Iranian Feminism after June 2009: A Conversation with Zillah Eisenstein
By GOLBARG BASHI in New York | 4 July 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] The world has now witnessed the extraordinary presence of Iranian women in the democratic struggles of their nation — both before and after the June 12, 2009 presidential election.
In May and June 2009, millions of women poured into the streets in both pro-Mousavi and pro-Ahmadinejad rallies. The human chain in support of the more liberal candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, which stretched through most of Tehran’s major avenues was made up of hundreds of thousands of women.
Eyewitness reports tell us of amazing acts of courage by women, young and old, pious and non-religious, who danced, cried, shouted and spent days and nights in the streets.
As a student of social movements and women’s issues in Iran, I believe it’s because they have paid the highest price for living in a patriarchal theocracy (and before that in a autocratic monarchy). The state has conveniently sidestepped most of the gender-equal constitutional and religious provisions and rights for women, while at the same time enacting many misogynist measures in family and penal law. In post-election rallies, we have seen women engaged in inspirational acts of non-violence and courage. We also hear that a deep sense of melancholy has now set in; the saddest expressions are to be seen on the smooth and wrinkly faces of women in Iran. That may be because they have the most to lose under another four years of an Ahmadinejad presidency.
I believe the events surrounding the presidential election of June 2009 opens a new chapter in the women’s rights movement in Iran. I believe that this overwhelming presence of women in the democratic will of Iranians is ahead of the women’s rights organizations and discourses as we have known and understood them so far. I also believe that we need to rethink our presumptions and assumptions about the Iranian women’s rights movement. To do so, we need to wed the cause of women’s rights movement to a more global and comparative perspective, where our struggles are freed from our received notions and bifurcations — secular or religious, inside or outside, first or second wave.
For this reason I have turned to Zillah Eisenstein, a leading feminist theorist. A professor of politics at Ithaca College in New York, and the author of a definitive text on anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist feminist theory and practice, Against Empire: Feminisims, Racism and ‘the’ West, among other books, I wanted to find out how her activism and comparative perspectives can assist Iranian women in building a transnational feminist response critical and pro-active to the current situation in Iran. I believe that the women’s rights movement in Iran has much to teach the rest of the world and also much to learn from it.
Golbarg Bashi: I know you have been following the events in Iran during and after the presidential election of June 2009. What were your initial thoughts and feelings when you saw the presence of so many women in the course of these rallies and demonstrations?
Zillah Eisenstein: I felt immediate connection and support and excitement. I wanted to be there. I wondered what all these women — young and old — were thinking and feeling. I hoped that they were more energized by their massive presence than they were afraid. I hoped that they, along with all the other demonstrators, would be safe. I wished that their demands for a recount would be successful. I also wanted to know more about the women in the streets: their many different beliefs about the present Ahmadinejad regime, and about what type of support they were mustering for Mousavi; and what his wife Zahra Rahnavard symbolized for them. I was hesitant to think that the mainstream global media would get these stories right. Almost everyone I knew was blown away by the huge presence of women amidst the demonstrators. There was less surprise than there was elation, no matter what the particular understanding of this women’s presence was.
I should maybe mention that I have been particularly interested in Iranian feminisms for over a decade now. I attempted to visit Iran this past May. Several Iranian feminists here in the U.S. assisted me with contacts in Tehran, and I applied to the international conference on human rights titled “Peace, Human Rights, and Religion,” sponsored by the Center for Human Rights Studies, Mofid University, in Qom. I was hoping that my paper “The ‘War on Terror’ on Women’s/Human Rights” would be accepted for the conference. My paper was rejected and the trip canceled. (Of course I can send you a copy of this paper if you wish.)
I think many people would be interested in reading the paper you intended to present in Iran. May I ask from what you have seen and read so far, what you think is new or different about the presence of so many women in the course of the Iranian presidential election of June 2009 and its aftermath? In what ways is what we are seeing similar to other contexts and in what ways different?
Let me first just say that I have learned to always ask about what is similar and what is different simultaneously when it comes to women’s activism and their feminisms, if they choose this identity, across the globe. (Not all women activists identify as feminist, whatever this particular meaning might be.) And I always try to be cautious about thinking anything I view is ever simply the same as something else. There is always something new to see and understand. I actively try to be as self-conscious as I can be about the Western visors in which I see and view, and this has led me to understand and accept that a plethora of actions that I think might be described as feminist also need more insight on my part and further explanation.
In other words when I saw Iranian women in the streets I thought some of these women probably would not self-describe themselves as feminists but rather as women fighting for democracy, or they would identify as anti-imperialist Muslims, or anti-patriarchal Islamic women, or as participants in the “Million Signatures,” or the “Anti-stoning” campaigns. So, I was both curious, and wondering, and profoundly moved by what I was seeing.
