Bless us anyway – we want more life!

Dear Steal this Hijab Readers,

Thanks for reading, listening, gazing, and opinionating!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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

by Ari Burton

(originally published in hoax zine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich, Islamist and post-feminist

by Rafia Zakaria

Rich, Islamist and post-feminist 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanctions Against Iran: A Duplicitous “Alternative” to War

by Raha Iranian Feminist Collective

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

The Iranian Women’s Movement: A Century Long Struggle

by: Ali Akbar Mahdi

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

The Constitutional Period

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reza Shah’s Period (1925–1941)

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

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

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

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

Mohammad Reza Shah’s Period (1942–1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolutionary Period (1978–1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Bayat-Philipp in Keddie, 1978.

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

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

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

12. Sanasarian, 1982: 36–38.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24. Price, 2000.

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

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

27. Afkhami, 1994.

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

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

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

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

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

Zanaan No. 21, 33.

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

Paidar, 1995.

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

See Mahdi, 1995.

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

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

38. Amin, Camron Michael, 2002.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34. Women 35. 36.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Uprisings Will be Gendered

by: Maya Mikdashi

Women’s rights and the regulation of gender and sex norms in the Arab world have long been put under the spotlight by local and international activists in addition to local and international politicians and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This year, the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world have brought into focus some dominant ways that sexual and bodily rights are framed, gendered, and politicized. These can be grouped under three loose themes, each of which deserves further study: One is the equation of gender with women and/or sexual and gender minorities. Two is the fear of Islamists. Three, is the use of gendered and sexed violence to discourage or discredit protests and revolutionaries. Such a selective focus on sexual and bodily rights obfuscates power dynamics and contexts that are always also at play when discussing a particular political, historical, or economic issue.

It is an old complaint that the study of “gender” is in fact the study of people who are not “white” (i.e., not racialized) hetero-normative men. Such an equation hides that gender is not something one can be outside of. It is not an analytic lens that can be withheld and deployed according to the genitalia and/or sexual practices of the group or topic under study. Thus we have seen journalists and academics write about “protestors” without mentioning gender until they get to the “female protestors.” The same deployment of gender is used to talk about citizenship more generally, where the “citizen” apprears as an unmarked and universal category until studies of “female” and/or “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ)” citizens (and non-citizens, by the way) disturb this chimera. When we read of these “female protestors” are we to assume that all previous analysis of “protestors” has been about men? If so, why does this not factor into analysis? Are men not gendered? Is citizenship an ungendered and undifferentiated category except when talking about female citizens? If we believe that an attention to gender is important to understanding how women live their lives, then why not extend the same courtesy to men? What power dynamics and hegemonic discourses are being reproduced with every selective deployment of “gender” in the media and in every syllabus on “politics” or “citizenship” that includes one or two weeks (yay!) about “women” or “gender?” The equation of gender with non-hetero-normative males is as old as the genesis of “gender studies” itself. We are seeing this equation play out again in coverage and analysis of the Arab uprisings, where a study of “gender” has become a synonym for the study of women and LGBTQ Arabs.

Masculinity studies is a growing and robust field that teaches us to be vigilant in questioning the ways that a gender analysis is deployed and withheld. Everyone is gendered, just as everyone, rich and poor and middle class, is “classed.” In fact, the current deployment of a gender analytic is akin to studying the class grievances, backgrounds and anxieties of only half of the Egyptian or Syrian population, for example. The assumption that socio-economic class is only an analytic to study those that are notmembers of the privileged classes reproduces international and national political and economic dynamics, alliances, and interests. Likewise the division of gender justice from economic justice lends itself to debates on female “quotas” in various parliaments that do not take into account the need for economic diversity among parliamentarians.

A second prevailing mode of framing, gendering, and politicizing the uprisings is the fear of Islamists. As Islamists gain ground in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria concerns over their potential gender policies continue to fester. While such concerns and interest are certainly important, why do they gain such momentous traction only when it comes to Islamists? After all, have non-Islamist Arab political parties and powers had such wonderful and progressive gender policies all this time? This selective fear of Islamists rests on familiar assumptions about Islam (scary) secularism (redemptive and progressive) and other religions (huh?). Thus the victory of Islamists in Egypt’s elections is cause for anxiety (about what they might do) among international feminists and gender activists, in addition to groups and individuals such as The Center for Secular Space and Hillary Clinton. But spitting on eight-year-old girls or stoning women (yes, stoning) who violate the gender code of Orthodox Judaism is a headline, not a discourse on women’s rights and patriarchy in Israel or in Judaism. But I am sure that if women were stoned and/or spit on in he streets of Homs for not wearing the hijab it would be about Islam and about the dangers that the Syrian uprising poses to Syrian women. Similarly, the victory of Islamists in Tunisian elections is scary because of what they may do in regards to women’s and LGBTQ rights. But Rick Santorum’s bible-fueled anti-woman and anti-gay campaign/crusade says nothing about the gender politics of Christianity. In addition, many Arab secularists dismiss the Egyptian and Tunisian elections primarily because Islamists won, and many try to dismiss the Syrian uprising by branding it “Islamist.” Interestingly, many of these thinkers were (rightly) quick to condemn Israel and the United States’ refusal to work with Hamas after their electoral victory. To paraphrase Fawwaz Traboulsi: Islamists won. Deal with it. Traboulsi also makes the important point that now that they are in power, Islamists will actually be held accountable for all the fantastical promises they have made for decades. We will now get to see, for example, if Islam, or this brand of it, is truly the answer to a chronically clogged sewage system in Cairo. For their part, some mainstream journalists have become obsessed with finding the women on the streets of Syria. When they find them they describe their clothing with the type of attention to detail that can only indicate something of deep significance. Thus women protesting in Syria are in “western dress” or not, they are “secular looking” or not, and some of them (believe it or not) have boyfriends and drink alcohol.

Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do withIslamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.

The third frame we can employ to understand dominant discourses related to the uprisings are the uses of gendered and sexed violence to discourage or discredit protests and revolutionaries. The Mubarak regime and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have used sexual violence to discourage and discredit Egyptian protestors and revolutionaries. Female protestors and activists have been subjected to “virginity tests,” vicious beatings, and charges of immorality. In fact, everywhere there has been an uprising, the regime in question has propagated a discourse of immorality among male and female protestors. In Yemen women were actively discouraged from joining protests by security forces who targeted them for repression. In Bahrain a cry for “public morality” was thrown against men and women fighting to overthrow a repressive monarchy. Such statements are meant to discredit protests and protestors as cesspools of immorality and sexual licentiousness. In turn, the spectacle of Egyptian security forces publicly beating and dragging a woman down a street is a warning to others. It is forcefully implied that women and men should stay at home and away from the impunity with which (secular) security forces can violate a protestors’ body.

Arab regimes are not the only actors using sexed and gender violence to discredit protestors and revolutionaries in the Arab world. As the hysteria surrounding the sexual assault of Lara Loganrevealed in the days when the United States was still trying to assure Mubarak’s longevity, the protestors were in fact a sex crazed reactionary and dangerous mob. In addition, “women’s rights” in Egypt and Tunisia have been twinned with the type of state feminism advocated by their respective former first ladies, a cynical use of gender rights by authoritarian regimes that were thus branded ‘reformers’ by their western allies. In fact, reading the American press, it seems that the daily reality of sexual violence is important only to the extent that it can be harnessed to other political causes and projects. Furthermore, a selective emphasis on some sexual and gender violence decontextualizes those violences from the larger infrastructures of oppression that people live under. For example, Israeli attempts at “pinkwashing its settler colonization of Palestine highlight how Israel saves gay Palestinians from their Islamic culture. In this way, the Israeli state hopes to paint Palestinians as homophobic Islamic fundamentalists in order to discredit now well over a century of resistance against settler colonialism and apartheid.

These are frames that have been used to discuss “gender” in the Arab uprisings: One, gender means women and gays. Two, Islamists (and only Islamists) are scary and dangerous to women and sexual minorities. Three, the legitimacy of a popular uprising and/or revolutionary struggle can be gauged by how it treats “their women” and “their gays.” All three of these frames are highly selective and politicized. Furthermore, each reproduces and invites practices of patriarchy, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, and colonialism. By using these frames gender justice is divorced from struggles for economic and political justice, and the revolutionary potential of this three way marriage is once again smothered.

How Not to Study Gender in the Middle East

by Maya Mikdashi

The Red List, Manal al-Dowayan

One: Gender is not the study of what is evident, it is an analysis of how what is evident came to be.

Two: Before resolving to write about gender, sexuality, or any other practice or aspect of subjectivity in the Middle East, one must first define what exactly the object of study is. Be specific. What country, region, and time period forms the background picture of your study? Furthermore, the terms “Middle East,” “the Islamic World” and the “Arab world” do not refer to the same place, peoples, or histories, but the linkages between them are crucial. Moreover, the “state” is a relatively new phenomenon in the Middle East. In order to study gendered political economy in Syria, for example, one must be aware of the Ottoman and regional history that has produced this gendered political economy in the area that we now call “Syria.”

Three: A study of gender must take into account sexuality. Likewise studies of sexuality cannot be disarticulated from gender analysis. To do so would be akin to studying the politics and history of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) without reference to the role of idealogy or the socio-economic policies of the Iraqi state.

Four: Gender is one aspect of individual and group subjectivity. It is also just one technology of governmentality—the production and regulation of ties between the individual body, populations, and structures of power and quantification. Moreover, studies of politics, history, and law must take into account gender and sex, just as such studies must be attentive to class, race, political economy and-crucially- how all of these factors interact.

Five: The ungendered body does not exist, just as the unclassed body does not exist. Such disarticulation reproduces the false tropes of the ungendered body and of ungendered politics and the unclassed body and unclassed politics. These in turn reaffirm the positioning of normative male political practices as somehow “unmarked” and universal. Such an equation hides that gender is not something one can be outside of. It is not an analytic lens that can be withheld and deployed according to genitalia and/or sexual practices of the people being studied. When an attention to gender  is limited to female and/or LGBTQ people in the Middle East, it reproduces the study of gender as the study of how (other) men treat “their” women and gays.

Six: Avoid tokenism and broad generalizations. Sometimes a hijab is just a hijab, and sometimes it is not.

Seven: Do not assume that gender politics or feminist concerns come in neat and familiar packages. Instead, allow your research to expand your view of what a “feminist politics” may be. It could be, for example, that protests against neoliberal market restructuring in Egypt are understood within a broad political framework that includes notions of gender justice. As Saba Mahmood and Lila Abu Lughod have taught us, liberal feminism’s assumptions as to what constitute “feminist politics” or “feminist causes” are at best flawed. At worst they are exercises in epistemological hegemony and the violent remaking of the world according to secular and neoliberal rights frameworks. Furthermore, do not assume that what we call the “feminist canon” is exhaustive or that it is not constituted through a series of exclusions, hierarchies, and imperial histories. After all Simone de Beauvoir, who taught us all that a woman is not born but made, also wrote in terms we now recognize as “Islamophobic” about women “under” Islam in Algeria at the time when Algeria was a French settler colony. This does not mean we should dismiss de Beauvoir, just as it would be too easy to condemn Hegel or Marx for their “views” on Africa. Rather, it is crucial to critically inhabit and navigate the reality that the western canon was, and is constituted through producing a series of “selves” and “others.”

Eight: I know this is hard to believe, but Islam may not be the most important factor, or even a particularly important factor, when studying gender in Muslim majority countries or communities. For example, I have studied the Lebanese legal system, focusing on personal status, criminal and civil law, for years now. Despite the intricate ways that these interconnected bodies of law produce citizenship in Lebanon, whenever I discuss my work my interlocutors invariably want to know more about shar‘ia and its assumed “oppression” of women. These questions always come after I have carefully explained that in Lebanon certain Christian and Jewish personal status laws are much more stringent in their production and regulation of normative gender roles than codified Islamic personal status laws (which are not the same as shar‘ia, historically speaking). In addition, civil laws have more wide reaching “gender effects” than any religious personal status law. More broadly, Islam is not the only religion in the region, although it often seems to be in mainstream media coverage. When an action such as the hitting of women by men for not conforming to “proper” gender roles in ultra orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem or in conservative neighborhoods of Riyadh is scripted in radically different terms the reader should pause. At these moments you are not reading about Islam, you are reading within a discourse about Islam.

