Reply re: Iranian Women

This commentary is in response to “Who Supports Iranian Women?  A reply to Jennifer Fasulo” by Eleanor Ommani. Fasulo’s original article is here. 

Eleanor Ommani’s response to my editorial “Chavez Embrace of Iran Leader Insults Women” is a perfect illustration of the kind of left thinking I was critiquing in my original article.  She again positions women’s rights as a side issue, and regards any anti-imperialist posture worthy of support, even when assumed by a virulently misogynist and repressive government.  Nothing in my article suggested that I support the Bush administration.  To the contrary, my thesis was and is that in order to stop US domination of the world, we need people who consider themselves socialists and progressives to support the women and social movements in Iran, not the clerical state which is brutally repressing them.  

Since Ms. Ommani’s implication that I must be pro-Bush is not based on anything I actually wrote, I can only conclude that it derives from the dualistic mindset of which she is captive: that one is either pro-US government or pro-Islamic Republic.  According to this mindset, anyone who condemns the Islamic Republic, must therefore, support the US government and its bloody wars of intervention.  She can’t conceive of someone being against both the endless brutality of US capitalism and the horrific misogyny of Islamic theocracy.  Yet this is precisely the stand that’s been taken by women’s rights activists throughout the Middle East.  The Iranian and Iraqi women activists I know refer to these two patriarchal beasts as the “twin sides of terrorism.”  No matter who wins this fight, women will lose.  That is why it is not surprising that women are leading the way in charting a third course. 

Bush Record on Women’s Rights Abysmal

While it is true that the Bush administration and their corporate media allies have exploited women’s suffering in countries like Afghanistan and Iran to gain support for their war-mongering policies, this does not make the suffering of Afghani and Iranian women any less real.  The answer to Bush propaganda on women’s rights is to expose the utter hypocrisy of it, not to demand that women shut up and allow themselves to be brutalized and killed!

The Bush administration has an abysmal record on women’s rights.  At every level of government he has installed right-wing fundamentalists who are intent on overturning all the gains women have won over the past 30 years.  Internationally, he has joined forces with the Catholic Church and Islamist governments, to eliminate progressive programs and policies for women and children around the world. 

In Iraq, the US invasion and occupation has been a disaster by all accounts, but the greatest travesty is what has been done to women.  Due to a strong women’s movement in the 1950’s, Iraqi women once enjoyed more rights than women in other Middle Eastern countries.  Today, thanks to the US occupation, they have been pushed into the terrifying abyss of state sponsored religion and misogyny shared by women in Afghanistan and Iran.  They are no longer free to walk the city streets without the accompaniment of a male; they are routinely attacked by religious vigilantes and brutalized by US soldiers; forced out of work and school, and forced to veil and cover themselves.  Bush’s record on Iraqi women’s rights alone should be a primary target upon which to attack and expose his bogus claims to be a defender of women’s rights.   It should be a major plank of the anti-war movement.  Instead, it’s barely mentioned.  One reason why the Right is able to manipulate the issue of women’s rights to their advantage is because so much of the Left is shamefully silent, repeatedly failing to confront the issue of women’s rights in the Middle East. 

The Islamic Republic as a Paragon of Women’s Rights?

Ms. Ommani would have us believe that there is no mass resistance to the Islamic Republic.  She undertakes the extraordinary feat of presenting the Islamic Republic as a champion of women’s rights.  She does so, not by refuting the facts I presented about women’s legal and social status in Iran: that women are considered in Islamic law to have half the status of men, have no right to divorce or child custody, can’t travel or work without a husband or father’s permission, are forcibly made to veil, that the legal age of marrying for girls is nine, and the “crime” of adultery is punishable by death, to mention a few of my examples.   She has not a word for Nazanine Fatehi, the 17 year old I wrote about who awaits execution in an Iranian prison for having defended herself against a rapist.    Instead, Ms Ommani points to the important things she claims I left out, such as women’s maternity leave benefits and the state’s “family planning” initiatives.  Or she attempts to refute my argument by misinterpreting the signs of women’s mass resistance as signs of the regime’s benevolence. 

On the issue of maternity leave, Ommani selectively quotes from Shirin Ebadi’s book, Women’s Rights in the Laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran. She omits Ebadi’s interpretation of the ideological framework for such laws.  Ebadi writes,

A closer look at the place of women as viewed by cultural policymakers will reveal their emphasis on family values; a woman’s independence, her social situation, and the discriminations leveled against her are never at issue. Policymakers view women as wives and mothers, who need cultural reinforcement and guidance to better fulfill their domestic roles (Cultural Policies and Iranian Women: Ch 5). 

In discussing the practical application of the maternity law, Ebadi also explains that the law keeps employers from hiring women, thus forcing women out of the job market or into the black market (Social Realities: Ch 6 Section I). While the dynamic of discrimination is at play in many countries where women have maternity benefits, in Iran it must be looked at in light of women’s overall legal status.  Women have no legal recourse for pursuing claims of gender discrimination.  To the contrary, the law codifies such discrimination, and bases it on cultural ideology, also written into the law, that women’s primary role is as mother and carrier of “Islamic purity.”

