we should go. “This is Dasht-e Leili . . . Dasht-e Leili . . .” one of us said. He told us that he had heard stories about this place, that many men had lost their way in this desert and had not been able to find their way out. The driver, the commander, and a couple of others, who had been sitting inside the Datsun, climbed down and walked away. We jumped down from the rear bed of the Datsun and followed them. Crossing the wheel tracks from our Datsun that ran in every direction and cut one another, we moved ahead under the burning sun. We took our rifles off our backs and wandered about in confusion, but we could not find a road. In the sun we were suffering from heatstroke. We got rid of our rifles and threw our cartridge belts away; the only thing we had to carry was ourselves. I am not sure when it was, or for how many hours we had wandered about, bewildered and dazed, in the Dasht-e Leili, when I looked behind me; out of the ten or twelve of us that had started out, only I had survived, and two others, who were approaching slowly from behind and were falling to the ground every other step they took. Further back, a third one had fallen down on the dry yellow sand. Right in front of me, not far away, I could see the road. I dragged myself in that direction and stood up at the roadside. The sun, still burning from above, had made me dizzy. Then I had fallen down on the hot yellow soil of Dasht-e Leili. When I regained consciousness, I could feel a gentle swaying and some light vibrations, and as I opened my eyes I found myself inside a Kamaz truck. Some people were staring at me. “He has regained consciousness, he is awake . . .” I could hear one of them say. Everyone fixed their eyes on me and I asked them for some water. They were Persian-speakers and that is a language I understand well. But these I could not understand. They were neither speaking Persian, nor Pashto. And the language of those soldiers that were speaking Suzbek-Uzbek, to which we had surrendered, I could not understand either. And they do not understand me. No matter how much I insist that I do not belong with these people and that I am an Afghan, they do not understand me.

Now, again, I see the thin streak of light that shines into the container, flickering around in the stale air. The air becomes heated at such a pace; first the container wall, against which I have pressed my lips, and then the air, reeking with the body fluids of the dead. Now, as I shape my scorched lips around the crack to inhale the air into my lungs, my lips are burned again; the heavy swaying of the container hurts my teeth, and in the same manner as yesterday, hot dust, sand and particles, follow with the air into my lungs and I begin to cough. A cough so strong I can almost taste both liver and heart, and were it not for my empty stomach, I would have thrown up for sure. My God, I too am perishing. My clothes and body will surely get soaked with sweat again and I will have difficulty breathing. No, there cannot be any fluid left inside me that may transpire to render the air inside the container more evil-smelling than this; the pungent smell of sweat from the dead, the stench of vomit, perhaps also the odor of someone’s feces, has filled the air inside the container. If only the man next to me had been alive to lick my sweat, then I should have known that at least one was still alive. I am still alive . . . If only he whose language I could not understand had been alive, he who had fallen over my legs, he whose chest I had felt ascending and descending as he breathed heavily. Perhaps I can set myself free, but I still cannot feel a thing in my legs; it is as if two joints of rancid meat had been wedged under the body of a corpse. And now my own death is imminent. I can still feel the movements of the container. I have fallen over this dead man and I cannot move an inch. There is no air left inside the container for me to breathe, and inside me there is no spirit left to summon the strength it takes to stand up, to get my scorched lips around the opening and suck the outside air into my lungs; the hot and sand-filled air. I only lie there, with my back against the dead bodies, and with my knees pressing against the container wall, no, the container wall pressing against my knees . . . the moment of death cannot be far away now. I feel that someone is rocking me gently. The thin stream of light that shines in through the crack, alternately flickers before my eyes and dissolves; I see it, and then I do not see it. After this, there is no one left to rock me. At a distance, I can hear voices, but I do not know if these are really voices or . . . I am probably wrong. Light does not have a voice. But it has. All of a sudden the light becomes more intense. The light is strengthened and fills my eyes. It strikes my eyes and then I feel how I am being dragged behind someone along the ground. A few of them are dragging me. Once again I hear the voices that appear to be getting nearer and nearer. The voices babble in that Suzbek-Uzbek and carry me away from the container. Something is causing a twinge of pain in my legs; the legs in which I earlier did not have any feeling, the legs that had been wedged like two joints of meat under the body of that man who had been beaten. But now I could feel a twinge of pain in both my legs. A weak sound comes out from my mouth. A voice, more resembling a moan which rises from the bottom of a deep well. It is only with difficulty I can discern my own voice emanating from the depths of a well. My face is turned toward the ground. The soil enters my eyes. I am placed in the hot sand, this I can understand by the burning against the skin. I feel the hot winds against my body, and the sweat that earlier poured down over my face, has dried up. My dry scaly hair blocks my sight; still I can discern something blurred appearing and disappearing before my eyes. Then I see some feet around me. The feet speak Uzbek. The feet raise me up. They lift me under my arms and drag me away behind them. I open and shut my eyes alternately, and everything around appears in an obscured blur. Again, I see the feet that are dragging me away. The soil and the hot yellow sand fill my eyes. They burn and are blinded by the desert, and it feels as if I still am in the Dasht-e Leili. Someone drags me, heat-stricken, along the hot soil and sand. I am thrown into a pit and notice a softness under my body. I imagine myself still inside the container, seated upon him; the man with those fleshy ribs, he who had fallen down over my legs. My eyes are no longer filled with dust and my cheek rests against someone’s shackled hands. Then I hear the sound of an approaching car, do not ask me of which type,. Again I can feel the weight of a body over my legs. I open my mouth to inhale the sandy air, but instead, my mouth is filled with soil, and when I open my eyes they cannot close again, and soil and soil and . . . soil . . . soil . . . soil . . . soil . . . soil . . .

Tehran—Sawr, 1382 (April-May, 2003)

Translation of “Dasht-e Leili,” from the collection Anjir-ha-ye Sorkh-e Mazar (The Red Figs of Mazar, 1383/2004–5). Copyright Mohammad Hossein Mohammadi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Anders Widmark. All rights reserved.

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Tragedy in Tehran

tragedy in tehranBy Fariba Amini

Saturday 4 June 2011

Originally published on Change for Equality

A father dies after a month in coma following a brain hemorrhage. His daughter is allowed to leave Evin prison to say her goodbyes. The authorities allow for the funeral procession. She stands in front of the crowd holding flowers. The plainclothes men of the Islamic Republic of Iran, trained to be vicious and merciless, attack her and beat her; she falls on the ground and dies. It is unfathomable but it happened just two days ago in plain daylight in Iran’s capital.

Haleh Sahabi who died at the funeral of her father was a member of Mothers for Peace; she had been sentenced to two years of imprisonment for her peaceful activism. She was the daughter of a leading member of Iran’s Freedom Movement, an organization that dated back to the Shah’s time. Her father had been in prison both under the Shah and under the Islamic Republic and tortured. He was eighty three when he died. She was in her mid fifties. They were buried side by side in a cemetery outside Tehran. Three generations of a well- known family-grandfather, father and daughter had fought for freedom and gone to prison for it.

In recent months, Iran’s many prisons and detention centers have been packed with civil right activists, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers, many of them women, Nasrin, Bahareh, Mahdieh, Shabnam, Mahboubeh and many other courageous women are just a few names that come to mind. Haleh was their cellmate.

The Islamic Republic is determined to stifle Iran’s peace movement before crowds gather for any type of demonstration, even a funeral procession. Only a month earlier, a famous journalist and film critic, threw himself from his balcony and died a tragic death, away from his wife and his daughters. Siamak Pourzand was seventy- eight years old. He too had been imprisoned and tortured. He was not allowed to leave Iran.

The Arab spring in the Middle East has overshadowed much of the news from Iran. But we Iranians who are on Facebook or get the news daily or hourly from Iran, only hear the worst news, news that is now rarely reported in the world press. Iran is no more in the limelight. Libya, Yemen, and Syria have taken over, each regime bludgeoning its citizens who want some space, some freedom, a life without dictatorships of any color.

It was only two years ago after the Presidential elections, when Iran’s Democracy Movement was brutally crushed, its rank and file arrested and many of its leaders put under house arrest. The government was adamant to stop the wave of protest and it succeeded, at least temporarily. The government in Iran, wary of the Arab spring, wanted to stop its citizens from accomplishing a similar situation at all costs.

I did not know Haleh but my father knew the Sahabi family. He, as a member of Prime Minister Mosaddeq’s entourage, was imprisoned alongside Haleh’s grandfather and father. They were educated men, of highest integrity who wanted democracy and the rule of law. They did not see the fruit of their struggle and neither did Haleh. But maybe, just maybe, her son and our children will one day see a free and democratic Iran. In her very last interview, Haleh said that revenge is not our guiding light, but compassion is. Haleh’s death will not go in vain. Iran will see the spring of freedom, if not today, tomorrow.

Dear Haleh, rest in peace, on your father’s side. The women of Iran will continue your struggle. We will never forget, but we have to forgive, if only for you.

Tahrir Square: Back To Square One

by Robert Saleem Holbrook

women at tahrir square“The emancipation of women is not an act of charity, the result of a humanitarian , or compassionate attitude. The liberation of women is a fundamental necessity for the revolution, the guarantee of its continuity and the precondition for its victory. The main objective of the revolution is to destroy the system of exploitation and build a new society which releases the potentialities of human beings.-Samora Machel

On the evening of January 25, 2011 in anticipation of a protest planned at Tahrir Square a 26 year old Egyptian women named Asmaa Mahfouz released an on-line video announcing “I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and l will stand alone. And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor…” The following day on January 26 tens of thousands of Egyptians responded to her announcement by occupying Tahrir Square and in two weeks of protests, street battles and marches against government forces and thugs backed by the regime forced the ouster of the dictator Mubarak, the strongman of the Middle East. The world watched in awe as a people long oppressed by their own government took a stand against tyranny and brutality to assert their dignity and rights as free men and women. To quote Asmaa they “showed some honor” and for a moment inspired the world.

Sista Asmaa did not stand alone at Tahrir nor did other Egyptian women during the uprising, they stood along side men and fought with the same courage and dignity as their male partners. They lead chants, spoke at rallies, tended to the wounded, battled Mubarak’s thugs and celebrated in Tahrir when Mubarak was deposed. Women left Tahrir Square with a sense of empowerment, solidarity and hope for their earned roles in the future of a new Egypt. To quote Sarah Rifaat, a Tahrir protester; “For once, in the revolution, there were people who were veiled and unveiled. who had different ideologies but who focused not on the differences but on what brought them together”. Women were also impressed with their relationship with men at Tahrir, where both men and women fought side by side in a spirit of camaraderie. “What happened in Tahrir was a phenomenon, everyone was contributing equally, and it seemed natural” said Yasmine Khalifa, a student protester. So it was in the days following the uprising when women expected a prominent role within the new Egyptian society.

Now it seems however that Egyptian women are standing alone as they face setbacks after their performance at Tahrir. In the days following Mubarak’s ouster women protesters from Tahrir planned a Million Women March to assert their rights and to remind the military regime that ousted Mubarak that the uprising was not about removing one dictator but about transforming a society. In the days leading up to the march women were discouraged from participating in the march by the Military Council which released press statements that questioned the honor of women that attended the march. On the day of the march when a few hundred women defied the Military Councils warning and gathered in Tahrir Square men who only days before fought beside them at Tahrir heckled them with shouts of “Go home, the revolution is over” and “a women’s place is at home not in politics”. Ethar El—Katatney, an Egyptian women who writes a blog from Cairo expressed a deep sense of betrayal and disappointment at the treatment she and other female veterans of Tahrir experienced that day. The new society they hoped to help create was being blunted by men attempting to preserve their privileged position within Egyptian culture and the Military Council, remnants of the old regime, was desperate to divide the solidarity of the youth to prevent any real changes to the Egyptian state so it deployed the gender card and manipulated the men into undermining the revolutionary spirit of Tahrir.