Nine: Questions of gender rights and gender justice are not new to the Middle East, and neither are struggles that we now read under the sign of “feminism.” In fact, a large portion of the laws that are often regarded as oppressive to women and LGBTQ Arabs and/or Muslims are relatively new. They were introduced to the region via the Napoleonic code and the codification and the severe hollowing out of the shar‘ia in modern history. For example abortion, long considered a question of women’s rights in the Western world due its twinned history with Catholicism and Christianity more broadly, was not illegal across the Arab world until the rise of the nation state. Some traditions of fiqh continue take a position on abortion that American feminists might wish could be extended to the United States today. In addition, jurists have and do struggle to understand and promote “progressive” notions of male and female relations and to make room for nonconforming gender persons in the region. In fact, scholars such as Paula Sanders have shown us that several centuries ago Islamic jurists were developing a system of accommodation for hermaphrodites and nonbinary gendered peoples in Islamic communities.

Ten: Do not assume that you know the actors and factors affecting gender in the Middle East, or the productive role your scholarship might play in this dynamic. Institutions such as the IMF and Human Rights Watch have long been engaged in the production of normative heterosexuality and heterosexual families, for example. The Israeli settlement of historical Palestine also intervenes into the gendered and sexual fabric of indigenous Palestinians, as pinkwatcing activists have recently reminded us. Similarly, the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan function in part through the construction of interventionist platforms in the name of women’s and LGBTQ rights. Other factors affecting the practice of gender and sexuality in the Middle East include technological innovations such as in vitiro fertilization, viagra, and reconstructive hymen surgery in addition to pop culture, the rapid tranformation of the global economy, and the international circulation of people, discourses and goods.

Which Islamists?

by: Hani Sabra

Ballot counting continues as Egypt’s first round of elections, in which a third of the country voted, comes to a close. We now know that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, with the weight of an 83-year old organization behind it, will come out on top. But the real surprise has been the success of the more hardline, ultraconservative Salafi Nour (Light) Party. Nour could capture roughly a quarter of the seats in the first round, and there’s no reason to believe that it can’t replicate that performance in the upcoming two rounds.

Nour’s success unsettles many moderate Egyptian Muslims, liberals, and Christians who fret about the potential impact on their personal lives. How will an Islamist-dominated parliament approach banking, tourism, and foreign investment? But Nour has probably unsettled the Muslim Brotherhood too. The upstart Salafis, who until recently did not participate in politics — many of them still say that democracy is “kufr” (non-belief) — have encroached on the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditional territory. Thus, an increasingly critical question in post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt is not how the liberals will fare against the Islamists; that’s already been answered. Rather, it is: Who wins the right to speak for Egypt’s Islamists?

There are roughly three main Islamist political trends in Egypt, and together they will form a supermajority in parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood represents the right-wing, conservative, pragmatic wing of the movement. The rising Salafis represent the more reactionary, uncompromising wing, and parties like Al-Wasat (The Center), who will be by far the smallest Islamist party in parliament, represent a third trend that seeks to emulate Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The three groups have legitimate reasons to believe they can seize the Islamist mantle and settle the question of who speaks for Islam.

With their electoral success and their unparalleled organizational skills, the Muslim Brotherhood is in a strong, but delicate, position. It remains unlikely that Egypt will have an Islamist-only parliamentary coalition, and electoral success strengthens the Brotherhood’s hand with non-Islamists parties, because it allows the Brotherhood essentially to dictate the terms of any parliamentary coalition that excludes Salafis. Non-Islamist parties may dislike the Brotherhood, but they understand that its leadership is essentially pragmatic and unlikely to introduce radical changes that impact the economy or peoples’ personal lives in the short term. The Brotherhood leadership has spokesmen who shave their beards and talk up the need for foreign investment. It also includes a senior Christian member.

But the Brotherhood has to move carefully and can ill afford to alienate the Salafis. For rank-and-file Brotherhood members, the line between a Brother and a Salafi is blurry. It’s almost certain that potential FJP voters chose Salafi candidates or parties at the ballot box. And more Brothers could jump ship if the Salafis illustrate that they better represent “true Islam.”

The Brotherhood is in a complicated position, trying to hew to the right in the provinces, while behaving “moderately” in Cairo and outside Egypt. In some cases, the Salafis and the Brotherhood will collaborate, but it will likely be a more competitive (and unpredictable) relationship.

Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Middle East practice.

Karzai: Women’s Rights are Not a Bargaining Chip

About 6 million fled as Afghan refugees to Pakistan and Iran, and from there over 38,000 made it to the United States. and many more to the European Union. Faced with mounting international pressure and great number of casualties on both sides, the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Their withdrawal from Afghanistan was seen as an ideological victory in America, which had backed some Mujahideen factions through three U.S. presidential administrations to counter Soviet influence in the vicinity of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The USSR continued to support President Mohammad Najibullah (former head of the Afghan secret service, KHAD) until 1992.

In response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Reagan administration in the U.S. increased arming and funding of the Mujahideen who began a guerilla war thanks in large part to the efforts of Charlie Wilson and CIA officer Gust Avrakotos. Early reports estimated that $6–20 billion had been spent by the U.S. and Saudi Arabiabut more recent reports state that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia provided as much as up to $40 billion in cash and weapons, which included over two thousand FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles, for building up Islamic groups against the Soviet Union. The U.S. handled most of its support through Pakistan’s ISI. Saudi Arabia was also providing financial support.

Afghan leaders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud received only minor aid compared to Hekmatyar and some of the other parties, although Massoud was named the “Afghan who won the cold war” by the Wall Street Journal.

Massoud’s part in the driving the Soviet army out of Afghanistan earned him the nameLion of Panjshir. His followers call him Āmir Sāhib-e Shahīd (Our Beloved Martyred Commander). He strongly rejected the interpretations of Islam followed by the Taliban,Al Qaeda or the Saudi establishment. His followers not only saw him as a military commander but also as a spiritual leader.

In April 1992, the Islamic State of Afghanistan was created, following the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government.

Afghanistan was in a state of unsettled transition, with an interim government. Atrocities were committed by individuals of the different factions while Kabul descended into lawlessness and chaos, according to Human Rights Watch.

In 1994, the Taliban developed in Afghanistan as a politico-religious force, a movement originating from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-run religous schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. In 1994 the Taliban took power in several provinces in southern and central Afghanistan.

The Taliban started shelling Kabul in early 1995 but at that time were defeated by forces of the Islamic State government.

“This is the first time in several months that Kabul civilians have become the targets of rocket attacks and shelling aimed at residential areas in the city.”
Amnesty International 1995 report

On September 26, 1996, as the Taliban with military support by Pakistan and financial support by Saudi Arabia prepared for another major offensive and the next day the Taliban seized Kabul and established the established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They imposed on the parts of Afghanistan under their control their political and judicial interpretation of Islam issuing edicts forbidding women to work outside the home, attend school, or to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative.

“To PHR’s knowledge, no other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest, prohibiting them on pain of physical punishment.”
Physicians for Human Rights, 1998

According to a 55-page report by the United Nations, the Taliban, while trying to consolidate control over northern and western Afghanistan, committed systematic massacres against civilians.

Upon taking Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, about 4,000 civilians were executed by the Taliban and many more reported tortured. The documents also reveal the role of Arab and Pakistani support troops in these killings. Bin Laden’s so-called 055 Brigade was responsible for mass-killings of Afghan civilians.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Shah Massoud served as military commander and political leader of the United Islamic Front (Northern Alliance) from 1996 until his assassination in 2001. When the Taliban seized Kabul, Massoud and his troops retreated to the northeast of Afghanistan.

From the Taliban conquest in 1996 until November 2001 the United Front controlled roughly 30% of Afghanistan’s population in provinces such as Badakhshan, Kapisa, Takhar and parts of Parwan, Kunar, Nuristan, Laghman, Samangan, Kunduz, Ghōr and Bamyan

Human Rights Watch cites no human rights crimes for the forces under direct control of Massoud for the period from October 1996 until the assassination of Massoud in September 2001. As a consequence many civilians fled to these regions.

In the areas under his control, Massoud set up democratic institutions and signed the Women’s Rights Charter. in these regions, women and girls did not have to wear the Afghan burqa by law. They were allowed to work and to go to school. Massoud personally intervened against cases of forced marriage in favour of the women to make their own choice. 

The Taliban repeatedly offered Massoud a position of power to make him stop his resistance.Massoud wanted to convince the Taliban to join a political process leading towards democratic elections in a foreseeable future.

In early 2001 Massoud addressed the European Parliament in Brussels asking the international community to provide humanitarian help to the people of Afghanistan. He warned that his intelligence had gathered information about a large-scale attack on U.S. soil being imminent. Massoud also stated that the Taliban and Al Qaeda had introduced “a very wrong perception of Islam” and that without the support of Pakistan the Taliban would not be able to sustain their military campaign for up to a year.

On September 9, 2001, two Arab suicide attackers, allegedly belonging to Al Qaeda, posing as journalists, detonated a bomb hidden in a video camera while interviewing Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Takhar province of Afghanistan. Commander Massoud died in a helicopter that was taking him to a hospital. The year following his assassination, in 2002, Massoud was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The date of his death, September 9, is observed as a national holiday known as “Massoud Day” in Afghanistan.

“He was the only one, ever, to serve Afghanistan, to serve Afghans. To do a lot of things for Afghanistan, for Afghans. And we lost him …”
Afghan journalist Fahim Dashty

Two days after Massoud’s assassination, 19 terrorists from al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets and notoiously crashed two planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

When the Taliban refused to hand over bin laden to U.S. authorities and refused to disband Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, the U.S. and British air forces began bombing al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Afghanistan.

From 2002 onward, the Taliban began regrouping while more coalition troops entered the escalating US-led war with insurgents.  Meanwhile, NATO assumed control of ISAF in 2003 and the rebuilding of Afghanistan began. he European Union, Canada and India also play a major role in reconstruction.

By 2009, a Taliban-led shadow government began to form complete with their own version of mediation court. According to a report by the United Nations the Taliban were responsible for 76 % of civilian casualties in 2009.

In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama deployed an additional 30,000 soldiers over a period of six months and proposed that he will begin troop withdrawals by 2012.

At the 2010 International Conference on Afghanistan in London, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he intends to reach out to the Taliban leadership. Supported by senior U.S. officials Karzai called on the group’s leadership to take part in a loya jirga meeting to initiate peace talks.

Many Afghan groups believe that Karzai’s plan aims to appease the insurgents’ senior leadership at the cost of the democratic constitution, the democratic process and progess in the field of human rights especially women’s rights.

Afghanistan still remains one of the poorest countries due to the results of 30 years of war, corruption among high level politicians and the ongoing Taliban insurgency from Pakistan.

Gender equality is an issue which is never far from the minds of many young Afghans, both women and men.

There are concerns that, in efforts to ‘reach out’ to the Taliban leadership, President Hamid Karzai may be forced to severely compromise on issues affecting women in particular.

It is hoped that such fears will be addressed at the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, will take place on 5 December 2011.

