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From One Third World Woman to Another

by GOLBARG BASHI in New York

11 Jan 2010 22:2714 Comments
GreenWomen.jpgA conversation with Gayatri Spivak.

[ feature ] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is well known amongst many scholars, feminists and South Asian activists. Her reputation as a transnational feminist who combined Marxism and post-structuralism to address women's issues was established long before her legendary 1988 essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak," which defined the contours of a whole new discipline of thinking and activism. In the past three decades, she has emerged as the global authority on the intersections of Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, and globalization. At Columbia University, where she is a professor, Spivak is also a founding member and director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, where she has forged new ground. She was tenured as University Professor--Columbia's highest rank--in March 2007.

Still, Professor Spivak is not simply an Ivory Tower academic or armchair intellectual. She also works in teacher-training schools in rural Bangladesh and India and is deeply involved with child laborers in Bangladeshi schools. One important difference between other academics and her is that she rejects the notion of "eloquence in silence that screams fail to deliver," as a friend once put it to me. She delivers on her theories. Sitting next to Gayatri Spivak, I feel I am in the presence of an emphatic intellect.

Spivak's concern about Iranian women's rights and the Green Movement is not entirely unprecedented. She has been deeply involved in women's rights issues in Algeria, where she developed her long collaboration with the prominent Algerian feminist Assia Djebar. Her writings have been equally influential in the work of such other prominent transnational and post-colonial feminists as Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Meyda Yeğenoğlu, as well as a new generation of young Iranian feminist scholars such as Negar Mottahedeh and Nima Naghibi.

Throughout the Arab and Muslim World, from China to her native India, Latin America to South Africa, Gayatri Spivak has listened and observed carefully, and thus greatly contributed to the theoretical and pragmatic making of a transnational feminism that has offered by example and theoretical insight the women's rights movement in Iran.

I approached Professor Spivak with my concerns about women's participation in the Green Movement. I had questions about how Iranians may prevent history from repeating itself: Even though women and minorities have historically formed the nucleus of these social and political movements in modern Iranian history, they have been consistently sidestepped after victory.

Since my interview with Professor Spivak, the Green Movement has been increasingly masculanized despite women's mass participation. When Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a courageous high ranking cleric who had for decades criticized the state and defended the rights of political prisoners, died on December 25, 2009, many called him the "Spiritual Father" of the Green Movement, while no one has volunteered anyone as the "Spiritual Mother" of a movement that is heavily defined by women's participation. Our Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi even went so far as to call Ayatollah Montazeri the "symbol of human rights in Iran" despite his Sharia-based views on women's rights. In my own 2003 interview with Ayatollah Montazeri at his residence in Qom, he clearly and emphatically told me that women's rights must remain under the domain of Islamic law. He stated that:

"You see, if people around the world want to say certain things about women for example being equal to men in matters of inheritance or legal testimony, because these issues pertain to the very letter of the Qoran, we cannot accept them... Of course in Iran we cannot accept those laws that are against our religion... On certain occasions when these laws contradict the very clear text of the Qoran, we cannot cooperate... Men in general (no'-e mard ha), all things considered, are productively more active -- in both intellectual activities and practical activities... Those aspects of the Islamic law that are based on the very letter of the Qoran, the answer is no."
(Read my interview "Eyewitness History: Ayatollah Montazeri" here and its Persian translation here).

Furthermore, despite the movement's many non-Islamist components, including those who consider themselves to be secular and who wish for a separation between religion and politics, there are attempts at Islamacizing the Green Movement. Meanwhile some of the demonstrators have also resorted to verbal and physical violence, a natural reaction to the government's brutal crackdown on the people, which has had up to 10 people killed and hundreds arrested, most recently in the December 27, 2009 Ashura protests. In the face of an active attempt by progressive activists to link the Palestinian cause (Intifada) with that of Iranians, a racist anti-Arab component of the Green Movement has also made itself quite evident in slogans such as "Neither Gaza, Neither Lebanon, I will die for Iran."

I wonder therefore if after 30 years of a misogynist Islamic Republic and 2500 years of successive paternalistic monarchies, if Iranian women and men really want a patriarch -- spiritual, religious, ideological or monarchical? As a woman and a feminist who identifies with the Green Movement and shares its aspirations for a democratic Iran, I am deeply concerned about its undemocratic and racist tendencies, as well as an alarming rise in its masculinist and Islamist proclivities, the latter two of which, I believe, are related.

When I had just begun my PhD program in the early 2000s, an acquaintance sarcastically asked: "Have Iranian women become so important that one can do a PhD about them?" The struggle for women's rights is an unending project. It began long before many care to remember -- in the midst of the 19th Century and the struggle is ever more urgent and yet enduring because it has to confront violence with nonviolence. It is my belief that it is the women in the Green Movement who have consistently upheld its nonviolent and democratic aspirations, shielding both riot police as well as fellow protesters from violence with their bodies. I believe that Iranian women represent the 21st century's most glorious nonviolent uprising against dictatorship and misogyny.

