Talk Notes from Kieran Flynn Memorial Lecture Series on Islam in the West

 

The silence around feminism and religion is a profound one, and I think some of its roots lie in the narrative of secularism and its influence on feminism in both the academy and in feminist social movements. I think the silence functions to highlight a difficulty in approaching the subject of female autonomy in relation to religion, but also indicates a negativity towards religion on the part of feminist scholars –justified or not.

Although there has been a significant amount of work on religion and patriarchy (Dominance of a society by men, or the values that uphold such dominance.) as well as on agency, autonomy, and gender; there has less on the subject of women, religion and autonomy. Continue reading

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Ending Zionism is a feminist issue

by: Nada Elia

from The Electronic Intifada

As Israel’s assault on the besieged Palestinian population in Gaza approaches its third week, we continue to hear about the “disproportionate number” of women and children victims. This expression begs the question: what is a proportionate number of women and children killed in a genocide?

As Jadaliyya’s Maya Mikdashi asks in her op-ed titled “Can Palestinian men be victims?”, if a significant majority of the killed were adult men, would Israel’s crimes be lesser?

A different analysis of gendered violence is necessary: one that recognizes that no “proportions” are acceptable because all deaths should be mourned, while providing the tools for a differential understanding of the manifestations of violence.

Rape calls

The feminist network INCITE! Women and Trans People of Color Against Violence has always understood that state violence is both racialized and gendered.

Zionism is a prime example of that; it is a racist ideology grounded in the privileging of one ethno-religious group over all others.

When a state views a population — its dispossessed, disenfranchised and occupied indigenous population — as a ”demographic threat,” that view is fundamentally both racist and gendered.

Racist population control relies specifically on violence against women. So it is not surprising that Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli military intelligence officer turned academic, would matter-of-factly suggest this week that “raping the wives and mothers of Palestinian combatants” would deter attacks by Hamas militants.

Similarly, Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked did not attempt to present the murder of Palestinian children and their mothers as unfortunate, disproportionate “collateral damage” — she openly called for it by asserting that Palestinian women must be killed too, because they give birth to “little snakes.”

This comment reflects an Israeli infrastructure designed to sustain high rates of miscarriages by blocking basic resources such as water and medical supplies, forcing women in labor to wait at military checkpoints on their way to a hospital, and generally creating inhumane and unlivable conditions for Palestinians.

This latest murderous attack on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has not only taken the lives of hundreds of Palestinians, but it has also increased miscarriages, pre-term labor and stillbirths.

Ethiopian-Israeli women, most of them Jewish, have also been subject to mandatory contraceptive injections without their consent.

Ending Zionism is a feminist and a reproductive justice issue.

Liberating women?

Of course, gendered violence as a tool for settler-colonialism is not a new strategy; settler-colonialism, patriarchy and official hypocrisy usually go hand in hand.

Nineteenth-century France claimed to be liberating Algerian women even as it torched entire villages and towns. The proverbial colonial white man would have us believe that he was acting on the selfless impulse to save brown women from brown men, even as the colonial power he served impoverished entire countries.

Algerian women were certainly no better off as result of French colonialism; in fact, their circumstances deteriorated significantly.

The George W. Bush administration gave itself a pat on the back for supposedly liberating women in Afghanistan from the Taliban. Yet we see throughout history, and not just in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Algeria or Palestine, that wars have never liberated women and gender nonconforming people of color.

New brand of hypocrisy

Today, Israel has developed a new brand of this hypocrisy, as it claims that it is more civilized than the Palestinian people because it is supposedly a more “gay-friendly” country. This is pinkwashing, Israel’s attempt to distract from its ongoing human rights violations by pointing to its supposedly better gay rights record.

But that record, once again, is racist.

Any Jewish citizen of Israel can and must serve in the Israeli occupation forces, but these are the murderous forces engaging in the genocide of the Palestinian people.

Does it make for a more moral army if some of its killer soldiers are openly gay? Stop to think of who the purveyor of the greater violence is. Who is denying Palestinian women, children, gays, lesbians, trans people and straight men their most basic rights — freedom of movement, safety, shelter, food, a home, life? One has to acknowledge that the guilty party is “civilized” Israel, not Palestinian heteropatriarchy.

War — militarism — is a hyper-masculinist activity that glorifies and rewards all violence, including gendered violence, and a soldier trained in violence cannot put that violence aside when he or she gets home.

All of Israeli society is trained in violence. And violence is not a pair of combat boots one can leave at the door; violence becomes second nature (unless it was first nature, in which case it is further aggravated) and the entire community that engages in warfare is a more violent community — not just at the war front.

Joint struggle

This is what we are witnessing today, as we have observed it again and again every time Israel escalates its assault on the Palestinian people.

As for Palestinians, there are no battlefronts, no “war zones.” All of historic Palestine is the battlefront as mobs of Israelis take to the streets in violent rampages.

This realization has always been at the very core of INCITE’s analysis. We understand that in situations of settler-colonialism, indigenous women, trans people and gender non-conforming people bear the brunt of a nexus of racism and sexism. We are engaging in a joint struggle, from India to the Arab world to South West Asia, to Africaand the Americas, for the dignity and full sovereignty of indigenous people.

This is why INCITE! endorsed, in 2010, the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and remains committed to the grassroots struggle against state-sponsored violence against the entire Palestinian people.

Nada Elia served on the Steering Collective of INCITE! Women and Trans People of Color Against Violence when it endorsed boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and is currently serving on the organizing collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).

Occupy Gezi: The Limits of Turkey’s Neoliberal Success

by Cihan Tugal

from Jadaliyya

There are two telling, though widely neglected, details about what initiated and popularized the groundbreaking protests in Taksim Square, Istanbul: the protests started out as a response to the governing neoliberal party’s project of urban transformation or urban renewal; yet, urban questions quickly took a backseat as the protests became massive. Understanding these two facets of the mobilization sheds much light on what is happening in Turkey and why.

What the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) disingenuously calls “urban transformation” is the demolition of public places, green areas, and historical sites, as well as the displacement of poor populations, in order to rebuild the city in the image of capital. All these unwanted spaces (and people) are being replaced by malls, skyscrapers, office spaces, and glossy remakes of historical buildings. Resistance against this project has been unfolding for quite a while, mostly out of sight for the national and international mainstream media. The lack of media interest or mainstream hostility is only partially to blame for covering up these past resistances. The governing party, with its cleverly crafted hegemonic apparatus, has been quite tactful in dividing and marginalizing protest. For instance, whenever squatter populations were removed, they were selectively paid: homeowners (rather than tenants); the better-connected families; the politics-prone people in the neighborhoods were compensated generously; dispersing the capacity to resist. When money did not do the trick, the new regime planted seeds of sectarian and ethnic division. When all else failed, the squatters faced heavy-handed police repression. Only one neighborhood in the huge Istanbul metropolitan area was able to withstand all of these pressures and consistently resist the project. But the exceptions proved to be the rule: urban transformation, even though it is a project that influences millions of people, was only resisted in pockets, rather than at the level of the entire city (let alone the whole country, where it was implemented with lesser severity, but still comprehensively, destroying rural as well as urban livelihood and health, despite the misleading “urban” title).

The protests in and around Taksim seemed to be adding to the chains of isolated resistances. When intellectuals and artists recently mobilized against the demolition of first a café and then a historical movie theater in Istiklal Caddesi, they appeared to be fighting a rearguard elite battle, focusing on sites that were of little interest to the popular classes. Each protest would remain marginalized either in elite or squatter corners of the city, until police brutally cracked down on several dozen protesters who wanted to protect the last green area (Gezi Parkı) in Istanbul’s main entertainment square, Taksim. The will to save this park from turning into a mall initiated Occupy Gezi.

