Never do liberal Zionists feel more torn than when Israel is at war. Days after I’d filed my essay for The New York Review on Ari Shavit and his fellow liberal Zionists, the perennial tension between Israel and the Palestinians had flared into violent confrontation and, eventually, a war in Gaza—the third such military clash in five years. For liberal Zionists these are times when the dual nature of their position is tested, some would say to destruction. What the Israel Defense Forces called Operation Protective Edge—a large-scale mobilization that by the time a twelve-hour “humanitarian truce” was agreed on July 26 had reached its nineteenth day—was no different. Continue reading
from the Electronic Intifada
by Ali Abunimah
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
الباب الرابع: رخص القيادة صفحة 47
جداول المخالفات 1-4 صفحة 117 -121
Exclusive interview with Leila Khaled
Recorded on Thursday 3rd of April 2014
First published here.
Frank Barat for Le Mur A Des Oreilles (LMADO): How are you Leila? What are you doing nowadays in Amman?
Leila Khaled: I am fine as long as I am a part of the struggle for freedom, for our right of return and for an independent State with Jerusalem as capital. I know it is not going to happen in the near future, but I am fighting nevertheless. Here in Amman, I am the chief of the department of refugees and Right of Return in thePopular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (P.F.L.P).
LMADO: You are a Palestinian refugee, one of six million. Do you still think that you will return one day? And what do you make of the conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are denied their most basic rights and yet, are sometimes criticized for trying to improve their lives in Lebanon as this might affect their right of return to Palestine?
LK: The Palestinians were distributed to different countries. Each country has had an impact on the people living there. Those in Lebanon, in the 70s and 80s, until 1982, were the ones that helped the armed struggle, that helped defend the revolution. Israel was attacking and invading all the time and occupying parts of the country as well. After 1982, the main mission of the Palestinians was to achieve their rights, their civil and social rights, which they are deprived o in Lebanon. This will enable them to be involved in the struggle for the right of return. The Palestinians in general take the Right of Return as a concept and as a culture. Any Palestinian will tell you that he fights for his social and civil rights, but this means that he is preparing himself for his return. The two are inseparable.
LMADO: The question of the refugees, in the negotiations, has, in the last decade, become more and more obsolete, something that is no longer an inalienable right but something that can be negotiated. The same applies to the last round, the “Kerry negotiations”. What do you make of this? And what do you think is going to happen after April 29th when the negotiations are supposed to end?
LK: The PFLP and myself personally have been against the negotiations since 1991. The problem is that the two parties are sticking to their guns. The Israelis think that Palestine is the land for the Jews all over the world. The Palestinians are sure that the land belongs to them and that they were forced out in 1947/1948. When this conflict moves from one stage to the next the two sides are considered as even in their power but the fact is that we are not (this is just an illusion). The leadership chose to go for the Oslo accords, thinking that this was a step forward in achieving the main rights of the Palestinians. Some people believed this, but they discovered, after twenty years, that it was nonsense. It brought catastrophe on us. There are more settlements than ever, twice more than before Oslo, the number of settlers has doubled, more land is being confiscated, and, of course, the Wall has been built. The apartheid wall. Israel is an apartheid state. These negotiations, now, are meant to help Israel and not the Palestinians. We have already experienced what Israel means by negotiate. Israel never respects its promises, its obligations, and simply continues its project of making Palestinians’ lives hell. My party and I are against this last round of negotiations too, of course. Especially now. The Americans are supporting an Israeli project that will only help Israel. There was an agreement, sponsored by the Americans, which said that you had to stop settlements in the West Bank and that 104 prisoners should be released on three different dates. Now, the Israelis have said no, we will not abide by this agreement and we will not release the last batch of prisoners. By the way, those people who are released, are often put back in jail shortly after anyway. This is what the Israelis refer to as the rotating door policy. The politicians say that the prisoners should be released but they are then rearrested. Many of them are already back in jail. It is very clear from this that the Israelis are not ready to make peace with the Palestinians. They are also taking advantage of the fact that the Arabs are occupied with many other issues, and do not support the Palestinians. Nobody is therefore going to condemn Israel when they flout the agreements they sign.
Also, what does Kerry want? What is his plan? Nobody knows. It’s all verbal. Nothing is written. The leadership should refuse what Kerry offers. By the way, Kerry did not go back to Ramallah with another offer. Which means that the Palestinian Authority (is going to use its second option and go back to the U.N Then, today, in the news, the US has again said that it will object to such a move. What does this all mean?
I do think that we need first to consider the nature of the State of Israel. Secondly, we have to understand more about their projects and plans. Thirdly, we know that the Israelis are much more powerful than us in some respects. But we are also powerful. It all depends on our people. We have the will to face the challenges that the Israelis are putting in front of us. There is an English saying that says: “When there is a will, there is a way”. We still believe that this is our right and that we have to struggle for it. We have struggled, we are struggling, and we will struggle. From one generation to another. Freedom needs strong people to go and fight for their dreams. That is why I do not think that there will be a settlement now. The Americans always want to prolong the negotiations. This will not help.
LMADO: If negotiations do not bring peace to the Palestinians, what will? What should the leadership do?
LK: Resist! That’s how you achieve your rights as a People. History has shown us that. No People achieved their freedom without a struggle. Where there is occupation, there is resistance. It is not a Palestinian invention. We are actually going to call for a conference to be held under the auspices of the U.N, just to implement the resolutions taken by this body on the Palestinian question. Resolution 194 calls on Israel to accept the return of the refugees. Fine, let’s put the U.N on the spot. Let’s have a conference reminding people of this. The problem is that the references to any negotiations that have taken place were drafted by the Americans, which we know are biased towards Israel.
LMADO: P.L.O stands for Palestine Liberation Organization. Do you think it has lost its true meaning? Bassam Shaka in 2008 told me that the P.L.O, before anything, needed to go back to its roots as a liberation movement.
LK: No liberation is achieved without resistance. My party has not changed. It has stuck to its original program. We are calling to escalate the resistance. People talk about popular resistance. It does not only mean demonstrations. Using arms is also popular. We have people who are ready to fight.
LMADO: What does peaceful and non-violent resistance means for someone like yourself, who chose armed resistance as a mean for liberation?
LK: Resistance takes more than one face. It can be all kinds of resistance. Non violent and violent. I am ok with those who choose non-violence. We are not going to liberate our country by armed struggle only. Other kinds of resistance are necessary. The political one, diplomatic one, the non violent one. We need to use whatever we have got. For more than 10 years now, people have been demonstrating in Bil’in, in Nabi Saleh….protesting the wall and the annexation of the land. How is Israel dealing with it? Violence, tear gas, bombs… Do you think it is acceptable to have an army with a huge arsenal, against people holding banners? I am ok with using all means of resistance. We cannot say that non-violent resistance alone will achieve our rights. We are facing an apartheid State, Zionism as a movement, the Americans, and in general, the West, which supports Israel. When the balance of forces changes, then we can start thinking about negotiating.
LMADO: It is always easier to advocate for armed resistance when the general public knows who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed. Your actions in 69 and 70 were about that, correct? To put Palestine on the map. Do you think the educational process of showing another face of Palestine, showing that the Palestinians have legitimacy and are in the right, has been done enough since the 70s?
LK: Let’s take the example of Vietnam. Or of Algeria and South Africa. People needed time to convince the whole world of the just cause of their struggle. It took time. In the end, the world realized that those who are oppressed have the right to resist the way they want to. Nobody can impose a form of resistance on us. We chose armed struggle. We did not achieve our goals. Then the intifada broke out and the whole world took us seriously. We gained the support of people all over the world. Still, we did not reach our goals because the leadership was not brave enough at that time to escalate the intifada, to take it to another level. Israel was ready to accept to withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But our leadership failed us. The intifada was the choice of the people. If you go back to the beginning of the resistance and holding arms. It was a necessity for the Palestinians after 1967. We depended on the Arab countries to restore our homeland. But they failed us too. Israel occupied more of Palestine. So we decided to take our destiny into our hands. By waging an armed struggle. Nowadays people are waiting but they realize that these negotiations will get us nowhere. Our past experiences with Israel have shown us that they cannot be trusted. They do not respect their words. Threaten us all the time. Abu Mazen is not a partner for peace? Who is? Sharon? Netanyahu? This right-wing government? This is not a government, it is a gang, essentially, which represents the settlers, the fascists, the racists. The lie began last century. That this was the land of the Jews. The bible gave it to them. Is this democratic? The world in 1948 accepted this lie. God promised us the land! As if God was an estate agent. This is a colonial project. This is the main issue of the conflict.
LMADO: The struggle is about ending Israel’s settler colonial project, then, ending apartheid. What will happen, in your opinion, the day after? The day after victory? An Algerian like solution, or a South African one?
LK: We have always offered the more human solution. A place where everybody lives on an equal basis. Jewish, Muslims, I do not care about the religion of the person. I believe in the human being itself. Human beings can sit together and can decide together the future of this land. But I cannot accept that I do not have the right, now, to go back to my city. Like six million Palestinians. We are not allowed to go there. We are offering a human and democratic solution. Nobody can tell me that we cannot decide the fate of our country because we are refugees. What happened to us is a first in history, as far as I know. People being chased away from their homes and another people, coming from very far away, taking their places. The Israelis were citizens of other countries. Israel, thanks to various organizations, before 1948, built an army, Okay, but there was no society. They brought people from outside. Even now, there are huge contradictions in this country and this society. People come from different cultures, some do not even speak Hebrew. We do not want more blood, but are obliged to resist. We have the right to live in our homeland. When the Israelis realize that as long as they do not budge this conflict will be endless, they should accept our solution. Some Israelis have already understood that. That you cannot go on fighting forever. What for?
