Iranian and Muslim women have become the subject of great interest for Euro-American media and U.S. politicians in recent years. In most cases there is an attempt to simplify and attribute the obstacles facing Iranian and Muslim women to internal factors, such as Islam, patriarchal culture, and political elites. In reality Middle Eastern women often suffer equally from external policies like economic sanctions, war, and foreign support of corrupt governments. The economic sanctions, by decreasing the participation of women in the public sphere, have contributed to a more patriarchal culture.
As in the case of Iraq, after the sanctions of 1990 to 2001, "women were affected in a situation where economic deprivation, widespread poverty, a deteriorated infrastructure, and high unemployment rates went alongside the state’s withdrawal of free services, which had been key to women’s participation in public life, accompanied by a shift towards more conservative gender ideologies and the strengthening of patriarchal power at the level of tribes and families" (Nadje Sadig Al-Ali, Iraqi Women Untold Stories From 1948 to the Present). Similarly, the threats of war and national security by foreign powers have increasingly militarized Iran, which has resulted in a more male-dominated political culture and ultimately the repression of women.
However, these external factors are often disregarded. For instance, during a panel at the 2008 Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Conference titled One Million Signature Campaign, presenters discussed the obstacles that the campaign faced in changing the discriminatory laws against Iranian women, but the presentations neglected to mention the socio-economic crisis that affects Iranian women and women’s rights activists. One of the presenters mockingly quoted a leading Iranian politician: "The most dangerous threat to national security is the women’s movement in Iran." I asked the presenter why not discuss the threat of war against Iran, the push for regime change, and economic sanctions, all of which affect Iranian women and women’s rights activists. He responded: "The sanctions and threat of war are not an internal matter and the One Million Signature Campaign is happening inside Iran so they are irrelevant."
Contrary to this claim, I believe the threat of war and the economic sanctions are prominent obstacles that Iranian women must overcome in order to change discriminatory laws in both public and private spheres. I also believe that the power relations of the Iranian political system are interconnected with external forces that act upon it in complex configurations.
Some of the obstacles that the Iranian women’s movement has encountered under Ahmadinejad’s presidency can be understood from the main components of his administration: re-Islamization of Iranian society, the nationalistic anti-imperialist discourse, and the "return of society to the values of the revolutionary time," as Ahmadinejad is fond of saying. Anti-imperialist discourse and Islamization have resulted in a new definition of an "Islamic" dress code for women, including stricter proscriptions for clothing and make-up. This conservative dress code serves to distinguish Iranian women from their so called "western" counterparts and shows that the society is moving toward a more Islamic one. An important concept that contributes to the enforcement of this dress code is a selective memory of the past as exhibited by the slogan: "Return to the true Iranian culture." This slogan has resulted in traditional dress fashion shows in recent years, which to some degree can be interpreted as a tool to resist hegemonic European-American fashions. At the same time, regulating women’s dress under the name of Tarhe Efafe Omoumi (the Plan for Public Chastity) is yet another attempt to instrumentalize women’s bodies for cultural nationalism and the Islamization of the society.
The anti-imperialism discourse goes beyond women’s dress and includes many other symbols and concepts considered "western." For instance, Ahmadinejad proclaimed that feminist films should not be produced since feminism is not an Islamic, but rather a "western" theory. (Feminism has been used by colonial powers and, of course, the real aim of the colonizers has not been the improvement of women’s rights, but rather the control of the "natives" by labeling them "barbaric" and "primitive.") The feminism that Ahmadinejad is talking about is that produced by Iranian movie directors such as Tahmineh Milani or Rakhshan BaniEtemad. While it is debatable to what extent Iranian feminists have internalized colonial feminism’s values, these movies to some extent reflect pertinent issues to Iranian women (though primarily middle class women), such as child custody and the right to divorce.
Though neoconservatives have used women’s rights issues, among other justifications, to occupy and bomb Iraq and Afghanistan, there has not been much effort in the Euro-American media to truly understand the Middle Eastern women’s rights struggle. Instead, Middle Eastern women are portrayed as exotic, homogeneous, and passive objects who need to be liberated. For instance, the Euro-American media has promoted a growing number of Iranian and Muslim memoirs, such as the neo-orientalist book Reading Lolita in Tehran. The threat of war against Iran and the use of women’s rights issues by neoconservatives have made the women’s struggle a hypersensitive subject for Iranian government.
