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Richard Mellor

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Iranian Women's Struggles a Central Part of Iran Protests.
« on: February 13, 2018, 06:00:48 PM »
Iranian Women's Struggles a Central Part of Iran Protests.

These are incredibly courageous acts  in a country in which  the  hijab is compulsory,  and where women who do not wear their headscarves  properly can be arrested,  assaulted, face fines, lashes and  imprisonment. . . These acts of protest  are part of a broader wave of  mass protests for social justice inside Iran today.

Vida Movahed, Courageously Challenges the Theocracy

Frieda Afary
On December 27, 2017,  just one day before a wave of nationwide  working class protests against the Iranian regime,  a young Iranian  woman,  Vida Movahed,  stood on a utility box in public on the busy  Revolution Avenue in Tehran,  took off her headscarf and waved it on a  stick for everyone to see.  This was an incredibly courageous act in a  country in which  the hijab is compulsory,  and women who do not wear  their headscarves properly can be arrested,  assaulted, face fines,  lashes and imprisonment.

Since late December,  twenty nine  women throughout Iran have been  arrested for the same defiant act.   In a few cases,  they have been  joined by a  male friend.  Some have been released after posting heavy  bails.  Others like Narges Hosseini in Kashan have refused to express  remorse or could not afford to post the heavy bail,  and are still in  prison.    Polls released by the government itself have  shown that most  Iranians think the hijab should be a matter of individual choice.

It is not accidental that Vida Movahed?s challenge to the compulsory  hijab in public occurred one day before the start of a series of  nationwide  working-class protests against the Islamic Republic.  The  wave of nationwide demonstrations which lasted for two weeks,  has   been preceded and followed by protests, strikes and sit-ins  of workers,  teachers, nurses, students, retirees, political prisoners  and families  of political prisoners.

Iranian women have borne the brunt of the repressive regime of the  Islamic Republic.   They face discrimination and second-class  status as  daughters, wives,  mothers, students, employees,  unemployed workers or  part-timers,  and face even more discrimination if they are members of  an oppressed national or religious minority.   However,  they also  represent 60% of university students,  publish a wide variety of novels,  express themselves in blogs and websites, hold study groups, forums,  and publish translations of works by international feminists.   Hence  the brave act of an individual woman who took off her scarf in public on  a busy Tehran street on December 27,  represents something more than  her as an individual.  It also expresses the collective consciousness of  a new generation of Iranian women.

At this critical time,  some socialists are still wondering whether  the protests of women against the compulsory hijab should be supported.   They  are concerned that it is too focused on liberalism and is not  directly questioning capitalist injustice.   Let?s return to how this  question was posed in 1979 in order to draw some lessons.

Lessons from 1979 

Almost forty years ago,  in 1979, soon after the overthrow of the  repressive Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi,   tens of thousands of Iranian  women protested and marched for five consecutive days in various cities  around the country to oppose Ayatollah Khomeini?s order which made the  hijab compulsory and abolished the limited rights which the family  protection law under the previous regime gave women.   Women chanted,   ?We didn?t make a revolution to go backward.? At that time,  the majority of the population still strongly believed  in Ayatollah Khomeini?s claim to bring about ?the rule of the  oppressed?  and social justice  against the monarchical system and  against Western imperialism. Khomeini had also used patriarchy and  chauvinism to appeal to large sectors of men and many traditional women.

Most Iranian socialists who had been strongly influenced by Stalinism  and Maoism,  did not challenge Khomeini?s  reactionary, capitalist,  chauvinistic and misogynist views during the struggle against the  repressive Shah(king)  and in the period immediately after the  revolution.    Instead,  they subsumed all struggles to a very narrow  ?anti-imperialism.?  Hence most socialists did not support the protests  of women against the compulsory hijab.  Those who did support them,   called on women to end their protests after the fifth day in order to  not divert from the ?anti-imperialist? struggle.

In contrast,  some international left wing feminists like Kate  Millett and  socialist feminists like Claudine Moullard, Leila Sebbatt,  Simone DeBeauvoir,  and Raya Dunayevskaya   reached out to Iranian women  with statements of support, articles, or in the case of Millett and De  Beauvoir?s colleagues,  actual fact-finding trips to Iran to meet and  march with Iranian women.  Existentialist philosopher,  De Beauvoir  wrote the following in her statement  from Paris on March 19:  ?It is  important to have a demonstration  ? on the part of a very large number  of women,  French women, Italian women and others ? of solidarity with  the struggles of Iranian women.? (  Afary and Anderson, p. 114). 