LMADO: Can you talk to us about the role of women in the resistance. And do you think your actions, the hijackings in 69 and 70, did more for Palestine, or for women around the world, or both?
LK: The hijackings were a tactic only. We wanted to release our prisoners and were obliged to make a very strong statement. We also had to ring a bell, for the whole world, that we the Palestinians are not only refugees. We are a people that has a political and a human goal. The world gave us tents, used- clothes and food. They built camps for us. But we were more than that. Nowadays there are plans to end the camps, because they are a witness of 1948. Women, are part of our people, they feel the same injustices. So they get involved. Women give life. So they feel the danger even more than men. When they are involved, they are more faithful to the revolution because they defend the lives of their children too. When I gave birth to two children, I became more and more convinced that I had to do my best to defend them and build a better future for them. I felt for women who had lost their children. So I think my actions had an impact on both, to answer your question. The popular front slogan was: “Men and Women together in the struggle for the liberation of our homeland”. The P.F.L.P implemented that by giving a place to women in the military. At the same time, women also played a big role in defending the interior front, the families. Thousands of Palestinian women are now responsible for their families. After all the wars, the massacres, the arrests, the killings by Israel, these women protected their families from being dispersed. Also, women are now educated, they work, they travel, go to university and so on. Before the revolution, it was not like that. Now it is. And it is a must. You can see that women are involved in many aspects of the struggle and society. Whether it is inside or outside Palestine.
LMADO: Lina Makboul who directed the film “Leila Khaled; Hijacker” implies in her last question in the film that your actions did more harm than anything to the Palestinian people. The film stops right after the question. What did you answer?
LK: She told me she did this for cinematic purposes. But I did not like that. The fact that people could not hear my answer. My answer was no, of course! My actions were my contribution to my people, to the struggle. We did not hurt anyone. We declared to the whole world that we are a people, living through an injustice, and that the world had to help us to reach our goal. I sat with Lina for hours and hours you know, telling her the whole story. She told me afterwards that Swedish TV only wanted the question.
LMADO: Do you sometimes reflect on the past? What was done, what could have been done, what could have been done differently, when you see the current state of affairs? What went wrong?
LK: Recently my party has held its seventh conference and reviewed its positions. We then made a program to widen our relations with the progressive forces around the world, especially on the Arab level. We also decided to strengthen our interior structure. I also learned that I had to review my own positions, my own thinking. Every year, around December, I look back at the past year and then decide to do something for the coming year. This year, I decided to quit smoking, so I did.
LK: I made this decision and it was easy for me to implement it.
LMADO: Why has Palestine, in your opinion, become such a symbol for the solidarity movement?
LK: Palestine for me is Paradise. Religions talk about paradise. For me, Palestine is paradise. It deserv
es our sacrifices.
Notes from talk, “An introduction to intersectionality,” given at Seomra Spraoi on 23 April 2014.
Different definitions lead to different applications. Context is important. Intersectionality is a means not an end. (What is the end?)
Origins: Comes from struggle, from the lived experiences of people (mostly women) who experienced oppression/discrimination that felt had multiple origins connected to their class, race, gender and sexual orientation. (Combahee River Collective)
Then, there was an impulse to study these intersections and give the study of these intersections a name. Kimberley Crenshaw did this in 1989 when she coined the term intersectionality. Intersectionality then became a method for studying the means by which we engage the intersection and overlapping of social identity categories and systems of oppression.
Social identity categories can be: Age, race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, levels of ableness, nationality, visa status, occupation, relationship status, religion/non-religion, dependents, etc.
Social Oppression: Social oppression is a concept that describes a relationship of dominance and subordination between categories of people in which one benefits from the systematic abuse, exploitation, and injustice directed toward the other. Because social oppression describes relationships between categories of people, it should not be confused with the oppressive behavior of individuals. In social oppression, all members of a dominant and subordinate categories participate regardless of the individual attitudes or behavior.
Oppression comes from the Latin root opprimere, meaning to “press down.”
Examples: Sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, classism, racism, colorism, ableism, lookism, nativism, colonialism, etc.
Asks of us to:
Arundhati Roy, “To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple.”
Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.”
Intersectionality also asks us to be introspective examine what privileges we have, as well as how it can create forms of oppression for others.
Strategies of resistance/intersectionality and social movements:
- Intersectionality can help us to identify ways in which we can build coalitions across single-issue political movements. Examples,LGBTQI, choice, immigration, taxation justice,de-carceration, work place organizing.
- Example the queer movement taking up the issues of immigration and economic justice as a way to build a broader coalition.
- Sex workers taking on issues of immigration and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
- Religious groups using texts and faith practices to make arguments for social justice (think liberation theology).
- Contextualize our position in the world relative to others. Ngugi, “Our propensity to action or inaction or to a certain kind of action or inaction, can be profoundly affected by the way we look at the world.”
- Countering narratives/telling a different story. Ben Okri, “Discursive change is a precondition for structural change.”
- Understanding the relationship between oppression and exploitation.MarthaGimenez responds, “To argue, then, that class is fundamental is not to ‘reduce’ gender or racial oppression to class, but to acknowledge that the underlying basic and ‘nameless’ power at the root of what happens in social interactions grounded in ‘intersectionality’ is class power.”
- The working class holds the potential to lead a struggle in the interests of all those who suffer injustice and oppression. This is because both exploitation and oppression are rooted in capitalism. Exploitation is the method by which the ruling class robs workers of surplus value; the various forms of oppression play a primary role in maintaining the rule of a tiny minority over the vast majority. In each case, the enemy is one and the same.
- Resistance. Necessitate a transformation of what we understand or value about resistance. Arundhati Roy, “But I think we really need to reimagine nonviolent resistance, because there isn’t any debate taking place that is more important in the world today than the one about strategies of resistance. There can never be one strategy. People are never going to agree about one strategy. It can’t be that while we watch the American war machine occupy Iraq, torture its prisoners, appropriate its resources, we are waiting for this pristine secular, democratic, nonviolent, feminist resistance to come along. We can’t prescribe to the Iraqis how to conduct their resistance, but we have to shore up our end of it by forcing America and its allies to leave Iraq now.”
- “White-y on the moon.” International Solidarity Activism post Arab Spring has become redundant.
- Calling-out vs. Calling-in: Compassionate vs. confrontational. Audre Lorde, “Hopefully, we can learn from the 60s that we cannot afford to do our enemies work by destroying each other.”
- Recognition of our own mortality and the enormity of the struggle WE face.
October 19, 2012
Dear Secretary Clinton,
We write to ask you to take the lead in formulating a clear and public US strategy for promotion and protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan, and to urge other countries to join in this effort.
We recognize the commitment both you and your Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer, have demonstrated to women’s rights in Afghanistan. We also recognize the large commitment of resources and energy by many others in the US government to promote and protect the rights of Afghan women and girls.
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.”
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.
A recent talk given at the annual Dublin Anarchist Bookfair, May 2012.
by Rafia Zakaria
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.
A key conceptual problem for observers of the Arab uprisings–academics and journalists alike–continues to be how to classify and assess the ideological transformations taking place. “The people want the downfall of the regime,” the central slogan of the uprisings, has been interpreted as anything from a return to pan-Arab sentiments to a new Arab liberalism. For some, it signaled the unification of action around a single idea that resisted the atomization of Arab societies under the neoliberal-military-Western nexus of power. Many in the West now regard the revolutionary potential more skeptically, not least due to Islamist parties winning elections. The question is whether the uprisings have produced original ideas that can foment new ideological formations, or if things have merely changed in order to stay the same? In attempting to answer the question, liberal, secular, Islamist, nationalist, along with a whole swarm of other isms (like salafism, neoliberalism and imperialism) are being thrown around rather too easily, as always. Whether we like it or not, ideology is habitually invoked to explain society and politics in the Middle East. Ideologies are both analytical categories that help scholars make sense of political ideas, and social imaginaries that help Arab individuals and societies make sense of the political worlds they occupy. They are constructs, but constructs with a life of their own that we cannot afford to ignore.
Before the uprisings, two narratives about the history of modern Middle East dominated scholarship as well as popular discourse. One claimed that secular Arab ideologies have declined since the 1970s, and the other that Islamic revivalist ideologies have become the new hegemonic force. These broad observations were rarely substantiated by studies of how ideology is produced, or by considerations of how secular and religious ideologies have borrowed from each other throughout the modern period. Furthermore, few scholars of the Middle East sought to bring recent advances in cross-disciplinary ideology theory into communication with textured social, intellectual, and political history. There have been exceptions, particularly in recent years. As Michaelle Browers showed in her groundbreaking 2009 book, Political Ideology in the Arab World, an accommodation has been taking place between liberals, socialists, Islamists and nationalists since the 1980s (albeit an accommodation often based on mutual enemies rather than common political visions). Others have made an effort to move beyond and challenge the dominant focus on intellectual history and political movements. Asaf Bayat’s Life as Politics and Tarik Sabry’s Cultural Encounters in the Arab World are two recent attempts to incorporate everyday life into our thinking about how political ideas are formed, transmitted, and lived in the region. These and other books formed the basis for my own thinking as I worked on ways to reform Middle East ideology studies from a vantage point somewhere between anthropology, media studies, intellectual history, and more traditional political science.