Read more:

‘Massoud – An Afghan Life’ – by Nasrine Gross – Oct 2001

Afghan Women Roqia Center for Rights, Studies and Education – ‘The Messy Side of Globalization’ – Talk given by Nasrine Gross, Nov 2000 – Symposium on Globalization and Women in Muslim Societies

~

Sources:

Wikipedia: History of Afghanistan
Wikipedia: Ahmad Shah Massoud
Amnesty International Document: Afghanistan: Further information on fear for safety and new concern: deliberate and arbitrary killings: Civilians in Kabul
UNHCR – Refworld – Afghanistan: Situation in, or around, Aqcha (Jawzjan province) including predominant tribal/ethnic group and who is currently in control
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder – Military Assistance to the Afghan Opposition
Chicago Tribune – Taliban massacres outlined for UN
The Telegraph – Afghanistan resistance leader feared dead in blast
The Last Interview with Ahmad Shah Masood – Hoja Bahauddin- conducted by Piotr Balcerowicz
North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO’s role in Afghanistan
ABC News – Pakistan Accused of Helping Taliban
The Telegraph – Wikileaks: Pakistan accused of helping Taliban in Afghanistan attacks
The Weekly Standard – UN: Taliban Responsible for 76% of Deaths in Afghanistan
The Washington Post – Taliban establishes elaborate shadow government in Afghanistan
Scotsman.com – Karzai’s Taleban talks raise spectre of civil war warns former spy chief
NPR – Abdullah Abdullah: Talks With Taliban Futile
Afghan News Centre – Afghan FM Welcomes More NATO Peacekeepers 
University of Missouri – CIA – The World Fact Book – Afghanistan
Law.com – Despite Obama Ban, Official’s Lobbyist Past No Obstacle
Canada in Afghanistan – The War So Far – by Peter Pigott

The Green Wave

A film by Ali Samadi Ahadi

 


SYNOPSIS

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

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

PRESS RELEASE

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

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

STORYLINE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DIRECTOR ALI SAMADI AHADI ABOUT HIS FILM

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


Ali Samadi Ahadi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE PROTAGONISTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afghanistan: Ten Years at War

AMY GOODMAN: It was ten years ago today when then President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against out, terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime

AMY GOODMAN: Ten years later, the Afghan war rages on. It has become the longest-running war in U.S. history. There’s no end in sight. The Taliban remains in control of major parts of the nation. Peace talks have collapsed. Civilian and troop casualties continue to mount. There have been a number of major setbacks in just the past few weeks. On September 13, militants attacked the U.S. Embassy and the NATOheadquarters in Kabul. A week later, the Taliban claim responsibility for assassinating former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed the Afghan Peace Council. Just this week the Wall Street Journal reported Afghan President Hamid Karzai has given up on negotiating with the Taliban. In a recent interview, retired General Stanley McChrystal said the U.S. and NATO were only 50% of the way towards achieving their goals in Afghanistan. Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American progress.

BRIAN KATULIS: If you look at the main metric, the measure for success, in the counterinsurgency strategy, it is, how safe is the local population? 2011, this year, will be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians. More than 80% of those deaths are caused by the Taliban insurgency. But the key metric of whether we’re succeeding on a counterinsurgency strategy — are we keeping the local population safe? — the answer is, no. The number has gone up

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Afghanistan, we are joined by two guests – first, we go to Afghanistan, to Reena. She’s 19 years old, a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Reena is a pseudonym, her face concealed since all RAWAmembers maintain anonymity for security reasons. Welcome toDemocracy Now!, Reena. Describe what is happening now – ten years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. REENA: Thank you so much, Amy. It is a pleasure to be on your show. Ten years ago when U.S. invaded Afghanistan, they made promises of democracy, women’s rights, and a general improvement in the lives of people. But ten years later, today, the situation is clearly getting worse for our people. Everyday life has not improved. Women’s situation has gotten worse. There is no sign of democracy or freedom or peace anywhere. In fact, civilian deaths have reached 10,000 on this anniversary. And it’s going to continue to rise with the surge of troops and increase in assaults, this will obviously be continuing. AMY GOODMAN: Here in the United States, we’ve just passed the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. There was a great deal of attention to the young people who grew up in the shadow of the World Trade Center, both specifically and also just in this age metaphorically. You, Reena, or 19 years old. You were nine when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. Where were you born? What are your thoughts growing up in the Afghan War? REENA: At that time, I was in Pakistan, in a refugee camp, but I do remember a lot of people who were there at that time, like our close relatives. We lost some people that we knew, some friends, in the bombings of the U.S. So I did not exactly witness the deadlier Civil War of 92-96. I have vague images of the Taliban regime of 96-2001. But this ten year war has definitely had a very deep impact on this generation. The civilian casualties, the fear that people live with these days, the terror that there is in the streets everywhere for the IED attacks or other kinds of threats, it is increasing day by day. It has just made everyone extremely insecure and bad for the people. AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined here in New York by Anand Gopal. He reported for The Christian Science Monitor in Afghanistan then for the Wall Street Journal. Now he is writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. Your thoughts ten years later — the longest U.S. war in U.S. history. ANAND GOPAL: By any metric we look at, the war has gotten worse. Security has gotten precipitously worse every single year. 2011 has seen the most civilians being killed of any year since the war started. We’ve seen the most number of attacks – suicide bombings, roadside bombings, since the war started for any year. The amount of territory the Taliban controls has been undiminished, despite the fact we’ve seeing a major troop surge in the last year or two years. We’ve seen a fragmentation within Afghanistan where the people who we are aligned with are starting to arm themselves and thinking about a post-American scenario where they want to all fight against each other. Really we’re at a knot here in Afghanistan in the last ten years. AMY GOODMAN: Listening to the talk shows on the cable networks, it is quite remarkable to see how things are turned on their heads. The Republicans talking about Obama presiding over the longest war. The issue of what it means if the U.S. pulls out, and the mantra often repeated that the Taliban will take over. I want to get both of your thoughts on that beginning with Anand. ANAND GOPAL: The Taliban already have de facto control of almost half of the country in the countryside. Beyond that, what we’re doing in Afghanistan is we are arming militiamen, warlords, strong men, we’re actually going into the countryside and giving them weapons, giving weapons to all sorts of human rights violators and abusers. These are people in many cases who have been disarmed after 2001 and we’re rearming now because we need help in fighting the Taliban. So what that’s actually doing is creating the conditions in which the civil war is more and more likely. In fact that I think the longer we stay and continue this policy, a civil war becomes more likely. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, your thoughts on the issue of the Taliban? REENA: Yes, I absolutely agree with him. The U.S. has armed the most dangerous warlords and is continuing to arm and support them. If they were drawn out, yes, a civil war may be inevitable. But again, we have to remember that, as we always say, this war is part of the problem. It is not going to solve anything for us. If the troops withdraw and if they give Afghanistan a chance to decide its own fate, I think things will work out. If they do not support these warlords, as he said, and the U.S. and its allies pressure the other countries not to support the Taliban, then I think maybe a civil war will not take place. It might not be as bloody as it will be if they continue supporting or if this war goes on. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, a reason often given for staying in Afghanistan — it was one that Laura Bush put forward, it was one that was picked up again, things all turned around, the kind of feminist reason, particularly put forward by the Republicans but many Democrats also support this and Democratic women — that it is about saving the women of Afghanistan. Your response? REENA: Yes, these claims were all extremely false. If they have brought to power the misogynists, the brothers and creed of Taliban into power, who are the exact copies of Taliban, mentally and have just been physically changed, then I do not think the feminist situation can improve. Today, there are slight improvements in women’s lives in urban areas, but again if you look at statistics, Afghanistan remains the most dangerous place for women. Self-immolation, suicide rates, are extremely high – it has never been this high before. Domestic violence is widespread. Women are poor. They do not have healthcare. It has the highest mortality rate in the world. There are, as I said, some improvements. And in some aspects, it might have been a little better for a handful of people, for women, but it has definitely has gotten worse for others. There is insecurity, there are threats. They always say that there are six million girls in schools and the schools have opened, but nobody looks at the dropout rates. Nobody looks at the attacks, the threats that the Taliban makes to the girls. And they do not dare go out again. Nobody looks at the quality of the schools. All these things — there have been slight changes. It has been very widely used, and to just highlight a few positive things, but overall, things have gotten worse. AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking earlier this week about the Haqqani network threat, blaming the ISI for orchestrating attacks on U.S. targets inside Afghanistan.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: A second but no less worrisome challenge is the impunity with which certain extremist groups are allowed to operate from Pakistani soil. The Haqqani network, for one, acts as a veritable army of Pakistan’s internal services intelligence agency. With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack as well as the assault on our embassy.

AMY GOODMAN: Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Anand Gopal, your response? ANAND GOPAL: It’s absolutely the case that Pakistan is in some way supporting the Haqqani network and the rest of the Afghan insurgency. But I think it is important to have some historical context in all of this. We once, the U.S., once supported the Haqqani network, back in the ‘80s when we were fighting against the Russians. We poured millions, in fact billions of dollars into Afghanistan to fundamentalists, to Islamic radicals and we’re getting the blowback of that now. And also that has fundamentally changed the dynamic within Pakistan, where we helped create, in a sense, the way that the ISI, the Pakistani Security Agency, acts today. They have been pretty much consistent in the last thirty years in their position. We just changed our position ten years ago. AMY GOODMAN: And the role that Pakistan — if you could talk further – plays in Afghanistan, and the fact that Pakistan has been supporting or in the past supported the very forces that they’re fighting against, that the U.S. is fighting against in Afghanistan, and helped to establish the ISI, which it now is critiquing. ANAND GOPAL: Well, there is no doubt that the insurgent leadership, the Haqqani network, the Taliban and other groups, they have a safe haven in Pakistan. There is no doubt that elements of the ISI, the security apparatus, is giving advice and support to the insurgent leadership. Pakistan is planning a double game. On the one hand, they are aligned with the U.S. and getting millions of dollars in aid for military, on the other hand, supporting insurgency. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, you are 19 years old, you are a young woman who goes back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. How do you function? Reena is not really your name, you’re not saying where you are in Afghanistan, you’re with the organization RAWA. Explain what your group does and how you get around. REENA: RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, was established in 1977 by a martyred leader, Mina, and a group of other young women. It is an anti-fundamentalist group, women’s group, that fights for freedom, democracy, secularism and women’s rights. Because we are the only women’s group that speaks against fundamentalists — the warlords in power today — we have any security issues and we cannot be open in our activities. So we are underground and semi-underground. We function mostly in Afghanistan, but a small part of our activities are also based in Pakistan. AMY GOODMAN: Malalai Joya make a statement this week where she said, let’s see if I can find it, “we’re at a point today when Afghanistan is at its most violent since war started and the government at its weakest. Civilian casualties higher this year than any previous year, the territory Taliban controls more or less the same as last year, there’s no progress toward making a political solution.” Anand Gopal, what if the U.S. pulled out tomorrow? ANAND GOPAL: I think if the U.S. pulled out tomorrow, it would be very likely that we would see a civil war. When you talk to Afghans, and particularly in the countryside where the war is being fought, what many of them say is, we want the U.S. troops to pull out and we want there to be some sort of peace settlement from all the sides. This never really happened, even from day one in 2001. The Afghan state was not constituted on a broad-based system. It was a deal between a certain set of warlords and the U.S. You want to include civil society, groups like RAWA, other groups, and try to come together to tell Afghans to configure their state in some way, which they’ve never had a chance to do until now. So I think a peace settlement of some sort, together with the troops pulling out, would be the only way we can forestall a Civil War. AMY GOODMAN: Would you say, Reena, that each day of this war increases hostility toward the United States? REENA: Absolutely. Absolutely, it does, as it has increased from 2001 until now. Because in the start, the people were very hopeful. They had some hope that the U.S. would actually help them, that their situation would improve in the last ten years. But the U.S., unfortunately, supported the war lords, like Sayaff, Abdullah Abdullah, Ismail Khan, Khalili, and they recently killed Burhanuddin Rabbani. So all this has increased the People’s hostility, in addition in the countryside and in provinces other than Kabul and some other urban cities, the U.S. airstrikes and night raids are increasing day-by-day. This itself is drawing a lot of hostility from the people toward the U.S., and they want them to leave our country as soon as possible. AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, Anand Gopal, for people to understand and as you both lived in Afghanistan for years covering the war and you come back to the United States and see how generally it is covered as you write your book? ANAND GOPAL: It is covered very poorly. I think a lot of the discourse about the war in Afghanistan is that it is a series of mistakes. And it is a mistake. But I think at the core underneath those mistakes is a fundamental wrong policy, which was the war on terror, going into Afghanistan and thinking that the occupation of a country can solve the problem of terrorism. I think that everything that we are seeing in Afghanistan today, you can relate it back to that fundamental core issue. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, I don’t know if you heard the Nobel peace Prize was just announced. It is going to three women from the Arab world and from Africa. Two from Liberia, including the current president of Liberia, and one brave Yemeni activist, the youngest ever to receive the Nobel peace prize. Had you heard about that? Does this matter at all to in Afghanistan? REENA: Yes, I did read about this. I would like to say that the Nobel Peace Prize is, I do not think, it is a very big prize in the opinion of our people. Because every time there is usually a political motive behind giving it to somebody. And the actual real people who struggle for something or who are trying to get something are never considered for this prize. For example, last year, a warlord woman from our country, Sima Samar, was on the list of these people. She almost won the Nobel Peace Prize. That woman is in the Warlord Party. If not directly, is an agent of other countries. If you can consider giving this prize to such a woman, then it does not mean anything for our people. Anybody else can win it for political reasons or whatever is behind it. AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts in that, Anand Gopal? ANAND GOPAL: I think also more importantly, from the point of view of the Afghans, Barack Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and he’s the person who increased the number of troops in Afghanistan and increased the violence in fact in Afghanistan. A lot of my Afghan friends question with the value of the Nobel Peace Prize is if it leads to more war in Afghanistan. AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both for being with us on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, now the U.S. engaged in the longest war it has ever been involved with in U.S. history. Anand Gopal, independent journalist, writing a book Afghanistan, previously with the Christian Science Monitor and then the Wall Street Journal. AMY GOODMAN: And Reena, not her real name, speaking to us from Afghanistan, her face covered. She is anonymous for her own protection. Tonight, _KPFK_’s Uprising host, Sonali Kolhatkar. KPFK is the Pacifica Station in Los Angeles—-will be leading a conversation with Reena via live video stream and taking questions from the viewing audience. You can see it at afghanwomensmission.org, we’ll put a link there on our website at democracynow.org.