Shirin Ebadi is no radical.  She is a woman who has made her compromises with the Islamic Republic in order to function inside it.  However, even her writings, when looked at as a whole, totally contradict the picture Ommani paints of women in Iran.  Ebadi herself was a victim of the Islamic Republic’s misogynist laws.  She was stripped of her judgeship and forced to veil.  In her book Iran Awakening: a Memoir of Revolution and Hope, she recounts one of her legal cases in which two men are convicted of raping and murdering a nine year old Kurdish girl.  The presiding judge rules that by Islamic law, the life of each rapist is worth double, or four times that of their victim.  Ebadi is unable to win any justice for the girl’s parents; in fact, the mother of the victim is then prosecuted for making a scene in court and Ebadi is almost held in contempt for appearing dissatisfied with the court’s verdict. 

These are the stories that Ms. Ommani ignores and omits in order to deliver the good news of women’s maternity benefits in Iran. 

Ommani also celebrates the Islamic Republic’s efforts at population control.  Efforts by the state to control women’s reproduction, whether it’s to restrict or promote women’s childbearing, is never motivated by concern about women’s rights.  Since the 1979 revolution, the population of Iran has doubled, leading to massive social and economic problems for the state.   While women were once forced to “have babies for the Islamic revolution,” the plan has long-since backfired.  The Islamic state must now contend with massive unrest from a young and defiant new generation.  Half the population of Iran is under the age of 30.  Efforts to curb population growth is the Islamic Republic’s response to these growing crises, not the pro-women initiative Ms. Ommani would have us believe.  Certainly, it is absurd to believe that a government which considers any act of sexual freedom by women to be a capital crime is somehow interested in promoting women’s sexual and reproductive freedom. 

Islamic law in Iran punishes any woman who is suspected of sexual relations outside of marriage to death by stoning.  It even specifies the size of the stone (it shouldn’t be too large, so the woman will suffer longer and not die too quickly) Ms. Ommani claims this is a “rare and outdated practice.”  Perhaps she should tell this to the six women whom the Islamic Republic has condemned to death by stoning in the past year (Death Penalty/Stoning/Iran  Women-led organizations, like the International Committee Against Stoning, and the International Committee Against Executions( ( have staged demonstrations, initiated media campaigns and gathered millions of signatures to save the lives of women being condemned to stoning and execution, as well as to stop the executions of gay men, political activists and intellectuals.    Because of these effective campaigns, the Islamic Republic has been forced to back off some stonings.  But this does not erase the fact that more than 2000 women have been stoned to death since the Islamic Republic came to power.  Do their lives matter so little?  Will no one be made to answer for these heinous crimes?

Women’s Gains Owed to Women Themselves

On the issue of women’s increased enrollment in college, Ommani again erases women’s resistance in Iran.  It is at best, a sad mistake to attribute women’s small, but hard-won gains to the benevolence of the regime. At worst, it is an attempt to apologize for and cover up the crimes of a regime that has so restricted women’s lives that simply getting an education is an act of feminist defiance.  Women’s determination to educate themselves can be compared to the changes we see in women’s dress: the wearing of colorful chadors and make-up allowing hair to show from under veils or clothes from under the chador—which are all in defiance of laws regulating women’s dress.  These are some of the powerful examples of women’s mass resistance in Iran.   As Haideh Moghissi writes in Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women’s Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolution,

Women have succeeded in pushing back the offensive of the Islamists inch by inch, reappropriating spheres of public life that were lost immediately after the Revolution. Their success in forcing the government to remove, at least on paper, the ban on certain fields of higher education is a case in point… Women and the politics of gender continue to be the Achilles’ heal of the clerical state (preface ix).

Or as Azar Majedi, veteran woman’s rights activist from Iran, said recently in a speech in Düsseldorf, Germany,

Despite all the laws governing dress code and observing the veil, despite prison sentences, fines and lashings, women in Iran ridicule the veil and in their demonstrations have also burned it. The new generation cannot be silenced,  cannot be forced back home.
(The Reality of the Women’s Liberation Movemen in Iran:

When I read Ms Ommani’s arguments, and see the rosy picture she creates of the Islamic Republic, I am reminded of the right-wing women’s groups in the US, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, that seek to portray Bush and his criminal regime as great promoters of women’s rights.  It is a common practice, especially today, to use propaganda about women’s rights to promote a right-wing agenda, and both the Iranian and US governments are masters of this type of deception.  But we would never see a leftist publication print an article by an apologist for the US government that sought to cover up the Bush regime’s assault’s on women’s rights and laud it as a pro-woman government!  This is an indication that the racist double-standard of cultural relativism is still alive and well in the US left. 

It is not surprising that after pages of praising Islamic theocracy in Iran, Ms Ommani then precedes to attack the secular Iranian left.  She disparages the Worker Communist Party of Iran (WPI) in much the same way she builds her entire argument—through obfuscation, quoting out of context, and counting on the readers lack of knowledge of the subject.  I don’t agree with all the positions of the WPI, but they are an important Iranian party, and they deserve, at the very least, a fair hearing by the US left. 

