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On the eve of 12th of June, a historical day for the women movement and the green movement : The prospect of Iranian women movement after the recent uprising in the Middel East and North Africa

Interview Azadeh Davachi with Professor Ali Akbar Mahdi

Saturday 11 June 2011, by admin

Feminist School: The highest peace accolade the Nobel Peace bestowed to Shirin Ebadi on October 2003 Was the reason for activists to gather from different women’s organisation with the presence of Shirin Ebadi. This gathering was the first stepping stone which became to be known as the assembly of the like minded; from this assembly the action to gather on 12 June 2006 in front of the university was initiated. Hence on the 12th June more than 6000 women and men attended the gathering in front of the university even though the security forces made a lot of people who wanted to attend turn back. 12th of June is a historical day for the struggle for women’s equality in Iran.

The Second anniversary of the 12th gathering in Haft-e Tir in 2006 called for change to discriminatory laws, with all the women’s struggle for equality, women have been ignored. the 2007 gathering was or tried to be stopped by the security forces and ended up with innocent people being bitten up and many arrested in Haft e Tir square. Women activists who participated in the gathering, afther that, announced one Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws.

After 3 years, on 12 June 2010, a lot of women and men came to streets for demanding their votes. Now, 12nd of June is a historical day for the Women Movement and the Green Movement. For the day, we interviewed with Professor Ali Akbar Mahdi:

Davachi: As you know, we are approaching 12th of June’s anniversary (22nd of Khordad) which was called women’s solidarity day, in this day women held an unauthorized demonstration in Tehran. How would you define Iranian feminist movement at this stage after 6 years?

Mahdi: Through these years, the movement has had both positive and negative experiences relative to its goals, strategies, and tactics. Some of these experiences have been positive and some negative but both have helped the movement to mature, grow, and gain new insights about itself and the issues it cares about. By now, the movement has established itself as a credible social force standing for women’s rights in Iran so much so that both the state and society cannot escape its influences and demands. Its demands and mobilization forced the state to revise its family protection bill, be sensitive to negative reactions to its policies, and react to some of its social demands with paranoia and violence – reactions which have cost the state loss of legitimacy and credibility on its propagandas. Though focused on women’s needs, today the movement represents values and concerns relevant to the whole society. I think a sentence in the latest statement, issued by the movement on the occasion of March 8, 1389, reflects this kind of outreach: "Our demands have always been freedom and the elimination of all kinds of discriminations, be it in law, culture, or tradition."

In the protest movement emerging after the disputed presidential election two years ago, a major source of direction and influence was non-violent tactics practiced by the women’s movement during the past six years. By aligning itself with the Green movement, the women’s movement has expanded its influence and enriched both itself and the Green movement. The state, in reaction to successes of and the widespread support for the women’s movement, has targeted the movement and its members. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, over 100 women activists are now severing jail time on bogus charges and are being subjected to some of the harshest mistreatments in the prison system. A number of women have lost their lives in the state orchestrated acts of suppression during public protests and even private funerals. Neda Agha-Soltan represents a case of the former and Haleh Sahabi of the latter. These deaths have received international attention and helped to gain international recognition and legitimacy for the movement.

The movement has entered a critical stage: its goals have become widely accepted, its strategies globally adopted, and its alliance is sought by other movements and constituencies in the society. Paradoxically, on the one hand these developments offer the movement opportunities, and, on the other hand, put constraints on it. The widespread acceptance of the movement has already brought the movement under the razor-focused attention of the state and its repressive machine. Members are watched more closely, mobilization activities are curtailed and prevented more regularly, publications and meetings are barred more frequently, and threats are used against members more generously and from higher offices in the government and conservative establishment.

Davachi: Ahmadinejad’s presidency gave rise to Islamic Fundamentalism, imposed severe social and political oppression on the body of social movements, and created new difficulties for the Iranian feminist movement. What do you think about these developments and how do you assess the impact of such processes on the body of feminist movement in Iran?