Popularization and the Expanding Protest Agenda

Initially, thousands flocked to the square in solidarity with those attacked. As a result, police brutality moved to the top of the agenda. Still, during the first day of popularization, talk about urban transformation was prominent. In a couple of days, however, the focus on police violence, the increasing authoritarianism of the AKP, and the persistent lack of democracy in Turkey marginalized the focus on urban issues. Many tweets and other information circulating on the web emphasized that the protests were “not about a couple of trees, but about democracy.” This was a very crude and ultimately counterproductive rhetorical opposition. The significance of that bunch of trees was that they had fallen, temporarily, outside of economic logic in a country where everything came to be bought and sold freely.

Nevertheless, there are still banners that insist on emphasizing the trees, not only as a symbol of nature, but also of the popular democratic uprising. This is much truer to the initial spirit of the protests. Occupy Gezi has started as a revolt of people who reject being focused on money around the clock. This brings them in confrontation with the government and the police force, who wipe out everything in the path of marketization. The trees are the symbols of unity between the targeted squatters, the students with grim job prospects, the striking workers and civil servants, the intellectuals, and nature. But we should understand that there are also strong dynamics that decenter the focus on urban transformation.

The Context for Intensified Repression

Some elements within the government made a very risky calculation during the last few months. The government has been preparing Turkey for a regional war and needs a unified country with no threatening opposition in such crucial times. This is why after a decade of persistent marginalization it reached out to the Kurds. The Turkish rulers (quite reasonably, it would seem) saw the Kurds as the only force that could stop the government in its tracks. With the Kurds on their side, the calculation went, they could divide, marginalize, and repress the rest of the population, which was already much more disorganized when compared to the Kurds. The peace process with the Kurds also gave the government the chance to win back many liberals, who had been disillusioned ever since 2010. With its renewed hegemonic bloc, elements in the new regime felt that they could easily silence everybody else. The governing party thus intensified police brutality and some other conservative measures (such as tightened regulations of alcohol). People outside of this renewed bloc–whether elite, middle-class, or lower class; secular or Alevi; man or woman; right-wing nationalist or socialist–have been feeling under threat. When Occupy Gezi turned into an anti-police protest, hundreds of thousands therefore joined in to voice their frustration with increasing authoritarianism.

This naturally brings into the picture a lot of people who have been benefiting from urban transformation as well. Some of these people have not had any problem with police brutality and authoritarianism either, as long as it was channeled against workers, Kurds, socialists, or Alevis. Some of them are chanting extreme nationalist slogans throughout Istanbul and Turkey. It needs to be emphasized that these groups are overlapping circles: there is no necessary unity among these factions, though almost everybody calls them “ulusalcı” (extreme nationalist) as a shorthand. Despite government propaganda, they constitute the minority around Taksim Square, but are certainly the majority in better-off parts of the city. There are more organized nationalists among them who want to hijack the protests. Yet most of these disjointed masses do not even understand the protests and issues that initiated the protests. They are in it mostly as a way to defend their own interests and lifestyles. These people do not define the Gezi movement, but have already muddied the waters.  Occupy Gezi has become much stronger partially due to their participation, but its national and international message risks being less clear now.

Stumbling Blocks

The people who initiated the protests (and are now in control of Taksim) are well aware of these dangers, as some of them are activists with years of experience. The public declarations they issue squarely focus on urban transformation, police brutality, and authoritarianism, though these declarations get lost in the muddle of huge protests throughout the country. These experienced activists are coming up against two stumbling blocks:

First, there, are the structural issues and successful hegemonic political moves that have so far divided protests against urban transformation. It is still very difficult, due to reasons which I hope to analyze elsewhere, to construct one consistent block against urban transformation with an alternative vision of development, urbanization, and nature. Class, culture, locality, and much else cut off the people who are suffering from urban transformation from each other. Unlike the governing party and its technicians, who have a bird’s-eye view of how the suffering is connected, they know very little of each other. It is not easy to both sustain andpopularize Occupy Gezi if it remains integrating urban questions.

Second, and perhaps as big of an issue, is Turkey’s peace process with the Kurds. The government and its liberal allies spread the propaganda that the current demonstrations are against the peace process. Actually, it is not hard to believe that some of the disjointed Turkish masses pointed out above were partially motivated with an opposition against peace with the Kurds (as well as many other things, including alcohol regulations). However, the groups who are still in control of Taksim have defended peace for decades, when the Turkish state (including the new regime) was fighting its bloody battles against the Kurds. In this context, dishonesty would be a light word for the liberal ideologues of the new regime who accuse the protests of warmongering. Yet, even though there are many Kurdish activists in Taksim today (along with hundreds of others mobilized elsewhere in support of the protests), most Kurds have not joined the protests, out of fear that they will eventually derail the peace process. Nobody can blame them, as Kurds have been paying a high price for a long time. One of Occupy Gezi’s most difficult tasks will be finding a way to draw the Kurds in without alienating a crushing majority of the non-leftists who have given the movement a part of its life force. This is a multi-class and cross-ideological movement against authoritarianism and marketization. The movement has no reason to exclude some upper-middle class and elite factions (who unevenly benefit and suffer from marketization and authoritarianism), but these latter might willingly opt out if the Kurds weigh in (which is a small likelihood to begin with).

Occupy Gezi sits in a privileged position when confronting these issues. On the one hand, unlike Occupy Wall Street and other similar movements throughout the West, many of the activists do not reject traditional forms of political organization and calculation (even though such sentiments are widespread among some of the younger leading protesters in Taksim). Such abstentionism from formal politics cost dearly to Western movements of the last couple of years. Unlike Arab protesters, on the other hand, Turkish and Kurdish activists have been living and breathing under a semi-democracy, so have a lot of everyday political experience under their belts. In short, “the leaderless revolution” has not arrived in Turkey. The disadvantage of Occupy Gezi, though, is that it is facing a much more hegemonic neoliberal regime when compared to the Western and Arab regimes. Turkish conservatives have been much more successful in building a popular base and a militant (but pragmatic) liberal-conservative intelligentsia (when compared to their fanatical and shallow counterparts in the West, not even to speak of their inexperienced counterparts in the Arab world). This consent is multi-dimensional and integrates compromises and articulations at ideological, religious, political and economic levels. The demobilization and counter-mobilization that neoliberal hegemony could generate cannot be taken lightly.

If the Turkish and Kurdish activists find innovative ways of overcoming these hurdles, Turkey will have the potential of adding a new twist to the post-2011 global wave of revolt.

Saudi Women: “I Will Drive Myself Starting June 17”

في العربية

Us women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are the ones who will lead this society towards change. While we failed to deliver through our voices, we will not fail to deliver through our actions. We have been silent and under the mercy of our guardian (muhram) or foreign driver for too long. Some of us barely make ends meet and cannot even afford cab fare. Some of us are the heads of households yet have no source of income except for a few hard-earned [Saudi] Riyals that are used to pay drivers. Then there are those of us who do not have a muhram to look after our affairs and are forced to ask strangers for help. We are even deprived of public transportation, our only salvation from being under the mercy of others. We are your daughters, wives, sisters, and mothers. We are half of society and give birth to [the other] half, yet we have been made invisible and our demands have been marginalized. We have been deliberately excluded from your plans! Therefore, the time has come to take the initiative. We will deliver a letter of complaint to our father the King of Humanity and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques calling on him to support the Women of June 17.