Even worst than the treatment at the hands of the men at Tahrir on the day of the Million Women March was the treatment women protesters endured in the weeks following Tahrir when protesters again took to the streets to protest the slow pace the Military Council was enacting reforms. The Military detained hundreds of protesters and reports emerged that 17 female protesters were taken to a Military Barracks and subjected to “virginity tests” by nurses under the supervision of a male doctor. ls this the change men and women fought for at Tahrir? For those of us living in the West it is hard to imagine how brave it is for Egyptian women to even show up at protests, especially under the former regime of Mubarak. Sexual assault was a common tactic employed against women protesters by Mubarak’s regime. Under Mubarak the regime employed thugs to break up protests and to specifically target women protesters. Thugs would seize a woman protesting and drag her away into an alleyway or stairwell and gang rape her as a means of intimidation to discourage them from participating in future protests. CNN’s Middle East Correspondent Ben Wedermen reported this was a well known and widespread practice during Mubarak’s rule however what struck me besides the inhumanity of the practice was why CNN and the State Department never reported this or condemned it until it became apparent Mubarak was on his way out. CBS news correspondent Lara Logan who was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted alter being dragged away from her l crew during the celebrations at Tahrir Square the night of Mubarak’s ouster most likely was the victim of these thugs once employed by Mubarak, perhaps as payback for the U.S. abandoning Mubarak.

In a state that employed thugs to sexually assault women and used sexual abuse as a state policy of torture it is inevitable that these attitudes and practices will spill over into society for if the state practices or tolerates sexual abuse than society will become more tolerant of it. Especially in authoritarian states that control mass media, education and cast omnipresent shadows over basic civic and social life. The Wikileaks classified diplomatic cables revealed a diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt stating that torture was so widespread in Egypt that it impacted every layer of society. Everyone from political dissidents to citizens brought in for routine questioning were subject to torture, often sexual abuse. It would be naive to believe that the official use of torture at this level would not intersect with Egyptian society and within this permissive atmosphere women, traditionally the most vulnerable segment of the population, suffer the consequences. So according to the Egyptian Center for Human Rights the past decade has experienced a marked rise in the rape and groping of Egyptian women. Coincidentally this same decade followed the end of the war between armed Egyptian Islamist movements and Mubarak’s regime which used sexual torture as a matter of routine in this war that tore at the social fabric of Egypt during the l990’s. The same center also found that 83% of Egyptian women said they had suffered sexual harassment and that 62% of Egyptian men admitted harassing women. 53% of the men blamed women for bringing it on themselves.

I’m not a social scientist so l cannot explain all of the complex reasons for discrimination against women within Egyptian society or for that Western society as l’m sure the statistics of women harassed in the U.S. probably mirrors or exceeds Egypts. What l can say is that if the Egyptian Revolution is to proceed and build upon the gains of Tahrir Egyptian men must accept women as their partners in this struggle, not convenient fodder to be called out when the going gets rough. Egyptian women were empowered by their participation in the uprising and it would be a betrayal of the spirit of Tahrir if Egyptian men, having removed a tyrant in concert with women, turn around and oppress the aspirations of Egyptian women who want to contribute to the transformation of Egyptian society and assert their natural rights.

l can also say that instead of attempting to silence and suppress Egyptian women the men should be listening to them as the women have demonstrated far better long term vision and political maturity than the men as evidenced by the Million Women March days after Mubarak’s ouster. When many men celebrated it as a victory women appear to have viewed Mubarak’s ousting as a first step towards dismantling the entire repressive state g Mubarak created. They continue to be the most vocal critics of the Military Council and remnants of the corrupt state while many of the opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, remain silent and more concerned with gaining electoral victories in the upcoming elections that will legitimize the remnants of Mubarak’s regime. Women having suffered gender discrimination instinctively knew the battle to transform Egyptian society had just begun while the men, accustomed to gender privilege, once having removed Mubarak still enjoyed their privileged role within Egyptian society. This doesn’t mean that nothing has changed since Mubarak’s ouster for Egyptian men but unlike women who face gender discrimination and suppression on a daily basis men have emerged with some breathing room to openly express their political beliefs while women are reminded to remain silent. Egyptian women have an incentive in the form of daily oppression that makes them far more willing to confront the old remnants of the regime and push the uprising from revolt to revolution. In a society that traditionally views a women’s place as outside politics the assertiveness of Egyptian women is a difficult phenomenon for Egyptian men to embrace.

The unease in which Egyptian men view the recent rise of women’s assertiveness after Tahrir could easily be misinterpreted and misrepresented as Western values intruding and trampling upon Egypt’s culture, customs and religion as the idea of the emancipation of women, and by extension human rights, has traditionally been used by Western imperialist powers against the Third World to undermine revolutions, promote Western financial interests and create divisions within traditional societies to make the exploitation of the natural resources more easy for international corporations. In short whenever the West promotes human rights in a Third World nation it is often a means to turning the societies into little America’s and/or consumers as opposed to allowing the people to develop their own authentic expression of human rights.

As radicals in the West the concept of the emancipation of women should not imply that Egyptian women should become “clone”‘ of American and Western women or that they will find empowerment in high heels and Hillary Clinton power suits. The message we should be sending to Egyptian men who want to remove women from the revolutionary struggle is that Egyptian women must be permitted to develop their own voice that defines what their role and participation in the Egyptian (and regional) uprising will be as partners in the struggle to rid their countries and the region of Western puppet-dictators (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, etc) and oppressive tyrants (Syria, Libya) and most importantly what their role A will be in the new society that will emerge from the collapse of these regimes.

At the root of the empowerment of women is men coming to terms with recognizing women as our partners in struggle, however difficult that may be, as well as some . of the built in gender privileges we may inherit . Recognizing this does not deny distinctions between men and women and the unique roles both genders play within society. What it means is recognizing that women can and should be given the opportunity to advance within society as far as their education and determination takes them. l believe this is all they ask if us, as well as a little encouragement.

If any Egyptian men are under the assumption that these are Western values or standards they should understand that human rights and women’s rights are not the sole possession of the West and discrimination and oppression of women is not exclusive to Middle Eastern societies and cultures as the West often comes up short in its protection of women’s ° rights and human rights in general. Also if Egyptian men have any doubts about the ability of women to participate in the push to transform Egyptian society they only need to look around at the role women are playing in the uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain, where women activists are leading the charge against authoritarian regimes. They should also be mindful of an Arabic proverb that says “A nation/tribe that does not honor its women is like a bird with a broken wing, it cannot take flight”. lf Egyptian men continue to deny women as partners in the transformation of their society the Egyptian Uprising will never take flight from uprising to revolution. As the uprising of Tahrir now takes the turn of replacing an official state of repression with a far more insidious attitude of repression that ultimately betrays the spirit of Tahrir we all have to wonder where this leaves women in the new Egypt being created and whether or not women will find themselves alone and shut out of the new Egypt they helped usher in.

Robert Saleem Holbrook
175 Progress Dr.Waynesburg,
PA 15370


Egypt: A Multi-Generational Revolt

by: Jessica Winegar

(originally published on

In the mainstream Western and Arab media, Egypt’s revolution is often presented as a revolution of the youth. While it is true that young activists planned the January 25th demonstrations and organized and raised support throughout much of the process leading up to that day, this uprising would not have succeeded in ousting the President and Cabinet, and would not be continuing, were it not for older generations of Egyptians. Many of us living in Egypt during the first massive demonstrations kept saying, “We never thought this would happen.” But in retrospect, it was as clear as day. For the past few years, workers had launched thousands of strikes protesting the effects of what was a fierce application of neoliberal economic policy in what might soon be called the Gamal Mubarak shadow presidency. These workers laid necessary groundwork for the uprising by creating (anew) bonds of solidarity as well as by raising awareness of the widespread nature of the deplorable working and living conditions of average Egyptians. In many cases, the majority of these striking workers were in their 40s and 50s. Pensioners also demonstrated and fought against the privatization of health insurance and the theft of billions of pension funds. From the beginning, this has been a multi-generational revolution. As the slogans go, “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime, the Government, etc.” Recognizing this fact is extremely important at this juncture, because transitional government figures have started referring to the uprising as a “youth” uprising and the demands of the people as demands of the “youth” in a familiar paternalistic way that diminishes not only the importance of what has happened, but also the demands that the vast majority of Egyptians, no matter their age, have of the post-Mubarak government.

[Image by Aida Khalil]

I spent much of the period from January 25th, when the mass demonstrations began, until February 11, when the President left office, in the company of upper middle class men and women in their 50s and 60s who had been leftist student activists in the 1970s. During the Mubarak regime, they had watched their youthful dreams of creating a just society crumble before their eyes, as neoliberal capitalism, authoritarianism, and corruption took vicious root in Egypt. They themselves sought greater stability in their lives and so, with marriage and children, they hunkered down in decent apartments and built comfortable lives for themselves and their families. But their struggle, and their disappointment, was marked on their bodies. Most were former political prisoners, one also a victim of torture, and they now suffer from different combinations of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, depression and anxiety, and cigarette addiction. The Mubarak era – with the stresses it caused and its failing health system — had left its imprint on them and others in their families, even though they are relatively privileged compared to other Egyptians. Meanwhile, their passionate 1970s activism had, in the Mubarak years, been limited to signing intellectuals’ petitions or going to the occasional demonstration and being cordoned off by the security police. Those who are doctors continued treating people in government hospitals, for salaries that did not remotely keep pace with the cost of living, in a way one described as a “social band-aid.” All tried to teach their children what social justice means. One man, a doctor, had continued the fight for affordable and quality health care with policymakers on the national stage.

But when the uprising started, their passion blossomed again, taking on new energy. Those who were healthy enough to go to the demonstrations went, coming back with hoarse voices and exciting stories of protest. Others donated money and medical supplies to the makeshift hospitals and clinics in Tahrir. Some of the men went down and served, alongside the young and less economically well-off, in the neighborhood watch, formed to protect us from the criminals released en masse from prisons by the government at the same time it called the police off the streets. Some of the women made food and drinks for the neighborhood watch teams. All of them encouraged their children, nieces, and nephews now in their teens and twenties, to go to the demonstrations. They gave them rides and sometimes money to purchase supplies of food and drink to sustain the large groups of the protestors. They were glued to al-Jazeera when they were not doing anything else, completely amazed that what they always hoped to accomplish was actually taking place. Whenever a piece of good news was announced, they jumped up and cheered, called friends, discussed the possibilities. Whenever a piece of bad news came on the air, and especially when Tahrir became a frightening battleground, they chain-smoked, cried, hugged, swore at the regime, and called whatever friends and family had been going to Tahrir to make sure they were safe. They also argued with friends, store-owners, cab drivers, and anyone else they came into contact with who did not support the revolution, trying to convince them of its merits.

[Image by Aida Khalil]

But it was not just these former student activists in their late middle age who helped, in many ways behind the scenes, to execute this uprising and who are working to see the revolution through to its end.   In every major gathering in Tahrir and elsewhere around the country, one can find large numbers of Egyptians in their 40s, 50s, and 60s participating in the demonstrations, raising their fists and voices side-by-side with the youth of the country. During the sit-in of Tahrir, many of them were also spending the nights in the square in tents, giving up the comforts of home for the cold, hard city streets to fight for a better life for the younger generation and for whatever remained of their own lives. With the health problems and in many cases poverty evident on their bodies, the time they had left was disturbingly unclear. These Egyptians are the ones who can create signs and chants that express what it was like to live through all of Mubarak’s 30-year rule as an adult, to have the horizons of one’s entire adult life limited, and in many cases to have that life and the lives of their loved ones stolen from them as a result of the political system. The simultaneous solidarity demonstrations of various professional syndicates in the early days of the uprising, and the continued strikes and sit-ins all over the country, are also heavily participated in and often mounted by people of older generations. Since February 11, every day in nearly every government setting, older workers join their younger comrades to try to address the inequalities of their work environment in other ways as well, such as coordinating petitions, writing accounts of the corruption they have witnessed for sympathetic supervisors and the press, or making small but significant changes in their work environment that no one can protest without appearing to be against the revolution (an unpopular position to take right now). Recently at a government cultural institution, for example, older employees were able to contribute a longer thread of stories of corruption for a grievance report they were compiling simply because they had been there longer.

