Transing and Transpassing Across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran

by: Afsaneh Najmabadi


Something happened in 2003-04: transsexuals and transsexuality in Iran suddenly became a hot media topic, both in Iran and internationally. The medical practice of sex-change by means of surgery and hormones dates to at least the early 1970s in Iran; for nearly three decades the topic had received occasional coverage in the Iranian press, including a series of reports (presumably based on real lives) published in a popular magazine, Rah-i zindigi [Path of Life], beginning in 1999. Iranian press coverage of “trans” phenomena increased sharply in early 2003, however, and it has continued intensely ever since—sometimes reporting directly on transsexuals and transsexuality, and sometimes reporting on it in the context of other people marked as “vulnerable to social harm,” such as prostitutes (both male and female) and runaway girls, who reportedly live trans-dressed lives.

It was these latter two topics that drew the attention of documentary filmmaker Mitra Farahani, to the subject of transsexuals in Iran. Her documentary Just a Woman won international acclaim at the 2002 Berlin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and elsewhere, and seems to have ignited broader international attention to the issue of transsexuality in Iran. A flurry of articles appeared in the world press in 2004-05. The Guardian, for example, wrote on 27 July 2005 that “today, the Islamic Republic of Iran occupies the unlikely role of global leader for sex change,” and noted that “Iran has even become a magnet for patients from eastern 2 European and Arab countries seeking to change their genders.” A number of television documentaries in France, Sweden, Holland and the United Kingdom followed, as well as several independent documentary film productions (Abdo 2000; Fahti 2004; Eqbali 2004; McDowall and Khan 2004; Harrison 2005; Stack 2005; Tait 2005).

The celebratory tone of many of these reports—welcoming recognition of transsexuality and the permissibility of sex-change operations—is sometimes mixed with an element of surprise: How could this be happening in an Islamic state? In other accounts, the sanctioning of transsexuality is tightly framed by comparisons with punishments for sodomy and the presumed illegality of homosexuality—echoing, as we shall see, some of the official thinking in Iran. While transsexual surgeries are not new in Iran, over the past decade such operations seem to have increased not only in publicity, but also in actual frequency.

At the first national symposium on transsexuality, “Studying Gender Identity Disorder,” held in the northeastern provincial capital of Mashhad in May 2005, Dr. Kahani from the national Legal Medical Board reported that in the fifteen years between 1987 and 2001, 200 males and 70 females had submitted sex-change petitions to the Board, 214 of which had been approved. Over the next four years, between 2001 and 2004, another 200 petitions had been received. Anecdotal statistics from a private sex-change clinic in Tehran point to similar increases—for the period 1985-1995, 125 of 153 clients went through partial or full sex-change operations; in the next decade, the numbers increased to 200 surgeries in a client population of 210. 3 The increasing frequency of sex-change petitions and operations is not an un- problematically positive development, empowering though this trend has been for transsexuals.

Many political challenges are posed by framing transsexuality within a dominant mapping of sexuality that explicitly renders as diseased, abnormal, deviant and at times criminal any sexual or gender non-conformity (including transsexuality itself, as well as same-sex desires and practices). For legal and medical authorities, sex-change surgeries are explicitly framed as the cure for a diseased abnormality, and on occasion they are proposed as a religio-legally sanctioned option for heteronormalizing people with same-sex desires or practices. Even though this possible option has not become state policy (because official discourse is also invested in making an essential distinction between transsexuals and homosexuals), recent international media coverage of transsexuality in Iran increasingly emphasizes the possibility that sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) is being performed coercively on Iranian homosexuals by a fundamentalist Islamic government (Ireland 2007).

This narrative framing (along with similar ones concerning the suppression of women’s rights and other political and labor struggles) circulates within larger reductive and totalizing Euro-American discourses on Iran and Islam that equate them both with the most conservative factions of the Iranian government, and with the views of the most fundamentalist Islamists. Conservative forces in both Iran and the West have a common stake in ignoring the lively reform discourse and history of progressive activism within contemporary Iran that offers alternative notions of rights within an Islamic society, and of alternative modes of living a Muslim life. 4

While the pressures on gays and lesbians in Iran to transition from one gender to another are very real, these pressures are not produced primarily by fear of criminality.

On the contrary: the religio-legal framework of transsexuality has been productive of paradoxical, and certainly unintended, effects that at times benefit homosexuals. Simply put, the religio-legal prohibition of same-sex practices does contribute to pressures on gays and lesbians to consider transsexuality as a religiously sanctioned legal alternative (which is particularly important for religiously observant persons), but instead of eliminating same-sex desires and practices, it has actually provided more room for relatively safer semi-public gay and lesbian social space, and for less conflicted self- perceptions among people with same-sex desires and practices. As one pre-op FtM (female-to-male transsexual) succinctly put it: “Once I was diagnosed as TS, I started having sex with my girl-friend without feeling guilty.”

A Brief History of Transsexuality in Iran

Some of the earliest discussions in Iran of transgenderism and transsexuality appeared in the 1940s, within a body of popular marital and parental advice literature translated into Persian (largely from American popular psychology authors) in which discussions of love, desire, sex, and marriage supplied occasions to write about gender disidentification, homosexuality, intersex conditions, and sex-change. (Some of the earliest discussions of transgenderism and transsexuality in Europe and the U.S. appeared in these very same sources). Surgeries to alter congenital intersex conditions were reported in the Iranian press as early as 1930 (Ittila‘at, 27 October 1930), and the intensification of 5 reporting on these surgeries in the 1940s and ‘50s forms an important backdrop to the subsequent history of transsexuality in Iran. By the late 1960s, notions of “gender disorder” and hormonal or genetic “sex and gender determination” began to enter Iranian medical discourse via translated behavioral psychology books and medical texts.

The earliest non-intersex sex-change surgery reported in the Iranian press (that I have found so far) dates to February 1973 (Kayhan, 17 February 1973), and by the early 1970s, at least one hospital in Tehran and one in Shiraz were carrying out SRS. A 1976 report by Dr. Kariminizhad of Jahanshah Saleh Women’s Hospital stated that over the previous three years, some fifty persons with transsexual tendencies had been seen at the hospital, and that 20 of them had gone through SRS (Kayhan, 11 October 1976.) Around the same time, the Medical Association of Iran (MAI), a professional state-affiliated organization of physicians, began discussing the medical ethics of surgical sex-change. In a 1976 decision, the MAI declared that sex-change operations, except in intersex cases, were ethically unacceptable—a ruling that was not reversed for more than a decade. As early as 1967, Ayatollah Khomeini had published a fatwa sanctioning sex-change, but this ruling, issued by a dissident Khomeini then still living in exile in Iraq, did not influence the policies of legal or medical institutions in Iran. (Khomeini 1967, Vol. 2: 753-755.)

There is no unanimity of opinion among leading clerics in Iran on the issue transsexuality. Numerically speaking, the majority of opinion-issuing clerics consider only intersex surgeries to be acceptable unequivocally. The opinion that ultimately matters, however, is that of the cleric(s) in political power, regardless of relative religious authority. The historically specific relationship between jurisprudential and political 6 authority that has characterized Iran since the early 1980s translates clerical opinion, sanctioned through a complex legal process, into the law. With Ayatollah Khomeini as a politically unchallenged supreme authority after the 1979 revolution until his death in 1989, the reissuance in 1985 of his 1967 fatwa on SRS, in Persian this time rather than Arabic, set in motion the process that culminated in new state-sanctioned medico-legal procedures regarding transsexuality.

From the earliest pronouncement to present-day opinions, reflections on transsexual surgery in Iran seem to have been informed in part by linking these bodily changes to similar questions posed about intersex bodies. Classical Islamic discourse categorized every human body as either male or female, yet accepted the possibility that in the case of hermaphrodites it was difficult and at times impossible to determine the body’s “true genus” (kind or type).

Jurisprudents then elaborated rules of behavior to deal with the possible threat of gender transgressions that such impossibility of knowing would produce (Sanders 1991). In its modern reconfiguration, jurisprudents argued that new medical sciences could help unravel the puzzle of proper genus in difficult cases of hermaphroditism, and that medical technology could correct the manifestation of that genus. Importantly, by the 1960s, the approval of medicalized means for manifesting the proper genus of the hermaphroditic body converged with, and eventually (in the post-1979 period) acted as, religious sanction for the emerging medico-psycho-behavioral discourse on gender and sexual dimorphism. Not only did the true sex become knowable in spite of 7 ambiguous genitalia; a determinate relation among gender identification, gender role behavior, sexual desire, and subjective gender identity was envisioned for each and every body.

The convergence of these discourses consolidated a powerful religio-legal-psycho- medical notion of “unnatural and deviant” sexualities that now circulates in the Iranian national press, in religious texts, in bio-medical and psychological writings, and in marital and parental advice literature. With the establishment and consolidation of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s, this discourse gained state support, finance, and force of law, providing the conditions of possibility for transsexuality in Iran on a new scale, while setting the contours within which transsexuals fight their battles and live their lives, often with imaginative successes, and at other times with frustration and terrible loss. The “trans-friendly” jurisprudential discourse on transsexuality that began as an elaboration on intersex discourse now approves of transsexuality on the discretionary grounds that it has not been specifically forbidden in the Qur’an.

Invoking a distinction between the physical body and the soul, this discourse argues that in most people there is harmony between the two, but that in a small number of people a disharmony produces transsexuality; since we cannot change a person’s soul, but medical advances have made it possible to change a person’s body, transsexual surgery is a permissible solution to this disharmony between soul and body. As a discretionary matter, SRS is not required—nor even recommended—for a person diagnosed as transsexual, unless a religiously observant transsexual fears falling into sinful deeds. Some of the more accepting people among the friends and kin of transsexuals have come to terms with transsexuality through understanding it as a “wonder of creation,” or sign of God’s power. Some trans- 8 friendly and gay-friendly psychotherapists use the same language in working with families. While this may sound to many of us terribly “essentialist,” I have come to hear it as an alternatively enabling script, especially as compared to the more dominant (and no less essentialist) psycho-medical discourse. Public knowledge of transsexuality has been shaped not only by jurisprudential and biomedical discourses, but also by intensive coverage in the Iranian press (and to some extent by satellite television broadcasts).

In addition to the previously mentioned reports in Rah-i zindigi, the topic of transsexuality has been covered in a number of magazines, such as Zanan, and Chilchiraq, and important dailies, such as I‘timad-i melli, I‘timad, Hamshahri, and Sharq, where long articles and interviews have appeared in medical and science sections.

The “yellow press” also covers transsexuality, and for a brief period in 2004-05 gave the topic frequent full-page coverage, sometimes featuring translated articles that had appeared in the international press. This sustained coverage, despite the lean quality of the content—sometimes repeating the same story in various issues of the same journal—has made transsexuality one of the stock attention-grabbing stories for the scandal sheets, along with stories about film stars’ lives, and various sexual and social scandals.

The combination of kinds of coverage—with the dailies and science journals making transsexuality a respectable topic of social conversation, and the sensational press bringing it into popular knowledge—has made transsexuality a widely recognized topic, though by no means a generally approved-of one. It is possible that the increased frequency of SRS in the past decade has been enabled by this expansion of public discourse. Many transsexuals I listened to, especially those coming to Tehran from 9 provincial towns, said they had found out about SRS clinics through the press coverage (including satellite broadcast of documentaries). What kind of subjectivity is afforded to transsexuals through their public recognition as strange creations or scandalously diseased bodies, and how do transsexuals themselves respond to these representations? Some of the intimate details of transsexuals’ lives reported in the tabloids would be unimaginable if the subjects were recognized as “normal heterosexuals.” It is only as transsexuals that their sexual lives become printable stories.

What effects do this possibility of scandalous or “strange” public intimacy generate for conceptions of gender and sexuality more generally—especially given that the scandal sheets, like the rest of the press, have to be wary of violating the restrictions of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance?

As Dupret and Ferrié have written of Egypt and Morocco, what happens when claims for certain intimate lives become possible largely through “publicizing the private,” their regulation justified through their potential criminality? (Dupret 2001; Ferrié 1995) When the cover of the tabloid visually frames the headlines about transsexuals with headlines about murder, urban crimes, and cannibalism, what kind of empathy can even a sympathetic transsexual story generate, bordered as it is by stories designed to provoke urban panic and moral revulsion?

Venturing into Ethnography

It was with these uneasy thoughts that I began my research in Iran in May 2006. Two questions formed my initial thinking: First, in a cultural-legal context where same-sex desire is considered shameful and same-sex practices are illegal, but within which 10 transsexuality, even if overwhelmingly understood as shameful, is nevertheless legal and state-subsidized, how does this configuration shape sexual and gender subjectivities? Second, how do insistent state regulations and religio-cultural codes and rituals concerning proper gender conduct shape sexual desires and gender subjectivities? How does this context map the terrain on which individuals come to identify as TS and decide how far to go in their transitions? For instance, the protocols of sex-change often involve a prolonged period of supervised transition, during which the person lives socially as the other gender. In Iran, I had imagined, this procedure would face difficulties because of a whole series of state regulations on gender segregation. How do people in transition, I wondered, how do they navigate gender regulations?