I feel privileged to have had a chance to talk to Professor Spivak about a feminist Iranian future and share her thoughts with my sisters in Iran and abroad. I am grateful to Ms. Ashley McKannon for her help with transcribing this interview. -- Golbarg Bashi

Golbarg Bashi: I begin my interview with Professor Spivak with her impromptu recollections about her own mother, which was occasioned by her graciously inquiring about my children and the difficulties of negotiating between an academic career and motherhood.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: My grandmother, my father's mother, also did not know how to read and write. Apparently she had retained a modicum of being able to read some, but not write. And she was, after a thorough investigation, given in marriage when she was five. But she remained in her father's house. Around thirteen, when she came into my grandfather's house in the village, she was as tall as I am now. I am her same shape. I never saw her -- she died in 1928. But I know she was a woman of power. I've heard from a cousin who knew her from the village days. My cousin told me she was the one who really looked after the land and the tenants and so on, because my grandfather was a landowner's manager, by the old system established by the British for tax collecting. And she, this woman of power, could not speak about the fact that she had cancer of the uterus, because that's a shameful place for cancer, until she bled out and collapsed. My father was a doctor by then. I think he had passed his medical degree in Calcutta. If a woman cannot speak because of the shame in her body, even to her son, even to her husband, then you can't do anything with all the medical education in the world. This is the thing that people don't understand, that the change that has to come is an epistemic
change. This woman of power, my grandmother, who was, my size and had to stand with her shoulders rounded due to her own image internalization, which in fact many women have today, even in the West -- 'I don't want to be taller than my husband.' You see?"

Yes

So all her life she apparently was completely round-shouldered. I shot up when I was eleven or twelve. My father would say, "I saw my mother round-shouldered all her life, you must stand very straight." So these smart, powerful women could have. That's the story that you're really telling, aren't you? The story you're telling, the story I'm telling, and where all the questions come from, right?"

Indeed.

Not just bad elections or a bad head of state. Those are issues, yes, but the perennial real story behind it that you're really asking is the question about women across the board.

Precisely in the same vein, I've been looking at pictures from all the way back in the Constitutional Revolution in the early 20th century Iran. There are women participating in the demonstrations, but they are behind the men and wearing the type of veil customary at the time. And then later in the 1950s you have women in massive demonstrations, and they're not shielded by men like they were in 1906-1911. And then obviously in the course of the 1977-1979 revolution, you have large numbers of women mixed with men in the street protests, and now in, 2009, women actually outnumber the men, and this is the case in most cities in Iran. It's not very surprising to who's been following the history. We're used to seeing women, but not to this extent.

So I wanted to ask you as someone who was born in India, and who is now the founding theorist of postcolonial women's studies, and your name alone is very empowering to the third-world women like myself. Just saying 'Gayatri Spivak' is empowering, even if one doesn't know you personally, or read your work. Also, you're accustomed to following news of women, both the triumphs and many setbacks and failures. So you theorize about them while being also an activist. You've founded a school, and you run it, in Bangladesh. So I wanted to ask you, to what extent have you followed the presidential election and its aftermath in Iran, and how do you characterize it, in terms of women's participation?

I have followed it with interest. I have very much liked Hamid Dabashi's analysis of what has been happening in Iran over the past few decades, and I've told him so. When I see how women have become much more aggressive -- and I use that word positively, I won't use the nice word 'affirmative' -- as they have come against aggression legitimized by the state. They face a problem, to be ethical pacifists. The problem is that it encounters the attitude, 'We are going to change this come what may.' It cannot be a purely pacifist attitude, and I see that as the problem of the legitimized violence of the state. What is most moving about the women's movement today to me as an outsider, as a feminist in solidarity, is that the women want to use and repair the abstract structure of the state, which helps democracy. They are not taking a position whereby it's just "let everything go."

I was involved in Algeria. I speak French well, and I was learning Arabic at that time. I went to Algeria year after year because the pattern of Algerian independence and post-coloniality had shared something with India. So I felt I could be effective there. In Algeria, I was in the elections booths, I was speaking to women as they were coming in their burkas and with mehndi on their hands, and that lacy beautiful stuff that women wear in that part of the world, because the FIS, the Front Islamique du Salut ("The Islamic Salvation Front") was misdirecting them, against their rights! So I was in the polling booths, and not speaking as an outsider at all, but part of the system. It's massively under-reported how much the Algerian women's movement was involved in the subsequent political upheaval. Office workers in chadors, before the office men came in, used the mimeograph machines to make posters. Constitutionality it was suspend but the FIS had won the first round.

I'm not going to compare Algeria and Iran, but I'm going to say that what really warms the heart of an old socialist like me is that they wish to use the state structure rather than, through some sort of digital idealism, say that it's already possible to have global democracy. Who doesn't want global democracy? But it's extremely impractical to say, 'I declare the war is over.' No, you're not free to declare that. So the more I read, and I'm reading as much as I can, not enough alas, the more it seems to me that these sisters are, because there are also women at the top, like...

Zahra Rahnavard.

There you go. You're with her, right, I mean you're for her? Because I must say I admire her, because I see her very much as in a similar position, a woman with institutional power. It can be a double bind to have that. But again, it can be used, if you are not afraid to use that structure. I've given you a very long answer, because I feel so much solidarity with this particular aspect of the movement.

