Iranian Women’s Revolt, the Left and Liberals
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
28 September 2022
Thousands of Iranian women took to the streets to protest against
the hijab law in Tehran in the spring of 1979
Women in Iran, and indeed many men, are in open revolt against the reactionary theocracy following the murder of a young woman, by the Morality Police. That even such a force exists, should tell you everything you need to know about the case. Yet it is undoubtedly something many liberals and erstwhile socialists would prefer to go away as their past record is one of appeasement to Islamists and the silencing of feminists who dare to speak out.
In 2015, an Iranian feminist Maryam Namazie was invited to speak at Goldsmith’s university. Her talk was interrupted by the Islamic Society, who switched off her power point presentation and shouted “Safe Space” at her. Safe Spaces are one of the woke fads where students are “safe” from other ideas. There was no safe space for Maryam Namazie, who required some guarantees of physical safety.
A similar situation arose in Ireland around the same time. She was invited to speak at Trinity College Dublin by the Society for International Affairs on the topic of Apostasy and the Rise of Islam. The SoFIA cancelled the event following her refusal to agree to a number of last-minute restrictions that were placed upon her.(1) She was informed by the college security, not known to be a normal reference point on academic matters, that it would show up the college as being one sided and antagonistic towards Muslims.(2) First they told her that the event would no longer be open to the public and a moderator would be nominated for the event. The Wokerati do not like women speaking out for themselves. They have to be controlled, just like they are in Iran. The moderator was Dr Andrew Pierce, a theologian. Hardly, a great starting point for challenging theocracy. Some of those involved in this affair went on to become apparatchiks in that well known bastion of progressive thought called Fine Gael, which probably says a lot.
They had no such qualms about inviting Sheikh Kamal El Mekki, a man who advocates the death penalty for apostasy and stoning for adultery. He was allowed speak with no restrictions, with no one moderating his reactionary fervour.(3) Just to be clear what it is that he stands for. Apostasy is something that exists in many religions, including Catholicism. It is where a person turns their back on their religion for another one, or worse still, becomes an atheist, something many of the readers of this article are probably guilty of. So, he believes in executing you for what you believe. Stoning adulterers is another issue for reactionaries. He almost certainly means the stoning of women who have committed adultery and not men. He was on disputed ground. Some Islamic scholars argue that there is no prescribed punishment for apostasy in the Qu’ran and the punishments referred to are in the afterlife. Likewise, stoning is not the recommended punishment for adultery, rather it is 100 lashes.(4) Not a nice idea either, but the point is that El Mekki is just one view within Islam and a controversial one, at that. Yet he was treated with kid gloves. As Maryam Namazie pointed out.
“It is unsettling because these people are given free access to a campus, while those who oppose violence and speak out against the violation of rights of non-Muslims and Muslims alike have restrictions placed on them,” said Ms Namazie, who was invited to speak in part because of Mr El Mekki's lecture.
“No conditions were placed on his talk, nor was there threats to cancel his event over concerns that his position on death for apostates would ‘antagonise’ ex-Muslim and Muslim students who do not support apostasy laws.”The SoFIA eventually put out a statement saying it was all a misunderstanding on Namazie’s part. A statement that had to be approved, as sleights of hand normally require some forethought. She eventually spoke at Trinity, under the auspices of the Philosophy Society, some seven months later.
“If you criticise the Islamist movement, which is a far right political movement, you are seen as attacking ordinary Muslims - and this is not the case. Muslims are not a homogenous group.(5)
This is not surprising, liberals and sections of the left bought into identity politics a long time ago. In the world of identity politics an entirely subjective hierarchy of suffering is established, which goes along with a hierarchy of the right to complain, take offence and demand that others kowtow to your ideas and view of yourself. It is as clear as day, that in this hierarchy, women are at the bottom of the pile, and within that group Lesbians are even further down the list of priorities. It is not that long ago that groups such as the SWP were running round, not defending a woman’s right to wear what she wanted, including the hijab and other Islamic head covering,(6) but were actively encouraging women to do so. They claimed it was progressive and anti-imperialist. Any Muslim woman should be able to wear head coverings if she wants, and to not do so, if she doesn’t. But it is symbol of religious alienation and the oppression of women and no socialist should be actively encouraging it.