In some ways these demonstrations reminded me of civil rights work I participated in the U.S. early on in my childhood, and the anti-Vietnam war movement that I was involved in as a young woman. Neither of these political involvements/movements identified femaleness or patriarchal gender as a problem to be resolved. My political identity as a woman, and/or as a feminist was subsumed into these other struggles. In the recent weeks in Iran, women have been central to the pro-democracy demonstrations, and yet misogyny and patriarchy remain un-named or simply silently understood, as problems. Feminisms are not named, while women’s activism is celebrated. This is interesting and important to think more about: how to connect and enrich women’s activism with explicitly radically plural feminisms. What this might look like in Iran is yet to unfold.
Women across the globe, both historically and contemporarily — in Algeria, Egypt, India, Ghana, Vietnam, Iraq, Cuba, as well as in the U.S. and in Europe — have long been in the streets demonstrating for human rights, against wars across the globe, and for the protection of the environment. What is somewhat different in this moment in Iran is the global viral viewing and seeing of this struggle. Although women were instrumental in the 1979 revolution in Iran, it was not as readily visualized for public viewing. The public viewing shifts the discourses in new ways. The presence of women cannot be denied. The silencing of women’s activism is not as easy as it has been. Yet, this activism has yet to be theorized and recognized as deeply political and necessary to any form of meaningful democracy.
Theorizing for me simply means that one must think about gender in collective ways; that one must de-naturalize and de-normalize the way that women are seen or not seen.
Were you surprised to see the presence of so many women entering and claiming the public space, considering the fact that they live in a country that publicly limits the civil rights of women.
No, given what I have said above. In part I think, thought that it made total sense. Women were key in the struggle against the Shah (Pahlavi) and the ’79 revolution, only to be disappointed with many of the betrayals on human rights, particularly for women, in Iran. Revolutions, throughout history, are well known for this betrayal to women.
I think that the more powerful Iranian women have been and become — both in the public domestic sphere and the more public realm of the marketplace and education, constraints have been set up against these gains. And moves to constrain women under Ahmadinejad were precisely because of women’s potential threat to his misogynist interpretations of Islam. If women were powerless, they would not need legalized constraints to domesticate them. Women all over the globe move and shake the world. They do triple days of labor–domestic, consumer, and more often than not, paid labor as well. It is both the potential and established power of Iranian women that burst out on the streets in these past weeks.
As you know, many women’s rights activists in North America and Western Europe do not know that Iranian women have been long time activists. How do you think we need to cross that cultural and theoretical barrier? In what effective and enduring ways do you think we can learn from this massive and massively visible women’s participation for our future struggle — in a cross-cultural, comparative, and more validly universal terms?
This divide and ignorance you ask about is part of a larger arrogance of the West that assumes that western forms of democracy are the most advanced and most credible. I might call this stance the imperial mind that disallows seeing and viewing other democratic struggles as sites where “we” of the “West” can learn. I guess I need to make clear that even though I use the phrase “the West” I have also interrogated it as an unhelpful phrasing of the world. The “West” owes too much to the “non-West”; the dichotomization is not helpful to understanding cultural flows.
This ignorance, arrogance easily bleeds into the way many living in the West assume that feminism is western, rather than that there are many kinds of feminisms. I am not speaking of a cultural relativism that disallows judgment and criticism, but rather cultural variety that is radically plural and rich. I write about many of these concerns in Against Empire, and Sexual Decoys where I also present the idea that we are looking for polyversal, rather than universal guides. Poly means multiple and differing; versal cuts through to bind the whole. But I mean a wholeness that recognizes differences, rather than unity, meaning oneness.
Coming out of this struggle, and considering the deferred promises to women on a number of prior and similar occasions, how do you think we can develop and define a newer mode of activism?
I would not presume to know as much as the women activists and feminists of all varieties in Iran know of their own context. But looking from the outside, even though there is no simple outside to anything in this global moment, I think it is important to find ways for the differing stances of women protesters to bind together and speak and politicize their needs as women, in all their variety. There are many concerns: the actual validity of the election; the legal status and rights of voters and their more general civil rights; women’s rights in the Islamic republic; radical anti-patriarchal rights of women, etc. I would hope that the demands for specific rights of women could be used to mobilize a civil rights agenda for all. Maximize the political stance and presence of women in this moment given the fact that it is a disproportionate number of women who are in the streets — defending themselves and others.
I see women’s bodies as the most inclusive site for mobilizing an inclusive radical democratic politics. Given women’s more particular exclusion, they become the inclusive new starting point. This notion of inclusivity — from the specificity of women’s rights to the inclusion of everyone’s civil rights — could guide the next feminist discussions from Iran to the globe.