What would you say to people who'd say this is a kind of liberal feminism, trying to reform a country like Iran, which is patriarchal in its very constitution, in its family law, and in its penal codes? So, why would women want to join a mass movement, like the Green Movement, in Iran which doesn't really have a feminist agenda right now? Wouldn't it be a kind of liberal feminism? What would you say to that position in particular?

I would agree and disagree. I wouldn't really disagree but I would say, 'What is to be done?' You cannot turn this situation around. Let us turn to Antonio Gramsci. This young man, taken out of the political arena and put in jail a sick man, left a legacy of thinking for us which is very important. He knew what state-changing activism is like. And he gave us that model of two kinds of struggle, of maneuver and of position. And the struggle of maneuver, if I understand, is where you go like a monkey from branch to branch. You don't wait to earn an appropriate political descriptor like 'No, I'm not a liberal, I'm a real feminist.' You go from some position and maneuver yourself.

In the war of position, you're one step short of the decision-making process. So it seems to me that history is not going to wait. The sexist nationalists used to use the same kind of argument in North Africa when they would say that, 'If you talk about women's issues you're giving into the hands of the colonizers. You are against the nation.' Let us have a powerful post-colonial nation, then, dot, dot, dot. You can't wait like that. Generations are born and they die, so it seems to me the real agenda is never to give up turning it around, number one.

This morning I wrote to my colleague Alberto Moreiras who is running a powerful series about republicanism in the general sense. He sent it to me asking me if I would like to contribute to the series. And I wrote him yesterday, saying, 'Alberto, though it's a wonderful series, alas I'm backed up on three book contracts. I would surely like to write something for you someday, but let me say do not forget the oblique relationship of women, gender, and the tradition of republicanism.' He's a good brother. He writes back saying, 'Yes, thank you, well, we hope you will write but..., and I will certainly introduce the question of gender.' And I felt what we all feel. And so I wrote back to say to him, 'Remember that gender does not live and flourish in a ghetto. Don't forget that reproductive heteronormativity and gender will reveal the nature of republicanism. The task of gender is theōria, the Greek word for theory: To make visible as in a theater. Gender makes visible. So this, when we say that women should stay behind because the instrument is liberal or whatever, that is the task that we are not acknowledging.

On the other hand, I'm with the critics. It's very easy to find in this a margin of safety by saying, 'Oh look, look, Spivak says it's ok to be a reformist liberal feminist.' I'm not saying that at all. I'm saying the challenge is even bigger than withdrawing. The challenge all the time is to make it, at whatever cost, clear that it is this gender initiative that shows what liberalism is like so that we can turn it around and use liberalism. Liberalism has been the winner after all, not neo-liberalism. Liberalism has won in the world theater. That's what allows you and me to sit in a nice office with the air conditioning. Ok? Not to acknowledge that is bad faith. So let's sabotage this thing that has won by using it rather than keeping ourselves pure, it seems to me. There is more to be said, but again this is a long answer.

Thank you. We talked a little bit about it, but what were initial thoughts and feelings when you turned on -- I don't know if you watch television, but when you saw the pictures of women in Iran, in their masses millions of women, peacefully demonstrating, protecting the riot police from being beaten, protecting other men, protecting each other, and obviously when the young philosophy student Neda Agha Soltan was shot dead and it was all over the internet, what were your initial feelings?

Well, my first feeling was really illogical, it was just a feeling of pride, and comfort. I am myself a middle class woman. I can't deny where I come from. So was my mother a middle class woman. When I go into India, I take a train, a good train from Delhi to Calcutta, then a terrible train from Calcutta to the villages. And then, horrible buses and so on. Every year a number of times. But what really gives me a kind of warmth, warms the cockles of my heart, is that in these big cities, small cities, countryside, no one's fighting, but you see working class women in the cities on their bicycles, wearing a sari in the rain, holding an umbrella in their right hand, in that terrifying traffic, with their marriage mark on their forehead. They are moving. One thing India has is people. And you see the phalanx of women going to their kind of subaltern jobs on bicycles. And then as you move through, they are there, even in the tiny rural towns, straight face, they're moving. They probably have not internally become, like you and me, recognizable feminists, but what does this mean?

When I was younger, and even now when I'm being overly theoretical, I say something that I stand behind, that body count is not feminism. But body count is also feminism, this is the lesson that you learn. So at first, watching the Iranian women, I had almost a visceral reaction, because I don't know enough to be able to tell. But, there's always a 'but.' The first but is the normality of women away from the scene of battle, number one. And number two is how to keep the movement alive and successful after the dust settles. Once again I turn to Gramsci, as he talked about how to create a subaltern intellectual. How to instrumentalize the regular intellectual so that, dot, dot, dot. He said that at first you bring them together. The economic situation does not necessarily produce. In our case it's not economic, in our case it's the state, the state violence and, fraudulent behavior towards the citizens and citizenship.

