#genderfail: Addressing “the woman question” on Capitol Hill with leading US voices on Iran

by Maria Rohaly

This is a summary and analysis of one aspect of today’s meeting at the Dirksen Senate building, “Iran at a Crossroads,” which was sponsored by NIAC and which had several congresspeople in attendance. The announcement of the meeting is here, and the video of the proceedings is here.

My summary and assessment of both the morning and afternoon sessions will appear in separate entries.

This entry, however, has to do with a question that I asked of the panelists (Muhammad Sahimi, Scott Lucas, and Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak).

I asked the following question (transcribed from the video) in response to Sahimi’s assertion during the morning’s panel session (comprised of Sahimi, Lucas & Karimi-Hakkak) that Mousavi was widely accepted as the leader of the green movement by Iranians inside the country and that Mousavi’s 5-point set of demands, all under the current constitutional framework, was the minimum set of demands that “everyone” could agree upon:

I have a question with regard to demands as articulated by the quote-unquote “green leadership” such as Mousavi. Thirty-one years ago nearly to this day, on March 8 1979, women in Iran, Tehran, about 15,000 of them marched in the streets to protest the imposition of hijab. Not only did they protest the imposition of hijab, but they also demanded equality with men – in 1979 – they said they wanted their freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. They declared that they did not fight in this revolution to have hijab imposed, to be forced to submit to a social system of gender apartheid, to a legal system that codifies their second-class citizenship.

So you can fast-forward to 2009 & 2010, and you can see who’s on the front lines of this revolution: Iranian women. They’re here to solve a constitutional problem. Given that context, how can we see the points of Mousavi for example as a minimum set of acceptable demands when all of these demands of these leading reformists are made from within the current constitutional framework?

My question was about how women’s ongoing demands for equality, and women’s specific relevance to today’s movement, squared with a constitution that they never agreed to and that codifies them as second-class citizens – how can anyone say that “green” demands from within a reformist framework that accepts the current constitution as legitimate capture the demands for equality of half of Iran’s population?

I wanted these gentlemen, specifically Sahimi, to try to defend the reform agenda and reformist demands in the face of Iranian women’s ongoing demands for equality.

Unfortunately, the question that all three panelists “answered” was not a question that I asked – they answered a question about hijab derived from the cultural and gender stereotypes that seem to be called to mind whenever a Western white woman asks a question regarding gender in the context of the Middle East. Assumptions about race, culture, and gender completely overrode the content and substance of the question that I asked.

Most obviously, this says something about these men’s ability or lack thereof to listen and respond appropriately to a substantive question when it is asked by a woman, rather than allow her appearance and stereotypes derived therefrom to dictate what they understand of the words that she speaks.

Most significantly for Iranian women, and the revolution itself, it says something about the failure of male intellectuals, policymakers and analysts to take seriously – very seriously – the role that women and their demands for gender equality are playing in this ongoing revolution.

My first interpretation of the failure of any of the three panelists to respond to my question is this: If any of these three men understood the functional role that women and their demands play in this ongoing revolution, their responses would have been much different. They didn’t have the least understanding of what I was asking or why, and this is a huge red flag indicating a fundamental failure to understand what this revolution is about. The problem with that is that they are the ones informing and influencing policy on Capitol Hill.

An alternative interpretation of a situation in which there was a complete failure of any of the three panelists to address the question that I asked is that they didn’t WANT to anwer the question, because the answer to the question is, well, rather inconvenient to the reformist agenda.

Instead, both Lucas and Sahimi responded to my question with some variant of the following: women have a lot of non-hijab related issues that they are dealing with right now, such as imprisonment of their children in Evin, that they think are more important than the question of hijab. Underlying this was a clear subtext: “So, you silly white western irrelevant feminist who is obsessed with hijab, sit down and let us get back to discussing ‘real’ issues.” Karimi-Hakkak also addressed the issue of hijab, noting that the women’s protest against hijab was in fact successful for a few years; nevertheless, he too failed to answer the question that had been asked.