So, it was only to be expected that they would try to have their cake and eat it too, in the midst of this revolt. The headline on their article said People revolt. It is true that the protests have gone beyond women, and include many men, but it was not a good idea to ignore that this began as a women’s protest. They then try to downplay the question of head coverings, quoting an Iranian academic, Peyman Jafari, to lend credence to their position. He states that:
There has been a growing mood among younger generations that they do not want state interference in their daily life, their social lives.
This does not mean that they
are anti-religious or against the hijab. It’s really about the freedom
of wearing it or not wearing it. I was talking to a friend who is joining
the protests and has a hijabi mother who is supporting her. Lots
of these women will have mothers, grandmas, aunts, friends even who will
wear the hijab.
So, this crosses the line of being religious or non-religious. It’s about the freedom of wearing what you want.(7)
Not all the women are non-religious of course, most of them would consider themselves to be Muslims, but it is not merely about the freedom to wear what you want. There is an adage that when you are in a hole, you should stop digging. The SWP clearly aims to come out at the antipodes, so much so, they have even moved rightwards from their original position supporting Salman Rushdie to basically trying to brush their former support for him under the carpet.(8) They now find themselves in an embarrassing situation with the revolt in Iran and many liberals, like our Wokerati also find themselves batting on a sticky wicket. Broadly they would claim to support women’s demands, though their practice would indicate that this is not the case.
So now we have Iranian women rebelling. And what do our liberals say? Who do they stand by? You can’t support the women of Iran and the stifling of voices like Namazie’s. This should be a simple issue and yet it is not, for some. On September 13th the Iranian Morality Police murdered a young woman, Mahsa Amini, because her head covering did not meet their standards. Protests erupted throughout Iran and led to street style parties where women burned their head coverings. The protests have gone beyond that, have spread to numerous cities and have also seen young men come out in protest.
There are various responses to these protests. There are those right-wing elements gleefully awaiting the collapse of the regime hoping for it to be replaced by a more pro-western one. There are the liberals who don’t know what to think and then there are the standard Tankies who think there is something progressive about the theocracy in power and see the hand of the CIA in everything. There is no doubt that the CIA would like to take advantage of any unrest in Iran, but that is not the same as saying that the protests are just a CIA subterfuge, though the 1953 coup organised by the CIA started off as protests engineered against the democratically elected government of Dr. Mossadegh. They are not the same however. The theocracy has ruled through a combination of popular support in some sectors and repression, including the torture and murder of oppositionists within Iran. And whilst it has not lost all support, the regime is not exactly popular amongst the working class. There have been waves of strikes in Iran in recent years.
There is of course, another position and that is that the Iranian people have the right to rise up against the repressive theocracy, just like they did against the Shah. Iranian women do not need to pass some test of political correctness and conformity to identity politics in the West in order to have their rights affirmed.
It is often forgotten that the Iranian revolution was a very heterogenous affair. The Islamists were not the only political force involved. Other forces were present, the Tudeh (Communist Party) was quite large but in following with its political position, sought an alliance with the national bourgeoisie and let Khomeini get the upper hand till he turned on them in 1983. There was also the Fedayeen and Mojahedeen and the National Front (despite the name, nothing to do with the fascists organisations in Europe that also used that name). The social bases of these organisations did not disappear and have remained active in Iran, though the organisations have since disappeared.
Even the Islamists acknowledged the issues the led to the collapse of the Shah’s regime. It was not a simple Islamic event, a moment of religious fervour. The Iranian revolution was quite different from many of the Islamic movements that have arisen since.
An article entitled “Fifty Years of Treason” written by Abul-Hassan Bani-Sadr, the future president of the Islamic Republic, it indicted the regime on fifty separate counts of political, economic, cultural, and social wrongdoings. These included: the coup d’état of 1921 as well as that of 1953; trampling the fundamental laws and making a mockery of the Constitutional Revolution; granting capitulations reminiscent of nineteenth-century colonialism; forming military alliances with the West; murdering opponents and shooting down unarmed protestors, especially in June 1963; purging patriotic officers from the armed forces; opening up the economy – especially the agricultural market – to foreign agrobusinesses; establishing a one-party state with a cult of personality; highjacking religion and taking over religious institutions; undermining national identity by spreading “cultural imperialism”; cultivating “fascism” by propagating shah-worship, racism, Aryanism, and anti-Arabism; and, most recently, establishing a one-party state with the intention of totally dominating society. “These fifty years,” the article exclaimed, “contain fifty counts of treason.”(9)So, it is not surprising that many participated in the overthrow of the Shah, for reasons other than religion. In fact, many women took part in the protests that led up to the revolution. Photos from the period clearly show masses of women in the streets taking part in protests and not a head covering to be seen anywhere. But the so-called modernisation of Iran under the Shah, had more to do with projecting an image to the West than changing the reality of women’s lives in the country. There has never been a golden period for Iranian women and the Shah didn’t treat them well either.
