The Koran does not Forbid Images of the Mohammad

01_09_Islam_art_opener
The Charlie Hebdo killers were operating under a misapprehension. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

In the wake of the massacre that took place in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, I have been called upon as a scholar specializing in Islamic paintings of the Prophet to explain whether images of Muhammad are banned in Islam.

The short and simple answer is no. The Koran does not prohibit figural imagery. Rather, it castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century.

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When I ran out of birth control in Iran

 

I recently had to extend my trip to Iran and ran out of birth control. No biggie, I thought, contraceptive pills are easily found in pharmacies throughout the country and you don’t even need a prescription. I walked into a pharmacy in Tehran two nights ago, showed the pharmacist my own birth control pills from the United States, and asked for something similar. “We don’t have anything like this,” he said, “our choices of birth control have become extremely limited the past few months.“With the same tired look he also responded to questions from other customers, repeatedly forced to say the same thing: “We no longer have that. You have to check on the black market.”

I knew that Western sanctions against Iran had made it difficult if not impossible to procure many vital medicines. Cancer patients, sufferers of multiple sclerosis and those with numerous others serious conditions have turned to buying medicine on the black market for exorbitant prices, and at times not finding them at all. But I never thought there would be shortages of medicines as routine as birth control. Juggling requests and questions from an anxious crowd of other customers, the pharmacist barely looked back at me: “Ma’am, the only thing I can offer you is Yaz or Yasmin. That’s the best we have in Iran right now.”

I was deeply worried, as Yaz was bad news. I had taken it four years ago only to develop blood clots and extreme mood swings, and gained weight. Yaz and Yasmin are the same birth control brands that now face major lawsuits in the United States because they have been established to cause heart attacks, strokes, pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, and blood clots in women. Distributed by Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, there are currently over 9,000 pending lawsuits against these brands of pills.

I could not believe that the best birth control left in Iran – an Iran whose pharmaceutical market has been decimated by sanctions – were the same pills facing court action and considered a serious health threat in the United States. I visited several pharmacies that same day, and received the same answer from one beleaguered pharmacist after another, all of whom had grown tired of telling their customers they no longer had the medicine they needed.

For years, there has been a plethora of birth control pills and other contraceptives easily available and extremely affordable in Iran, a country that boosts one of the most successful family planning programs in the world. It is only in the aftermath of cumulative American-led sanctions against Iran’s banking and financial sectors that most of these options have disappeared from pharmacies. Up until two months ago, pharmacists told me, there were simply no foreign made birth control pills available at all. Many doctors are wary of prescribing the Iranian-made pills because sanctions have made access to the raw materials required to produce them nearly impossible, making many of these drugs unreliable.

“My face completely broke out and I vomited on a daily basis from the birth control pills I took,” said Negin, a 33-year-old architect I spoke with. “I tried every pill on the market this past year, and each was worse than the other. It got so bad that I now have my aunt in Germany send me a packet of birth control pills every month.”

Neda, a 28-year-old engineer, recounted a similar experience. “The month that I took birth control in the winter was the worst month of my life,” she told me. “I have never experienced such extreme highs and lows in my mood. I thought I was going crazy.” She said her gynecologist eventually advised her to stop taking the pills and to find alternative types of contraception.

I went to a gynecologist to see if she could prescribe something for me that was close enough to the pills I take back home. I told Dr. Leyla Eftekhari that I was not willing to take Yaz or Yasmin given my prior experience with them. “I know how horrible they are,” she said, “but you only need to take them until you get back to the U.S. I don’t prescribe anything else to my patients, because they’re simply worse. This is the best we have in Iran now.” And she proceeded to write me three other prescriptions: one in case I had nausea, one in case I experienced spotting, and the other in case I developed extreme headaches. “You’ll have to put up with the potential weight gain and mood swings. But if you get a blood clot, come see me immediately.” I walked out of her office with four prescriptions in hand.

Astonished that good birth control that would not make a woman sick had become so difficult to find, I traveled to pharmacies throughout Tehran and Karaj the next day. In Karaj, a burgeoning city 20 kilometers west of Tehran, a pharmacist told me that when it comes to such medicines specifically for women, most are no longer available. One pharmacist put the situation in perspective like this: “Two months ago, we didn’t even have access to foreign birth control– at least we do now, even if it’s Yaz or Yasmin. But go searching in all of Iran, and you won’t find any vaginal creams or vaginal antibiotics. And for women who are undergoing IVF treatment, they have to search high and low to buy their medicines on the black market. There’s nothing left in the pharmacies.”

What all this means is that women suffering from yeast infections, urinary tract infections, and other vaginal infections have no recourse to modern medical treatment for extremely common, painful maladies. And for a woman undergoing IVF treatment and hoping for a child, well, the black market with it’s back-breaking prices awaits, with no guarantee that the medicine she buys to inject into her body are actually the drugs she thinks she’s paying for.

Some have suggested that Iran’s birth control shortages may also be due to the Ahmadinejad government’s push to reverse the country’s family planning program in a bid to boost the national birth rate and increase family size (today, Iran has a population growth rate of 1.2 per cent and a fertility rate of 1.6). I posed this specific question to pharmacists and manufacturers, who are working at the frontline of shortages.

They agreed that mismanagement and internal conflict over public health policy play a role in medicine shortages, but on the issue of birth control, they didn’t think it was the government’s doing. Foreign brands of birth control went missing for five months at precisely the same time that other foreign medicine became hard to find in the country. Nearly three months ago, Yaz and Yasmin returned to the market, but other foreign brands that used to be widely available did not.

Throughout this, however, Iranian-made birth control pills have remained on the market. Some raised the issue of IVF treatments, arguing that if decreased access to good birth control pills was government policy to increase the birth rate, then where were the necessary injections for IVF treatment? Women who were actively trying to get pregnant could not find the medicine they needed to ensure their pregnancy. And why have vaginal antibiotics and creams disappeared, which have nothing to do with increasing the population? “In short, what is going on is that medicine for women has become increasingly difficult to find–all medicine for women, and no one talks about it,” said a pharmacist in Tehran’s Vanak Square.

Last week the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees all American sanctions, announced that it was adding additional items to its general license for medicine export to Iran. The export of medicine has always been allowed under the current sanctions regime against Iran, yet there is still a severe shortage of medicine in the country. At this point, actions like this from the U.S. have become comical for those of us who travel to Iran frequently. Which bank is willing to make the transactions necessary for the medicine to reach Iran, given that sanctions have choked off Iranian banks from the world? Which company is willing to ship the medicine to Iran, given that almost all shipping routes have been sanctioned? The U.S. Department of Treasury can appear to be making a humanitarian gesture, but without making actual changes to banking and trade sanctions – which have been and will continue to block the sale of medicines to Iran – nothing will change.

And in the meantime, millions of women in Iran will continue to suffer the consequences of compromised U.S.-made birth control pills and the lack of any medications at all to treat the other gynecological problems they may have. American policy makers, who ironically invoked the plight of women in the Middle East to enact their wars in the region after Sept. 11, should know that their policies in Iran are quite literally making women sick.

Narges Bajoghli is a Ph.D student in anthropology at New York University, and director of the documentary film, The Skin That Burns (2012), about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.

Article origionally published an Iran News Wire

 

Despotism or Feminism

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

 

Iran’s Cinematic Revolution

by: Reza Aslan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question goes unanswered.

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

©2012 The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC

 

The Arab Spring: The end of postcolonialism

by; Hamid Dabashi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nasrin Sotoudeh Writes From Evin Explaining Reason For Her Hunger Strike

Translated by persianbanoo

My fellow countrymen:

Is penalizing family members (families of the political prisoners) an accidental occurrence?

I was on a hunger strike for 49 days to protest a variety of issues including punishment of my family. During this time much concerns were generated, all of which arose out of grace and love for a common demand, and that was a big “No” to penalizing the families.

It is my duty to extend my gratitude and appreciation to all the people that with their benevolence and kindness paid attention to this matter.

From public and social groups, specifically the Mourning Mothers that have lost their children in the 2009 Movement (I had the honor of representing few of them), to the Mothers for Peace and the women’s rights activists, from the political prisoners that I have the honor of having endured imprisonment with them, to my dear cellmates that endured the hardships associated with my hunger strike, and of course, my husband and my young daughter who endured great sufferings.

From the human rights activists across the world, from the Iranian Diaspora that, after the 2009 Movement, have shown how important their presence is in restoring the human rights and democracy in Iran.

From those who used their individual rights and freedom to stand with us and support the demands that, on the surface, seemed to be limited only to my small family.

Those courageous people that personally decided to participate in my hunger strike, and of course caused me to share the experience of being worried for hunger strikers. They caused me to understand how one person’s hunger strike can create and cause others to worry and be concerned.

Their action brought much heavier responsibility for me, for they had decided to launch a hunger strike in my support.

From the human rights activists across the globe that assisted me in my resistance and standing. And every time I think to myself of what noble human beings are in the other side of the oceans, that support and are sympathetic to my cause and pave the way for me and my family to endure this burden.

I know you were worried about my hunger strike. I would like for all to know that I also was worried for everyone’s worries and concern.

But why I was not willing to halt my hunger strike?

I, along with my clients and tens of political prisoners who are in prison merely because of their noble actions, spend although difficult, but valuable days in prison.

I now proudly endure imprisonment amongst the civil activists, political activists, prisoners of conscience, and our fellow Baha’i countrymen and Christians that I have had the honor to represent few of them. Those who received unfair sentences for simply living based on their beliefs.

After all the injustices, they (the regime) have even resorted to punishment of the families. First they pursued my husband and then they pressed new charges against him.

After the detention of my family and children for hours, even though for only few hours, they pressed new charges on my twelve year old daughter. Then in a rush to judgement, they placed a ban on her foreign travel.

My daughter, like every other child at this age. and not more than other children, has the right to live without the fear of threats and punishment.

Previously, I have had the honor of defending the children of my country. Punishing the children is absolutely prohibited, much less for political charges on account of their parents.

But of course, this sort of punishment has not been only limited to my family. To explain the wide scope of this unjust treatment, it is enough to remember that among the 36 female prisoners incarcerated in the political prisoner’s ward, the immediate family of 13 of them are either imprisoned or are under Judicial pursuit.

This figure represents one third of the female political prisoners. Among this group there are some that have more than one family member either imprisoned or under Judicial pursuit.

To protest the punishment of the families (the punishment of my family was an example of this sort of treatment), I launched a hunger strike.

It is my hope that the punishment of families is removed from the policy of threats and pressure.

Once again, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude and appreciation to all those who’s constant support did not leave me in this endeavor and to declare my confidence in the path that certainly will result in justice, rule of law and democracy.

