Hazem Saghieh

What Iranian Women Have Done and Are Doing!

“The revolution is female” – a slogan that has been raised in Arab cities over the past five or six years. To a certain extent, it was correct. Indeed, women took to the streets, chanted, protested, clashed, and sacrificed.

This happened in Beirut, Khartoum, Baghdad and other Arab cities. The Arab revolutions that unfolded before them had given rise to iconic women who confronted, sang, wrote, and were imprisoned and kidnapped.

However, the revolutions of our region that had monopolized the term “revolution” for a long time were not female in the slightest. Revolution was a male, rather, a hyper-masculine male.

The most important of those revolutions, the Algerian revolution, saw women take part in the fight against the French colonizers alongside the men. Djamila Bouhired, Zahra Zarif, Samia Lakhdari, Malika Gaid, Meriem Bouatoura, Zubaida Walad Qablia and Warida Madad were the names of a few of them. However, as has become well known, the women and children were sent back to their homes as soon as the revolution was victorious and independence was declared. Some of the worst aspects of the set of laws governing Algerians during colonialism, Le Code de l’Indigénat, were maintained, and until at least 1984, when the Family Code was introduced, not much had changed. At the time, Algerian feminists took to the streets, protesting and demonstrating in the face of immense repression.

Algerian jihad only had room for men jihadists.

In the Palestinian revolution, exclusive male symbols shined brightly: The nickname “abo” (father of) preceded the names of 95 percent of the revolution’s leaders. It is a revolution of fathers, most of whom added thick beards, a hallmark of ‘Third World’ revolutions and revolutionaries, to their fatherhood. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were the most famous, but they were not alone in this regard. Those who were not lucky enough to be able to grow beards thickened their mustaches to compensate and keep up with the trend.

Military and security regimes called themselves revolutions, and in Baathist Iraq and Syria, “women’s organizations” dressed in military uniforms were brought to attend festivities celebrating the immortal leader. Muammar Gaddafi “honored women” by turning them into personal guards in his entourage.

As for the Khomeinist revolution in Iran, it enshrined the victory of tough men over women, with no going back. After having been an earthly demand, this victory has become a celestial demand as well. The grandfather sat on the chests of his grandchildren, especially his granddaughters.

Masculine qualities totally overwhelmed value systems throughout this journey: militant, jihadist, martyr, brave, honorable… They are the stars of this world and the next. The exemplary mother is one who tenderly gazes into the eyes of her son, offers him a cup of tea or milk, and bursts into tears as she wishes him well before he goes off to die.

“The most beautiful of mothers” on the face of the earth are those who “awaited their sons and saw them return as martyrs,” as the poem that became a song goes. As for what reinforced these value systems, it is that softness, effeminacy, and other condemned traits were linked to the West, its “imitators,” and its “followers.” Foreign words slip off their tongues with ease, they have coquettish nicknames, and they struggle to pronounce the words of the pre Islamic poet Al-Shanfara!

This nonsense was dealt its hardest blow in Iran, where we are seeing the most substantial and broadest reconciliation between women and revolution. Because the revision there is of historic proportions, it seemed and seems more like an international celebration of the women of our planet that even Afghanistan cannot avoid. In contrast to our old and narrow conceptualization of revolution, Tehran is announcing that the right to control one’s body, choose one’s clothes, and listen to music are also revolutionary demands.

It is not a minor detail that woman is the symbol of revolutionary action in Iran and that the image of revolution has become an image of women. If it is true that the crises and suffering particular to Iranian women have played a role in bringing about this transformation, it is also true that the women of Iran are not fighting a war against imperialism or any of its equivalents. That is precisely wherein lies the biggest difference between the revolutions of the past and this revolution, which seeks to attenuate these causes or walk back on them, starting from the slogan launched in 2009: “neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran.”

Just as the homeland prevails over the cause, the present prevails over the past, regardless of how it is interpreted. In this context, there is no hiding irony of the women’s revolution “demanding the ordinary” while the ruling regime is busy with the nuclear deal negotiations and consolidating its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen.

This is said because the old revolutionary masculinity had, in the first place- and just as the relationship with Europe was beginning- fed off of questions of identity and conflict. Even Hoda El Shaarawy, the early feminist pioneer, fell into this trap. Commenting on her attendance at an international conference in Rome in 1923, she stressed that she had not gone with the aim of “demanding the abolition of polygamy, changes to courtship system, or the imposition of restrictions on divorce for men.”

Instead, there are other aims, the first of which is “presenting Egyptian women in their true, unchanging from, to Western women, who know nothing about them or know what they have learned from the skewed information about Egyptian women they read in books written by those with colonial agenda (...) and demonstrating that the modern Egyptian woman is almost equal to her Western sister in her civility and that the Islamic religion has granted her rights that Western women would like to have.”

The path taken by Iranian women is certainly not paved with roses, and there are fears that should not be overlooked, the most important of which is the regime succeeding in repressing or militarizing the revolution. However, Iranian women are undoubtedly posing the question properly for the first time. The answer is another matter.