Religious and state regulations aim to produce a sense of bodily appropriateness through daily observations of gendered homosocializing practices, whether at home (for religiously observant families), in streets and parks, or in offices and universities. What is the legally sanctified gender of a trans-dressed in-transition person, given that the public dress-code is so insistently gender-regulated? What might the “impossibility of living as the other gender” mean for the concepts and practices of sex-change?

Despite my initial forebodings, my ethnographic research (the results of which are summarized in what follows) soon made it clear to me that the explicit framing of transsexuality as linked with, and yet distinct from, homosexuality and other sexualities rendered deviant and sometimes criminal, has produced some highly paradoxical effects. 11 The typical autobiographical narrative, as well as the diagnostic psychological symptomization and the supervised process of legal certification of transsexuality, have all keyed themselves to the distinction established between transsexuality and homosexuality. A typical autobiographical narrative begins with the familiar recounting of a childhood in which the subject did not wish to dress and play gender-appropriately. Popular parental advice psychology literature now routinely warns parents about such early symptoms. Parents are advised to not encourage such childhood tendencies by thinking of cross-gender behavior as cute; they are told to consult child psychologists to get help in dealing with this “problem” as early as possible, to prevent the “full blown stage” of adult transsexuality.

In the dominant narrative of the transsexual life-course, a cross-gendered childhood usually leads to a troubled adolescence in which same-sex desires torment the subject, especially given that all schools in Iran are gender-segregated. The strong relationship between childhood “transgender symptoms” and adolescent “sexual symptoms” signals the many ways in which gender and sex are not taken to be distinct categories in all registers in Iran. Indeed, in some registers, lives are made possible through that very indistinction – as in the case of certified non-operated transsexuals who would become illegal subjects should “transgender” (i.e., non-medicalized cross-gender living) become widely accepted as distinct from transsexual.

Transsexuals who profess religious beliefs usually emphasize that they had not engaged in any same-sex acts despite persistent desires. Others hint at same-sex activities as a 12 further corroboration of their transsexuality. Both groups tend to recite a series of school troubles, leading to parents being informed that their child has “problems,” referrals to psychologists, possibly dropping out of school or being expelled if suspected of improper sexual activities. These troubled years begin the long process toward eventual gender transition. Often this is the beginning of long family battles. Parents resort to sometimes horrifying measures to dissuade their adolescent teenagers from their contrarian sexual/gender desires. Some transsexuals succeed in hiding their sexual/gender desires from parents and improvise their own livable patterns. Even post-op, some live complicated multiple lives to be able to stay connected to their families.

They leave home dressed as one gender, then change to the other. This strategy is easier for FtMs who can just take off their outer covers, than for MtFs who must not only adjust clothes, but also apply make-up under bridges, in garages, in public toilets in parks, and other available public spaces–all of which are potentially dangerous for them, with regular reports of MtF transsexuals who have been attacked and occasionally murdered in such locations. Adolescents sent by school authorities or concerned parents for help from therapists and physicians are sometimes diagnosed as “afflicted by GID,” and often find themselves thrown into a combative situation with therapists who decide to cure them of these wrong gender/sexual desires. The latter include both mainstream psychologists as well as a vocal group of psychotherapists who advocate and practice Islam-therapy (sometimes called spiritual therapy).

Adolescence is the period in which many transsexuals, 13 especially MtFs, find family life either unbearable and leave, at least temporarily, or are thrown out by families. Family severance is a very serious social issue, as so much of one’s life is defined and made possible (or impossible) through one’s location within an intricate network of extended family members, family friends, and acquaintances. Thus, severance from family often means not only emotional hardship and homelessness for prospective transsexuals, but also a loss of education and job opportunities. While transsexuals tend to find each other and form alternative kin worlds of their own, they often face enormous problems in the immediate period of being thrown out into a hostile world. MtFs are much more likely to face this predicament than FtMs.

Correspondingly, family reconciliation is often easier for FtMs than MtFs. Several close relatives of (pre/non/post-op) FtMs explicitly said their acceptance of their daughter/sister becoming a son/brother would have been unimaginable if it had been the other way around. The reason for this disparity is not simply gender bias, though it is that too—namely, the preference for a male off-spring. More importantly, the disparity arises from the repugnance and shame that the culture associates with “passive” male same-sex practices. MtFs seem, sadly and ironically, to live forever under the sign of being kunis (literally meaning “anal,” but in Persian connoting receptive of anal penetration), even though that is precisely what in many cases they are trying to disavow and move away from through sex-change.

In their autobiographical narratives, many reiterate that they have never allowed themselves to be anally penetrated even with their long-time boyfriends, and that they have been patiently going through the legal and medical changes in order to acquire a vagina before they get married. Yet, their physiological changes and their 14 insistent self-narrativizations notwithstanding, they continue to carry the burden of that stigmatization with them even post-operatively. For their families, they remain a life-long source of shame among their kin and neighborhood networks. Even families that have not reconciled with their offspring “lost” to sex-change sometimes move to a new neighborhood or town in order to live again without shame. The insistence of many transsexuals to distinguish themselves individually and as a group from homosexuals is thus not simply because of the religio-legal status of transsexuality, and their need to protect themselves from charges of homosexuality; this attempted disarticulation nevertheless carries with it, and participates in regenerating, a sign of stigmatization.

It is a delineating move that in fact reinforces a burden they cannot shed. Filtering The legal process of gender transition is firmly framed by the pivotal distinction between homosexuality and transsexuality. Colloquially referred to as “filtering,” legal gender- transitioning involves a four-to-six month course of psychotherapy, accompanied by hormonal and chromosomal tests. It aims to distinguish and segregate “true transsexuals” (for whom any same-sex desire and even hints of same-sex practices are considered symptomatic of their transsexuality) from misguided or opportunist homosexuals (whose same-sex desires and practices are viewed as signs of moral deviancy) seeking to avoid anti-homosexual censure.

In the worst cases, filtering establishes a very hostile and at times terrifying relationship between the therapist and the client. This is particularly the case with those therapists who practice Islam-therapy. Several transsexuals recounted contemplating or attempting suicide during the filtering process. Other therapists, 15 however, actually have used filtering to support their gay and lesbian clients, and to form separate individual and group sessions for them, thereby providing important social venues. As I have already hinted, the very process of psychological filtering and jurisprudential wall-building between gender and sexual categories, far from eliminating gays and lesbians (if that is indeed what the authorities hope for), paradoxically has created new social spaces. Instead of constructing an impassable border, the process has generated a porously marked, nebulous, and spacious domain populated by a variety of “not-normal” people. In order to persuade some gays and lesbians (“symptomatic homosexuals”) to consider transing bodily, and to filter out the true (“morally deviant”) homosexuals, this process needs to offer a safe passage between categories.

As the filtering and sorting processes depend above all on individual self-narratives, the potential uses of this “nebula” are limited only by each involved person’s creativity—a decidedly abundant resource. As a wise friend urged me back in 2005, before I began my field research, “Don’t worry, people are very creative and make their own uses.” And this is what I have in fact learned: not to underestimate the real problems and challenges, and at times dangers, that transsexuals, gays, and lesbians face in Iran, but also to see the productivity (in a Foucauldian sense) of the power of legal-medical-religious regulations, as well as the creativity with which transsexuals, gays, and lesbians use the spaces such regulative 16 power provides, and the ways in which their active participation and struggles change things. Here is where refusing a distinction between sex and gender has been very productive.

One can live what we may name a transgendered life (that is, non-operated yet sex/gender discordant) as a certified transsexual. This is perfectly legal and religiously permissible. As one trans-friendly cleric, Hujjat al-Islam Kariminia, agreed in the course of our many conversations and written communications, physiological transitioning is something that is allowed but not required. This means that a certified transsexual can, but does not have to, take hormones or go for surgery. S/he can legally live as the other gender. While legal and religious officials do not like this, they cannot do much about it. They are not being lenient and tolerant; rather, the very mechanisms of their project to filter and sort homosexuals from transsexuals depends on turning a blind eye on the “space of passing” across the very walls they have tried to erect. Indeed, one doesn’t even have to engage with the filtering process to be able to speak, at least in some spaces, as openly gay. In official circumstances, homosexually-oriented persons, with or sometimes without certification as transsexual, refer to themselves in a variety of ways. For example, one man who, in a safer space, self-identified as gay, would say in a weekly TS group session held at the Social Emergency Unit of Welfare Organization, “I am not sure what I am, maybe I am gay, maybe I am TS, I am here to find out.”

In the 2005 Mashhad seminar on gender identity disorder, an MtF-looking person from the audience asked Hujjat al-Islam Kariminia about rules for certain 17 religious observances for “those of us who are bilataklif [undecided, ambivalent, in a conundrum]. Do we enter the Imam Riza Shrine through the men’s entrance or the women’s?” Hujjat al-Islam Kariminia’s response was very telling: “You should go through the entrance that is appropriate for how you are dressed.” This would, of course, not resolve their actual dilemma, in contrast to their hypothetical jurisprudential one; for upon entering the apparently-gender-appropriate entrance, one is subjected to bodily security searches which would result in serious trouble for a TS. Yet Kariminia’s answer itself was what astonished me, because in a conversation in his office in Qum, in response to my suggestion that transsexuals should be allowed to live as transgender and not necessarily be pushed to hormonal and surgical treatment, he had insisted that the anatomical body defined maleness or females in Islam. In a later conversation, however, he agreed that certified transsexuals could trans-dress, and in a written communication he confirmed that they could even live as the other gender in all ways except for having sex with someone of their own bodily sex.

Clearly, the context of asking made for different responses, as anyone familiar with the tradition of Islamic (or Jewish) responsa literature would immediately recognize. The legal and religious authorities, in short, have a stake in keeping open the nebulous domains of passing, even as they try to clear them of any “opportunistic squatters” and keep their population under surveillance. The passageways across the porous boundaries between homosexuals and transsexuals at times fuels the hostility of some MtFs (especially those who are post-op) towards gay men. In keeping with general social attitudes, they consider gay men to be shamefully anally receptive, and suspect them to 18 be actual or potential sex workers and HIV-carriers; “They give us all a bad name” was an oft-repeated phrase. Despite all these challenges, however, these passages ought to remain open.

Alternative Alliances

Recently, an alternative alliance has emerged between some MtF transsexuals and gay men. They argue that they share much in common as people who differ from social norms and expectations, and that the state-regulated filtering process should not become a hostile division among them. In 2006, one transsexual group began to welcome gays and lesbians to its weekly meetings. These emerging openings and alliances have begun to create conditions for re-thinking and re-appropriating dominant cultural concepts.

In the TS meeting held in the Welfare Organization, a gay man argued before a government- appointed social worker that since the culture named them all as deviants, those who were thus labeled therefore possessed the power to redefine what that label might mean. Think metaphorically of driving, he argued that most people take the straight highway to get where they want to go, but gays, lesbians, and transsexuals deviate from the straight path and take some side roads—a much more interesting way to travel than the boring straight highway. Even within such relatively open and hospitable spaces, however, the overall social stigmatization of gay men and transsexual women produces enormous pressure to police each other’s lives.

The public appearance of MtFs, many of whom often display their femininity by “excessive” styles of clothes and make-up, in a social context where female public visibility is heavily scrutinized, is a continuous subject of 19 approbation by others. MtFs who are even rumored to engage in sex-work are a continuous target of harsh criticism. I do not wish to deny the enormous pressures on gays and lesbians to physically transition, which some gays and lesbians do consider in order to make their lives more livable. Their decision to transition derives not merely from religious sanctions nor as a result of enforcing laws against same-sex practices. It cannot be dismissed simply as a “false recognition” achieved under therapeutic duress, nor incited by the media (as in the formula, “I read an article or saw a TV program and now realize I am TS”). Nor does it represent a “lack of imagination,” as one diasporic self-identified queer Iranian once put it to me. Such moments of medico-psychological diagnosis or self-recognition are occasioned by larger social and cultural patterns of gender and sexual life, in particular the pressure to marry and form families. They are informed by all the simple pleasures of daily life from which same-sex partners are excluded; as one such woman said, “We can’t be together at Nawruz [Persian new year]; each of us has to be with her family. We start every new year in separation.”

The social expectation for every adult to get married, later if not sooner, affects sexual and gender relations in important ways. While there has been a great deal more open pre- marital sexual experimentation (including same-sex activities) among adolescents and young adults in recent years, these remain just that: pre-marital. Male-male and female- female couples live under, and compete with, the severe threat of the marriage demand. At times, “passive” males overact their femininity in a desperate attempt to avert the 20 threat of a “real” woman and the loss of their male partner to marriage. The same is true of female-female couples: there are abundant sad narratives of long-term lesbian relations breaking apart because the “femme” partner finally opted for marrying a “real” man (or finally gave in to familial and social expectations to do so), in spite of the heroic butch performance of her former lover. This same pressure for marriage informs the dominant culture’s deep investment in the performance of masculinity and femininity, and partially accounts for heavily gender-coded roles within same-sex partnerships.

This, perhaps even more than the illegality of same-sex practices and the legality of transsexuality, pushes some people who may otherwise define themselves as butch lesbians and effeminate gays towards transing.

