A Regional Perspective
By Azar Majedi
What do we mean by universality of women's rights? Briefly, by this we mean that women should enjoy the same rights, regardless of their race, religion, culture and nationality. Depriving a woman of her freedom or equality by reference to the dominant culture, religion, or the political system in the country she lives in, or the country she was born in, is by no means justifiable or acceptable. For example, women in Islam ridden countries are deprived of many rights. They cannot travel or work without their husbands' or fathers' permission. In Iran, women must wear the hejab and are segregated in society. They are stoned to death for engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage. The family law in these countries discriminates against women and this deprivation and oppression is justified by a false argument, that their religion or culture dictates this, so it is all right. Genital mutilation, for example, is practiced in some other parts of the world; this too, is justified by the dominant tradition and culture of the given country. The list is long. When we defend the universality of women's rights, we demand an end to this injustice, and expose its defenders. No one, be it the state or parents, has the right to deprive a girl from education, to force her to marry, or to impose upon her the traditions of a specific religion or culture, for example the hejab in the context of Islam. The rights of all girls and women should be universal, the same all over the world.
In the 70s, we did not need to discuss the legitimacy, the rightness, and relevance of this concept. Every progressive human being and any women's rights activist would believe in and uphold the universality of women's rights and women's equality. Why now in the year 2000, do we feel the need to open the debate on these basic human rights? This is because for the past two decades, we have been under attack from the right wing, and surprisingly from sections of the left, as well. We have been denied and deprived of our rights not only by reactionary governments in the countries we were born, but also by a considerable section of the Western academia, media, politicians, governments, and even sections of the feminist movement.
We have been told repeatedly that we have to respect our so-called culture, our so-called religion and silently and respectfully accept the fate they have assigned to us. This has been defended under the fancy concept of cultural relativism, and backed by the fashionable theory of post-modernism. Cultural relativism is a fancy name for racism because it justifies two sets of values, rights and privileges for human beings according to a subjective, arbitrary concept, such as culture. To put it bluntly, according to this concept, because of my birthplace, I should enjoy fewer rights relative to a woman born in England, Sweden or France. I should be content with my second-class status, because I was born in a country, which is under the rule of Islam and because a reactionary, misogynist government is in power.
There are certainly different factors contributing to the rise and dominance of this racist and reactionary view, not all of the same significance and weight. In my opinion, there are two factors, which play a major role in the rise and popularity of this view: the fall of the Soviet Union and the defeat of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the coming to power of an Islamic regime in Iran. I will try to elaborate on these two points.
The fall of the Soviet Union, that is, the defeat of state capitalism by free market capitalism was celebrated as a major victory for human rights. But, very soon it became clear that it added to the misery of not only the majority of people in the eastern block, but it also had a direct effect on the lives of many people in other parts of the world. As a result of the destruction of the old system, and an absence of a more humane, egalitarian and progressive one to supersede it, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, prostitution, trafficking of women or so-called white slavery, political corruption, ethnic wars, extreme nationalism, etc. became dominant in the entire eastern block. Religion found an upper hand and as a direct and immediate result, women lost the status and rights they enjoyed before. Sexism became a dominant ideology. What was the international effect of the fall of the Soviet Union? During the Cold War, behind its rhetoric, there existed a political and ideological balance, which had some positive effects. The UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention on Refugees, for example, were the results of the existing competition and the climate of the Cold War. If not immediately after the end of the Cold War, but 10 years later, we can clearly see the impact it has had on the lives of many. The Human Rights Declaration is not even observed in Western countries, let alone in other parts of the world. The Geneva Convention has been made obsolete, and because of it, the tragedies and deaths of hundreds of people who have tried and still try to flee war, torture and lack of rights.
In this climate, post-modernism has found strength and popularity as an ideology, which defends and legitimises the oppression, inequality, and injustice that are so widespread. According to this ideology, everything is relative; there is no good or bad, right or wrong, progressive or backward. Universality is irrelevant. This is the message of post-modernism - perhaps a bit oversimplified, or crude, but this is the essence of this theory. The political, popular, offspring of post-modernism is cultural relativism, a view, which too readily is used to justify the lack of rights and the oppression of people living in Iran, Algeria, Afghanistan and the like. It is a theory, which has helped the world ignore the killings in Rwanda and to shamelessly accept the dictators and torture in the world.