Then the uprisings happened. We witnessed popular mobilization on a whole new level, but phrased in terms that seemed to fall between liberalism, leftism, and Islamism, but perhaps having had nothing to do with ideologies in the first place. Maybe the compulsion to plot the uprisings into existing ideological registers merely displays the poverty of our analytical categories, or a lack of imagination. At the same time, it is equally facile to simply say that ideologies have gone away because of the popular call for a new order. As Michael Freeden has put it, there is no such thing as “post-ideology,” for ideologies are not just visions of alternative worlds, but conceptualizations of the political worlds we already inhabit. In other words, ideologies do not have to be fleshed out in neat programmatic form in order to qualify as ideologies. It also seems blatantly clear that liberalism, leftism, and Islamism—in their different varieties—have not disappeared overnight. Rather, Arab politicians, intellectuals, and activists are adapting to the new political landscapes and producing reflections on the uprisings in conversation with existing ideological traditions.
What is new, compared to the period before 2011, is the sense that something radically transformative is at play in the ideological landscape of the Arab Middle East. Many in our academic community are convinced that the “old” system of labeling fails to capture the new fluidity. A number of open questions are being posed by observers and often by events themselves. To what extent are demonstrators motivated by ideologies? Are the uprisings producing new ideological directions? In which ways are they empowering existing ideologies? Do we need to first ditch the old ideological map before we can invent anew, or do we give up on ideological signifiers altogether like the “post”-theoreticians of post-secularism, post-Islamism, and post-ideology suggest? The aim here is not to give exhaustive answers to any of these questions, but simply to offer some reflections on a possible starting point for a new conceptualization of ideology in the Arab Middle East after 2011.
Towards Cultural Ideology
To be clear, my argument is not that the uprisings were driven by ideology in the sense of elaborate strategies for a political order. My suggestion is that we adopt a more flexible concept of “ideology of everyday life,” along the lines of Bayat and Sabry, and inspired by theorists like de Certeau, Zizek, and others who have followed Althusser’s assertion that ideologies should not be seen as descriptions of the world, but rather embodied and often unconscious practices constitutive of political subjectivity. Doing so makes it possible to see how the lived experience of autocratic regimes produced registers of political language and potentials for mass mobilization. The ideology of everyday life, however, is not a completely separate entity from formalized political ideologies represented by intellectuals and politicians. The key to reforming ideology studies in the Middle East, I believe, lies in a marriage between the traditions of what Michael Herzfeld has called “cultural ideology” and more traditional intellectual history and political science.
Following this cue, and despite the drastic changes in Arab political culture over the last year, I think it makes sense to retain the big families of Arab ideologies: leftism, liberalism, Islamism, and (Arab) nationalism. The challenge is to use the terminology in a careful way that allows for cross-fertilization, fluid boundaries, and historical exchanges between the “families” of ideologies, and that speaks against common misperceptions. To take the most common, Arab leftism cannot just be grouped as secular and therefore opposed to Islamic currents. Nor can we say that liberals hold a monopoly on individual freedom. As a rule of thumb, zero-sum game descriptions of Islamism versus secularism as well as liberalism versus leftism fail to account for the many individuals and groups who borrow from each other, and who converge on particular ideological core beliefs such as social justice, individual freedom, and—of course—the need for political reform. Who can forget the image of a veiled woman in Yemen holding a placard of Che Guevara? Ideology must account for such crossovers. The key challenge is to historicize the overlaps in their different national and transnational contexts so we can begin to gain a proper understanding of the histories of Arab ideologies. Historicization is the best tool against simplistic depictions of “cultural battles” between neatly defined ideological groups.
If popular usage of ideological categories obfuscates reality, ideology theory does not automatically add any more clarity. Schools of thought and social scientific disciplines vary significantly and lead to different results when they are used in the study of ideologies. In a Marxist tradition, ideology is paramount to false consciousness used and abused by powerful actors to disguise the “base”—the real social relations of exploitation. In political science, the stark ideological contests of the twentieth century have created a legacy, where ideologies are often seen much like cultures: bounded human groups characterized by a high degree of homogeneity. This is the tradition that produces zero-sum game descriptions not just of capitalism versus communism, but—more troubling for us—Islamism versus secularism and/or liberalism. Such descriptions collapse categories of power and culture into neat packages that conform to already-taken-for-granted ideas of ideological groups, peoples, nations, and similar large-scale categories. In contrast, the way most anthropologists and social historians today look at ideology is informed by insights of the constructivist and linguistic turns in the social science of the last three decades. Rather than looking for boundedness, social historians see the existence of communities as a result of particular work aiming at producing internal coherence. This work does not just take place in political forums or in lofty political theory, but everywhere in society, and even within individuals. They stress that, like culture(s), ideologies cannot be taken as pre-given but must be critically deconstructed and contextualized when we study them historically. If ideology is a framework for the social imaginary that relates to the ideal organization of politics, then we must study it as we study social imaginaries: through broad, historicizing surveys of the public sphere.
Accepting the fluidity of the ideological landscape means that we must abandon the idea that ideologies are finite and cohesive, and instead study the processes of boundary making between them and the re-reading and re-writing of history that contributes to the formulation of new ideological positions. This can be done most productively through a combination of ethnography and analysis of mass-mediated texts and images. Simply put, if we want to comprehend how ideology is formed, we must look at life-worlds, ontologies, and the public spheres in which they are shaped, examining a variety of public culture that informs public debate, as well as less public formations such as political parties, fan cultures, and media with limited circulation. The wonderful ethnography and documentation produced in the Arab uprisings is a smorgasbord for researchers of ideology.
Ideologies in Their Middle Eastern Place
Another knotty issue in ideology theory is the universal or local nature of ideologies. Many from a liberal school of thought stress that ideologies are, by definition, ideals for a future society which easily transcend cultural and geographic boundaries–and that they derive their power from that translatability. Others would argue that, although ideologies have a common mooring in the modern era, they have found local expressions and adaptations that force us to approach them as distinct ideological traditions. Islamism is an obvious case of a modern ideological family with non-European origins. The important point is that the way Islamism, but also communism and indeed secularism, is lived and experienced varies significantly with its national, regional, and religious context. Translating this insight to secularism, Jakobsen and Pellegrini,Fenella Cannell, and others have suggested that we talk about secular traditions rather than secularism, secularization, or “the secular” in India, Turkey, France, and other places with more or less homogenous histories of secularization and debates about secularism.
If we apply this approach to the Arab countries, it might be possible to identify three interconnected secular traditions in the Levant, the Gulf, and North Africa. Reflections on the need for a secular state first emerged in the late Ottoman period–either in the Young Turk movement, or in the concurrent Arab cultural movement known as the Nahda. In the early twentieth century, a number of ideological currents influenced Arab intelligentsias. Arab nationalist and Islamists both stressed the need for a common cultural community in the Middle East. And Marxist, Ba’thist, and socialist ideologies informed political life in the Arab states that came into being on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and Western colonialism. Secular ideologies were partly inspired by forms of Western modernism–tiermondism, socialist distribution policies, and state centralisation–but also by ordinary people’s experience of Western colonialism, and by existing forms of social organisation and institutions that predated the European colonial presence. They competed with Islamism and Arab nationalism for influence, and resulted in a plethora of groups and intellectual trends, of which Nasser’s Arab nationalism became the most popular and successful.
Since the high tide of Nasserism, there has, in Browers’ words, been a retreat from secularism both in Arab nationalist and socialist thinking. In the process, many key concepts of the old left such as anti-imperialism and social justice have fertilized Islamist ideologies. Because the decline of leftist parties has coincided with a religious revival in the Middle East, giving strength and support to Islamist groups, ideology in the Middle East is today mainly examined from the vantage point of the Islamic revival, or, alternatively, as a competition between secular and Islamic tendencies. What has been lost in this paradigmatic shift in Middle East studies is the extent to which leftism remains a strong identification that has inspired both Islamists and liberals. If we want to understand how ideology is produced in today’s Middle East and what role it plays for society and politics, Arab leftism must be part of the picture. It has been sorely understudied to date and the Arab uprisings are the perfect occasion for a comprehensive revaluation.
Secular/ization/ism in Middle East Studies
The emphasis on Islamism in our field has also had an effect on the way we discuss Arab secularism. Outside of Middle East studies, secularism has attracted significant attention in anthropology, social theory, and religious studies. Generally speaking, the interest in secularism –dating roughly from the late 1980s–does not come from a deep engagement in secularist traditions, but from the recognition that a new language of politics is needed to understand the role of religious self-expression in the public sphere. Long gone is the time when secularism seemed to have no ideological significance on its own other than the taken-for-granted absence of religion. This need for religion as the lens through which we view the secular is particularly pronounced in works on secularism in the Arab Middle East due to the perceived centrality of Islam in shaping debates about state, society, and subjectivity.
The theorization of secularism can be divided into three currents: state doctrine (secularism), historical process (secularization), and political/ethical ideal (the secular). Even in very careful and considered analyses, there is inevitably a degree of confusion between these three categories, stemming from the popular usage of “secularism” to cover all three. An additional problem with the three categories is that none of them fully capture perhaps the most common-sense understanding of secularism, namely as social identity, that is, secularism as a blueprint for the individual’s life and place in the world. When we hear in the media that so-and-so are “secular” demonstrators, it is often with reference to this understanding of a group of people who not only hold certain views about the prescribed minimal role of religion in public life, but also conduct themselves and appear in a way that is (to a Western eye) non-religious. This is the opposite of what the literature commenting on secularism in Arab countries like Egypt has actually been concerned with, namely, individuals who make choices outside the box of Enlightenment-based liberal secularism and, again, appear “religious.” Their agency is political, not by directly affecting elections and state, but in the way that they enact a new political language based on comportment, behavior, modesty, and piety. This is what Asaf Bayat calls the politics of everyday life, and Saba Mahmood has labeled the politics of piety.
