Hands off Iran: Why Iranian Women Don’t Need Rescuing by the US

The Democrats and Republicans are united in the belief that Iran poses a risk to US interests in the Middle East and must therefore be reined in.  Iran is too irrational to be trusted with nuclear weapons, cry the warmongers who only half a century ago dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Iran is meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq and supplying arms to Shia militias, says the government that is occupying Iraq and dictating law and policy.

In addition to these ridiculous excuses for war, the ground work is being prepared for yet another rescue story similar to that used to justify the Afghan war.  The rescue story has two components: an “evil,” brutal dictator and an oppressed population. Not so coincidentally, two images of Iran have dominated the media landscape over the last few weeks.  One is that of the “new Hitler” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has been represented as personifying pure “evil.”  The other is of an emaciated Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian American scholar, who was detained by the Iranian government and recently released.

The corporate media’s xenophobic and hysterical treatment of Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York last week was given a boost by President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University.  In his introductory remarks before Ahmadinejad’s speech at the university, Bollinger roundly denounced the Iranian President.  He ended his comments by lamenting his lack of skill in crafting better invective and diatribe, stating that the “weight of the modern civilized world” was on his shoulders.1

Needless to say, in Bollinger’s view, Iran does not belong to this “modern civilized world” club.  This obviously uncivilized society, led by a “petty and cruel dictator,” consists of people who are severely oppressed and therefore desperately in need of intervention by the civilized West.  The other half of this picture has been painted not only by media attention to the arrest of several Iranian Americans, but also by bestsellers like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

To be sure, Ahmadinejad’s government has brutally cracked down on protest and has harassed and arrested human rights and women’s rights activists.  Ahmadinejad also holds reactionary views on the Nazi holocaust of Jews, homosexuality, and any number of other issues.  However, what is missing and often downplayed in the mainstream “white man’s burden” story, is that Iranians have the ability and the will to fight back.  It is vital to distinguish the views of a conservative president and the goals and aspirations of the people.  Just as surely as George Bush does not represent the views of all people in the US, Ahmadinejad’s views are hardly representative of Iranian society as a whole.

More importantly, activists in Iran are perfectly capable of challenging repressive regimes — they do not need US interference. There are several vibrant human rights movements in Iran and it is they who should decide the future of their country.  This article calls attention to the women’s movement, a movement with a long history spanning at least a century.  In what follows, I provide an overview of the current status of the women’s movement, pointing to both its strengths and challenges.

Women’s Rights in Iran

Iran currently follows a conservative interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law that systematically discriminates against women.  For instance, a woman’s testimony in court is worth half that of a man, and if a woman is killed, the compensation due to her family is also half of what is called for in the case of a man’s death.  The laws also deny women equal rights in divorce, custody, and inheritance.2

United by a call for equality before the law, women’s groups, including both secular and Islamic feminists, called for a demonstration in June 2006.  Thousands of women participated in this demonstration, but the police violently cracked down on them and arrested dozens.  Subsequently this re-energized women’s movement launched a campaign to collect one million signatures demanding equality for women.

The campaign, “One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws,” is also designed as an exercise in consciousness raising.  Many members of the movement have stated that simply seeking legal change is not sufficient and that what is necessary is social mobilization.  To achieve this, the campaign has trained hundreds of women to educate others about injustices, but it also aims to learn from ordinary women about their needs and demands.3

The movement has taken pains to show that it is not in conflict with Islamic Law, but instead offers other interpretations of the Sharia that are in fact supported by several male religious scholars.  There is also a targeted campaign against the stoning penalty for adultery.  As of August, 2007, the campaign had collected 100,000 signatures.4 This a good start but the movement still has a way to go, and there are contradictions and tensions within the movement itself.

Islamic and Secular Feminism

Religious and secular feminist tendencies in Iran have often been at odds with each other, and are a reflection of broader currents with Iranian society.  When the US-backed Shah was deposed by mass demonstrations and strikes that expressed discontent at his repressive and corrupt rule in 1979, both religious and secular women played a part.  The Islamist forces mobilized religious women based on strong role models drawn from Islam’s history, such as the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, who fought against repression.  Secular women too started to wear the hijab as a symbol of protest against the westernized Shah.5

Once Ayatollah Khomeini secured the reigns of power he introduced forced veiling.  This prompted massive protests such as the one on March 8, 1979, International Women’s Day.  However, there were also large numbers of counter-protesters, including religious women, at this event.  Since the early 1980s, a trend called Islamic Feminism has come into being, whose proponents use arguments taken from Islamic texts and traditions rather than from western thinkers to make an argument in support women’s rights.