They expect transing to make marriage available to them and, in a few instances, to salvage a threatened same-sex relation. Nevertheless, relationships involving transsexuals still always exist under the threat of inauthenticity. Post-op transsexuals, even though they have aspired to be bodily like the other sex, are often dismissed as “plastic replicas,” and social pressures sometimes lead the partners to contemplate leaving a “fake” man or woman for a “real” one–as many post-op break-up stories reiterate and repeat.Despite the circulation of such sad stories, the larger social pressures for marriage continue to push some people in the transsexual direction.


Having provisionally mapped some configurations of sexuality and gender in contemporary Iran, I will conclude with a few questions that may be of interest for transnational comparison. What does it mean that concepts of gender, sex, and sexuality—along with their (in)distinction from, and relations to, one another—have been 21 formed in a context that has not been shaped to any substantial degree by the identity politics of gender and sexuality, or by queer activism and queer critical theory? Some of the distinctions between these categories within Euro-American contexts, including the distinction sometimes made between transgender/transsexual (based on the body that has been surgically modified), have been shaped over the past couple of decades by a particular set of political struggles and debates.

How do seemingly similar assignations mean differently (or not) within a different politics of sex, sexuality, and gender? While identity struggles have raged within transnational diasporic Iranian communities, many gays, lesbians, and transsexuals in Iran wish to keep national and international politics out of their daily lives. Indeed, some have become quite wary of international coverage of transsexuality in Iran, feeling that the effects of such coverage, within this volatile scene of meaning-making, is beyond their control. Despite their aversion to the international politics of human and civil rights for sexual and gender identities, some of these global discussions have nevertheless reached Iran through web-logs, satellite TV broadcasts, and other transnational media. Loan-words such as straight, gay, lesbian, transsexual, homosexual, top, bottom, and versatile, among many other expressions, pronounced in Persian just as they are in English, are freely used in these discussions. How do these enunciations mean differently, and do a different cultural work, in Tehran compared to New York? Perhaps, one of the problems with the current heated debates between proponents of “global gay” and opponents of “gay international” resides in their common presumption that “I am gay,” or that “I am transsexual,” means the same thing anywhere it is pronounced. 22


This essay has been enabled through numerous conversations with transsexuals, gays, and lesbians in several cities in Iran during 2006-07. It has also taken shape through discussions after its presentation at several campuses: Tehran University, Barnard College, Harvard School of Public Health, University of Connecticut, Princeton University, University of Washington, University of Illinois, several campuses affiliated with the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Studies Consortium, University of Pittsburgh, Yale University, University of Delaware, Stanford University, University of California (Berkeley), Harvard University (Center for Middle Eastern Studies), Simon Fraser University, Dalhousie University, Wellesley College, and Williams College. I am deeply indebted and grateful to all the people involved, but as at present I cannot thank the first group by name, I opted for skipping all names; except for Susan Stryker whose critical feedback and skillful editing transformed a very raw essay into a more readable text.

Afsaneh Najmabadi teaches History and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. Her last book, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), received the 2005 Joan Kelly Memorial Prize from the American Historical Association. She is currently working on Sex in Change: Configurations of Sexuality and Gender in Contemporary Iran, and Genus of Sex: How Jins Became Sex. Notes 23

1. These reports ran from 4 February 1999 to 5 January 2000. The same journal ran another series of autobiographical essays from 22 November 2003 to 22 November 2005. This body of writing constitutes the most extensive published transsexual narratives we have.

2. I say “presumed illegality of homosexuality,” because what is a punishable offense is sexual acts between members of the same sex, with anal penetration of one man by another (liwat /sodomy) being a capital offense. In international coverage, liwat is almost always translated as homosexuality. The problem with this translation is that such reports find their way back into Persian, and in their Persian effects they converge with the medical and psychological discourses in which the dominant concepts are sexual orientation and typologies of desire, centered on the naturalness of heterosexuality. In that domain, instead of the legal-jurisprudential category of sodomy, it is homosexuality [rendered in Persian as hamjisgara’i, being inclined to a person of one’s own sex] that is discussed as a sexual deviation along with a whole gamut of other deviations. While most theologically trained persons use liwat, more often than not, professionals (social workers, surgeons, and therapists) use hamjisgara’i.

It is this slippage between the two concepts in different registers that are increasingly crossing paths — especially within various state institutions that deal with transsexuals-transgenders and with some individuals who do name themselves gay or lesbian — that makes me cautious about a simple usage of this term. I am concerned about keeping this distinction because in conversations in Iran it became quite clear that this is a productive distinction for many Iranian gays and lesbians, who find a degree of safety in insisting that homosexuality is 24 not illegal, providing them with a sense of possibility of testing public spaces where some indication of their sexual desires (keeping it clear of what sex they do) may be a worthy risk. When I quote from English documentary sources, I have no way of knowing which term had been used in Persian, except in case of documentaries that have Persian sound track.

3. Shakhis, 24 May 2005. More recently, the Welfare Organization reported that it received three new TS applications a day. Other reports estimate the total number of transsexuals in Iran anywhere between 3000 to 5000, and sometimes as high as 25,000. My use of TS in this article is occasioned by its usage as a self-identification category among Iranian transsexuals. It is used in Persian pronounced ti-es.

4. I realize this is a controversial claim, since much of the current coverage of transsexuality in Iran claims otherwise. My conclusions in this paper are based on field- work in Iran over 2006-07 which is impossible to present at any length within the scope of an article. While transsexuals, gays, and lesbians whom I listened to over that period expressed many anxieties, fears, desires, and dreams, none was related to anything that was linked with fear of criminality. The issue of criminality is of course not trivial: criminality, and in particular capital punishment of sodomy, dynamizes many other legal restrictions and social fears.

5. Among them: Christian Jorgensen, Elizabeth Call, Vince Jones, Juliet (formerly Julius, no last name given in report), Robert Allen, Edwin Emerton, Roberta Cowell, Rollando 25 Cassioti, April Ashley (formerly George Jameson), Gino Malti, Jeanette Jiousselot, and Phoebe Simple.

6. Favorable commentators often contrast Iran with other Muslim countries; the legality of certain medical technologies (not only SRS, but also a wide array of reproductive technologies) in the former and their illegality in some of the latter countries is narrated as if somehow linked with an ahistorical Shi‘i-Sunni divide. This perpetuates such historically unsound arguments as the claim that the gate of ijtihad [issuing jurisprudential opinion] was closed in the Sunni world, thus making Shi‘ism more open to change. While this argument may seem almost commonsensical (especially to many Shi‘is), it misses the key issue of the historically specific relationship between jurisprudential and political authority that has characterized Iran since the early 1980s, which translates clerical opinion into the state’s legal code.

7. I use the word genus for jins in this context to highlight the distinction between what today is commonly referred to as sex [jins] and the earlier connotations of the same term in classical Islamic writings on this topic – an issue further elaborated in Najmabadi 2008.

8. Despite my own earlier foreboding (Najmabadi 2005; see also my critical self- reflections on this piece in H-Net discussion. Posted on Sat, 19 May 2007, H-, Subject: Re: Reportage: Iran: Change Sex or Die), I know of 26 no case in which a homosexual has been forced to change sex. Nor have I seen such evidence offered by commentators who claim punitive use of SRS for gays in Iran.

9. Some of my thinking here has been deeply influenced by conversations with Judith Surkis on her current research project, “Scandalous Subjects: Indecency and Public Order in France and French Algeria.”

10. The entry into Persian and wide circulation of “gay” (pronounced as in English) and less frequently “lezbish” (lesbian butch) may indicate (contrary to the presumption of imitation of or imposition by the “Gay International” on unsuspecting naïve Iranians) in part an attempt to move away from the burden of the stigma that kuni (and to a lesser extent baruni, used for the “active” partner in a lesbian relationship) carries with it. In other words, to the extent that the adoption of gay and lesbian into Persian nomenclature can be viewed as some sort of mimicry, it is a strategic move to shed the cultural stigma of kuni (and baruni). Other Englishisms serve similar cultural effects, as the wide use of bi-ef [BF] and gi-ef [GF] for boyfriend and girlfriend. Whether these language moves work or fail is not determined because of the presumed shortcoming of “mimicry,” nor because of the cultural power of domination by a presumed “gay international” that is exporting its identity categories in imperial fashion. Its potential source of trouble is the tight gender grid within which same-sex relationships in contemporary Iran are configured. This configuration is in turn an effect of the marriage imperative (see below) which shapes particular notions of masculine and feminine performance (within heterosexual relationships as well). Same-sex partners, however, are prone to “over- 27 performance” because of dominant pressures and hazards of marginalized lives. In the context of South Asia, the adoption of such English words is sometimes seen as “a class- specific rejection of indigenous categories.” See the thread Homosexual/gay/queer in June and July 2007 on H-Net Histsex. I am not convinced that such straight forward class delineations can be made.

11. The process includes a series of written tests for which translations of MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index) and SCL-90-R (Symptom Checklist-90-R) are used to make sure the TS is not suffering from other mental disorders, and if so, to be treated first for these problems to make sure the presumed line of causality runs from TS to other symptoms rather than the other way around. TSs prepare for these tests and coach each other for oral interviews, much as graduating high-school students in Iran prepare for the national entrance exam to universities. Oral interviews cover questions about details of life stories, but also totally idio(syncra)tic questions and gestures, such as checking what kind of watch the person is wearing, if they have shaven legs, color preferences, how they squeeze a toothpaste tube (from bottom up or from the middle), etc. When TSs were recounting these questions, their laugher expressed better than anything else the performativity of this procedure – something that the officials are fully aware of, including therapists I interviewed.

12. The legal and social scene is highly fluid as I write these lines. Some authorities try to tighten what they see as unfortunate loopholes; others in different ministries and state organizations have formed supportive working relations with TS activists and help them 28 to neutralize or go around restrictions and get legal, medical, housing, and other material benefits. One of the challenges of my project, practically and analytically, is that over 29 years after the revolution, the Iranian state remains highly fractured, internally changing, and volatile. While a lot has been written on the fractured nature of the Iranian political system since the revolution of 1979, early in my research it became clear that thinking of the state even as a fractured mosaic of competing and at times conflicting mini pieces would not do; perhaps a better visual imaginary would be pieces that are continuously shifting and changing colors, with no well-defined edges of any sort. How such a structure does not burst at the mobile junctions of these shifting pieces, how it does its stately work so-to-speak, is a question I put aside for now. This situation allows transsexuals (and other activists) to cultivate their own horizontal and vertical networks in and out of various governmental bodies that do not fit neat categorizations as governmental and non-governmental. While permitting a vast degree of creativity, it also makes their work highly susceptible to the ebbs and flows of rapid political changes that mark the country. Several trans-rights activists have emerged from the transsexual community over the past four or five years, and the current changes are above all their achievements. Their efforts to challenge and change the medical, legal, and police abuses that transsexuals and gay men (and to a much lesser extent lesbians, for a complicated set of reasons) face are very impressive. They go to various government bodies on an almost daily basis and lobby for their rights and the benefits they expect the government to provide for them. There are often setbacks. The legal hoops that they are often made to go through are mind-boggling, and it is a testament to their fighting spirit and their sense of citizenship that they continue their work. One major issue is the understandable desire 29 of many post-op transsexuals to become “invisible” and live “normal lives.” This has meant a huge turnover of activists, and the loss of continuity and organizational experience. The legal process, and the existence of some social welfare support for transsexuals, does not of course mean transsexuals are not targets of threats, harassments, and arrests by police and paramilitary forces—but these attacks do not have a uniform pattern. There are highs and lows. In this, the transsexual community’s situation is not different from others who cross various “red lines” in Iran. Whether the attacks on gays and transsexuals are more severe than on other groups, or on other moral or political grounds, I do not know. I don’t know of any study that has actually brought together all the rape, adultery, and sexuality-charged trials and figured out if there is a pattern. I don’t know of anyone who has systematically studied the attacks on workers and students rights activists, women’s rights activists, journalists, political dissidents, and those on more ordinary daily ones, such as arrests of women on charges of bad-veiling and assaults on parties, with those of gays and gay parties, to know if there is a difference.

13. Lesbians are largely absent from this scene. There seems to be a pattern in which f-f sexual and affective relationships and socializing networks take shape largely in non- publicly-visible spaces.

14. This was opposed by other MtFs and became a subject of much debate. The group subsequently had to cease its meetings, because the magazine in whose office the meetings were held was closed down. The magazine itself had been charged with 30 crossing “red-lines” in its coverage of explicitly sexual topics in the language of psychology.

15. Altman’s Global Sex (2001) as well as Massad’s Desiring Arabs (2007) and his 2002 article are perhaps the most polarized points of this debate. Publication of these writings has generated a much larger conversation, especially among scholars and activists concerned with issues of sexuality in non-Euro-American cultures. See Rofel (2007) for example.

Works Cited

Abdo, Geneive. 2000. “Sex-change Iranian Hates Life as Woman.” The Guardian, June 20, World News section.

Altman, Dennis. 2001. Global Sex. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Dupret, B. 2001. “Sexual Morality at the Egyptian Bar: Female Circumcision, Sex Change Operations, and Motives for Suing,” Islamic Law and Society 9(1):42-69.

