Can Islamic Feminism Succeed?

Muslim. American. Iranian.

Ever since I was a young girl, I have sought to reconcile these seemingly conflicting identities. As I grew older, I realized that the hardest identity to reconcile was the one I had actually overlooked.

Woman. islamicfem

I have been reading a lot about Islamic feminism lately, mostly as research for my graduate capstone project, but also because I am fascinated by Muslim women’s efforts to have it both ways. Women like Afsaneh Najmabadi, Nayereh Tohidi and Ziba Mir-Hosseini have written extensively about the use of Islam – the essence of which is submission to God – as a tool for emancipation. They search for the theological basis for gender equality and freedom for women. They assert their right to engage in a major feature of Shia Islam known as ijtihad, which allows for the individual interpretation of Islamic law and the adaptation of faith to modern times. They negotiate and renegotiate what it means to be a Muslim woman in largely patriarchal societies. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim woman living in Iran or the United States. Chances are, your life is dictated by rules set forth by men. Islamic feminists turn the tables, using the same tools that long justified their oppression to justify their liberation.

It’s an undertaking that, I suppose, many Muslim women (including myself) unconsciously perform on a daily basis. But to what end? I want to believe in the ability of Islamic feminism to transform the state of women throughout the Middle East. But as long as Islamic feminists pursue their goals within the confines of religion, specifically religious government, I’m afraid they are doomed to fail. For instance, Iran’s male-dominated clerical regime is not likely to accept the theological interpretations of women as the basis of law. The government prevents women from pursuing positions of authority. The Supreme Leader will always be male. No matter what, the efforts of Islamic feminists will only reproduce the same anti-democratic hierarchies.

The theories of Islamic feminists are just that – theories. This is not to say they lack significance. On the contrary, their endeavors to reinterpret Islam bring new, progressive and challenging ideas to the forefront. In so doing, they undoubtedly help countless Muslim women discover their personal sense of agency, which can be an important force for change. But, in Iran, the foundations are broken. Patriarchy inevitably wins. And women’s attempts at religious interpretation are destined to fall through the cracks.


“The World Did Not Love Us”

Last weekend, Iran hanged 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari for the 2007 murder of a former intelligence officer, who, Jabbari claimed, had tried to rape her. Human rights organizations have described the seven-year investigation as deeply flawed and unfair and Jabbari’s execution has been widely condemned by the international community. In a final letter to her mother (full text here), Jabbari delivers a tragic and heartbreaking message reflective of the sorry state of women’s rights in Iran.

You taught us that as we go to school one should be a lady in face of the quarrels and complaints. Do you remember how much you underlined the way we behave? Your experience was incorrect. When this incident happened, my teachings did not help me. Being presented in court made me appear as a cold-blooded murderer and a ruthless criminal. I shed no tears. I did not beg. I did not cry my head off since I trusted the law … The world did not love us. It did not want my fate. And now I am giving in to it and embrace the death.

Rest in peace, Reyhaneh.

“In our country, it is the law that rapes us”

A seemingly harmless social media movement undertaken by women throughout Iran has generated some serious vitriol on the part of the Iranian government. I first wrote about the Facebook unveiling movement a month ago. Since then, Iranian hardliners have launched a vicious smear campaign, falsely claiming that the movement’s founder, London-based Masih Alinejad, was brutally raped by three men in front of her son. An Iranian TV commentator went so far as to call Alinejad “a whore who should not be elevated to the level of a heretic.”

The implication here is clear: Women who remove their veils are not only at risk of sexual assault, they deserve it.

When I first wrote about the Facebook unveiling movement, I argued that such social media activism is a remarkable and influential outlet for free expression, particularly in countries that limit civil rights. The unveiling activism is made all the more powerful because the Iranian government is limited in its ability to contain the movement. Indeed, Iran’s recent attempt at countering Alinejad’s campaign is desperate, bizarre, and emblematic of a government that, thanks especially to the defiance of its young people, has never managed to fully control its civilians.