[Image by Jessica Winegar]

Also in Tahrir, Alexandria, Damanhour, Suez, and other cities, one can find pro-democracy demonstrators in their late 60s and 70s. These men and women had been raised on Nasser’s revolutionary language; their childhood, teens, or twenties had been filled with the promise of a just and prosperous society. But their potential was curtailed by the steep decline in quality of life from the later Nasser years through Sadat and Mubarak. They still agitate for a better conclusion to their own lives. One friend, whose respiratory problems from the massive increase in pollution in the Mubarak era only permitted her to go to Tahrir for a short time in the mornings (she reasoned that it was good to have people present during these “down times” as well), took a picture on February 2, 2011 of one tired looking older man sitting on the curb. He had a handmade sign that protested both how the government took billions out of the pension fund and never returned it, and how he couldn’t get a needed loan from the bank because without the pension he did not have enough collateral. More recently, during the demonstrations on February 18, 2011 calling for the overthrow of the transitional cabinet, a man held a sign that said, “I lived the October victory (1973 war with Israel) as a fighter, I lived the January 25th victory as a participant. [My life’s journey] has to end right so I can die with satisfaction.”

On the night of Mubarak’s departure, I rushed to Tahrir as did thousands of Cairenes. My subway car was filled with young people who had spontaneously invented chants that expressed their joy. One of these was, “They said we were the youth of Kentucky (Fried Chicken), but we were the ones who protected you (Egypt).” (It rhymes in Arabic.) Another: “We are the youth of the internet, not those only concerned with dating.” I sat across from one man in his late 70s who sat with a smile on his face, staring at the teen and twenty-something men in amazement and admiration, with tears of joy in his eyes. He kept saying to me in English, “Revolution. Revolution.”   He was going to Tahrir too, and when I got there, amidst the massive celebrating crowds, I saw countless older men and women, some quite old and in wheelchairs or with canes. They walked with their spouses, and/or children and in many cases grandchildren. Some of the mothers and grandmothers ululated. Fathers and grandfathers participated in the moving cheer, “Lift your head up, you are Egyptian!” It seemed that they had once been able to lift their heads up in pride as Egyptians, and although now many were stooped from the effects of living under an oppressive dictatorship, they were clearly so thrilled that their offspring could now lift their heads proudly and that they were among the fortunate ones to live to see this day.

It is true that this uprising was started by the “youth of the Internet,” but the participation of Egyptians of all ages is giving it its true force.

Jessica Winegar is the author of Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt, 2006.

Gay Girl in Damascus blogger joins ranks of Syria’s detained

by: Nidaa Hassan
(Originally published at The Guardian)
Amina Arraf, who holds dual Syrian and US citizenship and blogs under the name Amina Abdallah

“If gays in syriawe want to live in a free country,” Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari wrote on her blog on 27 April, “we must begin by living as though we are already in a free country.”

And so the 35-year-old Syrian, an outspoken lesbian, feminist and anti-government protester, continued to post highly critical entries on the blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, even as the security situation in her home country became ever more precarious, and her own position increasingly at risk.

She was teargassed, arrested and detained with other protesters at demonstrations in March and April; at one rally she saw a young man shot dead in front of her. But “for those of us who have taken part in the protests,” she wrote, “there’s no going back. For decades, we were afraid; be too critical of the regime, be seen as stepping out of official views, and one might expect a visit from the security police or a trip to a jail. Be more vocal and publicly call for the overthrow of the government and be prepared for either exile or death. Those of us who criticised things were very careful with our words and the forums we raised criticisms in. Now, though, everything has changed; too many have crossed those lines for there to be a going back.”

Late in April, two men from the Syrian security services came to her house late at night to arrest her; her father stood up to them and they left. A week later, however, both she and her father had been forced into separate safe houses, moving from house to house, meeting only in disguise. Her American mother (Araf holds dual citizenship) and other family members had fled to Beirut, but her father, from an old and respected family, was determined to stay in Damascus, and so Araf stayed too, continuing to blog: “Our revolution will win; we will have a free and democratic Syria soon. I know it in my bones.”

On Monday evening, Araf was silenced, for now at least. En route to a rendezvous with co-ordinators of the protest movement, she was snatched from a Damascus street by three armed men and bundled into a vehicle. Despite the frantic efforts of her father and wider family, nothing has been heard from her since.

Araf’s kidnap, by men her family believe are members of Syria’s security services, makes her one of the best known of many thousands who have been detained since protests bubbled up across the country in mid-March, swelling to become one of the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab Spring’s popular uprisings. According to Amnesty International, at least 750 people have been killed by the security forces; as many as 10,000 have been picked up by one of the country’s diverse security service groups, many of them held incommunicado. At least 12 people have died in custody, and reports of torture are common.

Though Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, announced an amnesty last week for those detained before 31 May, Amnesty says the releases have been selective and ad hoc, and called for the immediate release of all detainees.

Even before the latest unrest, bloggers and others challenging the government had been regularly locked up. Tal al-Mallouhi, a 20-year-old Palestinian-Syrian blogger from Homs, was sentenced to five years in jail in February, accused of spying for the US. Other bloggers and dissidents have faced similar fates.

Though she had begun her blog in February principally as a defiant declaration of her sexuality and to explore lesbian and gender issues in Syria, Araf was rapidly swept up in the popular protests, and began writing impassioned, exhilarated, often very moving posts about her country and its longed-for future.

“What a time to be in Syria! What a time to be an Arab! What a time to be alive!” she wrote on 24 March. A week later, expressing her dismay at Assad’s refusal to grant expected reforms, she wrote: “Come Friday, when Jumaa prayers are done, we will be out, in every city and every street, calling with one voice: “SOURIYA! AL HOURIYA!” FREEDOM!”

The blog also contained extracts from an unpublished autobiography, detailing her teenage years in the US; she also wrote of her love of science fiction and Gil Scott Heron, and posted erotic lesbian poetry. At one point, her father laughingly reveals, she had been “on the list” forof those charged with finding a suitable wife for the man who is now Syria’s president, and who went on to marry a British-Syrian, Asma al Akhras. Why hadn’t he put her forward? “Do you think I hate you? I would not wish to be related to them.”

But Araf was also clear about the risks she was running, writing chillingly about the regime’s use of torture in a post entitled “Why we fight”. Torture, she wrote, is “routine and normal”. “It is what all of us expect. It is why we keep our nails as short as possible so they can’t be pulled off. It is why we were slow to come out into the streets … It is why you don’t see so many women in the protests. What do you think happens to women who get picked up?”

The following Araf had gained was evident when, within minutes of her disappearance being reported, campaigns were launched on Facebook and elsewhere to free her, with Syrian activists tweeting extracts from her blog.

Some hours after reporting her disappearance, Araf’s cousin Rania Ismail, whom she had asked to post to her blog if anything happened to her, wrote a brief update. “I have been on the telephone with both her parents and all that we can say right now is that she is missing … We do not know who took her so we do not know who to ask to get her back. It is possible that they are forcibly deporting her. From other family members who have been imprisoned there, we believe that she is likely to be released fairly soon. If they wanted to kill her, they would have done so. That is what we are all praying for.”

Nidaa Hassan is a pseudonym for a journalist in Damascus.

The Future of the Arab Uprisings

by: Joseph Massad (Originally published on Al Jazeera)
The US and its Arab allies are scrambling to control the outcome of the Arab Spring in a way that will prolong their regional dominance [GALLO/GETTY]

A specter is haunting the Arab world – the specter of democratic revolution. All the powers of the old Arab world have entered into a holy alliance with each other and the United States to exorcise this specter: king and sultan, emir and president, neoliberals and zionists.

While Marx and Engels used similar words in 1848 in reference to European regimes and the impending communist revolutions that were defeated in the Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there is much hope in the Arab world that these words would apply more successfully to the ongoing democratic Arab uprisings.

In the case of Europe, Marx ended up having to write the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon in 1852 to analyse the defeat of the 1848 revolution in France. He explained how revolutions could overthrow an existing ruling class but would not necessarily lead to the rule of the oppressed. He analysed the process by which Louis Napoleon was able to hijack the revolution and proclaim himself emperor, restoring monarchy to republican and revolutionary France, as his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte had done before him to the glorious French Revolution of 1789.

Since the end of World War I, European powers and the United States have appointed and removed Arab kings at will. Their actions were always taken to ensure the persistence of these dictatorial monarchies, rather than their removal, and to strengthen Euro-American control and hegemony over the region.

The only seeming exception to this rule was the French removal of King Faisal from the throne of Syria in 1919, ending the short-lived Syrian independence, only for the British to extend to him the throne of Iraq, which he assumed that same year, with the inauguration of British rule in that country.

This Euro-American power would include the granting of Abdullah the throne of Jordan in 1921 and the removal of his son King Talal from it, replacing him with his own son Hussein in 1952-53. The French would dethrone Mohammed V of Morocco in 1953 but would restore him again in 1955 when opposition to his removal weakened their control.

The British would remove Sultan Said bin Taymur in 1970 and replace him with his son Sultan Qabus, who was better able, with the help of the Iranian Shah, the Jordanian King, British and American military support, to quell the republican revolution in Dhofar.

Even the palace coup of 1995 by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani of Qatar to oust his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al Thani, and replace him, received American support and enthusiasm, as it was carried out to strengthen, rather than weaken, the Qatari monarchy.

Imperialism and orientalism

Since World War II, but more diligently since the mid 1950s, the United States has followed two simultaneous strategies to exercise its control over the Arab peoples across Arab countries. The first, and the one most relevant to Arabs, was based on the early US recognition and realisation (like Britain, France, and Italy before it) that Arabs, like all other peoples worldwide, wanted democracy and freedom and would struggle for them in every possible way.

For the United States, this necessitated the establishment of security and repressive apparatuses in Arab countries, which the US would train, fund, and direct in order to suppress these democratic desires and efforts in support of dictatorial regimes whose purpose has always been and continues to be the defense of US security and business interests in the region.

These interests consist principally in securing and maintaining US control of the oil resources of the region, ensuring profits for American business, and strengthening the Israeli settler-colony.

Much of this was of course propelled by the beginning of the Cold War and the US strategy to suppress all forms of real and imagined communist-leaning forces around the world, which included any and all democratic demands for change in the region.

This strategy, which was formalised in the Eisenhower Doctrine issued in 1957, continues through the present. The Eisenhower Doctrine, issued on 5 January 1957, as a speech by the US president, declared the Soviet Union, not Israel or Western-supported regional dictatorships, as the enemy of the people of the Middle East.

To neutralise president Gamal Abd al Nasir’s wide appeal across the Arab world, Eisenhower authorised the US military “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.”

In contrast with its actual anti-democratic policies around the world, the US has always insisted on marketing itself as a force for global democracy. In line with this public relations campaign, the second strategy the US used to advance its anti-democratic policies in the Arab World was the importation of European orientalism, which acquired a central place in post-war US academia.

State Department funding assisted by funding from private foundations would solidify orientalist research that asserted that Arabs and Muslims were incompatible with democracy and that more often than not they love and prefer dictatorial rule and that it would be culturally imperialist for the US to impose democracy on them, leading to the conclusion that it would be best to uphold their dictatorial rulers whose repressive policies, we are told, are inspired by Islam and Arab culture.

Between the billions spent on repressing the Arab peoples and the millions spent to explain academically and in the American media the need to repress them, this two-pronged US strategy in the region since World War II has been coming apart at an accelerated rate since January 2011, a development that continues to cause panic in the Obama White House and manifests in the incessant fumbling of his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who is much despised across the Arab world.

If president Jimmy Carter infamously declared on the eve of the Iranian Revolution in December 1977 that the Iran of the Shah was “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world”, Hillary Clinton would declare Mubarak’s Egypt as “stable” days before he was overthrown.

Subverting democracy

The anti-democratic US campaign in the region started with the first coup d’état the US sponsored when it overthrew democratic rule in Syria in 1949 and was soon followed by the restoration of the Shah in neighbouring Iran in 1953 in a CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the government of prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and suppressed the democratic movement in Iran.

As the US was following similar strategies elsewhere in its expanding empire, especially in Guatemala where it sponsored an anti-democratic coup against the reform government of Jacobo Arbenz and unleashed a wave of terror that murdered hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans for the next four decades, it formalised its new strategy in the Arab world through the Eisenhower Doctrine.

Soon after, the US went into high gear suppressing democracy in the region, starting with intervention in Lebanon on the side of right-wing sectarian forces in 1957, moving to engineer the palace coup launched by the young King Hussein against the democratically elected parliament the same year in Jordan, and proceeding to help the Baath party assume power in 1963 in Iraq and massacre thousands in the process.