We have searched for laws that prohibit women in Saudi Arabia from exercising their right to drive their own vehicle but have not found anything that points to such [a prohibition] in Saudi traffic laws. Therefore, what we will do cannot be considered a violation of the law. We therefore have decided that beginning on Friday the 15th of Rajab, 1432, which corresponds to the 17th of June, 2011:

  • Every women in possession of an international driver’s license or one from another country will begin driving her car herself whether to reach her place of work, drop her children off at school, or attend to her daily needs.
  • We will take photographs and videotapes of ourselves driving our cars and post them to our Facebook page in order to support our cause: I will drive starting June 17
  • We will adhere to the dress code (hijab) while driving.
  • We will obey the traffic laws and will not challenge the authorities if we are stopped for questioning.
  • If we are pulled over we will firmly demand to be informed of which laws have been violated. Until now there is not one traffic law that prohibits a woman from driving her own vehicle herself.
  • We do not have destructive goals and will not congregate or protest, nor will we raise slogans. We have no leaders or foreign conspirators. We are patriots and we love this country and will not accept that which encroaches on its security and safety. All that is involved [in this matter] is that we will begin to exercise our legitimate right.
  • We will not stop exercising this right until you find us a solution. We have spoken out on too many occasions and no one has listened to us. The time for solutions has come. We want women’s driving schools. We want Saudi drivers’ licenses [for women] like all other countries in the world. We want to live a complete form of citizenship without the humiliation and degradation that we are [currently] subjected to everyday because of our dependence on a driver.
  • We will launch volunteer campaigns to offer free driving lessons for women beginning on the date that this announcement is issued and we wish for everyone to support us.

To review the traffic law in Saudi Arabia: http://bit.ly/lj60Od

Section Four: Driving License, page 47
List 1-4 of Driving Violations: pages 117-121

 نحن النساء في المملكة العربية السعودية من سيقود هذا المجتمع نحو التغيير. وحين فشلنا في ايصال صوتنا، لن نفشل في ايصال أفعالنا. كفانا سكوتاً ومذلة لكل رجل من محرم أو أجنبي عنا. منا من لاتملك أجرة تاكسي وتعيش على الكفاف. ومنا من تعول أسرتها وليس لها عائل غير ريالات بسيطة دفعت فيها جهدها وعرقها لتكون لقمة سائغة للسائقين. ومنا من ليس لها من يقوم بأمرها فتلظت بنار السؤال لكل غريب. محرومين حتى من مواصلات عامة تكفينا شرهم. نحن بناتكم ونساؤكم وأخواتكم وأمهاتكم. نحن نصف المجتمع ونلد نصفه. لكن تم تغييبنا وتهميش مطالبنا. سقطنا من خططكم عمداً! لذلك حان وقت أخذ زمام المبادرة. وسنقوم برفع خطاب تظلم لوالدنا ملك الانسانية خادم الحرمين الشريفين لمسانده نساء ١٧ يونيو

تم البحث عن أي قانون يمنع المرأة في السعودية من ممارسة حقها في قيادة مركبتها بنفسها ولم نجد أي شيء يشير لذلك في نظام المرور السعودي*. لذلك لايعتبر ما سنفعله خرقاً للقانون. لذلك قررنا أنه وبدأً من الجمعه 15 رجب 1432 الموافق 17 يونيو 2011 التالي

 كل امرأه تملك رخصة قيادة دولية أو من دولة أخرى ستبدأ بقيادة سيارتها بنفسها لتقضية أي مشوار لها سواء للوصول لمكان عملها، ايصال أطفالها للمدرسة، أو قضاء حوائجها اليومية

  on.fb.me/mbWaHq :سنوثق قيادتنا لسياراتنا بأنفسنا بالصوت والصورة ونشرها على صفحتنا بالفيسبوك لدعم قضيتنا

 سنلتزم بحشمتنا وحجابنا حين قيادة سياراتنا

 سنلتزم بقوانين المرور ولن نتحدى السلطات إذا تم ايقافنا للمساءلة

 إذا تم ايقافنا للمساءلة نتمسك بحق المطالبة أن نعرف أي القوانين تم خرقها. لحد الآن لايوجد اي قانون في نظام المرور يمنع المرأة من قيادة مركبتها بنفسها

 ليس لدينا أهداف تخريبية. ولن نتجمهر أو نتظاهر أو نرفع شعارات وليس لدينا قادة أو جهات أجنبيه نحن وطنيات ونحب هذا الوطن ولن نرض بما يمس أمنه أو سلامته. كل مافي الأمر أننا سنبدأ بممارسة حق مشروع

 لن نتوقف عن ممارسة هذا الحق حتى تجدوا لنا حلاً. تكلمنا كثيراً ولم يسمعنا أحد، جاء وقت الحلول. نريد مدارس نسائيه لتعليم القيادة. نريد رخص قيادة سعودية أسوة بكل دول العالم. نريد أن نعيش مواطنة كاملة بدون الذل والمهانة التي نتعرض لها كل يوم لأننا مربوطين برقبة سائق

 سنبدأ باقامة حملات تطوعية لتعليم النساء القيادة مجاناً بدأ من تاريخ نشر هذا الإعلان ونرجو مساندة الجميع

:لمراجعة نظام المرور في السعودية

http://bit.ly/lj60Od

الباب الرابع: رخص القيادة صفحة 47

جداول المخالفات 1-4 صفحة 117 -121

On Malala Yousafzai & the Importance of Examining Narratives

A lot of folks have asked my opinion recently on Malala Yousefzai and her advocacy for the cause of girl’s education in Pakistan. I come to my opinion purely as a consumer of mainly Atlantic-centric media (or Anglophone media from the perspective of writers in Europe and America), and as an activist.

With that said, I think the lauding of Malala and the recent granting of ‘Malal Day’ at the U.N. is indicative of a particular worldview that has become quite problematical for people who neither support an imperialist nor an Islamo-centric world view. I should be careful to qualify here that I do not see the two as equivalent in terms of the power they yield, but rather that neither has the political acumen nor the interests of ordinary people at heart.

Whilst I do not agree with those folks who I would describe as conspiracy theorists, putting forward the idea that Malala is an agent of the CIA. I do, however, believe based on her public statements, that even at her tender age she promotes a certain vision of the multiple issues at play in Pakistan that is politically useful for those in power in the US, Europe and at the UN. Her desire to advocate for the education of girls in Pakistan is undoubtedly an aim worth supporting, but it does not mean that we cannot have a critical understanding of what she presents and promotes.

It is for this reason that the recent letter written by a Taleban commander, Adnan Rasheed, is of particular importance. My impression from watching news and reading articles is that the letter presents some uncomfortable points of view, and has thus mainly been down played by Malala and the public relations firm that represents her.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that Adnan admits that it was the Taleban who are responsible for shooting Malala and 14 other girls on a bus in Pakistan. This has put to bed critics who claimed that other groups, not the Pakistani Taleban, were responsible. Yet where Malala claims the reason for this attack has to do with her education advocacy, Adnan’s letter puts forward another claim. He writes that girls’ education is long a part of the history of Islamic civilization, and therefore is not contrary to the particular political aims of the Taleban (this of course is questionable). It was, however, Malala’s-in his words- “smear campaign” against the Taleban that provoked the attack on her. Now again for those who might jump on me here, I do not think anyone agrees that a legitimate response to the pronouncements of a young girls can include assassination attempts. The difference of opinion about why Malala was targeted reveals a narrative that is more complex than the story is usually presented to us.