The consistency of these responses across the three men was astounding, considering that my question was constitutional, and related to the conflicting demands of the ongoing revolution (those of ‘green leadership’ versus those of women). My question was not about hijab, but about women’s demands for equality and freedom and whether those demands could be met within the current constitution, as seems to be the presumption among green leadership. Subsuming concerns about gender apartheid – and what that means for Iranian society as a whole – under something that on the surface appears to be so trifling as hijab allows people like these (high-profile, “respected,” having a voice that is listened to more than others’) to wrap what is the core and fundamental issue underlying this revolution inside that piece of fabric called hijab, and throw it away as something unimportant, trifling, not worthy of discussion when there are “real” concerns on the table (specifically those that seem on the surface to have nothing to do with gender) – completely ignoring the fact that maintenance of gender inequality is a key focus and target of this regime and is what has allowed them to maintain power and hegemony over the Iranian people, including preserving their ability to imprison and execute anyone that they want (the ostensibly “real” issues at hand), over all of these years.

This instance of #genderfail among the men sitting on this panel has problematic implications for the ongoing revolution, if in fact US policy is going to be guided by those whose vision and understanding of the situation is so incomplete, biased and, fundamentally, wrong. The only upside of this kind of #genderfail is the possibility that the Islamic regime is equally blind to the pivotal role of women and this revolution’s demand for gender equality in the ongoing movement for freedom in Iran. Sadly, I believe in fact that the regime has known the strength of Iranian women since day one; they demonstrated this understanding by making women the first targets of their repression.

My only solace, aside from knowing that at least I had raised the question of women’s equality and its fundamental incompatibility with the Islamic regime’s constitution, was the woman of a certain age who sat in front of me. She, at least, had heard and understood the question that I had asked. After the question and answer session was over and it was time for a coffee break, she turned around in her chair and said to me, “You know, my grandmother used to say – and this was back at the turn of the 20th century – my grandmother used to say, “When you want to talk about them, always refer to them as m-e-n (spelled out), because then they won’t know what you’re talking about.” Her grandmother’s point was certainly well-taken in light of the panel’s response to my question. Before she left, she encouraged me to continue the good work; I did appreciate her words and will remember her fondly.

(note: During the coffee break, I had a chance to discuss what had happened with Scott Lucas, who was the first of the three panelists to respond. He recognized that he had not addressed the question, and apologized for that. I also think he realized in part why he had failed to answer my question. I believe and still believe it is a critical question that all of those engaged around these issues need to address head on. I asked Scott if he could rectify what had happened, perhaps by asking the conference organizers for a minute to go back and properly address this critical question. He did not do so at the time; perhaps he will take the opportunity to respond via his blog.)

(note: Scott Lucas has in fact addressed my question via a post on his blog, Enduring America; I thank him sincerely for his willingness to follow up on and address this question.)

March 10, 2010


12 thoughts on “#genderfail: Addressing “the woman question” on Capitol Hill with leading US voices on Iran

  1. Maria,

    You are absolutely right to haul me up on this. I misread the thrust of the question, not as much because it was a white Western woman but because of my own experience in discussing the issue when I have been in Iran.

    You deserve an adequate reply. I am travelling back from US to Liverpool at moment but will address on Enduring America when I am settled.


    Posted by Scott Lucas | March 11, 2010, 12:40 pm
  2. Sorry Maria – maybe the title of your post should be “QuestionFail” because the text of your question (in both the video and the transcript) are not as clear as your 4 page long explanation of what you meant to ask.

    Your point however is quite valid and deserves the attention Prof. Lucas gave it. But it is part of a much larger set of questions that the Greens and their various supporters are asking (its not limited to the universe of Woman’s rights):

    Can the needs and demands of the people be addressed THROUGH the current Constitution as Mousavi claims. This is not limited to gender role inequality… religious, ethnic, political, and others also fall in this category.