The defeat of Nasir in the 1967 war was followed by US support for the most repressive Sudanese regime ever under Jafar Numeiri and the suppression of the revolution across the Arabian Gulf in the early seventies with the assistance of the Shah’s forces and the Jordanian army, which stabilised the region for US oil profits and began the road to secure Israel’s supremacy.

In the meantime, the removal of Arab monarchies from power and replacing them with republics would take place through the mechanism of military coups, which, unlike Euro-American interventions, had much popular support. Beginning with the removal of King Farouk of Egypt in 1952 by the Free Officers, the removal of Arab monarchies would proceed with the overthrow of the Iraqi King and the Hashemite royal family in 1958, the Yemeni monarchy in 1962, and ended with the overthrow of the Libyan monarchy in 1969 by Gaddafi.

All other Arab monarchies have persisted, with massive American, French, and British financial, economic, military, and security support, despite a number of threats to these thrones over the decades. While only two monarchies survive outside the Arabian Peninsula, which only managed to lose its Yemeni monarch, all other Arab regimes have a republican form of government.

The US-Saudi axis

The ongoing uprisings in the Arab world today, as is clear to all observers, do not distinguish between republics and monarchies. Indeed, in addition to the republics, demonstrations have been ongoing in Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia (and more modestly in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates), despite the brutal suppression of the major Bahraini uprising by a combined mercenary force dispatched by the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council led by Saudi Arabia.

The situation in Arab countries today is characterised as much by the counter-revolution sponsored by the Saudi regime and the United States as it is by the uprisings of the Arab peoples against US-sponsored dictatorial regimes.

While the US-Saudi axis was caught unprepared for the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, they quickly made contingency plans to counter the uprisings elsewhere, especially in Bahrain and Oman, but also in Jordan and Yemen, as well as take control of the uprisings in Libya (at first) and later in Syria. Attempts to take control of the Yemeni uprising have had mixed results so far.

Part of the US-Saudi strategy has been to strengthen religious sectarianism, especially hostility to shiism, in the hope of stemming the tide of the uprisings.

This sectarianism targets not only Iran but also Arab shias in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and even in Oman and Syria, while simultaneously encouraging anti-Christian zealotry in Egypt. The Sadat and Mubarak regimes encouraged anti-Christian zealots for decades. Part of the ongoing counter-revolutionary efforts is to resuscitate these sectarian forces to break Egyptian unity and bring about chaos.

If the Eisenhower Doctrine insisted in 1957 that the Soviets, not Israel, were the main enemy of the Arab peoples, today the US insists that it is Iran and shiism who are their main enemy. With the US and Saudi-led suppression of the people of Bahrain, the hope is that this American-sponsored sectarian hatred and encouragement of sunni Arab chauvinism would in one swoop render Iran (and not the Arab dictators, their Israeli ally, or their US sponsor) the enemy of Arabs, if not the only enemy of Arabs, and delegitimise at the same time the uprisings in countries with a substantial number of Arab shiites.

The US sponsored this project several years ago with limited success. It would be best articulated by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who warned in 2004 of a “shia crescent” threatening the region. The US and the Saudis are hoping that it could be more successful today.

The French and the British have continued to play important neo-colonial roles in the region, economically, militarily, and in the realm of security “cooperation”. They have strengthened their position by increasing their security and diplomatic “assistance” to their allies among Arab dictators.

The US-supported repression in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and in the United Arab Emirates goes hand in hand with the Euro-American-Qatari intervention in Libya to safeguard the oil wells for Western companies once a new government is in place.

The hijacking of the Libyan uprising and the defection of Gaddafi’s governing elite of politicians overnight to the side of the “revolutionaries” not only casts more than one shadow of suspicion on those claiming to lead the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi’s horrific dictatorship, but also on the Western powers who were Gaddafi’s major allies in the last decade until their recent defection.

The situation today is one of a struggle between the formidable US-Saudi axis, which is the main anti-democratic force in the region, and the pro-democracy uprisings.

The US-Saudi strategy is two-fold: massive repression of those Arab uprisings that can be defeated, and co-optation of those that could not be. How successful the second part will be depends on how co-optable the pro-democracy forces prove to be.

While it is true that revolutionaries make their own history, as Karl Marx famously put it, “they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

Guarding against the co-optation of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is the hope of all Arabs today.

The US-Saudi axis will use every mechanism at its disposal to do so, not least of which will be the forthcoming elections in Egypt and Tunisia. The great Arab hope is that Tunisia and Egypt will write a new Revolutionary and Democratic Manifesto for the Arab peoples.

The concern and the fear remain, however, that we may end up with less of a Communist Manifesto and more of an Eighteenth Brumaire.

Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Islamic Feminism & Its Discontents

by: Val Moghadam

“What one can say about this encounter is that the Latin American and Caribbean feminist movement forms part of the social and political map of the region; because of this it cannot avoid bleeding from the wound that affects the left and all the social and political movements of the continent; the traditional forms of doing politics, self-centered, non-dialogic, punitive, messianic, incapable of confronting s

trategies, of dissolving spaces of power without fracturing, perplexed before this enemy without a face that is neoliberalism and its

postmodernity.” [Carina Gobbi, on the schisms among Latin American feminists and in the left.]

Few debates among expatriate Iranian feminists and leftists have been as contentious as that centered on “Islamic feminism”. The very term itself as well as its referent are subjects of controversy and disagreement. Can there be such a thing as a feminism that is framed in Islamic terms? Is Islam compatible with feminism? Is it correct to describe as feminist or even as “Islamic feminist” those publishers, activists and scholars, including veiled women, whose work toward women’s advancement and gender equality are carried out within an Islamic discursive framework? Can the activities of reformist men and women – who situate themselves within the broad objectives of the Islamic Republic of Iran and seek the improvement of the status of women – be described as constituting an Islamic feminism? Is Islamic feminism part of a broad reform movement in Iran, or is it an attempt to legitimize the state’s gender policy? And are those expatriate feminist scholars who report positively on “Islamic feminism” correct to promote the phenomenon? These are among the vexed questions that have emerged in various writings, and that been met by divergent responses.

There has been a wider and longstanding debate among feminists within Middle East Women’s Studies regarding representations of Arab/Islamic women, conceptualizations of veiling and Islamic identity, and regarding orientalism, universalist values, and cultural relativism. In this article, however, I focus on the Iranian debate. Given the contentious nature of the debate and the tendency toward misrepresentation of positions, I am trying to provide balance and clarity. I am also concerned with the definition and meaning of “feminism”, its applicability to Muslim societies, and the need for a more inclusive and cross-cultural understanding of feminism and of the global women’s movement. (Note – this paper is an abbreviated version of a much longer one that also contains full citations.)

The Debate: Viewpoints of the Protagonists

Those involved in the debate on Islamic feminism form two opposing camps. On one side are those who explore the possibilities that exist within Islam (by looking at theological discussions) or within the Islamic Republic of Iran (through sociological or political analyses) concerning women’s interests. Chief among them are three feminist social scientists educated in Iran and the West, two of whom have deep roots in the Iranian left and the women’s movement. Afsaneh Najmabadi, educated in both the U.K. and the U.S., is a professor of women’s studies in New York; Nayereh Tohidi is a U.S.-trained professor of women’s studies in California; Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a Cambridge-educated social anthropologist based in London. In the 1970s and 1980s Tohidi and Najmabadi were active in the left-wing anti-Shah student movement and later in the anti-fundamentalist and feminist movements. Najmabadi is a founder of Nimeye Digar, a Persian-language feminist journal published in England. Tohidi has been to Iran several times in the 1990s, is in regular contact with women’s rights activists in Iran, and often publishes in the Iranian women’s press.

In the opposite camp are those who argue vehemently against the possibility that activists and scholars operating within an Islamic framework in Iran may be accurately described as “Islamic feminists”. Islamic feminists and their expatriate academic supporters, they argue, either consciously or unwittingly delegitimize secular trends and social forces. This camp maintains that the activities and goals of “Islamic feminism” are circumscribed and compromised; and they contend that there cannot be improvements in women’s status as long as the Islamic Republic is in place. This group similarly includes Western-educated feminist social scientists with deep roots in the left and in the women’s movement, including one man. Haideh Moghissi teaches women’s studies in Canada; Shahrzad Mojab holds a university administrative position in Canada; and Hammed Shahidian teaches sociology in the U.S. Shahidian is a prolific researcher whose writings have appeared in U.S. sociology journals; at least two have appeared in the women’s press in Iran. Interesting, despite their posturing as defenders of the secular left, Moghissi has written a book, and Shahidian an article, highly critical of the secular leftist organizations in Iran during the Revolution.

Although I have been placed (by Moghissi and Mojab) in the first camp, I (and others) situate myself somewhere in the middle of the two. In my writings I have examined the role of the Left in the revolution (critically but sympathetically), the nature and evolution of the populist revolution, the evolution of the Islamic state and its policies, and changes in the status of women since the revolution and especially during the 1990s. In particular, I have researched women’s employment patterns and measures of gender inequality before and after the revolution. I too was part of the student movement, and I remain a Marxist-feminist.

 In Defense of Islamic Feminism

Writings on women and gender in the Islamic Republic were almost uniformly critical during the 1980s, but a change of tone and style could be discerned after 1990. Several studies began to argue that reforms and policy shifts were occurring in the Islamic Republic, that an incipient women’s movement was underway, and that Muslim women activists were behind much of the changes. These studies have been applauded by some and criticized by others. In the early 1980s, the writings of Parvin Paidar (sometimes under the name Nahid Yeganeh) suggested some common ground between Islamic women and left-wing women. At the time, however, her writings did not engender the kind of harsh debate that has developed since the mid-1990s. The debate proper on Islamic feminism may be said to have begun in February 1994, when Afsaneh Najmabadi gave a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in which she described Islamic feminism as a reform movement that also opens up a dialogue between religious and secular feminists. A Persian-language article ensued, and her views are contained in at least two English-language essays.

In her SOAS talk, Najmabadi focused on the women’s magazine Zanan and the quarterly Farzaneh, both published in Tehran. Zanan, which was founded in 1992 by Shahla Sherkat, the former editor of the establishment women’s magazine Zan-e Rouz, had become by 1994 the major voice for reform in the status of women. In the magazine’s inaugural issue, Sherkat writes that “We believe that the key to the solution of women’s problems lies in four realms: religion, culture, law, and education. If the way is paved in these four principal domains then we can be hopeful of women’s development and society’s advancement.” Najmabadi described how articles in Zanan challenge orthodox Islamic teachings on the differential rights and responsibilities of women and men by claiming women’s right to equality.  She explained that part of her enthusiasm for Islamic feminism, and especially for Zanan, lay in her belief that they have entered a common ground with secular feminists in their attempts to improve women’s legal status and social positions.

Writers in Zanan, well-versed in the Quran, have raised the issue of the right to ijtehad (independent reasoning, religious interpretation), and the right of women to reinterpret Islamic law. Writes Najmabadi:  “At the center of Zanan’s  revisionist approach is a radical decentering of the clergy from the domain of interpretation, and the placing of woman as interpreter and her needs as grounds for interpretation.” This, she feels, challenges one of the foundational concepts of the Islamic Republic: deference to the rulership of the supreme jurisprudent, or the velayat-e faghih. Another reason for Najmabadi’s celebration of Islamic feminism (again, as articulated in Zanan) is her belief that it has opened up a new space for dialogue between Islamic women activists and reformers and secular feminists, thereby breaking down the old hostile divide between secular and religious thought.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini similarly offers a careful analysis of the writings of Zanan. She has focused on new discourses on gender among Islamic theologians, the challenging of Islamic family laws by ordinary women, and the emergence of reform-minded Islamic feminists. Mir-Hosseini argues that an unpredicted outcome of the Islamic revolution in Iran has been to raise the nation’s gender consciousness. “…[W]hatever concerns women – from their most private to their most public activities, from what they should wear and what they should study to whether and where they should work – are issues that have been openly debated and fought over by different factions, always in highly charged and emotional language.”