With hopes of liberty and freedom,
Nasrin Sotoudeh
Evin Prison
December 2012

 

War of Position and War of Maneuver: Sexperts, Sex Pervs, and Sex Revolutionaries

 

by Sima Shakhsari

The recent issue of Foreign Policy on sex has instigated critical feedback from many who have rightly challenged racist and Orientalist representations of gender and sexuality in the Muslim and Arab worlds. Several critics have rightly pointed out that essentialist approaches to culture that rely on facile binaries of men/women, freedom/oppression, and West/East lack any meaningful analyses of geopolitics, economy, colonial and post-colonial formations, and historical nuances. Most of these responses, however, have focused onMona El Tahawy’s article, which reproduces discourses of violent Arab masculinity and victimized femininity.

Here, however, I want to take up Karim Sadjadpour’s “The Ayatollah Under the Bed(sheets),” an anecdotal character study-like article that seeks to understand the perverse mentality of the Iranian mullahs and the practicing Muslims who emulate them. Sadjadpour tells his readers that “for those in the West who seek to better understand what makes Tehran tick, the regime’s curious fixation on sex cannot be ignored.” He continues by warning us that “the outwardly chaste nature of Khomeinist political culture has perverted normal sexual behavior, creating peculiar curiosities—and proclivities—among Iranian officialdom.” Conflating the “regime” with “the mullahs” and deeming “the mullahs” to be characteristically perverted, Sadjadpour seems to suggest that the way to defeat “the regime” is to kick it where it hurts: its sex organ!

Both a war of position to gain hegemony and a war of maneuver for a (sexual) revolution, Sadjadpour’s article seems to be a part of a constant battle between the diasporic “experts” who seek to topple the “regime” and the Islamic Republic, which like many states, seeks to discipline and regulate the life of its citizens. While the role of the (sex)perts in this war is concealed, the “regime” in Sadjadpour’s article is reduced to the iconic perverted “ayatollah” who preys on the heterosexually-imagined Iranian people.

In this war zone, and in a time when the liberatory forces tell us that a sexual revolution is long due in the Middle East, I echo Maya Mikdashi and Sherene Seikaly and say, “let’s talk about sex!” But, as Foucault has taught us, I approach this “sex talk” with skepticism, asking why and how we talk about sex. How is sexuality put into discourse during the “war on terror” and how do complex international and transnational networks of people, information, and capital impose strategies of regulation and discipline? In other words, I am interested in the way that sex is a form of transnational governmentality in this neo-liberal and neo-colonial age. Governmentality, as defined by Foucault, is an ensemble that includes institutions, procedures, analyses, calculations, and strategies that enable a complex form of power (biopower). This form of power targets the population, uses political economy as its form of knowledge, and utilizes the apparatus of security in its normalizing work. According to Foucault, government is not just limited to political structures of states, but includes the way in which the behavior of individuals and groups might be conducted by non-state entities and individuals.

Sadjadpour’s article is an example of the way that “experts” participate in normalizing the sexuality of the Iranian population while taking part in the regime-change discourses that neoliberal, neocolonial and geopolitical agendas espouse.

Perhaps to make his sex talk “sexy,” Sadjadpour claims that “for a variety of reasons—fear of becoming Salman Rushdie, of being labeled an Orientalist, of upsetting religious sensibilities—the remarkable hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is often studiously avoided.” Unlike Sadjadpour’s claim, however, several feminist scholars such as Minoo MoallemAfsaneh Najmabadi, and Homa Hoodfar, among others, have written about the state (and non-state) regulation of sexuality in pre and post-revolutionary Iran. These scholars have tackled a range of issues from colonialism to nationalism, fundamentalism, heteronormalization of sexuality in modern Iran, historical accounts of sexuality, and the post-revolutionary state’s control of sexuality. Minoo Moallem, for example, has written extensively about Islamic fundamentalism as a modern transnational movement (and not, as Sadjadpour claims, a pre-modern atavistic regime). Engaging the Islamic Republic as a modern nation-state that disciplines and regulates gendered and sexed identities, Moallem has shown how the hegemonic masculinity of the citizen/subject is a site of contradictions between the pious masculinity of the clergyman and the secular masculinity of the citizen. Let us not forget, however, that the Iranian state is not an exception in disciplining and normalizing the citizens. The tensions over gays in the military, gay marriage, birth control, and abortion in the United States are all examples of the state disciplining and normalizing practices.

Yet despite this broad-ranging and critical feminist scholarship on gendered and sexed identities in modern Iran, it is only hegemonic accounts of sexuality that garner attention in mainstream media and academic circles. These sensationalized narratives often juxtapose an untamed, perverse, traditional, rural, and religious sexuality to a sanitized, modern, and urban Iranian sexuality. Conflated with tradition, Islamic sexuality comes to mean bestiality, sodomy, pedophilia, and polygamy, while a heteronormative (and more recently homonormative) sexuality is constructed as modern and revolutionary. We are told by sexperts that young urban Iranians are challenging the “theocratic regime” by having sex in the private sphere. In this framework, talking about sex or having sex (of the acceptable form) becomes a sign of resistance to the Iranian “regime.”

Thus the marketability of accounts of sexuality is predicated on the binary of repressed sexuality in Iran and freedom of sexuality in the “West.” (Debates that followed the publishing of half-naked pictures of Golshifteh Farahani in a French magazine are examples of this trend). As many scholars have pointed out, women (and increasingly queers) become markers of freedom or oppression within colonial discourses. During the war on terror, native informants who write about the oppression of women and queers in the Muslim and Arab worlds have increasingly become best-sellers and star academics who act as neoliberal self-entrepreneurs, circumvent the tenure processes, and work as “experts” in think tanks that are closely connected to academic institutions.

Interestingly, despite the strategic political appropriations of queers among these (arguably homophobic) groups and individuals, Sadjadpour seems to have missed the chic of queer bandwagon. He denounces “sodomy” and bestiality (which he equally abhors) as abnormal obsessions of Khomeini, suggesting these deviant practices to be familiar to the backward and anti-modern mullah. He claims that:

[s]cholars of Shiism—including harsh critics of Khomeini—emphasize that such themes were the norm among clerics of Khomeini’s generation and should be understood in their proper context: Islam was a religion that emerged out of a rural desert, and the Prophet Mohammed was himself once a shepherd.

There is much to be said about the elitism, nationalism, and anti-Arab sentiments implicit in this statement. In this anti-regime brand of the Iranian nationalistic discourse, “mullahs” become representatives of the Arab other, and the Iranian revolution of 1979 becomes the signifier of a “second Arab invasion.” Needless to say, representations of a temporally fixed Islam and depictions ofperverted Islamic masculinity are consistent with Orientalist discourses that inform the rampant Islamophobia of the war on terror. Maya Mikdashi and Sherene Seikaly rightly point out that Sadjadpour dismisses “the centuries old tradition of practicing Muslims asking and receiving advice on sexual and gender practices.” In fact, Sadjadpour is fixated on the backwardness and deviance of the religious advice on sex. Of course, it does not take an expert of Islamic jurisprudence to know that most practicing Muslims constantly negotiate Islamic codes of conduct though the concept of ijtihadand interpretation. It is exactly because of this concept, for example, that not too long after the 1979 revolution, Khomeini issued a fatwa deeming sex reassignment surgeries to be religiously permissible. Not surprisingly, Khomeini uses normalizing concepts borrowed from modern medical and psychological discourses of his time (and not the Prophet Mohammad’s time!), including Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon. In fact, modern medical and psychological discourses and religious ones are not necessarily contradictory, but often congruent in normalizing the modern citizen/subject.

Relying on binaries of modern/tradition, secular/religious, public/private, and state/society, Sadjadpour misses the messy overlaps between these discursive oppositions, thus positing a unified traditional Islamic state against a modern homogenous Iranian society, captive to the monstrous and pre-modern sexuality of mullahs. Sadjadpour agrees with Mehdi Khalaji, a Washington-based think tank “expert” who claims that “Islamic jurisprudence hasn’t yet been modernized. It’s totally disconnected from the issues that modern, urban people have to deal with.” Yet, according to Sadjadpour, because there is no separation of religion and politics in Iran (as though this distinction is clear in liberal democracies such as the United States), this perverted Islamic sexuality is dangerously trickling down to the public sphere and dragging Iran down the temporally regressive path: “Because religion is politics in a theocracy like Iran, uninformed or antiquated notions of sexuality aren’t just confined to the bedroom—they pervade the country’s seminaries, military barracks, boardrooms, courtrooms, and classrooms.”

Ultimately, Sadjadpour’s point is that the key to the liberation of Iran is not bombs, but sex! Revolution is achieved through taming the unruly sexuality of the mullahs who are obsessed with bestiality and sodomy, and encouraging “modern” and normal sexuality among youth, whose ‘”frustrated” and “pent-up” sexual energy would otherwise turn into unhealthy and dangerous acts (Basiji youth are pathologized as violent beings whose frustration comes from not “screwing”!)

Elsewhere, I have discussed the production of expertise in think tanks as part of insurance technologies to manage the “risk of terrorism.” These strategies involve the production and division of populations into those who pose the risk of “terrorism” and those who are threatened by it. The experts’ job is to produce, predict, calculate the probability, and eliminate the risk that threatens the interests and values of the “international community.”

Interestingly, Sadjadpour’s speculations about the outcomes of a repressed and perverted sexuality (terrorism) and his choice of “experts” are in line with this management strategy. Not surprisingly, the expert Sadjadpour introduces as a “scholar of Shiism,” is Mehdi Khalaji. A disrobed seminary student, Khalaji got a job at a US propaganda radio service in Prague and migrated to the United States. Despite his lack of formal academic credentials, Khalaji has been working at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank that seeks to protect Israeli state interests. Given his choice of “experts,” Sadjadpour’s recommendation that “the sexual manias of Iran’s religious fundamentalists are worthy of greater scrutiny, all the more so because they control a state with nuclear ambitions, vast oil wealth, and a young, dynamic, stifled population” is quite predictable.

It is also not surprising that Sadjadpour blames unhealthy sexual behavior on the Iranian regime’s repression and internet censorship. There is no doubt that the Iranian state is increasingly limiting access to the internet through filtering, censorship, and harassment of internet users. Yet, US concernwith internet censorship and its campaigns to lift what Obama has termed Iran’s “electronic curtain” in Iran are hypocritical, to say the least. While the United States’ government has worked diligently to circumvent internet censorship in Iran, it has imposed its own filtering criteria. Sadjadpour is correct in pointing out that pages containing the word “sex” (including Essex University) are filtered in Iran. Yet, he fails to mention that it is not just the Iranian state that is obsessed with the sex life of its people. For years, the US government has been contracting private companies such as Anonymizer to send free anti-filtering proxies to Iranian internet users. The US provided proxies, however, block certain words to prevent moral deviation. Incidentally, for a long time, in order to discourage Iranians from surfing gay porn sites, US sponsored proxies filtered the word “ass. Apparently, the US freedom/security apparatus did not realize that its filter-breaking proxies were filtering all words that contained the letters “a-s-s,” including the American Embassy!”