Eqbali, Aresu. 2004. “Iran’s Transsexuals Get Islamic Approval, But!” Middle East Online, September 30,

Fathi, Nazila. 2004. “As Repression Eases, More Iranians Change their Sex.” New York Times, August 2, World section.

Ferrié, J. N. 1995. “Lieux intérieurs et culture publique au Maroc,” Politix 31:187-202.

Harrison, Frances. 2005. “Iran’s sex-change operation,” BBC Newsnight, January,

Ireland, Doug. “Change Sex or Die.” 31

Khomeini, Ruhallah. 1967 (or 1968 — 1387AH) Tahrir al-wasila. Najaf: Matba‘at al- Adab.

Massad, Joseph. 2007. Desiring Arabs. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Massad, Joseph. 2002. “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World.” Public Culture, 14(2):361-385.

McDowall, Angus and Stephen Khan. 2004. “The Ayatollah and the transsexual,” The Independent, November 25, World section.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh.2008 “Genus of Sex: Configurations of Sexuality and Gender in Twentieth-Century Iran.” Unpublished paper.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh. 2005. “Truth of Sex,”, January 12,

Rofel, Lisa. 2007. Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sanders, Paula. 1991. “Gendering the Ungendered Body: Hermaphrodites in Medieval Islamic Law.” In Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting boundaries in Sex and Gender, eds.Beth Baron and Nikki Keddie, 74-95. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stack, Megan K. 2005. “Changing Their Sexes in Iran,” Los Angeles Times, January 25.

Tait, Robert. 2005. “A fatwa for freedom.” The Guardian, July 27, World News section.

Mladic arrest: Scars of Sarajevo siege still linger

(originally published by BBC News Europe)

by: Zlata Filipovic

Among the charges levelled at General Ratko Mladic, the former head of the Bosnian Serb army awaiting extradition to The Hague, are those relating to the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo. Zlata Filipovic, who was growing up in the city at the time, gives her reaction to his arrest.

The overwhelming view on the detention of Ratko Mladic – finally caught 16 years after he was indicted – was that those who had suffered through his battles must be elated, celebrating the end of something.

For those less acquainted with the war in former Yugoslavia, the line of thinking is: You wanted this, you got it, now let’s finish this chapter and turn the page.

I was that 11-year-old girl that some of Gen Mladic’s 18,000 soldiers and snipers could see running across the bridge in front of my house ”

“Closure” is a word that trips off the tongues of those who ask what I think.

I wish I had leapt from a chair when I heard the news, or that this arrest would represent some sort of closure for me.

But at the risk of disappointing people, while I consider the arrest good news, the effect of the bloody and warped military campaigns waged by Gen Mladic (and I feel uncomfortable calling him a general, as it indicates an element of respect) is something that remains and defines my life, and the lives of so many.

‘Hopeless and broken’

Darko Mladic, the general’s son, has said that the siege of Sarajevo was a legitimate military operation.

But I lived in Sarajevo for almost two years of a siege that lasted 44 months. It was the darkest, most hopeless, broken, dangerous, deprived period of my life.

I was that 11-year-old girl that some of Gen Mladic’s 18,000 soldiers and snipers on the hills around Sarajevo could see running across the bridge in front of my house.

Bosnian Serb Army commander General Ratko Mladic in Sarajevo, February 1994 Ratko Mladic played a leading role in the 44-month-long siege

My father was the one carrying plastic containers from the pump that was providing drinking water for a city of half a million. My mother is the one who was on her way to stand and wait in a bread queue that soldiers bombed from the hills, killing 19 civilians and wounding more than 150.

I was also one of the lucky ones who survived, and avoided becoming part of the grim statistic of 10,000 dead – including 1,500 children – victims of bombs, mortars, snipers and the lack of food, water and medication.

We lived through apocalyptic times, shelled heavily on a daily basis regardless of our nationality or ethnicity.

We were being killed because we were civilians in a city that Gen Mladic and his henchmen hated – for everything multi-ethnic and multicultural that it represented.

Gen Mladic is one of those who has given Serbs a bad name, even those like our friends and neighbours who stayed in the city and shared every dark reality of Sarajevo siege along with everyone else.

He will hopefully be extradited and tried in The Hague for all the crimes for which he is indicted.

But for me personally, his responsibility lies in the fact that his soldiers killed my 11-year-old friend Nina in a park in front of our house, that my mother’s cousin is dead, that my uncle almost lost his leg and that my city and all the lives in it were broken and still suffer the consequences of the bloodthirsty hate and madness of the siege.

‘Lost forever’

A trial, whatever the outcome, will never provide full satisfaction.

I always use the analogy of a minor crime. If someone steals your handbag, and they are found, and tried, this is correct and proper.

But the handbag your boyfriend gave you for your birthday, and the only picture of your family from a holiday that was hidden in the wallet, will never be found.

Some things are lost forever, and law and the courts will, alas, never be able to reverse that.

What can be said about Gen Mladic? His deeds speak for themselves.

All that I and the other citizens of Sarajevo and Bosnia who needlessly and unjustly suffered can do now is watch international justice be carried out.

He may survive or pass away, he may fight in the court or stir nationalist sentiment on the ground in the former Yugoslavia.

But whatever happens, may he and people like him never feature in our lives again.

Zlata Filipovic is the author of Zlata’s Diary, her account of the siege of Sarajevo.

On International Intervention & the Dire Situation in Libya

(originally published in Jadaliyya)

by Aslı Ü. Bâli and Ziad Abu-Rish

Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council held a formal meeting in which they condemned the violence in Libya and threatened to hold violators of international law accountable. At the same time, the Arab League held an extraordinary session in which it suspended Libya’s membership. These measures, and others, come eight days into the Libyan people’s courage and persistence in the face of shoot-to-kill policies by police, military, and mercenary forces as well as the use of helicopter gunships, fighter jets, and other artillery to indiscriminately attack unarmed demonstrators. While this violence may have initially been intended as a strategy for maintaining power, it now appears to be the regime’s revenge for its ongoing unraveling. As credible reports of civilian death tolls mount, so too have demands on Western and Arab powers that they lend greater support to protesters, through humanitarian and other assistance.

While the Libyan regime has entered its eleventh hour in the face of ongoing popular protests and official defections (which is one reason why Western and Arab powers have begun their chorus of open condemnation), al-Qaddafi may yet retain the ability to inflict deadly violence on the Libyan people. Further, al-Qaddafi’s speech, together with that of his son, Saif al-Islam, have made clear that the regime is willing to resort to massive escalation of violence in its desperation, rather than stepping down. Against this context, calls for “international intervention” have emerged from many quarters, ranging from policy analysts and academics to progressive activists and ordinary people watching in horror as events unfold and stories of atrocities emerge.

If al-Qaddafi’s regime falls today or tomorrow, debates about intervention will be moot. But unfolding events present an interesting opportunity to engage with interventionist arguments. The very fact that calls for intervention come at the eleventh hour and rarely emerge in time to make a meaningful impact or stave off the worst of atrocities in situations of crisis is itself worth noticing. Beyond that, we offer some reflections on the merits of different interventionist scenarios in the Libyan context specifically.

In evaluating calls for intervention, the first question we might ask is how the Libyan case differs from recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, where intervention of this type was not invited. In both of those countries authoritarian leaders who were erstwhile Western allies were pushed out when their military institutions refused to turn on protesters. But situated in countries long allied with the West, the self-preservation calculation of those military institutions might have been quite different than in the Libyan case. When Ben Ali and Mubarak became focal points for opposition groups and liabilities to regime maintenance, the military leadership in each country may have had reason to believe that their institutional interests were better served by transition. The continuing role of both the Tunisian and the Egyptian military in overseeing transition speaks powerfully to this calculation. By contrast, the Libyan military, embedded in an isolated regime without strong ties to the West, may not expect as secure of an institutional trajectory in the event of a transition.

Indeed, despite various defections—including those by ministers, diplomats, military officers, and air force pilots—we have yet to see the collective decision on the part of the Libyan armed forces to champion the demands of protesters. In fact, there is little indication of whether the Libyan armed forces have the institutional capacity for disciplined collective action. These dynamics, coupled with the realities of deaths, injuries, and disappearances (reportedly occurring at a much higher rate than in either Tunisia or Egypt), add to the sense of urgency for those of us outside of Libya. On the one hand, international inaction in the face of atrocities in Libya seems unacceptable. On the other hand, the deplorable record of past international intervention inspires little confidence.

The first test of any would-be interventionist is this: do no harm. And there is very little evidence that direct intervention in the Libyan case could meet this test. For instance, calls for a no-fly zone by Libya’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. (drawing on the Iraqi precedent of the 1990s) and an air campaign by others (drawing on the Kosovo precedent from 1999) would surely fail this test. Neither option would shield the Libyan civilian population from the regime’s coercive apparatus (which is not principally aerial) and both options may entail serious costs to civilians by freezing or exacerbating the situation on the ground. Beyond raising questions of enforcement (would international forces fire on Libyan aircraft?), a no-fly zone might well block one method of escape for Libyan civilians or close an avenue for defections by members of the air force, such as the four pilots that are known to have flown out and defected in disobedience of direct orders to bomb civilians. Alternatively, air strikes run the risk of serious damage to both the civilian population and infrastructure. In short, any intervention must be crafted to offer real support to the civilian population of Libya, which direct forms of coercive intervention like no-fly zones or air strikes would not. But are there other forms of intervention that would be better suited to the task? Given limited knowledge of Libya’s internal dynamics at present and the heavy-handed interventionist toolkit developed to date by the international community any such option must be approached with caution.

Coercive options should be taken off the table. Absent the political will to commit ground forces to serve as a meaningful buffer between the regime and the population, any coercive intervention will do more damage (particularly to civilians) than good. Further, even if the political will existed for forceful intervention to offer direct protection to Libyan civilians, history suggests that the ultimate outcome of such intervention would still be harmful. Aside from the obvious potential threats to the civilian populations from the presence of foreign troops on their soil, including risks from a ground conflict and risks associated with the possibility of a prolonged presence, there are additional considerations that weigh against such intervention. At a time when the regime appears to be crumbling from within, as a result of the courageous mobilization of its own people, to engage in an eleventh hour intervention runs the very serious risk of depriving the Libyan people of their control over the hard-won transition they have initiated. To rebrand the Libyan uprising with the last minute trappings of international liberation (read: “Made in the West”) would do a serious disservice to the achievements of the protesters. Of course, none of this is to absolve the international community of its obligation to support Libyan civilians. Rather, we seek to identify a principled course of action that speaks to the dire situation, our responsibilities towards it, and the power relations that frame it.

In the immediate context, the most appropriate role for the international community is in providing humanitarian assistance and desisting from any further support to the regime. In addition to condemning the regime’s resort to violence, there are at least five modalities for the provision of such assistance, all of which should be employed immediately, with the support of the Security Council. First, all borders should be opened and appropriate facilities created to allow Libyan civilians to flee regime violence. If various governments are going to create exit routes through charter flights and land crossings for their own citizens, they also need to create a mechanism for Libyans to get out. Second, all available means for providing direct humanitarian assistance on the ground to the Libyan population should be utilized, including aid convoys to eastern Libya through Egypt and to western Libya through Tunisia. Third, al-Qaddafi’s assets and those of remaining elements of the regime should be frozen and kept in safe keeping to be given to whatever post-Qaddafi system emerges. Fourth, governments with ties to Libya should immediately sever all military ties, withholding delivery of materiel and cancelling all outstanding contracts. Finally, an arms embargo should be imposed preventing the sale or delivery of military equipment or personnel (including foreign mercenaries) to the Libyan state security forces. Sanctions that target military materiel, services and the movement of reinforcements from among foreign mercenaries are essential. Sanctions that go beyond these aims would run the risk of causing more harm to civilians than to the regime.

Beyond these measures, several other recent suggestions for intervention – ranging from direct coercion to demands for immediate international criminal accountability – raise a number of troubling implications that should give pause to those acting in solidarity with the Libyan people. Returning to our earlier consideration of what distinguishes the Libyan case from those of Tunisia and Egypt, it is important to underscore the international context when considering outside intervention. Tunisia and Egypt were both regimes with strong ties to the West and central to the regional order. The Libyan regime’s position is at best isolated and at worst adversarial with respect to the West. The difference this makes in the risk calculations of the regime and the dangers associated with calls for intervention is significant. Intervention in support of regime change in Libya presents the West with a window of opportunity to shape the transition of a relatively oil-rich North African country, potentially replacing an irritant with a new client. Where the emphasis of Western interests in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases has been on stability, in the Libyan case the goals will likely be rapid transformation. For instance, in a post-transition Libya, individuals with ties to the West or experience with energy markets might emerge as favored interlocutors, identified with international approval as “moderate” and “appropriate.” To invite forceful international intervention in the last days of the current regime might empower external interveners to make such choices, potentially at the expense of the preferences of the Libyan people. Particularly in light of how little is known about the current political dynamics among opposition groups within Libya, international intervention may entail a particularly high risk that the narrative framing of events will be captured by external actors in ways that are adverse to local Libyan choices.