Another important writer on Islamic piety, Charles Hirschkind, has recently turned to the question of secularism in light of the Egyptian uprising. He sees Egypt in 2011 as a “post-secular”, or “asecular” moment (borrowing from Hussein Agrama) in the sense that the demonstrators defied a secular-Islamist distinction which the Mubarak regime had carefully maintained for decades in order to undermine the possibility of a unified opposition. This moment built on an intellectual and political tradition going back to the Kifaya movement and even further back to the 1980s, when a number of thinkers and activists paved the way for inscribing Islam in nationalism and, increasingly, liberalism. Because Islamic identity had become so inscribed and taken for granted as part of the politics of everyday life, and because Islamist slogans by and large were not heard in the uprisings, secularism versus Islamism simply was not an issue, Hirschkind argues. It has, of course, very much become an issue again in the aftermath as established political forces have moved into the political territory cleared by the uprisings. Like in Egypt, there is in Tunisia today a looming fear of a secular-Islamist “battle of cultures,” even though it was not an important factor in the popular push to overthrow the Ben Ali regime. Decades of secularist state rhetoric does not go away overnight. Nor should we be blind to the fact that Islamist actors, some of them distinctly illiberal, see this as their moment to bring their claims to the fore.
Beyond the Islamist-Secular Paradigm
Salafists clamouring for public morality should not blind us to the crucial problem concerning ideology studies of the Middle East, namely that scholars have tended to separate Islamist and secular positions too neatly. In the crudest rendition of this ostensible zero-sum game, a dejected Arab East has today turned its back on its own modern advances during the age of colonialism and post-colonial developmentalism and returned to a pre-modern culturalist mode of Islamic politics (Bernard Lewis). A more nuanced but also flawed strain of analysis places Middle Eastern contentions over Islam in the context of a global struggle where “secularism confronts Islam” in today’s world (Olivier Roy).
Both approaches assume cohesion within each of secularism and Islamism, respectively, that becomes untenable upon closer inspection. Furthermore, the very idea that secularism is a separate ideology often obfuscates, more than it clarifies, social reality. As the 2011 uprisings made visible, an Islamic leaning does not preclude leftist positions and ambitions for democratic change, social justice, and even for secularization. In other words, the degree of individual religiosity does not predetermine political positions. There are many shades of Islamism, and while some display anti-secular stances, others take inspiration from and work with secular leftist groups. The same can be said about many leftist political movements that have abandoned previous laic stances and instead appropriate Islamic rhetoric about cultural authenticity and nationalism. In Lebanon, a note on AUB’s wall that I spotted in 2009 reads: “I am against sectarianism, but I am not secular.” It points to heated debates in Lebanon over how to reform the sectarian system–a reform process promoted both from a pious (e.g., Hizbollah) and proto-secularist (e.g., the Laique Pride movement) viewpoint.
The interventions of Mahmood, Hirschkind, Deeb and others have been crucial for our understanding of Islamism but also of the place and meaning of secularism vis-à-vis Islamism. In reaction to what many see as a secularist bias in ideology studies, their works challenge the common perception that the link between modernity and secularism is somehow obvious. Instead they have declared the pious subject as a neglected and potentially more authentic Middle Eastern modernity. These works have contributed to inscribing Islamism where it belongs: in the realm of modern phenomena. However, their insistence on a reified pious subject is as problematic as the secular bias in understandings of modernity that they challenge. Like others such asGregory Starrett who have recently criticized the “piety” literature, I believe that the usefulness of “the secular” as an analytical antidote to the Islamic revival is suspect, simply because the things we might identify as religious and secular are often entwined, and are essentially aspects of the same experience of modernity. Moreover, in Islamic circles the supposed de-secularization in Arab societies, the withering away of “belief” in secularism, paradoxically tends to dovetail with secularization in the sense of transfer of moral and cultural authority away from religious institutions. Similar trends can be observed in mass media, where the rise of an Islamic web-based umma has undermined traditional ‘ulama.
In these and other ways, the Islamic revival and its grassroots activism is producing a pious modern, but at the same time it is also engendering other social processes, which could be said to be secularizing. Indeed, the extraordinary recent expansion of mass media in the Middle East is a reason for some of the disquiet that may partly account for the new pious subject. Conversely, people who define themselves as secular are concerned about the influence of Islamist media in specific local social domains where they have traditionally held power, like the Arab media industries and the art scene. Their historical experience of having been in charge of the mighty ship of modernization is producing a secular élan–what Esra Özyürek calls a “nostalgia for the modern,” emotionally charged with longing for a period before the Arab left lost its influence. Nostalgia feeds on romantic notions of an earlier, revolutionary phase of leftism that has now been superseded by Islamism, authoritarian regimes, and neoliberal economies. If Arab leftism has been reinvigorated in the uprisings, which I believe it has, it is because leftists sense a possibility of overcoming nostalgia and finally delivering on the promises of ideological and organisational reform.
Islamist groups are tied to the modern history of the left primarily in the way they build on the rhetorical foundations of populism laid by secular Arabism, but with an added element of religiously based cultural identity and symbolism. The Iranian revolution in 1979 marked an important turning point in that respect by providing common ideals of anti-Imperialism and popular revolution. As a result, many of the secular left’s ideological focal points have merged with those of the Islamists, producing, among other things, an “Islamic left” in countries like Egypt and Lebanon, “conversions” of prominent leftists such as Palestinian writer Munir Shafiq to the Islamic cause in the 1980s, a shared human rights agenda since the 1990s, and a comprehensive attempt by leftist intellectuals to analyze what Islamism means for their societies. Similar views on the United States, Israel, and authoritarian Arab regimes have given occasion for common ground between Islamists and secular leftists. Moreover, overlaps between religious and secular ideologies and the social institutions producing them can be traced back to the early twentieth century, which points to a deeper correlation between secular and religious ideologies than what is assumed by classic secularisation theory. If historians pay attention to these deeper correlations, we will have a better chance to understand the transformations and conversations taking place in the ideological landscape after 2011.
by: the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers
August 9, 2011
‘The world doesn’t have to choose between the Taliban and the US government.
All the beauty of the world—literature, music, art—lies between these two fundamentalist poles.’
War Is Peace, by Arundhati Roy, October 18, 2001
We need clarity. The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers reject the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration. We reject such declarations made by politicians who do not know us, nor care for us. We want the freedom to solve our own problems. In case you haven’t heard of the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration, here is how it is being described in the international press.
We need to listen
‘The United States should maintain a long-term military presence in Afghanistan as a “tenant” on bases jointly occupied with Afghan forces, rather than on permanent U.S. bases, after its combat mission ends, according to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates……the administration is negotiating a strategic partnership agreement with the Kabul government for the longer term.’ — U.S. wants ‘joint bases’ in Afghanistan, Gates says, Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, 8th June 2011.
‘So this is a mutual document of interests,’ President Karzai, Press Briefing with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Kabul, 5th June 2011.
‘The Iranian interior minister made a rushed visit to Kabul, followed shortly by the national security advisers of India and Russia. The Russians, though generally supportive of NATO’s role in Afghanistan, were alarmed at the prospect of a long-term Western presence. “The Russian side supports the development of Afghanistan by its own forces in all areas — security, economic, political — only by its own forces, especially after 2014,” said Stepan Anikeev, a political adviser at the Russian Embassy here. “How is transition possible with these bases?”’ Talks on U.S. Presence in Afghanistan after Pullout Unnerve Region, Rod Nordland, New York Times, 18th April 2011.
‘Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani…bluntly told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the Americans had failed them both…Mr. Karzai should “forget about allowing a long-term U.S. military presence in his country…,” Mr. Gilani said. Pakistan is lobbying Afghanistan’s president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S., urging him instead to look to Pakistan—and its Chinese ally.’ Karzai Told to Dump U.S., Matthew Rosenberg, Wall Street Journal, 27th April 2011.
‘The US has been bankrolling the effort with up to $100bn (£61bn) a year and is negotiating a new strategic partnership with President Hamid Karzai. “December  is not a campaign end date but a waypoint – a point at which the coalition security posture changes from one that is in the lead to one that is mentoring and advising, but is still here.” General James Bucknall, 2nd in command of International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).’ Nick Hopkins, The Guardian, 10th May 2011.
‘Because of deep concerns over militant groups in the region, (U.S. officials) want some kind of launching area … to go after individuals and training camps. They see few other basing options in the region. So, the U.S. government will push hard for this.’ Caroline Wadhams, a security expert at the Center for American Progress, 3rd June 2011.
‘The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit ( SCO, a mutual-security organisation which was founded in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan ) adopted a statement calling for an “independent, neutral” Afghanistan (read: free of foreign occupation). Nurusultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, who hosted Karzai, put it on record, “It is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014.”’ Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, Asia Times Online, 21st June 2011.
‘In a statement, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Party of Hezb-e-Islami described establishment of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan as an eternal occupation of the country. The statement said establishment of permanent US bases in Afghanistan would mean the war never ends.’ Tolo News Afghanistan, 19th July 2011.
What is described is the framework for Great Game 3.0, demonstrating the world’s militarized inability to resolve distrust and human conflict in a sensible manner, and the ineffectual silence of the international community and the United Nations.