Nadje Sadig Al-Ali notes in Iraqi Women that the situation of Iraqi women has worsened since the 2003 occupation. The wars, and those who advocate them, are not focused on helping women or improving their living conditions. The unsettled national security of Iran also contributes to a poisonous atmosphere for Iranian women. Any time that the U.S. or European countries talk about funding "democracy" in Iran (with imperialist ulterior motives), Iranian female activists encounter serious problems, such as being imprisoned, detained, prohibited to travel outside of Iran, and so on. It seems that these funds, to some extent, directly or indirectly contribute to the oppression of Iranian women activists by the government in as much as they provide legitimacy to the government’s claim that feminism is a foreign enterprise aimed at undermining the Iranian regime.
Another obstacle to the Iranian women’s rights movement is economic sanctions. This issue has been less prominent for two primary reasons. The first is that the government is not willing to make clear how sanctions affect the lives of Iranians, since the government does not wish to admit its susceptibility to foreign powers. The second reason is that those who oppose the government of Iran are not willing to portray the latter as the victim of the story. Of course, the real victims of the sanctions are the people of Iran. "The impact of U.S. economic sanctions has been significant in reducing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), in raising Iran’s cost of capital, and in delaying the exploitation of Caspian Sea oil and gas" (Hossein Askari, Foreign Policy Forum Archives: "The Iranian Paradox: Economic Failure, Regional Resurgence, and an Opportunity for Dialogue"). The oil profits, the major income of the country, are distributed by the government. Sanctions, through a reduction of the FDI, actually strengthen the government, which decides on the diminished wealth distribution.
Sanctions also result in increased unemployment for working class women and men. "Ordinary businesses have been hard hit, too, according to Western officials and Iranians. Big companies and small bazaaris—as traditional merchants are called in Iran—are increasingly forced to pay for imports in advance, in cash. Exporters are losing clients; raw materials for non-oil industries are harder to pay for" (New York Times, October 31, 2008). Women, more vulnerable to economic crises, often are the first to lose their jobs. In this climate with decreased job opportunities, poor women, lacking other avenues of support, may turn to prostitution in order to survive. In fact, the number of Iranian women who work in prostitution is increasing and their average age is decreasing. During my visit in Iran I often heard stories about women who offered grocery store owners sex in exchange for food.
In addition, after foreign powers put sanctions on Iranian banks, factory and business owners could not transfer money to other countries through banks. All this results in skyrocketing food prices. Many factories have either slowed or shut down because the sanctions and the threat of war have made them less profitable. This means many workers—women or men whose finances impact women—have been fired. In order to fully comprehend what has been happening to women in Iran, one has to also observe what is happening to Iranian men. As a result of economic sanctions and other factors, Iranian men are often unemployed or underemployed.
I left Iran in the summer of 2004 and returned in 2007. During my visit, I observed a notable increase in the number of men working as taxi drivers. My city, Gohardasht, which was previously full of art galleries, beautiful clothing shops, and lively cafes and restaurants, had become full of secondhand clothing stores and cheap fast-food restaurants with no place to sit. After 6:00 PM you could see a crowd of men selling socks or low quality shirts on the sidewalks. Many of these men became street vendors after losing their industrial jobs. One of them said that his company could no longer export chewing gum and chocolate to other countries in the Persian Gulf and this caused him to lose his job. You could feel the humiliation that these men were experiencing, as in Iranian society men consider themselves responsible for financially supporting their family. Men’s financial frustration is occurring simultaneously with the government’s attempt to paternalize women for the nominal purpose of keeping the family strong, protecting the "honor" of women, and safeguarding national security. The government instituted new oppressive restrictions under the title of Tarhe Amniyate Ejtemaie (the Plan for the Societal Security). The police arrest women for wearing make-up, short mantoos (a shirt dress that women wear to cover their body), and even boots. There has been a strong governmental desire to link the women’s hijab to the security of the society and the strength of the family. While the threat of war against Iran has been moving the country toward a militaristic orientation, women have been encountering a militaristic paternalistic oppression by government at home.
