Women’s rights and class struggle
Forty years ago Iranian women rebelled against the Islamic government. We should not only remember their struggle: we should uphold the original aims of International Women’s Day, says Yassamine Mather
Friday March 8 is International Women’s Day, which this year coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first major protest by Iranian women against the Islamic regime in 1979.
Iranian women played an important role in the revolution that overthrew the shah in February of that year, but the Islamic government that gained power as a result wasted no time attacking the little that existed in terms of women’s rights and imposing new forms of gender repression. These included the legalisation of polygamy, temporary marriage (sighe), forced veiling, segregation … Women trying to join protests were attacked by religious zealots carrying chains and batons, with leftwing females identified as the prime targets.
Now, however, a minority of Islamist women associated with factions of the regime have taken up a limited defence of some of the issues concerning women’s rights. They advocate minor reforms, which, I would argue, are too little, too late. They do not even challenge the medieval laws of hodud and qessas (‘talion’ and punishment), let alone the rule of the religious guardian of the nation, the supreme leader.
As time went by, some of these formerly ‘reformist’ women, seeking celebrity status and fortune in line with contemporary global trends, have left Iran and become supporters of ‘regime change from above’ - a CIA version of Iranian feminism. One former ‘reformist‘ journalist who used to make sure her photo was taken next to senior ayatollahs now publishes on social media selfies of herself alongside US secretary of state Mike Pompeo - she clearly sees no irony in switching from support for Shia clerics to standing next to the former head of the CIA.
Such grotesque images from publicity-seeking, pro-war and pro-sanctions Iranian feminists (some call them CIA feminists) seem to be everywhere on social media these days - in some way reflecting the sad state of the struggle for women’s liberation in our time: a movement started by working class women fighting for class-based emancipation has, in neoliberal or rightwing populist discourse, become one solely interested in gender equality.
We hear ad infinitum about the need to ensure more women are appointed to positions of authority, including on the board of large companies. Yet recent history shows us that women in government can be just as much warmongers as their male counterparts. They can be in favour of bombing or torturing prisoners just like the men. The politics they follow depends entirely on their class outlook, not their gender. For instance, it was Margaret Thatcher who issued the order to sink the Belgrano. Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, Madeleine Albright, the first female US secretary of state, and the current head of the CIA, Gina Haspel, are other prominent examples. We are supposed to be glad that a woman is heading the hegemon power’s ‘intelligence’ services, yet we should remember that she made her name as the veteran clandestine officer who oversaw a secret prison in Thailand, using contractors to interrogate al Qa’eda suspects. We know of at least one occasion when a prisoner was subjected to waterboarding three times in what Pompeo called “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
Haspel’s time in Thailand, in charge of the prison known as Cat’s Eye, was the beginning of an illustrious progression within the agency. She was a supporter of rendition, and the infamous detention and interrogation programme. No wonder the most misogynistic president in US history was keen to have her as head of the CIA.
The fact that, under pressure from the media and government, many companies have appointed women to senior positions - sometimes with non-executive roles and often to make sure they reach the relevant quotas - does not alter the reality that in most, if not all, capitalist economies, women continue to predominate in low-paid jobs. The fact that a tiny minority of women have been appointed to important posts in government and the private sector has not and will not in itself improve the plight of the overwhelming majority of working women.
In the official global celebrations on March 8 each year, the origins of International Women’s Day in events organised by the Socialist Party of America, including the commemoration of a protest by women garment workers in New York City in March 1857, is rarely mentioned. In the latter case women were up in arms against inhumane working conditions and low wages. When the police attacked the protestors and dispersed them, their struggle continued, culminating in the founding of the first women’s labour union.
Then, in 1908, 15,000 women marched in New York demanding shorter working hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. Many of those who turned out were young immigrants from Europe, who had come to the United States seeking a better life.
For Marxists it is a nonsense to suggest, as do some feminists, that women constitute a ‘class’: for Marx, class expressed a relationship to the means of production. But for Christine Delphy, for example, gender can also be defined in relation to the mode of production, because of domestic labour. So for her the main enemy of women is not capitalism, but patriarchy.1
The problem with the hegemony of neoliberal feminism is not just that it promotes market capitalism, but that it protects the interests of managerial women at the expense of the working class. In the absence of a rigorous Marxist approach to the issue of gender inequality, there is little work done on the effects on women of casualisation, part-time and contract work. In the UK women face lower job security, greater pay inequality and higher unemployment, although there is a higher proportion of women working full-time in comparison with other advanced capitalist countries. Of course, the situation is far worse in the ‘developing countries’.
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. The new populist, anti-neoliberal and pro-feminist movements that have sprung up actually promote a return to an even darker era.
We are constantly told that social media abuse against women is the scourge of our time, while another, more widespread and serious form of abuse is ignored: the suffering caused by the pressure on women to appear ‘attractive’, according to norms dictated by consumerist, celebrity-worshipping modern capitalism. Naomi Wolf, in 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 decades, 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. 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 every year.
We live in the period of late capitalism, when commodity fetishism dominates our lives. Here I am not referring to the perception of the social relationships involved in production, but the consumption of commodities. As far as the consumer of contemporary commodities and services sold in the market is concerned, brands can offer unlimited promise, yet the commodification itself leaves the alienated consumer with little control. Women as organisers of social life, as carers and budget-holders for households, are themselves victims of this alienation as consumers.
So on March 8, it will be appropriate to firmly reject the claims of women’s equality under capitalism. In paying respect to the garment workers of New York, we should also expose institutionalised neoliberal feminism, as well as the retrograde anti-women populism of the right.
According to (neoliberal) feminists, there is nothing wrong with women spending an enormous amount of time on housework or their appearance, but as communist women we have to accept that equality with men requires a more efficient use of our time. We cannot be the wage-earner as well as the person responsible for housework, the principal carer for children and/or the elderly, spending hours devoting ourselves to our appearance, and still have sufficient time to read, educate ourselves, write and speak in public. Confident participation in a political debate requires discipline, hard work and persistence, and in this regard the sexist society we live in constantly presents serious obstacles to women. We must strive to overcome such obstacles.
In this respect I have always argued that the political is personal (in direct contrast to the 1970s feminist slogan, ‘The personal is political’). Both men and women can do more to rebel against the mainstream and March 8 2019 will be a good time to launch a struggle against neoliberal feminism, as well as populist male chauvinism.
For Iranian women, as I have stated, it is the 40th anniversary of the demonstration against the forced wearing of the hijab. This occurred straight after the revolution that brought down a US puppet and misogynistic dictator, the shah, but failed to deliver on any of the slogans of the revolutionary movement: equality, democracy and independence. For those women March 8 should also be used to express abhorrence of CIA-sponsored feminists - women who in the name of ‘gender equality’ support war and sanctions.
To express solidarity with Iranian women we must support the struggles of teachers, nurses and all women workers in Iran, in opposition to both the neoliberal practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran and also the warmongers in Washington.
1. C Delphy L’ennemi principal Vol 1, Paris 2008.↩
2. N Wolf The beauty myth: how images of beauty are used against women introduction, New York 1991.↩