Talk of Women’s Rights Divides Saudi Arabia

by: Katherine Zoeff

JIDDA — Roughly two years ago, Rowdha Yousef began to notice a disturbing trend: Saudi women like herself were beginning to organize campaigns for greater personal freedoms. Suddenly, there were women asking for the right to drive, to choose whether to wear a veil, and to take a job without a male relative’s permission, all using the Internet to collect signatures and organize meetings and all becoming, she felt, more voluble by the month.

The final straw came last summer, when she read reports that a female activist in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Wajeha al-Huwaider, had been to the border with Bahrain, demanding to cross using only her passport, without a male chaperon or a male guardian’s written permission.

Ms. Huwaider was not allowed to leave the country unaccompanied and, like other Saudi women campaigning for new rights, has failed — so far — to change any existing laws or customs.

But Ms. Yousef is still outraged, and since August has taken on activists at their own game. With 15 other women, she started a campaign, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Within two months, they had collected more than 5,400 signatures on a petition “rejecting the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty” and demanding “punishments for those who call for equality between men and women, mingling between men and women in mixed environments, and other unacceptable behaviors.”

Ms. Yousef’s fight against the would-be liberalizers symbolizes a larger tussle in Saudi society over women’s rights that has suddenly made the female factor a major issue for reformers and conservatives striving to shape Saudi Arabia’s future.

Public separation of the sexes is a strongly distinctive feature of Saudi Arabia, making it perhaps a logical area for fierce debate. Since women have such a limited role in Saudi public life, however, it is somewhat surprising that it is their rights that have become a matter of open contention in a society that keeps most debate hidden.

Surprising, too, are the complexities turned up by the debate, which go far beyond what some Saudis see as the simplistic Western argument that women are simply entitled to more rights.

Take Ms. Yousef. She is a 39-year-old divorced mother of three (aged 13, 12 and 9) who volunteers as a mediator in domestic abuse cases. A tall, confident woman with a warm, effusive manner and sparkling stiletto-heeled sandals, her conversation, over Starbucks lattes, ranges from racism in the kingdom (Ms. Yousef has Somali heritage and calls herself a black Saudi) to her admiration for Hillary Rodham Clinton to the abuse she says she has suffered at the hands of Saudi liberals.

She believes firmly that most Saudis share her conservative values but insists that adherence to Shariah law and family custom need not restrict a woman seeking a say. Female campaigners in the reform camp, she says, are influenced by Westerners who do not understand the needs and beliefs of Saudi women.

“These human rights groups come, and they only listen to one side, those who are demanding liberty for women,” she said.

Every Saudi woman, regardless of age or status, must have a male relative who acts as her guardian and has responsibility for and authority over her in a host of legal and personal matters.

Ms. Yousef, whose guardian is her elder brother, said that she enjoyed a great deal of freedom while respecting the rules of her society. Guardian rules are such that she could start her campaign, for instance, without seeking her guardian’s permission.

She did not wish to speak in detail about her divorce but noted that, unusually, she had retained custody of her children through their 18th birthdays. She said she had founded her guardianship campaign unassisted, without any special connections, enlisting women in her circle of contacts as fellow founding members.

Activists like Ms. Huwaider, Ms. Yousef believes, are susceptible to foreign influences because of personal problems with men. “If she is suffering because of her guardian, she can go to a Shariah court that could remove the responsibility for her from that man and transfer it to someone who is more trustworthy.”

To an outsider, Ms. Yousef’s effort — petitioning King Abdullah to disregard calls for gender equality — might seem superfluous. After all, Saudi women still may not drive or vote and are obliged by custom to wear the floor-length cloaks known as abayas, and headscarves, outside their own homes.

Women may not appear in court, and though they may be divorced via brief verbal declarations from their husbands, they frequently find it very difficult to obtain divorce themselves. Fathers may marry off 10-year-old daughters, a practice defended by the highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.

The separation of genders in Saudi public life is difficult to overstate — there are women-only stores, women-only lines in fast food restaurants, and women-only offices in private companies. Members of the hai’a, the governmental Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, patrol to ensure that ikhtilat, or “mixing” of the sexes, does not occur.

There are a few places where men and women do work together — medical colleges, some hospitals, a handful of banks and private companies. But the percentage of Saudis in such environments is minuscule.

Jidda and Riyadh host stand-up comedy shows where young people do mix — albeit summoned with only hours’ notice via cellphone in an attempt to dodge policing. At the popular Janadriyah cultural festival in Riyadh, families were allowed to visit together for the first time last year, instead of on separate men’s and women’s days.

Where conservatives like Ms. Yousef attribute the recent volubility of rights campaigners to Western meddling, liberals say that Saudi society itself is changing, and that increasing freedoms for Saudi women appear to be cautiously supported by King Abdullah himself.

Both sides of the debate tend to claim the king’s backing. Recent history suggests that the sympathies of the 85-year-old monarch — whose feelings are never explicitly outlined in public — lie with the reformers. If so, he seems out in front of most of his youthful subjects (an estimated two-thirds of the 29 million Saudis are under 25).

The king has appeared in newspaper photographs alongside Saudi women with uncovered faces, a situation that was unimaginable until very recently. Last year, he appointed a woman to deputy minister rank, a first for Saudi Arabia. Schools and colleges remain rigidly segregated by gender, but the opening last September of a coeducational post-graduate research university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was hotly debated, even if only about 15 percent of the nearly 400 students at Kaust, as it is known, are Saudi.

A senior cleric was fired last October after criticizing gender mixing at Kaust on a television call-in show. Two months later, Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, the head of Mecca’s branch of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, caused a sensation when he told The Okaz, a newspaper, that gender mixing was “part of normal life.” In February, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a fatwa that proponents of gender mixing should be killed.

Whether it is the king’s support, or simply the ever greater availability of digital social networks, campaigning is mushrooming on both sides of the women’s rights divide, although Ms. Yousef’s is so far thought to be the only conservative effort led by a woman.

Hatoon al-Fassi, an assistant professor of women’s history at King Saud University in Riyadh, called 2009 “the year of the campaigns” for women in Saudi Arabia. Female Saudi activists embraced causes as diverse as an effort to ban child marriage and the right to set up businesses without male sponsors.

Reem Asaad lectures in the finance department at Dar al-Hekma College in Jidda. She organized a nationwide boycott of lingerie shops that employ only men, choosing lingerie because even Saudi conservatives can agree that it may be humiliating for a woman to buy underwear from a male clerk.

Her ultimate aim is to broaden women’s job opportunities. Outside her university office, where her all-female students wait for meetings with their teacher, hangs a photocopy of the country page for Saudi Arabia from the Global Gender Gap Report for 2009 by the World Economic Forum. In “economic participation and opportunity” for women, the kingdom ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries, above only Yemen. “Many Saudis would rather see a woman in poverty than have her work,” Ms. Asaad said. “This is about opening doors for women in different sectors of the economy.”

Ms. Huwaider, who so incensed Ms. Yousef with her attempts to cross into Bahrain, is a veteran campaigner, famously seen driving illegally in a YouTube clip in 2008. Now she distributes small lengths of black elastic to Saudi women, asking them to wear the ribbons until Saudi laws treat them as adults.

Soon, she said in an interview, she plans a campaign for the Saudi government to put in place a law requiring men who wish to take a second wife to obtain permission from the first wife. Morocco has such a law, which Ms. Huwaider believes could serve as a useful model.

Ms. Huwaider emphatically rejects Ms. Yousef’s characterization that she attacks the guardianship system because of personal problems. Her male guardian, she said, is her ex-husband, and they have excellent relations.

She did agree, notionally, with Ms. Yousef’s claim that many if not most Saudi men try to be fair and caring guardians. “Saudi men pride themselves on their chivalry,” Ms. Huwaider said, “but it’s the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.”

Ms. Huwaider lives at what she said was considerable expense — the equivalent of $16,000 a year — in the guarded compound of the Saudi Aramco oil company. She is an employee of Aramco, working in a department that runs further education and employee development, and took the rare step, for a Saudi, of moving into the compound in 2007, after her campaign for the right to drive provoked several death threats. Sometimes, she conceded, it is frightening. But she has grown so accustomed to it that “sometimes I think to myself, ‘Oh, I didn’t get any threats today.”’

Over tea and curried snack mix at her home in Riyadh, Ms. Fassi pronounced herself “very optimistic” about the women’s campaigns for more freedom. They break the censure on expression, and the list of topics that Saudi writers may address without being censored has also expanded very rapidly, Ms. Fassi said.

“The media is not that free, still, but it is much better than it was a few years ago. Nowadays we talk openly about minors’ marriages, about rape and incest, about cases brought against the religious police.”

And, of course, the activism produces backlash. “This campaign of Rowdha Yousef’s is a reaction,” she said — unaware that Ms. Yousef, when contacted by this reporter, expressed surprise that a journalist had come from New York to meet her. Ms. Yousef said more than 30 articles discussing her campaign had appeared in the Saudi press, but no Saudi reporter was willing to meet her, and coverage was mainly what she called mocking opinion columns.

Ahmad al-Omran, a pharmacist who blogs under the name Saudi Jeans, points out that, in the absence of opinion polling or free elections, it is hard to measure the popularity or representative nature of women’s campaigns. None have produced even an official response from the Saudi leadership.

“What do they achieve?” Mr. Omran asked. “Changing laws comes from higher up, not lower down.”

Even the most optimistic say that change will be slow. Ms. Fassi explained that even the hint of breaking the taboo on gender mixing had been traumatic for many Saudis. “People had lived their whole lives doing one thing and believing one thing, and suddenly the king and the major clerics were saying that mixing was O.K.,” Ms. Fassi said.

The extent of this trauma may be difficult for outsiders to understand, Ms. Fassi said. “You can’t begin to imagine the impact that the ban on mixing has on our lives and what lifting this ban would mean.”

