Women's rights, political islam and secularism

Radical Iranian writer Chahla Chafiq shared a platform with Salma Yaqoob at last month's European Social Forum. The two sharply disagreed over the role of islam in politics. Afterwards she spoke to Peter Manson

What exactly are your differences with Salma Yaqoob?

I was not quite sure what she was saying in her speech. What worried me was the mix of anti-imperialism and the acceptance of islam as a social and political alternative.

For me the two cannot be mixed. Anti-imperialists do not necessarily accept that islam is egalitarian. Everyone must have the right to criticise religious law, on women’s rights and so on - and that applies not only to islam but also to christianity, etc. All religions, when they are made the basis of law, are of necessity inegalitarian, especially in their attitude to women - we cannot hide that reality.

In order for women’s equality to be realisable, the separation of religion and state law is indispensable. Religion - whether it is islam, christianity or judaism - was created on the basis of patriarchy and whenever it attains the force of law there can be no equality. If religion is simply a private relation with god, that is another matter, but when it acquires social and political force through law, then it becomes very dangerous for women’s equality.

What is your own background and what do you think of political islam?

I come from a muslim family, but I have no religion. The problem is that a religious identity is imposed upon everybody who comes from the ‘muslim world’ - I do not agree with this as a characterisation: it is more complex than the image portrayed by that term.

It is essential to differentiate between islam, the religion, and islamism, which is a political discourse. I am against political islam, just as I am opposed to any religion presenting itself as a political alternative. It is quite possible to be a muslim, in the sense of having an islamic culture, and at the same time to be secular.

Culture is not a fixed, permanent phenomenon. I am against a concept of culture that does not take into account its constant evolution. With such a view, it becomes impossible to change the world For example, I am an Iranian with an Iranian culture, but that does not stop me having a critical attitude towards certain aspects of that culture.

Do you think Salma Yaqoob would agree with the secularism you advocate?

I don’t know. I did not hear this in her speech. I heard her say she was against imperialism and for social justice, but she did not say that secularism is necessary for democracy. For me that is a fundamental principle. Democracy cannot exist when religion becomes law and imposes its identity. If, for example, islamic law states that a muslim woman must wear the veil, any woman who does not do so is regarded as somehow not ‘authentic’.

So islamism as a political ideology is quite different from islam - as practised, for example, by my grandmother. For her it was not necessary for a muslim woman to wear the veil. She saw this is a problem of education, not of ideology.

Of course in Iran and other dictatorships, a debate on this issue is not allowed. It is not permissible to discuss the question of whether the veil is a statement of a women’s muslim identity. But in France the majority of muslim women and girls do not wear it. So are they authentic muslims or not?

What if a woman wishes to wear the veil as a genuine expression of her muslim identity?

Of course that is acceptable. But what we are seeing in France is the politicisation of the question, where it is one element of a global political discourse about the ‘muslim community’. In fact the ‘muslim community’ does not really exist, just as there is no single ‘French community’ coming together behind a single political and social project. You can be French or Iranian, muslim or jewish, but you belong firstly to a social class: you have your family, your job, your own ideas about religion and about a model for society.

Those who wish to ignore our multiple identity in favour of a muslim or any other community are attempting to create something that does not exist in order to further their own political project - in this case an islamist project. That is the reason for this discourse. Whether Salma Yaqoob wishes, by wearing the veil, to state she is a woman and a muslim is a secondary question.

However, the veil is not first and foremost a religious symbol. It is necessary to ask what its true meaning is. Why do men not wear it? Clearly this is not a problem of identity, but one of a patriarchal social order.

But if a woman proclaims, ‘I am proud to wear this veil and nobody is forcing me to do it …’?

There are many people who accept their exploitation or oppression, believing that they are exercising a free choice. But we do not live in a free world. Certainly you can find many women who state they are simply dressing as they choose. That is their right. But I have the right to criticise. So I agree that Ms Yaqoob has the right to choose to wear a headscarf, but I adopt a critical position in relation to that choice.

Democracy is based on a rapport de force and I am engaged in a critical discourse with that set of relationships. That does not mean I am forced to wear or not wear the veil. It means that I have the right to criticise and demystify what is in reality the interiorisation of a political project.

Salma Yaqoob is quite a prominent figure in British left politics at the moment, because she is calling for a new broad alliance. The most important thing for me is not her veil, but the politics she is proposing.