Mir-Hosseini has written most extensively about how family law, especially marriage and divorce, have constituted a contested arena. The official discourse promotes domesticity and motherhood for women as ideal roles, and the constitution promises to guard the sanctity of the family. Yet, the return to Sharia law gives men a free hand in divorce and polygamy. This “in effect subverts the very sanctity of the family as understood by women, thus going against the Constitution’s promise.” She then argues that many Muslim women who had at the beginning genuinely though naively believed that under an Islamic state women’s position would automatically improve, became increasingly disillusioned by the new discriminatory and patriarchal discourses and policies. These included intellectuals like Zahra Rahnavard and activists like Azam Taleghani, and subsequently establishment women like Monireh Gorji.  Meanwhile, under the editorship of Shahla Sherkat, Zanan became the principal forum for the discussion of the injustices of current Sharia interpretations and their application to civil codes. In Zanan and elsewhere, feminist lawyers such as Mehrangiz Kar and Shirin Ebadi delineate the problems and legal tangles that women confront in terms of both the substance of the law and its implementation.

The contradictions in the Islamic discourse, the emerging feminist consciousness as seen in the women’s press, and challenges by feminist lawyers and other women led to amendments to the divorce law in 1992, whose spirit is to making divorce less accessible and more costly to men.  Mir-Hosseini also notes the widespread use of concepts such as mardsalari, which refers to both male dominance and to patriarchy. Mir-Hosseini has traced the evolution of feminist social analyses in Zanan from the hesitant voice at the magazine’s beginning, to the assertion of a fiqh voice — particularly with the series of articles written by the cleric Mohsen Saidzadeh in favor of equality for women and men and the reform of Sharia laws). And like Najmabadi, she sees Zanan’s willingness to publish the secular lawyer Mehrangiz Kar as politically significant.

Nayereh Tohidi is well known in Iranian expatriate circles for her many Persian-language writings and lectures on politics and women, from her early days as a left activist to the present. Her articles in the 1980s tended to be very critical of the Islamic Republic and of its gender policies. During the 1990s, however, her writings shifted from an emphasis on the forms of gender oppression in Iran to the empowerment of Muslim women and the possibilities for reform within the Islamic system in Iran. She argues that women are able to renegotiate gender roles and codes, and find “a path of compromise and creative synthesis”. She has explained how her visits to Iran during the 1990s, and in particular her interviews and observations, have compelled her to shift her focus from repression to resistance and empowerment. As she has recently pointed out, “secular feminists, democrats, and liberals have not been alone in contesting the state’s ideology and politics on gender issues. Many proponents of Islam are playing an important role in the reformation of women’s rights in an Islamic context.”

In a recent book she has co-edited, Tohidi writes approvingly that women in the Muslim world are fighting and strategizing against two sets of pressures, “one stemming from the internal patriarchal system and the other emitted by those forces seen as external, threatening people’s national and cultural boundaries.” She then proceeds to describe one of those strategies, “the recently growing phenomenon of ‘Islamic feminism’.” She describes this as a movement of women who “have maintained their religious beliefs while trying to promote egalitarian ethics of Islam by using the female-supportive verses of the Qur’an in their fight for women’s rights, especially for women’s access to education.” Echoing Mir-Hosseini, she notes that Islamic feminists undermine the clerical agenda both within and outside the Islamist framework in a number of ways:

by subtly circumventing the dictated rules (e.g., reappropriating the veil as a means to facilitate social presence rather than seclusion, or minimizing and diversifying the compulsory hijab and dress code into fashionable styles), engaging in a feministic ijtehad, emphasizing the egalitarian ethics of Islam, reinterpreting the Qur’an, and deconstructing Sharia-related rules in a women-friendly egalitarian fashion (e.g., in terms of birth control, personal status law, and family code to the extent of legalizing a demand for ‘wages for housework’.

Tohidi warns that “secular feminists should differentiate between those Islamic women who are genuinely promoting women’s rights and hence inclusionary in their politics from those who insist on fanatic or totalitarian Islam.” And approvingly citing the feminist lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, she stresses that a “reformist or women-centered interpretation of religious laws should be considered not as an alternative to secular and democratic demands but as a component of more holistic social change.”

The Case against Islamic Feminism

Haideh Moghissi complains that “it has become fashionable to speak sympathetically and enthusiastically about the reformist activities of Muslim women, and to insist on their independence of thought. … The message is that a new road has been opened up for women – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – to gain equal rights to men: a road based on feminist interpretations of Islamic sharia laws.” Moghissi is critical of those “apologists of the Islamic government and uninformed observers” who attribute legal changes in the Islamic Republic to “the enlightenment of conservative Islamists… .” At the same time, she does not claim that there have been no achievements by Islamic feminists in Iran. In fact, she refers to the opportunities afforded to Islamic women and to the accomplishments of the female political elite. Without properly attributing these ideas to previous authors (e.g., Tohidi and Moghadam), she writes that the Islamic Republic’s gender ideology faces the imperatives of a capitalist system, which requires sexual desegregation, and that the clerical state tries to accommodate the demands of activist women. But then she also opines that the “exaggerated reports” about recent legal gains by women, and the role of Islamic feminists in bringing them about, divert attention away from societal opposition to the economic, social, and cultural conditions brought about by nearly two decades of Islamization. It serves to strengthen the legitimacy of the Islamic system in Iran and “weakens the struggle of women inside Iran”.

Moghissi claims that the term “Islamic feminist” has been used in “inaccurate” and “irresponsible” ways. Almost all Islamic and active women are designated Islamic feminist, she asserts, “even though their activities might not even fit the broadest definition of feminism.” Although she herself does not define feminism, Moghissi complains that the term encompasses members of the female political elite who believe in the Sharia and its prescribed gender rights and roles, such as three female members of parliament who have been responsible for two reactionary bills. The very term, she argues, and the emphasis on the achievements of those believing women who reinterpret the Quran, obscure the political, ideological, and religious differences among Iranian women and mask the valiant efforts of socialists, democrats, and feminists to work toward secularism. In her Kankash article, Moghissi singles out expatriate feminist authors, finds faults with their analyses, and brands them “neoconservatives”. In her book, she brands them “postmodernists” and “cultural relativists”. She writes: “Charmed by ‘difference’ and secure from the bitter fact of the fundamentalist regime, outsiders do them [Iranian women and men] a disservice by clinging to the illusion of an Islamic path.”

Hammed Shahidian similarly argues that the politics of “Islamic feminism” is problematical, whether in Iran or elsewhere. The emphasis on the achievements of Islamic women, he writes, obscures the contributions of the Left and secularists in the face of continued Islamist repression in Iran. (Like Moghissi, however, Shahidian also has written sharp criticisms of the Left.) In one article he refers to a “deepening identity crisis” among secular Middle East feminists and approvingly quotes two Iranian left-wing feminists: “… some women have found the pull towards a full or partial reconciliation with Iranian-style fundamentalism stronger. A trend is now developing among some Iranian feminists … to stand back and consider Islamic fundamentalism as opposed to stand up and fight against it.”

Shahidian is critical of attempts by Arab scholars such as Fatima Mernissi and Aziza Al-Hibri, and the Pakistan-born Rifat Hassan, to craft a feminist theology and reinterpretation of Islamic texts; these attempts are futile, he argues, given the strength of conservative, orthodox, traditional, and fundamentalist interpretations, laws, and institutions. He is especially critical of a growing trend in Middle East Women’s Studies wherein authors justify Muslim women’s veiling, domesticity, moral behavior, and adherence to Islamic precepts as signs of individual choice and identity. Even if we do not accept the notion of “false consciousness”, he asks, is it not incumbent upon scholars to situate and understand actors’ views and perceptions within the broader social, cultural, political, and economic context? This context is characterized by political repression, cultural conservatism, and the social control of women.   Shahidian notes that Islamic feminists in Iran have been attentive to and influenced by Western feminism. But he is critical of them for not addressing sexual rights and veiling. Shahidian argues that Islamic feminism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

While Shahidian has been especially critical of Tohidi, Shahrzad Mojab, like Moghissi, has focused on Najmabadi’s writings on Islamic feminism. In an article published in the Persian-language magazine Arash, Shahrzad Mojab criticizes Najmabadi for suggesting that Zanan is the new “democratic forum” and that it can help to feminize democracy. She disputes Najmabadi’s hopeful prognosis about the reinterpretation of Islamic texts and stresses that the ruling religious elite can dismiss, delegitimize, or prohibit radical or feminist reinterpretations. What Iran’s Islamic feminists have achieved is, at any rate, quite limited in content and consequence. Real change – real democratization – will come about outside of the religious framework, writes Mojab.

The Iranian left in exile is exceptionally vocal in opposing support for Islamic feminism. Left-opposition newspapers and magazines have carried articles describing the phenomenon and rejecting it as illusory or as a way of legitimizing Islamic rule. Representative of this line of thought is an editorial entitled “The Limits of Islamic Feminism”, published in 1994 in Iran Bulletin.  But the criticism of Islamic feminism is not limited to certain left-wing circles. Iranians who identify themselves as liberals or monarchists are equally adamant that no change or reform is possible in the Islamic Republic of Iran (e.g., Azar Nafisi). The People’s Mojahedin Organization takes the same position.

Islamic Feminism: An Assessment and Alternative View

The Iranian debate on Islamic feminism certainly reflects — and probably reinforces — the fragmentation of the left. The quote at the beginning of this article, which comes from a Latin American feminist, may well describe the current crisis of the Iranian left and of the exile condition. But the debate is perhaps best understood as part of three broader and at times overlapping debates and political realities. The first pertains to Islamic fundamentalism (its origins, gender dynamics, contradictions), the second to the Islamic Republic of Iran (its gender regime and its political evolution), and the third to the definition of feminism (and the nature of women’s movements around the world).

Fundamentalism, the Islamic Republic, and Feminism

In the 1980s and 1990s, many of those who were grappling with the perplexing phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism were Middle Eastern academic women (like myself) who were writing in North America and Europe. Politics and disciplinary training alike informed our approaches. We faced the problem of Islamic fundamentalism from a political position (whether Marxist, socialist, feminist, or liberal), but we also sought to distance ourselves from eurocentric and orientalist approaches. Thus it became very important to refute orientalist charges that Islamic fundamentalism was the inevitable political expression of the Muslim world, and to counter cultural relativist arguments that criticism of gender practices in non-Western cultures was inappropriate and an imposition of Western values. At the same time, many of us who were social scientists used our disciplinary tools to analyze relations, institutions and processes in Muslim societies. Historical and comparative methods, for example, suggested similarities between Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East at the end of the 20th century and American Protestant fundamentalism in the early 20th century. Both movements occurred in the context of the contradictions of modernity and modernization, including growing secularization and changes to family structure. A difference between the two, however, is that Islamic fundamentalism also occurred in the regional context of Middle East politics and the international context of economic recession and growing inequalities. Scholars were also interested in the differences among Islamist movements (e.g., Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Algeria) and the evolution of political Islam. In the late 1990s, there is some consensus that the wave of movements for political Islam that swept over the Middle East and North Africa is subsiding, although the legacy of Islamic fundamentalism is not yet fully understood.

A parallel and interrelated debate has centered on the evolution of the Islamic Republic in the 1990s. Has the regime shown a capacity for reform? Is the Islamic Republic of Iran moving in a capitalistic, bourgeois direction that may augur legal reforms and changes in social relations (including gender relations and laws about women and the family)? Or is the Islamic Republic mired in a crisis that can only be resolved through complete systemic transformation? Have women’s positions improved since the highly ideological and repressive early years? Or is the fundamentalist gender regime incapable of change and reform? Again, Iranians have approached these questions both politically (“subjectively”) and academically (“objectively”). Most of the oppositional press and some books highlight the political repression, violations of women’s human rights, the archaic political system of clerical governance, and economic inefficiencies to insist on the impossibility of fundamental reform and change. Others have documented reforms in the political system, in economic policy, and in foreign policy. These changes, it is argued, began after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and have continued during the presidency of the liberal Islamic cleric Mohammad Khatami.

A third debate and political development relevant to the debate on Islamic feminism pertains to the definition of feminism and the nature of women’s movements worldwide. As feminist scholars Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor note:

“Feminism” is a contested term even in the present, and historical literature is full of kinds of feminists who would surely have had a hard time finding common ground: Nazi feminists and Jewish feminists, Catholic feminists and Islamic feminists, socialist feminists and utopian feminists, social feminists and equity feminists, imperial feminists and national feminists.