Even more troubling, however, are the implications for regime risk calculations associated with the differential international position of the Libyan state as compared to Tunisia and Egypt. As we have seen, despite clear evidence that the regime has lost its grip on power as a result of the scale of the popular mobilization and defections, al-Qaddafi appears to be upping the ante rhetorically and in practice with escalations of violence. The likelihood that he will continue to raise the stakes is a real one that turns on two factors. The first is al-Qaddafi’s continued control of at least a proportion of his security forces, including parts of the military. The second is the absence of alternatives to a desperate bid to retain power through force. There is little that international actors can do to influence the first factor other than make clear that anyone who commits acts of violence against civilians, whether or not under orders, will be investigated and held liable under standards of international accountability. International measures designed to influence those within the chain of command of the military or security forces to switch sides and support the demonstrators are certainly legitimate. In practice, however, internal dynamics are far likelier to impact these immediate calculations than threats of future prosecution. There is, however, a chance to influence the second factor more decisively.

What differentiates al-Qaddafi from Ben Ali and Mubarak is the degree to which the latter two were entrenched in regional and international alliances with Arab leaders and Western powers. By contrast, Qaddafi is an isolated—if not adversarial—anomaly. Further, this Libyan regime is well-acquainted with international measures such as sanctions and threats of prosecution based on prior experience in the context of Lockerbie. Outside of Sudan, few leaders in the region are likely to have as keen an appreciation of the prospects of imprisonment, prosecution, and sentencing by an international court as al-Qaddafi. In fact, this scenario is quite plausible should al-Qaddafi physically survive the end of his regime, since he would offer the international community an excellent opportunity to symbolically stand with protesters across the region at low cost. Whereas meaningful accountability for deposed former Western allies might prove embarrassing, the prosecution of al-Qaddafi would vindicate calls for international justice without similar risks. Unlike the final indignity of a forced but comfortable resignation in Egypt and Tunisia, al-Qaddafi might well appreciate that his final days will more closely resemble those of the deposed Iraqi dictator made to stand trial. The prospect of retirement in a prison cell in the Hague may factor into al-Qaddafi’s incentives to make good on his threats to fight to the last of his capacities, visiting untold atrocities on Libyan civilians in the process. Paradoxically, then, providing al-Qaddafi with an immediate exit strategy to a safe haven might be the right choice from a humanitarian perspective. Shifting the regime’s incentives by offering an option that is neither death nor prosecution may well be the most humanitarian of presently available options for international intervention. Working with Venezuela, neighboring countries or others that would be willing to provide safe passage to Qaddafi would be far preferable than the apocalyptic endgame that the regime might otherwise pursue for lack of alternatives. The missed opportunity to pursue immediate prosecution pales in comparison to the death and destruction that might be avoided by shifting the regime’s risk calculation in this way. Moreover, little is lost by pursuing an immediate exit strategy today while leaving open the possibility of international criminal accountability down the line. In truth, international prosecutions take significant time and resources and do not represent an immediate alternative regardless. Threatening al-Qaddafi with war crimes prosecutions today may create perverse incentives with little strategic benefit. Securing him an exit option now may have the strategic benefit of sparing the Libyan people the violent death throes of their doomed regime.

We thus return to our original do-no-harm principle. We neither advocate abandoning the Libyan people to the violence of the regime nor protecting al-Qaddafi from accountability. But as calls for international intervention grow, we must worry about the risk of counter-productive results for Libyans on the ground of some of the options being considered. A combined strategy of humanitarian assistance, severing existing military ties with the regime, and generating exit options for al-Qaddafi and his family may well be the best course for accomplishing the goal of supporting Libya’s civilian population. An exit strategy for al-Qaddafi in the short-term does not foreclose the possibility of accountability thereafter. While this course may seem less satisfying in terms of an immediate answer to calls for international justice, a grounded understanding of the humanitarian costs of other strategies of intervention should counsel against appeasing our (international) conscience at the expense of the lives of those we purport to save. If al-Qaddafi retains the capacity to do harm to his people, the priority must be to take whatever measures will most quickly address that threat. Of course, if today’s defections bring the regime down then the belated calls for intervention will be moot in the Libyan case. Nonetheless, careful consideration of what constitutes legitimate intervention will remain pertinent as similar calls may yet emerge with respect to the many other tottering regimes in the region and beyond.

The Revolution Will Be LIVE!

Gil Scott-Heron died this weekend. We at Steal this Hijab are deeply saddened by his death. We celebrate his life, his vast political legacy, and deep connection to social movements that give voice, courage and new ways to live justly in this world.

The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron

I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
I had confessed to myself all along, tracer of life, poetry trends
That awareness, consciousness, poems that screamed of pain and the origins of pain and death had blanketed my tablets
And therefore, my friends, brothers, sisters, in-laws, outlaws, and besides — they already knew
But brother Torres, common ancient bloodline brother Torres is dead
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more words down about people kicking us when we’re down
About racist dogs that attack us and drive us down, drag us down and beat us down
But the dogs are in the street
The dogs are alive and the terror in our hearts has scarcely diminished
It has scarcely brought us the comfort we suspected
The recognition of our terror and the screaming release of that recognition
Has not removed the certainty of that knowledge — how could it
The dogs rabid foaming with the energy of their brutish ignorance
Stride the city streets like robot gunslingers
And spread death as night lamps flash crude reflections from gun butts and police shields
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
But the battlefield has oozed away from the stilted debates of semantics
Beyond the questionable flexibility of primal screaming
The reality of our city, jungle streets and their Gestapos
Has become an attack on home, life, family and philosophy, total
It is beyond the question of the advantages of didactic niggerisms
The motherfucking dogs are in the street
In Houston maybe someone said Mexicans were the new niggers
In LA maybe someone said Chicanos were the new niggers
In Frisco maybe someone said Orientals were the new niggers
Maybe in Philadelphia and North Carolina they decided they didn’t need no new niggers
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
But dogs are in the street
It’s a turn around world where things are all too quickly turned around
It was turned around so that right looked wrong
It was turned around so that up looked down
It was turned around so that those who marched in the streets with bibles and signs of peace became enemies of the state and risk to national security
So that those who questioned the operations of those in authority on the principles of justice, liberty, and equality became the vanguard of a communist attack
It became so you couldn’t call a spade a motherfucking spade
Brother Torres is dead, the Wilmington Ten are still incarcerated
Ed Davis, Ronald Regan, James Hunt, and Frank Rizzo are still alive
And the dogs are in the motherfucking street
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
I made a mistake


Key Decisions on Afghanistan, Iraq Coming Any Day

This week, the House is expected to debate and vote on the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – the bill authorizing spending for the Pentagon.

Lend your voice to this nationally coordinated campaign.

Call Congress today, using this toll free number 1-888-231-9276*.  The calls started yesterday, and we want to keep pressure on Congress until the vote which is expected on Thursday.

It is time we brought our troops home from Afghanistan and stopped wasting billions of dollars we need at home. The last thing Congress should be doing is authorizing endless war, but that’s exactly what the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act does.


The Lee amendment which would prohibit military funds from being spent in Afghanistan except to provide for a safely and orderly withdrawal of troops; the McGovern-Jones amendment would require President Obama to establish a timeline for withdrawal; and the Garamendi amendment would reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan to no more than 25,000 by the end of 2012 and to no more than 10,000 by the end of 2013.

Take a moment to make this call now.


This article originally appeared at The Nation on May 11, 2011.

The Obama administration is on the verge of decisions that will permanently define the Afghanistan and Iraq wars through the 2012 election.

Obama will decide, first, how many US troops to begin pulling out of Afghanistan starting this July and running through 2012 and, second, whether to comply with the current plan to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by this December, or leave troops and bases behind.

At stake politically is whether the president will choose to campaign through 2012 on a platform of ending two quagmires costing trillions of tax dollars and thousands of lives, or whether he will portray himself as staying the course in the “war on terrorism,” building on the death of Osama bin Laden.

Once these decisions are made in the weeks ahead, there are likely to be no further changes in US policy toward Afghanistan and Iraq until 2013, unless unexpected events intervene. The electoral cycle will be in full gear, and politicians are unlikely to change their rhetoric under voter and media scrutiny.

Many progressive activists may feel powerless in this situation, when large-scale peace demonstrations are unlikely and Congressional opposition is limited. Unlike in labor or civil rights politics, there is no large-scale Peace Lobby to bargain with the White House. But the very decentralized and amorphous nature of peace sentiment means that Obama will have to constantly address the feelings and criticisms of millions of voters unhappy with the slow pace of military withdrawals in the context of economic crisis. Polls consistently show that 75–85 percent of Democratic voters, and a smaller majority of independents, want a more rapid withdrawal than currently planned.

Peace voters will want to hear a clear message: that Obama intends to phase out of two wars and transfer billions to our needs at home. Absent that message, Obama risks a serious falloff in 2012 support, votes, door-knocking and grassroots mobilization.

Here are some important developments in this fast-moving situation:

First, important elements of Obama’s base are lining up to support a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) passed a resolution in late February supporting significant and substantial troop reductions. Obama himself used almost identical language in an interview with the Associated Press on April 15. Shortly after, MoveOn, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America and the Campaign for America’s Future launched petition drives. The liberal coalition Win Without War activated its e-mails. The substantive policy work was completed last December when the Campaign for American Progress (CAP), originally supportive of the Afghanistan escalation, switched to a phaseout proposal blandly titled “Realignment: Managing a Stable Transition to Afghan Responsibility.”

The new sentiment for change also came from Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar, chair and co-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While opposing a “precipitous withdrawal” (whatever that means), they called it unsustainable to spend $10 billion per month on the military occupation.

True to their continuous resistance to White House policy, the American military pushed back this week with a token proposal to withdraw only 10,000 troops this year, and an official April 13 Pentagon report to Congress laid out a long-term nation-building/counterinsurgency plan that contemplates no significant troop withdrawals. The Pentagon report reflects the thinking of Gen. David Petraeus, who will become the new CIA director during a period of heightened drone wars. (For more discussion of how the Pentagon tries to manipulate and box in President Obama, see Bob Woodward’s excellent inside coverage in Obama’s Wars.) Worse, the House was poised on Wednesday to codify a war authorization, including detention without trial, justifying a permanent Long War against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces.”

If Obama chooses to side with the military’s proposal for a token 10,000 reduction, he is likely to disappoint everyone from the moderate-to-militant spectrum of the peace voting bloc.

Obama can choose a more significant number to attract more peace voters back into the fold, especially now that his commander-in-chief status is fortified. Here are his choices:

—Withdraw 32,000 troops between July 2011 and November 2012, effectively drawing down the “surge” forces he sent in 2009. Declaring the surge over might placate some voters and US allies, but would leave US forces exactly where they were before the surge began, with 70,000 US troops fighting an inconclusive war against the Taliban, with bin Laden no longer a factor. American deaths in Afghanistan will climb well past 1,500 under Obama, in a war whose apparent purpose is not to suffer damage to our military reputation or to prop up the unsalvageable Karzai regime.

—Take the advice of CAP and withdraw 60,000 US troops between now and 2012, leaving a force of 40,000, which would be reduced further to 10,000–15,000 by the next Afghanistan presidential election in 2014. CAP says the reserve force could be stationed “in the region,” and be responsible for intelligence, training and targeted strikes against terrorist groups. If the Karzai government continues to flounder, CAP recommends an accelerated withdrawal.

—The Afghanistan Study Group (ASG), a branch of the New American Foundation, proposes a more rapid reduction of 32,000 by this October, effectively ending the surge, and another 35,000 by July 2012. Its proposal would save the US $60 billion to $80 billion per year and “reduce local resentment at our large and intrusive military presence.”

—To improve his peace image, Obama also needs to engage in, and not block, a conflict-resolution process involving talks with the Taliban and other insurgents, territorial compromise and power-sharing arrangements. Perhaps owing to Pentagon pressure, he has been slow to engage and faces the danger of reopening fractious divisions between the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara north and the Pashtun-Taliban south that have never been quelled by a decade of intervention. Now the proposed new war authorization could vastly complicate talks involving representatives of the Taliban and “associated forces” in Afghanistan.

Obama is likely to benefit politically only if he follows the advice of CAP, ASG and the Democratic National Committee, and links the troop withdrawals to savings for the domestic economy.

Even such significant reductions would leave tens of thousands of American troops mired in Afghanistan, but the dynamic of the so-called Long War would be disrupted and NATO forces would be supportive allies.

Whether progressives like it or not, Obama no longer has to make concessions to his military over Afghanistan now that bin Laden is dead. Instead of compromising between choices of 10,000 troops and, say, 60,000, resulting in only 30,000, he can resume the posture of fighting terrorism through counterterrorism in Pakistan while claiming “victory” and pulling out of Afghanistan. He may add to his military credentials by forcing Qaddafi out of Libya and destroying the Al Qaeda cell in southern Yemen in the weeks ahead. Obama can balance those military strokes, if he wishes, by keeping his promise to withdraw all American forces from Iraq, another decision that must be made over Pentagon opposition.