As you say, the Green Movement doesn't have a definite feminist agenda. The collectivity is formed out of correct self-interest. 'The current head of state has done us wrong.' 'There is fraud in the polity,' etc. Or, 'men are oppressing us,' whatever. The collectivity is formed out of self-interest. But, says Gramsci, in his notes on Machiavelli, he says, 'How are we going to go to the next stage? Because just deserved self-interest on the part of the oppressed is not going to be enough.' Foucault, when he deplores 'independence without the sustained practice of freedom,' it doesn't work for those who are in a post-colonial situation. When would we learn such practice? Paulo Freire says, without the pedagogy of the oppressed, the oppressed become sub-oppressors, they want to become sub-oppressors when they're out of that situation. Gramsci says that you can use the energy of this moment of real powerful collectivity rising out of enraged self-interest, to create a political passion that will be, and Gramsci uses the Italian word that we translate into English as incandescent, that will then become an incandescent passion for others not like them.

This is an invaluable lesson in continuing mind-changing effort. One cannot say that the multitude is already there. The multitude is never there. Each generation has to be trained up in this again. So I would say that even as I feel a real visceral reaction when I see Neda dying, women in chadors coming forward to help a guy, being beaten by that policeman, women in chadors actually rushing forth to help, I have a visceral reaction. But I also look forward to the future, normality, and the many women who don't care or are too poor to care, have no voice. And that's why I mention Gramsci. That's a very hard thing to do, a mind change, after victory. That's the business I'm in, no one wants to do it. That's my reaction.

In what ways do you see similarities in what's happening in Iran, you talked a little bit about Algeria, but say in the context of India, do you see any similarities in the post-colonial struggle that women waged to what women are doing in Iran? Obviously Iran is not in the same situation; India was fighting colonizing foreigners who had somewhere to go. Iran is not in the same situation -- the Supreme Leader, government officials, security forces, they're all Iranian, they're there to stay, so women have a different battle. But what similarities do you see?

Well, I'll answer this in two ways. One, against the foreigners as you put it, and the second thing, today in India, in my own state of West Bengal, the Left has betrayed us. We've had a Left government for a long time, and the role of women in the protests is very strong, Golbarg. I mean they suffer a lot, you know because there are always, and remember these are not the British, they're our own kind, our Leftist brothers, female apologists for them. And in fact there's a parallel in Iran right now, the apologists for the regime. I read the news yesterday. And so there are female apologists, intellectual
apologists, and also very strong protest from the women in the villages. Sometimes in the reporting, they are reported by sympathizers in a way I find a little off-putting, but once again you can't split hairs, you know. And so there are similarities to be drawn, okay, it's just that because these are in the villages, you don't get that much reporting. And then there is the matter of the contrast between Iran and India as objects of international reportage. It is useful for India to be represented as a shining example of democracy in the area, and as an Indian, I will say that indeed I'm proud of the fact that India has a free press and that there is a democracy there.

But on the other hand these kind of things, call them aberrations, but nonetheless they are big, and these are big violent things that are happening now in my state, in Kerala, which is also always shown as an example of fully literate democracy. And the role of women is not inconsiderable. In the fight against the British, as you know, finally independence was negotiated. The kind of fight that we are talking about was not finally encouraged by what got us independence. That was a different thing. Let's put that aside. But the activity of women, and surprisingly similar, Golbarg, because they were not necessarily agitating for feminist issues.

But to come forward like this was already to declare, it's already to grab a certain kind of power, without theoretical correctness, which is a deep active critique of patriarchy. It's harder, that one is harder than doing the careful writing and historical analysis, which we mustn't dismiss, the constative, if you like, and the performative is that struggle, women in struggle against colonialism or injustice without specific thought of other women.... Anyway, in the anti-British struggle, on all levels, and I mean that, indeed the woman in "Can the Subaltern Speak?" was involved in that struggle. And that was not pacificism. She became a "woman" when she refused to kill. That's another issue. I won't go there now.

But there was, since you were asking a question about parallels, the All India Women's Congress, AIWC, the movement itself was liberal. My mother was a member of it. It played a powerful role, and in fact some of the first women in the post-colonial women's movement, they came from that group. The Chittagong Armory Raid was one of the huge events of the anti-British struggle, we still remember it as a kind of landmark, and there were women in this very active, armed episode. There were women involved in it who had the same kind of cache as Angela Davis had when she was running from the FBI, and so given that the media could not make whole crowds visible, this kind of visibility, with the means of communication being much less developed, I think is comparable.

My mother went to high school with some of these women, but of course she was married at fourteen so she was not there. Certainly her feelings were the same. She learned how to wield a truncheon, which is called a lathi, from one of the very well-known men involved in this armed struggle. I'm just trying to give you an idea how far it had spread ideologically. A story that she always told us with great joy is that she won the first prize in this truncheon wielding learned from Pulin Das. It's a name that will be recognized, and my grandfather took great pride in this, this is a kind of feminist story, the rise of feminism, and said, 'My daughter has won this.' And my grandmother would say, 'lower your voice, do not expose her to danger.' It's a feminist story giving a sense of women breaking the social rules to fight against colonialism. I'll pass from this by just mentioning the name of this woman, because she should be on the record: Pritilata Waddedar. There were others too, but this one became like Anahid in Afghanistan... So you see that one can find similarities, but today's similarities are again under-reported because there is some interest geopolitically in presenting India as the bastion of democracy in the area.

