On flights to Iran, there is a tragi-comic moment when the flight attendant grabs the microphone and addresses the passenger, forcing: “We are about to invade Iranian airspace. Please, according to the law of the Islamic Republic of Iran, women must cover their hair.” The matter is not anecdotal, even if the European passengers smile and exchange jokes and models of handkerchiefs. Above all, it is an expression of the relationship to the reality of a regime that has made control over women’s bodies a nationalistic principle. The chador (the black shawl that Iranian women use to cover their bodies from head to toe) is such a well-known garment and language course in the West that it keeps falling behind in Islamic affairs, the Royal Spanish Academy included the term in its dictionary Year 2001, long before the recent recording of “Hijab”, garment of course in the Spanish streets.
To understand the ongoing unrest in the “Republic of Chador,” one must consider that there are few countries in the world with such strong cultural pride as Iran. Islam, prone to uniqueness, also bowed to the Persian idiosyncrasy and gave birth to a form of its own, Imami Shiism, which over time became a kind of “political spirituality”, in the somewhat pompous and much-discussed idiom of Michel Foucault, witness to the revolution of 1979. One of the triumphs of the Islamic Revolution is in large part its grafting of patriarchy at the heart of the nation’s cultural identity. Which, following Foucaultian jargon, locked Iranians in a spiritual and political patriarchy. Or to put it more gracefully by the poetess Forugh Farrojzad, who did not know the revolutionary era: she threw it on the “threshold of hell”. It is therefore understandable what difficulties they have encountered in fighting the rules that regulate gender inequality. Female dress is the most rudimentary form of this legal discrimination, but we must not lose sight of the numerous and more degrading civil laws (survival of temporary marriages or mutations, differential inheritance, polygamy, unequal custody of children) or the political rights that deny them become (like the presidency of the republic).
Feminist activism in Iran has therefore had to confront a merging between the religious field and the political field that has not occurred in most Muslim societies, although the boundaries between the two are contradictory in all. If, as we have seen, in Iran the political border imposes the veil even in the air, in Egypt, to name a country that is also identity-forming and politically strong, the territory of the veil is the subject of constant negotiations, even on “Islamic”. Ground for Antonomasia: Upon entering Al-Azhar University, a guardian of Sunni Islam, gatekeepers force women to cover their hair, but only to cross the gate; indoors, wearing or not wearing a hijab is an individual matter, the law is silent.
The curious thing is that when the Iranian regime has packed gender inequality into the discourse of nationalist and anti-imperialist protection, the result has been, as is often the case, that extremes have met, leaving the very anti-imperialist Islamic Republic and your Ayatollahs share the same obsession with the female body as the very neoliberal Saudi monarchy and its palace ulema. The strengthening of patriarchy, which some and others have erected under the guise of discourse on cultural autonomy, is therefore extremely dangerous, since it makes the grammar of alterity necessary to understand the set of rules that organizes the combination of distinctive cultural elements—will eventually engulfed by relativism and reduced to mere rhetoric. All of this in a global context of rising chauvinism, if not authoritarianism, in which violence against marginalized bodies and curtailments of reproductive rights have found a way into society in populism, alongside legalization. There is Trump’s United States, Bolsonaro’s Brazil, or Orbán’s Hungary.
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The Grammar of the Veil
And it is at this point that feminist struggles, universal, transversal and plural per se, must be particularly careful not to play into the hands of the universalism of expressions and not of actions, of the lexicon and not of grammar. A certain Neo-Orientalist narrative about the body and violence is always lurking when it comes to “saving” Muslim women. The very constitution of the patient subject, the so-called “Muslim woman,” is inherently glassy, and nothing reflects the simplification she is subjected to better than the uniform in which she is consciously or unconsciously clad: the veil. In fact, the western obsession with the Islamic headscarf is manifested in the lexical sanity it enjoys, having a good spokesperson in the media, which are generally very fussy about cleanliness on these subjects: hijab, chador, burqa, jaique, niqab, abaya .. No other area of Islamic reality, either doctrinal or social, is the subject of such peculiarity.
The fundamental question, however, is whether Muslim women need to be saved, as anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod has called for it, and if so, from whom and by whom. Laura Bush referred precisely to the plight of Afghan women in the much-discussed 2001 Thanksgiving speech, delivered to justify the US military invasion of Afghanistan. Two decades later and without any shred of promised redemption, the “fate” left to Afghan women is that of the Taliban, empowered by US withdrawal.