The irony of it all is that while the liberatory forces are so concerned about rights and freedom in Iran, harsh sanctions that deprive the Iranian population from food and life-saving medicine are not considered human rights violations. As I have discussed before, as a trope, the “people of Iran” constitutes a population, which is produced through the discourse of rights, while being subjected to death exactly because of those rights. In fact, the protection of the rights of the Iranian population is presented as the raison d’être of sanctions and/or war. Shuttling between biopolitics and necropolitics, the Iranian population is subjected to the normalizing techniques of liberal democracy, while being disposable as that which contains the threat of terrorism. Not reduced to bare life, but produced through the discourse of rights, the Iranian population lives a pending death (through economic sanctions or the hovering threat of a military attack) in the name of rights. As enticing as it is to be enthusiastic about the alleged “sexual revolution” in Iran, the politics of rightful killing renders the hippie motto “make love not war” meaningless, when making love is implicated in a war machine that marches to the tune of “killing me softly with your rights.”

 

Iran, Women’s Rights and the Arab Spring

For each woman that is imprisoned, another will take her place and swell the ranks of the women’s movement. –Shrine Ebadi, Iranian Noble Peace Prize winner, 2004.

The stories of sweeping reform across the Middle East has captured the attention of many of us. In this week’s Weekly Rights Podcast, Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, talks to the Campaign about the effect that Arab Spring has had, and will have, on women. She talks about her new book, The Unfinished Revolution, which is a collection of women’s stories of struggle and defiance from around the world. Her book includes essays from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and women’s rights activist and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign Sussan Tahmasebi, who discuss the status of women in Iran. Minky also discusses the role of women in the protests and uprisings in Iran, and how they have affected women in the Arab Spring.

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran – Podcast 49: Women in Iran with Minky Worden.

Sanctions Against Iran: A Duplicitous “Alternative” to War

by Raha Iranian Feminist Collective

Media reports on Iran oscillate wildly between threats of imminent military action and hopeful reports of diplomatic progress. Amidst this confusing din, there is a constant truth: the United States has not ceased its economic bullying of Iran, nor has the threat of war receded. As Dennis B. Ross, the Obama Administration’s former Iran advisor, told the New York Times, “now you have a focus on the negotiations…It doesn’t mean the threat of using force goes away, but it lies behind the diplomacy.” This echoes President Obama’s persistent refrain on Iran: “All options are on the table.” We argue that sanctions against Iran are not designed to work as an actual alternative to war, but rather are meant to, first of all, appease calls for sabre-rattling at home and by Israel; second, assert economic control over Iranian oil, while curbing Iran’s increasing influence in the region; and third, lay the groundwork for a diplomatic due-diligence claim in order to justify any potential military strike.
Diplomacy, also commonly thought of as an alternative to war, must be understood within the underlying context of the United States’ efforts to reestablish its sphere of influence over Iran, which it lost after the 1979 revolution. Ongoing talks between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany are not genuine negotiations, but rather are an effort to wring concessions from an economically weakened Iran. The dangerous outcome of these “talks” is that if Iran refuses to submit to Western bullying, the United States will be able to claim that diplomacy has failed, and move towards more aggressive means of achieving its agenda. The effect is that both diplomacy and sanctions become a prelude to war. If Iran does grant some concessions to the United States, this will only increase the US drive to regain access to Iranian oil as well as consumer markets and bring the two states one step closer to cutting a deal at the expense of ordinary Iranians.
Given the vast power imbalance between the two countries, “normalized relations” can only mean US support for another authoritarian regime. Note the fact that Libya achieved “peace” with the United States (that is, sanctions were lifted and it was taken off the State Department list of terrorists) at the very moment when it agreed to stop its nuclear program and allow US corporations a ninety percent share in its newly discovered oilfields. The two choices offered — subordination to the US or escalation of hostilities — are both unacceptable, since they thwart the self-determination of the Iranian people. In addition, the recent NATO invasion of Libya shows that normalized diplomatic relations can be tossed out the window at any time should the United States and its allies see the opportunity to insert their influence more forcefully.
Everyday life for the majority of Iranians is already becoming increasingly unbearable. The Western drumbeats of war are a death threat hanging over their heads, and sanctions erode living standards and hope for a viable future. In this context, we feel it is necessary to lay bare sanctions against Iran for what they really are — the consolidation of geopolitical hegemony and war by other means. This article responds to the stated justifications for sanctions and outlines the impact of sanctions on ordinary people. As feminists, we insist that lasting peace and security will be built by people on the ground in Iran who are mobilizing for political and economic justice — democratizing Iran from the inside out.
Nuclear Capacity
While the United States insists that Iran is developing a “nuclear capacity” — a new term in US rhetoric that allows for slippage between nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry — this is by no means justification for sanctions or war. The US accepts Israel’s nuclear weapons, as well as India’s and Pakistan’s — all of them states that have proven how dangerous they are by engaging in horrendous border wars, occupations, and political repression. Regardless of Iran’s nuclear program, US policies and threats are a way of forcing Iran to line up with US interests in the region. This realpolitik does not, however, mean that we should defend Iran’s “right” to nuclear energy or weapons. As feminists, we take a broader view of the nuclear issue, and see a sense of urgency in unpacking the claims of national rights and regional security.
The world has seen the destructive capacities of nuclear weaponry, and even the nightmare of nuclear energy disasters (in Chernobyl, and more recently in Japan), and has the right to demand an end to the suicidal and homicidal drive towards ever-expanding nuclear capacity. Scapegoating one nation, however, does little to promote the effective global nuclear disarmament that is an environmental, political, and humanitarian necessity. When it comes to nuclear weaponry, the United States has acted hypocritically, fueling a nuclear arms race with itself as the extreme front-runner. The only nation to actually drop nuclear bombs on civilian populations, the United States did so to establish itself as a superpower after World War II — at the expense of millions of people’s lives.
The United States keenly understands the use of nuclear weapons to promote regional dominance. In recent years, the United States has promoted the nuclear ambitions of its allies, like Israel, and turned a blind eye to the ambitions of other nuclear powers, including India and Pakistan, while focusing all of its political attention on Iran. Rather than accepting the cynical US sanctions effort against Iran, we instead need a reinvigorated global disarmament movement that opposes nuclear weaponry everywhere.
Besides bombs, nuclear energy has proven nearly as dangerous. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany decided to close all of its nuclear reactors by 2022. Some European nations have followed by pledging to scale back their nuclear programs. Activists should demand that the United States take Germany s lead. Rather than crippling the Iranian people in order to ineffectively punish their leaders, the United States should halt the arms race by dismantling its own nuclear arsenal. The sad truth is that if Iran’s nuclear program poses a threat to anyone, it is to the Iranians who would live closest to the nuclear reactors.
We should not assume that all Iranians support a “right” to nuclear energy as a nationalist stance of defiance towards the West. Many Iranians are terrified to have a government they do not support or trust in charge of radioactive materials, capable of causing environmental devastation and health crises for generations to come. Just as most Americans do not want to live near a nuclear plant, neither do most Iranians. We stand in solidarity with Iranians and people around the world who demand an end to nuclear energy and weapons production.
 War by Other Means
While Iran has been subject to sanctions since the 1979 revolution, recent moves by the United States and European Union are significantly changing the economic and political landscape. In July 2011, President Obama announced the harshest set of sanctions to date, targeting Iran’s oil and banking industries and essentially barring any bank that processes Iranian oil transactions from doing business in the United States. The EU has agreed to ban any transactions with the sanctioned banks, while the SWIFT international banking system climbed on board to also block these banks as a way of intensifying the sanctions. Adding to the mix, the recent and unprecedented EU oil embargo — with a complete cessation of imports by member nations by July 2012 — further cripples the Iranian economy. We believe that Western powers are increasing the severity of the sanctions and targeting the central oil industry in order to completely collapse the Iranian economy, with the Iranian government presumably to follow.
These economic attacks are rapidly snowballing as Asian countries — Iran’s biggest clients for oil — are pressured to follow the US and EU lead. Japan and South Korea are expected to gradually eliminate their reliance on Iranian oil. Saudi Arabia, happy to help undercut its regional rival, is promising to increase its own oil production to fill in the gaps. Russia, far from a reliable Iranian ally despite its previous refusal to support US sanctions, is similarly seizing the opportunity to promote its own oil industry as an alternative to Iranian supplies. China and India, which together consume a third of Iran’s oil exports, have so far indicated their intentions to maintain trade ties with Iran, despite intense pressure from the United States. As Iran loses customers, the remaining importing nations are at a strategic advantage to force Iran to sell at even cheaper prices.
With oil exports accounting for fully half of the Iranian government’s revenue, the newly intensified sanctions, coupled with the EU oil embargo, contribute to the downward spiral of the Iranian economy. A recent spate of bankruptcies is directly tied to the new round of sanctions; meanwhile, foreign-owned factories, such as Hyundai and Peugeot, have caved to US pressure and agreed to shut down their manufacturing operations in Iran. Unemployment is already around twenty percent, and closer to thirty percent for people under thirty years old. The value of the Iranian currency, the rial, has plummeted vis-a-vis the dollar, and inflation has soared into the double digits: 22.5 percent for 2011, with even higher estimates for 2012. Inflation this dramatic affects all classes of Iranian society, as peoples ability to purchase goods and services, save money, or live off fixed incomes rapidly diminishes.
Sanctions as Collective Punishment
Iranians are feeling the effects of intensified sanctions as they shop for essentials, fill prescriptions for medicines, and look for work. The sanctions have seriously impeded imports of food staples such as rice and palm oil, as regional suppliers, such as Malaysia, India, and Ukraine, cancel shipments because sanctions now prohibit the processing of payments. As this squeeze on supply continues, the cost of many basic foodstuffs has increased by fifty to two hundred percent. Rice — a staple in Iranian households — jumped from two dollars a kilo last year to five dollars now.
These sanctions amount to nothing less than collective punishment for a population already suffering under the effects of internally imposed austerity measures, economic mismanagement, and police-state repression. According to testimonials gathered by women’s rights activists in Tehran, medicines for illnesses such as asthma, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and other chronic diseases are either in short supply, completely unavailable, or no longer affordable even when supplies can be found. According to one pharmacist, “People with life threatening illnesses such as cancer can no longer afford to pay for the injections, so they either delay them or, mostly among poorer communities, totally forgo treatment.”
Children also suffer from sanctions. As economic conditions deteriorate, children have to leave school to help support their families. A thirty-five-year old woman explained that her husbands wages working as a porter in the bazaar no longer cover the family’s basic needs. When her husband insisted their son quit school to work, she explained, “I beat myself and cried so much that he finally relented and agreed to let our son go to school, provided that he works after school.”
Women are often the most victimized by sanctions because, as a group, they are the most economically vulnerable. Women have a harder time finding jobs, are among the first to get laid off, and have fewer workplace protections. As those primarily responsible for running their households, women face increased loads of stress trying to feed their families, obtain needed medication, and buy necessary goods amidst skyrocketing levels of inflation. A forty-five-year old housewife in Tehran reports, “In the last few months, I have bought very little protein such as meat and poultry and have also refrained from buying any clothes for the children.” At the micro-level of household economies, women bear the larger burden for managing their families’ survival. In Iran, as in all societies, increased militarism and violence at the global and national levels exacerbates inequalities between men and women. As societies become more militarized, so do the very citizens living within them; as fear, anxiety, and stress rise in the lives of ordinary people, so do patriarchal and violent responses to conflict and hardship in intimate life.
A Feminist Response to Sanctions
The history of US-led sanctions against Iran shows us that they actually strengthen the regime that they purportedly target. Even as sanctions single out the Revolutionary Guards, whose primary function is as the repressive strong arm of the state, they allow the Guards to behave like a mafia controlling lucrative black and grey markets. This contributes to the further impoverishment of Iranian people. At the same time, the Iranian government has used US aggression and sanctions to justify the extraordinary repression that it has unleashed on Iranian labor, civil society, and activist groups through mass arrests, suppression of public dissent, imprisonment, torture, and execution.
In an effort to present itself as a bulwark against US intervention in the Muslim world, Iran rhetorically spins its ability to withstand sanctions as a moral victory against imperialism, while quietly moving forward with its neoliberal economic policies, ever-increasing militarization, and suppression of opposition at home. Just as in the Iraqi case, US-led sanctions make grassroots democratic dissent much more difficult for ordinary Iranians living in Iran. At the same time, the Iranian government has only tightened its control on the flow of wealth and information in the country. In the conflict between empire and dictatorship, there is a great need for a third way beyond the militaristic dance of macabrestate-led politics as usual.
As feminists and anti-war activists, we believe it is ordinary people inside Iran who have the right to determine the direction and future of their society. We support the efforts of groups like the Iran-based Change for Equality, which began publishing a series of Women Against War videos on 8 March 2012 for International Women’s Day. It is with these and other activists from the labor and student movements in Iran that we stand in solidarity for a peaceful, just, and feminist alternative to all the options on the table.