Where might this leave the peace movement? In the best case now possible, public opinion and the Democratic rank-and-file will have begun to achieve the ending to two quagmires at savings of over $100 billion per year, and troop reductions of 100,000 from Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, more educating, organizing and resistance will be necessary to expose and derail the Long War policy, end the escalating drone wars, adapt constructively to the Arab revolutions and defend WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, who face trials, extradition and (in Manning’s case) a military tribunal for their alleged roles in exposing hidden truths about Afghanistan, Iraq and US foreign policy.

The Long War will require a long peace movement. To its proponents, like David Kilcullen, the Long War may continue another seventy years (that’s eighteen more presidential terms). Obama adviser Bruce Reidel summarizes the strategy in Woodward’s book: “we have to keep killing them until they stop killing us.” These hawks apparently don’t care about the effects at home of another seventy war years, which would decimate our domestic economy and draw curtains around our democracy.

But the momentum of the Long War can be broken, like a fever that runs its course, if the body is healthy enough. Along the way, the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq–what Kilcullen archly calls “small wars in the midst of a big one”–can be ended, freeing resources for the fight at home against the corporate and banking elites that have paid little or no taxes in support of the longest and costliest wars in American history.

The Killing: Wild West Justice

by Ramzi Kysia

My heart is filled with sorrow. The killing of Osama bin Laden has given birth to an apparently bottomless well of dark, narcissistic delight. Though media manipulation contributes to the basic prejudices that drive that joy, it’s clear that America’s celebration is both deep and genuine. I’m stunned at how happy, how proud the killing of this man has made our nation.

It was almost amusing seeing the crowds that spontaneously gathered at the White House singing ‘We are the Champions (of the World).’ I wonder how many realized they were singing a song first sung by Farrokh Bulsara/Freddie Mercury – a bisexual Iranian art student who, before he died of AIDS, fronted a pinko-European rock band named, of all things, Queen.

We have devolved long past cowardice and corruption into realms of violent absurdity. We have told ourselves lies for so long that it would seem our public lives can no longer be influenced by anything as insignificant as historicity, nor inspired by anything so seemingly devalued as human dignity.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’ve always been this way – violent, senseless, and juvenile – from our founding sins of genocide and slavery, up to the present day. But today seems different to me. And I think the difference is that we’re slowly losing our need to pretend, even to ourselves, that we’re anything other than stone-cold killers.

I think back to my birth during the middle of the Vietnam War, a conflict that resulted in over 58,000 Americans killed and near 3,000,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai dead, a slaughter waged at the height of the Cold War, waged at a time when we faced an ever-present existential threat of global nuclear annihilation. We committed terrible war crimes during Vietnam, from the Phoenix Program to My Lai and other massacres, to Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. At home, the government viciously attacked American human rights workers, going so far as to frame Leonard Peltier and assassinate Fred Hampton, among others. I know America wasn’t any more moral in my youth.

But could any serious presidential candidate from 40 years ago have campaigned on a platform of torturing individuals to get information and deliberately bombing other countries simply to steal their resources? Would any American politician of that day (other than perhaps Ronald Reagan) have openly advocated warrantless surveillance of millions of Americans, arrest without charge, indefinite imprisonment without trial, convictions based on torture and secret evidence, and the extrajudicial killing of anyone whom the President designates as worthy of death? I don’t think so. We’ve changed. We’ve cast aside even the pretense of honor.

I think a large part of our sickness comes from how we view our own history. We remember the Alamo, but forget Polk’s War. We remember Pearl Harbor, but forget Hiroshima. We remember September 11th, 2001, but forget September 11th, 1973.

I remember September 1st, 1983, when in the dead of night the Soviets shot down KAL 007, an off-course, Korean jetliner with American citizens on board that had strayed into Soviet airspace. Americans were practically frothing at the mouth in their anger at the Soviets and their desire for blood-vengeance. But I also remember July 3rd, 1988, when in broad daylight Captain William Rogers, of the U.S.S. Vincennes, shot down Iran Air 655, killing 290 innocent Iranians. Captain Rogers got promoted. Americans were actually angry with Iran, for getting upset, and genuinely seemed unable to understand why Iranians were upset.

I remember the 1978 Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. But I also remember that we overthrew Mossadeq and supported the Shah for decades. I remember when hundreds of U.S. Marines were killed in a suicide bombing in Beirut in 1983, but I also remember how the U.S.S. New Jersey shelled Lebanese villages, killing women and children. I remember the U.S.S. Cole bombing, but I also remember the fact that the Cole was part of a military blockade that deliberately starved hundreds-of-thousands of Iraqi children to death.

I remember the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, as well as al-Qaeda’s actual attacks against innocents in London and Madrid and East Africa, and all across Iraq. But I also remember that we’ve likely killed well over a million innocent Iraqis ourselves over the last 20 years, as well as hundreds-of-thousands of innocent Afghans.

I remember that when communist leader Babrak Karmal took power in Afghanistan after a coup in 1978, the United States chose to get involved by providing billions of dollars of military aid and training, including thousands of tons of weaponry, to groups of Mujahadeen, or “Islamic” fighters from around the world – including Osama bin Laden.

In a 1998 interview with the French journal Le Nouvel Observateur, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, insisted on the righteousness of this war, saying: ‘What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?’

Yet the Soviet invasion, lasting from 1979-1989, resulted in the destruction of half the villages of Afghanistan, over one million civilian deaths, and over six million refugees. What was more important to the history of those people?

And, to its bitter end, what was more important to the history of the people killed on September 11?

We must not continue to allow the pursuit of terror to be committed outside of the civil and civilizing force of law. Bringing criminals to justice through the law educates and informs our lives and, unlike the rule of force, the law, properly exercised, protects civilians and provides freedom from fear. When we fight terror with “Wild West Justice,” with extrajudicial wars and assassinations, we demonstrate that the only thing we respect is power, thereby teaching that power is all we will respond to–planting the seeds for future terror.

How can we ‘bring terrorists to justice,’ without first bringing justice to those we ourselves are terrorizing in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Iraq, and Libya, and Yemen, and Somalia (and God knows where else)?

I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden shared great responsibility for multiple acts of violence, including the September 11 attacks. But when we shot him and dumped his body in the sea, it was with the logic of a world in which even the ceremony of innocence is drowned. It’s madness. How this can make anyone so happy, so proud that they feel compelled to spontaneously gather to sing and cheer and kiss and hug and joyously celebrate is a psychopathy I will not bring myself to understand.

Vengeance is a sin. It is a denial of the redemptive power of love. At its heart, vengeance is the sin of pride – a dismissal of the commonalities all humans hold. Vengeance requires we dehumanize other humans and, as such, it contradicts and corrupts our faith in God. No one in this world, no matter how “evil” their actions, is beyond redemption. This is the actual definition of our species: Humans are animals that possess both the ability to sin and the ability to seek, and find, redemption for our sins.

The simple truth is that my ‘self’ is not any more precious to me, to my loved ones, or to God than that of the person I would injure or kill in defending myself. That person is equally precious to their self, to their loved ones, and to God. There is no “they,” there is no “us.” I know many Americans find this difficult to accept, but we really are all just the same. We’re all human beings. Trust me on this. One thing about we humans, in whatever country we happen to live in: when you kill and oppress us, those that survive scream for revenge. And some among us go out to try and take it.

If we cannot see past our own anger and fear, we would do well to at least remember that neither could the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Towers. Those attacks, and their aftermath, have manifestly demonstrated that so long as any of us in our world are unsafe, all of us are unsafe. If there was a divine purpose to September 11, we won’t realize it until we start seeing the rest of humanity as we see ourselves. That challenge is where our faith should begin, for in its failure lays continued war, continued terrorism, continued killings, and our continuing moral degradation and devolution.

Bin Laden’s killing has shown us that the only place we can possibly wage war against inhumanity is within our own hearts.

Ramzi Kysia is an Arab-American pacifist and writer. He has worked on peace and justice projects in the United States, Europe, and throughout the Middle-East.

The Iranian Election a ‘Legacy of Martyred Flowers’

Legacy of martyred flowers committed me to life,
Legacy of martyred flowers,
Don’t you see?
-Forough Farokhzad, Only the Sound Will Last

Since the close of polling late Friday, and the hasty confirmation of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s second term in office, protests have broken out across Iran. Many Iranians, who consider the landslide victory for Ahmadinejad a symbol of their country’s deeply corrupt political system, have endeavoured to force the government to nullify the results and hold another election. In what can only be considered a classic case of state-repression, police and Revolutionary Guards have soaked the streets in blood; shooting into crowds of peaceful protestors, arresting scores of demonstrators, and targeting constituencies known for their criticism of the government. Just yesterday, the Guardian conservatively reported that as many as twelve students from universities throughout the country lost their lives as they courageously and openly opposed state forces.

In a brash attempt to validate the legitimacy of the political structure in Iran, those in the Guardian Council and Ministry of Interior (its civic counterpart) confirmed Ahmadinejad’s ‘win’ and congratulated ‘democracy’. Ahmadinejad seized the opportunity to describe his ‘election’ as a ‘mandate from the people’, before the people unequivocally mandated a recount!

Media would have us believe that the crucial issue concerning the recent election ‘results’ in Iran centers on the question of whether or not the election was rigged. While general curiosity and speculation around this issue is a healthy aspect of the debate, it cannot moderate the far more profound lessons to be learned from the mass protests throughout the country.

Were the elections rigged? Probably. It is more than likely that the higher voter turn-out for this election came in favor of change. This was not true in the 9th Presidential Elections, four years ago, where an unknown, conservative, Tehrani mayor, Ahmadinejad, was ‘challenged’ by the highly controversial cleric-turned-businessman, Rafsanjani. The election was mostly boycotted or dismissed by many reformists minded voters, and the aspect of its ‘rigged results’ by way of the candidates having been hand-picked the Guardian Council (as is policy), was ignored in Western-language press.

This new eruption of protest over the still hotly contested election outcome has animated the already decades long debates within Iranian politics over civil and political rights, participation and inclusion. Just like many other countries, specific issues and rights in Iran are held like captives to particular names on the ballot. For example, a vote for Mousavi is a vote for greater freedoms for women. A vote for Ahmedinejad is a vote against the liberalization (privatization) of Iran’s economy. Though many Iranians remain sceptical of all the candidates ‘allowed’ to participate in this highly contestable and prodigious style of electoral engineering, elections are not entirely hollow, as the protests demonstrate. Iranians, like many of their counterparts in throughout the world, were made to choose between issues and candidates that did not necessarily represent the broad spectrum of their politics, concerns, or aspirations.

However, it is not the regiment outcome of Iranian elections that is at the heart of the protests, though this is certainly a concern. These protests, dissimilar to the swell of similar outpouring in the late 1990’s, are made up Iranians from many different backgrounds, and varied political, religious and social opinions. This is precisely the reason the executive levels of the Iranian government have, with its decades of training in repression of domestic discontent, met the protesters with the full force of state power.

Though the contestability of the elections is disputed, what protesters, Ahmadinejad and the Guardian Council seem to all recognize is that the immediate future of the Islamic Republic of Iran remains unsecure. The ‘democratic dilemma’ that the state has ensured through its dubious electoral processes is kindling increased opposition not just among the ‘parents of the Revolution’, but most pronouncedly in those twenty-somethings born after 1979 who represent the manifest ‘success’ of the Islamic Revolution. The government’s campaign to mold ‘model’ Islamic citizens has not only fashioned a profound crisis of loyalty to the religious ‘ideals of the revolution’, it has nurtured action that many have silently prayed for – as the public sphere, the last bastion of the religious elites grip on power, was shot open by their own guns Sunday.

This is not to make the mistake that Iran is moving towards, or desirous of, a secular revolution, it might very well be the opposite. However, the iron-clad grip on power that many of the religious elites have enjoyed since the Iran-Iraq war is gradually unravelling at all ends. Today, reformist-minded voters in and outside of Iran, who watched as their political aspirations were dashed time and again by during Khatami’s tenure, vigilantly braved the vast, violent and manipulative forces of the state and dared not be silent once again in the ballot box. Those who bravely opposed the regime objected to the misuse of religion for political ends – and so the protests continue.

In the thirty years since the fall of the Shah and the gradual installation of an Islamic theocratic government in Iran, opposition movements have bravely attempted to reclaim spaces in the political landscape of the country. These movements have nurtured democratic ideals in an attempt to assert the human and political rights of the poor, ethnic minorities, and women amongst others. Over the past two years Iran’s women’s movement most manifestly known as the One Million Signatures Campaign has sought to amplify the disparities felt by women on every level of Iranian society. Prior to the Saturday protests, this campaign was the largest and most vocal dissident movement in Iran.

For those of us concerned over securing some notion of ‘the truth’ about what happened in Friday’s elections, or who continue to be confused over the myriad of political mud-slinging in the media over ‘what the protests are really about’, we can be assured no easy answers.

However, the far more unsettling queries this election has left the ‘us’ (those who are watching from afar), and the other ‘us’ (those who are an on the ground in Iran) with surely sustain questions about the reach of our solidarity, our courage to speak, and our interest in the welfare of those ideologically opposed to ‘us’.