I will not go too far into the politics of present day Pakistan, especially those transpiring in its north-west provinces (sometimes referred to as the ‘tribal areas’), but to say that it is often reported that the Taleban blows up schools, especially girls schools, because they do not wish girls to be educated. However, as Adnan writes, and other media sources reveal, this is not the entirety of the story. It seems to me, rather, that schools are used by both the Pakistani Taleban and the Pakistani army as places to store supplies, plan attacks, etc. Is it convenient for the Pakistani Taleban that some of these schools are also for girls and they can essentially kill two birds with one stone? I would say yes. But I do not think that the campaign in these areas necessarily focuses on bombing girls schools for the sake of it, but like many tactics in a protracted conflict, it is a part of a larger strategy. I do not think the Pakistani government is involved in the Swat region out of some sort of feminist mission, and thus it is necessary to examine these things in further detail.

So if we take for example the perspective of the Pakistani Taleban that Malala was in fact engaged in assisting the Pakistani military in a propaganda war against the Talebs, it puts her claims that she was targeted merely for promoting education for girls into a more complex light.

On another level, we have to remember that this is an area of the world that has been highly politicized and that there are wars being fought on several battlefields at once. The conflict in the Swat Valley of Pakistan is related, though not the same as, the battle in neighbouring Afghanistan. And like Afghanistan there are local, regional, and international stake holders that play their roles in the conflict. Part of the complexity is that in a world where things are so globalized the actions and events on all three of these different levels can affect each other sometimes simultaneously. Just as the situation where the pastor in Florida who wanted to burn the Qur’an brought about riots in cities across Afghanistan, so can the speeches of a 16-year-old girl have reverberations around the world.

Where the rhetoric used by Adnan Rasheed in his letter to Malala comes across to many Atlantic-centric people as anti-Jewish and promoting a Islamo-totalizing view of our collective future. So too, do the words Malala used in her speech at the UN come across as political to many in the Islamic world. The best examples I can give are her using the words Taleban and terrorist interchangeably throughout her speech. I think we have become so used to the media equating the Taleban with terrorism that we almost forget that this framing comes off as pejorative both to the Talebs and to those who see the Taleban as fighting on their behalves. If Malala is a representative of Pakistan, her equating the Taleb fighters as terrorist sends a certain signal to them about the government’s willingness to negotiate with them and the concerns and communities that give rise to their existence.

Malala specifically calls Pakistan a democratic country, though the military that was helped through her pronouncements against the government acts with impunity, especially in the so-called ‘tribal areas’ where Malala is from. According to many international reports, Pakistan’s penal code and specifically its laws against blasphemy have been used to target both women and minorities. Other issues such as the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and broad human rights abuses and exploitation of communities in Baluchistan in addition to the ‘counter-terrorism’ policies of the government paint a disparaging picture for the prospect of meaningful democracy – and it is precisely these sorts of human rights issues and abuses that give rise to groups such as the Taleban. Where religious ideology and political aims meet in transnational militia groups like the Taleban we call it ‘terrorism’. When these are well funded and under the cover of the authority of a state we call it ‘freedom’.

These are precisely the reasons I believe that it is imperative for activists and concerned people of the world to examine the narratives that are placed in front of them for consumption. There is definitely room to feel a sense of pride for a young person who experienced great hardship and tragedy in her aims at advocating for girls education in Pakistan. But that story was just too simple.

As a long time activist on issues to do with the Middle East, I have had to learn to be quite critical of my epistemic framework or at least the one I was socialized with growing up as an American entering my formative intellectual years at the same time as the US began its ‘Global War on Terror’ (what we activists call the Global War OF Terror). The worldview that is presented us in media, especially media that has proven itself to be uncritical of power time and again (see this very good talk on the subject of the media and the Iraq war by acclaimed Egyptian journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous). We need to question people when they use terms like ‘terrorist’, ‘warlord’, ‘Taleban’ and even ‘women’s rights advocate’. We have to remember that there are powerful systems in place, political and economic, that rely on certain narratives that are ultimately self serving, keeping elites in power at the expense of ordinary people. We need to understand that all over the world people have different and varying world views based on their experiences, needs and desires and whilst we all seem to want ‘peace’, ‘education’ and ‘democracy’ the differentiations of power and histories of oppression leave us with very different abilities to achieve these goals.

Malala and many before have taught that the pen is mightier than the sword. I am beginning to believe that is quite true – but not in the way that she meant it. I think that the narratives that are put forward to hide certain kinds of violence, like that of the state or transnational capitalism, have become extremely powerful tools in the fight to silence the poor and working class people of this world. I think we need to wake up to that reality and fight against it as harshly and single-mindedly as we do in our struggles to promote the rights and education of women and girls.

I think Adnan Rasheed’s best points were made when he asked, “If you were shot [by] Americans in a drone attack, would [the] world have ever heard updates on your medical status? … Would you [have been] called to UN? Would a Malala day be announced?”

Would we have the courage to ask such questions to those who hold real power?

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.

 

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.

An Islamic School for Girls

 

by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix

In 1982, when she was just 17 years old, Houda al-Habash opened the doors to her Qur’an

school for women and girls at the Al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Houda is representative of a pioneering generation of women in the Middle East who have begun to study Islam within the mosque like their fathers, uncles and brothers — a trend that is reshaping the region. We made the film because despite the influence of schools like Houda’s, stories about them are still rare.

In the film, inside her organized and lively school, Houda teaches her students about women’s rights within Islam and encourages them to take their secular education seriously. She and her students are engaged in a debate about women’s roles in the modern world, similar to the debates we find in our own culture. In the end, we were more compelled by the similarities than the differences in that debate.

The Syria we left when we finished shooting in November 2010 has drastically changed because of the popular uprising against PresidentBashar al-Assad’s regime. Houda is no longer teaching at her school; like many Syrians with the financial means, she and her family left the country to live in the Arabian Peninsula. Houda’s daughter, Enas, has said, “A light has gone out in our community,” because it is no longer safe to go to the mosque. It is impossible to know what will happen in Syria, but Houda certainly gave her students a foundation of faith and discipline to face the challenges before them.

This Op-Doc is adapted from “The Light in Her Eyes,” a feature-length documentary about Houda al-Habash.

Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix are the directors and producers of “The Light in Her Eyes,” which will be broadcast on the PBS series “POV.” Ms. Meltzer’s work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and the Sharjah Biennial. Ms. Nix’s work includes directing the feature documentary “Whether You Like It or Not” and producing “The Yes Men Fix the World.”

 

Bless us anyway – we want more life!

Dear Steal this Hijab Readers,

Thanks for reading, listening, gazing, and opinionating!

I started this blog for many reasons. I think the most important of which came from the need to respond intelligently to a question that was very often posed to me – “WHAT?!!! Islamic feminism?! Is there such a thing????”

Well, as a brief perusal of the blog might indicate, there is indeed a space where ‘Islam‘ and ‘feminism’ meet. What is Islamic about our feminism, or feminist about our Islam is the question. Is this a feminist blog? The simple answer is yes! Is it an Islamic blog? Ah, jury’s out. Religion and the modern world have had some issues, and they aren’t anywhere near resolved.

What the blog isn’t is an overly simplified, easily quantified, essentialization of gender, religion, sexuality, or politics. And I hope that reflects the heterogeneity of the subjects explored.

My hope is that the blog be provocative – intentionally or not – because I think that in the space where we stretch our conceptions of what is possible, where we dare to be wrong, where we bear the vastness of the universe, we realize that there is something bigger than “fact” (male/female).

I think to question those things that are most deep within us, whether it’s a religion, an identity or a political creed is to be living as if you are alive (pregnant) with the knowledge that the world is something that still holds so much potential.