The Iranian Women’s Movement: A Century Long Struggle

by: Ali Akbar Mahdi

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

The Constitutional Period

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reza Shah’s Period (1925–1941)

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

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

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

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

Mohammad Reza Shah’s Period (1942–1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolutionary Period (1978–1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Bayat-Philipp in Keddie, 1978.

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

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

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

12. Sanasarian, 1982: 36–38.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24. Price, 2000.

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

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

27. Afkhami, 1994.

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

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

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

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

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

Zanaan No. 21, 33.

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

Paidar, 1995.

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

See Mahdi, 1995.

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

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

38. Amin, Camron Michael, 2002.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34. Women 35. 36.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Ideology After the Arab Uprisings

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

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

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

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

Towards Cultural Ideology

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

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

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

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

Ideologies in Their Middle Eastern Place

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

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

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

Secular/ization/ism in Middle East Studies

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

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

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

Beyond the Islamist-Secular Paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Wave

A film by Ali Samadi Ahadi

 


SYNOPSIS

Green is the color of hope. Green is the color of Islam. And Green was the symbol of recognition among the supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who became the symbolic figure of the Green Revolution in Iran last year. The presidential elections on June 12th, 2009 were supposed to bring about a change, but contrary to all expectations the ultra-conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was confirmed in office. As clear as was the result, as loud and justified were the accusations of vote-rigging. The on-going Where is my vote? protest demonstrations were again and again worn down and broken up with brutal attacks by government militia. Images taken from private persons with their cell phones or cameras bear witness to this excessive violence: people were beaten, stabbed, shot dead, arrested, kidnapped, some of them disappearing without trace. What remains is the countless number of dead or injured people and victims of torture, and another deep wound in the hearts of the Iranians.

THE GREEN WAVE is a touching documentary-collage illustrating the dramatic events and telling about the feelings of the people behind this revolution. Facebook reports, Twitter messages and videos posted in the internet were included in the film composition, and hundreds of real blog entries served as reference for the experiences and thoughts of two young students, whose story is running through the film as the main thread. The film describes their initial hope and curiosity, their desperate fear, and the courage to yet continue to fight. These fictional ‘storylines’ have been animated as a motion comic – sort of a moving comic – framing the deeply affecting pictures of the revolution and the interviews with prominent human rights campaigners and exiled Iranians. Ali Samadi Ahadi’s documentary is a highly contemporary chronicle of the Green Revolution and a memorial for all of those who believed in more freedom and lost their lives for it.

PRESS RELEASE

Following the award-winning documentary LOST CHILDREN that he did together with Oliver Stoltz (among others the German Film Award) and his affectionate comedy SALAMI ALEIKUM – in his film THE GREEN WAVE Ali Samadi Ahadi reflects the dramatic events before and after the presidential elections 2009 in Iran. Like an eager sigh, like an unstoppable wave, the desire for more freedom began to spread out in Iran last summer. The color Green of the supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi became the ever-present symbol of a potential change. But on election day the peaceful revolution failed and the regime under Ahmadinejad took action against the oppositionists, activists and demonstrators with a brutality almost too difficult to imagine.

Framed by animated ‘scenes’ which from the perspective of two young students convey a sense of the events, the film shows the real pictures of the revolution, taken with cameras or cell phones: election meetings, demonstrations, unrest and finally the attacks of the militia with batons and knives. Ahadi’s film produced by Oliver Stoltz and Jan Krueger (both of Dreamer Joint Venture Filmproduktion) is a courageous and encouraging collage composed of blog quotes, real video recordings, illustrative interviews with prominent exiled Iranians and human rights activists, and of a motion comic narrative thread – resulting in a stirring plea, an appeal for awareness and actions, and a shaking up, shocking and touching chronicle of the Green Revolution in Iran.

STORYLINE

“For a few weeks we had the feeling of being so close to our goal as never before …” – blog entry.

The Green Revolution in Iran owes its name to the color that became the symbol of recognition among the supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Being the color of Islam and the color of hope, and being one of the Iranian national colors this Green unfolded an unforeseen signal effect and symbolic power going far beyond the mere commitment to Mousavi. It was not just about election campaigning, not even about dissatisfaction with the regime under Ahmadinejad, but about a new collective spirit and the confidence that there could be another way for Iran, a way that is not characterized by reprisals, oppressions and despotism. This Green was the signal to set out, the symbol of courage and of the chance for a change that had been considered improbable for a long time.

In the streets of Tehran and other big cities, the euphoria was evident: cloths, bracelets, scarfs, nail polish, almost anything was appropriate as a green greeting, as an attribute of peaceful unity and as a gesture of rebellion.

Though news coverage from Iran was almost impossible, the Green Movement could also be sensed abroad, where usually nothing but Ahmadinejad’s provocations were received. Twitter and Facebook messages, YouTube videos and especially numerous blogs reflected an unforeseen euphoric mood. The Iranian blogger scene, which is considered to be one of the largest in the world, came up in the years 1999 to 2003 at the height of the reform movement of those days. Since 2005 this internet forum has had to struggle with more strict controls by the regime und has been curtailed as much as possible. Any blogger making critical comments has to live with the risk of prosecution by the government. In the months before the presidential elections in 2009 this scene started to flourish again and the internet has become an important vital lifeline for the revolution.

Over a thousand different entries in Iranian blogs have been the inspiration for the two ‘fictional’ students – their thoughts being the emotional thread running through the real events: how they perceive the awakening of the Green Movement, how they wake up from a frustrating hopelessness and feel that there is after all a chance to shape the future, how they become desperate with fear beginning to grow again, and how they despite all that do not give up hope.

The stories of the students Azadeh and Kaveh are animated as a motion comic, and rich in contrast going along with the real video images of the revolt and with the interviews with prominent Iranian personalities and human rights activists like Dr. Shirin Ebadi (Noble Peace Prize winner), the Shiite cleric Dr. Mohsen Kadivar (one of the most important critics of the Islamic Republic), the young journalist Mitra Khalatbari, Dr. Payam Akhavan (former UN war crimes prosecutor and a specialist in human rights), or with Mehdi Mohseni (blogger and election assistant to Mir-Hossein Mousavi).

The hopes of the Green Movement for a victory of Mousavi and for reforms were bitterly dashed on the election day and the accusations of vote-rigging still called people into the streets. But ever since the supreme clerical leader of Iran, Khamenei, declared the election result official and uttered an explicit threat to the protesters, the measures against the peaceful resistance became more and more brutal. The images of Neda killed by a shot in the chest during a demonstration shortly afterwards went around the world. Countless videos taken with cameras or cell phones and put on the internet give evidence for the excessive brutality that the government militia used against the demonstrators: militias driving on motorbikes into the crowd of people, beating them with knives and batons, or treading on casualties lying defenselessly on the ground. The regime systematically took action against the ongoing protests, against oppositionists and – like in a frenzy of violence – also against innocent bystanders. Raids at night, arrests on a large scale, never-ending interrogations, raping, abductions, torture – any desire for freedom, any thought of rebellion should be suppressed with inhuman cruelty. Up to this day the pressure of the regime continues, but although the Green Revolution has been subjugated with every available means, the desire of the people for more freedom and dignity is unbroken – just as is their willingness to fight for it.


DIRECTOR ALI SAMADI AHADI ABOUT HIS FILM

It was June 12th, 2009. After having worked very hard for two years all of us were very much looking forward to the premiere of our comedy SALAMI ALEIKUM. From all over Germany our colleagues gathered together for the International Film Festival in Emden where the film would be shown to the public for the first time. On the very same day my wife and I went to Bonn to submit our voting slip for the presidential elections in Iran. I always felt both, as an Iranian and as a German. So did my wife. We met in the no man’s land of cultures and tried to bring together in our lives the positive aspects of both of the two worlds.


Ali Samadi Ahadi

On the very same evening of June 12th it suddenly became clear that one of those worlds was in flames. Despite SALAMI ALEIKUM being a great success in Emden, our team did not at all feel like celebrating. We felt kind of petrified. Paralyzed. And this feeling of helplessness was to remain for weeks. Iran was in flames and we could not do anything. Day by day we were sitting in front of the television for hours, being on the phone with each other, one in Vienna, the others in Berlin and Cologne. Silent. We were not in the mood for talking, but then again did not want to be alone during these hours. We moved together – if only on the phone.

It really took me weeks to get out of this dizziness and to take the decision to do what I can do best: a film about the events in Iran in the summer of 2009.

But very soon it became clear that we had to find a special narrative style for this, because for the events behind us there existed only fragmentary poor-quality pictures taken with cell phones or images from archives covering the situation only in part. A reenactment was out of question for me, especially since it was clear to me that as long as the regime in Iran was in power I could no longer visit Iran.