Mahdi: The whole post-Khatami era has been a difficult period for the democratization movement in Iran and other social movements, including women’s movement. While the regressive policies implemented by the new administration have sapped social energy of various social movements, especially the student and women’s movements, and there have been some serious setbacks, the increasing presence of women in various socio-cultural arenas has made them a formidable force for social change in Iran. Disempowered and deposed, many religious reformists, who were critical of the feminist movement in the past, are now supportive of the women’s movement and are seeking alliance with it in order to strengthen their own social base. In a society where traditional gender values are increasingly under question and gender inequality is challenged, women play a major role in transformative and transitional processes.

While the repressive and restrictive policies of the dominant conservative camp have been harmful to the progressive social movements, they have enhanced their cause and legitimacy. The new restrictive environment and repressive policies, especially with regard to female attendance in and gender interactions within the academia, have deepened women’s grievances and causes, increased surplus anger, and contributed to the expansion of social capital – all necessary elements for future outbursts of change. It is unfortunate that the state has chosen repression and restriction as ways of dealing with youths’ socio-cultural needs rather than gradual and peaceful reforms. Such constrictive policies often result in social build-up in society’s psycho-political energy and burst out of control when the opportunities arise. When they do, it is extremely difficult for the state to control these energies. Such a state of affairs will be destructive not only to the state and society but also to the affected groups.

Fortunately, the women’s movement has been careful in picking its own battle and not playing into the hands of the conservatives and government schemes designed for dragging the movement into an uneven battle with the state. Some of the most important achievements of the new women’s movement in Iran are the product of its being selectiveness in goals, forward-looking and patience in strategy, and flexible in tactics. These are very important because the Iranian society has witnessed these political waves in the past three decades and activists have learned how and when to engage or disengage with the state to their own advantages.

Davachi: The recent wave of uprisings in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria have spread throughout the region and have led to framing a different process of democracy movements and civil liberates within Muslim societies. Women in these movements have played a vital role by becoming more visible in political sphere and more active in civil rights and democracy movements. Do you think that we can compare the presence of women in such protests with what we have already experienced in Iranian Green Movement? Are these movements similar or different from each other? Do they follow the same pattern in terms of strategies and structures? Do you think that women in these countries have the same concern with Iranian women in the Green movement? What are the main difficulties that they have to tackle?

Mahdi: The presence of women in protest movements sweeping the Middle East and North African countries is phenomenal and will have long-lasting effects. It was the massive participation of Tunisian women in the movement that succeeded in changing the political landscape of Tunisian society. It was a video posted by a young Egyptian woman on Facebook that ignited the demonstrations that led to the departure of Mubarak from Egypt’s political scene.

In many ways, these developments are similar to the presence of Iranian women in the Green movement. Given the patriarchal nature of most of these societies and their state policies towards women, it is not surprising to see the outpouring of women in these protests. Furthermore, given the youthful population of these countries and the rise in female education, it is natural to see women pushing for change in both political and social policies. But, it should be remembered that in their protest stage, women’s demands remained the same as men, namely political and focused on the change of leadership as the primary goal. As is the case in Tunisia and Egypt, women’s issues and concerns have become prominent after the change in political leadership. All social and political groups prioritized their goals and avoided issues which might divide the movement or give their governments a chance to abuse their differences.

Given the diverse sociological characteristics of these societies and their state policies, the struggle for change in gender policies are taking different forms in each of these countries – that is where we see differences in the role of women within these countries as well as between Iran and them. In Tunisia, where state policies toward women are more progressive than any other Muslim state, women’s demands are quite different than in Egypt where the state policies have been very traditional and the Islamic activists are very influential at both state and societal levels. Tunisian women have a high literacy rate (71%), a more respectable employment rate relative to Middle Eastern Muslim countries (26%), almost equal union representation (43%), and equal presence in educational system (about 50%). Women make up 29% of magistrates and 24% of diplomatic corps. These are phenomenal statistics. Furthermore, the landmark 1956 Personal Status Code has abolished polygamy and repudiation and the newly planned poll for constitutional assembly in July requires gender-parity.

