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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 43 October 15, 2022

Feminist Mutiny in Iran and Implications for India | Gouri Sankar Nag

Saturday 15 October 2022

by Gouri Sankar Nag

Iran is again in the headlines for a seething public unrest and ironically this time it is not the anniversary bereavement sparking solidarity wave against the planned American assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the military general of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps but for the alleged torture cum murder of a 22 young lady namely Mahsa Amini on the fateful day of 16th September 2022. Her fault was that she dared to challenge the regime’s orthodox restriction on woman freedom. It worked as a trigger to set the nation ablaze against the brutality of administration cum the all-powerful demagogue Ali Khamenei. It was an eye-opener of the popular mood of discontent which according to a researcher, clearly ‘distinguishes ongoing protests from previous episodic mobilisations against the mandatory hijab’1 [1] in terms of distinct militant thread coming out this time. It is significant given Iran’s authoritarian structure that scuttles popular resistance especially those inspired by liberal and traditional left ideologies, not to speak of feminist groups, against the policies of the regime or the orthodox clergy that has its tentacles spread through the length and breadth of society. So when such a popular outburst takes places, it leaves us awestruck as to how women’s quest for personal freedom could acquire the force of a veritable groundswell that clearly indicates huge trust deficit that the regime suffers from, even after the landslide victory of the current President Ebrahim Raisi in the 2021 election. So we can infer how popular opinion gets manipulated in the election by the Combatant Clergy Association, the party Mr. Raisi represents and the most important qualification that of patronage and confidence of the highest national leadership it enjoys. Even the famous Human Rights organization namely Human Rights Watch published a note on June 19, 2021 which was entitled Iran: Overseer of Mass Executions Elected President2 [2]. It reminded of Raisi’s alleged involvement in the notorious 1988 execution of political prisoners. So popular participation in Iran is nothing but a chimera which cannot be compared even to its Arab neighbours where Arab Spring in 2010-11 ushered in lots of expectations for pro-democratic change in sync with the rise of middle class, their growing aspirations and the upsurge in demand for more economic openings and its spill-over into political domain seeking concomitant reforms. Although Arab Spring was a saga of failure and despair yet it was of no surprise that Iran even during those stormy days stood firm and unperturbed without any rumblings of change or talk of state failure as if its authority provided exceptional solution to the mounting problems that was engulfing the region into a perilous situation of action and reaction. In fact, it was not the question of Bread alone but the spearhead of the popular uprisings that took the rank and file of MENA region on the streets, came from the demands of Freedom and overnight it registered a phenomenal rise by igniting popular sentiments among those youngsters who might not have been known to each other or had no apriori agenda against the state.

Today the situation in Iran might escalate for a number of reasons, although it would not be too much to hypothesize that it might not challenge the “deep state” by rallying all political opponents and civil society organizations to some desperate action. In fact, in Iran pro-government forces are quite strong and well-entrenched. Nevertheless the situation in Iran continuously deteriorated since prolong US sanctions, in particular the June 2010 sanctions which was believed to be a pretext of launching a combined military strike by US-NATO-Israel against Iran to desist it from clandestine nuclear enrichment programme, integral to its defence capability. Later in mid-2018 Trump’s pull out of JCPOA and moreover, when the US started “the maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, it had a tremendous impact to pulverize Iranian economy coupled with Iranian state repression that went on hand in hand. But the predicament and irony of the situation in Iran lies in the fact that the regime used the American coercion as a tool to consolidate its voice so as to win over people in favour of the policies of the regime. Now the situation is undergoing a change after Biden administration has indicated to review and revive the JCPOA. Although it does not signal any thorough change in American approach to Iran’s motive or its worldview, nonetheless it is surprising that a regional power like Iran is behaving in a hard-line fashion vis-à-vis the massive power of Uncle Sam. It shows that Iran has a network of overt and covert support and also it is to be noted that on 9th February 2010 Iran declared itself a ‘nuclear state’3 [3]. Although ambiguity prevails as to its ability to produce offensive nuke warheads, Iran wants to maintain its regional hegemony after the US put an end to its combat mission in Iraq and withdrew from Afghanistan in a situation of fiasco. So, taking advantage of the situation Iran seems to keep up the pressure on the US, Israel and the West at large even at the cost of severe internal economic distress because regionally it faces the pressure both from within and due to its close rivalry with Israel and the Saudis. So no way the present Iranian regime which considers the West as its staunch enemy, would allow the protesters to weaken internal political stability in which youth and women are participating in large number because any challenge to Khamenei would not only encourage the West but which could also unleash wider effect of strategic imbalance in the region, if not inviting a security crisis by provoking unimagined instability to affect the US interests too. However, Iran is no exception because Gulf monarchies including Bahrain remain plagued by charges of continuous human rights abuses while the US tends to defend these royal families. Of late, the scenario is getting complicated due to reports that speak of al Qaeda’s spreading tentacles in the south-eastern parts of Yemen which might exacerbate the conflict with the Hauthi rebels abetted by Iran. Besides, American spokespersons are openly alleging Iran’s involvement in supplying weapons and drones to facilitate Russia’s ongoing military onslaught against Ukraine4 [4]. So, it is unlikely that Tehran would tolerate any mass protests which it may plausibly term as anti-national conspiracy hatched by the West. Hence, its hijab laws serve as much as a weapon to discipline the women at home, as it is an ideological tool to fight the secular West at a time when symbolism and identity are important current often pitted against cultural globalization. So, it was natural reaction on the part of Iran’s current President as he made no bones about the unrest that it was planned “acts of chaos”, implying thereby the duty of the Iranian state to uphold the Islamic dress code for women. In this it is interesting to see how the state projects a narrative of good and bad woman based on adherence to such code and slyly usurps the domain of the individual self of women so that it could craft a niche of didactic leadership for itself as embedded in and justifying the function of moral policing. Although however, the current unrest shows the failure of the Iranian state to indoctrinate those freedom-loving modern women who were born at a much later period in the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution when the conception of life seemingly acquired its own autonomy and could not be coercively linked to the radical theocratic idealism of early 1980s. As Haideh Moghissi, a noted author has shown in her 1994 book (reprint edition 1996) that “major hopeful sign and most remarkable stimulus of change continues to come directly from women at home and those in exile. Women in Iran have succeeded in pushing back the offensive of the Islamists inch by inch, reappropriating spheres of public life that were lost immediately after the Revolution.”5 [5] It reveals both the gumption of the woman activists who are street-fighters involving in flouting of dress code and courting arrests by the Morality Police and the tragedy of the Islamic radicalism that fails to live up to its promises in the changed context when ‘the politics of gender becomes the Achilles hill of Iran’s clerical state’. Obviously this change has occurred over time due to multiple factors like operation of feminist organizations although the space is very much stifled, the hiatus of the Khatami period that brought some transient relief in terms of cultural openness for women and the reaction to the imposition of restrictions on women and on internet communication that led a section of young Iranian women to take to the campaign on Facebook where they shared photos without hijab culminating in the revolutionary “White Wednesday” campaign. Now the scenario is marked by dualism of approach: highhandedness of the Iranian state in a number of events as well as blasé retreat of the state to the extent of overlooking the acts of defiance of hijab which shows neither complete victory nor that of defeat of women’s symbolic protests against hijab. It sends a signal of powerful social metamorphosis in the Arab world today which once decried the human rights document as anti- Islamic. Yet the state in Iran remains hidebound to the interminable paradox of transformation of a westernized society into a fundamentalist system under the rule of extremist ideology out to marginalise women’s rights.