I think a lot about something Prior Walter says in Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. You see Walter is this gay man of colour from New York who finds out he has AIDS (in the 80’s) and he’s trying to cope with his inevitable demise. And in the midst of this situation he finds a lot of humor and some interesting wisdom that I think speaks powerfully to the spirit of this blog and the whole notion of being an Islamic feminist – something so human and yet so provocative.

Prior says, “I’ve lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much worse. But you see them living anyway. When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children – they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die, but I recognize the habit; the addiction to being alive. So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate. But still bless me anyway. I want more life.” 

Steal this Hijab reaches into [her]story, politics, philosophy, art, sociology, culture, . . . to find those discussions, those connections, those ways of seeing (as John Berger so eloquently put) that might cultivate our political imaginations. We beg for more life in the conversations around us. We live past hope, even where we find the world so inadequate, so cruel, so uncompromising, so static.

But. . . bless us anyway – we want more life!

western feminism’s relationship with Islamic feminism and notions of “visibility”

by Ari Burton

(originally published in hoax zine)

The first book I ever bought on Islamic feminism sits on the shelf adjacent to the bed in my childhood room. Its maroon cover is subsumed by the mountain of books piled on top of it in order to maximize shelf space. I remember the amalgamation of tan lettering that forms the title without even having to pull it off the shelf; In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman’s Global Journey by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. It marks my adolescent forays into feminist theory, the excitement which bounced off the walls of my pubescent soul at having discovered women’s liberation. No longer did I feel like the overly-radical black outcast plopped smack dab in white quasi-Republican suburbia. Other people in the world wanted to talk about gender equality instead of occasionally yelling “girl power” because the Spice Girls made it trendy for little white girls to coyfully bite back at patriarchy all while still falling into the same fucked up mousetraps of beauty standards and sexist ideals. This book was one of many which helped me feel less alone, despite having never actually read it.

Now, two days away from marking a month of living as a Muslim woman, I want nothing more than to throw it away. I want to send it packing along with its literary compatriots whose pages embark on Christopher Columbus-eque missions, charting boats made of words and punctuation marks into this new, unfamiliar world called Islamic feminism. I want to stop the boots of these intellectual conquistadors from leaving their footprints on land they have very little business treading, because their manifest mission isn’t to understand how Muslim feminist movements fit into the frameworks of the societies they exist in, but to find reflections of white western feminist ideals transplanted in an unexpected geographic locale. They want to find a Rose the River with a “Middle Eastern” name who carries the banner of “Yes We Can” in her own native language. They want to delight in these “oppressed” women challenging the patriarchal conventions placed over their niqab covered heads by readings great works such as Lolita and The Feminine Mystique, books that theoretically demonstrate a liberated person in the same western imagination which still sees that part of the world as being backwards and behind. They want to see these women burn their burkas in place of bras, don power suits or pants, and blast Middle eastern reduxes of riot-grrl music in their eco-friendly compact cars to show the world that feminism has come to the war-torn, poverty-stricken, patriarchal sand dunes.

Essentially feminists like Fernea have no vested interest in actual Islamic feminism and its visibility in the global fight for gender egalitarianism. Their scholarship masquerades under the guise of expose journalism, purportedly shedding light on what is thought to be a great oxymoron. They hop international flights seeking to understand this great unknown, returning to the west with their own feminist ethnographies meant to aid others in the “holistic” study of women and gender in the academic sphere. In reality they merely want to look in a trans-planted mirror and see themselves.

For a genre which claims to bring about higher levels of visibility, the scholarship of white western feminists seeking to understand Islamic feminism does the complete opposite. This genre of scholarship is not about Islamic feminists and how they navigate the tensions of their world to their individual identities. Readers who pick up these books will be hard-pressed to find Islamic feminists speaking from their own voices. These are not edited anthologies where women are given the page space to discuss themselves in the context of their political movement, their personal lives and the global fight for gender egalitarianism. Instead they are regulated to the space inside the occasional set of quotation marks and the descriptions which are supposed to provide context to the commentary. Much like the book and movie The Help, the portrays of these women are about as dimensional as matzah bread and continually imposes their western feminist paradigm onto the lived experience while using these women’s voices as validation.

This type of scholarship has not only made a severe mockery of Islamic feminism by regulating its participants and their stories to side show status, but it has effectively succeeded in putting a distinct face on an entire movement of people. Islamic feminist in this purview does not mean a women-identified Muslim who believes in ideas of gender egalitarianism, but generally an Arab woman living in a Muslim country fighting that society’s patriarchal standards and working to be more liberated in line with her western sisters in the struggle. She is shucking away the husks of her backward, oppressive, religious society and stepping into the sunshine of modernity to warm and tan her kernels. She is the face of Islamic feminism, a cardboard cutout concocted by the chimerical imaginations of western feminists who refuse to believe global gender egalitarianism can come if women make different choices than those who identify with the feminist movement living in America. She plays into the notion that a monolithic global movement is the only way to progress, and people in the developing world would be wise to hop on the band-wagon before others have to come in and save them. She silences the voices of those who believe in gender egalitarianism but are not Arab and living in Middle Eastern Muslim societies. Her existence as a fantasy character for which western feminism gets to role-play signals to a larger problem about the relationship to academic scholarship and the Muslim world, that Muslim is automatically connotated with Arab Middle Easterners, and the analytic frameworks built around them is supposed to trickle down to the rest of the Muslim world.

I can honestly say as a queer Muslim womanist, the scholarship surrounding Arab Muslim feminists has fuck all to do with me. That cardboard cutout circulating as the face of global Islamic feminism doesn’t speak for me. She doesn’t speak for the African diasporic Muslim women who are forming their own relationships with gender egalitarianism in the worlds they live in and the Muslim spaces they navigate. She doesn’t speak for the ways in which gender egalitarian movements manifest themselves in predominately Muslim African countries which are non-Arab and the specific challenges they face. She only flushes our experiences out of existence and into a sea of other non-Arab Muslim folk who believe in the gender egalitarian movement but are not given the space to speak for themselves.

She’ll never speak for me as a Muslim womanist because in my mind the two geographic locals and their gender struggles hardly apply to each other. I don’t live under Shar’ia law, but instead a constitutional framework masquerading as secular but still taking its kickbacks from the Bible and the people who thump it. I do not engage with western institutions and notions of modernity because I think they are ideal, but because its what’s necessary to survive in the United States of America. I refuse to leave this country because in my mind colonization has pretty much wrecked the collective minds and memories of the global world to the point where the majority are all grindin to try and fit this framework which is finally crumbling in the western world. There really is nowhere else to go, and even if there was I refuse let this place fall to the descendants of dogs. My ancestors helped built this motherfucker, built a legacy of upward social mobility while still paying their dues to social justice, and I’ll be damned if I get run off simply because some foolish fucks wanna be a post-racial society that subsequently decimates its populations of color all over again.

Most importantly, I do not need the likes of white western feminism to have a fetishizing pity party on my behalf for simply being brown, modest, and religious. I made the choice to convert to Islam, made the choice to be modest and doing so didn’t invalidate my capability to make other choices. I didn’t loose the ability to speak for myself, which means I don’t need somebody who is unfamiliar with the intersections of my identities to take a Richard Burton voyage into the depths of my world and my soul only to come out with a more shallow understanding than they previously had in the first place.

I am just as verbose, crass, moderately unapologetic, cynical, and sarcastic as ever. I can speak for myself, yell for myself and rage for myself. I don’t need this body of scholarship to speak on my behalf and dissect my issues like an unsuspecting frog in a 6th grade science classroom. I need scholars like Fernea who think they are doing people like me a favor to take all of the seats. And if they need help finding one, maybe my poor little oppressed brown brain can muster up the mental faculties enough to line some up in an interesting formation so they feel as though they have a choice.   

hoax is a feminist collaborative zine attempting to find the connections between us despite our differences. it is co-edited by sari & rachel and kept alive by numerous contributors and people like you! feminists of all backgrounds & genders are encouraged to submit to this zine!