Unfortunately, Egyptian women do not have the kind of social and political environment present in Tunisia. At the end of May, 2011, an Egyptian general admitted that when female activists were arrested during the demonstrations in February, they were subjected to "virginity test" in order to prove their lack of virginity and protect the soldiers from charges of rape. While some members of the Muslim Brotherhood have voiced support for the segregation of women and men in the workplace, a courageous female newscaster, Buthaina Kamel, is preparing for a presidential run. In Libya, 15 Qaddafi’s soldiers subjected Iman al-Obeidi, and Tripoli woman, to gang-rape for her anti-Qaddafi activities. In Yemen, women do not fare well in terms of social opportunities for personal growth and enhancement of civic rights: a fourth can read and write, 17% finish high school, and 5% are wage earners. Yet, women are participating in protests and Ali Abdullah Saleh, a secular president, scolds them and implies that their participation in demonstrations along men is tantamount to "inappropriate mixing." In Saudi Arabia, women are still fighting for the basic right of driving – something recognized and practiced almost universally! In Bahrain, women medics are punished for caring for activists brought to the hospital!

In brief, while civil and legal rights of women in these societies are subject to similar religious and ideological forces, there are structural differences in terms of socio-economic conditions, social capital, historical precedents, organizational capacity, and cultural predispositions. While in most Middle Eastern and North African societies women have to fight patriarchal attitudes embedded in social traditions, and in most cases they find their states in support of their cause against traditional forces, in Iran the state is the source of the problem. It is the state ideology and laws which reinforce traditionalism, implement gender apartheid in public arenas, impose veil on all women against their will, and exact legal punishment on women who do not abide by state moral codes and laws.

Davachi: After the rise of Green Movement some Iranian feminists argued that women’s autonomy and mobility alongside their independent demands and identity would be dissolved in the general democratic demands of the Green Movement — demands that were based on the civil society and social liberties. However, others argued that the participation of a large number of women in the Green Movement alongside its democratic demands can reinforce women’s struggles for civil rights and society, as has been the case in recent uprisings in Arab world. Do you think that women’s mass and dynamic participation in democracy movements such as what the world witnessed in the recent uprising in Arab world and the Green Movement will lead to the creation of divergent frameworks for feminist politics in the Muslim world? Does the Iranian women’s movement have to reformulate its ideas alongside the democratic demands of the Green movement and to re-think its strategies in the struggle for civil society and emancipation? In the eve of 12th of June anniversary, do you think that women’s movement in Iran has to progress within the Green Movement while relying on its own distinct demands or do you think that they have to separate their own way and move beyond the Green Movement?

Mahdi: I do not think that these are mutually exclusive goals. Non-democratic societies are generally patriarchal and deprive both men and women of their civil rights, maybe a bit more or less for each in some areas. Fighting for democratic rights is a necessary condition for securing women’s rights but it is not a substitute for it. While interrelated, these are struggles of different concerns, one being general and political, and the other specific and less political. Lack of democracy hurts the whole population and unequal gender laws hurt one gender more than the other. One demands rights for everyone in political arena, the other for half of the population and in many arenas not covered by the other. Democracy is about political rights while women’s rights cover far more rights than those relating to socio-political representation. They both are struggles for rights but achieving political democracy in a Muslim society does not guarantee the civic rights of women in terms of custody, inheritance, marriage, and travel rights.

Women should participate in the democratic struggles because without them there will be little chance of success as well as sustainment of rights, even if they are achieved. Take the example of the most advanced country in the world, the United States. Democracy was established early but women’s rights were not. Even today, there are still gender discrimination in the labour market and occupational structures in the United States. More importantly, a democratic political structure offers a strong ground to the demand for equitable gender laws and policies. The women’s movement should maintain its autonomy while participating in democratic movement and making alliances with other social movements on issues of mutual concerns. Such participation has to be finessed so that it does not harm the goals and strategies of cooperating movements.