Noura Abdulrahman, an Education Ministry employee who recently founded an after-school Islamic studies program aimed at teenage girls in Riyadh, said she tries to be generous toward the “liberaliyeen” — Saudi conservatives give the English word an Arabic plural and frequently employ it as a term of disparagement.

“The liberals’ motives might be good — they might want to make Saudi Arabia competitive with Western societies — but they’re failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society,” Ms. Abdulrahman said. “In Saudi culture, women have their integrity and a special life that is separate from men. As a Saudi woman, I demand to have a guardian. My work requires me to go to different regions of Saudi Arabia, and during my business trips I always bring my husband or my brother. They ask nothing in return — they only want to be with me.”

While Ms. Abdulrahman was discussing guardianship with a visitor, a neighbor, Umm Muhammad, dropped in for a morning tea. She proudly volunteered that her own guardian, her husband, was out of town but they were in constant touch by phone. In fact, she had just called him for permission to visit Ms. Abdulrahman.

“The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love,” she said. “People who aren’t familiar with Shariah often have the wrong idea. If you want stability and safety in your life, if you want a husband who takes care of you, you won’t find it except in Islam.”

Eman Fahad is a 31-year-old linguistics graduate student and mother of three. In her blog, she called Ms. Yousef’s campaign an effort to “stand against women who are demanding to be treated as adults.”

Even if most Saudi men are caring guardians, Ms. Fahad said, until women have full adult rights under the law, there will be abuses. She said she resented conservatives’ portrayal of Saudi women’s rights activists as spoiled and frivolous. She spoke of women she had met who had been forced to quit work they loved because their guardianship had been transferred to a new, less understanding man, and of women with no legal recourse when estranged husbands snatched their children away.

“These are the women they are fighting for,” Ms. Fahad said of the campaigners. “They’re not campaigning because they really want to be allowed to go crazy in some nightclub.”

Yet Ms. Fahad conceded that most Saudi women cleave to tradition. “If you actually talk to ordinary people,” including in her circle, she said, “you’ll find that most people want things to stay the same.”

Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh

by: Semira N. Nikou

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

Iran Rights Activists Face Challenges from Both Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminist Association of Tunisian Women

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.

Supporting Our Sisters in Afghanistan

Farah Mokhtareizadeh

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.”

Saudi Arabia’s Freedom Riders

by: Farzaneh Milani

On the surface, when a group of Saudi women used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to organize a mass mobile protest defying the kingdom’s ban on women driving, it may have seemed less dramatic than demonstrators facing bullets and batons while demanding regime change in nearby countries. But underneath, the same core principles — self-determination and freedom of movement — have motivated both groups. The Saudi regime understands the gravity of the situation, and it is moving decisively to contain it by stopping the protest scheduled for June 17.

The driving ban stems from universal anxiety over women’s unrestrained mobility. In Saudi Arabia that anxiety is acute: the streets — and the right to enter and leave them at will — belong to men. A woman who trespasses is either regarded as a sinful “street-walker” or expected to cover herself in her abaya, a portable house. Should she need to get around town, she can do so in a taxi, with a chauffeur (there are 750,000 of them) or with a man related to her by marriage or blood behind the wheel.

Although the Islamic Republic of Iran could not implement similarly draconian driving laws after the 1979 revolution, given that women had driven cars there for decades, the theocratic regime did denounce women riding bikes or motorcycles as un-Islamic and sexually provocative. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proclaimed in 1999 that “women must avoid anything that attracts strangers, so riding bicycles or motorcycles by women in public places involves corruption and is forbidden.”

The Saudi regime, like the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the military junta in Sudan and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, ordains the exclusion of women from the public sphere. It expects women to remain in their “proper place.”

Indeed, the rulers in Saudi Arabia are the most gender-segregated in the world today. In official ceremonies, and in countless photographs, posters and billboards, the royal family seems to be composed solely of men.

This desire to deny women entrance into the public arena is inaccurately presented as a religious mandate. Yet there is no basis for such exclusion in the Koran. On the contrary, in the early years of Islam, women were a vital presence in Muslim communities. They attended mosques, engaged in public debates and got involved in decision-making processes. Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, commanded an army of men while riding on a camel. If Muslim women could ride camels 14 centuries ago, why shouldn’t they drive cars today? Which Koranic injunction prohibits them from driving?

Gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities, preventing their active participation in the public sector, and making it difficult for them to fully exercise the rights Islam grants them to own and manage their own property. It is about denying women the basic human right to move about freely.

That is why the women defying the ban on motorized mobility are in fact demanding an eventual overhaul of the entire Saudi political system. They want not just to drive but to remap the political geography of their country.

These women know the value of a car key. Like the man who faced down tanks in Tiananmen Square, like the unprecedented number of women participating in protests across the Middle East and North Africa, the Saudi women’s campaign for the right to drive is a harbinger of a new era in the region.

It may require decades to see an end to the Middle East’s gender apartheid and the political reconfigurations that would necessarily follow. One thing is certain though: the presence of women and men demonstrating side by side in the streets of Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria is a sign of more seismic upheavals ahead. Old categories have broken down and the traditional distribution of power and space is no longer viable.

The women demonstrating for the right to drive in Riyadh are seasoned negotiators of confined spaces and veteran trespassers of closed doors and iron gates. They are a moderating, modernizing force to be reckoned with — and an antidote to extremism.

Their refusal to remain silent and invisible or to relinquish their rights as citizens is an act of civil disobedience and moral courage. Their protest, and those of their sisters across the Middle East, represent a revolution within revolutions — and a turning point in the contemporary history of Islam.

Farzaneh Milani, chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement.”

The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution

by Mona El-Ghobashy

published in MER258

If there was ever to be a popular uprising against autocratic rule, it should not have come in Egypt. The regime of President Husni Mubarak was the quintessential case of durable authoritarianism. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on January 25, 2011. [1] With these words, Clinton gave voice to a common understanding of Egypt under Mubarak. Government officials, pundits and academics, foreign and domestic, thought the regime was resilient — not because it used brute force or Orwellian propaganda, but because it had shrewdly constructed a simulacrum of politics. Parties, elections and civic associations were allowed but carefully controlled, providing space for just enough participatory politics to keep people busy without threatening regime dominance.

Mubarak’s own party was a cohesive machine, organizing intramural competition among elites. The media was relatively free, giving vent to popular frustrations. And even the wave of protest that began to swell in 2000 was interpreted as another index of the regime’s skill in managing, rather than suppressing, dissent. Fundamentally, Egypt’s rulers were smart authoritarians who had their house in order. Yet they were toppled by an 18-day popular revolt.

Three main explanations have emerged to make sense of this conundrum: technology, Tunisia and tribulation. Technological analyses celebrate young people who employed new media to defeat a stolid autocrat. By the second day of the Egyptian uprising, CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman was calling it a “very techie revolution.” In the following days, every major news outlet framed the uprising as the work of wired, savvy twenty-somethings awakening the liberating potential of Facebook, Twitter and the writings of American intellectual Gene Sharp. “For the world’s despots, his ideas can be fatal,” asserted the New York Times of Sharp. [2] A second category of explanation credits the Tunisian people’s ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January with supplying a shining example to follow. Esam Al-Amin notes that the Tunisian revolution “inspired Egyptians beyond the activists or elites.” [3] A third theorem focuses on the many tribulations afflicting Egyptians, particularly soaring commodity prices, positing that hardship finally pushed the population to rise up against oppression. “Food: What’s Really Behind the Unrest in Egypt,” one Canadian newspaper headlined its story. [4]

None of these explanations are false. All of them correspond to interpretations of events forwarded by the participants themselves. And each has an impeccable intellectual pedigree, harkening back to two influential traditions in the study of popular collective action. One is the dramaturgical model, identifying a cast of self-propelled characters, armed with courage and a new consciousness, who then make an uprising. The second is the grievance model, by which an accumulation of social troubles steadily diffuses among the population and finally reaches an unforeseeable tipping point. The two models call attention to distinct but equally important forces: specific actors and generalized complaints. But both are oddly without context. Because aggrieved and heroic people exist under every type of political system, the models do not explain when such people will band together to challenge the conditions they deplore.

Egypt’s momentous uprising did not happen because Egyptians willed it into being. It happened because there was a sudden change in the balance of resources between rulers and ruled. Mubarak’s structures of dominion were thought to be foolproof, and for 30 years they were. What shifted the balance away from the regime were four continuous days of street fighting, January 25–28, that pitted the people against police all over the country. That battle converted a familiar, predictable episode into a revolutionary situation. Decades ago, Charles Tilly observed that one of the ways revolutions happen is that the efficiency of government coercion deteriorates. That decline occurs “when the character, organization and daily routines of the population to be controlled change rapidly.” [5] The organization and daily routines of the Egyptian population had undergone significant changes in the years preceding the revolt. By January 25, 2011, a strong regime faced a strong society versed in the politics of the street. In hindsight, it is simple to pick out the vulnerabilities of the Mubarak regime and arrange them in a neat list as the ingredients of breakdown. But that retrospective temptation misses the essential point: Egyptians overthrew a strong regime.

Strong Regime, Strong Society

Like his predecessors, President Husni Mubarak deployed the resources of a high-capacity state to cement his power. He handily eliminated all threats to his rule, from a riot police mutiny in 1986 to an armed Islamist insurgency in the 1990s to an over-ambitious deputy, Defense Minister ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, whom he sacked in 1989. He presided over the transformation of the economy from a command model with the state as primary owner to a neoliberal model with the state as conduit for the transfer of public assets to cronies. He introduced an innovation to the Egyptian authoritarian tradition as well, attempting to engineer the handover of presidential power to a blood relative, rather than a military subordinate. To manage social opposition to these big changes, Mubarak used the political arena to coopt critics and the coercive apparatus to deal with those who would not be incorporated.

Opposite this wily regime stood an ostensibly weak and fragmented society. Echoing the regime’s own arguments, workers’ protests, rural riots, electoral struggles and any other forms of popular striving were explained away as economic, not political; local, not national; and defensive, not proactive. The little people had no politics. Thus spoke the political scientist and Mubarak loyalist ‘Ali al-Din Hilal to a US diplomat, who in a 2009 cable reported that Hilal said, “Widespread, politically motivated unrest was unlikely because it was not part of the ‘Egyptian mentality.’” Independent academics shared his view: “There could be a poor people’s revolt if the state fails to provide food. But we must bear in mind that Egyptians rarely explode and then only in specific cases, among them threats to their daily bread or national dignity.” [6]

The reality was that Egyptians had been practicing collective action for at least a decade, acquiring organizational experience in that very old form of politics: the street action. Egypt’s streets had become parliaments, negotiating tables and battlegrounds rolled into one. To compel unresponsive officials to enact or revoke specific policies, citizens blockaded major roads with tree branches and burning tires; organized sit-ins in factory plants or outside ministry buildings; and blocked the motorcades of governors and ministers. Take this small event in the logbook of popular politics from January 2001, one of 49 protest events recorded that year by just one newspaper. Workers at the new Health Insurance hospital in Suez held a sit-in to protest the halt of their entitlement pay. State security officers and local officials intervened, prevailing upon the authorities to reinstate the pay and fire the hospital director. [7] By 2008, there were hundreds of such protests every year, big and small. In June 2008, thousands of residents in the fishing town of Burg al-Burullus blocked a major highway for seven hours to protest the governor’s abrupt decision to halt the direct distribution of flour to households. Police used tear gas and batons to disperse demonstrators, and 90 people were arrested. [8]

If one classifies Egypt’s protests by the type of mobilizing structure that brings people out into the street, rather than the content of their claims, three sectors are salient, each with its own repertoire of tactics. The first is workplace protest, including collective action by industrial laborers, by civil servants, students and by trade practitioners such as auto mechanics and gold traders. The second is neighborhood protest, whether on the scale of a single street or an entire town. Protests by Copts, Sinai Bedouins and farmers are often organized along residential lines. Associational protest is the third sector. The organizing mediums here are professional associations such as lawyers’ and doctors’ syndicates; social movements such as the pro-Palestine solidarity campaigns, the anti-Mubarak Kifaya movement and the April 6 youth group; and the youth wings of political parties such as Ayman Nour’s liberal Ghad, the Muslim Brothers, the liberal-national Wafd, the Nasserist Karama and the Islamist Wasat.