Iran is a nation of bloggers. Thousands of young people write down their feelings, write down what is on their minds in their blogs. If it was no longer possible for me to shoot my film in Iran, to interview the people there, these blogs were exactly the right source to reach the inner voices of the people.

For a long time Ali Soozandeh and I have been searching for an adequate visual language, when we came across the so-called motion comic to tell about these blogs. I chose 15 blogs from 1,500 websites which we then translated into images. We attracted a range of actors like Pegah Ferydoni, Navid Akhavan, Jasmin Tabatabai and Caroline Schreiber. With them we re-enacted the scenes and took photos.

Alireza Darvish, a wonderful artist, accepted to do the drawings of the characters, and Sina Mostafawy and his team began with the animation of the scenes. Finally, from the archive material, the recently shot interviews, the pictures from cell phones and the animations, Barbara Toennieshen and Andreas Menn composed this collage.

The whole production took 10 months. Within these 10 months the concept, the financing, 42 minutes of animations, the editing as well as the sound design, the music and the compositing came off.

The time pressure was immense and could only be put up with, because everybody plunged into the project and worked day and night.

And at the same time one thing was clear for the team of Iranian descent: because of their participation in this project they will never be able to visit Iran again. But as has Saadi so nicely said,

“Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul,
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!”

THE PROTAGONISTS

Dr. SHIRIN EBADI – since many years the Noble Peace Prize winner and Iranian lawyer is fighting for more human rights and for freedom in Iran. She is the founder of the Centre for the Defense of Human Rights in Iran. On October 10th, 2003 she was awarded the most important peace prize for her ceaseless and pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights – especially women’s, children’s and refugee rights – being the first Iranian, and the first Muslim woman to have received this prize.

PROFESSOR DR. PAYAM AKHAVAN – the former war crimes prosecutor is a professor of international law at McGill University in Montr�al. He teaches and researches in the areas of public international law and international criminal law with a particular interest in human rights and multiculturalism, UN reforms and the prevention of genocide. Akhavan has published numerous articles and books. His article Beyond Impunity about the chances and barriers in international criminal prosecution, published in 2001 in American Journal of International Law, is considered to be one of the most significant published journal essays in contemporary legal studies. Professor Akhavan was the first Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda and played a key role in the trial of Slobodan Milo�ević. He also served with the UN in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Guatemala, East Timor and Rwanda, and was appointed as legal advisor in many important cases before the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and the European Court of Human Rights. Professor Akhavan is a prominent human rights advocate for Iranian political prisoners and cofounder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, an organization documenting human rights violations by Iranian leaders to prepare for legal actions.

Dr. MOHSEN KADIVAR – the Shiite cleric and philosopher, university lecturer, author and political dissident is one of the leading cleric critics of the Iranian system of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, established by Khomeini. Kadivar studied theology and got his PhD in Islamic law and Islamic philosophy. For a long time Kadivar has been an advocate for more democracy and also religious reforms in Iran. At the end of the 90ies, for example, he fell into disgrace after having voiced public criticism and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

MEHDI MOHSENI – in his publications the blogger and journalist has advocated for reforms in Iran. He also was election assistant to Mousavi prior to the presidential elections. In summer 2009 he came to Germany in the course of a scientific exchange and since then has been living in exile there, because it would be too dangerous for him to return.

MITRA KHALATBARI – the award-winning journalist has experienced the consequences of the controversial presidential elections firsthand. To escape the pressure and the persecution of the regime, in autumn 2009 she fled from Iran to Cologne and has been living in exile since then.
ABOUT ALI SAMADI AHADI (director & author)

Director and author Ali Samadi Ahadi was born in 1972 in the north Iranian city of Tabriz. In 1985, when he was 12 years old, he came to Germany without his family and later took his Abitur in Hannover. In Kassel he studied visual communication with the focus on film and television. At the end of the 90’s he started his career as a filmmaker. He participated in several documentaries and reports as director, film editor or cinematographer. For his documentary CULTURE CLAN he was nominated for the Rose d’Or award, and in Cape Town he won the Channel O Award in the category of “Best Foreign Music Film”. Literally a flood of awards followed soon after for his documentary LOST CHILDREN in co-production with Oliver Stoltz, which won the German Film Award 2006 as well as numerous international awards (among others the UNICEF Award, Al Jazeera Award). Recently, Ahadi made his first feature film SALAMI ALEIKUM, in 2009 reaching a top position in the Arthouse charts with this culture clash comedy.

Five years and 32 lashes for criticising Iran’s economic policy

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Amnesty International.

To mark this, Amnesty, in association with The Irish Times, is profiling a prisoner each month . . .

ACROSS THE Middle East and North Africa, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. They have toppled dictatorships and threatened undemocratic regimes. But in Iran, the oppression and abuse of any who dare to speak out against the government continues.

Bahman Ahmadi Amou’i is 43 and was editor of the Iranian daily business newspaper Sarmayeh , which frequently published articles criticising the government’s economic policies. He was one of the country’s leading economic commentators and published two books analysing Iran’s economy.

Bahman was arrested on June 20th, 2009, and his newspaper banned in November. He spent the first two months of his detention in solitary confinement before being brought to trial. The allegations against him were the familiar list of vague and ill-defined charges used against political dissidents. He was accused of “propaganda against the system”, “disrupting public security” and “insulting the president”. Convicted after an unfair trial at a Revolutionary Court in Tehran on January 4th, 2010, he was sentenced to more than seven years, reduced to five on appeal, and 32 lashes.

He is currently serving his sentence in Evin Prison, Tehran, notorious for its harsh treatment of inmates, particularly political prisoners. He is allowed one monitored visit from his wife, journalist and former prisoner Jila Baniyaghoob, each week but no other visits or phone calls.

Despite the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, Bahman continues to resist the authorities. In June he was one of 12 prisoners who went on a hunger strike to protest the deaths of fellow prisoners Haleh Sahabi and Hoda Saber. Haleh Sahabi was a pro-democracy activist and a member of Mothers for Peace. She died at the funeral of her father on June 2nd, while on temporary release. Eyewitnesses said she died after she was struck by a member of the security forces.

Journalist Hoda Saber was a prisoner of conscience linked to an Iranian opposition party. He died in custody on June 12th following a hunger strike launched in protest at Haleh Sahabis death. According to a letter from more than 60 of his fellow prisoners, he was beaten and denied adequate medical treatment before his death. This is what life is like in Iran’s prisons for the hundreds of people still detained simply because they do not agree with their government and because they have campaigned peacefully for change. Bahman and the other prisoners ended their hunger strike at the end of June.

Today, they remain in Evin Prison, at the mercy of an increasingly brutal prison regime. Earlier this year, investigative journalist and prisoner of conscience Emadeddin Baghi was released so we know international pressure can make a difference.

Please write immediately calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Bahman Ahmadi Amou’i to:

His Excellency, the Iranian ambassador to Ireland, Mr Hossein Panahiazar, Embassy of Iran, 72 Mount Merrion Avenue, Blackrock, Co Dublin.

Or log on to http://www.amnesty.ie and take action online.

Update : In February, as part of this series with The Irish Times , we profiled Chinese prisoner of conscience Mao Hengfeng. We are delighted to report that she has been released early from the Re-education Through Labour camp in which she was held. Although her health is very poor following her prolonged detention, she is back with her family and improving. We would like to thank everyone who took action on her case.

Interview with Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh

by: Semira N. Nikou

       Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a women’s rights activist, is a founding member of the Stop Stoning to Death Campaign and the Iranian Women’s Charter. She was director of Entesharat-e Banoo (Banoo Publications) and Entesharat-e Jamee Iranian (Iranian Society Publication). She was the director of the Association of Women Writers and Journalists NGO. She is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
 
  • What is the status of female political prisoners in Iran?
Human rights organizations have reported around 300 female political prisoners since the Green Movement’s emergence two years ago. The accuracy of this statistic is uncertain since some women have chosen not to publicize their arrests.
We know that around 80 women’s rights activists have been arrested since 2009.  At least 34 are still in prison. Examples include student activist Bahareh Hedayat, journalist Jila Baniyaghoub, and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. Others have been temporarily released but are still waiting for their final verdicts.
Extended prison sentences and/or punishments are an issue. Before the 2009 presidential election, prison sentences were usually less than three months—a worst case scenario being two years of house arrest. But since the election, the same crimes have been punished with years of imprisonment and the number of people arrested has increased. Currently, the shortest prison sentence has been six years. Baniyaghoub, for example, has been banned from pursuing journalism for 30 years.
Circumstances in Evin Prison are also dire. All 34 women reside in one room. They have to sleep on the floor. Before the Green Movement, prison standards were far better—higher quality of food, sanitary environment, warm clothes, more living space, etc. Now, that is not the case.
  • On what grounds have female political prisoners been arrested?
They have been accused of being a threat to national security. The regime targets activists from all spheres who can in some way keep social movements alive. The regime does not want the Green Movement to benefit from any other movements. The regime has always targeted women’s rights activists but the rate greatly increased after the emergence of the Green Movement.
  • Women were at the forefront of the 2009 demonstrations that produced the Green Movement.  What is the current status of the women’s movement two years later?
Since Iran’s 2009 presidential election, the women’s movement has focused on the status of female political prisoners and the daily government crackdowns. Women’s rights activists have broadened their human rights efforts. They are pursuing their cases not just in Iranian courts, but also in the international arena in their attempt to confront state violence with non-violence.
These activists simultaneously continue to battle gender inequalities, which are getting worse. Inequalities still exist in family laws favoring men, gender segregation in universities, and the exclusion of women from educational opportunities.
  • Have the women’s rights campaigns changed since two years ago?
The Green Movement and the women’s movement have influenced each other. Before the Green Movement, the latter focused only on gender equality.
The Green Movement broadened the discourse on equal rights—which women’s rights activists had been pursuing for decades—to democracy. Religious and ethnic minorities such as the Turks, Kurds, and Arabs, and other movements, such as the labor and students movements, began to speak about civil rights. The women’s movement, for its part, worked to ensure that the discourse on democracy included issues of gender inequalities.
The women’s movement increased its activities in human rights organizations—both in Iran and internationally. There are many human rights organization in Iran but they often function in secret. They spread information through social media and various other networks.
A number of Iranian women’s rights activists, after leaving the country, now work either in international human rights organizations or have created their own organizations. One example is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former judge, who still focuses on human rights issues while residing outside Iran.
Interestingly, however, the Green Movement did not push the women’s movement from a social movement into a political movement. The women’s movement has not joined any political movements active inside or outside of Iran.
  • What is the status of the One Million Signatures Campaign, which seeks to collect one million signatures to change discriminatory laws against women in Iran?
The campaign is still functioning but has had to change tactics. It now functions underground because of the heightened government crackdown. Many of the campaign’s members have also become active in the Green Movement, helping to further democratize the opposition.