Iran is a country struggling to sustain vast differences of opinion over political allegiances, social policies, and the fine lines that govern the ‘morals’ of their state system. Do not mistake the events currently taking place in Iran as a fight for democracy, or even a ‘ better representation’ of the will of the people. What is happening in Iran is a fight for a slightly fairer electoral process. If political pundits, Western-language journalists and solidarity activists wish to support Iranians in their fight for freedom, they should take notice of the few who have been executed and exiled, whose lives have committed the many you see in the streets today to life.

10 Iranian Films You Should Probably Net-flick

Circumstance, directed by Maryam Keshavarz:

Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, directed by Bahman Ghobadi:

Be Like Others, directed by Tanaz Eshaghian:

Gabbeh, directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf:

Offside, directed by Jafar Panahi*:

The Buddhas Collapsed Out of Shame, directed by Hannah Makhmalbaf:

Baran, directed by Majid Majidi:

Tehran Has No More Pomegrannates, directed by Massoud Bakhshi

The Color of Paradise, directed by Majid Majidi:

The Hidden Half, directed by Tahmineh Milani:

Solidarity and Its Discontents

By: Raha Iranian Feminist Collective While building solidarity between activists in the U.S. and Iran can be a powerful way of supporting social justice movements in Iran, progressives and leftists who want to express solidarity with Iranians are challenged by a complicated geopolitical terrain. The U.S. government shrilly decries Iran’s nuclear power program and expands a long-standing sanctions regime on the one hand, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes inflammatory proclamations and harshly suppresses Iranian protesters and dissidents on the other. Solidarity activists are often caught between a rock and a hard place, and many choose what they believe are the “lesser evil” politics. In the case of Iran, this has meant aligning with a repressive state leader under the guise of “anti-imperialism” and “populism,” or supporting “targeted” sanctions.

As members of a feminist collective founded in part to support the massive post-election protests in Iran in 2009, while opposing all forms of US intervention, we take this opportunity to reflect on the meaning and practice of transnational solidarity between US-based activists and sections of Iranian society. In this article, we look at the remarkable situation in which both protests against and expressions of support for Ahmadinejad are articulated under the banner of support for the “Iranian people.” In particular, we examine the claims of critics of the Iranian regime who have advocated the use of “targeted sanctions” against human rights violators in the Iranian government as a method of solidarity. Despite their name, these sanctions trickle down to punish broader sections of the population. They also stand as a stunning example of American power and hypocrisy, since no country dare sanction the US for its illegal wars, torture practices and program of extrajudicial assassinations. We then assess the positions of some “anti-imperialist” activists who not only oppose war and sanctions on Iran but also defend Ahmadinejad as a populist president expressing the will of the majority of the Iranian people. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s aggressive neo-liberal economic policies represent a right-wing attack on living standards and on various social welfare provisions established after the revolution. And finally, we offer an alternative notion of and method for building international solidarity “from below,” one that offers a way out of “lesser evil” politics and turns the focus away from the state and onto those movement activists in the streets.

We hope the analysis that follows will provoke much needed discussion among a broad range of activists, journalists and scholars about how to rethink a practice of transnational solidarity that does not homogenize entire populations, cast struggling people outside the US as perpetual and helpless victims, or perpetuate unequal power relations between peoples and nations. Acts of solidarity that cross borders must be based on building relationships with activists in disparate locations, on an understanding of the different issues and conditions of struggle various movements face, and on exchanges of support among grassroots activists rather than governments, with each group committed to opposing oppression locally as well as globally.

The spectrum of protest

Numerous protests and actions took place over the week of Ahmadinejad’s UN visit in September 2010, with at least eight activist groups organizing protests on the day of his General Assembly address–all  claiming to speak in the interests of the Iranian people. However, despite some commonalities, these voices represented very different political approaches and agendas. Whether clearly articulated or not, one major fault line was on the question of the appropriate US and international role in relation to Iran, especially on the issues of sanctions and war.

The protests gaining the most media attention were organized by a newly-formed coalition called Iran180 and by the Mojahedin-e Khalq (PMOI). Both take a hard line, pro-sanctions position on Iran. Iran180, launched by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, organized a press conference under the banner “human rights, not nuclear rights.” The PMOI on the other hand, held a large rally of reportedly 2000 participants from far and wide. The PMOI is an organization known for its militant opposition to the Iranian regime and its anti-democratic, cult-like structure; it has been largely discredited among Iranians and is also listed as a “terrorist” organization by the State Department. Speakers included former mayor Rudy Giuliani, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, and British Tory MP David Amess, all calling for a hard line on Iran and apparently positioning the PMOI as the legitimate diasporic alternative to the current Iranian leadership.

By contrast, Where Is My Vote-NY (WIMV), an organization formed to express solidarity with Iranian protests after the contested election in 2009. They mobilized around a platform that called for holding Ahmadinejad accountable but also took an explicit no war and no sanctions position, making them the only organization to do so. WIMV’s strong anti-sanctions stance has been controversial among some human rights activists in the US who have supported sanctions that are supposed to target individual Iranian human rights violators. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International pulled out of a WIMV-organized protest in September 2009 because they refused to endorse the WIMV platform. Below we size up the efficacy of “targeted” sanctions that claim to be in support of the human rights of Iranians.

The record of “targeted” sanctions

From 1990 until 2003, a United States-led United Nations coalition placed what amounted to crippling financial and trade sanctions on Iraq in an ostensible effort to weaken Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime. Sanctions, we were told, amounted to a humane way of combating intransigent authoritarianism around the world while avoiding mass bloodshed. The results of that strategy should have shattered these illusions for good. The complete collapse of the Iraqi economy during thirteen years of sanctions coupled with the inability of ordinary Iraqi people to access banned items necessary for their day-to-day survival–such as ambulances and generators–led to over half a million Iraqi civilian deaths. Furthermore, the sanctions were an utter failure in their purported primary goal—thwarting the Hussein regime while avoiding full-scale war. Not only was Hussein not dislodged by the sanctions, but he also managed to consolidate power throughout the ‘90s while resorting to increasingly autocratic means of suppressing dissent. Finally, in March 2003, the United States and a small “coalition of the willing” began a full-scale military intervention in Iraq, which has shredded the fabric of Iraqi society and left a network of permanent US military bases–and Western oil companies–behind.

Despite the benefit of this hindsight, we are being told again to trust in the human rights agenda of a state-sponsored sanctions effort as an alternative to war, this time against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, some form of sanctions against the Islamic Republic have been in place with little effect for over thirty years. But since President Barack Obama took office, the sanctions have been amped up to new heights. In June of 2010, a US-led United Nations coalition passed the fourth round of economic and trade sanctions against the Islamic Republic since 2006. The stated goal: limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Soon after, the European Union imposed its own set of economic sanctions. A month later, President Obama signed into law the most extensive sanctions regime Iran has ever seen with the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA).

It should not be surprising, given the United States’ historic attempts at controlling Iranian oil, that CISADA’s primary target is the management of the Iranian petroleum industry. These sanctions would penalize any foreign company that sells refined petroleum products to Iran, which are a necessity for Iran’s primary industry as well as for the everyday functioning of modern life. This winter, shortages of imported refined gasoline forced the Iranian government to convert petro-chemical plants into makeshift refineries that produce fuel loaded with dangerous particles. As a result, the capital city of Tehran has been plagued by unprecedented levels of pollution, shutting down schools and businesses for days at a time and leading to skyrocketing rates of respiratory illnesses and at least 3,641pollution-related deaths.

Further, Iran’s ability to import and export vital goods has been profoundly curtailed because the most powerful Western-based freight insurance companies—many of which worked with Iran until these most recent sanctions—can no longer do business with any company based in the Islamic Republic. Without insurance coverage, most international ports refuse any Iranian ships entry because they are not covered for potential damages. The current round of U.S.-led sanctions have had the effect of cutting off more of Iranian businesses because foreign companies are simply unsure of whether or not their business is sanctioned. As a stipulation of the US, EU, and UN sanctions, no corporations or private individuals can do business with the majority of Iranian banks or industries. Parts and supplies for a great deal of machinery—and not only those potentially associated with nuclear industry—are denied entry into Iran; indeed, one of the deadly examples of the effects of these sanctions in recent years has been the spate of commercial Iranian aircrafts that have crashed due to faulty or out-of-date parts. These measures have already had disastrous effects on the Iranian economy and the health ordinary Iranian citizens, adding to historic levels of inflation, unemployment and pollution-related illness.

Despite mounting evidence warning against the humanitarian disaster of unilateral, state-engineered sanctions, many people outside of Iran are still compelled to support them as a diplomatic alternative to war. The operating principle behind such a belief is that these sanctions—unlike those wielded against Iraq, which limited all facets of the economic life of the nation—only target certain individuals, groups, and aspects of economic life. In the case of the Islamic Republic, the argument goes, these individuals and groups are directly linked to the state, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC–or Sepah Pasdaran) and the paramilitary Basij forces, which do indeed command much of the economic resources of the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the reality of even “targeted” sanctions is not nearly so rosy. To see why this strategy is almost certain to be a failure, we consider the recent example of Zimbabwe.

Since 2001, there has been a similar set of so-called “smart” sanctions in place against Zimbabwe in an effort to weaken President Robert Mugabe and to force him to join a coalition government with his principal political opponents. In the decade after the imposition of these sanctions, Zimbabwe has suffered enormously, experiencing one of the most cataclysmic instances of hyperinflation in history, skyrocketing unemployment rates, a startling lack of basic necessities, a rapidly growing income disparity, and the rise of a black market for goods that only an elite few can access. Indeed, the story in Zimbabwe is remarkably similar to that in Iraq: in both cases the authoritarian state only increasedits power as a result of the economic stranglehold on the country due to its monopoly over all of the available wealth and resources in the nation. As the Iraqi and Zimbabwe cases demonstrate, sanctions are not an effective means to avoid war, nor do they inevitably undermine repressive and authoritarian states. Most importantly of all, they further immiserate the very people they claim to be helping.

Often, these failed examples are countered by one historic success story, namely, the divestment and sanctions movement against apartheid South Africa–a very compelling instance of international solidarity with a mass domestic opposition movement. Is this an apt analogy for the Iranian case? A crucial difference is that sanctions against South Africa came only after a divestment campaign led by South African activists, which succeeded in convincing a great deal of private capital to flee the country before US or UN involvement. As a tactic developed and deployed within South Africa, sanctions were not the result of power machinations between antagonistic states or a strategy that enhanced US global dominance.

Iran presents a very different situation. No member of any Iran-based opposition group—from leaders of the “green” movement, to activists in the women’s and student movement, to labor organizers—have called for or supported the US/UN/EU sanctions against the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, leaders from virtually all of these groups have vocally opposed the implementation of sanctions precisely because they have witnessed the Iranian state grow stronger, and the wellbeing of ordinary Iranians suffer, as a result. Imposing sanctions in the name of “human rights,” as the US did for the first time this fall, doesn’t alter these outcomes. The US government’s long record of either complicity with or silence regarding the treatment of dissidents in Iran–from the 1950s when it helped train the brutal SAVAK torture squads right through to the post-election crackdown in 2009–makes it nothing if not hypocritical on the issue of human rights in Iran.

The spectrum of support

In stark contrast to the range of groups protesting the Iranian president and the Islamic Republic’s policies, some 130 activists from anti-war, labor and anti-racist organizations took an altogether different approach in September 2010, attending a dinner with Ahmadinejad hosted by the Iranian Mission to the UN. According to one attendee, the goal of the dinner was to “share our hopes for peace and justice with the Iranian people through their president and his wife.” During two and half hours of speeches, activists embraced Ahmadinejad as an ally and partner in the global struggle for peace and, with few exceptions, ignored the fact that his administration is responsible for a brutal crackdown on dissent in Iran (click here for one notable exception).

Rather than listening to the millions of Iranians who protested unfair elections and political repression, these activists heard only the siren song of Ahmadinejad’s “anti-imperialist” stance, his vehement criticism of Israel and his statements about US government complicity with the September 11thattacks. Their credibility as consistent supporters of social justice has been shipwrecked in the process. Many of these groups are numerically small organizations with histories of denying atrocities carried out by heads of state that oppose US domination.[1] But some attendees are national figures, such as former US Congresswoman and 2008 Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, who has been a beacon of principled opposition to neo-liberalism and the “war on terror.” While it is important not to lump all of the groups and individuals together as sharing the same set of political ideologies or organizing strategies, we need to investigate the reasons that these activists showed up to express support for the current Iranian regime. Below we take up the most common reasons attendees expressed for standing with the regime–that it has populist economic policies benefiting workers and the poor, is anti-imperialist and pro-Palestine.

Do Ahmadinejad’s policies support Iranian workers and the poor?

