October 11, 2006

Of Women And War

In this post, I responded to a post of Ampersand's on Alas, A Blog characterizing Iran as a woman-hating country. He noted the response and what I wrote in the comments turned into enough material for an actual post. Then other things happened and the topic seemed to get bigger than I had time to sit down and seriously write about. So.

For one thing, as many people have noted, the October 12th deadline for the stoning of seven women for adultery is coming up and there are guidelines at the link for sending emails requesting that the Iranian government commute their sentences. It's raised a lot of concern, as it should, but I'd also hope that it isn't used as a knee-jerk propaganda tool. Because true things can also be used as propaganda and, as Arundhati Roy famously noted, we can't "bomb our way to a feminist paradise." (Note: Anyone capable of reading my previous post who would still wonder whether or not my refusal to condemn Iran as the Most Evil Nation On The Planet means that I approve of stoning women for breaches of chastity laws, or that I'm eager to bring Shari'a to the U.S. (and yes, some idiot once accused me of that,) is too stupid to live. By which I mean it's got to be some kind of miracle that they don't drown in the rain like factory farmed turkeys.)

Anyway, this is long, so follow me over the jump.

So I said,

"... [It] comes down to the question of why the adjective Ďwoman-hatingí is applied nearly universally in some form or another to Iran, but not, say, to India. And what goes on in India? Honor killings? Check. A dowry system that makes women a burden to their families and sometimes gets them killed? Check. Acid attacks? Check. The widespread screening of fetuses for the defect of femaleness followed by enough abortions that their societyís overall gender ratio is significantly skewed? Check. Sexual violence as a form of racist oppression? Check. (According to Amnesty International, many of the crimes committed against women in Gujaratís devastated Muslim communities werenít even prosecutable under Indiaís definition of rape and have gone largely unpunished, while Iran has maintained largely respectful race relations within a multi-ethnic society for longer than westerners have even considered that important. ) Sexual and domestic violence widespread? Check. Widows turned out into poverty, excluded from the economy and generally shunned for remarriage? Check. [As it happens, many of these customs are rare to nonexistent in Iran and looking back, I think I could have phrased this paragraph better to indicate that.]

And what Iím saying is, I look at all those facts about India and then notice that not once have I ever heard any western commentator refer to it as a woman-hating society. It may be a society in which bad things happen, in which there are backward social customs, but it is not given the blanket damnation of being described as a whole country whose motivating force is the hatred of women. I havenít heard people single out India as a country whose mere association is a taint. Just as in Iran, there is a class of westernized people that have a better life, but it seems to me that in the case of Iran, the clothing issue just short circuits all these other things. It seems to me that by many measures, it would be objectively far, far worse to be born a woman of a lower class background in India than Iran. This, in spite of the fact that India is better by far than many of the others we could easily come up with. Yet the criticisms of Iran seem strident out of all proportion to criticisms of countries that have generally worse gender conditions, differing mainly in the key issue of religious garb. Even if it isnít directly addressed, which it often isnít, it hovers buzzard-like over the discussion. We see the pictures of western-looking men and grim reaper-clad women and imho it does something to our perception of that society that comes through in the way we talk about it compared to other societies.

Iím not saying theyíre above criticism. Iím not saying they should stop fighting for their rights or that we shouldnít support them in that, provided that such support is truly helpful and constructive. Iím not even saying that you have to criticize everyone to criticize one, or that thereís some set bar past which a society should stop struggling for greater equity. But if youíre going to criticize them, be aware of the ways in which those criticisms compare to criticisms of other countries whose visible customs seem more normal to us but whose objective circumstances are similar or worse.

... It really, in my mind, comes to the issue of imperialism. I would advocate a general, government-level stance of non-intervention in Iranís affairs, not because I think that their reforms shouldnít happen Ďtoo quickly,í but because our touch is poison. Everything we support, they are inclined to criticize. Everything we hate, they are inclined to defend. Itís a country whose democracy, autonomy and integrity the U.S. has so violated as to put our motives under permanent suspicion. This is more an argument for not engaging them militarily, but in a time when they are being singled out for the Iraq treatment, a dual standard of indignation against them seems to be an enablement of those people who would gladly bomb them to kingdom come. That is surely not the objective of either Ampersand or any of the commenters here, but in the current political climate, I donít think itís a concern to dismiss. ..."

These two responses seem to typify most of what I hear when discussing this issue, so here goes,

RonF - "... Democracy? In Iran?

... The U.S. canít interfere with Iranís democracy because Iran does not have a democracy for the U.S. to interfere with; itís a theocracy, with the occasional sham election to put a democratic face on it."

Kali - "... I think this has to do with the *official* position that a country takes vs. what individual people do and believe, often in violation of the official policies and laws. Yes, India as a culture does horrible things to women and a large percentage of the people have really regressive views of and behaviour towards women and girls. However, the government and those writing the policies and the laws do their best to fight against this. They have laws against practically everything you listed. Of course, the local judge or policeman may not be at all interested in implementing the law. Thatís a problem at an individual/cultural level, not at an institutional level. So, the misogyny in India is cultural more than institutional. And just like there are pockets of progressive culture in Iran, there are such in India. I know that growing up in India, I had it much better than many American girls. Not only did I get full encouragement to achieve in whichever field I wanted, but I also did not have the peer pressure to be pretty, please boys and be sexually objectified.

In Iran, the misogyny is not only cultural but encoded in the policies and laws. There are some areas where the misogyny is not as bad as in other countries, but overall Iran has a much greater backing for misogyny at the institutional level than do other misogynistic countries."