We need to ask questions
Our leaders, the Afghan and American elite, don’t want us to be concerned about the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration. They want us to be appropriately upset by news of suicide bombings and I.E.D.s, and sufficiently curious about the Taliban, the 2014 draw-down, and peace.
What’s more, the ‘debt crisis doom’ will not allow us to look at the big picture, which is the consistent abuse of the people’s interests by global governments determined to maintain the status quo of Power-and-Wealth-dictated inequalities. Yet, the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers are committed to recovering their values. This is difficult because such values have been de-humanized, as we ourselves have become disconnected from other human beings and distracted by material OBJECTS. This happens to us and it happens more so to ordinary Americans who face even greater distractions and may not want to bother with this ‘agreement.’ After all, Americans have enough troubles of their own.
Or can we expect her citizens to break out of their cold, lonely bubbles? We need an urgent global debate about this. The US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration will perpetuate ‘terrorism’ and bring it to everyone’s doorsteps. The ‘partnership’ will allow permanent joint US-Afghanistan military bases to launch and project hard power. The ‘extreme’ Taliban would conveniently ‘use’ these bases as a stand-alone reason for their ‘holy jihad.’ We cannot forget that one of Osama Bin Laden’s reasons for attacking the US on September 11th was the presence of US military bases in Saudi Arabia.
This Strategic Partnership Declaration would kill any chance for our madness to slow down and our violence to calm down. It will doom ordinary Americans and Afghans to permanent terrorism. Why can’t we quiet our nerves, look deep inside humanity, and begin healing? The reality is that Afghans are not only very angry but also tired, while US/NATO citizens are essentially unaware, so are neither concerned, nor angry.
We need options
As Arundhati Roy said, Afghans don’t have to choose between the Taliban and the US-Afghan Government…these two fundamentalist poles. Just like Americans don’t have to choose between ‘feeding’ the rich or ‘feeding’ the rich.We can choose normal, decent lives, based on respect for life, on valuing life.
We can connect our aspirations with those of human beings elsewhere:
‘When people decide to live, destiny shall obey, and one day … the slavery chains must be broken.’ Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qasem Al-Shabi (Schebbi)
‘Hurriya! Hurriya! Hurriya! – Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!’ Egyptian Tahrir Square protesters
‘We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers! We are not slaves!’ Spanish Indignados, Real Democracy Now
‘The world is no longer dignified enough for words… This is my last poem, I cannot write more poetry. Poetry no longer exists inside me. No more blood!’ Mexican poet Javier Sicilia and the Caravan of Solace
‘The people demand social justice. This is Egypt.’About 300,000 Israelis marching through the streets in central Tel Aviv
‘Tell the world not to send their money,’ says Abdulai, a 15 year old Afghan boy. ‘I don’t need their money. I need to live without wars.’
At a Press Briefing in Kabul on the 5th of June 2011, President Karzai addressed Robert Gates as ‘His Excellency’ and gave him a medal, which Gates self-proclaimed as ‘an award’ presented to him ‘on behalf of the Afghan people.’
If the Afghan public knew that Karzai had given Gates an award on their behalf, they may have fumed. But then, most rural Afghans don’t even know who Gates is. This proud and exceptional self-praise by the rich and powerful is ugly; the People of the world should expose and disempower this imposition of values. There ARE other options, especially since there ARE other deeper values.
We need an equal conversation
No Power today represents the people. Today, ordinary Afghans are denied the basic human dignities, living in a country that Save the Children said was the most dangerous place on earth for mothers, and that UNICEF said was the worst place on earth to be born in, and to be a child.
Moreover, the country that is pushing to sign this Strategic Partnership Declaration with Afghanistan, namely the US, has neither ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women nor the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
These indicate the ‘human regress’ which the Afghan government/Taliban/US/NATO have been responsible for. We mustn’t ‘just watch and do nothing’ about our glaring socio-economic inequalities; 20% of the earth’s population is hoarding more than 70% of the total income.
It is an unsustainable inhumanity. Why not listen, as human beings are capable of doing? Why not grieve? Why not have decent and equal conversations? Have we all become incapable of perceiving the ‘beauty of the world – literature, music, art…?’
For the sake of Abdulai and billions of ordinary people like him, why not join the rising masses across the Middle East & Africa, Europe, South & Central America and more, under the same blue sky, to end our slavery to the status quo values?
We need to at least have conversations about the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration, before it is signed in betrayal of ordinary Americans, Afghans and global citizens.
We have little left to lose anyway.
The Powers have been laughing at us, right from the very beginning.
The US coalition was dropping 26,000 bombs on an already destroyed Afghanistan from October 2001 to March 2002, when these words were recorded: ‘By the second day of the air strikes, US pilots were returning to their bases without dropping their assigned payload of bombs. As one pilot put it, Afghanistan is “not a target-rich environment.” At a press briefing at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, US defense secretary, was asked if America had run out of targets. “First we’re going to re-hit targets,” he said, “and second, we’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is…” This was greeted with gales of laughter in the Briefing Room.’
Gandhi had said, ‘Our slavery is complete when we begin to hug it.’
When the Strategic Partnership is signed, peace groups will still be working hard to demand complete withdrawal. Unawares, the rest of the world will be repulsed by but still admiring how ‘intelligent’ politicians are ‘Mafia-ing’ the economic crisis. But, there will then be at least 5 permanent US military bases in Afghanistan, and ‘gales of laughter in the Briefing Room.’ Brutality Smeared in Peanut Butter, Arundhati Roy, The Guardian, October 23, 2001
Next the statesman will invent cheap lies, putting the blame on the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception…Mark Twain.
by: Semira N. Nikou
- What is the status of female political prisoners in Iran?
- On what grounds have female political prisoners been arrested?
- Women were at the forefront of the 2009 demonstrations that produced the Green Movement. What is the current status of the women’s movement two years later?
- Have the women’s rights campaigns changed since two years ago?
- What is the status of the One Million Signatures Campaign, which seeks to collect one million signatures to change discriminatory laws against women in Iran?
There women from all over the world at the Commission on the Status of Women, which is presently taking place in New York. Both governmental and non-governmental delegations are present at this UN sponsored event. We used this opportunity to find out a little more about the situation of women’s rights and women’s rights activists in other countries. The following is an interview with two women’s rights activists from Tunisia, Dr. Khadija Arfaoui and Usra Farwes, who are working with the Feminist Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development.
Q: What is the legal situation of women in your country?
Well Tunisia has one of the most progressive laws when it comes to women, as compared with the rest of the Arab world. Our laws are both secular and also some are based on Sharia law. We have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But, of course that ratification is with reservations on 3 issues, which include articles 8, 9 and 15. For the most part women have equal rights with men. There are a few issues which are problematic. One is the right to pass on nationality. Women are allowed to pass on their nationality to their children, but only with the stated permission of their husbands. And women are not allowed to marry non-Muslims, but marriages that occur outside of Tunisia are recognized in Tunisia, so women who want to marry non-Muslim men do so outside the country. The other issue of concern is one of inheritance, where women inherit less than men and this is problematic.
Q: In Iran too women inherit at half the amount of their brothers (when they are inheriting from their parents) and wives inherit 1/8 of the assets of their husbands, excluding land. Though new legislation has recently been passed in the parliament to allow for women to inherit land from their husbands and we are hoping that this legislation will be approved. Is it the same in Tunisia?
In Tunisia, women inherit land and there are no restrictions in this respect. But our law on inheritance is based on Sharia law and like Iran, when inheriting from their parents, female children inherit half of male children (or 1/3 to the female and 2/3 to male). Women inheriting from their husbands women inherit 1/8th of his assets. Our organization is involved in addressing this inequality and we are seeking equal rights for women to inheritance.
Q: In Iran women are working to change laws that discriminate against women, including equal rights in marriage, right to divorce and right for child custody and guardianship. One of the demands of women’s rights activists is an end to polygamy. How prevalent is the practice of Polygamy in your country? Is it legal?
Polygamy was abolished in 1956, at the same time that Tunisia gained independence. Currently polygamy and temporary marriage are not allowed under the law, and in fact if a man marries a second wife, he faces jail. Women and men have equal rights in marriage as well. In 1993 the law was changed to ensure that both men and women have equal rights in marriage. Before that the law required that women obey their husbands, but with its change in 1993, both men and women are obliged to obey each other. Women also have the right to divorce and custody and guardianship of their children. Also the legal age of marriage is 18 for both boys and girls.
Q: Tell us about what you are planning for International Women’s Day Celebrations in your country?
We are planning a conference on women. We are also holding a workshop to commemorate the 20th anniversary of our organization. And we will be launching our website.
Q: Do you plan to hold any public events, like a protest or a march?
No street protests need authorization and even if we request a permit we will not be issued one. The government fears public protests and so they do not allow for it. If we go out in the street without a permit, our protest will end in police violence. We recently held one protest in support of Gaza and to object to the killings that were taking place there. There was a lot of public outcry about the situation of Gaza in our country, so the authorities had no choice but to issue a permit for our protest, but the whole time, the protesters were surrounded by police. At the same time the government sent organizations that are affiliated with the government to our protest and instead of chant our slogan in support of Gaza, they began chanting slogans in support of the president and his bid for re-election. Our President has been in office for 20 years and now he wants to run for office again, despite the fact that when he was elected, he claimed that there should be term limits for Presidents. Anyhow, these government protesters chanted slogans like: “We want to elect our president to office again.”