    In my humble opinion – the answer was given by Mousavi in several of his statements…

    1) A Constitution – including the IRI Constitution CAN and WILL be amended by the people. each generation demands their own set of principles to be incorporated and THIS generation should be allowed to change the Constitution – that is a POWERFUL response in theory (if not in practice yet).

    2) Mousavi has stated often that the first step is to engender a ‘rule of law’ attitude within society. That is to say, a respect for laws and tolerance of civil engagement to change those laws within the framework of the system. His exact point was that even if Iran had the BEST Constitution and set of laws in the books, if they were not followed it would not matter. so in his view, its more important for society to get the idea of ‘following the laws’ down then ‘make the laws better’. (this is debatable, but this was a point he made that responds to your question)

    3) The Woman’s rights movement are an integral part of all advanced societies. but I invite you to consider that your mindset has more than just a tint of orientalist in it. I remind you that the Woman’s rights struggle in the US, one of the most advanced countries in this arena, is only 50-60 years old in its success. ie. equal pay is still an issue in THIS country. up until the 50’s women were considered 2nd class citizens here too (more through social realities than legal ones). I guess what I’m saying is that just because we were born and raised here in the West does not mean we have had this “Woman’s equality” thing right all that long.

    I hope you consider the above critique in the constructive mold it was intended and are not offended.


    Posted by Ayandeh Sabz | March 11, 2010, 2:08 pm
    • Dear Ayandeh,

      Thanks for your comments.

      I like the way that you framed your question, in terms of whether “the needs and demands of the people be addressed THROUGH the current Constitution as Mousavi claims.”

      In terms of your responses:

      1) Part of my response to your first point is included in my response to Scott’s posting on EA, here: http://enduringamerica.com/2010/03/11/iran-gender-issues-and-the-green-movement/comment-page-1/#comment-31478 – basically, I assert, on the basis of historical analysis, that the approach of gradualism doesn’t work, and only results in deferring peoples’ access to their rights. In this case, accommodating sex inequality in Iran’s constitution (which is in any case unconscionable) could easily result in another 30 years (or more) of women being considered as second class citizens. I won’t support that – I won’t support even one more DAY of Iranian women (or women from any other country) being considered as second class citizens. I believe in human rights for all people.

      Further, the idea that shari’a law is “reformable,” well, I think we all recognize that as an absurd proposition. Shari’a law is a foundational principle of the Islamic Republic and what codifies women as second class citizens. If it is not possible to reform that which codifies women as second-class citizens in the Islamic Republic, then the idea that you can get to equality under the current constitution is, well, let’s call it a faulty proposition. :)

      2. Of course rule of law is important. Mousavi wants to enforce rule of law – shari’a law, to be exact. If you care about women who are currently living under shari’a law, you should be very, very concerned about his statement.

      Advocating adherence to the rule of law when the laws inherently devalue half of humanity is, well, far below modern societal standards – standards demanded and fought for, you will recall, by Iranian women themselves over 30 years ago.

      I ask you, what problem, exactly, does Mousavi have with developing and adhering to laws that codify women as equal? If he wants to cultivate a social milieu that adheres to rule of law, is it not important to have appropriate laws in the first place? Why does he think women need to wait for their rights? Do you have any sense of the danger that this implies for Iranian women’s freedom and fundamental human rights?

      3) I find your accusation of orientalism to be baseless. Iranian women themselves, 15,000 strong, went to the streets of Tehran 31 years ago shouting that “Freedom is not eastern nor western: it is universal!” The same demands are given voice today, and I support them unequivocally.

      If you consider international support for Iranian women’s fundamental human rights to be “orientalist,” then you should say that specifically.

      Otherwise, please refer to anywhere in my text where you find evidence for such an accusation, or be responsible enough to withdraw it.