Iran Rights Activists Face Challenges from Both Sides

By Ramin Mostaghim and Roula Hajjar
Los Angeles Times
July 26, 2011

In Iran, many human rights lawyers find themselves jailed or threatened with legal action. At the same time, some are criticized by peers who say they sometimes overlook clients’ best interests in their determination to take a stand.

Reporting from Tehran and Beirut— When Iranian activist-lawyer Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, human rights activists cheered. Here was a chance for Iranians to rally around a figure for political change and reform much as Poles rallied around Lech Walesa and Burmese around Aung San Suu Kyi, both fellow laureates.

Eight years later, the small cadre of attorneys close to Ebadi and the organization she started with her prize money, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, are either in jail or threatened with legal action. The center has been outlawed.

Activists decry the detentions as a vengeful crackdown by government hard-liners who were incensed by Ebadi’s Nobel prize. But some human rights lawyers criticize their peers, saying the attorneys sometimes overlook clients’ best interests in their determination to take a stand.

Few of the lawyers have escaped the attention of the government. For the last two years, Ebadi has been in exile. Another human rights lawyer, Abdolfattah Soltani, has been in and out of prison for months since a crackdown against civil liberties intensified in the wake of the country’s disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yet another lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, has waged prison hunger strikes between sporadic court appearances. Mohammad Seifzadeh, who once represented Ebadi in court, has been in prison since April, facing a nine-year sentence.

This month, when Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Court sentenced prominent human rights activist Mohammad-Ali Dadkhah to five lashes and nine years in prison and barred him from practicing law for the next 10 years, few in the Islamic Republic even blinked.

Dadkhah, who was found guilty of spreading “propaganda against the regime” and plotting a “soft revolution,” was typically defiant about the sentence.

“Even if I am in jail, I will cheerfully advocate human rights, and those who put me in jail will be unhappy,” he said in an interview.

After Sotoudeh was imprisoned, Britain’s ambassador to Iran, Simon Gass, wrote an article for the embassy’s website in which he criticized Iran’s human rights record and called for Sotoudeh’s release, saying her “real crime” was “doing her job courageously and highlighting injustices that the Iranian regime would prefer stayed hidden.” In a Persian New Year address in March, President Obama called on Iranians to release her from jail.

Activists say Iran’s hard-liners have made good on private vows to make both the West and Ebadi’s circle pay for the Nobel, the first given to a Muslim woman or to an Iranian. They wanted to discourage those within Iran’s intelligentsia from pursuing Ebadi’s course, and to some extent they have succeeded. There appears to be no rush of lawyers taking the place of those jailed.

Some activists remain more optimistic, disagreeing that hard-liners had managed to scare lawyers away from representing controversial human rights cases.

“The center has succeeded in making defending human rights a common cause for all social groups, regardless of whether they are radical, Islamic, fundamentalist or reformist,” said Soltani, who is out of prison and is no longer facing serious charges. “We are ready to pay the price for practicing law to defend human rights, no matter how high the price is.”

But some lawyers believe that human rights defenders have played into the hands of the regime.

A well-known human rights defense lawyer who asked to remain anonymous says that his colleagues were not prudent or discreet enough given the climate in Iran over the last 10 years.

“In our job, when we practice law and defend our clients, our top priority is to save them from the death penalty and get a reduction of the sentence,” said the lawyer, who did not want to be quoted criticizing his colleagues. “We want to save our clients from the gallows. So it is not a matter of honor to speak like colonels in war fronts with Voice of America or BBC Persian, making our clients’ situation worse.”

He added: “It is not an honor to get yourself in jail. Our job as lawyers is to reduce the jail sentence of our clients. When we as defense lawyers receive applause from the USA and the European Union and their media, it is counterproductive for our clients.

“We are not here to look like heroes,” he said. “We are here to help human rights in an efficient way.”

Increasingly, the lawyers complain that they are being subjected to the same types of human rights violations they’re fighting. Soltani’s wife, Masoumeh Dehghan, received an official notification this month summoning her to the magistrate’s office inside Tehran’s menacing Evin Prison to clarify “some points,” Soltani recalled.

As soon as she arrived, she was hustled into jail and held for five days, in what Soltani believes was an attempt to show him how far authorities were willing to go to shut him up.

“My wife has never been a political activist,” he said. “She has only been active in some charities to help orphans. That’s it.”

The detention of Sotoudeh, an advocate for juvenile offenders on death row, who began serving an 11-year sentence in January, has left her two children miserable, her husband says.

“My wife is happy to do her time for 11 years and I am ready to bear it,” said Reza Khandan, Sotoudeh’s husband. “But why should my children suffer and be traumatized? As a father, it is agonizing to see this.”

He said his 2-year-old son cannot understand why he is not allowed to stay with his mother, and when their prison visits end, he “screams and cries for hours.”

When the boy asked why his mom had not yet come home, his aunt told him that he should pray, Khandan said.

But, according to his father, he replied, “Aunt, I have prayed a lot, and in vain. Praying does not work.”

Statement by the Women’s Movement In Protest of the Recent Escalation of Violence against Women in Iran

By: Change for Equality
July 2011

Physical and sexual violence against women in Iran, including violence perpetrated by state security forces, is rapidly increasing. News releases in official media, which usually censor such topics, have surprisingly reported on incidents of gang rape and assaults against women. Examples include incidents in the provinces of Isfahan (where 10 women were gang raped by 14 men), Golestan (where a village doctor was raped and assaulted by 4 men and a young girl was murdered by 2 men), and Khorasan. Reports of similar developments continue to emerge.

Following the attack and rape of a group of women, who had come together for a family gathering, in a private garden in Khomeini Shahr, by a group of thugs, the residents of the town demonstrated in front of the courthouse demanding that officials find and prosecute the perpetrators. However, the judicial officials not only remained silent, but through public declarations began to blame the victims. The local Friday prayer leader said: “the victims of rape were not proper Muslims either.” Even the head of Isfahan’s intelligence service, which is ostensibly responsible for the safety of the citizens, announced: “perhaps these women would not have been harassed in the garden if they had at least kept their veils on.” A similar comment was made by an official at Mashhad University, following a rape and assault of a young female student. The University official said: “a young woman has to maintain her hijab in order to remain safe and to avoid such incidents.”

Such statements stem from a patriarchal mentality that denies men’s responsibility for their sexual behavior. Men are seen as creatures with uncontrollable sexual desires, who are not bound by any moral sense and who could not care less about the consent of the other side. According to this mentality, the only way to prevent such incidents is to make sure that men are not sexually stimulated. This means that all responsibility for male sexual action and aggression paradoxically lies with women. However, rape occurs all over the world, regardless of the way women are dressed and even when they are fully covered in a veil. Devoid of any sympathy, government officials heartlessly pour salt on the wounds of rape victims with such comments, and in essence encourage a culture of assault and violence against women. Along these lines too, they do not describe rape as a crime but as a common sexual response to female sexuality inherent in male nature.

As feminist and anti-rape movements around the world have shown, rape is a common feature of patriarchal societies, which maintain male domination through violence against and intimidation of oppressed groups, especially women. Rape is nothing new, neither in Iran, nor in other countries. In Iran, however, the recent reports of rape and sexual assault reveal the hypocrisy of a State that attempts to present itself as a “model Islamic society” adhering to ethical and religious values. Moreover, rape is being used as a political tool of repression by the state’s security apparatus. For many years reports and testimonies have shown the prevalence of physical, sexual, psychological violence and torture against political prisoners in many of Iran’s prisons. In recent years, during and after the mass protests against Ahmadinejad’s contested re-election (June 2009), rape was used as a systematic tool to intimidate green movement protestors and other dissenters both women and men. The Kahrizak prison tragedy, the attack on Tehran University’s student dormitory, and the harassments in the basement of the Interior Ministry building are among the few incidents that were publicly disclosed. Several courageous rape survivors have broken the silence. The recent video of the testimony of a 22 year old woman released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran is one example.

These rapes have been occurring at the same time as a broader crackdown against women’s social participation is underway, intent on preventing gender equality. Reintroduction of 1980s’ policies such as gender segregation in universities, strict control over students’ dress code, applied gender quotas in academic fields to limit women’s admission, and a requirement that female students study in their home cities or regions encompass only some of the recent attacks against women. They demonstrate the extent of misogyny of the Iranian state authorities.

Police violence against women has also taken a more public face. Women have been targeted for violence on the streets under the guise of morality and under a policy called “guidance and discipline,” which includes programs such as “fighting against those inappropriately dressed,” “chastity,” or “heightening moral security.” Police have targeted, violated and humiliated women while labeling them as “improperly dressed or poorly covered.” Violence and rape committed by the police, security officers, basijis and plainclothes security forces have been supplemented by thugs disguised as government agents attacking, intimidating and raping women. Even religious leaders have been using official podiums at places such as the Friday prayers, to express their anger towards women, describing them as “biting and devouring” creatures. The regime’s insistence on maintaining an Islamic facade for the country manifests mainly through forcing hijab on women. The Islamic dress code for women is not a religious but a political symbol of sovereignty of the Islamic state, which the regime wants to maintain at the price of sexual and physical violence against women. Different fractions of the regime, regardless of their internal conflicts, come together over their hostility toward women.

However, these policies have been ineffective and have led to women’s increased resistance to police violence.

Our Demands

As women and women’s rights activists, we are protesting against systematic violence, constant insults and humiliation, and the blaming of victims for acts of sexual violence against them, by government authorities. We insist on our right to choose our clothing.

Instead of worrying about controlling women’s style of dress or their hair, we call on all Iranian authorities and responsible institutions, such as the judicial and security forces, to take their responsibilities to ensure the life and security of Iranian citizens seriously who are constantly being subject to threats and violence.

We call on the judicial and security authorities in Iran to be accountable with respect to the systematic sexual violence and rape of female and male prisoners being carried out in state prisons.

We call on judicial and security authorities as well as all religious leaders who insult women and accuse them of being guilty of provoking sexual assault, to stop these destructive accusations and use their same podiums for expressing apologies.

Victims of violence are in urgent need of medical care as well as the emotional and social support of the entire community. They are not responsible for the violence they have suffered. We therefore call on medical and social work professionals as well as the entire citizenry to treat victims of rape with sympathy and to support them in their attempt to return to their normal lives.

We ask Mr. Ahmad Shahid, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, to call attention to discrimination and violence against women in Iran and pay his respect to them by arranging meetings with women activists and rape survivors on his visit to the country.

As a first step, while protesting the recent escalation of violence against women in Iran, we, as Iranian women, affirm our solidarity with our sisters in the region and the rest of the world and with the global campaigns for ending sexual, physical, gender-based and police violence. In honor of our collective struggle, we put on purple bracelets as a symbol of our voices all over the world and in protest to violence against women.