Nadje Sadiq Al-Ali explains that, in the context of Iraq, sanctions changed gender relations and roles. The same effect occurs in Iran due to the financial crisis to which the economic sanctions contribute. In the summer of 2007, I repeatedly heard from women, including educated women, that they are looking for a man who can provide financial support to their future family and who won’t marry otherwise. The marriage values have changed from education, love, and social class to financial stability entirely. This is to some extent true of men also who look for a wife with a rich father who can offer financial support. Citizens of the U.S. and European countries are an exception: they are considered to be desirable mates by both Iranian men and women. I asked a friend of my cousin, Hiva, why she is looking for a husband who works in the bazaar and is therefore likely to be wealthy. She responded that she is a realistic person and knows that ideas such as love, education, and physical appearance do not put bread on the table.
In an optometrist’s office in Karaj, I met Fatemeh who told me that she has been working there for a long time. Fatemeh complained about the economic crisis, telling me that she had sold all her gold jewelry after her husband was fired from Iran Khodro because of economic sanctions. After liquidating all her jewelry to support her family, she felt insecure and unsafe. When a woman sells her gold to support her family during a crisis, her position becomes more fragile and vulnerable. When women lose their financial independence, they become more susceptible to patriarchy.
Iranian women’s rights activists are also fighting to prohibit polygamy, an institution that favors wealthier men. Economic sanctions make it harder to avoid polygamy because many young men are not able to marry and build a family due to the lack of jobs and the high prices of food and housing. Those few who profit from the sanctions, on the other hand, can easily support two or more families. Due to the difficult financial conditions, becoming the second wife of an already married man is an appealing option to some poor single women. To a great extent, the legitimacy of these governmental policies stems from the economic crisis that is occurring in Iran, toward which sanctions contribute.
While economic sanctions are ineffective in weakening the targeted government, the fact that they aim to bring people to their knees is morally repugnant. The economic sanctions are not solely responsible for the lagging economy of Iran. However, the humiliation, isolation, and backwardness that these sanctions cause are unique. Iranians think that something must be wrong with them, that they deserve such economic isolation. All of a sudden the border between themselves and government disappears. In better times, they would separate themselves from government and, therefore, not consider the government’s bad decisions and shortcomings their own. In the case of sanctions, people are forced to respond personally to actions directed at their government. Here are people who are denied trade with the outside world and who feel marginalized by foreign entities. This process of targeting Iranian people by foreign powers helps the Iranian government mobilize an enemy discourse. Once the Iranian government has real-life evidence to prove the validity of this discourse, the idea of a more conservative Iranian identity distinctive from the enemy’s can be moved forward and strengthens the notion of "us" versus "them." The repercussion of this distinction can be more religiosity of the society, more conservative interpretation of Islamic rules by government officials, a selective backlash to ideas or concepts considered "western," and empowering more confrontational political parties, such as osoulgerayan (fundamentalists) in Iran who would stand up to foreign powers (enemies).
The threat against the national security tends to unify people from the entire political spectrum and often pushes women’s issues to the margin. In the context of a threat of war against Iran, many anti-war women’s rights activists prefer to stay silent for national security purposes and to avoid criticizing women’s oppression by the government. Those who decide to continue the women’s rights struggle are often arrested or face other kinds of repression and are considered allies of the U.S. empire.
Iranian women come from different social classes, personal backgrounds, levels of education, religious beliefs, family values, cultural heritage, and practices. Any oversimplification that tries to homogenize Iranian women will not do justice to their ideological multiplicity, nor will it be accurate. However, with the intersection of the many different components of Iranian women, one can imagine an Iranian feminist movement that resists external powers (anti-imperialist, anti-occupation, anti-neocolonization, anti-sanctions, and anti-war) as well as the internal injustices. This Iranian women’s movement would be more likely to occur under a less conservative interpretation of Islamic rules and a less masculinized political atmosphere, which is difficult to achieve under the threats of war and economic sanctions.
Foreign powers can help Iranian women by considering the negative impact of the threat of war, economic sanctions, and "regime change" funds for "democracy." The Iranian government legitimately considers all of these as threats to national security. Since Iranian women’s issues are also discussed by foreign forces, there is an adverse response to the women’s rights movement by the Iranian government. Women’s rights activists cannot change discriminatory laws unless the link between women’s activism and foreign powers is removed and economic conditions improve for both men and women through political and economic stability. That won’t happen unless foreign interference ends.
Mina Khanlarzadeh teaches math and physics at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston. Title photo by Mina Khanlarzadeh.