      Thanks for engaging in this discussion. :)

      Posted by missionfreeiran | March 11, 2010, 4:30 pm
    • V makes Mousavi look like a saint. Mousavi is a criminal himself and during his 8 years under Khamenei, more Iranians we murdered than at any other IRI administration. Mousavi has also said that “Islamic Republic, Not a word More Not a word less.” That goes for the constitution of the mullahs and Islam as an ideology which treat women as second class citizens. Khatami, admittedly more charismatic than Mousavi and more adept in politics and with religious credentials, and with his brother at the Majles dominated by reformists, was not able to reform the Islamic Republic. As a matter of fact, more newspapers were shut down and many students were brutally beaten, thrown out of dormitory rooftop during his presidency. Khatami was not able to bring about reform. What makes the so-called Green Movement (Mousavi) hypocrites think that Mousavi can reform Islamic (non) Republic. Those who advocate that Islamic Republic can be reformed, are either arrogant of the organizational and power structures within the Islamic Republic where the president does not enjoy much power and all the power rests with a self elected velayat fagigh who holds himself above the will of people, or trying to sugarcoat Islamic (no)Republic discriminatory and inhuman behavior for personal gains an/ord are flat dishonest.

      Posted by Arash | March 12, 2010, 4:30 am
  3. Maria,

    you raise some great questions that deserve a full response. I am a tad busy at the moment, but will get back to you in a bit – later today hopefully.

    Posted by Ayandeh Sabz | March 11, 2010, 5:00 pm
  4. Dear Maria,

    I cannot thank you enough for caring as so to speak up re the most horrible situation of women’s rights in Iran, where it’s Islamic ruling regime considers women to be 1/2 of a human being, in ALL of it’s legal considerations!

    However, I am not at all surprised that the speakers of a NIAC sponsored event have expressed their views as so, by NOT trying “…to defend the reform agenda and reformist demands in the face of Iranian women’s ongoing demands for equality…”! Unfortunately, many of us Iranian-Americans have come to discover & truly believe that NIAC’s creation by Siamak Namazi & his family (reported to be heavily invested in multi-million dollar contracts in most of major industries of Iran, & as so, closely tied to Iran’s current ruling regime – http://www.americanthinker.com/2009/1/trita_parsi_reports_to_tehran.html) has a main purpose & focus of retaining the current Islamic regime in Iran, and NOT the social & welfare issues affecting Iranians living in Iran!

    Also, many of us have come to know that not only NIAC does not concern itself with women’s rights issues in Iran; it has expressed unsympathetic views re the human rights violations in Iran as well. FYI, on 01/18/08 when a question of “why NIAC never takes any meaningful stand against the human rights violations in Iran?” was asked of Trita Parsi, the president of NIAC, he responds by saying “NIAC is not a human rights organization. We do not have the expertise for it” (http://www.youtube.co/watch?v=76ouJtFCFUc)!

    In close, many if us Iranian-Americans remain dismayed & totally outraged that NIAC can be so unaffected by the current gross women’s rights & Human rights violations in Iran, when as you have so rightly pointed out, “… they are the ones informing and influencing policy on Capitol Hill.”!!

    Posted by Afsaneh | March 11, 2010, 6:33 pm
  5. Maria,

    i will attempt to respond intelligently to the varied valid points you have raised, but I suspect our discussion here goes well beyond the specific point of Woman’s rights to more fundamental questions of Democracy, Equality, the role of religion, and the even more difficult and as-yet unresolved questions of the tactics and methods that must be used to achieve those lofty aims.

    I also want to preface my specific responses with the caveat that I obviously don’t speak for Mousavi or the Green Movement and being an a-religious Western secularite myself, I could not possibly respond to the theological questions raised above. However, I will attempt to analyze, as best I can, what Mousavi may intend based on my reading of his public statements and my (extensive) understanding of Iranian society as a whole and the GM in particular.

    on point 1) The discourse on gradualism vs. maximalism is not a new one, nor will we come to a conclusion here. The fact is that one can “Demand” equality and nothing less, but that is obviously not sufficient. It is the (essential) role of the agitator and activist to make those maximalist demands while it is the role of the politician and statesman to achieve what can be achieved.