First, democracy. In Iran. Yes, they had one. Had. From 1951 until 1953, when the duly elected Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh was deposed in a coup engineered by Allen and John Foster Dulles and implemented by CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, then replaced with a securely leashed Shah. They went from being a puppet country of the British, to a democracy, to a puppet country of the United states in that span of time. Many of them didn't like it much, don't want to do it again, even if the alternative is a theocracy. Read all about it.

Anyone with the power to change anything in Iran is going to have this fact lodged deeply in their minds, just waiting to be twigged by a moralizing lecture from an American who either never even heard about it or would like to pretend it didn't happen. If it seems strange to you that anyone would even care about something that happened more than 50 years ago, consider that there are Texas oil millionaires who still curse the day Social Security was implemented in the U.S. and the dirty dog who signed it into law.

Lastly on this topic, Iran has considerably more in the way of democracy than Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Egypt, the U.S.' bestest buddies in the good ol' middle of east. Do not suspect that I'm the only person who's noticed this.

About the cultural/institutional split in evaluating a given country's misogyny: As I've noted elsewhere, this may in many cases be a pointless distinction. If you were a lower-income or impoverished rural resident or a slum-dweller, would it matter to you much if the central government supported, or was merely unable to prevent, local officials turning a blind eye to the murder of women over their dowries? Do you suppose it's a great comfort to the Muslim families of Gujarat, who have yet to receive any justice for riots in which Hindus burned their houses while raping and murdering them, to know that the acts to which they were subject are considered regrettable? Granted it's good that most of these things are illegal, but institutions are also only as good as the people who make them up. Which brings us to the next issue, that of institutionalized discrimination.

Institutional discrimination, as your friendly, local race or gender issues educator would be glad to explain, isn't about the law. It isn't even, strictly speaking, about individuals. Institutions, like money and power, change hands slowly. Sometimes so slowly that they seem not to be changing hands at all. This preserves the norms of their past, sets the tone of their future and without deliberate efforts at education, can create harbor discrimination under the 'neutral' veil of the-way-thing-were-always-done-around-here. It's hard enough to work on here in the U.S. where it's at least publically embarassing to be exposed as a racist or a misogynist. When that isn't really a problem in your local community, compounded structural bigotry creates its own body of law.

And India is one of the better developing countries in regard to these issues, many of whom would be lucky to reach their standards. It isn't America these countries have a chance of becoming; in many cases the state of affairs in Iran would be a significant improvement.

As far as attitudes go inside Iran, I'm given to understand that Iranian women are organizing themselves to argue for more rights, even when that gets them beat up by the the women's unit of the Basiji enforcers. They're on it. They don't need to have the inequities of their legal system explained to them by Americans. And as mentioned in the post that started this discussion, they make up over half of Iran's current crop of college students.

The fact that the Iranian regime uses female police forces to break up women's rights demonstrations, and occasionally more conservative female MPs or government ministers to make their case for continuing the current system, that they must do this should make its own argument. Coming back to America to illustrate the point, the Republicans don't have to black-wash their racist policies with token flaks of color because racism sells well to the public, it's a hypocritical nod to the opposition. For all the funny dress codes, inability to run for president and need to secure commonly-granted permission slips to run businesses, there isn't a general presumption in Iranian society that women are inherently incapable of accomplishing things. They're running companies, going to school, working in government and being elected into office, as they have been for a very long time now.

The women of Iran haven't been cloistered into virtual invisibility, no matter what some people might like you to think. They aren't waiting for American feminists to save them, and I bet they'd be pissed if we thought so. They aren't waiting for devastatingly clever explanations of why the thing they should really be most concerned about is the hijab. And as a member of the country's marginalized Zoroastrian minority explained that the uniform dress code makes religious discrimination less of an issue in day-to-day life because everybody looks Muslim.

It isn't all peachy by a lot, but it probably isn't as bad as you think.

Then over all this hangs the issue of war. Will we or won't we bomb Iran? The only people who know aren't saying and few people are entirely willing to put it past them.

Not only has the threat of war failed to deter Iran from pursuing their nuclear program, they've stopped suggesting that they even need the security guarantees they've been asking for over so many years. They're digging in and preparing for air attacks. The Iranian public so far continues to be supportive of the nuclear strategy.

As it happens, all this talk of war is just making Iran more paranoid and repressive. Anyone associated with the U.S. or criticisms made by the U.S. can be conveniently caricatured as a tool of the west, a future fifth columnist for their putative invaders, sympathizers for the imperialists. That includes feminists, youth activists, secularists, Muslims who believe in the separation of church and state, investigative reporters, editorialists, artists and anyone else whose public expressions could possibly be twisted into support for the U.S. And I think we can all recognize this "with us or against us" mindset, one that's become steadily worse in Iran since the Axis of Evil speech and subsequent failures to respond to Iran's unprecedented diplomatic overtures.

So this, at last, is the way I believe is the most effective way for people in the U.S. to try to help the women (men, children, gender queers, human rights campaigners, democracy activists, etc.) of Iran: Oppose any hint that the U.S. will start a war with their country.

We vote and pay taxes here. We know the system here. We're citizens. There is no country in the world whose actions we have more right to criticize, and in this, we can refuse to let criticisms of the unjust treatment of women everywhere bolster the case of a government run by people who want to bomb everywhere so they can feel macho. In my opinion, after watching the unfolding catastrophe of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, preventing that from happening to any other country takes priority. Neither of those nations are likely to have the makings of an effective, homegrown women's rights movement for years. Certainly not one whose members can publicly claim their affiliation without getting assassinated out of hand.

And dead people have a hard time securing rights in any country.

Posted by natasha at October 11, 2006 04:55 AM | Iran | Technorati links |

Excellent commentary, natasha. And I agree, let's do what we can to prevent our government from committing more evil in our name.

Posted by: Mary at October 14, 2006 06:38 AM