Looking at India and the victory of the anti-British movement, and as you said the democracy and the freedom of press, it hasn't really led to much gender equality. So there's a sense of, perhaps pessimism, when we look at India, which, after a century of struggles, is still grappling with immense poverty, and abuses against women are widespread and tolerated. So, as an Iranian feminist, one worries about 'What if we win this struggle now?,' 'What if the Green Movement is victorious?,' 'What if we are able to reform and achieve democracy, but then what?' So, how can we move away from this fear, this pessimism, and remain hopeful? When even in 2009 there is a sense of fear and pessimism when you look at the region, or even at democratic countries like Japan and India where women are still treated as second-class citizens.

Yes, Reproductive Heteronormativity is bigger and older than all other systems, and it is a deeply ambivalent institution. It's something that we have to be positive about, as well as critical of. Nothing, no amount of gay liberation is going to let this one go away, because if you feel that it would be so, then you have to make the deeply homophobic conclusion, unintended but right there, that gay folks don't love their children or their parents. The love of our parents and the love of the next generation is involved in reproductive heteronormativity. So therefore, this task, the task of gender liberation is deeply ambivalent. Gendering is our first, our historically earliest instrument of abstraction. People make a mistake when they think that gender is the concrete, as such, the basis of all experience and therefore gender solidarity is easily achieved and all this theoretical stuff is just intellectualism! It was in fact when societies -- one can't put a finger on the origin, though Engels tried. But you can certainly describe something that you don't know quite when, exactly, it began.

In order to construct what is called a society, the only plus/minus instrument you have is sexual difference. You can talk about an above and below, and transcendental and phenomenal, and the divine and the human, but the only thing that you can see and feel is the fact that we have two different kinds of genitals, grow differently, and that the reproductive clock operates differently. Even race is not so easy, especially talking about
beginnings. Right at the beginning, people clustering in small groups, you probably are not looking at human beings who appear very different, so race is not altogether an issue. But this, the sexual difference is the only thing with which to compute, and as the artificial intelligence folks know, you need nothing more than a plus/minus in order to construct a system. This is the powerful role that sexual difference plays in becoming gender. That's how polities and societies articulate themselves. In that wonderful old essay, on the sex/gender system ["Thinking Sex" (1984)] Gayle Rubin was not wrong. Some theoretical feminists dismissed her because she was not as theoretical as the Structuralists and the Post-Structuralists that she was relating to, but that was not a wise thing to do. National
liberation, whether internal or external, is important, but it is in its own place, and generally, in spite of self-interested rank and file participation, generally, to quote Lenin, operated by the progressive bourgeoisie.

We welcome the benefit of national liberation, whatever they might be. And internal liberation, such as you folks are doing, is more astute, because it is national auto-critique. You don't have that huge excuse of 'they were a different kind of people, and so, dot, dot, dot' that you have in the struggle for liberation from colonialism. In the end it confuses things.

There are problems right now. There is widespread anti-Arab racism in Iran, and throughout this Green uprising there have been rumors, reports that the people raping prisoners are Arabs, that the harshest security officers who are beating the protesters are Arabs, and so there is a sense that "these mullahs" are not really Iranian. There is this persistent notion of an Arab-Muslim enemy. "The Enemy" is thus racially profiled and historically constructed through much of the Pahlavi propaganda projects. There is certainly a sizable number of people that think that if we got rid of the religious element, which is, quote, unquote, 'Arab' then we will have independence, we will have freedom, we will have democracy, which is obviously...

Incorrect.

Incorrect, since Islamic regime or not, we have never had democracy in Iran.

Okay, good, I'm glad you brought it in. In other words, even this, as an outsider I was thinking, 'This is a more useful situation, because at least you don't... 'Remember what I said, just before you intervened, because there is a huge excuse constructed, affective excuse, leading to nationalism, fascism, all that stuff, right? Okay, so you are saying to me that this kind of construction of an external enemy is happening. And, yes, now let me
say that the, even if this were true, which is of course nonsense, so what is the real answer? But, so when so-called 'national liberation' takes place, that's when the problem begins. National liberation is not a solution, because national liberation requires a practice of freedom that colonialism doesn't allow, always assuming, of course, that without colonization we would have been practicing freedom like gods, democratically throughout the social strata, which is a denial of history. So you get your liberation, and then everything stops, and since it's managed by the progressive bourgeoisie, they then begin to think about the power structure which will rule the new nation.

Therefore the effort at keeping feminism active and alive, and not to confuse it with national liberation, it's altogether important. Feminism is part of the practice of freedom. It's relationship to national liberation is like a Venn diagram. Feminism is bigger than the outlines of the nation. If it is Arabs raping, then we are with our Arab sisters, you know what I mean? It's irrelevant whether it's Arabs or Martians. That's not the point. Class apartheid too is bigger than national liberation. One shouldn't take these issues to be coterminous with national liberation, to think that if you get rid of the foreigners, and you change state formation somehow everything changes. I would like to cite someone here again because my mind is crowded with sisters all over the world. I don't believe in global sisterhood, because that's a slogan, but I can't think of these women as anything but far-flung sisters.

