Women, Islam and Politics

What you read below is the text of a talk I gave a few weeks ago at Feminism Society at the University of Wollongong, a few days after International Women Day.

Self independence and women movement in Iran

On Sunday, The European Union’s top foreign policy official visited Iran and the BBC reported ‘one of her top priorities was to meet with women’s rights activists” She met with Narges Mohammadi, a well-known women’s rights activist who has been jailed six times. But this is all too familiar, in fact, to the point of adnauseaum, that women politicians in the west or indeed women activists to use women in Iran or the Middle East generally, as a prop to show how concerned they are.  There is something particularly sinister in Ashton’s visit, though, since the EU has implemented some of the harshest sanctions in the world on Iran.

Beheshteh Farshneshani, a female Iranian filmmaker, discussed these sanctions and wrote ‘In Iran the impact of sanctions has been devastating. Over the last year and a half, families living in poverty rose from 22 percent to more than 40 percent, the Rial plummeted at least 40 percent, and the price of food regularly consumed by Iranians — for example, milk, tea, fruits and vegetables — skyrocketed. Moreover, the health of millions of Iranians has been compromised due to the shortage of western medical drugs and supplies.”

So, we have the situation of someone who is directly responsible for putting 13.5 million people into poverty and denying Iranians medical supplies and food, is expressing concern about Iranian women and their ‘human rights”

But when it comes to western discourse around women’s rights and Islam, hypocrisy doesn’t matter, because people can get away with saying whatever they like, as long as it reinforces the ideology which once justified colonialism and now justifies the ‘war on terror’.

Islamofobia and women’s rights in Afghanistan

Saturday marked international women’s day and what we witnessed Richard Dawkins, prominent western atheist, writing to his 907,000 followers on twitter ‘On International Women’s Day, how can anyone stand up and defend this loathsome religion?’ and then posted a photo from 1972 in Afghanistan with women wearing short skirts, no head covering, high heels, make up and smiling, this was contrasted to a photo from 2012 with women walking down the street wearing blue burqas. That a self proclaimed intellectual used this as some sort of evidence would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so dangerous.
First, there are the obvious points. The majority religion in Afghanistan in 1972 when that photo was taken was……Islam, moreover, it is absurd in the extreme to think that all women in Afghanistan in 1972 dressed like that or all women in 2012 wear the burqa. But anyway, his major point was to say you can’t possibly be celebrating IWD if you defend Islam or are Islamic, so that is to say International Women’s day, a celebration of women, isn’t for Islamic women. So, Islamic women aren’t actually women, they become women only when they step outside of Islam. This was reinforced later on when he wrote sarcastically “Oh I SEE, so it’s the AMERICANS who make women wear tents and kill them if they want an education. Oh how silly of me. Oh silly me.” He sees burqas as tents, they can’t be something independent, they have to be comparable to something in common use in the west and he sees all the suffering only through the prism of Islam. Freedom for Afghan women only begins and ends when they reject Islam, so the air-strikes they get killed in, the night raids, the drone strikes, and the poverty. They do not exist.









West and women oppression

This conception of Islamic women being less than fully human or childlike is much more common than assumed and uncomfortable, as it may be, it has assumed a comfortable place within liberal feminism. The most stunning example of this was the film Oppressed Majority, which has been seen 8.5 million times on Youtube after going ‘viral’. It would have been on just about everyone’s Facebook feed. The director, Eleonare Pourriat, referred to sexism and homophobia as a ‘black tide’ and the film made clear where this ‘black tide’ was coming from. The British writer, Richard Seymour, summed up the Islaamaphobia at the heart of its message “The first gripping moment is the exchange between Pierre and a Muslim male babysitter, the latter wearing a balaclava clearly intended to resemble a hijab. The white, middle-class Pierre tries to rescue him with an intervention. “Don’t you feel more and more trapped? First you shaved your moustache, then your whiskers … I’m afraid you look more and more like a child … You don’t belong to anyone you understand?”

The actor playing the Muslim man hams up expressions of idiocy, quiet deference and submission. He smiles politely, anxiously, and grimaces. “It is the law, you know. So God is protecting me …” He is what the hard right’s Islamophobic smears say Muslim women are: children, without agency, needing to be saved. In the logic of the video, this is evidence of the downtrodden stupidity of the Muslim man; not of the racial condescension of his supposed savior. Pierre says “You are a man”; but what he actually communicates is “You are a child”. This is the film’s literal translation of Islamophobic misogyny.”

It would be bad enough, if it was left at that but it continued “However, the crux of the film, its most horrifyingly instructive moment, is the scene in which Pierre is sexually assaulted by a street gang. One of them is called “Samira” and it seems clear the film-maker is nudging us to think of them as North African.

The decision to frame the issue of sexual assault in terms of street gangs is telling, as is the fact that most of those who harass and attack Pierre, such as the bellowing homeless woman, are of a lower social class. In the real world, the great majority of sexual assaults, including the most serious, are carried out by a partner, an ex-partner, a family member, or someone else known to the victim. Approximately 10% of serious sexual assaults are carried out by strangers. It is not a stretch to say that in France the proportion of sexual assaults involving random north African street gangs would be puny.

Yet the film has chosen to set up a scenario in which a middle-class, “good” French person is assaulted, and let down by the police, who in so doing let the North Africans get away with it. The wife, letting down her husband, risks turning him into the worst possible thing, a balaclava-wearing Muslim simpleton. This is the clincher, as far as the film is concerned: civilised France risks being Islamicised if it does not embrace the kind of curiously misogynistic feminism of Pourriat’s film. That’s why it went viral.’