Khomeini’s government overturned several laws that had granted some degree of autonomy to women and replaced them with a strict interpretation of Sharia law.  However, many religious women fought for change.  This activism combined with the government’s emphasis on spreading education meant that in the first decade after the revolution, girls enrollment in school increased by 50%.  These newly educated women then formed the backbone of new activism in the 1990s and 2000s.6

Contemporary Iran

In Iran today, women hold a variety of jobs — they are doctors, lawyers, teachers etc.  Unlike in Saudi Arabia, the US’s long-term ally, where women are forbidden from driving cars, Iranian women have long done so.  Women comprise 65% of university students, making them more educated than their male counterparts and putting them on par with women in advanced capitalist nations.7 Female literacy rates stand at 80%.8 There are many women’s rights groups, several feminist magazines, and many women’s magazines.  Iranian women have fought for their rights in court and have been supported by outspoken female lawyers.

In addition to legal battles, women and their male allies have participated in the electoral process, gradually increasing the number of women in government.  Women voted in large numbers for the reformist president Khatami in 1997 and in 2001.  But, while Khatami relaxed cultural restrictions and censorship, he did not do much by way of reform.  This along with other betrayals lead to his defeat in 2005 and saw the emergence of Ahmadinejad.

The women’s moment in Iran today is stronger than in many parts of the Middle East.  And while the movement faces challenges both from within (secular vs. Islamic Feminism) and from without (the brutality of the current administration), it will not be helped by US bombs.  If anything, war typically gives governments the excuse they need to crack down on internal dissent.  As Shirin Ebadi, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist in Iran and a recipient of the Nobel Peace prize put it,

American policy toward the Middle East, and Iran in particular, is often couched in the language of promoting human rights.  No one would deny the importance of that goal.  But for human rights defenders in Iran, the possibility of a foreign military attack on their country represents an utter disaster for their cause.9

Furthermore, reams of data from various human rights organizations show quite clearly that the US did not “liberate” Afghan women.  It would be naïve to think that they have an interest in championing the rights of Iranian women.  If anything, the women’s movement in Iran serves as an inspiration for the kind of grassroots activism so badly needed in the US where abortion rights and other rights for women have been whittled down over the last few decades.  Women’s rights advocates in the US should stand in solidarity with the women’s movement in Iran and reject all appeals to war.


1  Lee Bollinger (September 24, 2007). President Lee C. Bollinger’s Introductory Remarks at SIPA-World Leaders Forum with President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Columbia News, available on line at <www.columbia.edu/cu/news/07/09/lcbopeningremarks.html>.

2  Shirin Ebadi, “Campaign for Equality,” available on line at <http://zanestan.net/issue14/06,10,30,07,07,45/>.

3  Nikki R. Keddi (2007), “Iranian Women’s Status and the Struggle since 1979,” Journal of International Affairs, Vol 60, no. 2.

4  Christia Fotini (August 26, 2007), “A Quiet Battle for Rights in Iran.” Washington Post, p. B07.  Regional edition, retrieved from Lexis-Nexis.

5  Ibid.  See also, Ali Akbar Mahdi (2004), “The Iranian Women’s Movement: A Century Long Struggle.” Muslim World, Vol. 94 Issue 4.

6  Keddi

7  Ebadi, “Campaign.”

8  Various sources confirm these numbers, including Keddi.

9  Shirin Ebadi (February 19 , 2005), “Attacking Iran Would Be Disaster, Not Freedom.”  Originally published in the British newspaper Independent, available on line at the CommonDreams.org website: <www.commondreams.org/views05/0219-29.htm>.

Deepa Kumar
Deepa Kumar, a regular contributor to MRZine, is the author of Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2007).  She is currently working on a book on media and the Middle East.  This article was originally written for Socialist Worker.

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