The debate on Islamic feminism is linked to the above three debates. We have seen how some feminist scholars have shifted their focus from the unrelenting oppression of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran to an appreciation of resistance, empowerment, and change. It is in this context that they now analyze the activities of Iran’s Islamic feminists, who have been responsible for some legal reforms beneficial to women in the Islamic Republic. As noted by Najmabadi, Mir-Hosseini, and Tohidi, Islamic feminists are particularly keen on removing the most patriarchal aspects of Iran’s family law, which is highly disadvantageous to women in the areas of inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody.

In the opposite camp, the detractors of Islamic feminism reject the possibilities for any improvements in women’s conditions or any reform of the Islamist system in Iran. As we have seen with Moghissi, however, they can argue, rather inconsistently, that the clerical state has undertaken legal reforms as concessions to women activists, but that the proponents of Islamic feminism “exaggerate” the potential of Islamic feminism. In general, the detractors of Islamic feminism refuse to concede the few successes that Islamic feminists have made in overturning some discriminatory policies, mainly in the areas of employment and education, that were adopted in the early years of Islamization. As such, they essentially deny women’s agency in the Islamic Republic. They also dismiss the reform movement in Iran, with which many of the “Islamic feminists” are associated, as unimportant or futile. Finally, they define “feminism” essentially as Anglo-American radical- and liberal-feminism. Nowhere does the idea of a global feminism figure into their critiques

Islamic Feminism: Strengths and Weaknesses

In my view, there can be no doubt of the importance of the activities of “Islamic feminists” such as Shahla Sherkat, Zahra Rahnavard, Faezeh Hashemi, Jamileh Kadivar, and others. Their close association with more secular feminists, such as Shirin Ebadi, Mehrangis Kar, Shahla Lahiji, and several academics (e.g., Nahid Motiee) is an illustration of their capacity for dialogue and coalition-building in the interests of the expansion of women’s rights. By maintaining a lively and widely-read women’s press (e.g., Zanan, Zan-e Rouz, Farzaneh, Zan, as well as newer ones such asHoghough-e Zanan and Jens-e Dovvom), women’s rights activists, including Islamic feminists, have succeeded in making highly visible the “question of women”. For example, in 1997 roundtable discussions entitled “What are the Most Important Problems of Women in Iran?” were organized and reported on in Zanan. The roundtable discussion that featured Farideh Farahi, Mehrangiz Kar, and Abbas Abdi discussion touched on such issues as the reform movement in Iran, the limited nature of women’s rights, and the need for the press to enjoy more freedoms. The women’s press, and those Islamic and secular feminists associated with it, are playing an important role in broadening the discursive universe of the Islamic Republic, and in expanding legal literacy and gender consciousness among their readership.

The re-reading of the Islamic texts is a central project of Islamic feminists. Out of their own religious conviction, Shahla Sherkat, Maryam Behrouzi, Monireh Gorji and the former cleric (now defrocked) Mohsen Saidzadeh engage in new interpretations of Islamic texts in order to challenge laws and policies that are based on orthodox, literalist, or misogynist interpretations. Other Islamic feminists such as Faezeh Hashemi boldly insist on the need for women judges, on more equitable inheritance law, on voluntary veiling, and on the right to engage in sports. Hashemi, Ebadi, Kar, and others have objected to the penal code for its discrimination against women, whereby the “blood money” of a woman is half that of a man. As such, Islamic feminists are addressing some of the fundamentals of Islamic doctrine and of the gender system in Iran.

Although I am sympathetic to the discursive strategy of Islamic feminists, I am concerned about the focus on the “correct” reading of the Islamic texts. I fear that so long as they remain focused on theological arguments rather than socio-economic and political questions, and so long as their point of reference is the Quran rather than universal standards, their impact will be limited at best.  At worst, their strategy can reinforce the legitimacy of the Islamic system, help to reproduce it, and undermine secular alternatives. But this worst-case scenario will probably not be realized, because most Islamic feminists combine their religious reinterpretations with a recognition of universal standards, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The limitations of Islamic feminism in its present phase are suggested by an interesting article by Anne Sofie Roald. She notes that Christian feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther, Phyllis Bird and Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza “are part of an established scientific tradition within Christian theology.” This is a historical-critical method which allows them to “perceive the Bible as written by human beings and in particular by men, … .”  This is “an assumption which is not possible in an Islamic exegesis.” Islamic feminist theologians seek to evaluate Islamic sources, criticize the interpretation of Islamic sources, and stress the equality of men and women in the Quran. Their method “concentrates mainly on textual analysis and thus works methodologically in search of evidences to establish laws and regulations suitable for modern society.” Roald concludes that “The interpretation of the Islamic sources by women is a new project and the next decades will show us whether this project has any future.”

It is, at any rate, very difficult to win theological arguments. There will always be various interpretations of the religious texts, and what determines the dominance of each interpretation is the power of the social forces behind it. In this respect, I agree with Shahrzad Mojab on the limits of religious reinterpretation. Thus, although religious reform is salutary and necessary, it is imperative to develop secular institutions, including a state that defends the rights of all its citizens irrespective of religious affiliation, and a civil society with strong organizations that can constitute a check on the state. I will return to this issue at the conclusion of this paper.

Shahidian criticizes Islamic feminists for working within the Islamic system and thus helping to legitimize and reproduce it. And yet, many feminists around the world work within their system, and help to reproduce it. In the U.S., liberal feminists work within the existing political system and seek to improve women’s positions though the discursive framework of liberal capitalism. Of course, the substance of their respective gender critiques is different, and they work within two entirely different political and legal environments. Shahidian has criticized Iran’s Islamic feminists for their failure to take up such liberal-feminist issues as sexual rights and personal autonomy. Apart from the fact that there are some other issues that may have more priority for most Iranian women, one has to point out that U.S. liberal feminists have not called for economic and political transformation. American feminist demands for sexual rights and equal opportunities in education and employment are entirely compatible with the capitalist system. What liberal feminists have not called for is a change in the system of taxation and in development policy that would alter U.S. foreign policy and the distribution of wealth within the United States. Such profound changes would transform and improve the lives of American women and of women around the world.

One of the gaps I see in the discourse of the “Islamic feminists” – whether they be genuinely religious or more secular – is the lack of attention to political and economic issues. Where are the analyses of poverty, of economic policy, of governance? Where are the alternative positions on democracy (even an Islamic democracy), civil society, and citizen rights? Their position on political and economic issues remains unclear and undeveloped. Faezeh Hashemi and other Islamic feminists sometimes refer to the goals of democracy, civil society, and equality for women and religious minorities. However, to the extent that they raise these issues, their discussion of them tends to be very general and non-threatening. (I have found this level of generality and lack of specificity to be the case with male reformists as well.) In fact, Iran’s constitution – as well as family law and the penal code — will have to be revised, if those objectives are to be achieved. Moreover, the building of civil society calls for a specific kind of state. Civil society presupposes a state that enforces universal legal norms and guarantees protection of civil and human rights regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, and class.

Conclusion: On Civil Society and Global Feminism

Does Islamic feminism challenge or reinforce the fusion of religion and politics/law? Najmabadi celebrates Zanan for its receptivity to non-Islamic writers, which she sees as blurring the divide between religious and secular thought. And yet there is a need for separation of the state and mosque/church/synagogue, and for a secular political system, even though there are different paths to and models of secularism and Iran must find its own.

I cannot elaborate on these different historical paths and contemporary models in the confines of the present paper. Here I can simply point out that Mexico, Turkey, India, France, Finland, the United States, and the former Soviet Union have had very different forms of secularism. In Mexico, government officials do not invoke the name of God (partly a result of Mexico’s anti-clerical revolution earlier this century), but the masses of Mexicans are very religious. The vast majority of Turks are Muslims, and yet the political-juridical system is secular. Finnish citizens pay a portion of their taxes to the Lutheran Church, although politics and citizenry alike are secular. The former Soviet Union and countries of Eastern Europe had an official policy of atheism – which, however, engendered religious dissidence. The United States has a constitutional principle of separation of church and state – but that same constitution, as well as the American currency, refers to God.  India has sought to maintain equality of its many ethnic and religious communities through the establishment of a secular political system – although its Civil Code still defers to various communities in the areas of personal and family status.

The efforts of believing women of the monotheistic faiths to subject their religious texts to a feminist re-reading, or to locate and emphasize the women-friendly and egalitarian precepts within their religious texts, are to be supported. This is a legitimate – and a historically necessary – strategy to improve the status of women and to modernize religious thought. In this respect, my position is different from that of Moghissi and Shahidian, who dismiss feminist theology and deny its wider implications. And yet, one cannot insist that the Islamic arguments are the only ones that matter, and that change will occur only as a result of the reform movement in Islam. Islam in Iran may be experiencing a kind of Reformation, but what will be equally if not more important for long-term social change in Iran is an Enlightenment. As such, the contributions of non-religious thinkers and activists, whether inside or outside Iran, will continue the process of democratization and civil society-building that was initiated by the Constitutional Revolution earlier in this century. This process, and the resolution of the political, economic, and cultural crises that we witness in Iran today, will only be overcome by major changes in the system of governance.

What are some elements of a system of governance and legal system that could ensure social, gender, religious, and ethnic equality? Religious doctrine should not be the basis of laws, policies, or institutions. Constitutions should not state that “Islam [or Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism] is the official [or state or national] religion.” Family law should not derive from religious texts, whether in Iran or in Israel. Blasphemy laws should be removed, and religion should be the subject of historical and critical inquiry. All citizens should be equal before the law, with equal rights and obligations. Civil, political, and social rights of citizens should be clearly defined, and protected by the state and by the institutions of civil society. (This includes worker participation in decision-making and an active role for independent unions, professional associations, citizen groups, and so on.) It should be noted that Islam, like the other monotheistic religions, has humane, compassionate, egalitarian, and social-justice aspects. These may inspire civil codes, political processes, social policies, and economic institutions. For example, the humanism of religious thought is an important counter-weight to the harsh discipline of the capitalist market. The ban on usury in Islam and Catholicism is in conflict with capitalism’s creation of wealth through financial transactions and speculation, and this, to my mind, is progressive and should be emphasized. Religious belief should be respected, and religious institutions should have a place in civil society, but religion should not dominate the state and the law.

I end by asking whether Islamic feminism is indeed feminism. Is Islamic feminism an indigenous alternative to secular or Western-inspired feminism? Is it an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Or is it part of the already diversified spectrum of the international women’s movement, and a contributor to a “global feminism”? There is no question that Islamic feminists have been inspired by Western feminism and are attentive to feminist writings from the developing world. Any reading of the women’s press in Iran reveals that Iranian women activists and scholars, including those who define themselves as Muslim or Islamic, are aware of or familiar with international writings on feminism.

In a thought-provoking book, Patricia Misciagno argues for a “bottom-up”, or a materialist, approach to feminist identity that hinges on women’s praxis, rather than their ideology. She defines “de facto feminist praxis” as “activity that runs counter to the ideology of patriarchy, even while not directly addressing the issue of patriarchy as an ideology.” Similarly, historian Leila Rupp and sociologist Verta Taylor note that “a concentration solely on ideas ignores the fact that feminists are social movement actors situated in an organizational and movement context.” Their historical study shows that “the meaning of feminism has changed over time and from place to place and is often disputed”. They emphasize the need to understand “what women (or men) in a specific historical location believed” but also “how they constructed, sometimes through conflict with one another, a sense of togetherness.” Feminist disputes, they argue, “take place within a social movement community that, as it evolves, encompasses those who see gender as a major category of analysis, who critique female disadvantage, and who work to improve women’s situations.” They conclude by asserting that “In every group, in every place, at every time, the meaning of ‘feminism’ is worked out in the course of being and doing.”

The above analysis may point the way toward a resolution of the debate on Islamic feminism. For if feminism has always been contested, if feminists should be defined by their praxis rather than by a strict ideology, and if a feminist politics is shaped by its specific historical, political, and cultural contexts, then it should be possible to identify Islamic feminism as one feminism among many.  Indeed, in my view, it is not particularly useful to create absolute boundaries between Islamic feminism, Western feminism, Latin American feminism, African feminism, Jewish feminism, and so on. In the same way that liberal, socialist, Marxist, radical, cultural, and postmodern feminisms are part of the feminist tradition, so are the various regional manifestations part of the evolving political philosophy of feminism and social movement of women. At the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, what is emerging is a global women’s movement and a philosophy that draws on the feminist “classics” but that also reflects the social realities and concerns of women in various parts of the world.  To a very great extent, the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted at the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995, is a manifesto of this global women’s movement. It describes the problems facing the women of the world and prescribes a set of actions to solve the problems that would involve government, international agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the women’s movement. That the Platform for Action was finally agreed upon by governments and women’s organizations after considerable disagreements confirms the multi-faceted nature of global feminism and of the capacity of women worldwide to overcome ideology and conflict and agree on the measures necessary for women’s equality and empowerment.