Masih Alinejad/Washington Post Courtesy Photo
Masih Alinejad/Washington Post Courtesy Photo

It’s also familiar. Just a few weeks ago, government authorities arrested six Iranians who uploaded a YouTube video of themselves dancing to Pharrell’s song “Happy.” They were released days later, shortly after Iranian president Hassan Rouhani tweeted, “#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” It certainly wasn’t the first time his administration delivered mixed messages via social media. Rouhani has stated that the Internet should be free and unfiltered, but has been careful not to stir up anger from conservative Islamic leadership. In fact, since his administration took over, the country experienced a noticeable increase in Internet censorship.

Incidents like these are a product of the unrelenting struggle between Iranian youth and the Islamic regime. More than 60 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30. This means that most Iranians have no memory of and no real attachment to the events that led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. These young Iranians are progressive, educated and tech-savvy. And since the 2009 Iranian election protests, the perceived threat they pose to the Islamic establishment has clearly intensified.

Rouhani is obviously playing both sides. But his give and take leadership style is not likely to bring about real reforms. It seems the Iranian government can continue to act as it pleases, while its president drowns out their deeds with tweets.


“There is no better ambassador than football”


Dan Gaspar, assistant coach of the Iranian national soccer team said it best.  Since the 1970s, Gaspar, an American,  has coached several teams throughout the world, from leagues in Portugal to Japan to South Africa. He called his most recent gig as Iran’s coach a “unique opportunity,” enabling him to experience an Iran quite unlike what is typically portrayed in the media. “It may sound strange to most people, but I’ve worked on four continents and Iran is one of the safest places I’ve worked in,” he said.

In the spirit of shattering cultural misconceptions, let’s take a moment to meet a few of the Iranian players Gaspar is coaching, with this great breakdown by AP writer John Duerden. I’ll be rooting for Team Melli as they face Nigeria, Bosnia and Argentina in the first round. All I ask, World Cup Gods, is that they advance to the second stage this year…

Unveiling on Facebook

In the years since the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East and the Iranian Green Movement, scholars, writers and pundits of all shapes and sizes have been questioning the real impact of social media in creating lasting change. “Slacktivism” is a term we often hear in conjunction with such analyses, referring to the lazy activism taken up mostly by outsiders who do little to contribute to the issue at hand. I, myself, have been guilty of it. When the Green Movement was in full force in the summer of 2009, I watched the news powerlessly from thousands of miles away. Like many Iranian-Americans, the most I could do was change my Facebook profile picture to an image of the popular slogan, “Where is my vote?”

Researchers have found that social media tends to play a minimal role even inside the countries where such movements are taking place. In Iran, for example, most of the tweets about the Green Revolution actually came from outside the country. Iranians had limited access to social media during the Green Movement, as the government had blocked Twitter and Facebook.

FACEBOOK/آزادی های یواشکی زنان در

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a cynical and much-cited essay for The New Yorker in which he downplays the influence of social media as a tool for activism. “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties,” he writes, and “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” 

Yes, Gladwell is correct in his argument that a Facebook user’s decision to change his or her profile picture pales in comparison to the high-risk actions of civil rights protesters in the 1960s. But he ignores cases in which social media has been an outlet for free expression, in stark defiance against oppressive governments that would prefer their citizens silenced.

Case in point: “The Great Unveiling” movement, as Vocativ calls it. Women throughout Iran have been posting to Facebook photos of themselves in which they are (gasp!) de-veiled. It may seem tame and light-hearted on the surface, but we’d be wrong to ignore the bravery of these women and the inherent activism in this. In a country that actively monitors and enforces a strict dress code for women, this is a direct challenge. The movement’s founder has faced criticism from Iranian conservatives but, besides banning Facebook, the government can do little to stop it (in fact, even a ban would be ineffectual in the long-term, as most Iranians can get around them).

I’d say it’s time for a reassessment, Gladwell. This one’s a definite win for social media.