Q: It sounds like you are working in a difficult security environment. What is the situation in your country with NGOs?
The situation of NGOs in our country is very difficult. There is a lot of pressure on activists and on NGOs and the police can storm the offices of NGOs at any given time. But we believe that our work is important and we continue. Interesting for you may be the fact that we had a meeting with Shirin Ebadi in our NGO when she was in Tunisia.
Q. I told you that women in Iran are fighting for their legal rights. I work with a national campaign that seeks to change all laws that discriminate against women. It’s called the One Million Signatures Campaign. Have you heard of the Campaign?
Yes we have heard of the Campaign. We get all the news related to the Campaign through different international email lists on women. In fact, when your colleague Khadijeh Moghaddam was arrested and we read the news, we took the initiative to translate the news into French and share it with our colleagues in French speaking countries and in Tunisia. We are shocked that women in Iran go to prison for simply asking for their basic rights.
Q. Have you ever had any women’s rights activists imprisoned in your country?
Not for the demand of equal rights, certainly not. But we have had some women in the south of Tunisia who have been engaged in demonstrations for several months. These mothers have protested lack of employment opportunities for their children. One woman’s rights activist who was a supporter of this group was placed in detention for 4 months. Her name is Zakia Dhifaoui. She is free now. We really commend all of you working with the Campaign and for women’s equal rights in Iran and we hope that you know that we will support you in whatever way possible.
Thanks for your time and your support.
In a neighborhood of northern Kabul once called little Paris after its famous patisseries and tree-lined avenues, a taxi driver drops me off in front of a 15-foot-high metal gate. The gate surrounds a large old house barely visible from the street. The street is really nothing more than an ominous dirt path marked by potholes, and a trench where sewage wafts up from an opening where pipes were never laid. Across the street is a makeshift refugee camp, homes built from dirt and materials gathered from nearby garbage heaps. The man who works security at the gate instructs me the refugees are from Pakistan, families fleeing the ongoing fighting and US air raids.
I am here to have a meeting with the director of the Afghan Women’s Skills and Development Center (AWSDC), a non-government organization working to enhance the basic skills and capacities of women and girls through education and training courses. The AWSDC is a member organization of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), “an umbrella association of over seventy women focused NGO’s,” according to its director Afif Azim.
I am here because both organizations have signed a report submitted by 29 NGO’s working in Afghanistan to the NATO Heads of Government called Nowhere to Turn. The report documents the NGO’s serious concerns over growing insecurity for ordinary Afghans, and cites a recent UNAMA briefing claiming a 21% increase in civilian deaths in the first six months of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009. Careful to outline that a majority of deaths are at the hands of armed opposition groups, like the Taliban, the report emphasizes that the current US/NATO military strategy including arbitrary detention, night-raids, drone bombing and financing and arming of militia groups are the most significant factors creating instability for civilians.
The Afghan Women’s Network and its partner organizations have been working since the fall of the Taliban to advocate for the implementation of international conventions and national legislation that would protect, and maybe in the future even benefit the status and rights of women across Afghanistan. All are starkly aware of the realities ‘on the ground’ for women, and this is why they speak passionately about the need to create security before any substantive work towards human rights can be accomplished.
Still, the issue of security in Afghanistan is as pressing as it is contested. The narrative of guaranteeing women’s rights in Afghanistan has served as the highly politicized accessory to the US’s 2001 invasion. And this objective remains a potent piece of the political puzzle in Afghanistan. Thus, while these two organizations were clear in their condemnation of US military strategy, they also advocated for the necessity of the troop presence due to the reality of violence women would face if there were a civil war.
However, other women stress that the US/NATO presence are contributing so significantly to insecurity in the country that there is no choice but to demand from the UN an alternative international force that would not act as occupiers. Zohra, a photographer and self-described feminist with a local arts collective Third Eye reasons that while cosmetic changes for women have occurred in Kabul and Heart cities since the fall of the Taliban, for the vast majority of women in the provinces this event held no significant political meaning. Zohra, like her colleagues from AWN, assert that whist many people in the West focus on the ‘need’ to challenge the gender norms of a cultural conservative society, it is the insecurities accented by war and occupation that remain the principle obstacle to securing women’s human rights.
As Zohra explains, “Your [US] leaders say they are here to secure Afghanistan, especially for the women. The reporters happily wrote stories about how the Taliban did not let women to go to school. And this is true; many of our women cannot even to read. But now girls cannot go to school, and where is the Taliban? It is not the Taliban who are stopping the girls. What mother would let her child to go to school if they think a bomb will drop on them? For the girls does it matter from which hand the bomb drops?”
I leave the AWSDC offices humbled by the work these women accomplish despite overwhelming challenges. Yet, I am most immediately struck by the faces that greet me across the way in the refugee camp. Whilst my colleagues and I discussed largely theoretical scenarios for possible solutions to the ‘women question’ in Afghanistan, the inhabitants of this camp have been scavenging a nearby trash heap, looking for materials to burn a fire and keep warm enough to survive the night. Their day-to-day existence depends largely on the generosity of what is discarded from the NGO offices that line this street. I tremble under this most cruel reality, and remind myself that across Afghanistan women weep for children who cannot survive the cold; women whose anger must grow as they send children to bed with pains of hunger, or who fear the terrorizing bombs that mutilate and murder loved ones without recourse to justice. These are the very women we seek to ‘help’, and I come to the conclusion that many in Afghanistan have stated over and over to us in our all too brief time here, “you cannot bomb people and then expect them to accept your aid.”
PBS NEWSHOUR and the Center for Investigative Reporting mark the two-year anniversary of Iran’s “Green Movement” with an exclusive report about the government crackdown that followed. The report features the courageous work of an Iranian journalist and the first, heart-wrenching accounts of women demonstrators who say once arrested, they were raped, beaten and tortured by the Iranian government. Watch the full report on PBS NewsHour.
CIR editors had the full interview with “Leila” translated. What follows is an excerpt. For reasons of safety CIR has decided to not reveal the identities of the interviewer and person interviewed.
I was an ordinary person and a student who was detained for no reason.
That day I wasn’t part of any protest. I was returning home from the university. They harassed me, abused me, tortured me.
They constantly deny any act of torture on TV, but that’s exactly what they did to me. I want to tell the whole world, it wasn’t just me, but many people.
They arrested me and put me in a van. Along the way they hit us with batons, harassed us, and cursed us. They were policemen wearing uniforms with large builds, wearing hoods disguising their faces, you could only see their eyes and mouths. They had ripped off their name tags from their uniforms. Their uniforms, batons, shields and equipment were all similar. It was inside a van like those of morality police, they hit us and insulted us.
Among them was a young boy, his mustache hadn’t even grown yet, he wasn’t a man. He touched us all over with lust, on my breasts, other women’s breasts, wherever he wanted. No one dared to challenge him. A woman who protested, he turned and slapped her on the face. We all fell silent.
There was a guy filming us constantly with a handycam from all directions. They transferred us to a place that was like a warehouse. I didn’t see much of it, just that it had tall walls and a high ceiling like a warehouse. They wouldn’t exchange a word with each other, nothing whatsoever. They are such fearful people that [they wouldn’t speak] in front of someone like me, who is a nobody. I have the strength only now. Why didn’t I speak out before? I didn’t have the ability to speak out.
I am an ordinary person who decided to speak out more than a year after what happened to me. Go try find someone like me who would be willing to give an interview. They don’t exist, they don’t have the strength because they fear another round of torture and trouble. No one would come forward and say these things.
If our captors weren’t scared they wouldn’t have heaped this misfortune on us. I am not a very religious person but I do believe in something. They shattered my soul such that I say “Damn God!” Because what had I done? What had I done to deserve this? All I had done was to give one vote and that was to Mousavi. A vote that was never counted, never!
The dragged us on the floor, not even asking us to stand and walk. They dragged us like potato sacks into hallways made of curtains.
They gave us typed up pages, with the standard bureaucratic font. And what was written on those pages? It said that I had committed acts I had absolutely never done. I was to copy from those pages that I am a rioter, I have endangered national security, I did this and that, and I am a terrorist! I didn’t even have nail clippers in my purse, for them to say I had anything remotely sharp or dangerous. I only had my books and pens coming from the university.
They separated us into groups of five here, five there. It was the same boy who was groping us in the van, he separated us. For example, he said I was one of the pretty ones and should go to one side.
They shaved all our heads. I used to have log hair. He grabbed my hair in his hand like this. A man! It was a man shaving my hair, a man giving me a body search, a man touching me all over. There were no women there.
He would purposely hurt me while shaving me, to give me marks on my head.
While he was shaving me, he was touching me all over. I wasn’t sitting on a chair. He held me like this and grabbed my head while his legs were feeling me.
Five of us were taken to a cell. A tiny cell. Some earlier detainees were also there. I was really tired, bruised, my face all cut up, totally devastated. They held us there until they supposedly clarified our status.
We were in that tiny room for 18 hours. I desperately needed to go to the bathroom. The pressure was really hurting me. I felt my bladder would burst. I was nauseous, thirsty. I had read in human rights books that detainees have certain rights. But I didn’t have the most basic rights like going to the bathroom or drinking water. I didn’t the right to a lawyer, or to call my parents to say where I was and not to worry.
I didn’t have any appetite for food but I wished I could call my father. That was much more important to me. To say “Father dear, I am here and need someone to come help me.”
It wasn’t like they would tell us confess to this or that and then go free. They wanted to keep us in such limbo, to reach a point where you say enough. You would say I would do anything to get out of this.
