Just and progressive struggle
No to neoliberal feminism, yes to women’s rights. Yassamine Mather calls for the left to support the anti-hijab protests
Women protesting against the imposition of the hijab in 1979
The events of the last few weeks in Iran, where dozens of women of all ages haven removed their headscarves in public places, reminded me of Orhan Pamuk’s wonderful book, Snow.
The story, written in 2002 - long before Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power - deals with political and cultural tensions over the hijab in the eastern Turkish city of Kars: there was a spate of suicides amongst teenage girls determined to wear it despite the state ban. The narrator, Ka, an atheist, tries to understand the story from several points of view: a former communist, a secularist, a fascist nationalist, a possible Islamic extremist, Islamic moderates, a young Kurd, members of the military, the secret service and the police - and, in particular, an actor-revolutionary.
In Iran, the reverse is happening: women are prepared to be arrested for refusing to wear the headscarf and this makes for a rather more complicated story than the one put forward by Iranian royalists and their main backer - the misogynist, Donald Trump - as well as their not so intelligent supporters on the Iranian right and left.
The New York Times tells us:
These bold acts of defiance against the hijab are unprecedented in the nearly 40-year history of the Islamic Republic, but a movement that may have helped inspire them has been going on for years. It began on the social media account of a Brooklyn-based Iranian journalist named Masih Alinejad in 2014.1
Not quite true. Even though Ms Alinejad was a paid supporter of US-driven ‘regime change’ and we should not be surprised at the credit given to her by the US media (whether pro-Democrat, mainstream Republican or even pro-Trump), she was a reformist who for the first few years in exile wore a hat covering her hair in all TV appearances. This was outside Iran, so she was not exactly a champion of women’s rights!
The truth is, the struggle for the right to dress or not dress in a particular way started from the moment in March 1979 when Khomeini imposed the veil on Iranian women and when tens thousands of women, supported by the radical left, came out in militant opposition.
It is true that the hijab is not the principal issue concerning working class women in Iran and I do understand the reluctance of sections of the Iranian left to prioritise this struggle. However, there is another aspect to the whole story: the imposition of the hijab was part and parcel of a series of legal and semi-legal measures that deprived women of the right to work, that prevented them taking up specific jobs, such as in the judiciary, which were considered to be beyond women’s capabilities. In that respect opposing the Islamic regime’s forced veiling of Iranian women is a just and progressive struggle and it does not matter if some of those involved in this movement are unsavoury characters. However, in supporting their struggles, we must expose the hypocrisy of their imperialist supporters in the west.
The New York Times article correctly tells us:
The founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, banned the hijab, in a gesture of modernisation, in 1936, which effectively put some women under house arrest for years, since they could not bear to be uncovered in public. The leader of the Islamic Republic, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, made the hijab compulsory in 1979.
While Khomeini’s rules were deplorable, the NYT fails to remind its readers that the very same shah supported Hitler and was deposed by the allies in 1941 (sent into exile for his Nazi sympathies!). Here lies the similarity with the Turkish nationalist, Kemal Atatürk, in Orhan Pamuk’s story! He writes in Snow: “The real question is how much suffering we’ve caused our womenfolk by turning headscarves into symbols - and using women as pawns in a political game.”
Both Atatürk and Reza Shah were aware that the Bolshevik revolution had fundamentally challenged conservative views on women’s rights. Wary of the threat now posed, reactionaries felt it necessary to adopt some superficial aspects of women’s rights. But the brutal imposition of unveiling in 1938 created huge resentment amongst Muslim women and men, just as any attempt to do the same now or in future would create enormous problems.
We should not forget that between 1938 and 1979 middle class and upper class women looked down on working class and peasant women who wore the headscarf or the chador (full-length veil) and used the term ‘chadori’ as a class-based insult. Here I speak from the experience of my own close relatives, whose reactionary, class-based view of veiled women made me very sympathetic to those who did not want to remove their headscarves. Unlike the bully, Reza Shah, whose police tore the hijab from women’s heads, or his incompetent misogynist son, who openly mocked women’s struggles for equality, we have to respect the wishes of Iranian, Turkish or Arab women who choose to wear the headscarf.
However, in the same way the very idea that in the 21st century a religious state could force generations of women to cover themselves is an outrage. As in everything else in the Shia republic, all this is mired in hypocrisy. The very clerics who insist on the flogging of young girls caught breaking their strict hijab rules in public turn a blind eye to the fact that their own wives or daughters quickly remove their scarves as soon as their plane takes off from Tehran airport. It is time to say no to this hypocrisy. It is time to say no to the current schizophrenic situation, where women of all classes live and dress one way at home and a completely different way in public. That is why we stand four-square with those courageous women who have publicly removed their headscarves in the last few weeks and why we should make their struggle against Iran’s Islamic republic our own. It is only by doing so that we can expose the false defenders of women’s rights in the Middle East.
Unfortunately many young Iranian women are under the illusion that in the west women have achieved equality because they are not obliged to cover up. Recent news items such as the scandals of the film industry, the Harvey Weinstein affair, the way businessmen in London think it is appropriate to entertain corporate customers at a President’s Club dinner at the Dorchester hotel, the fact that women are still fighting for equal pay for equal work - all this points to the continued inequality, not to say misogyny, still prevalent in the west. And, instead of just cheering on the anti-hijab protestors in Iran, it is also our responsibility to expose the neoliberal, corporate version of feminism for what it is.
Mainstream feminists have concentrated on the career prospects of professional women, while ignoring important issues, such as the capitalist commodification of women’s bodies. Of course, there are exceptions - mainly US-based Marxist women who have examined how gender, identity and culture affect class politics. But the dominant feminist discourse is used by neoliberal capitalism to intensify the exploitation of the working class in a globalised economy. Writers such as Hester Eisenstein and Johanna Brenner argue that the hegemonic form propagated by neoliberal feminists has become an integral part of what is considered common sense.
It is true that overt discrimination is now frowned upon in most countries, but we must constantly remind women in Iran and elsewhere that, while these and similar attitudes have allowed middle class and upper class women unprecedented access in political, economic and social spheres, their effect on the day-to-day life of working class women has been more problematic - indeed often negative.
You do not need to be an economist to know that it is women who pay the main price for neoliberal deregulation at work, and have borne the main brunt of the tough measures adopted, as recession took over. Neoliberal feminism also ignores a widespread form of violence against women: the suffering caused by the pressure on them to appear attractive to men. Naomi Wolf, in the introduction to her book, The beauty myth, writes:
The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us ... During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing speciality.2
Plastic surgery has now become part of the lives of many young women. A total of 43,172 surgical procedures were carried out in 2012, according to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. Neoliberal feminism has nothing to say about this - in fact some such feminists tell us it is a woman’s right to use such drastic measures to look better, but we Marxists should remind everyone of the fallacy of the “beauty myth” that claims so many victims amongst my gender every year.
Supporting Iranian women without mentioning all this does nothing except create illusions in western, ‘neoliberal’/corporate feminism l
2. N Wolf The beauty myth London 1990.