The WPI has never supported the US war in Iraq and Mansoor Hekmat is the late founder of the party, not a spokesperson.  Hekmat was a leftist scholar who wrote over a dozen books analyzing the Middle East from a Marxist perspective.  Ommani’s unsourced assertion that he “defined the recent struggle in the Middle East as ‘civilized America’ against ‘barbaric Islamists’” is as false as it is ludicrous.  In fact, the WPI consistently condemned US threats against Iraq and predicted that such attacks would bolster the Islamist movement (which is has).  They take the same position against US threats on Iran.(On the USA’s Military Threat  What makes the WPI unique is its willingness to learn from the mistakes of the past and refashion a more progressive vision of revolution with a strong emphasis on women’s rights and human freedom.

Without the Liberation of Women, Revolution Does Not Make Sense*

Ms. Ommani thinks I don’t understand the anti-imperialist alliance—which is based on “the broad and dominant  (emphasis mine) issue of the defense of the sovereignty of nations”  She tells me that my position goes “far beyond the question of women (emphasis mine): it falls within the category of revolution and counter-revolution.”  In fact, I understand perfectly well, because it’s the same thing leftists have told women throughout history: women’s rights are secondary to the “larger struggle.”  As if women, who make up more than half of the population, are not fundamental to the structuring of a society.  As if we can build a revolutionary movement while women are still relegated to the margins. 

This is the same equation that allowed religious fanatics to hijack the Iranian revolution in the first place.  Instead of supporting the women’s movement which spontaneously rose up against Khomeini, the secular left chose to make a fatal alliance with the Islamists against “the greater threat” of US imperialism.  As Moghissi writes,

Because of its refusal to see through the Ayatollah Khomeini’s ‘anti-imperialist stance’ and its infatuation with Islamic populism, the left ended up not only participating in the suppression of the women’s movement, but also in hastening its own elimination (3).

Moghissi is referring here to the mass jailing, torture and execution of tens of thousands of Iranian communists after Khomeini came to power.  Those Iranian revolutionaries who managed to survive learned the hard way that savage repression, inequality and brutality can emerge from within as well as without national borders.      

Women Need Solidarity in Order to Win

Ms. Ommani’s attack on me is very personal.  It’s the kind of attack routinely leveled by many on the left against anyone, but particularly feminists, who dare to express solidarity with women’s liberation movements in the Middle East.  We are called arrogant, ignorant, racist, cultural imperialists and unconcerned about women’s rights in our own country.  This creates a taboo that few dare traverse.  It serves to silence and intimidate anyone who cares about the lives of women.  And most importantly, it functions to cut off vital support for women’s rights organizations, like the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA), the Organization of Women’s Liberation In Iran (OWLI) and Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) that are waging life and death struggles to free women from enslavement.

I show solidarity with women’s liberation struggles in the Middle East for the same reason I support any revolutionary movement fighting for justice, equality, and an end to domination and exploitation– because I believe in these movements as the only hope for our world.  I write about the heroic struggle of Iranian women because it’s inspirational and it makes contemporary US feminism pale in comparison.   Women need the solidarity of other women, and all those who care about women, in order to win their battles.    While there are real differences among women based on race and class and national origin, the universality of women’s oppression is undeniable.  One does not have to go back far in US history to find the same kind of legal rightlessness imposed on women by the “founding fathers,” and justified by the exact same misogynist logic.  When the Islamic clerics moralize about women’s “purity” and her “proper place in the home” who cannot hear the echo of the 18th century Christian ministers who said the same about American women? (or the fundamentalist  preachers who say the same today) What is the difference between the Iranian mullah telling a woman she must cover herself so as not to arouse men’s lust, and the US judge telling a rape victim that she must have provoked her rapist by the manner in which she was dressed?  There’s a difference in degree; but it’s the same ideology. 

The women of Iran have been battling the Islamic Republic’s violent persecution of them for 27 years.  Now they must also contend with the increasing threat of attack from the US war machine.  This threat only helps the Islamic Republic intimidate and crack down on women and workers’ mass movements.  On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2006, Iranian women again served as a model of courage for the women of the world when they took to the streets despite government prohibitions against “unapproved demonstrations.”  They marched, demanding equality and freedom; they chanted against both the Islamic Republic and the US threats of attack.  Hundreds of women were badly beaten by the “morality police” and thrown into jail. (Iran’s Brutal Assault Yesterday on Iranian Women Celebrating International Women’s Day  As US threats against Iran intensify, the question remains: will we understand that opposing US war on Iran does not mean supporting the oppressive regime of the Islamic Republic?  Will we show solidarity with the women’s liberation movement, or will we again sacrifice women’s aspiration for freedom, equality and human dignity, to the “either-or” paradigm of the dominant male left?

*The phrase “without women’s liberation, revolution does not make sense” was a slogan chanted by Iranian women during the massive women’s demonstrations in 1979.

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