With our hands tied, our eyes covered and hoods over our heads, they transferred us to a detention center. I couldn’t tell where it was. Not just me, no one had any idea where we were.
What haunted me the most was the groping, more than the insults. Their groping was torture.
As they groped us they would invoke Saint Zahra. Could you imagine that? Could Saint Zahra believe such things?
In the name of Saint Fatima, Saint Zahra they touched us and they even said “In the name of God” as they did it. They would say “Oh God accept us!” As if it was our wedding and he was performing his rituals preparing for the marital bed.
I detest the phrase vigilante forces that the government uses. How could they be vigilante if they have serious backing and protection? No! they were no vigilantes. All the papers and forms had seals of the Judiciary and Intelligence Ministry. You think I am a little kid to believe these people could be vigilantes? I am no kid! I have seen it all … killing people and claiming it was vigilantes!
They took us to a detention center. This was more like a proper detention center, not a warehouse. This time they took me into a solitary cell. I figured out that before and after interrogations they throw you in solitary confinement, so when you are done you don’t share your experience with others.
After a short time, about 20 minutes, they took me to the interrogation room. My hands were tied behind my back, I was blindfolded and gagged. The room was dark and the door opened. I heard steps. Someone sat in front of me.
“So you are a rioter! So you are undermining the State! Who you think you are? Who are you with?” I was gagged. He said “Why are you not talking?” I teared up.
I said “I am not with anyone.” He said “Shut up, speak when I tell you.” I was trembling all over. I felt my body tense up. I was so defenseless. He went on and on saying “Who are you with? You want to overthrow the State?” I said “How can I? I am not capable.” He said “Oh, yeah? You putting on a show? You think I am going to listen to you like others?” I kept silent. Next question: “What do you do?” I said “I am a student.” He said “No you are not. From now on don’t say you are a student.”
Suddenly I felt he was sitting on my legs. I couldn’t breathe from his weight. I was scared silent. I could feel his breathing on my face.
The first thing he did was lick my face. I felt my life drained. I felt my whole being escaping out of my mouth. He started to pull my clothes off. My hands bound, my eyes covered, I started crying. He shouted “Shut up whore!” Then he opened my bra and took my clothes off. He was stroking and hitting me at the same time. Saying “I will do something to you that you’ll never forget. I’ll make it so you never leave your house again. Anytime hear my name you’ll tremble, I’ll drive you insane”… and he did. He raped me.
Me, who never had a boyfriend. He raped me. Not with a baton … it was his filthy thing … his ugly male instrument. He raped me. Afterwards he urinated on me. The smell nauseated me. After a while he walked away and I was left with my sorrows. What happened? I was told from childhood to protect [my virginity] and now it was gone. What happened? I was in shock. After a while someone else came and meanwhile I had wet myself.
When he came he smacked me in my face and said, “You filthy scum you have stunk up the place!” Then he called some guy to come over and mop the floor. Then he went out and dragged something into the room, and sat in front of me. I could hear crinkling. He started unwrapping something. I didn’t know what, but when he flicked his lighter I realized he wanted to smoke. Until then he hadn’t said anything. I sat there with my hands tied. I sensed, I mean I heard, he put the cigarette to his mouth, and lit it. He said, “You are not talking? Are you mute? I’ll make you talk, who do you think you are?”
He untied my hands and started caressing me as if he wanted to make love. I had no feelings, I was numb from the beatings. Then something burned me. I screamed. He extinguished his cigarette on my left hand. I screamed. It hurt. It hurt a lot. I felt it penetrate to my bone. A hole in my hand. It burned, as if my hand was seared against a hot kettle… He still wasn’t done. He extinguished another cigarette on my knee. I was still consumed in the pain, when he put out another on my breast. I sensed it. I didn’t see it.
I keep using the verb “see” but I didn’t see anything, I was feeling everything. He put one cigarette after another on my body. I was burning. I felt my life drain from my veins. Why me? How much can I endure? How much should I suffer? I got quiet. I was crying. Someone else came into the room. I could hear the steps. He said something that I could not process. I was just raped an hour ago, and he said, “I’ve heard you are not a virgin. Did you do it with your boyfriend? How many guys have you been with?” In my heart I screamed, “You just raped me, you took my innocence, and now you are asking me how many guys I have been with? Before, I was a girl! You did this to me!”
I couldn’t comprehend that they were saying this. Me, who was a girl, living in this rotten society. I was someone who would tell off a guy who got too comfortable in the taxi cab next to me! Now he was telling me, “You had fun with your boyfriend? When they brought you here your hymen was broken… Which whorehouse do you come from? Are you a prostitute?” I couldn’t talk. I wanted to say, “It was your friends who raped me, it was you! You all! Before this I was a girl!”
I didn’t know how long I was there. I fell asleep. A kick to the stomach suddenly woke me up. I felt like my stomach filled with blood. I tasted blood in my mouth. They cursed and pulled me out of the cell. I could not breathe. I didn’t know how long had passed. I felt drowsy, I couldn’t walk, I fell unconscious and when I woke up I thought I was in a clinic, but I wasn’t. The walls were dirty. They wanted to give me an IV, but I didn’t let them. I was scared it was infected with AIDs. They just dressed my cigarette burns.
I could smell blood, I was still drowsy. I didn’t feel well. They took my back to the cell. I don’t know how much time passed. One week, two weeks. Every other day it was the same routine. They would take me into the room, they would beat me, rape me, they would pour their sperm and excrement on me, and they would supposedly wash me with a bucket of water.
They didn’t extinguish cigarettes on me anymore, maybe they thought it would leave marks. They mostly beat me. I got an infection because of the repeated rapes. My uterus got infected, it smelled, I had little ugly bumps, I thought it was syphilis. I got treated, but I was never sent to the hospital. When I got back, my parents just took care of me at home.
I suffered many things during those days, and then later I was still tortured by the remaining pain. My uterus was polluted and sick. My spirit was crushed. Me, who was an active person, I was scared of crowds. I don’t know how many times they raped me. I didn’t have a watch to calculate. May be it was ten minutes, but for someone under such stress ten minutes is like a lifetime. I just know the number of rapes was very high, and it wasn’t always the same person.
They had handed my belongings to my father. They called him from my mobile and told him that we have arrested her. They told him she was one of the demonstrators. They showed him the file that I had handwritten and my father pursued my case. They kept us in limbo for so long that we no longer asked them when they would release me. This whole time I told myself to be strong. Be calm. In one instance, it will all be over. Death was my wish. I wanted to die. I wanted it all be over. I wanted to die in my sleep. I wanted peace. I prayed that I no longer existed. I wanted to die.
In my dreams my only wish was death. In my dreams I was running in a field in a white dress. That field was so beautiful. It reminded me of a trip with my family, it was a beautiful memory. Those days I never thought one day I would be able to sit here and say what happened. To say what happened to me, to others. We are not Nasrin Sotoudeh, so that someone would come to our rescue. We are not Nasrin Sotoudeh, so that our voice would be heard. No one knows my name, no one knows where I am, no one, no one came to look for me.
When Neda died, all of Iran, the whole world, heard about it. But no one knew when they were raping me, when they were torturing me, when they were burning me with cigarettes.
I told myself one day I would speak so the whole world could hear. I would speak, I had promised myself. I signed in blood, a promise stronger than the bond of marriage. Unbreakable. I told myself that I would do it and I did it.
There are many of us, people that, because of their reputation and because of their life, they don’t speak up. People who are out there, people like me. Believe me, they are out there. They need you. All of you. Don’t let people like me suffer. It already happened to me, I’m only 22, but I feel old and I feel like dying. Please stop them. Please stop them. How did you help others? Please do it for us too. Us, who fear our reputation. If they see this video, what they will do to me? But I’m here. I’m speaking because I have to. Those who hear this, those who are like me, you have to speak. They have to understand. The whole world has to understand that there are those of us who are invisible.
by: Wael Ghonim
Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian activist hailed by observers worldwide as a hero and one of the leaders of the Egyptian uprising, talked to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and thanked the people of Iran for organizing a demonstration on 14 February in solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia, and thanked the Iranian civil rights movement.
Ghonim played a major role in organizing the protests that have shaken Egypt for the past two weeks. His Facebook page is widely credited with inviting Egyptians to their first public protest on 25 January. Wael Ghonim has appeared with a green wristband during his public speeches and interviews. As the peaceful protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran came to be known as the “Green Movement,” Ghonim’s green wristband has become a source of interest for Iranians.
When asked by the Campaign whether the motivation behind his green wristband is Iran’s Green Movement, he said: “That was just a coincidence, but I’m happy you guys made the connection!”
“I would tell Iranians to learn from the Egyptians, as we have learned from you guys, that at the end of the day with the power of people, we can do whatever we want to do. If we unite our goals, if we believe, then all our dreams can come true,” is the prominent Egyptian activist’s message to Iranians on the threshold of the 14 February demonstrations.
Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who took time off from his job to be in Cairo during the protests, was freed last Monday after being held by Egyptian authorities for 10 days. He is one of the best known speakers for the Egyptian people’s movement.
It is truly inspiring to see the bravery of Egyptians as they rise up to end the criminal rule of Hosni Mubarak. It is especially inspiring to remember that what is happening is the culmination of years of work by activists from a spectrum of pro-democracy movements, human rights groups, labor unions, and civil society organizations. In 2004, when Kefaya began their first public demonstrations, the protesters were usually outnumbered 30 to one by Central Security Forces. Now the number has reversed—and multiplied.
