by Haideh Moghissi
A constructive discussion and dialogue about Islam and gender has never been free of its controversies. The task has been how to explain the stubborn survival of traditions and practices hostile to women in Islamic societies without adding to the arsenal of racist imagery about Islam and Muslim women, targeting diasporic communities in the West. How to challenge the inferiorizing stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women without resorting to apologetic and self-glorifying accounts of Islam and Muslims. Continue reading
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 Moallem, Afsaneh 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.”
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!
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.