That this film overwhelmingly was praised rather than condemned indicate that feminism has an Islam problem, overwhelmingly the message being sent out is that feminism isn’t for women who are Islamic or those who don’t see Islamic women as less than fully human. This was further re-inforced by the spreading of the photo series ‘An Other View of Iran”, which was introduced by the following “Over 20 years of news and photos from Iran were fairly uniform: a woman in a burqa, public executions, demonstrations with burning flags and rumors of nuclear weapons.” These, of course, are all negative things, when in contrast to the photos that show that Iranians smoke, they drink, they get their hair done,, there are some (not the women in burqas) just like us! There is a whole industry now that exists around portraying Iranians as ‘normal’. This immediately raises the question of who and what is ‘normal’. We can see from the photos what it and the assumptions behind it. That is, if you engage in acts associated with western youth culture, you are normal but if you don’t, I guess you aren’t.

Are Iranians normal?

young, iranians, continue, to, shock, the, internet, by, being, normal, That people should only be accepted if they are like ‘us’ is so horribly racist that it is barely worth mentioning but it also goes unmentioned in these articles that Iranian culture spans thousands of year and heavily influenced western culture. So, perhaps we are more like them, then they are like us.
Lastly, a perennial problem for leftists is to accept that their world and what they think is normal. Might be normal for some in Tehran but what about Tabriz, Mashad, Qom or Dorood? What are their lives like? This is question that mostly remains unanswered by those only interested in portraying Iran in such a way that is acceptable to Western liberalism.

That is, Iranians who do something the west recognizes as normal are to be recognized, those who don’t, are not and are just about written out of history. Consider the military coup in Egypt, there has been a mass resistance to it going on for 8 months now, women have played a major role in this resistance, have been killed and jailed en-masse but they are written out of history because they wear a hijab and because the more ‘normal’ secular feminists supported the military coup. There is a burning hatred of feminism by many Egyptian women because they have been utterly betrayed by it. Feminism, for them, is represented by the likes of Mona Elthahawy, supporter of the military coup, who has written “I am a Muslim, I am a feminist and I detest the full-body veil, known as a niqab or burqa. It erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it.

We must not sacrifice women at the altar of political correctness or in the name of fighting a growingly powerful right wing that Muslims face in countries where they live as a minority.” And has written of a specific Arab hatred for women.

How to bridge the gap?

How then do we bridge this divide or how can people in western countries help in developing an emancipatory political project? The first step is to fully recognise the destruction that western political actions and ideology has caused in Islam majority countries, most of these countries have been raped by the west, raped of its resources, its political independence, its self determination and who have been forced to act in their interests. If that seems harsh, let me just say, my own country had to face a war that was arranged by, funded and organized by the United States, which saw 1 million of people from my country die. I had to go to school with children who never saw their father, I had to live through the bomb raids and the terror and this is just one period of history. That cannot be forgiven or forgotten and it continues today, which is why we cannot identify with the Julia Gillard or Hilary Clinton type feminism, those who identify with those figures have a feminism completely at odds with us. They represent governments which have fundamentally helped to destroy countries and people in the region. A feminism in the west needs to developed, which has a politics that is independent of governments and imperial interests. Every time a western country has involved itself in my country or in other countries in the region, it has completely set back struggles for women’s rights. So, those government figures who discussed supporting women in Afghanistan were the ones who funded the mujahedeen in the ‘80s, who did roll back rights for women on an extreme level. Western governments are the backbone behind the Saudi government, the Yemeni government, the Pakistani government. Only a feminism which divorces itself from these agendas can be of any use but more than this, it must support the politics of self-determination. That is people have their right to make decisions for themselves and societies must be allowed to organize as they see fit. So, women who wish to wear the Niqab must be allowed too, even if if it makes you uncomfortable, history has shown us, that you don’t deal with social phemeonoms by banning them, in fact, that has the opposite effect, similarly if Islamists form a government after an election, this must be accepted, they must not be disenfranchised through coups or invasions (which again has the opposite effect of entrenching the ideology)

Lastly, an engagement with Islamic women actually requires a knowledge of Islam itself. Commentating on Richard Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, Terry Eagleton wrote “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.”

Bascially, it’s not good enough to read a quote from the Koran on the internet and ten to think you’re an expert. One of the biggest mistakes is to see the Koran, as just as religious. The Koran is not just a religious text it is a political and social text, it’s not just a religion, it is also a political movement with various factions. It emerged as a movement for political and social emancipation. ‘Bertrand Russell once compared early Islam to Bolshevism, arguing that both were ‘practical, social, unspiritual, and concerned to win the empire of this world’. Maybe that is not quite right but the spread of Islam, can be compared to the revolutionary fever which swept parts of the world after the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. It also true that today, the emancipatory side of Islam can be seen in revolts and revolutions such as the Iranian revolution, the Algerian revolution and the uprising against Mubarak.

Some atheists and feminists believe that freedom can only begin once religion is rejected, because they don’t see that for Islamic women freedom can come through the religion and only those who have an understanding of the forces behind Islam can help to shape what form that freedom takes. Self righteousness isn’t a substitute for political analysis, so Femen, for instance, may feel righteous in standing outside a mosque naked screaming “Fuck Islam” but is entirely unhelpful for women in Islamic majority countries, it closes down any discussions, rather than opens them up. White saviours don’t really save anyone and usually their impact is to strengthen the forces they oppose. Islam, as a political and social ideology, is a battleground of many different forces and we should help to strengthen all those, like Malcolm X, who see Islam as a tool to fight oppression but also as a way to liberate humanity from the political and economic system which keeps the majority subjugated.

March 27, 2014 · Maryam Khazaeli · Comments Closed
Posted in: Social Life, Women