No less astonishing is the poetry of this moment. I don’t mean “poetry” as a metaphor, but the actual poetry that has played a prominent role in the outset of the events. The slogans the protesters are chanting are couplets—and they are as loud as they are sharp. The diwan of this revolt began to be written as soon as Ben Ali fled Tunis, in pithy lines like “Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa‘ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!,” (“Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!”). In the streets themselves, there are scores of other verses, ranging from the caustic “Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr” (“Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs”), to the defiant “Idrab idrab yâ Habîb, mahma tadrab mish hansîb!” (Hit us, beat us, O Habib [al-Adly, now-former Minister of the Interior], hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!). This last couplet is particularly clever, since it plays on the old Egyptian colloquial saying, “Darb al-habib zayy akl al-zabib” (The beloved’s fist is as sweet as raisins). This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself.
A History of Revolutions, a History of Poets
There is nothing unusual about poetry playing a galvanizing role in a revolutionary moment. And in this context, we might remind ourselves that making revolution is not something new for Egyptians—having had no less than three “official” revolutions in the modern era: the 1881 Urabi Revolution which overthrew a corrupt and comprador royalty; the 1919 Revolution, which nearly brought down British military rule; and the 1952 Revolution which inaugurated 60 years of military dictatorships under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. The first revolution succeeded in establishing the second parliamentary government on the African continent before it was crushed by foreign military intervention. In the aftermath of defeat, the British established a rapacious colonial rule over Egypt for more than 70 years. The second revolution was a sustained, popular uprising led by a range of pro-democracy activists from a range of civil institutions. Though savagely repressed, it did force the British to grant some concessions. The third revolution officially celebrated in Egypt stands apart from the first two in that it was a coup d’etat that went out of its way to circumscribe popular participation. In any case, it was accepted in the moment since it finally ended the rule of the royal family first overthrown in 1881 and initiated a process of British withdrawal from Egypt.
Besides these three state-commemorated events, Egyptians have revolted against the corruption, greed and cruelty of their rulers many more times in the last 60 years. On January 26, 1952, Egyptians emerged onto the streets to protest an array of issues—including the corruption of the monarchy, the decadence, power and privilege of foreign business elites, and the open-ended British occupation. The revolt was quickly suppressed, though the damage to property was massive, and it set in motion an exodus of foreign elites—and the military coup months later. In 1968, Egyptian students launched huge and daring protests against the repressive policies of Nasser’s police state. In the early 1970s, Egyptian students engaged in sustained mass protests against the radical political reorientations of the new Sadat regime—and eventually forced the state to re-engage in military confrontation with Israel. On January 18-19, 1977, Egyptians rose up en masse to protest against IMF austerity measures imposed on the country by the corrupt, inept and ruthless regime of Anwar Sadat. The Egyptian President was already on his jet ride into exile before the Central Security Forces and Army finally gained the upper hand. In Egypt it is the Central Security Forces rather than the military who deals with civil unrest and popular protest. Yet, even this “solution” to the problem of recurring popular revolt has proven at times uncertain. As in the military, the CSF has been the site of mutinies, one of which, in late February 1986, involved 20,000 low-paid conscripts who were put down only when the army entered the fray. During the early 1990s, Islamist protests against the authoritarian rule of Mubarak escalated into armed conflict, both in the slums of the cities and in Upper Egypt. Hundreds of militants, soldiers and innocent civilians were killed before the revolt was finally suppressed. This list leave out other significant moments of mass civil protest and contestation—like the massive protests against the First Gulf War, the US invasion of Iraq and Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and Gaza—but even so, the tally is impressive: no less than 10 major revolts and revolutions in 130 years. In other words, despite what commentators might say, modern Egyptians have never passively accepted the failed colonial or postcolonial states that fate has dealt them.
Many of these revolts have had their own poets. 1881 had the neo-classical qasidas of Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi. 1919, the colloquial zajals of Bayram al-Tunsi. Salah Jahin became one of the leading colloquial poets of the 1952 Revolution, and his patriotic verse became core material for Abdel Halim Hafez, who pinned his career to Nasser. From the same period, Fu’ad Haddad’s mawwals also stand out—and are still sung today. Since the 1970s, it has been Ahmed Fouad Negm who has played the leading role as lyricist of militant opposition to the regimes of Egypt. For forty years, Negm’s colloquial poems—many set to music by Sheikh Imam—have electrified student, labor and dissident movements from the Egyptian underclass. Negm’s poetry ranges from praise (madh) for the courage of ordinary Egyptians, to invective (hija’) for Egypt’s overlords—and it is no accident that you could hear his songs being sung by the leftist activists who spearheaded the first day of revolt on January 25. Besides these poets, we could add many others—Naguib Surur, Abd al-Rahman al-Abnoudi, Tamim Barghouti—who have added to this literary-political tradition in their own ways.
But beyond these recognized names are thousands of other poets—activists all—who would never dare to protest publicly without an arsenal of clever couplet-slogans. The end result is a unique literary tradition whose power is now on full display across Egypt. Chroniclers of the current Egyptian revolt, like As’ad AbuKhalil, have already compiled lists of these couplets—and hundreds more are sure to come. For the most part, these poems are composed in a colloquial, not classical, register and they are extremely catchy and easy to sing. The genre also has real potential for humor and play—and remind us of the fact that revolution is also a time for celebration and laughter.
How to Do Things With Poetry
The poetry of this revolt is not reducible to a text that can be read and translated in words, for it is also an act in and of itself. That is, the couplet-slogans being sung and chanted by protesters do more than reiterate complaints and aspirations that have been communicated in other media. This poetry has the power to express messages that could not be articulated in other forms, as well as to sharpen demands with ever keener edges.
Consider the most prominent slogan being chanted today by thousands of people in Tahrir Square: “Ish-sha‘b/yu-rîd/is-qât/in-ni-zâm.” Rendered into English, it might read, “The People want the regime to fall”—but that would not begin to translate the power this simple and complex couplet-slogan has in its context. There are real poetic reasons why this has emerged as a central slogan. For instance, unlike the more ironic—humorous or bitter—slogans, this one is sincere and states it all perfectly clearly. Likewise, the register of this couplet straddles colloquial Egyptian and standard media Arabic—and it is thus readily understandable to the massive Arab audiences who are watching and listening. And finally, like all the other couplet-slogans being shouted, this has a regular metrical and stress pattern (in this case: short-LONG, short-LONG, short-LONG, short-SHORT-LONG). While unlike most others, this particular couplet is not rhymed, it can be sung and shouted by thousands of people in a unified, clear cadence—and that seems to be a key factor in why it works so well.
The prosody of the revolt suggests that there is more at stake in these couplet-slogans than the creation and distillation of a purely semantic meaning. For one thing, the act of singing and shouting with large groups of fellow citizens has created a certain and palpable sense of community that had not existed before. And the knowledge that one belongs to a movement bound by a positive collective ethos is powerful in its own right—especially in the face of a regime that has always sought to morally denigrate all political opposition. Likewise, the act of singing invective that satirizes feared public figures has an immediate impact that cannot be cannot be explained in terms of language, for learning to laugh at one’s oppressor is a key part of unlearning fear. Indeed, witnesses to the revolt have consistently commented that in the early hours of the revolt—when invective was most ascendant—protesters began to lose their fear.
And having lost that fear, Egyptians are showing no signs of wanting to go back. As the Mubarak regime has continued to unleash more violence, and as it steps up its campaign to sow chaos and confusion, the recitation of these couplet-slogans has continued, as if the act of repeating them helps the protesters concentrate on their core principles and demands. Only hours ago, as jets and helicopters attempted to intimidate protesters in Tahrir Square, it seemed as if the crowd understood something of this—for with each sortie, their singing grew louder and more focused. It was difficult to determine whether the crowd sustained the words, or the words the crowd.
Poetry and Contingency
Anyone who has ever chanted slogans in a public demonstration has also probably asked herself at some point: why am I doing this? what does shouting accomplish? The question provokes a feeling of embarrassment, the suspicion that the gesture might be rote and thus empty and powerless. Arguably, this nervousness is a form of performance anxiety that, if taken seriously, might remind us that the ritual of singing slogans was invented precisely because it has the power to accomplish things. When philosophers speak of “doing things with words,” they also remind us that the success of the locutionary act is tied to the conditions in which it is performed. This is another way to say that any speech act is highly contingent—its success only occurs in particular circumstances, and even then, its success is never a given. Success, if it is to occur, happens only in the doing of it.
Since January 25, Egyptians been leaping into the uncertainty of this revolutionary performance. They have now crossed multiple thresholds—and each time, they have acted with no guarantee of success. This is, I think, the core of their astonishing courage: at each point it has been impossible to say that victory is already theirs. Even now, six days into the revolt, we still cannot say how things will eventually turn out. Nor are there rules of history and previous examples that can definitively tell us. Certainly, revolutions follow patterns—and those who rise up tend to be the most diligent students of past uprisings. Activists in Cairo ask comrades in Tunis about tactics, while others try to glean Iran’s Green Revolution for lessons that might be applied now. Yet, in the end, each revolution is its own moment.
Those who decide to make their own history are, in the end, not only required to write their own script and build their own stage, they are also compelled to then play the new roles with enough force and conviction to make it cohere, even in the face of overwhelming violence. We have already seen one example of this re-scripting in the extraordinary, original pamphlet from Egypt entitled, “How to Revolt Intelligently.” The poetry of the streets is another form of writing, of redrafting the script of history in the here and now—with no assurances of victory, and everything in the balance.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
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.