I remember Sandhya Ray, a Bangladeshi activist of unbelievable commitment, and they fought hard in the Bangladesh movement in the early seventies. Sandhya said to me one day -- she put her own studies aside, she was fifteen, sixteen years old. 'Sister,' said she, 'we thought that once Bangladesh was established, all our problems would be solved, so I put my studies aside, thinking, "Well, once the new nation is there, a year or two years, I'll go back to my normal life."' She said this in 1988 or '89. '71 was liberation, and she was by then swallowing books, trying to get her secondary school certificate. And she was saying, 'You know, my mind isn't really what it used to be, but I cannot go forward and make myself heard without some institutional education. But what a disappointment, the problems became bigger when we became independent.'

And we ought to listen to women like that, not just theoreticians like you and me. You know what I mean? That's a real lesson, and when Sandyha spoke to me that way I said, 'Well, your voice should be heard, rather than people just saying national liberation is an end in itself, and all these post-colonial critics who think that...'. Another little story: In the Indian context, colonialism is not the big deal. It's what, at the longest count, three, four hundred years, longest count, and even that is not quite correct. Our oppression, and you know, I'm a regular caste Hindu, right, the caste Hindu oppression is thousands of years. The caste-system has been abolished, in the urban contest it is looser, but the effects of historical caste oppression is strongly marked in the minds of the rural population, in addition to their physical reality. And so, with the people I work with, I don't even think about the British. I mean, the British in fact did some good things by rewarding exceptional people irrespective of caste.

But the people I work with have been cognitively damaged by millennial caste-oppression. When did the Indo-European speakers come into the Indian subcontinent? We denied the possibility of the practice of freedom to these people by denying the right to intellectual labor, just manual labor was allowed. Their cognitive instruments have been deeply, historically damaged. Not to take time to change this around is like denying brain surgery, historical brain surgery. And that task is completely different from national liberation. So the fact that these folks vote, and then the celebration of elections saying 'the people have spoken,' is specious.

When I mentioned this to a fairly well-known Indian intellectual, he said, 'Do you not believe the political scientists who have analyzed these past elections?' And I looked at him and I said, 'No, I don't. I am a university academic myself, in a fairly good university, so no, I don't. I don't see these political scientists getting epistemically involved. They are applying their disciplinary methods and constructing the object they are investigating.'

In the Iranian context, because of abuses of women, especially in the name of Islam and because of Islamic law, placing so many discriminatory limitations of women, there is a tendency among non-pious, non-practicing feminists who would label themselves as secular feminists, to over-emphasis secularism as the cure. There is a sense of, in certain circles, of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments and such. What can you say about that? We live in America which isn't a secular state, but there are secular states around the world that are not gender equal. What would you say to feminists who work in a religious-patriarchal societies like Iran and who are very anti-religious, and over-emphasize secularism as women's cure.

Privatization of religion is not a solution. We have to face the fact that there can be no system of law if we didn't use the intuition of the transcendental, because you cannot punish, and you cannot mourn, if you did not have an intuition of the transcendental.
To say that you can have a secular state which has systems of justice and no intuition of the transcendental, is just simply, once again, denial.

The fact that in the 18th century in Europe it was possible to create such a system has a lot to do with the class structure brought in by capitalism. When I say this, I'm misunderstood. I was actually on the front page of the main Turkish newspaper, and it was only my Turkish feminist friends who told me this, they had been present when I was speaking, otherwise I wouldn't have known [it], that 'Gayatri Spivak says that there should be no separation of church and state.' That's not what I'm saying. I'm just saying that we have to rethink not only the problem, but the solution. On the other hand, there are folks who say that secularism is Orientalism. That is also nonsense. What we have to do is not be so taken by the European picture that we either slavishly follow it, or slavishly deny it. The issue is to look at our world, and see that class-fixed secularism... remember that even in democracies, universal suffrage is a very late date, so therefore the people who were upholding secularism were in fact the white guys, Christians, people of property and so on, right? So that doesn't make secularism bad, it just makes it race and class specific and in many ways launders Judaeo-Christianity, so that Judaeo-Christian religious observance is given comfortable niches within secularity, and everything else is "tolerance." It's the only instrument we have.

I think we respect religion if we acknowledge that it is with the intuition of the transcendental that we think ethics. But on the other hand, ethics and the law are not the same. Laws can be changed. The ethical, not just doing right things, but the ethical as such, which is where intuitions of the transcendental lie, must be assumed within secularity, and the religious injunctions must be historically interpreted, rather than merely "separated," as something you can do in your private life. This is easier said than done today because there is such a binary opposition already in place, with so much blood flowing. You cannot bring these assumptions into the area of evidence, you can never produce them. Unfortunately, those are the limits of human rational thinking -- reason is fragile.