    As an example, one can look at the HCR debate here in the US or an even better example might be the quest for equal rights for the LBGT community. one can sit and argue that nothing short of maximum rights for Homosexuals should not be accepted and that gradualism as represented by ‘civil unions’ or the repeal of DADT is absolutely not sufficient – that we need to repeal DOMA now! or that a Constitutional amendment MUST be passed to allow same-sex marriages to take place in all 50 states and federally required to be recognized by all 50 states. I would love for that to be the America I live in. However, reality dictates (to the chagrin of activists and maximalists) that society take its own pace to achieve such goals.

    Another words, your diatribe and dismissive tone towards gradualism is in perfect tune with the ‘agitator’ or ‘activist’ role that you may wish to play (and as I said, an essential role in any polity) but that if one wishes to honestly assess or analyze the circumstances, one can not dismiss the gradualist approach of Mousavi (or Zahra Rahnavard, Shirin Ebadi, Mehrangiz Kar, and others) as insufferably insufficient.

    Think on this. had the African American community expected the election of a Black President back in 1850 and nothing less, what would that have gotten them? in a society and a Senate that passed the Kansas-Nebraska act, the gradualist approach they utilized at the time was to demand that escaped slaves not be returned by Northern States (and they lost).

    100 years later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, three Constitutional Amendments, after Jim Crow, after untold lynchings, after the KKK, after Plessy v Ferguson, they finally got around to desegregated schools and were still 15 years away from the Voting Rights Act.

    And still today can one say that racism or the effects of racism do not exist in America? no.

    My point is not to be discouraging of the rightful demands of absolute equality you espouse above – but to indicate my complete disagreement with you about your dismissiveness towards gradualism.

    As for the second part about Shari’a law – I am no expert on Religion, never mind Islam. In fact, if I had my druthers, humanity would go to a post-deist mental state – but alas – even in the US of A some 80% of the population is religious and some 50% literally believe in angels. One can hope that Iran can at the very least achieve the separation of Mosque and State that we in the West have attempted (to varying degrees of success), but (fortunately for me) I’m not there in Iran to press for such a thing. Its up to them to separate their religion and their politics (something some Shi’a Marja-a-taqlids such as Sistani, Montazeri, and Sana’i have also called for).

    As for the possibility that you could have woman’s equality under sharia law, I have no clue. but what I do know is that politicians are a special breed of hypocrite (everywhere in the world) and would come up with the requisite rationalizations and cognitive dissonance to allow for such things to occur.

    2) On the question of what law/constitution Mousavi would desire – his answer is readily available. he explicitly states “that which the people want”. ie. a Democratic (Republican) system would allow the people to amend their Constitution, elect legislators, and enact laws that society wants. Now what does one do in a society where the majority does not want the “equality” that you and I want? that’s the paradox of Democracy.

    But one thing that can not be doubted, is that in the context of Iran (even in the context of the US), Mousavi is a pretty damn progressive voice for woman’s rights. Remember that his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was and is one of the premiere voices of woman’s rights in Iran. In fact, when he married her, she was FAR more well known than him. She was an intellectual of the first order, a college professor, and a writer. Does that strike you as the kind of guy that wants “women in their place”?

    I think you do him and your readers a disservice by questioning Mousavi’s commitment to “woman’s rights” without having a full grasp of his statements and actions on the issue.

    3) I’m sorry you find the ‘tint of Orientalism’ charge baseless – I will attempt to explain my comment here.

    first – 15,000 woman in a nation of 30 million (at the time), though nothing to sneeze at, does not demonstrate a ‘social norm’. In an era where Khomeini’s slightest pronouncements would result in five MILLION people pouring in the streets, one can not consider 15,000 protesters to be indicative of the national mindset.