You do not have a feminist outlook. For me feminism opens up a political understanding of the world. During the Iranian revolution, when I was a left activist, I had exactly the same logic as you. What we said at that time was, ‘The veil is not important. It is a secondary question.’ That led us to enter into an alliance with Khomeini.

But that is a totally different question …

No. We thought that anti-imperialism was more important than women’s rights. Today I regret that. Women’s rights are not secondary, but ought to be at the very centre of a vision of a different world.

So the problem with Ms Yaqoob is that she accepts the norms and values imposed by religion, which cannot be the basis of a new social order. We cannot avoid criticising these norms and values if we are to progress the debate. Therefore people like Ms Yaqoob who accept religion as a political and social identity must explain clearly what their position is regarding religious law.

It is insufficient to make general statements of opposition to injustice. Khomeini said that too. He was anti-exploitation, anti-imperialist, anti-American. But the question we did not ask at the time was, what is his view of the relationship between religious law and society? I would very much like to hear Ms Yaqoob’s views on this subject.

I work in the field of immigration in France and there you find exactly the same problem. The people who defend islam as a social and political alternative never explain clearly their view of the role of religious law. It is not enough to say, ‘We will decide that later’. For me it is a condition of any alliance that they must state their position on this.

But Salma Yaqoob is a British politician. Silence on this question is surely less crucial in Britain, where the imposition of islamic law is impossible, than, for example, in Iran.

I disagree. True, we are not in Iran, Algeria, etc, but there are 10 million muslims in Europe - including four million in France and two million in Britain. The migrant populations are victims of racism and exclusion, and share a collective memory of the colonial past.

In this situation political islam can be posed as an alternative in Europe too. Of course what happened in Iran cannot be reproduced in Britain, but political islam can be seen as an alternative in a communitarian sense. Those like Tariq Ramadan who advocate it as a solution propose a ghettoised society dominated by religious law. That is not my ideal model - and, I hope, not yours!

So that is the problem for any social and political alliance like the one you mention in Britain. Political islam can be dangerous for me, a woman in Europe with its divided communities, as well as in Iran. Forced marriages, the interference of religious law on questions such as divorce - that is not my project.

That is why, in any such alliance, it is essential to ask people like Ms Yaqoob her view on such questions. I accept that she has her own identity, but how far does that identity influence her social and political agenda? For me women’s rights is the number one problem.

I would like to turn to the ‘war on terror’. If the USA were to attack the islamic republic, should we say, ‘Defend Iran’?

I do not think a US attack on Iran is possible. Iranian society is in crisis and a US attack would not resolve this problem or be useful from the point of view of American strategy.

However, supposing I am wrong. Personally I did not say, ‘Defend Iraq’ any more than I said, ‘Defend America’. It is possible to adopt a third position. We are not obliged to defend Khamenei against Bush, or Bush against Khamenei. In politics it is always possible to put forward another position. For me the Iranian government is corrupt and my anti-imperialism does not lead me to defend a corrupt dictatorship.

How would you describe the current situation in Iran?

There is a very sensitive situation in the country: civil society is very fragile. The government has no popular legitimacy, and the resistance against the dictatorship continues to grow. But the regime is able to keep control - it has money from oil and power through force of arms. And the left, democratic and secular opposition is very weak and disparate - because of the repression, but also because of the absence of a coherent alternative.

We are in a difficult situation, and we need the support of international democratic society. But Europe is very divided over Iran for economic reasons. It does not take a strong stand over human rights and oppression because of the question of oil. However, the present government cannot continue in the same way - the current crisis is too profound. I do not know how long it will take to effect change, but if we had the international support it could come tomorrow.

What is your vision for the future Iran?

After 20 years of religious dictatorship the main problem will be one of secularisation, democracy and human rights. For me the future Iran must be democratic in the parliamentary sense - I do not think there is another immediate alternative after so many years of dictatorship. This democracy must also be federal because of the many different peoples who make up Iran.

We need time to practice democracy and reflect on the most suitable model. It must be one that takes into account the various elements of the population - not only the national minorities, but young people, women, etc. The separation of religion from the state will be essential - there are several smaller religions apart from islam.

There is no fixed model of democracy and I am not sure that the French or British model is ideal. Democracy is relative and depends on the strength of the various social forces. It is created and recreated and its form will arise from the concrete struggle in Iran. If the democratic forces are strong, we will have a more direct democracy than in France or Britain.

During the Iranian revolution this democracy took the form of komiteh or shora. New forms can be conceived from the people’s imagination.