We have to make room for the intuition of the transcendental, number one. This is not a religious statement. Kant, smart guy he was, writes that you must think of something like the effect of grace. Don't think about cause, as in, 'God is sitting up there, giving us grace, etc, but in your head, be able to think it without necessarily producing it empirically. This can be accommodated within different religious systems. Because many classical religions become even more gender-oppressive when pushed into a corner by seemingly secular capitalism does not mean that to borrow that model and impose it without any attempt at engagement will nurture feminist values across class, town and country! We must remember that both secularists and anti-secularists are run by reproductive heteronormativity, which is much older, much broader. Nurturing the impulse to learn to negotiate reproductive heteronormativity as a double bind is also a matter of education and persistence, for each generation, because politics, with gender as the grounding instrument of abstraction, is always around the corner. It has been my privilege to acknowledge counter-theological, un-theorized sympathy across so-called 'inimical' religious lines. I've seen this, among others, I've seen this among peasants in India. And I have seen it also very strongly in women.

I'll end with yet another story. When I was working in Bangladesh, I was often with groups of women who were very poor, Muslim women, village women, who had no particular access to meat and fish, because of the expense. They would of course eat ghorabani meat on Eid Day. And of course it was beef. And I like meat, although these days I don't eat much meat at all for other kinds of reasons, and so I would eat with them. And these so-called uneducated Muslim women, even during the incredible genocidal hatred between Hindus and Muslims, they would say to me, 'Sister, we are eating beef. Why are you eating beef?' They would protect my religion. You understand? So this is not, of course, a supreme example of secularism, but it is on tolerance such as this from below that we must build, and we must build this after so much bloodshed. This is a home-grown, little women's story, which certainly protects an impulse, which we who have lived in multi-religious countries, know as conflictual co-existence, which to an extent is better than imposed ideas of European secularism.

Last word is though, that I vote for European model secular law, that's just a given. One lives in a world where one doesn't have the luxury of waiting... But on the other hand, I write, and think about this other way of conceiving the secular as acknowledging the intuition for the transcendental, intuition of the transcendental, and letting religion operate as a cultural system.

I just want to ask, in the spirit of our collective admiration for you, if you have a message for Iranian feminists? Can you perhaps say something about how, your last example was a good one, how religious women and secular women could work together in creating your modes of activism in the current situation, and just your message, because you're admired, obviously.

Well, first of all, admiration back, you know, and I would say to remember that our issue is the biggest, the broadest, the most fundamental. Don't let other conflict interfere with that one. That's what I would say.

Golbarg Bashi teaches Iranian Studies at Rutgers University. She covers women's issues for Tehran Bureau.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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14 Comments

A commendable article and I have great respect for both Golbarg Bashi and Gayatri Spivak.

However my issue with the above is that with a mass movement like we are seeing in Iran at the moment I think it's rather unwise to start criticizing the only real opposition to the regime at present because it has apparently been 'masculized.'

And on the whole issue regarding female rights, women in Iran are far, far ahead of their Middle Eastern counterparts.

Secondly the global womens rights movement only really started seeing noteable changes in the last 100 years, and that was in the 'liberal' West. We are talking about an Islamic region, where the majority of people are Muslims, they abide by the Quran, I'm guessing they are perfectly happy in doing so.

Yes 63% or so of students are women however we must remember that not all women share the authors views regarding women's rights.

As Gayatri Spivak rightly said, we should not let other conflicts interfere with the broadest issue, so ideally can we get back to the main problem within Iran at the moment.

Ashkan / January 12, 2010 3:12 AM

First of all, thank you for this great article.

There is a point that puzzles me. It is postulated that there is a racist anti-Arab component in the Green movement. Where is this seen?

The slogan you are referring to, "Neither Gaza, Neither Lebanon, I will die for Iran" does not really contain racial elements but rather political (in my opinion). This slogan started in a day, the regime uses for propaganda. They economically support Hamas and Hezbollah in order to gain popularity among Islamic countries and this is what the slogan is about not anti-arab racism.

There is a link given to other slogans, in the article (http://www.sidewalklyrics.com/?p=1567), and there one can find the slogan: "Whether in Gaza or in Iran, death to tyrants". This is clearly a pro-Palestinian but anti-islamic regime slogan and indicates that the slogans are political rather than anti-arab.

I have in many years observed extreme irrational anti-arab groups, who for example think that just by banning turbans, all problems will be solved (be it economic or social). But this kind of thinking is only present among diaspora Iranians and mainly concentrated among extreme monarchists. Have I missed seeing the racist anti-arabic tendency in the Green movement?

I agree that privatizing religion is not a solution, much more work has to be done beyond this. By simplifying the problem as such, Iran may end up with 30 more years under dictatorship though now secular.

Heidar / January 12, 2010 4:26 AM

I read somewhere that the highest number of conversions to Islam in Europe come from a group of women who are both successful academically and career wise. Despite the negative image that Islam has in terms of women's issues, these women prefer the traditional role that Islam gives to men to protect and care for their womenfolk. Leaving aside the possible problems of seeking to re-interprete Koranic text in the light of modern realities which would be difficult for any classical Muslim jurist such as the late Grand Ayatullah Montazeri to agree to, the reality is that many Muslim women comfortably enjoy the separation of roles and being taken care of by men and consider any perceived legal disadvantages as a minor concession in return for a total control of their domestic space and respect and authority that a woman enjoys in the realm of the family. Most things in life however are negotiable (with the possible exception of death) and there is no reason that with further development of Islamic jurisprudence that ways might be found to iron out some of the ambiguities and I understand that this is already happening such as the validity of evidence being firstly dependent on the credibility of the witness before gender becomes an issue. I have read that Grand Ayatullah Sanei has said that the role of leadership is not gender specific. The problem is likely that many women themselves prefer the conservative family model and that is true even in US and European societies.

rezvan / January 12, 2010 4:58 AM

Thank you for speaking on behalf of all women in the Middle East Ashkan. I'm sure they were terribly confused of what they wanted until you clarified it.
And I'm sure now they will go back to what they were doing before they started fighting for their rights in Iran (a movement that started 100 years ago itself), like making chai or belly dancing.