What effects does it have on women? Besides the general hardship, suffering, and oppression, women particularly suffer from this new set of values, especially in Islam ridden countries and Islamist communities in the West. Now the world can ignore their fate, their lack of rights, their subjugation, their segregation, their victimisation, and their de facto slavery, due to cultural relativism.
What was the role of the Islamic Republic in this? After decades of marginalisation of Islamic movements as a political force, the coming to power of an Islamic regime in a country such as Iran, has had a major impact on the rise of Islamic movements in the region, and given birth to what is being defined as political Islam. This is not only because the Islamic Republic supported these movements vigorously, both financially and morally, but also because the Islamic Republic seemed to be the result of a popular uprising in a country which had been a main ally of the West, giving it a popular appeal. Islamic rhetoric in the region, in countries under dictatorship, where no opposition was tolerated, where progressive, left, women's rights groups, civil rights movements, and where workers' organisations were brutally crushed, found a way to the hearts of many deprived people. The anti- imperialist rhetoric added flavour to this appeal.
Outside the region, this popular, demagogic appeal, plus the real threat of terrorism by Islamic groups hanging over Western societies, paved the way for the reinforcement of cultural relativism. Here it was mainly out of pragmatism, rather than principles that we see the widespread acceptance of these reactionary views regarding the attitude towards people living under Islamic laws, be it state laws or patriarchal laws practiced in Islamist communities. The case of Salman Rushdie is only one and the most famous example of such a threat.
Today, however, things are changing and there is a strong chance for women's liberation in Iran, which can profoundly effect the situation of women in the region. Iran is undergoing profound and sweeping changes. The country is in turmoil. For the past two years, people have more openly criticized the state, the religious character of the state, demanded more rights, and challenged the religious laws. The opposition movement is gaining strength and momentum every day. A very strong and far-reaching secular movement has been born and is growing rapidly. The Islamic Republic's leadership itself has felt the danger and is cautioning its ranks constantly. You have to see these changes in the context of a country that has been most brutally suppressed for two decades. The crimes against humanity committed by this regime are comparable to the crimes committed by the Nazis in the Second World War.
Women have played a very important role in bringing about the political upheaval we are witnessing today. One of the first suppressive measures enacted by this government was to restrict the very few rights women had. Sexual apartheid was in place after a few years of the regime's establishment but women have fought against it. The more open opposition was crushed but women continued their objections by defying the rules. Now, a new generation of women has begun to challenge the state more openly. The anti-religion, anti-Islamic sentiment is very high among the population. Spirits are high; hopes are high. The future is ours.
Any changes in Iran will not only affect the lives of people living in Iran, but will have a significant impact on the region. The fall of the Islamic Republic will once again marginalise the Islamic movement in the region - both by ending the enormous financial and material help they receive from the Islamic Republic and because an overthrown Islamic state as a result of a popular uprising will wash away all that popular and demagogic appeal that Islamic movements and rhetoric once enjoyed. We will see not only women in Iran freed from religious tyranny, but also witness the loosening of the Islamic grip on women in Algeria, Sudan, Egypt and Palestine. The force of secularism will not stop in Iran; it will penetrate the whole region, even Israel. The future is ours.
As a veteran activist for women's equality and as an opposition activist against one of the most brutal states in the history of humankind, I appeal to you to support people in Iran, women in Iran to topple this reactionary, misogynist regime. Do not allow the Western media to deceive the public once more into accepting that people in Iran are content with some minor reforms, here and there. The majority of people in Iran want and demand unconditional freedom, total equality and real justice.
Azar Majedi is a member of the WPI's Executive Committee and Political Bureau. The above is a summary of a speech given at the Middle Eastern Centre for Women's Studies first annual conference on December 10, 2000. It was first published in Medusa, Journal of the Centre for Women and Socialism, Number 6-7, Winter 2001 http://www.medusa2000.com