Many of the demands centred around social justice and it is no accident that most of the dead in the revolution came from working class areas. The provisional government set up after the revolution was headed initially by Bazargan and other veterans from the Mossadegh government that was overthrown by the CIA in 1953, whilst in the shadows the Revolutionary Council comprised of clerics prepared the final blow.(10) They won, side-lining and outmanoeuvring the more democratic and even secular currents.
Khomeini and the regime maintained power in the first years through land distribution, giving some 850,000 hectares to some 220,000 peasants and using oil revenues to finance electrification, drinking water, health care, seeing a dramatic rise in life expectancy.(11) It also subsidised food for the working class and reduced the working week.(12)
The clerics who came out on top, now face the same situation the Shah faced. Deep unpopularity amongst the working class, economic crisis, waves of protests and the need to use harsh repression as the only means of keeping people in check. Given the nature of the theocratic regime and its brutal treatment of women, it is perhaps not that surprising that its repression of women would be a spark that would lead to yet another challenge to the regime. Its ability to buy off the rural and urban poor is in doubt and it never had anything to offer women. Absolutely nothing.
Women’s fortunes have waxed and waned under the theocracy. Immediately after the revolution, mandatory laws on head covering were reintroduced, (they had existed under the Shah also for a long period) the regime then moved to exclude women from various posts such as the judiciary. There have been periods in which rules on female employment were relaxed, but the regime never ceased to be an entirely reactionary misogynistic regime.
So, our woke friends, erstwhile revolutionaries of the SWP et al are in a quandary. If they support the protests, they have to explain their past positions and risk alienating those reactionaries they cuddled up to in the name of identity politics. Also, if they accept that the oppression of women is an issue, they would have to explain why it is not ok for Iranian women to be oppressed in Iran, but it is ok if those same women turn up in Britain to be put down, in order to curry favour with religious fanatics. They do agree with these fanatics on some points.
Iran is a country where homosexuals can be imprisoned and even executed and yet it is one of the two trans surgery capitals in the world, Pakistan being the other one, where the official position is similar to that of gender reassignment clinics: lets trans the gay away! Identity politics not only means refusing to let women from a Muslim background speak, lest you offend fundamentalists, but also denying that women exist and any man can be one.
The people who promoted head
coverings, indulged fundamentalists and attacked JK Rowling are all the
same people. Cowards, misogynists and generally speaking, anti-working
class. Women’s rights are women’s rights, to be defended at all times
and do not play second fiddle to myriad identities not to be offended,
be they religious nuts or trans activists.
(1) Namazie, M. (23/03/2015) Trinity College Dublin: Behind The Arras https://maryamnamazie.com/tcd-2/
(2) Kearns, D. (23/03/2015) Activist pulls out of Trinity College talk due to ‘restrictions’ aimed at not ‘antagonising’ Muslims https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/activist-pulls-out-of-trinity-college-talk-due-to-restrictions-aimed-at-not-antagonising-muslims-31087977.html
(4) See Should an Apostate be Killed? https://islamonline.net/en/should-an-apostate-be-killed/
(5) Kearns, D. (23/03/2015) op. cit.
(6) Though the term hijab is used in the West to refer to all sorts of Islamic head coverings, there are in fact many different types, covering more or less of the face and greater in extension. The common types worn in Iran are the Shayla and the Chador.
(7) Clark, N. (22/09/2022) People revolt after Iranian police murder woman https://socialistworker.co.uk/international/people-revolt-after-iranian-police-murder-young-woman/
(8) Cooper, M. (08/08/2022) Thirty years since the Satanic Verses https://workersliberty.org/story/2022-08-08/thirty-years-satanic-verses
(9) Abrahamian, E. (2008) A History of Modern Iran. New York. CUP para 22.6 (epub format)
(10) Ibíd., para 22.16
(11) Ibíd., para 22.41
(12) Ibíd., para.22.42