Do you think we need to revisit our received definitions of feminism or women’s rights activism in view of what have seen in the streets of Iran? And if so, in what particular ways? How can we make sure that the Iranian case is not yet again turned into an ethnographic curiosity by academic anthropologists, but in fact the other way around, make sure to put these anthropologists on the pedestal and question their credibility? My concern here is obvious, that very soon we will have yet another plethora of university press publications by anthropologists turning our grassroots struggles into the exoticized objects of their ethnographic curiosities.
Feminism always needs redefinition, as does the newest understandings of power and its formations. This all goes hand in hand. As power shifts, across the globe, so do the feminisms that address these changing forms of power and privilege.
Feminism, like most political language always needs re-invention. The term says too much and too little and means different things to different people. New histories may create new formulations. I continue to identify as an anti-racist feminist, because “feminism” remains a decisive recognition of women’s political struggle. I have found no replacement for it as of yet.
In some ways I have addressed the query about “ethnographic curiosities” already. The academy most often merely houses the dominant dialogues and narratives that are already hegemonic and power-filled. As such, these problematic ethnographies are a part of the larger political picture and will only shift when power itself shifts. But power, especially patriarchal power is shifting. The global spectacle of the demonstrations in Iran bespeaks the messiness and complexity of politics everywhere. After all, Iran looks more democratic than the U. S. in at least one sense in these past weeks. When the people of Iran thought their election was fraudulent, they took to the streets. When the U.S. Supreme Court fraudulently ruled that Bush was our next president despite losing the popular vote, the public quietly obeyed. And, then the rest of the world, along with the U.S. paid a terrible price for the Bush-Cheney decade of fascistic democracy.
Do you think the enduring bifurcation between secular and religious feminism still holds, after what we have seen in Iran today?
Yes, and no. The secular-religious divide holds in the mind of huge numbers of women across the globe; and it also does not. Large numbers of Islamic and/or Muslim women are deeply religious and they also believe in women’s rights and sexual freedoms, and legal equality. There are secular women who are not feminists of any sort. The real culprit here is misogyny and patriarchal privilege. The issue is where you stand on the issue of women’s dignity and their human possibility and disallowing a singular viewing of this, whether religious or not. And, although much good has happened in the struggle for secular rule, the history of secularism is not untroubled. Bush’s secular state murdered thousands of innocent Iraqis while he believed “God” blessed America. Let me also make it clear, that I was brought up as an atheist, and remain an atheist, and yet many of the women I learn the most about feminisms from are “believing” women.
As you know, [Iran and Middle East scholar] Hamid Dabashi insists on calling this a civil rights movement and not a precursor to another revolution. He is in fact quite particular in comparing it to the American Civil rights Movement, and has called Neda Agha-Soltan the granddaughter of Rosa Parks. If he is correct in this assessment, and given your own deep-rooted involvement with the American Civil Rights Movement, how do you think the particular concern of women’s rights ought to be formulated in the context of the Iranian civil rights movement?
I think it is a fabulous strategic and political move to clarify the Iranian protests as a civil rights struggle, rather than a revolution. There is much to be gained from making these connections, especially for audiences in the West. However, it is also important to focus on how this connected struggle also has distinct and particular parts to it. And the fact that so many demonstrators are female is important to recognize politically and to theorize politically.
As I already mentioned, I was a child during the civil rights movement in the U.S. and active as such given my parent’s complete commitment and participation in it. But it was a struggle that was specifically anti-racist and was successful to the degree it was because it explicitly named and focused on the importance of race in declaring civil rights for Blacks in this country. The specificity of women’s rights must also be explicitly named as key to civil rights in Iran. In short: women’s rights must be politicized as core civil rights and made explicit as such or civil rights can remain simply for men. Rosa Parks identified herself as Black; Iranian women will hopefully be able to multiply their identities in their polyversal meanings: female, Islamic, Muslim, Iranian, working class, middle class… and on and on. At this historical moment, hopefully Iranian women are positioned to show the rest of the world how to build a radically democratic society that is uniquely and plurally anti-patriarchal.
You are a deeply admired feminist by women across many cultural divides — what is your message for your Iranian sisters?
Know that girls and women across the globe are by your side. I am waiting for your messages to me and the women and girls outside Iran who are inspired by your very particular and yet human struggle. I hope that you can utilize the feminist struggles that have come before — and move through and beyond them to new meanings and possibilities of what it can mean to be a fully creative and peace-filled female on this globe.
I am hoping to be able to travel to Iran and meet you. Meanwhile, I think about your struggle daily, and wear a green arm-band in support of you, and hope you find a way to create a democratic Islam for us all.
Thank you so much for your warm embrace, and this opportunity, Golbarg.
Golbarg Bashi teaches Iranian Studies at Rutgers University. She has recently completed her doctoral thesis on a feminist critique of the human rights discourse in Iran. She has contributed articles on women and human rights issues in Iran to online magazines such as OpenDemocracy,Tidningen Kultur, and Qantara, Deutsche Welle.
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