Protests in Berlin over the death of young Iranian Masha Amini on September 28. FILIP SINGER (EFE)
On the other hand, feminist discourse stands at the same crossroads as other emancipatory discourses: the essential decolonization of epistemologies and strategies. The decolonial feminism that is currently being built must also make the not insignificant leap from wallowing in the lexicon of alterity (intersectionality, we/they, here/there) to an inclusive practice (of everyday life, generations, reactions). It’s not about inventing the wheel, it’s about getting it rolling and moving it forward. Donning or removing the veil, showing or cutting one’s hair is part of the historical dialectic of feminist struggles among Muslim women around the world. In Algeria, the French devoted much effort and provocative orientalist posters to this theme (“Aren’t you beautiful? Take off your veil!”), deploying what the Franco-Algerian thinker Frantz Fanon, always perceptive, called “his peculiar psyche”. designated action over the veil of the Algerian woman (…) and sometimes one was even “rescued” who symbolically took off her veil”. This “triumph” provoked a trance in the Europeans that provoked the missionary’s over-excitement in the face of religious conversion.
The religiousization of insomnia is a parallel phenomenon to what might be called the secularization of wakefulness. Or perhaps it is more correct to conceive both manifestations as a pendulum act in time and space. With a noticeable difference. In the voluntary concealment, a silent, sometimes only instinctive revolution against the capitalist, neoliberal and identity-forming status quo takes place, as the historian Leila Ahmed has analyzed. When it comes to the unveiling, the western hustle and bustle is mostly notorious. Anyway, putting on the veil in Paris isn’t much easier than taking it off in Tunis, but in the first of these cities the subway is full of girls wearing it and in the second it’s more likely to be worn by women in their fifties. The growing Islamophobia in Europe is a fundamental element in the new grammar of European veiled Muslim women’s resistance; The Arab and Iranian revolts of the last decade are on the rise in the exposure of young women determined to resist the authoritarianism and forced re-Islamization of counter-revolutionary forces.
Surviving an unfinished revolution
Day by day since the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian women have embodied what sociologist Asef Bayat called “the power of presence,” a feminism of everyday life. In retrospect, it was all about making a virtue out of necessity, a response to the “unfinished revolution” (the phrase borrowed from the filmmaker Chapour Haghighat), in which the popular uprising to depose the Shah remained, but not the revolutionary dreams fulfilled the emancipation integral. For 30 years, up until the riots of 2009, feminist resistance did not lead to targeted campaigns but to everyday practices in public space: at work, in sports, in education, in art, in the press. Iranian women sought to assert themselves as public actors in order to be seen, heard and felt, trying to maintain and promote their sense of self within a regime that wanted to confine them to the private spaces of the family. In this context, feminism has been about challenging, resisting, negotiating and even circumventing the various levels of discrimination by taking advantage of the gaps of the Islamic State. One of the most fruitful was the interpretation of the Islamic tradition itself from a gender perspective, which served to achieve some reforms in the areas of divorce, child custody, access to justice and equal rights in education.
But in the last decade, this reformist feminist activism has encountered growing autocracy and repression as the regime’s general response to its own democratic weakness, the economic crisis, the geopolitical siege by Saudi Arabia, the environmental disasters, and the management of minorities (The Persian People of Iran barely reaches 60%). That a patrol of the customs police (Gasht-e Ershad) dared to beat Mahsa Amini to death cannot be a coincidence that she was a young Kurdish woman passing through the capital.
The new grammar of activism that had emerged has exploded, replacing the old reformist formulas that were ineffective in the face of the blocked channels of dialogue with power. What is happening in Iran these weeks is a revolutionary action in that it interprets, breaks, structures, collectivizes and purposefully mobilizes hitherto scattered and uncoordinated energies. Above all, it has a clear political intention. A now unanimous cry – previously sporadic and often muffled – is an indicator of change: “Death to the dictator!” It becomes “Woman, life, liberty!” added, the main motto of these revolts, which in Persian also has the alliterative beauty of its ancient poetry: “Zan Zendeguí Azadí!”.
Luz Gomez She is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Autonomous University of Madrid.
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