Arab Spring exposes Nasrallah’s hypocrisy

by Hamid Dabashi

(originally published on al-Jazeera)

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

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

Deja vu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hypocrisy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promoting democracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

من يخاف من أحلام جعفر بناهي؟

ت. 1960) ومجموعة من زملاءه عن محكمة إيرانية في العشرين من ديسمبر الماضي. والتهمة المساقة هي تشويه صورة إيران والقيام بدعاية مغرضة ضد النظام. نظام يبدو أنه أفلس إلى هذه الدرجة فأصبح يخاف من أفلام بناهي التي تتناول بالدرجة الاولى قضايا إجتماعية. وكأن هذا النظام يريد أن يطلق رصاصة تغتال أحلام جعفر بناهي، الأحلام المستوحاة من الواقع، كما يقول في الرسالة التي وجهها إلى مهرجان البرليناله السينمائي (إنعقد بين  10-20 فبراير 2011).

بدت إزابيلا روسوليني، رئيسة لجنة التحكيم الرئيسية في مهرجان هذا العام، تغالب دموعها وهي تقرأ رسالة المخرج الايراني جعفر بناهي عضو لجنة التحكيم الغائب في حفل إفتتاح المهرجان في العاشر من الشهر الجاري أمام جمع من السينمائيين الاوربيين والعالميين كالأخوين كوين. فصدع صوت التصفيق في القاعة حالما إنتهت من قراءة رسالته، تلك القاعة  التي تتسع لأكثر من الف شخص ووقف الجميع تحية لهذا المخرج الذي بقي كرسيه كعضو في لجنة تحكيم هذا العام خالياً، إلا من اليافطة التي تحمل هذا الإسم. كما خصصت الكثير من الصحف الألمانية تغطية واسعة ضمن صفحاتها لهذا المخرج وأعماله. 

في فبراير من عام 2010 أعلن منظمو مهرجان البرليناله عن نيتهم إستضافة بناهي في مهرجان هذا العام كعضو في لجنة التحكيم. بعد فترة وجيزة من هذا الإعلان ألقي القبض عليه وبدأت محاكمته في إيران ليصدر حكم بحقه وبحق مجموعة أخرى من العاملين في مجال السينما كانت تعمل معه. بناهي طوى خمس عقود من حياته. كرس حوالي الثلاث منها للسينما كمنتج ومخرج وحصلت أفلامه على جوائز عالمية.

درس بناهي الذي ينحدر من أصول أذربيجانية الإخراج التلفزيوني والسينمائي في طهران وعمل كمساعد مخرج مع المخرج الإيراني الشهير عباس كيروستامي. في عام 95 كان أول تتويج عالمي لأعماله في مهرجان كان حينما حصل فيلمه ”البالون الأبيض“ على جائزة الكاميرا الذهبية، تلاها حصوله  عام 97 على جائزة مهرجان لوكارنو عن فيلمه ”المرآة“ ومن ثم عام  2000 حصوله على جائزة الأسد الذهبي في مهرجان البندقية عن فيلمه ”الدائرة“. وفي عام 2006 حصل على جائزة الدب الفضي في مهرجان البرليناله عن فيمله ”اوفسايد“.

يبدو بأن النظام الايراني على حافة الافلاس! وإلا لماذا يعتقل ويوجه تهمة لبناهي بأنه كان يخطط لإعداد فيلم عن الثورة الخضراء  التي كان قد دعمها بصراحة؟ كما أيد بناهي موسوي بعد الإنتخابات الأخيرة. هذا السينمائي الذي قبض عليه هو وزوجته وابنته في مارس في العام الماضي وسجن دون أي محاكمة أو تهمة توجه إليه لمدة ثلاث اشهر لم يتوقف عن رفع شعار الحرية. فدخل في إضراب عن الطعام ولم يفرج عنه إلا في شهر يونيو بكفالة تصل قيمتها إلى 200 الف دولار أمريكي وكان قد فقد الكثير من وزنه بعد الإضراب عن الطعام ليبدو كالهيكل العظمي عندما خرج بعد سجنه. كما منع من مغادرة إيران إلى أن تتم محاكمته. فكانت المحاكمة في ديسمبر والحكم بالسجن ومحاولة لإغتيال أحلامه، كما ألمح هو. هذه الأحلام تحدث عنها بناهي في رسالته الموجهة إلى جمهور مهرجان البرليناله مع العلم أن ذلك ربما يكون له عواقب وخيمة إضافية عليه وعلى عائلته.

ولعل بناهي يجد عزاء في حصول مخرج إيراني آخر وهو أصغر فرهادي على جائزة الدب الذهبي هذا العام عن فيلمه ”طلاق نادروسيمين“. حاول فرهادي توجيه كلمة حذرة تحية لجعفر بناهي ربما لأنه يعرف أنه بعد ساعات قليله سيكون هو الآخر بين مخالب النظام الإيراني.

لعل المخرج الإيراني لن يحتاج عشرين عاماً أخرى من الإنتظار كي يسمح له بعمل فيلم أخر. ألم نقل بعد الثورة التونسية أن ما حدث في تونس لا يمكن أن يحدث في مصر! فلنقل إذا أن ما حدث في مصر لا يمكن، إلا أن يحدث في إيران وكل على طريقته.

هنا كلمة جعفر بناهي التي قرأتها إزابيلا روسليني في إفتتاحية مهرجان برلين السينمائي البرليناله مترجمة إلى العربية نقلاً عن الألمانية عن موقع البرليناله :”في عالم صانع السينما يتمازج الحلم والواقع ببعضهما البعض. ويستغل صانع السينما الواقع كينبوع للإلهام، فيرسم الواقع بألوان من نسج خياله. وبهذا ينتج فيلماً يحمل آماله وأحلامه بين طياته ويجعلها مرئية للعالم.

الواقع هو أنني منعت من مزاولة مهنتي كمخرج دون أي محاكمة وذلك منذ خمس سنوات. والآن تمت محاكمتي بشكل رسمي ومنعت للعشرين سنة القادمة من مزاولة هذه المهنة. وعلى الرغم من ذلك سأستمر بخيالي في تحقيق أحلامي وصنع أفلام بهذا الخيال مستوحاة من هذه الأحلام. كصانع أفلام تتناول بالدرجة الأولى قضايا إجتماعية، علي أن اتعامل مع الوضع الجديد، الذي يفرض علي ألا اصور مشاكل وهموم الحياة اليومية لأبناء شعبي. إلا أنني لن أتوقف عن الحلم بأن جميع هذه المشاكل بعد عشرين عاماً ستختفي وأنني سأتمكن عندئذ، من إخراج أفلام عن السلام والرفاه الإجتماعي في بلدي.

الحقيقة أنهم يمنعونني ولمدة عشرين عاماً من التفكير والكتابة. لكنهم لن يتمكنوا من منعي من الحلم وستحل الحرية والتفكير الحر مكان الملاحقات. ولعشرين عاماً سيمنعونني من أن أطل على العالم ولكن أتمنى بعد أن أخرج من السجن أن أسافر عبر عالم، تكون قد سقطت فيه الحدود الجغرافية والعرقية والايديولوجية. عالم يعيش فيه الناس سواسية وبسلام دون الإلتفات إلى عقائدهم ومعتقداتهم.

حكم علي بالسكوت لمدة عشرين عاماً ولكن في أحلامي أصرخ باحثاً عن زمن نكون فيه متسامحين مع بعضنا البعض، زمن نحترم فيه آراءنا المختلفة ونعيش واحداً من أجل الأخر. في نهاية الأمر يقضي الحكم علي بأن أقضي ست سنوات وراء القضبان. في السنوات الست القادمة سأعيش مع الأمل، بأن تتحقق أحلامي. أتمنى أن يقوم زملائي المخرجين في كل زاوية من العالم، بإخراج أفلام عظيمة بهذه الفترة بحيث أشعر بالحماس والرغبة في العيش في هذا العالم الذي حلموا به بأعمالهم.

من الآن فصاعداً وللعشرين عاماً القادمة حكم علي بالسكوت. وأجبر بأن لا أرى وأجبر على ألا أفكر. وأجبر على ألا أصنع أفلاماً. ساواجه الواقع والسجن وأتمنى بعد تحريري أن أشاهد أحلامي في أفلامكم :  على أمل أن أجد هناك ما سلب مني.“

جعفر بناهي

Interview with “Leila” on Torture in Iran

Web Exclusive: Extended interview with “Leila” on torture in Iran
BY CIR   |   CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING   |   JUNE 10, 2011

PBS NEWSHOUR and the Center for Investigative Reporting mark the two-year anniversary of Iran’s “Green Movement” with an exclusive report about the government crackdown that followed. The report features the courageous work of an Iranian journalist and the first, heart-wrenching accounts of women demonstrators who say once arrested, they were raped, beaten and tortured by the Iranian government. Watch the full report on PBS NewsHour.

CIR editors had the full interview with “Leila” translated. What follows is an excerpt. For reasons of safety CIR has decided to not reveal the identities of the interviewer and person interviewed.

I was an ordinary person and a student who was detained for no reason.

That day I wasn’t part of any protest. I was returning home from the university. They harassed me, abused me, tortured me.

They constantly deny any act of torture on TV, but that’s exactly what they did to me. I want to tell the whole world, it wasn’t just me, but many people.

They arrested me and put me in a van. Along the way they hit us with batons, harassed us, and cursed us. They were policemen wearing uniforms with large builds, wearing hoods disguising their faces, you could only see their eyes and mouths. They had ripped off their name tags from their uniforms. Their uniforms, batons, shields and equipment were all similar. It was inside a van like those of morality police, they hit us and insulted us.

Among them was a young boy, his mustache hadn’t even grown yet, he wasn’t a man. He touched us all over with lust, on my breasts, other women’s breasts, wherever he wanted. No one dared to challenge him. A woman who protested, he turned and slapped her on the face. We all fell silent.

There was a guy filming us constantly with a handycam from all directions. They transferred us to a place that was like a warehouse. I didn’t see much of it, just that it had tall walls and a high ceiling like a warehouse. They wouldn’t exchange a word with each other, nothing whatsoever. They are such fearful people that [they wouldn’t speak] in front of someone like me, who is a nobody. I have the strength only now. Why didn’t I speak out before? I didn’t have the ability to speak out.

I am an ordinary person who decided to speak out more than a year after what happened to me. Go try find someone like me who would be willing to give an interview. They don’t exist, they don’t have the strength because they fear another round of torture and trouble. No one would come forward and say these things.

If our captors weren’t scared they wouldn’t have heaped this misfortune on us. I am not a very religious person but I do believe in something. They shattered my soul such that I say “Damn God!” Because what had I done? What had I done to deserve this? All I had done was to give one vote and that was to Mousavi. A vote that was never counted, never!

The dragged us on the floor, not even asking us to stand and walk. They dragged us like potato sacks into hallways made of curtains.