Marxist Feminist philosopher,  Raya Dunayevskaya?s statement  from  Detroit, ?poured scorn on those Leftists inside and outside Iran who  placed anti-imperialism in the forefront in such a way as to excuse the  oppression of an ascendant mullacracy that was hemming in the rights of  women, workers and national minorities.? ( Afary and Anderson, p. 116) She ended her statement  by recalling the Chinese socialist feminist,   Ding Ling?s ?Thoughts on March 8? and  Ling?s opposition to both Stalin  and Mao which led to her being purged and exiled.

It is important to draw lessons from this experience for today.  Had  the majority of Iranian socialists supported the women?s protests  against Khomeini?s orders and had they viewed the struggle against  patriarchy as an integral part of the struggle against capitalism and  imperialism,  the 1979 revolution might have moved in a progressive  direction instead of the counter-revolutionary direction that led to  retrogression as well as the execution of many leftists.

Lessons from Today

Forty years later,  how do Iranian socialists fare on women?s struggles for liberation?
On the one hand,  Iranian socialist women have been actively involved  in the new women?s movement and in writing articles and  translating  books on feminist theory.   On the other hand, in the words of a young  Iranian socialist feminist, ?No much has changed.  There are leftist  activists who have chosen to be quiet about the compulsory hijab because  they think it is secondary to  poverty and high prices . . .Leftist  feminism in Iran suffers from a great deal of discrimination in both the  thought and the history of the left.  It is ignored, underestimated or  pushed to the back or seen as secondary to other higher priorities.  For  us leftist women,  this discrimination is the symbol of what we have  experienced in the family and in society as a whole:  gender  discrimination and systematic sexual repression. . . If the left does  not make gender discrimination its own issue, there will be no hope for  transforming our oppressive history.?

A young Kurdish socialist feminist writes:  ?We are not the infantry  of the Masih Alinejad campaign (an Iranian reporter for Voice of America  who started a campaign called ?my stealthy freedom?).  Although it  cannot be denied that her campaign has had a role in encouraging and  singling out the struggle against the compulsory hijab,  we have to  recognize that the flags which women have raised with their hijabs,  are  in practice much more radical than the Alinejad campaign.?

In the words of a seasoned Iranian socialist feminist who  participated in the March 8, 1979 International Women?s Day protests  against Khomeini:  ?Today  Iranian women need freedom from headscarves,  full veils or any cover.  They need the civil rights that they have been  denied.  Once the expansion of the demonstrations lead to the  realization of these freedoms . . . the struggle can go beyond them and  become the beginning of  women?s struggle against the reification of  social relations.    The generation that was born in the 1990s feels so  imprisoned by the hijab,  that its rage and need to break these bonds  has created a strong catalyst that can be effective for a fundamental  transformation.  Whether this catalyst moves in the direction of a human  alternative or a bourgeois alternative depends on the outcome of  forces, the dominant mentality and the real possibility of organizing  the deepest layers of society in the direction of forward movement.   Socialists who are  in search of a  fundamental transformation for human  development,  will only play their role in the popular protests when  they understand the significance and effect of this catalyst and openly  support it.?

What the above cited statements, facts and historical lessons tell us  is that the current protests against the compulsory hijab must be  strongly supported by socialist feminists around the world.  Not only  are they not a diversion from the struggle against capitalism, they are a  step forward in the struggle for human emancipation and part of the  broader wave of mass protests for social justice inside Iran today.

Frieda Afary
February 10, 2018

Afary, Janet and Kevin B. Anderson.  Foucault and the Iranian Revolution:  Gender & The Seductions of Islamism.  University of Chicago Press,  2005.
Dunayevskaya, Raya.  Women?s Liberation and the Dialectics of RevolutionReaching for the Future.  Humanities Press, 1985.
Millett, Kate.  Going to Iran.  Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1982.
Siamdoust, Nahid. ?Hanging Up Their Scarves.?  New York Times.  February 5, 2018.
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