One of the most bewildering misrepresentations of Ahmadinejad outside Iran has been around his economic policies, which are often represented by the US left as populist or even pro-working class. In reality, the extent and the speed of privatization in Iran under Ahmadinejad has been unprecedented, and disastrous, for the majority of the Iranian people. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s report on the Iranian state’s neo-liberal policies glows with approval, confirming once again that the Fund has no problem supporting undemocratic attacks on the living standards of ordinary people. Privatization in Iran has happened under government/military control. State-affiliated actors, mainly Sepah, have bought a huge share of the country’s economic institutions and contracts–from small companies all the way to the largest national corporations such as telecommunications, oil and gas. Recently, despite vast opposition even from the parliament, the government annulled gasoline and food subsidies that have been in place for decades. Gas prices quadruped, while the price of bread tripled, almost overnight. This is an attack on workers and the poor of historic proportions that had been in the works for many years but was delayed due to fear of a popular backlash. It was only under conditions of extreme militarization and suppression of dissent that Ahmadinejad’s administration could finally implement this plan. Arguing that subsidies should go only to those the regime decides are deserving, the government will now be able to use this massive budget to reward supporters and/or buy loyalty. The massive unregulated import of foreign products, especially from China, has made it impossible for agricultural and industrial domestic producers to survive. Import venues are mainly controlled by the government and Sepah, which profit enormously from their monopolies. These hasty and haphazard developments have severely destabilized Iran’s economy in the past few years, leading to rocketing inflation (25-30%) and growing poverty. Unemployment is very high; no official statistics are available but rough estimates are around 30%, creating fertile ground for recruitment into the state’s military and police apparatus (similar to the “poverty draft” in the United States).

Is the Ahmadinejad administration anti-imperialist?

The 1978–79 revolution was one of the most inspiring popular uprisings against imperialism and homegrown despotism the world has seen, successfully wresting Iran away from US control over Iranian oilfields and ending its role as a watchdog for US interests in the region. Denunciations of American imperialism were a unifying rallying cry and formed a key pillar of revolutionary ideology. However, in the more that thirty years since, the Iranian government has, like all nations, ruthlessly pursued its interests on the world stage. Despite its anti-American/anti-imperialist rhetoric, Iran cannot survive without capital investment from and trade with other “imperial” nations, without integration into a world market that is ordered according to the relative military and economic strength of various states. Witness the large oil, gas, and development contracts granted to Russia and China, and the way that these countries, as well as France and Germany, have cashed in on the Iranian consumer goods market. The Islamic government has even cut deals with the US, such as during the infamous Iran-Contra episode, when it served its interests. US opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, and multiple rounds of sanctions, should be understood as part of the American effort to re-exert control over this geo-politically strategic country and re-enter the race for Iranian energy resources and markets from which it has been shut out.

Iran’s foreign policy cannot and should not be reduced to one individual’s inflammatory speeches. In fact, the same Ahmadinejad who grabs western media headlines by criticizing the US is the first Iranian president to send a letter directly to a US president requesting a new era of diplomacy, something unthinkable under previous administrations. Diplomacy, to be clear, carries with it the goal of re-entering a direct relationship with the so-called “Great Satan.” Far from acting as an outpost of anti-imperialism, the Ahmadinejad administration is maneuvering to cut the best deal possible and to renegotiation its place in the global hierarchy of nations. Given its massive oil and gas resources and strategic location, Iran would likely be playing a far more significant and powerful role if not for decades of isolation, sanctions and hostility from the US. It is in the Iranian governments interests to break this stranglehold. Its strategy is to play all cards possible in extending its regional influence in smaller and weaker countries, such as Lebanon and the occupied territories of Palestine. As Mohammad Khazaee, the Iranian ambassador to the UN told the New York Times, Iran is a regional “heavyweight” and deserves to be treated as such.

The Iranian government’s support for Palestinians also scores it major points with many leftists in the US and around the world. Again, it is crucial to see through the rhetoric and examine the more complex aims and effects of Iran’s policies. While the Iranian government does send material aid to Palestinians suffering under Israeli blockades and in refugee camps in Lebanon, they have also manipulated the situation quite cynically for purposes that have nothing to do with Palestinian liberation. Using money to buy support from Palestinians, and financing and arming the Hezbollah army in Lebanon, are crucial ways the Islamic Republic exerts its influence in the region.

There is no mechanism for Palestinians or Lebanese people, who are impacted by Iran’s actions, to have any say in how Iran intervenes in their struggles, even when the results are harmful. For instance, Ahmadinejad’s holocaust denials undermine the credibility of Palestinian efforts to oppose Israeli apartheid by reinforcing the false equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. At the 2001 UN conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, an anti-Zionist coalition emerged and got a hearing. But at the 2009 conference in Geneva, Ahmadinejad’s speech on the first day overshadowed the whole conference and undermined any possible critique of Israel, creating a serious set back for the anti-Zionist movement.

Relentless state propaganda about Palestine coming from an unpopular regime has tragically resulted in the Iranian people’s alienation from the Palestinian’s struggle for freedom. Leaving aside the hypocrisy of Ahmadinejad claiming to care about the rights of Palestinians while trampling on those of his own citizens, the policy of sending humanitarian aid to Palestinians while impoverishing Iranians has produced massive domestic resentment. In an article on The Electronic Intifada, Khashayar Safavi attempted to link the pro-democracy Iranian opposition to broader questions of justice in the region. “We are not traitors, nor pro-American, nor Zionist ‘agents,’” he wrote, responding to Ahmadinejad’s verbal attacks on the movement, “[W]e merely want the same freedom to live, to exist and to resist as we demand for the Palestinians and for the Lebanese.” Unfortunately, sections of the US left support the self-determination of Palestinians while undermining that of Iranians by supporting Ahmadinejad’s government. We now look at some of the key problems of Ahmadinejad’s government, exposing the high cost of aligning with repressive state leaders.

Harsh realities for labor and other social justice organizing in Iran

Currently no form of independent organizing, political or economic, is tolerated in Iran. Attempts at organizing workers and labor unions have been particularly subject to violent repression. The crushing of the bus drivers’ union, one of the rare attempts at independent unionizing in the last few decades, is one of the better-known examples. The story of Mansour Osanloo, one of the main organizers of the syndicate, illustrates the incredible pressure and cruelty labor organizers and their families experience at the hands of the regime. In June 2010, his pregnant daughter-in-law was attacked and beaten up by pro-regime thugs while getting on subway. They took her with them by force and after hours of torture, left her under a bridge in Tehran. She was in dire health and had a miscarriage. These unofficial security forcescontinued to harass her at home in order to put psychological pressure on Osanloo, who is still in prison and is not yielding to the government’s demands to stop organizing. Currently, even conservative judiciary officials are complaining about violations of their authority by parallel security and military forces who arrest people, conduct interrogations and carry out torture, pressure judges to issue harsh sentences, and are implicated in the suspicious murders of dissidents. (In the past few months, not only political dissidents, but even physicians who have witnessed some of the tortures or consequences of them, have been murdered.)

No opposition parties are allowed to function. No independent media–no newspapers magazines, radio or television stations–can survive, other than websites that must constantly battle government censorship. The prisons are full of journalists and activists from across Iranian society. Conditions in Iran’s prisons are gruesome. Prisoners are deprived of any rights or a fair trial, a violation of Iranian law. After the election protests, killing, murder and rape of protesters and prisoners caused a scandal, which resulted in the closing of the notorious Kahrizak prison. Executions continue, however, as the government has meted out hundreds of death sentences in the last year. Iran has the second highest number of executions among all countries and the highest number per capita. In January 2011, executions soared to a rate of one every eight hours.

The women’s movement has been another major target of repression in the past few years. Dozens of activists have been arrested and imprisoned for conducting peaceful campaigns for legal equality; many have been forced to flee the country and many more are continually harassed and threatened. Women collecting signatures on a petition demanding the right to divorce and to child custody are often unfairly accused of “disturbing public order,” “threatening national security,” and “insulting religious values.” Ahmadinejad’s government employs a wide range of patriarchal discourses and policies designed to roll back even small gains achieved by women.

Ahmadinejad’s anti-immigrant positions and policies are the harshest of any administration in the past few decades. The largest forced return of Afghan immigrants happened under his government, ripping families apart and forcing thousands across the border (with many deaths reported in winter due to severe cold). Marriage between Iranians and Afghan immigrants is not allowed and Afghan children do not have any rights, not even to attend school. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s government has been repressive toward different ethnic groups in Iran, particularly Kurds. It is promoting a militarist Shia-Islamist-nationalist agenda and escalating Shia-Sunni divisions.

Given these realities, how is it that large parts of the US left can support Ahmadinejad? We now look at the confusions that make such a position possible. US left support for Ahmadinejad

Despite the many differences between the individuals and groups represented at that dinner with Ahmadinejad a few months ago, what the overwhelming majority of them have in common is a mistaken idea of what it means to be anti-imperialist or anti-war. The sycophantic speeches at the dinner can be understood as an enactment of the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” There are two problems with this approach. The first is that it equates governments with entire populations, the very mistake the activists at that dinner are always saying we shouldn’t make when it comes to US society. The second problem is that support for Ahmadinejad means siding with the regime that crushed a democratic people’s movement in Iran. This position pits US-based activists who want to stop a war with Iran against the democratic aspirations and struggles of millions of Iranians.

Part of the confusion may stem from a distorted notion of what it means to speak from inside “the belly of the beast.” In other words, the argument goes, those of us in the United States have a foremost responsibility to oppose the actual and threatened atrocities of our own government, not to sit in hypocritical judgment over other, lesser state powers. But in the case of the vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent inside Iran, not judging is, in practice, silent complicity. If anti-imperialism means the right to only criticize the US government, we end up with a politics that is, ironically, so US-centric as to undermine the possibility of international solidarity with people who have to simultaneously stand up to their own dictatorial governments and to the behemoth of US power. The fact that the US is theglobal superpower, and therefore the most dangerous nation-state, does not somehow nullify the oppressive actions of other governments. China, for example, is increasingly participating in economic imperialism across Asia and Africa, exploiting natural resources and labor forces well beyond its borders. There is more than one source of oppression, and even imperialism, in the world. The necessity to hold “our” government accountable in the US must not preclude a crucial imperative of solidarity–the ability to understand the context of other people’s struggles, to stand in their shoes.

If any of the activists defending Ahmadinejad would honestly attempt to do this, they might have some disturbing realizations. For example, if those same individuals or groups tried to speak out and organize in Iran for their current political agendas–against government targeting of activists, against ballooning military budgets, against media censorship, against the death penalty, against a rigged electoral system, for labors rights, women’s rights, the rights of sexual minorities and to free political prisoners–they would themselves be in jail or worse.

Given that these are the issues that guide the work of these leftists in the US, we must ask: don’t the Iranian people also deserve the right to fight for a progressive agenda of their choosing without execution, imprisonment and torture? As we demand rights for activists here, don’t we have to support those same rights for activists in Iran?

Solidarity: concrete and from below

In the tangle of conflicting messages about who speaks for the “people of Iran”–a diverse population with a range of views and interests–what has been sorely lacking in the US is a broad-based progressive/left position on Iran that supports democratization, judicial transparency, political rights, economic justice, social freedoms and self-determination.

There is no contradiction between opposing every instance of US meddling in Iran–and every other country–and supporting the popular, democratic struggles of ordinary Iranians against dictatorship. Effective international solidarity requires that the two go hand in hand, for example, by linking the struggles of political prisoners in Iran and with those of political prisoners in the US, not by counterposing them. Iranian dissidents, like dissidents in the US, see their own government as their main enemy. The fact that Iranian activists also have to deal with sanctions and threats of military action from the US only makes their work and their lives more difficult. The US and Iranian governments are, of course, not equal in their global reach, but both stand in the way of popular democracy and human liberation. US-based activists must not undermine the brave and endangered work of Iranian opposition groups by supporting the regime that is ruthlessly trying to crush them.

We are calling for a rethinking of what internationalism and international solidarity means from the vantage point of activists working in the US. Internationalism has to start from below, from the differently articulated aspirations of mass movements against state militarism, dictatorship, economic crisis, gender, sexual, religious, class and ethnic oppression, in Iran, in the US and all over the world.For activists in the US, this means being against sanctions on Iran, whether they are in the name of “human rights” or the nuclear issue. It means refusing to cast the US as the land of progress and freedom while Iran is demonized as backward and oppressive. Solidarity is not charity or pity; it flows from an understanding of mutual–though far from identical–struggle. It means consistent opposition to human rights violations in the US, to the rampant sexism and homophobia that lead to violence and destroy people’s lives right here. But we don’t have to hide another state’s brutality behind our complaints about conditions in America. We have to be just as clear in condemning state crimes against activists, journalists and others in Iran, just as critical of the Iranian versions of neo-liberalism and oligarchy, of attacks on trade unions, women and students, as we are of the US versions.

For solidarity to be effective, it must be concrete. US-based activists need to educate ourselves about Iran’s historic and contemporary social movements and, as much as possible, build relationships with those involved in various opposition groups and activities in Iran so that our support is thoughtful, appropriate to the context and, ideally, in response to specific requests initiated from within Iran. It is our hope that these struggles may be increasingly linked as social justice activists in the US and Iran find productive ways of working together, as well as in our different contexts and locations, towards the similar goals of greater democracy and human liberation.

[1] For example, Workers World, ANSWER and several other groups who share the same political tradition have historically supported Soviet crackdowns against popular uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Chinese state’s massacre of unarmed protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the ethnic cleansings carried out by ultra-nationalist Milosevic throughout the 1990s.