To order hoax 7 (where this article was first published) or back issues please visit their Etsy shop.

Rich, Islamist and post-feminist

by Rafia Zakaria

Rich, Islamist and post-feminist 

Their headscarves match their outfits perfectly, often held up by jewelled pins sporting emeralds, rubies and other precious stones. Their make-up is impeccable and a cloud of perfume follows them wherever they go. In the past few weeks of Ramazan, many have been chauffeured in their shiny sedans to taraveeh services held in venues usually reserved for weddings. Many afternoons have been spent at women-only sessions of Quranic tafseer. They follow a number of leaders, from the now internationally known Farhat Hashmi to other well-known sheikhs.

These women represent an interesting and relatively new phenomenon in the lives of Pakistan’s well to do. Demographically, they belong to the richest five percent of the country, the last section of the population to be affected by the ravages of a collapsing economy and decrepit civil institutions. Many if not all, come from families where women have been educated for generations and encouraged to pursue any opportunity that may suit their fancy. Their ranks therefore are full of doctors, lawyers, educators and the ubiquitous socialites.

Their children are often educated abroad, their husbands clean-shaven and their houses staffed with armies of servants. Like the coffee parties and social welfare melas of old, these tafseer sessions and taraveeh services have become venues of socialisation and cultural reorganisation. In this newly fashionable zeal for all things religious, these women, often plagued by the boredom that comes with affluence, seem to have found both direction and identity.

To most of these women, talk of the necessity of “liberating” Pakistani women seems redundant. First of all, the reality of those women who do not have the same weight of guilt to expunge from their conscience is remote to them. In other words, having been given the choice to embrace religious zealotry, it is difficult for them to imagine an alternative path to embracing elements of faith that give up female agency.

As clarification, consider this illustrative example: Rashida is a university professor who has taught at the engineering department of a private university for the past twenty years. Her children are grown and settled abroad. Her husband, a high level civil servant, had always given her the freedom to work, have her own friends, visit whomever she wants and even take frequent vacations abroad to visit her sisters in America. A highly educated man, who insisted on sending not just their son but also their daughter to be educated abroad, Rashida’s husband would balk at the idea of placing any sort of restrictions on his wife.

Yet, Rashida, since beginning the course with “madam” (as Farhat Hashmi’s adherents refer to her) has begun asking for his “permission” before leaving the home. She observes strict hijab before any unrelated males, including, somewhat embarrassingly, her own daughter’s husband who is over twenty-five years her junior.

The changes, albeit discomfiting to her family members, have been accepted readily by them, much like a new career or hobby that keeps Rashida satisfied and makes her less likely to pick fights with her husband or complain about the lack of attention from her children. Rashida often forces the household maid to attend tafseer sessions with her and has asked her to wear hijab (even though she is Christian!) before male servants and in front of Rashida’s husband and son. When asked about why she wears the hijab, Rashida will insist, truthfully so, that it is a choice made freely and without any pressure from her husband.

Rashida’s case is illustrative for a variety of reasons. First, it demonstrates the palliative nature of pietist movements like Farhat Hashmi’s, for women who, at crossroads in their lives (in this case, after the children have left home), may find themselves unsure of their identity and their place in society. Faith not only fills a much needed spiritual void but also a social one, providing new avenues of meeting people and a new purpose to life; all deeply admirable components.

What Rashida’s example also illustrates is the curious juxtaposition of post-feminist ideas in a society where women’s liberation never took the form of any coherent movement. In other words, Rashida’s case represents how a very small sliver of Pakistani women in the upper echelons of society, who have been insulated by class privilege from the laws and customs that target and persecute the remainder of Pakistani women, is now at the helm of denying the need for legal and sociological changes.

Women like Rashida are the face of the post-feminist Pakistani woman. Born in affluent homes and provided the same privileges as their brothers, they have often never experienced any form of legal discrimination or sexual harassment. The discriminatory weight of counting as a half-witness under Qanoon-e-Shahadat, or being legally entrusted to a male relative, of having to produce four witnesses in cases of rape, are all far away from their comfortable realities where religion is yet another item on a long menu of possible activities.

The women that are abducted, that are imprisoned under accusations of Zina, that are traded away in land disputes, are mere spectres in news stories. Theirs is a world of free choices garnered by class privileges. They take religion as a particular sheikh sells it to them, don hijabs and ask their husbands for permission to leave the home in an experiment with a new identity that may be adorned or shed at will. Indeed, there is no need for feminism in their world since subjugation, legal or otherwise, when freely chosen, represents no subjugation at all.

Instead, the cost of elite women’s experiment with Islamism is borne instead by those women whose agency and free will is ignored in this equation. Just as Rashida does not give a second thought to the relative fairness of requiring her maids of to attend tafseer sessions or wear hijab, the limits to the ability of religious awakening to question core problems in society is exposed. The ability of elite women to define whether or not Pakistan needs feminism is thus circumscribed by the fact that the battles feminism would have to fight have never been battles for them at all, but rather for those women who remain invisible as much because of their poverty as of their gender.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

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.

Tawakkul Karmant, First Female Arab Nobel Peace Laureate: A Nod for Arab Spring

(originally appeared at Democracy Now!)

In an interview, Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman said her Nobel Peace prize is a victory for Yemen and for all of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Karman is a 32-year-old journalist and the head of the Yemeni non-profit group, Women Journalists Without Chains. She was detained for a time during the political unrest earlier this year. She is the first Arab female to win the Nobel Peace Prize and is believed to the youngest winner of the peace prize to date, slightly edging out the Irish activist Mairead Corrigan who won in 1976. We get reaction from British journalist Iona Craig, who has been closely following the uprising in Yemen. “This Nobel Peace Prize will actually in some ways go towards protecting her. Now she will become an even greater international figure and certainly if the regime sought to detain her again, I think they would create a huge problem for themselves,” Craig says.

[http://www.democracynow.org/2011/10/7/yemeni_activist_tawakkul_karman_first_female]

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip of her speaking just after her release from prison in January.

TAWAKKUL KARMAN: We will continue our struggle until this regime goes from our happy country. We will defend our country. The Jasmine Revolution continues until this regime goes.

AMY GOODMAN: Tawakkul Karman is the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and is believed to be the youngest winner of the peace prize to date, slightly edging out the Irish activist Mairead Corrigan who won in 1976. Both were 32. For Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the award comes as she wraps up her re-election campaign. Voters in Liberia head to the polls Tuesday. Leymah Gbowee’s Women for Peace movement is credited by some for bringing an end to the civil war in 2003. The movement started humbly in 2002 when Gbowee organized a group of women to sing and pray for an end to fighting in a fish market. She is a subject of an award winning documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The trio of laureates follow only a dozen other women among 85 men, as well as a number of organizations, to have won the peace prize over its 110-year history. To talk more about this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, we’re joined by two guests. In a moment we’ll be going to Emira Woods, Co-Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is a originally from Liberia. And with us from Britain is the British journalist, Iona Craig has been closely following the uprising in Yemen. Let us start with the Yemeni winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Tawakkul Karman. Iona Craig, tell us who she is.

