Iran's gender apartheid is real. How we got there is complicated
In Iran, where social fissures are vividly displayed and routinely reinforced, debate on feminism and equal rights for women is an exclusively polarising stimulus for public contretemps, not only because of the degrading way in which feminist advocates are treated by the state, but also the quotidian clashes which pits feminists against each other.
It is quite rare for Iranian feminists to agree on how women rights should be defined and promoted, leaving little room to focus on charting concrete paths in reclaiming the rights of women within a patriarchal society.
However alienating and fruitless the intellectual spats tend to be, almost everybody concerned over the dire conditions experienced by women in Iran do agree that the Islamic Republic policies regarding women rights are harmful.
Indeed, one does not need to rely on rankings and reports by international organisations to deduce that in its stature as a theocracy, Iran trails behind many of its counterparts when it comes to the protection of essential freedoms and rights for women.
"It is quite rare for Iranian feminists to agree on how women rights should be defined and promoted, leaving little room o focus on charting concrete paths in reclaiming the rights of women within a patriarchal society"
The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2021 considers gender disparities in Iran to be glaring and analogous to such countries as Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen. Out of 156 nations surveyed, Iran ranks 150 in measures of economic opportunities, educational achievement, healthcare and political empowerment.
Such academic sketches, however, do not capture a complete picture of the lived experiences of women in complex societies, the granular details about their challenges often slipping through the cracks.
Despite the Iranian government’s promises to exalt human beings and denounce discrimination, women in Iran cannot assume certain professional positions such as judge and government minister (Iran has only had one female cabinet minister since 1979); they need a male guardian’s consent to get a passport; they are not allowed into sport stadiums (and again, there have been a handful of exceptions, but the general rule is that they cannot watch men’s games); they do not enjoy equal inherited stock; and in certain parts of the country, they are barred from rudimentary leisure activities like biking.
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The highly politicised, factious mandate to enforce the hijab in Iran, a paragon of how women’s choices are regulated by the establishment, which relies on resorting to sharia police vans, hefty fines and other punitive measures for women who defy the official sartorial codes, are so degenerate that even hard-line pundits find it daunting these days to rationalise this crusade to their popular base.
The Iranian government often coercively implements the hijab as if it is an urgency of national security, smearing the non-complacent as irreligious and apostate, and threats prison and social exclusion to those who fail to meet a state-sanctioned requirement on how one should be covered. This is an unmistakable myopia, which will only backfire and taint the reception of the idea of hijab in the minds of the coming generation.
Hamstrung by strains unleashed on them by the ideologies of the ruling elite, Iranian women jump through extra social and cultural hoops to be entitled to the guardrails of freedom, dignity and prosperity, education and happy family lives.
This has incentivised the civil activists to go on an all-out indictment of Islam as the alleged trigger of the miseries and hardships facing women in Iran, and in other Muslim-majority societies. But Islam, like every religion, is not the instrument of the marginalisation and suppression of Iranian women or women elsewhere.
The problem is the distorted exegesis of a faith and the weaponisation of Islamic creeds and other beliefs by governments to consolidate power and extend their supremacy over societies that in turn breeds and ferments gender-based ostracism.
Yet vocal activists who denounce religion for its purported role in suppressing women have rarely bothered to raise their voice to reject violence against Muslim women in such incidents like with Indian women in Karnataka, where hijab-wearing university students are callously turned away from campus for donning headscarves they have voluntarily adopted.
Or that when the French Senate has voted in favour of a bill to ban hijab and other religious symbols from sports. Even when Emmanuel Macron's party La Republique en Marche banished the female politician Sara Zemmahi from the local elections because she appeared on a flier with a hijab, women rights activists did not bat an eye.
"Espousal of women rights means standing up for women everywhere without politicising their belongings and proclivities, without ideological vetting and without dividing women between those who deserve protection and those who should be left to suffer"
When I was doing a Chevening Scholarship in the UK in 2017, I was unlucky to learn about the traumatic experience of a fellow Muslim scholar, who was assaulted by a white supremacist on the streets of Edinburgh – where she was studying – who ripped off her hijab, hurled racial abuse at her and absconded.
The gifted master’s student of Information Technology developed PTSD and had to receive psychiatric treatment on intermission before being able to continue her studies. She was so anguished that could not even share the account with her family or home government.
It did not make headlines, and once again the monster of racism evaded liability. I doubt even if the Muslim feminists learned about the woeful episode, they would take up the cudgels for her to demand justice and accountability.
Espousal of women rights means standing up for women everywhere without politicising their belongings and proclivities, without ideological vetting and without dividing women between those who deserve protection and those who should be left to suffer.
If the practices of the Iranian government aggressively imposing its preferred dress code on women or denying them rudimentary rights are indefensible and need to be challenged (as they should), the racism and hubris that rubber-stamp public humiliation of Muslim women as minorities within non-Muslim societies, otherising and marginalising them as second-class, should also be unapologetically criticised.
These are the crucial steps that need to be taken to pick up the slack when governments, like Iran and many others, fail in defending women rights.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iran correspondent of Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.
Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari
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