Women and the Subjugation of Structure: A Critique of the One Million Signatures Campaign

Tuesday 15 May 2007

By: Mazdak Daneshvar and Rouzbeh Gorji-Bayani

Translated by: Sholeh Shahrokhi

Modernity can be defined as critique of all that is presumed inevitable. The first generation of Iranian modernists, however, had interpreted the concept of modernity in a radically different way. Majority of these first Iranian modernists were elite noble men who were sent to Europe on personal or governmental funds, and upon return to their country of origin, were struck by the desolate social environment they encountered. They had the vantage point to compare the orderly bliss of the European citizens to the bitterness of life and destitute of the Iranian peasant.

For the most part, they failed to offer their country anything but to scorn and to show contempt for it, some even chose the life in migration. A small group of them did consider making a change in the condition of affairs that existed at the time, however, for a people whose knowledge did not exceed the realm of the stories of the holy book (Ayaat) and the life of the Prophet (Hadith), and whose socialization was limited to attending ceremonies of marriage and death, such a task would prove anything but easy.

These inheritors of the Enlightenment era found the root of the problem in the absence of a caring modern State, rather than the failure of incorporating modern thought in the public. It can be presumed that they were more invested in the modernization project that had been mandated from above with repeated failure from the turn of the century than to hope for grass-root organization. They, therefore, aimed to oppose the Eastern despotism in their country. However, in their struggle they were forced to compete with the historical authority figures in the public domain of the time—the Shi’h clergy and all of its persistent and well-established organizations.

There so called modernists of our history betrayed their own mission when they turned their back to the concept of modernity in a strategic move and in order to form an alliance with the gatekeepers of heaven and hell. At the core of modern conceptualization is a critique of religious and divine knowledge as a way to free people from, among other things, oppression. The Iranian modernists, who had witnessed the choke chain around the neck of the Babbiyoon (followers of the Babbi movement) accepted an alliance with the Ulama against the ruling State, and tumbled in the valley of the populace.

Populism - as in the case of the written theses by Malkom and Mostasharodoleh, etc.- forced all that these modernists had admired in the West into the Islamic mold. The French Constitution were being adjusted to the code of divinity, so that with the help of the Hadith, defeat any attack of infidelity. As a result, although the Qajar dynasty was toppled because of this union, but what proceeded in its aftermath was yet another oppression of a different kind. This time, a cultural hegemonic despotism began to emerge.

The Iranian liberals were dumbfounded by the dismantling of modernity and the state of affairs following the downfall of the Qajar, and until the reign of Reza Shah, who had snatched the cup of power from above their heads, remained in a reticent silent shock. More significantly still, they left us a legacy that has stained the century of modernization history in our country and continues to this day. Their legacy is the idealistic articulation of modernity, which at best can be identified as a local interpretation of modernity. These intellectuals believed that by incorporating that which comes from the West with the Islamic laws, they would be able to find a reliable and faithful audience who would support them in their peculiar blend of ideologies. They had forgotten that contradictory incorporations are nothing new in the tradition of the Semitic Shariat. They had forgotten that the teaching of Islam is filled with contradictory messages that began with the revelations of Mecca and end with civil revelations. That Islam has both the offering of mercy and sympathy upon its enemy as well as fierce condemnation and total eradication of them. However, the Enlightened intellectuals at the end of the 19th century were never qualified to overcome such dichotomies, rather it was a technique mastered by the well-versed, well-established clerics who knew how to bridge the gaps within the scripture and how to overcome the contradictions of alliance formations with the enemy as an evidence of peaceful nature of their religion, and their fights as a symbol of their legendary struggle against the oppressor.

The Iranian intellectuals of the early 20th century, however, opened up the path that was welcomed by the Shiah clerics: that is to renew themselves in the rhetoric of opposition to the dominant State. The Shiah clerics who until that moment in history refuted any government except for the rule of the absent Imam (the Messiah figure in Shiah Islam), for the first time began to contemplate the possibility of raising the flag of Shiah rule and supremacy until the return of their absent Imam.

In reality these intellectuals had entered a path that passed through the domain of internal religious interpretation, while the tradition of religion already had its own scholars to conduct these interpretations, and needed no novice and incompetent “Westernized” intellectuals to do the job. In the final analysis, thus, the core issue was not the introduction of modernity into the old scripture, but the forceful wave came from the traditional structures in place.