IONA CRAIG: Well, I first met Tawakkul last year when she was, then, a thorn in the side of the government, working as a human rights activist and the President of Women Journalists Without Chains. She has always been a very outspoken character, fighting for the rights of [Inaudible] freedom and for political prisoners in Yemen. So, this prize is an acknowledgment of that as well as her leading role in Yemen’s unrest since January.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about her history. Talk about her significance, and the significance of a woman in Yemen winning.

IONA CRAIG: As you say, it’s particularly significant as a woman. She’s very outspoken. She’s led demonstrations, even in years gone by, leading up to the time of Yemen’s unrest which began in January, and she has inspired a lot of women as a result. She has fought very hard for press freedom and Yemen and she is also fought for political prisoners and for journalism in general in the country. She is a very forceful female, and many women have followed in her footsteps as a result now over the last 7 months and have really found their voice and will now want to be part of a new Yemen, part of this new democratic process. They don’t want to be forgotten as this, hopefully, transition happens in the months ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about her organization, Women Journalists Breaking the Chains.

IONA CRAIG: This was an NGO that she set up, not just to fight for the rights of women, but also for press freedom in Yemen. The press in Yemen have a huge amount of restrictions imposed in them, particularly Yemen journalists. I met her, initially, at the trial of a Yemeni journalist, Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye, who was then sentenced to five years in prison, supposedly for connections to Al Qaeda. He had at the time, pinpointed U.S. involvement in drone strikes in Yemen, and it appeared at the time that he was, perhaps, being punished for that. He has since, as I say, been sentenced to 5 years and she was fighting very hard for him and on his behalf to try to get him released. There are many prisoners in Yemen who were often are taken from their houses without any representation from lawyers or without any contact with their family, and these political prisoners she has sought to fight for since 2005, when she founded this organization, to try and get representation for them and for them to receive a fair trial in Yemen. So, she has been organizing demonstrations outside of the Parliament of Sana’a on a weekly basis for many years now.

AMY GOODMAN: How much of a threat does Saleh consider here and what will this mean? How much of a boost will this give the opposition movement in Yemen for both Yemen and the Saudi regime that is supporting Saleh’s return and the Saleh regime in Yemen?

IONA CRAIG: I think will be a huge boost for them. As she said in her interview today, this is an award that she dedicates to the Yemeni youth movement and to all Yemenis and to all youth across the Arab world. Yemenis, particularly the activists in Sana’a and in Ta’izz, feel they haven’t received recognition for their peaceful demonstrations that have now been going on now for the better part of nine months. So, I’ve spoken to many of them in Sana’a, today and they are certainly celebrating this award, and they see it as a recognition for their peaceful efforts as activists, as a group, as well as for recognizing Tawakkul herself. Certainly the regime dose her as a threat, which is why she was arrested in January. But, her arrests sparked further protests, and I think that they quickly realized that it was better for them to release her than to detain her, which would have caused further problems. I think, if anything, this Nobel Peace Prize will actually, in some ways, may go toward protecting her. Now she will become even greater international figure. And certainly if the regime sought to detain her again, I think it would create huge problem for themselves. But, certainly, it’s a great day for the movement in Yemen as they see it.

AMY GOODMAN: and what does this say for the men of Yemen? What does that mean in a very much a male-dominated culture?

IONA CRAIG: They have largely, although there have been some divisions in the movement about her role, accepted her as this leading figure and a lot of women as well. As I mentioned before, a lot of women have now come forward and are speaking out, have been speaking to a large crowds of male demonstrators. But, it’s also encouraged the women to come out on the street at the same time. There have been thousands of women that have come out to demonstrate on a regular basis now on the street as a result of her presence. So, yes the men are equally inspired by her activity, and largely have been largely willing to accept her role.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona, I want to thank you very much for being with us. I think the demonstration that will be taking place in New York at 4 o’clock at 47th and 1st outside the United Nations of Yemenis will be taking on a new significance. Yemenis against the Saleh regime right now. Iona Craig, speaking to us from London, usually based in Sana’a, Yemen. She was last there in August. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution

The participation of women in the Egyptian revolution didn’t come as a surprise to us, nor do we view it as an extraordinary phenomenon.

Women are part of every society and form a part of the social, political and economical spectrum. It is history that tends in most cases to ostracize the participation of women and keep them in the shadow while highlighting the participation of men and attributing leading roles exclusively to them. This is why we want to document and share Her-story.

This project intends to shed the light on the participation of women and to document their experiences as part of the historical (herstorical) memory of the Egyptian revolution. It is also a tool for women empowerment everywhere and a source for researchers, students and everyone interested in the matter.

Your support and donation is highly appreciated and needed
http://www.indiegogo.com/herstory-egypt

Director Leil-Zahra Mortada
Producer Aida El-Kashef
D.O.P. Laila Samy
Editor Ziyad Hawwas
Sound Sandy Chamoun
Investigation Kholoud Bidak
Assistant D.O.P. Nadim Mourtada
Art work Marta Paz

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.

Islamic Feminism & Its Discontents

by: Val Moghadam

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

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

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

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

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

The Debate: Viewpoints of the Protagonists

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

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

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

 In Defense of Islamic Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case against Islamic Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic Feminism: An Assessment and Alternative View

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

Fundamentalism, the Islamic Republic, and Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic Feminism: Strengths and Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: On Civil Society and Global Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Val Moghaddam is director of women’s studies and Associate Professor of Sociology in Illinois State University, USA. vmmogha@rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu

References and Suggested Bibliography

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

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

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

Farzaneh Various issues.

Jens-e Dovvom. Various issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zanan. Various issues.

Letter from Tehran

by: Manijeh Nasrabadi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While these efforts may seem small compared to the overwhelming nature of the Ahmadinejad administration’s crackdown, they occur within the context of persistent political dissent that continues to broaden and deepen. “Now people don’t feel like they’re in a country where no one cares or tries or wants to change anything,” Delaram said. “People feel they are in a society on edge.” The question for the Campaign is how to tap in to this widespread sentiment and introduce the subject of gender equality into the discussion. In their efforts to rise to this challenge, members are engaged in an intense period of intellectual work, producing articles for their web site, Change4Equality.com, which take stock of the history of the women’s movement in Iran, assess their own four years of work, and explore strategies for coping with increased repression. “I’m writing an article about how the center of our movement has to be maintained in Iran,” Homa said, after listing the names of Campaign members who have had to go abroad due to safety concerns. “I talk about how this is not the first time the shape of our activities has had to change,” she said. “This may be the biggest change, but we’ve had hard times before.” Reflecting on what she and the others have accomplished in the four years since the Campaign was launched, Delaram said, “It’s true that we don’t have a million signatures; we have far fewer. But we’ve spoken with millions of people. They may not all agree with us, but more people understand that these laws [that discriminate against women] are not in their interests.”

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

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

Over Wo(my)n’s Dead Bodies: On Surviving Liberation

It was a vivid autumn evening. Americans were still grieving from the stun of 9/11, and the only entity that dared punctuate the eerily quiet streets of New York were the lurid faces of the missing, plastered across a thousand white pages on everything that could still stand in lower Manhattan. It was under this tense and mournful atmosphere that first lady, Laura Bush, took to the airwaves. It would be the first solitary address of any president’s wife in U.S. history, and Mrs. Bush would use her airtime to bolster her husband’s military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom. Just six weeks after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Mrs. Bush spoke with confidence and pride as she described the rejoicing felt across Afghanistan with the fall of the Taliban. ?Nearly a decade has passed since Mrs. Bush’s address. The military campaign Bush began in 2001 has become known as the War on Terror. Americans have long learned to swallow the irritating truth that the corporate media assisted the political elites of this country in financing its military aspirations by capitalizing on the deep grief of September 11th. And what of those fatuous geographical alignments of “evil” so prudently crafted in order to solidify American resolve for Iraq? Well, they’ve shifted to Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. But so has global solicitude, once ardently vigiling with slogans declaring “we are all Americans,” now shrinks and scowls embarrassed it was inveigled into believing “Enduring Freedom” meant something other than torture, bombing and occupation.

