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.
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