Doing politics outdoors brought citizens face-to-face with the caste that rules the streets: Egypt’s ubiquitous police. Mubarak’s was not a police state because the coercive apparatus routinely beat and detained people. It was a police state because the coercive apparatus had become the chief administrative arm of the state, aggregating the functions of several agencies. Police not only deal with crime and issue passports, drivers’ licenses, and birth and death certificates. They also resolve local conflicts over land and sectarian relations; fix all national and sub-national elections; vet graduate school candidates and academic appointments at every level; monitor shop floors and mediate worker-management conflicts; observe soccer games and Friday prayers; and maintain a network of local informants in poor neighborhoods, to ensure that dispossession is not converted into political organization. Officers are free to work out their own methods of revenue extraction, sometimes organizing the urban drug trade. [9] Patrolmen routinely collect tribute from taxi and microbus drivers and shopkeepers, while high-ranking officers partner with landowners or crony businessmen. When there is a riot or a road accident or a natural disaster, Egyptian police personnel are the first responders, not to aid the victims but to contain their rage.

By January 25, 2011, every protest sector had field experience with police rule, from Helwan University students to villagers in the Delta province of Daqhaliyya to Cairo lawyers to Aswan horse cart drivers. But no population group had come close to shifting the balance of resources in its favor, with the arguable exception of Sinai’s Bedouins, who have been embroiled in fierce battles with police for years, ever since the Taba bombings in 2004 led to massive arrest campaigns targeting residents.

The first significant effort to link up Egypt’s three protest sectors was easily aborted by the regime. On April 6, 2008, a loose coalition of Mahalla and Kafr al-Dawwar textile workers, town residents and groups in Cairo’s associational landscape coordinated a general strike and national day of protest to demand a minimum wage and an end to corruption and police brutality. Riot police and state security officers dissolved the strike action at the Mahalla textile factory before it could take off. Then they easily broke up furious protests by thousands of Mahalla townspeople, lobbing tear gas canisters into crowdsand arresting 150 residents. Smaller solidarity demonstrations in Greater Cairo were also effortlessly managed, and state security’s plans succeeded in preventing the spread of protest to other provinces. But the event midwifed the April 6 youth movement, which would be a key organizer of the January 25 action.

Street clashes continued between locals and police in various spots throughout 2010, with some incidents leading to mass arrests and curfews. Although the triggers of these confrontations were particular to time and place, both police and citizens drew upon remarkably similar sets of devices, from Akhmim in Upper Egypt to Rosetta in the Delta to ‘Umraniyya in Greater Cairo. Two signal events embedded these local patterns of friction into a national framework. In June 2010, a young Alexandrian named Khalid Sa‘id was hauled out of his chair at an Internet café and beaten to death by plainclothes police officers in broad daylight, reportedly in revenge for his posting of a video on YouTube that showed the officers divvying up the proceeds of a drug bust. Sa‘id’s death galvanized public opinion in disgust at police predation. Google executive Wael Ghoneim helped start a Facebook group called “We Are All Khalid Sa‘id,” and social movements organized several large demonstrations against police brutality at which the slogan “Leave! Leave!” was hurled at Husni Mubarak. The second occasion was the national legislative elections. Under complete police management, the elections in November-December 2010 were flagrantly rigged to return 97 percent of the seats for Mubarak’s vehicle, the National Democratic Party (NDP). The elections outraged political elites and ordinary people alike, spurring a unified opposition protest on December 12, and leaving behind fresh memories of street battles in dozens of districts across the country.

By the time January 25, 2011 arrived, there was local resonance for the planned national “day of rage” in virtually every corner of Egypt. The political atmosphere was highly charged: Public opinion was inflamed by the Alexandria church bombing on January 1, which had led to numerous rumbles between police and Coptic protesters. The Tunisian people’s toppling of Ben Ali electrified Egyptians. Riot police corralled a January 16 demonstration outside the Tunisian embassy, where activists had gathered to sing the Tunisian national anthem. Unwittingly, the regime itself provided the calendar date for the “day of rage,” having newly designated January 25 a bank holiday to mark Police Day. The holiday freed up citizens for assembly, practically inviting them to convert the official celebration into a popular harangue against police rule. Several get-out-the-protest clips on YouTube strung together notorious scenes of police brutality captured by cell phone video cameras. Members of all protest sectors announced their participation, including Mahalla workers, Sinai Bedouins and civil servants employed by the cabinet. New actors joined in, such as hard-core fans of the two biggest national soccer teams and Khalid Sa‘id’s mother, who, in an interview uploaded by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei’s reform campaign on January 21, also urged Egyptians to reclaim their rights in the streets. [10] The government felt compelled to counter-organize. State security officers warned Muslim Brothers in the provinces to stay home. NDP parliamentarians branded January 25 the “day of loyalty to the leader,” paying for 500,000 posters featuring Mubarak’s visage and pasting them in major squares. [11] The Coptic Church, seven tiny opposition parties, the Nasserist party and Sufi orders spoke out against the protest action. [12]

In the days before the “day of rage,” a little-noted disturbance prefigured scenes that would soon pop up all over Egypt. One afternoon in the Nile-side working-class neighborhood of Warraq, a brawl erupted between two detainees at the police station. Officers violently put down the fight. The detainees then set fire to the blankets in the lock-up, and the blaze soon engulfed the station, injuring the Warraq head detective and his lieutenant. Armored cars and riot police were dispatched to the neighborhood, as rumors spread that a detainee had died in the fire. Hundreds of residents and detainees’ relatives descended on the station and tried to push their way in, pelting the building with stones and breaking four window panes. By 2 am, the standoff had ended. The Giza police chief had arrived to negotiate with residents, allowing them in one by one to ascertain their relatives’ safety. “My brother is wrongly imprisoned. They accused him of stealing a cell phone,” a resident outside the station told a reporter. “One of the officers framed him.” [13]

Verdict of the Barricades

The January 25 protest started as a midsize demonstration and ended as a massive uprising against autocratic rule. But no one leaving their house that morning knew that they were stepping into the largest policing failure of Mubarak’s tenure. The uprising was forged in the heat of street fighting, unanticipated both by its hopeful strategists and its watchful adversaries. “We went out to protest that day and expected to be arrested in the first ten minutes, just like usual,” recalled Ziad al-‘Ulaymi, an organizer with ElBaradei’s campaign. [14] A lieutenant colonel in the riot police, who was monitoring events from the Cairo operations room, later noted, “Our preparations for January 25 were as per usual, and the instructions were not to molest demonstrators.” [15]

Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adli and his four lieutenants had met on January 24 to finalize their strategy. Cairo police chief Isma‘il al-Sha‘ir issued stern warnings through the media, threatening protesters with arrest and invoking the demonstrations law of 1914 requiring a permit for any public gathering of more than five persons. [16] Giza police chief Usama al-Marasi deployed 12 riot police trucks on Arab League Street, the main thoroughfare of Cairo’s western half, and 18 trucks outside Cairo University. The broad avenue and the campus were two of the pre-announced protest locations on the Facebook pages of the April 6 and Khalid Sa‘id movements. For good measure, al-Marasi emplaced trucks along the entire stretch of the Warraq corniche. [17] Outside Greater Cairo, police set up checkpoints along the approaches to the large Delta towns of Tanta and Mahalla, blocking the entry of delegations from Kafr al-Shaykh, Daqhaliyya and Minoufiyya provinces that had been planned by protest organizers. Qalyoubiyya and Suez provinces were placed on high alert. Suez, in particular, had a recent history of troubles. In 2010, a high-ranking police general was assassinated in plain sight by a former informant, whose trial turned into an exposé of the gendarmerie’s brutal methods. And the heavy police hand was evident again during the 2010 elections. “The polling stations are under occupation. Suez has been turned into a military garrison!” cried an irate poll monitor on voting day. [18]

Zero hour, as announced by protest organizers, was to be 2 pm. The stated plan was to demonstrate in front of the Interior Ministry and then disband at 5 pm. Security forces therefore sealed off all the vital downtown streets leading to and from the Ministry, allowing pedestrians to pass only after checking ID cards. But it was a ruse. On the morning of January 25, organizers used cell phones and landlines to disseminate the real locations of the protests and the actual start time: noon. “The protest locations announced on Facebook and to the press were the major landmarks. The idea was to start marching down small side streets and pick up people along the way, so that by the time demonstrators reached the announced locations, they would be large crowds that security couldn’t corral,” explained organizer al-‘Ulaymi. [19]

The crafty tactic worked in some neighborhoods, but not in others. Envision a sizable Kifaya demonstration walking down a tiny, picturesque lane in the inter-confessional neighborhood of Shubra, calling on residents watching them from the balconies to come down and join. Actor ‘Amr Wakid is there, demonstrators are waving Egyptian flags and veteran sloganeer Kamal Khalil is providing the soundtrack with his unique sing-song rhymes. [20] By the time this group surged toward the announced rally point of Shubra Circle, they had collected 1,000 bodies and police officers had started to chase them. Khalil was arrested, and the other legendary sloganeer and seasoned unionist Kamal Abu Eita just barely escaped. “That’s when I realized that Abu Eita runs much faster than me!” said thirty-something activist Ahmad ‘Urabi of Abu Eita, who is nearly 60.

By that point at 2:30 pm, the Shubra people received calls and text messages that crowds were filling streets in the working-class neighborhoods of Boulaq, Imbaba and Bab al-Khalq, and that Arab League Street in middle-class Muhandisin was overflowing with people marching toward Tahrir Square downtown. So they individually hopped into taxis and headed for the square. Meanwhile, outside the High Court building near Tahrir, middle-aged opposition parliamentarians and tweedy professors were scuffling with riot police. Lawyers from the bar association nearby had broken through the cordon and were approaching, as was a third roving group passing by the Judges’ Club around the corner and chanting over and over again, “Hurriyya! Hurriyya!” (Freedom! Freedom!). The police were disoriented by the convergence of the three formations. State security officers negotiated with parliamentarians, trying to convince them to persuade the crowds that they could chant as much as they liked but had to remain stationary on the High Court steps. But there was another logic at work. The bodies gleefully broke through the cordons and rushed toward Gala’ Street and from there to ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Riyad Square abutting the Egyptian museum, a stone’s throw from Tahrir.

While security forces were trying to contain the court demonstration, Ghad party leader Ayman Nour and Wafd party members Muhammad Shurdi and businessman Rami Lakah were fronting an energetic group of Wafdist youth speed-walking from Ramsis Street to the Nile corniche. A couple of hundred strong and each member carrying a green party flag, the procession plucked off bystanders as it moved along, making its way to the NDP headquarters where it stopped for some moments to denounce NDP leaders, promising them the fate of the Tunisian ex-president, Ben Ali. Before security forces could pen them in, a large group coming from the Qasr al-Nil bridge merged with the Wafdists and, together, they set off for the state radio and television building, completely encircling it for a few minutes with no security forces in sight. From there, they roamed the streets of Boulaq, reemerging at the intersection of Ramsis and July 26 Streets, and headed for Tahrir.