Now if we want to transpose the impact of the Iranian situation in the Indian context we would see things at two levels. First officially at the foreign policy level India’s response should be very cautious because any sympathetic gesture towards the demand for women rights in Iran would in all likelihood jeopardizes Indo-Iranian relations. It may be noted that India’s Look West policy primarily rests on India’s engagement in Afghanistan and with Iran which is helping New Delhi to bypass Pakistan on one hand and to fulfil the demand of oil imports on the other hand. Although US sanctions act as dissuader, it is important that India could win crucial waiver from the US administration in view of India’s reconstruction works in Afghanistan6 [6]. It is important that during the recent SCO summit at Samarkand in Uzbekistan Prime Minister Modi met the Iranian leadership and they had a fruitful exchange. So it does not seem plausible or credible that India would sacrifice her vital interests for the cause of persuading the Iranian counterpart for accommodating the demands of autonomous women organizations.

Now if we come to Indian state’s response to women’s movement we would see that situation here is not bright or optimistic either. Although the vision of empowering women can be traced to the various constitutional provision both in Part III and Part IV which authorizes the state to formulate special schemes and laws for women and speaks of affirmative action not only in favour of backward classes but also for woman members of those communities, we cannot gloss over the daily cases of domestic violence, dowry harassment, honour killings, rape and acid attacks, harassment of women at the workplace all of which point to either lethargy or failure of the state apparatus to bring about a comprehensive change/reform in terms of a level playing field in the family, property ownership and marital relationships.

The tragedy of the situation lies in the fact that often women’s rights are highjacked by some activist or interest groups to make it an almost esoteric discourse of justice based on legal parlance or wedded to community or identity politics. Moreover, in the current epoch of post-human world the state, it seems, is not also interested to take up the issues of gender politics, rather as a senior faculty has aptly observed that the state is more concerned with security concerns, terrorist threats and techno-science (Patel, 2010)7 [7]. As such, the feminist mutiny of Iran is a troubling issue for India because it is not only a simple question of justice and women’s claims to individual choice on use or rejections of hijab in public space but insofar as it involves both inter and intra-community polemics, the secular state should ensure that there is no discrimination which is antithetical to the spirit of equality and democracy.

(Author: Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag is Professor & Head, Department of Political Science & Coordinator, Atish Dipankar Srijnan Centre of South Asian Studies, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia, West Bengal)

References:


[1Deepika Saraswat: Out of the Veil in Iran, Open Magazine, 30, September, 2022 accessed from https://openthemagazine.com/feature/out-of-the-veil-in iran/?fbclid=IwAR1DSBSonGLKOa4pZmjFtaP9AEaWLx7YYkeC4P6PYsEZlBDsfYj0mVu3o44 on 1st September 2022

[2Human Rights Watch, Iran: Overseer of Mass Executions Elected President, June 19, 2021 accessed from https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/19/iran-overseer-mass-executions-elected-president on 1st September 2022 

[3Benjamin MacQueen: an Introduction to Middle East Politics, Sage, 2013, p-250.

[4Conversation with Mike Pompeo accessed on 30/9/2022 from https: //www.hudson.org/events/2157-planb-on-iran-a-conversation-with-secretary-mike-pompeo92022

[5Haideh Moghissi: Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women’s Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolutionary Movement, reprint edition 1996, Palgrave Macmillan, p-Preface ix.

[6Dinshaw Mistry: Pakistan, India and U.S. Strategic Interests in Sumit Ganguly and Dinshaw Mistry edited Enduring and Emerging Issues in South Asian Security, Orient Blackswan, 2022, p-35.

[7Vibhuti Patel: Human Rights in India, Social Change, 40, 4, 2010, Sage, p461

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