Of all the stories culled into existence in order to facilitate mass compliance and participation in the War on Terror, none has been as politically potent as Mrs. Bush’s initial November appeal. Her call dared all decent people of the world to join the US and its allies in freeing the women of Afghanistan from the “brutal terrorism” of Islamic fundamentalism. Almost ten years later this explanation continues to oblige the US government’s ‘feminist’ agenda in South Asia. Even Time Magazine weighed in with its July 2010 headline, What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan. Notice the punctuation, and picture a melancholic young Afghan woman, wrapped in a purple veil, her black hair framing her warm brown skin, her nose (according the article inside) savagely cut off by the Taliban.

Unfortunately for the young woman, and the millions like her in Afghanistan, the War on Terror has spiraled into a war of terror. And even those of us who smelled the dire stench of imperialism before a single boot fell to the ground in Afghanistan are nevertheless perplexed by why it goes on into perpetuity.

“Moral arguments do not work,” an old professor of mine stated emphatically when I posed the question to him of how we were going to end the wars. “I don’t know,” he said, followed by a long, penetrating silence, then, “perhaps you, my dear, should write.” He slinks away to call for another drink, and I dare myself not to feel semantically ill-equipped to stop the hemorrhaging of innocent people caught in the cross hairs of a world gone mad on war.

Brushing aside my insecurities, I am resolved to address the contention that this war is a necessary step in liberating the women of Afghanistan. Despite Laura Bush’s optimism, I don’t believe the War on Terror has made anyone safer, not least the women of Afghanistan.

I contest Mrs. Bush’s assertion by taking notice of the dynamics of modern Afghanistan that make her promise entirely problematic. You see, firstly I am unconvinced that the majority of Afghans have much access to sources of international news. A recent poll conducted by the International Council on Security and Development found that nearly 92% of men (women were not polled) in Qandahar and Helmund provinces knew nothing of the September 11th attacks. Further, they reported that nearly 40% of all those surveyed believe the war is being waged to “destroy Islam” and others, Afghanistan itself. If after ten years a majority of Afghanis from the most war-torn areas remain unaware of the US’s principle argument for the war, I cannot say that the 2001 invasion held significant political meaning for the majority of Afghan women.

Beyond this, Afghanistan is a country where the majority of its citizens, nearly 78% according to a 2008 UNICEF report, live in the provinces. This also means that a majority of Afghanis have extremely limited access to civil infrastructure like electricity, running water, roads or means for transportation. Poverty rates are among the highest in the world, and literacy among the lowest. In the case of women, statistics find that only 12.6% are literate, most of them residing in Kabul and Herat. Several surveys do demonstrate an increase in enrollment of girls in secondary schools in Kabul in comparison to ten years ago. They also find that provinces not involved in the heaviest fighting report improvements for women when it comes to freedom of movement outside the home. Still, many claim that these changes are only cosmetic, and that conditions for women have either stayed the same as they were under the Taliban, or have worsened as a direct result of insecurities caused by war.

This past November, twenty-nine non-government organizations in Afghanistan submitted a briefing to the NATO Heads of Government Summit at Lisbon. The briefing entitled Nowhere to Turn described the conditions under which most Afghanis were living and described the security situation within the country as “rapidly deteriorating.” The report also chronicles three major concerns the NGOs deem major factors causing insecurity: a marked increase in night-raids conducted by US Special Operations Forces, a failed counterinsurgency campaign that looks increasingly unable to prevent a civil war, and widely circulated accounts of the US going around the Karzai government and financing and arming any opposition group claiming to be fighting the Taliban.

In a situation where living is far from assured, liberation is unthinkable.

Laura Bush’s contention that Afghan women have benefited from the ‘liberation’ brought to them by the US military is problematic because it isn’t backed up by conditions “on the ground” in Afghanistan.  But there are several other more insidious issues raised by the U.S. governmental and mainstream media propagation of this notion. The narrative about ‘freeing’ Afghan women only became politically expedient when the aim of capturing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda proved harder to do than anticipated. So the Bush Administration asked Laura to polish off that erstwhile story of the savage East in need of an altruistic West, and they cleverly reinvented orientalism in the guise of “the woman question.” Though emotionally manipulative and strongly lacking in historical credibility (the US financed militia groups throughout the 1970’s and 80’s when it was more advantageous to beat the Soviets than to rally for women) the narrative has become one of the most widely used justifications for continued occupation. Whilst there is no novelty in inculcating historical amnesia at politically opportune occasions, neither are these narratives about ‘East’ and ‘West’ impervious.

As we approach a decade of war in Afghanistan we must confront not only the material conditions that make structural improvements in Afghanistan unlikely, but also those narratives that allow continued support for the status quo. For me this confrontation is best expressed in the crucial debates about strategies for resistance.

Many post-colonial theorists contend that discursive change must be a precondition for structural transformation. In other words a process of decolonization necessitates not only the transformation of the political and economic apparatus of colonialism, but also its legitimizing narratives. I see this issue of freeing the women in Afghanistan through war as nothing more than a narrative used to legitimize the apparatus of imperialism, and unfortunately it is not only the political elites who are recycling this story.

There was a great and sobering opportunity, following the September 11th attacks, for all those “meaning makers” (journalists, academics, artists, etc.) to seriously contend with the ideology of American exceptionalism that has kept much of the US public naïve about the injurious role US foreign policy has played in the world. Instead public discourse was concentrated on futile questions like, “why do they hate us?” and determined that the principle issue between ‘the West’ and ‘the Rest’ were civilizational in nature – i.e. Samuel Huntingdon’s foolish “clash of civilizations” theory. Thus, it is no surprise that many people were persuaded that the U.S. must help the abject Muslim women in need of liberation. Notice the refusal by many leftists to critically reflect on the perils of bestowing cultural icons (e.g., the veiled Muslim woman) on serpentine historical and political realities.

Rather than seeking to ‘save’ the women of Afghanistan, with the superiority it implies and violence it affects, solidarity activists can critically engage by making a concerted effort to recognize their  own responsibility to address the injustices that forcefully shape the world in which we live. Critical engagement also involves struggling to understand and manage cultural differences. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod specifies actions we can take , “What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, always raised in certain social and historical contexts…that shape their desires and understanding of the world… I do not know how many feminists who felt good about saving Afghan women from the Taliban are also asking for a global redistribution of wealth or contemplating sacrificing their own consumption radically so that [other] women could have some chance of having what I do believe should be a universal human right – the right to freedom from the structural violence of global inequality and from the ravages of war, the everyday right to having enough to eat, having homes for their families…have the strength and security to work out, within their communities and with whatever alliances they want, how to live a good live, which might very well include changing the ways those communities are organized.”

For me the issue of what constitutes ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ is something subject to historical context, and must be understood in the light of capacities and desires specific to the community in which one lives. If we wish to ‘liberate’ Afghan women from disembodiment and violence, what vision of life after liberation are we asking them to be liberated to? Nowhere on the planet have we yet been able to significantly challenge the male-centric social system of patriarchy that is at the heart of disparate power relations between the genders. Not in Afghanistan, and not here at home.

Similarly war and occupation have been the defining features between our society and Afghanistan. This unfortunate reality can also be the impetus for a commonality of purpose between our societies – either we all work to end the war or none of us will survive to benefit from liberation.