They gave us typed up pages, with the standard bureaucratic font. And what was written on those pages? It said that I had committed acts I had absolutely never done. I was to copy from those pages that I am a rioter, I have endangered national security, I did this and that, and I am a terrorist! I didn’t even have nail clippers in my purse, for them to say I had anything remotely sharp or dangerous. I only had my books and pens coming from the university.

They separated us into groups of five here, five there. It was the same boy who was groping us in the van, he separated us. For example, he said I was one of the pretty ones and should go to one side.

They shaved all our heads. I used to have log hair. He grabbed my hair in his hand like this. A man! It was a man shaving my hair, a man giving me a body search, a man touching me all over. There were no women there.

He would purposely hurt me while shaving me, to give me marks on my head.

While he was shaving me, he was touching me all over. I wasn’t sitting on a chair. He held me like this and grabbed my head while his legs were feeling me.

Five of us were taken to a cell. A tiny cell. Some earlier detainees were also there. I was really tired, bruised, my face all cut up, totally devastated. They held us there until they supposedly clarified our status.

We were in that tiny room for 18 hours. I desperately needed to go to the bathroom. The pressure was really hurting me. I felt my bladder would burst. I was nauseous, thirsty. I had read in human rights books that detainees have certain rights. But I didn’t have the most basic rights like going to the bathroom or drinking water. I didn’t the right to a lawyer, or to call my parents to say where I was and not to worry.

I didn’t have any appetite for food but I wished I could call my father. That was much more important to me. To say “Father dear, I am here and need someone to come help me.”

It wasn’t like they would tell us confess to this or that and then go free. They wanted to keep us in such limbo, to reach a point where you say enough. You would say I would do anything to get out of this.

With our hands tied, our eyes covered and hoods over our heads, they transferred us to a detention center. I couldn’t tell where it was. Not just me, no one had any idea where we were.

What haunted me the most was the groping, more than the insults. Their groping was torture.

As they groped us they would invoke Saint Zahra. Could you imagine that? Could Saint Zahra believe such things?

In the name of Saint Fatima, Saint Zahra they touched us and they even said “In the name of God” as they did it. They would say “Oh God accept us!” As if it was our wedding and he was performing his rituals preparing for the marital bed.

I detest the phrase vigilante forces that the government uses. How could they be vigilante if they have serious backing and protection? No! they were no vigilantes. All the papers and forms had seals of the Judiciary and Intelligence Ministry. You think I am a little kid to believe these people could be vigilantes? I am no kid! I have seen it all … killing people and claiming it was vigilantes!

They took us to a detention center. This was more like a proper detention center, not a warehouse. This time they took me into a solitary cell. I figured out that before and after interrogations they throw you in solitary confinement, so when you are done you don’t share your experience with others.

After a short time, about 20 minutes, they took me to the interrogation room. My hands were tied behind my back, I was blindfolded and gagged. The room was dark and the door opened. I heard steps. Someone sat in front of me.

“So you are a rioter! So you are undermining the State! Who you think you are? Who are you with?” I was gagged. He said “Why are you not talking?” I teared up.

I said “I am not with anyone.” He said “Shut up, speak when I tell you.” I was trembling all over. I felt my body tense up. I was so defenseless. He went on and on saying “Who are you with? You want to overthrow the State?” I said “How can I? I am not capable.” He said “Oh, yeah? You putting on a show? You think I am going to listen to you like others?” I kept silent. Next question: “What do you do?” I said “I am a student.” He said “No you are not. From now on don’t say you are a student.”

Suddenly I felt he was sitting on my legs. I couldn’t breathe from his weight. I was scared silent. I could feel his breathing on my face.

The first thing he did was lick my face. I felt my life drained. I felt my whole being escaping out of my mouth. He started to pull my clothes off. My hands bound, my eyes covered, I started crying. He shouted “Shut up whore!” Then he opened my bra and took my clothes off. He was stroking and hitting me at the same time. Saying “I will do something to you that you’ll never forget. I’ll make it so you never leave your house again. Anytime hear my name you’ll tremble, I’ll drive you insane”… and he did. He raped me.

Me, who never had a boyfriend. He raped me. Not with a baton … it was his filthy thing … his ugly male instrument. He raped me. Afterwards he urinated on me. The smell nauseated me. After a while he walked away and I was left with my sorrows. What happened? I was told from childhood to protect [my virginity] and now it was gone. What happened? I was in shock. After a while someone else came and meanwhile I had wet myself.

When he came he smacked me in my face and said, “You filthy scum you have stunk up the place!” Then he called some guy to come over and mop the floor. Then he went out and dragged something into the room, and sat in front of me. I could hear crinkling. He started unwrapping something. I didn’t know what, but when he flicked his lighter I realized he wanted to smoke. Until then he hadn’t said anything. I sat there with my hands tied. I sensed, I mean I heard, he put the cigarette to his mouth, and lit it. He said, “You are not talking? Are you mute? I’ll make you talk, who do you think you are?”

He untied my hands and started caressing me as if he wanted to make love. I had no feelings, I was numb from the beatings. Then something burned me. I screamed. He extinguished his cigarette on my left hand. I screamed. It hurt. It hurt a lot. I felt it penetrate to my bone. A hole in my hand. It burned, as if my hand was seared against a hot kettle… He still wasn’t done. He extinguished another cigarette on my knee. I was still consumed in the pain, when he put out another on my breast. I sensed it. I didn’t see it.

I keep using the verb “see” but I didn’t see anything, I was feeling everything. He put one cigarette after another on my body. I was burning. I felt my life drain from my veins. Why me? How much can I endure? How much should I suffer? I got quiet. I was crying. Someone else came into the room. I could hear the steps. He said something that I could not process. I was just raped an hour ago, and he said, “I’ve heard you are not a virgin. Did you do it with your boyfriend? How many guys have you been with?” In my heart I screamed, “You just raped me, you took my innocence, and now you are asking me how many guys I have been with? Before, I was a girl! You did this to me!”

I couldn’t comprehend that they were saying this. Me, who was a girl, living in this rotten society. I was someone who would tell off a guy who got too comfortable in the taxi cab next to me! Now he was telling me, “You had fun with your boyfriend? When they brought you here your hymen was broken Which whorehouse do you come from? Are you a prostitute?” I couldn’t talk. I wanted to say, “It was your friends who raped me, it was you! You all! Before this I was a girl!”

I didn’t know how long I was there. I fell asleep. A kick to the stomach suddenly woke me up. I felt like my stomach filled with blood. I tasted blood in my mouth. They cursed and pulled me out of the cell. I could not breathe. I didn’t know how long had passed. I felt drowsy, I couldn’t walk, I fell unconscious and when I woke up I thought I was in a clinic, but I wasn’t. The walls were dirty. They wanted to give me an IV, but I didn’t let them. I was scared it was infected with AIDs. They just dressed my cigarette burns.

I could smell blood, I was still drowsy. I didn’t feel well. They took my back to the cell. I don’t know how much time passed. One week, two weeks. Every other day it was the same routine. They would take me into the room, they would beat me, rape me, they would pour their sperm and excrement on me, and they would supposedly wash me with a bucket of water.

They didn’t extinguish cigarettes on me anymore, maybe they thought it would leave marks. They mostly beat me. I got an infection because of the repeated rapes. My uterus got infected, it smelled, I had little ugly bumps, I thought it was syphilis. I got treated, but I was never sent to the hospital. When I got back, my parents just took care of me at home.

I suffered many things during those days, and then later I was still tortured by the remaining pain. My uterus was polluted and sick. My spirit was crushed. Me, who was an active person, I was scared of crowds. I don’t know how many times they raped me. I didn’t have a watch to calculate. May be it was ten minutes, but for someone under such stress ten minutes is like a lifetime. I just know the number of rapes was very high, and it wasn’t always the same person.

They had handed my belongings to my father. They called him from my mobile and told him that we have arrested her. They told him she was one of the demonstrators. They showed him the file that I had handwritten and my father pursued my case. They kept us in limbo for so long that we no longer asked them when they would release me. This whole time I told myself to be strong. Be calm. In one instance, it will all be over. Death was my wish. I wanted to die. I wanted it all be over. I wanted to die in my sleep. I wanted peace. I prayed that I no longer existedI wanted to die.

In my dreams my only wish was death. In my dreams I was running in a field in a white dress. That field was so beautiful. It reminded me of a trip with my family, it was a beautiful memory. Those days I never thought one day I would be able to sit here and say what happened. To say what happened to me, to others. We are not Nasrin Sotoudeh, so that someone would come to our rescue. We are not Nasrin Sotoudeh, so that our voice would be heard. No one knows my name, no one knows where I am, no one, no one came to look for me.

When Neda died, all of Iran, the whole world, heard about it. But no one knew when they were raping me, when they were torturing me, when they were burning me with cigarettes.

I told myself one day I would speak so the whole world could hear. I would speak, I had promised myself. I signed in blood, a promise stronger than the bond of marriage. Unbreakable. I told myself that I would do it and I did it.

There are many of us, people that, because of their reputation and because of their life, they don’t speak up. People who are out there, people like me. Believe me, they are out there. They need you. All of you. Don’t let people like me suffer. It already happened to me, I’m only 22, but I feel old and I feel like dying. Please stop them. Please stop them. How did you help others? Please do it for us too. Us, who fear our reputation. If they see this video, what they will do to me? But I’m here. I’m speaking because I have to. Those who hear this, those who are like me, you have to speak. They have to understand. The whole world has to understand that there are those of us who are invisible.

Egyptian Activist’s Message to Iranians: Learn From Egyptians, As We Learned From You

by:  Wael Ghonim

Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian activist hailed by observers worldwide as a hero and one of the leaders of the Egyptian uprising, talked to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and thanked the people of Iran for organizing a demonstration on 14 February in solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia, and thanked the Iranian civil rights movement.

Ghonim played a major role in organizing the protests that have shaken Egypt for the past two weeks. His Facebook page is widely credited with inviting Egyptians to their first public protest on 25 January.  Wael Ghonim has appeared with a green wristband during his public speeches and interviews. As the peaceful protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran came to be known as the “Green Movement,” Ghonim’s green wristband has become a source of interest for Iranians.

When asked by the Campaign whether the motivation behind his green wristband is Iran’s Green Movement, he said: “That was just a coincidence, but I’m happy you guys made the connection!”

“I would tell Iranians to learn from the Egyptians, as we have learned from you guys, that at the end of the day with the power of people, we can do  whatever we want to do.  If we unite our goals, if we believe, then all our dreams can come true,” is the prominent Egyptian activist’s message to Iranians on the threshold of the 14 February demonstrations.

Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who took time off from his job to be in Cairo during the protests, was freed last Monday after being held by Egyptian authorities for 10 days. He is one of the best known speakers for the Egyptian people’s movement.

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