Nearby, on ‘Abd al-Khaliq Tharwat Street, Khalaf Muhammad Mursi, a 75-year old newspaper vendor, said, “Back in the days of the monarchy, I saw as many demonstrations as there are hairs on my head. Back then, they flipped over the trams and chanted against the king, and some of them wanted [Prime Minister Mustafa] Nahhas back in power. Demonstrating is good. They’re marching and not doing anything wrong. The government should let them.” [21]

In the provinces, there were also large demonstrations. Police containment varied in intensity, with some brigades tolerating the columns of protesters and others losing control of the crowds, as in Cairo. In Ismailiyya’s Firdaws Square, police made rigorous preparations starting the night before. By early afternoon, rows of riot police were tightly hemming in 600 demonstrators, who were performing the afternoon prayers outdoors and shouting, “Chant it, chant it! Raise your voice high! He who chants will not die!” By 6 pm, more people had joined in, enabling the protesters to break free of the cordon and ramble through the city. The labor stronghold of Mahalla was a different matter, the two demonstrations there having been violently put down, with 11 arrests. Alexandria’s squares and landmarks saw several simultaneous, separate protests. Police ringed a large crowd outside the governor’s office, chanting for the dissolution of the rigged parliament and demanding an audience with the governor, who refused. In the al-Asafra neighborhood, a procession flowed toward NDP headquarters, fending off the “karate companies,” the state security musclemen who disperse crowds by striking demonstrators.

Back in Tahrir, shortly before 4 pm, security forces were resisting demonstrators’ surge toward the national legislative headquarters from two directions. In the square, high-octane crowds led by soccer fans exclaimed “Egypt! Egypt!” in army-like cadence. They repeatedly rushed the thick layers of conscripts blocking the way to Qasr al-‘Ayni Street, which leads southwest in rough parallel with the Nile, passing by the houses of Parliament. When the protesters succeeded in breaking through, panicked officers went in hot pursuit, pushing the discombobulated lower ranks in front of them to rearrange them again in a human blockade before the people could reach the People’s Assembly, as Egypt’s lower house is called. From the other direction on Qasr al-‘Ayni Street, a now iconic scene saw light-footed young men sparring with an armored vehicle. In the footage posted online (where it has upwards of 2 million views), one of them then positions himself directly in the path of the moving lorry as it spouts water from a cannon. He stands there defiantly, hands on hips and drenched, as the vehicle brakes and the videographers wildly cheer him on from a balcony above. [22]

By then, something extraordinary was happening. The thousands of demonstrators who had been wending their way through different parts of the city were streaming through all the approaches to the square. Poet and Baradei campaign leader ‘Abd al-Rahman Yusuf was running from security forces through the labyrinthine streets of chic Garden City, home to the US and British embassies. He and his fellows approached the square from underneath the Qasr al-Nil bridge. “It was one of the most profound moments of my life. The sight of the square filled with tens of thousands heralded the long-awaited dawn. As we entered the square, the crowds installed there cheered the coming of a new battalion, greeting us with joy. I wept.” [23]

In the orange glow left by a setting sun, a skirmish unfolded outside the upper house of Parliament. Demonstrators had inched their way to that spot by making iterated advances into riot police formations, breaking them apart and gaining a tad more ground each time. Protesters clambered atop a red fire truck, and their jubilant fellows began to sing the national anthem. Tense riot police commanders herded their troops. The black-helmeted conscripts jogged in place and emitted the rhythmic grunts of soldiers revving up for close combat. When the order was given, the troops rushed into the crowd. “Silmiyya! Silmiyya!” roared the demonstrators, exhorting each other to non-violence and holding their ground as the troops retreated into position. An enterprising civilian knocked over a white-and-blue sentry kiosk. His fellows rushed to help him roll it to the protesters’ side; a barricade had been made. When hotheads in the crowd started hurling rocks at riot police, a chant rose up from both the front lines and cheerleaders on the sidelines, “No stones! No stones!” In this army, the commanders and the foot soldiers were one. [24]

Night fell, but the people stayed put in the square. Huge speakers were procured from nearby Bab al-Louq, and a people’s broadcast service was set up. Angry monologues, poetry couplets and political demands were read out. A cardboard replica of a squat dictator hung from a lamppost. News was relayed that two citizens had died in Suez that day, solidifying resolve. Volunteers ranged across the square, collecting garbage in plastic bags. People built fires and danced around their light. Out of nowhere, food and blankets appeared, to the delighted claps and cries of the encampment. Memories of March 20–21, 2003 flitted through the minds of those who were there that evening, when the square was under the people’s control for ten hours to express outrage at the US bombing of Baghdad. But on that occasion security forces had uprooted them by the next afternoon. Perhaps determined to avoid a reprise, the broadcast rallied everyone to spend this and every night in the square until their demands were met. As they had repeated over and over again throughout the day, they wanted: “Bread, freedom, social justice!” After sunset, as demonstrators realized their own power, this troika began to alternate with the Tunisian anthem: “The people want to overthrow the regime!” Reporters milled about, collecting stories. Sitting alone was Amal, a young nurse. Her friends had abandoned her, their parents refusing to let them join the demonstrations. Why did not her parents do the same? “My parents have passed away,” she explained, “and I support five brothers and sisters. I’m here so that they can live a dignified life. I don’t want them to be deprived because they’re orphans.” [25]

The riot police lieutenant colonel received the order at midnight. “The square had to be cleaned up,” he recounted. “Absolutely no one was to spend the night there.” The armored vehicles closed in, the riot troops were arrayed and the first tear gas canister was lobbed into the sit-in at 12:45 am. Nearly an hour later, following deployment of 200 vehicles, 50 public buses, 10,000 riot police and 3,000 special forces troopers, the people were expelled. Before scattering in all directions, knots of protesters encircled the vehicles that barged into the square at breakneck speed. A group ran to the NDP headquarters, where they smashed windows before being arrested. Another headed to the television building and blocked traffic in front of it. And a third group set fire to police kiosks and a police car near the ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Riyad bus depot. Holding up bloodied hands to the camera, one of the protesters said, “They shot at us! They shot at us! Who are we, the enemy?” [26]

Mubarak’s Worst Fears

Habib al-‘Adli and his adjutants were concerned by the day’s events, especially the synchronized diffusion of protests across the country, the fluidity of crowd movement in the two major cities and citizens’ euphoric sense of the weak points of the police. As the operations room lieutenant colonel recalled, “What we saw on January 25 was an uprising, not a demonstration. A young man standing in front of an armored vehicle, jumping on it to strike it, falling off and then doing it again? Honestly, there was no fear.” [27] Both the Cairo and Giza police chiefs were in the field all day on January 25, and they saw the electrifying empowerment that seemed to course through Egyptians’ veins. Both were experienced, hands-on officers who had proved their mettle in dicey situations. Cairo police chief al-Sha‘ir won al-‘Adli’s trust by handily managing the large 2006 protests in support of reformist judges. And Giza police chief al-Marasi had been the head state security officer in Suez, seat of a sparsely populated province with multiple coils of social tension, from labor strife to drug running to Bedouin tribes with serious grievances, all sitting at the southern mouth of the Suez Canal, the country’s prime generator of external revenue.

In the early morning hours of January 26, preparations were swiftly made to secure downtown Cairo against another popular takeover. State security instructed all downtown businesses to close before 1 pm on January 26. The two underground Metro lines converging on the major transfer hub at Tahrir announced that trains would not be stopping at the station. Police sealed off four entrances to the station, and three entrances to the July 26 station one stop to the northeast, outside the High Court building. Two thousand undercover policemen fanned out in downtown streets and government installations, and al-Marasi ordered the placement of multiple checkpoints on Nahiya Street, through which thousands of people had streamed the day before onto the Arab League boulevard. Labor commissar Husayn Mugawir, whose job is to control workers through the sole official union federation, instructed all union heads in the provinces to be especially responsive to the rank and file, lest any incipient job action happen to lend the demonstrations strategic depth. [28]

These measures indicated that Mugawir’s superiors were feeling the worst fears of an authoritarian regime. For a capable autocrat like Mubarak, large protests are no cause for anxiety. The fears are diffusion and linkage. Indeed, the diffusion of collective action in time and space emboldened Egyptians, signaling the unwillingness or incapacity of the coercive apparatus to suppress demonstrations. The simultaneity of protests across very different locations, especially the filling of streets in neighborhoods entirely unused to such processions, revised citizens’ calculations of what was possible and reduced uncertainty about the consequences of action. The second fear is the coordination between the three organizational infrastructures of protest. Indeed, the state security directorate existed to frustrate precisely this bridge building. It had done so quite successfully with the April 6, 2008 general strike, and had a stellar track record in branding each sector of dissent with a different label: Associational protest was “political,” but workplace and neighborhood protest was “economic.”

The diffusion of protests on January 25–27 shattered both the mental and material divisions between Egypt’s three protest sectors, forcing the regime to confront them simultaneously, when for 30 years it had done so serially. In Cairo, there was a spontaneous sit-in on the tracks at the July 26 Metro station, with demonstrators halting the train. In Boulaq, a moving crowd of 1,000 residents fought with police from early afternoon until past 2 am Friday morning, braving tear gas and rubber bullets, and setting up barricades on Gala’ Street with dumpsters and carefully arranged burning tires. Undeterred by the traumatic routing of people from Tahrir Square, angry demonstrators by the hundreds continued to stride through the streets of downtown.

The picture in the provinces was much the same, with protesters refusing to empty the streets. Demonstrations in Daqhaliyya, Port Said and North Sinai demanded the release of those arrested on January 25; in Sinai, residents used their signature tactic of blockading the highway with burning tires. On the third day of protests, a young Sinai protester named Muhammad ‘Atif was killed in clashes with police, making him the fourth casualty nationwide. In Alexandria, state security broke up a planned lawyers’ protest on the Manshiya court steps, arresting the first 20 people who showed up. The next day, 200 lawyers returned and held their protest. In Qalyoubiyya, another 200 lawyers marched down the streets on January 26 inveighing against price hikes and the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel, so police cooped them up in the courthouse the next day. And Mahalla was still under lockdown, with security forces importing reinforcements to block renewed attempts by textile workers to start action. Percolating up from these varied locales was a decision to hold another round of protest on the next common-sense date: after Friday prayers on January 28, first dubbed “the Friday of the martyrs and the detained.”

The situation in Suez developed rapidly. On January 25, security forces had been especially violent; the fighting resulted in 110 injuries and three deaths, as well as 54 arrests. The next day, hundreds of residents flocked to Suez General Hospital to donate blood, finding it so full that the injured were lying on sheets in hallways. Meanwhile, a large group of incensed relatives and citizens had gathered outside the morgue. The authorities insisted on handing over corpses without forensic reports, and security forces besieged the funerals with a ferocity that further enraged residents. “When you see this, you feel like you’re in Palestine and Iraq,” said the leftist Tagammu‘ parliamentarian for the city. “Security uses bullets and tear gas canisters and water hoses, and the residents can only confront this with stones.” [29] But residents escalated their tactics, setting fire to a police post and the municipal council building on January 26, and trying to burn down the local NDP office. On January 27, hundreds of residents and detainees’ relatives demonstrated outside the Arba‘in police station, chanting, “Enough! We want our kids!” Demonstrators hurled petrol bombs at the station and ignited several police cars.

On the evening of January 27, police and protesters each held planning meetings to plot the second act of the confrontation. Police officials devised a comprehensive scheme to cut off physical and virtual means of linkage. They ordered a shutdown of Internet and cellular phone service for the next day; cell phones were especially important for demonstrators to spread news of protest diffusion in real time, and to share spot instructions or eleventh-hour location changes. Cairo was sealed off from the provinces and put under lockdown. All of the arteries and bridges leading into Tahrir Square from east and west were closed to traffic — even to pedestrians. Additional Metro stops were closed, not just the two nearest the square. And mosques were carefully primed in advance. The ‘Umar Makram mosque in Tahrir was ordered shuttered. Friday preachers all over the country were instructed to deliver sermons denouncing assembly and disobedience of the ruler. At the Giza mosque where Mohamed ElBaradei was set to attend prayer before joining the protests, the preacher of 20 years was replaced with a government pick. For their part, the youth groups and opposition forces coordinating the protest added new locations and reacquainted themselves with landlines to cope with the cellular shutdown. Opposition parties who had sat out the January 25 action — the Tagammu‘ leftists and the Nasserists — scrambled to join up. And the Muslim Brothers threw their organizational weight behind the Friday gathering, revising their calculus of risk after seeing the momentous events of the previous three days. The players readied themselves, and the world watched.