In brief, I think it is important for the Iranian women’s movement to ally itself with other social movements, especially the Green movement. Participation in and alliance with these movements will deepen the women’s movement’s own causes and will expand its reach to those movements. I also think that the women’s movement should make a concerted and careful effort in working with the labour movement where a large segment of women are present and do not get adequate representation.

Davachi: We know that women’s interests in countries such as Egypt are threatened by the Islamic fundamentalist restrictions. Institutionalized oppressions from the Islamic groups may threaten women’s democratic demands, as it happened to the Iranian feminist movement. Some people argue that the situation of these women is somehow similar to what happened after the 1979 revolution for Iranian women. Are there alternative strategies to cope with the barriers caused by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and social and political oppressions within such context in Muslim countries? What forces threaten feminist movements and their autonomy in Muslim societies such as Iran and Egypt?

Mahdi: As I mentioned earlier in cases of these Muslim societies, the embedded traditionalism, along with the social groups representing such traditionalism, are real obstacles to the full achievement of women’s rights. So, it is important to be concerned with this traditionalism. But, traditionalism is not a singular and cohesive ideology, even though it is often represented that way. Traditions draw their energy and inspiration from various sources of culture, religion, superstition, and even modern science. More importantly, it has different constituencies within various social groups, economic classes, and political forces. Fighting them require education, socio-cultural work, and political mobilization. Target issues and groups have to be identified, strategies established, tactics developed, and workforce established. Alliances are needed in dealing with such a wide and deep rooted phenomenon. It is not the work of one group such as women alone.

But, it is important to remember that historically these same traditions have often been used in order to facilitate change in some societies. So, it is hard to generalize about the restrictive environments in which Muslim women live as well as the different opportunities and constraints experienced by them in their struggle against discriminatory laws. In the case of Iran, Muslim feminists are using religious texts as a source of inspiration and a tool for fighting traditionalism among their own ranks. If they can do so, all the power to them.

But there is one basic condition without which it is very hard to imagine a society with gender parity at home, work, and social life. That is the separation of the state from religion. That is a major challenge for countries like Egypt as they revise their constitution. Once the constitution, as a social contract for organizing mundane affairs, is subjected to unchanging religious laws with the sole authority of their interpretation vested in a clerical establishment, then all chances of democratic and equitable gender policies are jeopardized. Women in Tunisia are in a better position to understand this than women in Egypt. Given the more religious profile of Egyptian society, it will be a more difficult challenge in Egypt. If the movement in Syria succeed, it will be an easier one for women there. Each of these countries has their own challenges in this regard, though in different degrees and extents.

Davachi: As we celebrate 12th of June and with regard to the recent uprisings and the role of women, do you believe that from now on Iranian women rights activists can adopt overtly other feminist movement strategies in Muslim societies and at the same time utilize those strategies to the politics of feminist movement in Iran in order to cope with social and political oppressions?

Mahdi: No social movement can afford ignoring the lessons learned in other social movements, not only from movements in its own territory but also those of distant places, especially when there are enough commonalities among these movements. The Iranian social movements, be it the Green, student, women, and labour movements, have a lot to learn from the developments in each country affected by the recent "Arab Spring.’ There are lessons here to be learned and utilized.

However, one has to be careful not to adopt tactics and strategies which are unique and specific to a situation not similar to one’s own. In my view, one of the most important lessons of the Arab Spring for other social movements is to avoid disunity, ideological divisions, and unnecessary antagonization of social forces. Fortunately, the Iranian women’s movement has been mature enough to avoid these pitfalls in its own struggles. In fact, this is a lesson for other Iranian social movements, especially political ones – the ones most hurt by not practicing these lessons.

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