Feminism is a theoretical perspective and a practice that criticizes social and gender inequalities, seeks to transform knowledge, and aims at women’s empowerment. Women, and not religion, should be at the center of that theory and practice.  It is hard to defend as feminist the view that women can attain equal status only in the context of Islam. This is a fundamentalist view, not one compatible with feminism. And yet, around the world women will pursue different strategies toward empowerment and transformation. We are still grappling with understanding and theorizing those diverse strategies. In this context, it serves no purpose to insist on a narrow definition of feminism, as Moghissi and Shahidian appear to do. Moreover, through their harsh attacks on those with whom they disagree, they impede rather than contribute to dialogue, knowledge, coalition-building, and collective action.

Val Moghaddam is director of women’s studies and Associate Professor of Sociology in Illinois State University, USA.

References and Suggested Bibliography

Afary, Janet. 1996. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution 1906-1911: Grassroots Democracy and the Origins of Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Afshar, Haleh. 1996. “Islam and Feminism: An Analysis of Political Strategies”, in Mai Yamani (ed.), Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives. New York Univ. Press.

Esfandiari, Haleh. 1994. “The Majles and Women’s Issues in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, pp. 61-79 in Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl, eds., In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran. Syracuse Univ. Press.

Farzaneh Various issues.

Jens-e Dovvom. Various issues.

Kia, M. 1994. “The Limits of Islamic Feminism”, Iran Bulletin, no. 8 (Jan-March): 20-21.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. 1996. “Women and Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran: Divorce, Veiling, and Emerging Feminist Voices”. Pp. 142-169 in Haleh Afshar, ed., Women and Politics in the Third World.London and New York: Routledge.

—–.  1996. “Stretching the Limits: A Feminist Reading of the Sharia in Post-Khomeini Iran”. Pp. 285-319 in Mai Yamani, ed., Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives. NY: NYU Press.

—–. 1998. “Rethinking Gender: Discussions with Ulama in Iran”, Critique (Fall): 46-59.

—–. 1999. Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran. Princeton Univ. Press.

Misciagno, Patricia S. 1997.  Rethinking Feminist Identification: The Case for De Facto Feminism. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Moghadam, Val. 1987. “Socialism or Anti-Imperialism? The Left and Revolution in Iran.” New Left Review 166 (Nov./Dec.):5-28.

—–. 1993. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East.  Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

—– (ed.) 1993.  Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview.

—–. 2000. “Transnational Feminist Networks: Collective Action in an Era of Globalization”, International Sociology, vol. 15, no. 1 (March): 57-84.

Moghissi, Haideh. 1994. Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women’s Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolutionary Movement. London: Macmillan Press.

—–. 1995. “Public Life and Women’s Resistance”. Pp. 251-267 in Sohrab Behdad and Saeed Rahnema, eds., Iran after the Revolution: Crisis of an Islamic State. London and New York: I.B. Taurus.

—–. 1997. “Populist Feminism and Islamic Feminism: A Critique of Neo-conservative Tendencies among Iranian Academic Feminists”, Kankash, no. 13: 57-95 (in Persian).

—–. 1998. “Women, Modernity, and Political Islam.” Iran Bulletin, no. 19-20, (autumn/winter): 42-44.

—–. 1999. Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis. London: Zed Books.

Mojab, Shahrzad. 1999. “Women Undertaking Ijtehad: Hoping for a Feminizing Democracy”. Arash, no. 70 [Khordad 1378/June 1999]: 48-52. (in Persian).

Najmabadi, Afsaneh. 1995. “Years of Hardship, Years of Growth”, Kankash, no. 12 (in Persian)

—–. 1997. “Feminisms in an Islamic Republic.” Pp. 390-399 in Joan Scott, Cora Kaplan, and Debra Keates, eds., Transitions, Environments, Translations: Feminisms in International Politics. London and New York: Routledge.

—–. 1998. “Feminism in an Islamic Republic: ‘Years of Hardship, Years of Growth’.” Pp. 59-84 in Yvonne Y. Haddad and John Esposito, eds., Women, Gender, and Social Change in the Muslim World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Roald, Anne Sofie. 1998. “Feminist Reinterpretation of Islamic Sources: Muslim Feminist Theology in the Light of the Christian Tradition of Feminist Thought”. Pp. 17-44 in Karin Ask and Marit Tjomsland, eds., Women and Islamization: Contemporary Dimensions of Discourse on Gender Relations. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Rupp, Leila J. and Verta Taylor. 1999. “Forging Feminist Identity in an International Movement: A collective Identity Approach to Twentieth Century Feminism”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 24, no. 21: 363-386.

Tohidi, Nayereh. 1997. Feminism, Democracy, and Islamism in Iran (Los Angeles) (in Persian).

—–. “ ‘Islamic Feminism’: A Democratic Challenge or a Theocratic Reaction?” Kankash, no. 13, (in Persian)

—–. 1998. “The Issues at Hand”, in Herbert Bodman and Nayereh Tohidi, eds., Women in Muslim Societies: Diversity Within Unity. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Shahidian, Hammed. 1994. “The Iranian Left and ‘The Woman Question’ in the Revolution of 1978-79.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 26: 223-247

—–. 1998. “Feminism in Iran: In Search of What?”, Zanan, no. 40: 32-38.

—–. 1998. “Islamic Feminism Encounters Western Feminism: An Indigenous Alternative?” Talk delivered at the Women’s Studies 1998-99 Seminar on Globalization, Gender, and Pedagogy, Illinois State University (12 February).

—–.  1999. “Saving the Savior”, Sociological Inquiry, vol. 69, no. 2 (Spring): 303-327.

Zanan. Various issues.

Letter from Tehran

by: Manijeh Nasrabadi

[Originally published on This interview was conducted in Tehran by Manijeh Nasrabadi of the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective one year after the green uprising. For more from the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, see their “Essential Readings: Iran”]

On June 12, 2010, the tense one-year anniversary of the post-election uprising that made the color green an international symbol of a people’s democratic aspirations, hundreds of special security forces stood shoulder to shoulder along Tehran’s major boulevards and squares with knives, batons, and walkie-talkies ready. Nonetheless, the evening traffic from Imam Square to Revolution Square swelled well beyond the normal numbers of commuters, as families, friends, and co-workers engaged in a moving protest without signs, slogans, or any visible scrap of green. “My purse was full of green balloons that my sister and I were going to release into the crowd,” said one stay-at-home mother who drove along slowly, honking her horn to show her opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. “But we saw the faces of the security forces and we didn’t dare.” The standoff described above reveals both how deeply the dissent runs in this society and how easy it would be to draw pessimistic conclusions about the possibilities for progressive change in Iran.

At this crucial moment in Iran’s history, when the gap between popular discontent and the ability of the opposition to accomplish reforms threatens to swallow what remains of the green movement’s momentum, the experiences of Iranian feminists, who have long had to organize under conditions of crisis and repression, may offer a vital perspective on how to move forward from here. Indeed, for Iranian feminists, June 12th (the 22nd of Khordad on the Iranian calendar) evokes a longer, less well-publicized history of resistance. It is also the four-year anniversary of a watershed moment in the contemporary Iranian women’s movement, when activists protested against gender discrimination in Tehran’s Haft-e Tir Square and were beaten by police. More than fifty people were arrested, but the One Million Signatures Campaign was launched in the aftermath, and it managed to develop networks of activists in cities across the country despite the toll of government repression.

Through educational workshops and grassroots petitioning in public places and private gatherings, the Campaign gathered support for changing ten key laws that constitute women as second-class citizens in Iranian society, including divorce, child custody, and inheritance laws. On the occasion of this double anniversary, I sat down with Delaram, Homa, and Nahid, veteran Campaign activists in Tehran, to solicit their reflections on the turbulent years behind them, the relationship between the feminist movement and the broader “green” movement, and the prospects for advancing the struggle for gender equality under the current security crackdown.

Far from a homogenous entity, the Campaign has been a space of vigorous debate over strategy and tactics – including over what position to take during last year’s elections. Each of the women I spoke with had taken a different approach. “We had faced so much repression previously that it wasn’t easy to judge if we should participate at all in last year’s election season,” said Delaram, who spent several days in jail after the protest four years ago. She still faces a sentence of two years, ten months and ten lashes for her role in protesting gender discriminatory laws – a sentence the government could decide to carry out at any time. Campaign workshops were attacked repeatedly over the past four years, and some members lost jobs or were kicked out of school. It wasn’t until the night of the first televised presidential debates, when support for opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi manifested in large street processions of young people decked out in strips of green fabric, that Delaram realized “the mood of the country had changed.” She decided to vote for Moussavi because it seemed like he might actually win. “It felt like our revolution, like the bad memories of the past thirty years were draining away,” she said. Most Campaign activists initially backed Mehdi Karroubi, successfully conducting their petition drive among his supporters.

Homa was studying at Tehran University at the time, the center of the ongoing student movement, and cast a protest vote in favor of the relatively progressive positions Karroubi had taken, helping political prisoners and supporting minority rights. Nahid, who was a leftist during the 1979 revolution, took the most unpopular position, boycotting the election altogether. “I thought if we voted, it would only give legitimacy to this government,” she said. No matter whether they had voted or not, or for whom, all three women experienced the shock and anger that accompanied the purported poll results, and joined the millions of people who publicly refused to accept them. But as Campaign activists were swept up by the green wave of protest, their own work ground to a halt. “People said forget about gathering signatures, let’s go into the streets,” Delaram remembered. Homa laughed and added, “People said, if you get a long prison sentence, don’t worry. This government won’t last more than a year or two.”

The Campaign risked becoming irrelevant as people could point to the mass demonstrations and say, “Women are at the front of the movement, men are following them. What more do you want?”Delaram explained. “But a movement is not feminist just because there are a lot women participating in it.”

Nahid was particularly wary of the possibility that the feminist movement might dissolve into the green movement. “I protested in front of the Interior Ministry. I visited the families of people who were arrested. I joined all of it,” she said, referring to the mass post-election demonstrations. “But I didn’t wear green. I’m part of the women’s movement and I didn’t see any of the candidates do more than pay lip service to women’s rights.”Delaram pointed out that, “before the election, some people in Karroubi’s campaign raised the slogan that the hijab should be voluntary. But after the election, this slogan disappeared.”

The tension between large mobilizations for empowering universal ideals – popular chants in Iran last summer called for freedom and an end to dictatorship – and the struggle for women’s liberation is especially pointed here given the hard lessons feminists have drawn from the last time there was such widespread resistance: the 1979 revolution. In the spring of that year, marches for women’s rights were labeled pro-Western and met with violence. As the green movement gained strength and shook the nation, “it started to feel just like thirty years ago,” Homa said. “No one focused on women’s issues.”

In an attempt to better understand how women ended up betrayed by a revolution they helped to start, Homa asked her mother why she ever agreed to wear the hijab. “She said she and her friends didn’t even think of questioning it at the time.” “I can tell you from personal experience,” Nahid offered. “At the time of the revolution, I thought we were fighting for a classless society, for full equality, and that when we achieved this, women’s problems would be solved as well.” Nahid spent seven months in jail in 1981 for her left-wing activism but it wasn’t until twenty years later that she heard the word “feminism” and joined the women’s movement (eventually landing her back in jail for five days after the June 12th protest in 2006). “Now my criteria for political struggle has changed,” she said. “It’s less important to me if you call yourself ‘left’ or ‘right’ then if you ask, for example, where the discrimination lies in the divorce laws.”

