Women in Web
Maggie Fraser is a singer/songwriter and artist, living and working in Toronto.
The Betrayal of the Iranian Revolution of l979 - Religious DictatorshipJune 20, 2008
In the fall of 1991, a discussion with a good friend about the Cultural Revolution of Iran became one of those indelible memories.
A little background: the Iranian Revolution, also known as the Islamic Revolution, was a revolt against the monarchy of the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who, like his father Reza Shah, was intent upon developing close relations with the West and the modernization of Iran. The opposition to the Shah was comprised of three main groups: Marxists, Constitutionalists, and Islamists.
After growing dissent and several mass demonstrations, the Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar demanded the Shah leave Iran in January l979. Political prisoners were released, there were promises of free elections, and the disparate revolutionary groups were to form a government of national unity.
However, when the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Tehran with great fanfare in February l979, he virtually spit in the face of Bakhtiar's interim secular regime, began to rule Iran, appointed his own interim prime minister, declared it was God's government, and dissent was a revolt against God and therefore blasphemy. The government was based on Sharia of Islam, and opposition to government was opposition to sharia. (Unlike the canon law of the Catholic Church, Sharia law is somewhat open to interpretation, and versions both more and less strict than Khomeini's have been implemented in other regions.)
Bakhtiar's reward for a lifetime spent opposing the Shah, including imprisonment by the Shah for a total of six years, was the accusation that he was a Shah loyalist by his former ally in the revolution - Khomeini himself. Bakhtiar fled to Paris in live in exile, but was assassinated by Khomeini sympathizers in l991.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was born in April, l979, and the Cultural Revolution was launched by April, l980. Universities were shut down for two years in June l980, and in the two preceding months universities were attacked, thousands of students were wounded, hundreds imprisoned, and after the shut down, 40% of professors were fired. It was a process of purification. Political repression was extreme, torture and execution not uncommon.
The impact on women was immeasurable. After many decades of freedom, while women were still allowed to work and go to school, they were stripped of many basic liberties. The chador, banned by the Shah Reza in the l930's (a badly thought out position), became mandatory. Militia called the "Blood of God" began to patrol the streets to monitor women.
"Bad hijab," showing skin other than face and hands became punishable by 70 lashes or 60 days in prison. A girl caught in mixed company was subject to "virginity tests." Segregation became the norm, including on buses where women sat in the back and entered by rear doors. Women were no longer allowed to walk in public without their father, brother or husband. The age of marriage was reduced to nine from eighteen, and stoning was the punishment for prostitution and adultery. There were reports of summary executions, rapes, and torture.
Back to the conversation with my friend: when I began to talk about the abuses of women and women's rights, the discussion transformed from a dialogue about political oppression into a heated argument about culture and imperialism.
He took the stance that we couldn't judge the beliefs of another culture and how did I know that the women weren't happy?
Which ones, I asked, the ones being lashed? I told him his position was ludirous, did he really think that the desire for freedom was only the domain of men? Did he think that women who had enjoyed as much freedom as Western women for decades would be "happy" about this sudden regression of their rights? Was he only interested in listening to Muslim women that confirmed his views, or did the ones fighting for equality matter? Did he not think that women should have a choice of whether or not to follow religious laws?
Human rights are human rights, I said, and as far as I know, women are human, and have the same natural desires and rights for justice and dignity as men. Slavery and racial segregation were enshrined in many cultures for millennium - is the oppression of men worse than the oppression of women?
We were both left-leaning politically and usually in agreement, but for a moment there existed a terrible gulf between us that threatened our friendship. He had chosen the position that culture superceded women's rights, and suggested I was taking the issue too personally, as though a woman shouldn't feel the same kind of connection to other women that African Americans, or Jews, or any oppressed group is allowed to feel for their brethen in other parts of the world. It was a foreshadowing of the current discourse on the conflict between women's rights and cultural/religious mores.
Cultural relativism - the principle of understanding an individual's beliefs and actions in the context of their culture - became widely accepted in academia through it's use as a methodological device in the study of anthropology. The principle has crossed over to many fields of study, and the debate over women's rights in the context of culture and religion rages most wildly in the streams of both philosophy/political theory and women's studies.
Tragically, the equality of women has become a symbol of the imperialist West, and the stricter forms of wearing hijab has, arguably, become the most politicized attire in history. There are some Western Muslim women, mostly students, who go as far as wearing niqab, and say they wear it to show pride in their culture, in their religion, to make a statement against imperialism. It's unlikely these young women would give up a morsel of the freedom that they enjoy, and seem to forget that in many regions they would not have the choices they currently enjoy.
They are ignoring the obstacles faced by Muslim women in certain nations, Iran being a prime example, who are risking a great deal, including imprisonment, in their fight against the mullahs who make the chador an imperative. The connection between women's rights and imperialism is not only misplaced, it implies that a woman's need to be fully respected as an equal is something that is created by culture, and not innate, as it is for men.
It has become popular in academic circles to speak of different types of feminism. But the definition of feminism couldn't be more simple: a feminist is one who believes in equality between men and women. A feminist does not even have to be a woman. The well known philospher and political reformer John Stuart Mill is considered the first feminist ethicist and his work continues to be a subject of study in feminist theory.
But even more worrisome than the degradation of the word feminism, is the degradation of the word equality, itself. I keep hearing that there are "different types of equality," This is spin of the worst kind. There is nothing subjective about equality, the laws are either the same for men and women, or not. There are not different types of racial equality, and to contend that women are less worthy of full equality than men is to imply that we are not fully human.
Aristotle's hierarchy placed men below the gods, and women below men, just above animals. Isn't it time we move forward?
Every major culture (if not every culture), and religion in the world has been designed and defined by men; treating culture like a sacred shrine is effectively condemning women to second-class status - is this the aim of leftists who place culture above women's rights?
The Iranian Revolution was a gross betrayal: to all the Marxists and Constitutionalists who opposed the Shah, but particularly to the women within these groups who joined the struggle to create a more equal society, and found themselves living in an Islamic state that robbed women of their basic freedoms. Iranian women are among the most courageous persons in the world, risking more than we can imagine, simply for speaking publicly about women's equality.
Here's a quote from "King John of Canada" by Scott Gardiner "Civilized nations, like civilized people, do not accept the intolerable in the name of tolerance." I thought it was perfect for your site.