However, what has triggered the authors of this article to reference to the analysis discussed above, as a basis for critique of the One Million Signature Campaign, is the adopted language in the Call to Campaign and the information offered in the legal pocket-brochure that accompanies it. The perspective of change within the legal framework that calls for a change to the existing laws and rights (which are based on the Islamic religious codes of Shariat) is prevalent throughout the literature. Thus, it presumes that the expressed desire and dream of reaching legal equality for men and women is possible within the structure of the existing legal system. Moreover, through the introduction of excerpts from various men of the cloth and religious leaders such an assumption is further emphasized. It should be noted, however, that these leaders of religious thought, no matter how disconnected they may be to the more traditional discourses of Fig’h or Islamic and religious knowledge, will nonetheless continue to limit their gaze from within the framework of religious thinking.

In fact, the literature of the Campaign are unable to offer any alternative vision for the future and their objectives are limited to achieving legal equality for both sexes within the existing legal system of the Islamic Republic. For example, equality within the framework of the system of capitalism that continuously escapes the claims of the working class may not be such a desirable objective for many.

Additionally, we ask, is it the belief of our friends who have created this Call to Campaign that a change within the current institutional regime is possible? If the response is positive, then with respect to the eight years of reformative experience (as in the examples of gaining access for women to the sports arenas, which was addressed in the beginning of the 9th Presidency), we shall rid of all enthusiasm for the earlier collective efforts to reach these achievements. If their response is a negative one, then we ask why would they offer a platform that they know would never take effect? Have they thought about the next possible step? Have they considered alternative plans for action? If so, why have they not shared them with the signatories? What if they are faced with a tactical move from the State to accept some of the smaller changes and to recant the more fundamental changes? Knowing the workings of the State propaganda machinery, what would their action be? …

What has been listed here are some of the shortcomings of this Campaign that have come to the attention of the authors. However, the most significant critique of the Campaign is aimed at the population of the leftist activists – including the authors – to recognize the absence of any alternative to these liberal attempts. In the absence of progressive leftist movements who could speak of women’s issues both with respect to a structural analysis (not causality) as well as in smaller particular articulations of them, liberal movements will ultimately replace the goals of the movement.

Leftist activists should be aware that the demanded equality in the Call to Campaign shows no awareness of the needs of the less- privileged class. It fails to speak of the double burden that the women of the working class, women in service jobs, such as nurses and even doctors in our country. This Campaign has not class analysis within it, and it speaks of the issues only to a degree, as if women of the lower and working classes do not share more basic needs and priorities. Therefore, providing supportive signatures without clarifying the lines of distinction in our political and social stance is nothing more than lowering our heads to the hegemony and demands of liberalism. The excuses such as “these are the most fundamental and basic of demands” are meaningless for a person familiar with the definition and the scope of critique, which is to expose contradictions within the discourse. Activists of the left leaning should always represent the most radical demands of their society, should it be with respect to women’s issues, ethnic identities, or what have you. Yet, their inability to act has made it possible for those who will compromise much of the demands of the lower classes to gain their own objectives.

On the other hand, those, who have failed to grow with their time and suffice to offer solutions to all problems of society to the day after their hand in power pose one set of challenges to the left. By postponing the discussion and the struggle for the demands and the issues of women to the aftermath of the political victory, such determinists fail to see the significance of addressing issues of women now and as an integral part of the struggle. Such positivist attitudes from the traditional leftists, who some times take the religious and ideological approach, call any degree of engagement with issues of this sort, as petty bourgeois, fanatical and revisionist. Instead of offering a constructive criticism of the Campaign, they engage in name-calling and rhetorical warfare against the activists of the Campaign. In this regard, these orthodox Marxists more than the members of this Campaign fail to recognize the demands and the needs of the women in our society, who are caught between the pressures of the current capitalist society on the one hand, and its conservative social superstructures.

In the end, the authors believe that it is possible to adopt an approach, which will add a crimson ribbon to the rainbow of colors within the women’s movement in Iran that separates revisionism from innovative thinking, endurance from opportunism, and flexibility from surrender. A red color that represents the sigh of an oppressed masses, without presuming and granting preference to any one ideology, or to lend its voice to the rhetoric of idealism or to get tangled up with the collective unconsciousness. The hope and the vision of an alternative world is possible through the actions and efforts of those who dare and care and those who inter-connect with the world around them.

Read this article in Farsi


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