    Again, I state these facts not to defend Khomeini or dismiss the brave and righteous women (my Mom among them) who took such action. But rather to put the REALITY of Iran into context. One can not analyze a country or its politics – or provide sound and relevant prescriptions – by ignoring the social and political realities of the society.

    similarly, I dont think one should, expect a foreign polity to immediately come to the same conclusions that we ourselves took hundreds of years to come to. In fact, I would argue with you that if it was not for WWII and the need for women to enter the labor force, the US today may well have been as ‘regressive’ as Iran.

    ok – that’s hyperbole – it couldn’t’ be THAT bad ;) but seriously -what took us here in the United States decades to achieve (and as you admit we have a LONG way to go yet), is not going to suddenly occur out of thin air inside Iran (or Pakistan, or Turkey, or EVER in Saudi Arabia). It is Orientalist to expect such a thing.

    Iran and Iranians have and will continue to advance (60% of college students being female is a HUGE achievement for example) – but at their own ‘gradual’ pace.

    sure – I would love for Iran to be a Utopian paradise tomorrow – but then again, I’d love to eat ice cream all day and look like Brad Pitt. Reality is a stubborn thing unfortunately, and wont bend to my demands ;)

    soooo… my point here is not to dismiss your entire reason d’etre or to question the end result with which I suspect we both agree – it is rather to ask that you consider the realities that exist and consider that more practical or pragmatic approaches to these issues often bear more fruit than maximalist and unrealistic demands of political leaders such as Mousavi.

    once more – I hope I have not offended and that my attempt at rational discourse has not failed ;)


    Posted by Ayandeh Sabz | March 11, 2010, 7:29 pm
  6. I am sorry to see the US politicians trying to assess the situation in Iran by talking to people who are known to be sympathetic to IRI. I accept the fact that the green movement in Iran does include many who are for reforms and not regime change. But at the same time, to ignore people who want real change and recognizing that the majority of people fall into this category will result in bringing about a temporary solution in Iran. I am afraid without establishing a real democracy and secular system in Iran, we will have another revolution in a few decades. Why do we need to have it gradually? Why not put in real democratic measures in place? I know it would take time to become a true democratic society as that would require time and education but why not start out with having at least the laws in place to guarantee equal rights?

    Ayandeh Sabz – Let me tell you that if women were not afraid of being raped and tortured by the IRI thugs, they would come out in MILLIONS to protest for equal rights.

    Posted by parvin irandoost | March 11, 2010, 8:17 pm
  7. I am a gradualist too. Here are my suggestions for a first step of a gradual change of women’s rights in a Sharia driven state. Every 30 years the next step should be considered, considering the measure of the success of the previous step.

    1/ A woman’s share in an inheritance will be 0.6 of a man’s share, and not just half, as it is today.

    2/ A husband will be allowed to beat his wife only once a two days, and not any time he finds essential.

    3/ A man will be allowed to marry a girl, only at the age of 10, and not 9 as the Prophet married Aisha.

    4/ A woman will be stoned only with 95 % of the amount of the stones that are used today.

    5/ The hijab’s thickness will be decreased by the width amount of the minds which think that Sharia is compromisable.
    The Islamic republic disaster was formed within months. Can someone give a good reason for waiting centuries to unform it?

    Posted by Shariat Madari | March 11, 2010, 10:18 pm
  8. Shariat Madari

    Great, LOL.

    also, remember, when you negociate, you always ask for at least three times more, then you might get twice or one times more. So don’t say ‘0.60’ of a man’s share’, but ask for 150 %, then they might get equal. !! That’s not gradualism, it’s commercialism, LOL (iranians like commerce I think ?)

    Posted by iranfan | March 12, 2010, 2:05 am


  1. Pingback: Iran: Gender Issues and the Green Movement | Enduring America - March 11, 2010

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