On January 28, shortly after noon, a majestic scene unfolded all over Egypt. Grand processions of thousands upon thousands of people in every province made their way to the abodes of the oppressive forces that controlled their lives. Beckoning those watching from their windows, they chanted, “Our people, our people, come and join us!” When the crowds reached town and city centers, they encircled police stations, provincial government buildings and NDP headquarters, the triad of institutions emblematic of the regime. The syncopated chorus that had traveled from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis now shook the Egyptian earth: “The people…want…to overthrow the regime!”

In Tanta, 50,000 people blockaded a major highway, encircled the provincial government building and ripped down its billboards. In Kafr al-Dawwar, 25,000 did the same. In Damietta, the people called for the dissolution of Parliament, torching the NDP building and defacing the façade of the governor’s offices. In Minya, whose governor had bragged that his middle Nile province had not seen demonstrations on January 25, people ignored the entreaties of the police chief and barricaded the Cairo-Aswan highway, braving rubber bullets to chant outside the NDP headquarters: “Corruption caused this country’s destruction!”

Everywhere, the rising of the commons was met with superior force. Police fired tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and — the ultimate escalation — live ammunition. The goal, to be reached at any cost, was to prevent separate crowds of demonstrators from fusing together in city centers. State security commandeered ambulances to arrest the unsuspecting injured, and hospitals were pressured into falsifying the cause of death for demonstrators who were shot at close range. Residents provided first aid to demonstrators leery of getting into ambulances, and tossed water bottles, vinegar and onions (homemade tear gas remedies) to the civilians fighting below. On Ramsis Street in downtown Cairo, as a crowd of 10,000 crashed into a security formation and was hurled back with copious tear gas, a woman cried out from her balcony, “God be with you, men of Egypt!” [30]

Communications between Alexandrian field commanders that day record the shock and awe police experienced in Egypt’s second city. “We are still engaging very large numbers coming from both directions. We need more gas,” a squadron head radioed to a superior. “The people have barged in and burned a security vehicle. The situation here is beyond belief. I’m telling you, sir, beyond belief,” says another. By mid-afternoon, Alexandrians had laid siege to three police stations. In other parts of the city, police had run out of ammunition and resorted to throwing stones. A high-ranking commander got on the line to sternly instruct a field officer, “Stop engaging and secure the police stations! You don’t have sufficient forces to calmly engage these numbers. Go and batten down the hatches!” [31]

And Suez? Security forces had isolated the Canal town from the rest of the country, closing off all access points. Massive reinforcements had arrived daily since January 25. At 1 am on January 28, the top police brass met at the Arba‘in police station, which only a few hours before had been ablaze, to set the plan for the “Friday of anger.” The showdown in Suez started after noon prayers. Gen. Ashraf ‘Abdallah, commander of the riot police in the Canal Zone, later prepared an internal report:

After Friday prayers, no fewer than 5,000 people began a procession that was joined by large numbers of citizens from all mosques. The procession grew to 40,000 people, and the police chief ordered that it be allowed to proceed to the provincial capital building. Once there, the numbers exceeded 50,000. The masses remained outside the building for many hours, chanting hostile slogans. At the same time, large numbers of no less than 20,000 had gathered in front of the Arba‘in police station and assaulted the forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails. The forces used only tear gas. Due to the density of the crowds, the forces were unable to deal with them. The crowds burned the station, released the detainees and burned all the police vehicles in the area, among them ten lorries and an armored car belonging to the Ismailiyya force. [32]

In five compact hours, from noon to 5 pm, the police battled the people in all areas of the capital, desperate to thwart the amalgamation of multitudes in Tahrir Square. A climactic battle erupted on the Qasr al-Nil bridge, as surging crowds from the west sought to cross the river to join their brethren converging on Tahrir from the east. Qasr al-Nil has rightly been memorialized in word and video. [33] But there was another climactic Cairo fight in the east, where at least 15 citizens died (the youngest of them aged 14) and ten troop carriersparked in a row burned. The battle of Matariyya Square, to the east of the suburb of Heliopolis, raged as police sought to stop residents from merging with crowds in the adjacent, densely populated ‘Ayn Shams neighborhood. The people’s insistent anthem, as outside Parliament on January 25, was “Silmiyya! Silmiyya!” and “No stones! No stones!” When police used overwhelming force, including live rounds, the people switched tactics, forming a barricade with overturned dumpsters, seizing the shields of riot police, and burning the vehicles and the police station. The mother of ‘Imad al-Sa‘idi, 24, killed by one bullet to the heart and one to the side, wondered, “If there was no way out for a policeman but to fire, then fire on his hand or his foot. But to shoot him in the heart and end his life — why?” [34]

The Egyptian uprising telescoped the daily encounters between people and police that had played out for more than ten years. Al-‘Adli’s police force did not melt away in the face of a popular onslaught. It fought for four straight days on nearly every street corner in every major city, before finally being rendered inefficient by the dynamism and stamina of exceptionally diverse crowds, each with their own know-how in the art of interfacing with gendarmes. At 5 pm on the afternoon of January 28, when reports started rolling in of police stations burning down, one after another, al-‘Adli capitulated and ordered the removal of his forces from the streets. It was a sight unseen in modern Egyptian police rule — the one and only time that Egypt’s three protest subcultures were able to jointly defeat the coercive apparatus that had existed to keep them apart.

By the end of the street fighting, preliminary estimates were that 365 citizens had died and some 5,000 had been hurt. On the police side, there were 32 deaths and 1,079 injuries, while 99 police stations and 3,000 vehicles had burned. Al-‘Adli stayed bunkered inside the Interior Ministry until January 31, when he was transported out sitting huddled in an army tank. In a six-hour interrogation by the prosecution, on charges of responsibility for the deaths and injuries, al-‘Adli shunted blame upward and downward. He accused his four top assistants of providing him with false intelligence, and demanded that Husni Mubarak be held accountable for the decision to fire on demonstrators, in his capacity as head of the Supreme Police Council. But he did concede defeat.

The situation was beyond imagination. The faces of the demonstrators showed how clear they were in challenging the regime and how much they hated it, how willing they were to resist with their bodies all attempts to divide them with truncheons and water cannons and all other tools. They outnumbered security forces by a million or more, a fact that shocked the Interior Ministry leaders and the president. Those government officials all sat at home watching the demonstrations on TV. Not one of them devised a political solution to what policemen were facing — confrontations with angry people and indescribable hatred of the government. All of us were astonished. [35]

The prosecutor-general referred al-‘Adli and his four lieutenants to Cairo criminal court, on charges of murder and endangerment of public property. [36]

The People’s Choice

When Husni Mubarak appeared shortly after midnight on January 29 to announce his appointment of a new government, it was the first time in his tenure that he had been summoned to the podium by popular fiat. But he was enacting a familiar script written by autocratic rulers past, offering concessions to a population that had beaten the police and gained control of a country’s streets. An offering that if made only four days earlier would have been considered shrewd — a cabinet reshuffle — was now foolhardy. It simply sharpened the population’s apprehension of imminent victory, spurring them to stay outdoors and demand nothing less than the ouster of the president. Since Mubarak had made it impossible to remove him from office through elections, Egyptians resorted to the streets to relay the people’s choice.

The liberation of the streets from the occupation forces of the Mubarak regime was only the opening act. Next was the symbolic public acquisition of Parliament, filling the avenue outside with peaceful protesters and plastering the building’s gates with the people’s insignia. Then came the branding of public goods; “our money,” read a scrawl of graffiti on an army tank. With remarkable focus, citizens targeted the structures of rule that had disenfranchised and dispossessed them for decades. The police stations and NDP headquarters were the first targets, but the nascent revolutionaries did not stop there, hitting municipal councils, governors’ offices, state security buildings, police checkpoints, traffic departments, toll booths, utility buildings and other institutions that had taken their resources without giving in return. In Fayyoum, residents stormed the public utility company and destroyed the water bills that charged them exorbitant rates. In Ismailiyya, among the government institutions stormed was the Electricity Administration. In Alexandria, youthful demonstrators grabbed files from the main provincial building that they said showed evidence of corruption. In Isna, a town in Upper Egypt, 1,000 demonstrators stormed a brand-new administrative building that had yet to be formally opened, paid for with their monies.

The genius of the Egyptian revolution is its methodical restoration of the public weal. The uprising restored the meaning of politics, if by that term is understood the making of collective claims on government. It revalued the people, revealing them in all their complexity — neither heroes nor saints, but citizens. It repaired the republican edifice of the state, Mubarak’s hereditary succession project being the revolution’s very first casualty. It compelled the police to bring back their old motto, erasing al-‘Adli’s sinister “police and people in service to the nation” and returning “the police at the service of the people.” The countless public institutions branded with the names of Mubarak and his wife are now being rechristened in the names of regular people who died for the revolution. The referendum, a procedure disfigured beyond recognition by authoritarianism, on March 19 regained meaning as a matter for adjudication by the people. The revolution will have realized its emancipatory promise if it achieves one great task: constructing institutional checks against the rule of the many by the few.

At press time, Egypt’s revolution is still in full swing. It must be expected, however, that the revolution will undergo phases of setback, real or apparent. The apparatus of coercion, indeed, has been quickly rehabilitated and is gingerly reinserting itself into civilian life. But on what terms? For Egypt’s revolutionary situation to lead to a revolutionary outcome, existing structures of rule must be transformed. Citizens must be free to choose their presidents, governors, parliamentarians, faculty deans and village mayors, their trade union, student, and professional association leaders. They must have a binding say in the economic decisions that affect their lives. The coming years will reveal how much of that will happen and how. Just as it provided an archetype of durable authoritarian rule, perhaps Egypt is now making a model of revolution.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Evelyn Alsultany, George Gavrilis and Mandy McClure for sympathetic and tough-minded feedback.

Endnotes

[1] Reuters, January 25, 2011.
[2] New York Times, February 16, 2011.
[3] Esam Al-Amin, “When Egypt’s Revolution Was at the Crossroads,” Counterpunch, March 9, 2011.
[4] The Globe and Mail, February 9, 2011.
[5] Charles Tilly, “Does Modernization Breed Revolution?” Comparative Politics 5 (April 1973).
[6] Interview with Muhammad al-Mahdi, professor of psychology at al-Azhar University, al-Shurouq, October 15, 2010.
[7] Al-Ahali, January 3, 2001.
[8] Al-Ahram Weekly, June 19–25, 2008.
[9] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 18, 2011. [English]
[10] This interview is online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgZMz3encLE.
[11] Al-Shurouq, January 22, 2011.
[12] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 23 and 24, 2011.
[13] Al-Shurouq, January 12, 2011.
[14] Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2011.
[15] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 12, 2011.
[16] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 25, 2011.
[17] Al-Shurouq, January 25, 2011.
[18] Al-Shurouq, November 29, 2010.
[19] Al-Shurouq, February 18, 2011.
[20] This scene was in fact captured on camera: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HfkUJrSMoM.
[21] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
[22] The scene can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWr6MypZ-JU.
[23] ‘Abd al-Rahman Yusuf, “Diaries of the Revolution of the Patient,” al-Misri al-Yawm, March 7, 2011.
[24] See footage from this battle at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgh1iOXI6sQ.
[25] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
[26] These moments are recorded at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g58Sl_4GN0E.
[27] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 12, 2011.
[28] Al-Shurouq and al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
[29] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 28, 2011.
[30] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 30, 2011.
[31] The transcripts of these communications were published in al-Misri al-Yawm, March 15, 2011.
[32] The report was obtained by al-Misri al-Yawm, March 16, 2011.
[33] New York Times, January 28, 2011.
[34] Al-Misri al-Yawm, February 15, 2011.
[35] Al-Shurouq, March 19, 2011.
[36] Al-Shurouq, March 23, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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