With the weight of history hanging over them, and the regime launching a full-scale attack against the popular movement – 5,000 people were arrested in the eight months following the elections, including 138 female civic activists – Campaign members struggled to figure out how to continue their work. Two months into the uprising, about fifty of them gathered to discuss what to do. “Every moment we thought security might burst in and, if fifty activists in Tehran were all arrested together, we would have lost everything we’d worked for,” she said. It was a disorienting meeting in which Campaign members raised doubts about petitioning against the ten laws – their organizational raison d’être. “We debated whether petitions had any meaning anymore,” Delaram said. “Activists who had collected signatures before didn’t feel confident to go into the streets to talk about changing laws. People were out in the millions; some people were getting killed and we’re going to say, ‘Sign this paper?’ A paper demanding change from this parliament? This administration?” More than even the threat of arrest, the idea of trying to convince people protesting their stolen votes that signing a piece of paper could change anything was paralyzing.

Last September on Jerusalem Day – one of a series of official government holidays seized by the opposition as another opportunity to protest – Delaram and others showed up with placards and slogans condemning discrimination against women. The results were disappointing. “You could talk to individuals and they might be interested or even agree, but we couldn’t make these issues a priority on the streets,” Delaram said. This was the only time it was safe enough to attempt such an open approach, as the ratio of government supporters to protestors was small enough to make a violent police crackdown impractical. In the meantime, Campaign activists were being arrested and questioned about women’s rights organizing, especially those who also participated in the student movement and the Kurdish struggle for minority rights. At least three Campaign members are still in jail. “We were and are in a crisis situation,” Delaram said. “But we have to remember that the Campaign actually began in a moment of crisis in 2006, when America was seriously threatening to attack Iran, and we didn’t know what we would do if that happened.”

I asked all three women what they thought of current US foreign policy towards Iran, including the latest round of sanctions passed by the UN Security Council. “The sanctions won’t overturn the government,” Homa said, “but they will make our lives harder.” She paused and added, “I don’t want to say all American organizations are bad; certainly the government has had a negative effect, but even many progressives have had a negative effect on Iranian civil society.” All three women voiced their concerns about the international attention the Campaign has received over the last year and a half. In particular, they were uncomfortable with what they called a distorted image of Iranian women that was taken for granted by Western feminist groups and others – an image they felt was perpetuated in part by Iranians who live abroad and publish overly negative generalizations about the situation of women in Iran. “It seems there is a fantasy in America about helping Iranian women,” Delaram said. “They say they want to help free us,” Homa said, “as if they are liberated and, if we’re lucky, we’ll someday catch up.”

The Campaign has been selected for prizes it did not seek out, including, in 2009, the Feminist Majority’s Global Women’s Rights award and the Simone de Beauvoir Prize in France. Activists in Iran decided to return all of the prize money. As Nahid explained, “We are a grassroots movement on a shoe-string budget and we are independent. If you take money from here and there, it undermines your work.” “If they want to help spread news of our activities in the foreign press, that’s great,” Delaram said, when I asked what kind of support would be useful. “But people need to have relationships with activists in Iran, to understand where we are coming from. We have a movement. It’s true that we are working in very difficult conditions, but, my question is, what are you doing to organize for women’s rights in America?”She then offered an example of what she considered to be productive solidarity – the response to Iranian feminists’ call for support on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2010. Using Facebook, Twitter, and the web site, they asked that articles, demonstrations, and other events being organized around the world on that day focus on the slogan “Freedom and Gender Equality in Iran.” Individuals and groups from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, the US, and a host of European countries signed on. “To me this said, ‘Let’s struggle together, protest together for women’s rights everywhere,’” Delaram said. “It was not about pity for women in Iran or Afghanistan.”

Not long after March 8th, the Campaign held another meeting and adapted its organizing strategy to the new realities of increased security. “No longer can we go into parks and collect signatures,” Homa said. With public petitioning out of the question, and large membership meetings too risky, they decided to divide up into smaller, more agile groups – each one focused on a particular discriminatory law – that could operate with less probability of arrest. New volunteers can join whichever group they choose and most communication happens over email, still a safer bet than using the phone. Every few months, members will try to bring the smaller groups together for an overall assessment of their progress. Campaign activists have been encouraged by some important, if relatively minor, successes. Signatures are coming in again, workshops are happening for the first time in months, and interest in the Campaign is growing again. Recently, Delaram led a workshop of eighteen people who wanted to learn about gender discrimination. This was an improvement in numbers over the last few months, and many of those who showed up were family members of protesters who had been killed or jailed over the last year. “The people who are coming to these workshops now are much more serious than those who would come two or three years ago,” Delaram said. “You get the sense they will stay committed until the end.”

While these efforts may seem small compared to the overwhelming nature of the Ahmadinejad administration’s crackdown, they occur within the context of persistent political dissent that continues to broaden and deepen. “Now people don’t feel like they’re in a country where no one cares or tries or wants to change anything,” Delaram said. “People feel they are in a society on edge.” The question for the Campaign is how to tap in to this widespread sentiment and introduce the subject of gender equality into the discussion. In their efforts to rise to this challenge, members are engaged in an intense period of intellectual work, producing articles for their web site,, which take stock of the history of the women’s movement in Iran, assess their own four years of work, and explore strategies for coping with increased repression. “I’m writing an article about how the center of our movement has to be maintained in Iran,” Homa said, after listing the names of Campaign members who have had to go abroad due to safety concerns. “I talk about how this is not the first time the shape of our activities has had to change,” she said. “This may be the biggest change, but we’ve had hard times before.” Reflecting on what she and the others have accomplished in the four years since the Campaign was launched, Delaram said, “It’s true that we don’t have a million signatures; we have far fewer. But we’ve spoken with millions of people. They may not all agree with us, but more people understand that these laws [that discriminate against women] are not in their interests.”

All three women took pride in the fact that the Campaign had survived a series of crucial tests – from the imprisonment and exile of leading members, to the offers of money from Western feminist groups, to internal debates and disorientation – and was still functioning. Losing the ability to operate in public spaces has forced them to rely once again on the word-of-mouth, person-to-person organizing strategy with which they began. “I first heard about the Campaign from Homa,” Nahid remembered. “After that, I never missed a meeting.” As the tension of the June 12 anniversary recedes, the perspective advocated by Delaram, Homa and Nahid – that of slow, patient educational work and signature collection combined with a long-term view of political and social change – may enable the women’s movement to survive and even deepen its impact, despite the odds. “The Campaign started from zero and now, if we got to five, this is progress,” Homa said. “We want to continue to bring women’s issues to the forefront of popular consciousness,” she added. “I am thinking about the future generations.”

Special thanks to Delaram, Nahid, and Homa for their generosity and trust, and to Nasrin for help with transcription.

Radio Zamaneh: Independent Media from Iranian Voices

Since 2006 Radio Zamaneh has successfully facilitated Persian writers, Islamic scholars, prominent Iranians and personalities at the heart of Iranian culture to provide their views and thoughts. We create a platform that connects the prevalent voices and views. We engage, empower and facilitate our audience with news programs, articles, reports, blogs, and entertainment.

Our programming is a mixture of world news and current affairs, social and cultural issues, and entertainment. Central to our programming are the voices of the unheard; of women and of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. Topical questions such as ‘How can young Iranians meet and engage in relationships?’ and ‘How can minorities’ rights be improved?’ have made inroads in many Iranian households thanks to coverage by Radio Zamaneh.

Radio Zamaneh fills the information and communication gap left by Iranian state media. Human rights and civil liberties are high on our agenda. Through citizen journalism and participatory radio-making we aim to promote pluralism. “All people know all things,” so the famous Iranian saying goes. The result is a plethora of weblogs and of audio contributions, and a radio station that is highly regarded both inside Iran and abroad.


Radio Zamaneh was started as a collaborative effort between Press Now and a team of Iranian journalists and bloggers. The Dutch government decided to support the development of media plurality in Iran after a unanimous vote in parliament.

Radio Zamaneh was established in 2006 as a non-profit organization under Dutch law. We depend on donor support for our finances. We have no ties to any political, ethnic or social group within or outside Iran. Internet broadcasting started on 4 August 2006, while satellite broadcasting started on 1 September 2006. Shortwave broadcasting started on 7 September 2006 but was terminated in December 2007.

Radio Zamaneh is currently broadcasting on the web and on satellite 24 hours a day via Hotbird 13 degrees east, frequency 11642 MHz, Polarization horizontal, S/R 27500.

Bijan Moshaver, Chair of the Board

Arjen de Wolff, Director

Farid Haerinejad, Editor-in-Chiefm

Paradoxes of Iranian Society Spur on Heroic Women

by Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON, Jun 1, 2011 (IPS) – Haleh Sahabi is the latest Iranian woman to die in political violence.
On Wednesday, security forces attempting to cut short the Tehran funeral of her father scuffled with Sahabi, 55, who died of an apparent heart attack.

Sahabi had been let out of prison, where she was serving a two-year term for human rights activism, to attend the funeral. A photo of her holding a picture of her father – Ezatollah Sahabi, a prominent dissident in his own right – just before her death has now joined other iconic images of Iran’s simmering discontent.

Across the Middle East, the role of women in political protests is striking and expanding. From Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Tehran’s Azadi Square, they have marched side by side or even in front of men, chanting slogans demanding democracy and greater personal freedom.

In Iran, since protests erupted following disputed presidential elections two years ago, 10 percent of those jailed for political reasons have been female, said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. That amounts to 100 of the 500 Iranians prosecuted and serving sentences and an additional 500 in pre-trial detention, he said.

Several of those who have died in street clashes or been executed by the regime over the past two years have been women. The best known is Neda Agha-Soltan, a 27-year-old philosophy student who was fatally shot Jun. 20, 2009 on the streets of Tehran. Footage of her death went viral on social networking sites.

Among the most prominent political prisoners in Iran is Nasrin Sotoudeh, 48, a civil rights lawyer sentenced in January to 11 years in prison for defending others. Sotoudeh wrote in a letter last week to her husband Reza that was posted on opposition websites that far from being lonely in prison, she was experiencing “a new environment” created by her fellow female inmates.

“This existence is at times happy and upbeat, at times calm and demure, at times watchful and analytical, but always tolerant and willing to compromise; a tolerance that will eventually lead us to achieve our goals,” she wrote.

Women have participated and died in all of Iran’s major political upheavals, from the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution to the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution.

However, in the past they tended to walk behind or separate from men, said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In 2009, they were together if not in front, egging on the men.

Esfandiari, herself jailed for four months in 2007 on nebulous allegations of promoting a “velvet revolution” in Iran, noted in a 1997 book called “Reconstructed Lives” that women had to reinvent themselves after the 1979 revolution.

Despite the fact that they lacked legal equality, they often become breadwinners and household decision-makers when their husbands lost jobs, became too demoralised to function or were sent off to fight during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Encouraged, even obliged to take part in pro-government demonstrations, women developed a habit of political activism. They figured prominently in the successful 1997 and 2001 presidential campaigns of Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric, and in the 2009 campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who ran against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mousavi promised to end inequality of women in inheritance, court testimony and child custody – restrictions placed on women by the Islamic regime. The fact that his accomplished wife – former university president Zahra Rahnavard – campaigned alongside him was also a major factor in attracting women’s support.

Other Iranian women, such as human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who in 2003 became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, have led efforts to regain equal rights. An online petition campaign – the Million Signatures Campaign – was started in 2006 by women seeking legal equality.

The expanding profile of women in Iran is the culmination of a number of factors, said Farzaneh Milani, a professor of Persian Literature and Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia. While Iranian women have seen their rights constricted since 1979, they have also experienced “collateral benefit”, she said.

Women from traditional religious families who had shied away from higher education under the Shah began attending in greater numbers once all women were forced to wear the veil and many public spaces became segregated by sex. Now 64 percent of those attending higher education in Iran are female, Milani said Wednesday during a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “This was not the intention [of the authorities] but the outcome,” she said.

The paradoxes and contradictions of Iranian society in regard to women are a spur to activism.

Milani notes in a new book on Iranian women writers, “Words, not Swords”, “Women can vote and run for some of the highest offices in the country but they must observe an obligatory dress code. They can drive personal vehicles, even taxis and trucks and fire engines, but they cannot ride bicycles…

“They have entered the world stage as Nobel Peace laureates, human rights activists, best-selling authors, prize-winning film directors and Oscar nominees, but they cannot enter governmental offices through the same doors as men.”

The fact that so many women are incarcerated in Iran demonstrates that they are a growing threat to the regime, Milani said. “No one can stop this movement. The genie is out of the bottle.”