AA / January 12, 2010 5:23 AM

Heidar, you bring up a good point. The interviewer, like even some Green's inside Iran, is overly focused on the internet.

Just take a visit over to iranian.com (admittedly heavily anti-regime) and you'll find invectives against arabs in the name of anti-Islam regularly. Moreover, iranian.com is loaded with monarchists and MEK types.

And the ultimate source for those Twitter rumors about Hezbollah soldiers being transported to Tehran to reinforce the police were originally spread by Israeli intelligence. These false rumors were again recently distributed over Twitter during the Ashura riots.

Even during the June protests, there was a YouTube video of a cameraman asking two NAJA antiriot policemen if they were Arabs. Of course, they were not- it turned out they were in fact Lurs.

Then there's the case of the slogan "Neither Gaza, Neither Lebanon, I will die for Iran", which turned out to be a slogan directed to protesters from a satellite TV show in Washington DC, no less.

My point in bringing this up is that the entire anti-regime focus of the diaspora, and to a more limited extent even inside Iran, is heavily influenced and focused on media forms that are not really in touch with the pulse of mainstream Iranians living inside Iran. So an inaccurate picture emerges.

Personally I find the arab ethnic slurs in the name of slurring Islam, in the name of slurring the Islamic Republic, highly offensive. It's actually a good thing these bigots are exiles of Iran and will remain so permanently. (Who wants a bigot in your country?)

I'm curious, why is an Indian being interviewed about women's rights issues in Iran? Just because Iran and India are considered developing nations? I would think asking any Iranian woman inside Iran (preferably mainstream) would be far more relevant.

And why the misleading photos attached to this article? None of these photos are representative of Spivak. Two are even taken from a riot!

Pirouz / January 12, 2010 5:37 AM

A very interesting interview and thank you for taking the time to publish it. I have always been proud of Iranian women, who, in the face of constant oppression, have actually grown rather than wilted. Thank you for being the biggest thorn in the regime's flesh!

However, I believe the concept of equality (in all matters, including gender, religious and ethnic) can only blossom in a society that has a truly advanced political system, one that is both democratic and secular - something I believe the Green Movement eventually wants to achieve. And to achieve this we need a one-track approach, otherwise our efforts and resources will become too dispersed and easy to suppress. Imagine we adopt feminism under the Green banner; What about the Baha'is? What about the Kurds? The regime has already heavily taken advantage of minority groups who have attached themselves to the movement, with a campaign of misinformation, propaganda and the age-old concept of divide and conquer.

This is not dismissing feminism at all. In fact, I have high hopes for the future of women in Iran. There are some differences from previous social/political movements that should be taken into account. Firstly, the women's rights movement in Iran, although very old in terms of existence, is only relatively new in terms of organisation. Secondly, I believe that the youth in Iran are very different to the older generations, primarily due to the flow of information and knowledge the internet has provided. As a result, the youth are more independent in thinking when compared to their elders, while the more "traditional" traditions are being phased out (such as marrying young). Thirdly, an extension of the previous point, we should take into account the role that young men play in the quest for gender equality as they are just as important as women. Being one myself, and as a result knowing many more, we are indifferent to the role that women play in society. We stand side by side with women, we respect their authority equally and we judge them based on qualifications rather than gender. Although this is my personal opinion, I would not be surprised if this attitude is common, or at least growing, in Iranian society.

As a footnote, I was disappointed that no questions were raised about Reza Shah and his attempts to "modernise" women. Even more challenging would have been to discuss Maryam Rajavi.

P.S. Dear rezvan,

While you have eloquently disguised your religious chauvinism, you seem to have missed the point: the freedom to choose. And you shouldn't be afraid of this freedom of choice anyway, as you have "read somewhere" that "the highest number of conversions to Islam in Europe come from a group of women who are both successful academically and career wise".

Pak / January 12, 2010 6:54 AM

@Pirouz

So are you in Iran? Are you in touch with the pulse of mainstream Iranians living inside Iran?

I'm also curious Pirouz, are you not half-American? Surely that gives you only half-a-right to speak about Iran?

By the by, Iran is a third-world nation, not developing. I would greatly appreciate if you could get your facts right before trying to sound like a genius.

Sam / January 12, 2010 7:06 AM

Just thought I would add that the slogan: "Neither Gaza, Neither Lebanon, I will die for Iran" has to do with the Iranian state's purported demand for freedom in those places while denying the same freedom at home.

The slogan is not so much anti-Arab (although there were rumors that the Basij were not Iranian) but simply pointing out the hypocrisy of the regime. Good interview, thanks.

atlatl2 / January 12, 2010 2:16 PM

Interesting interview, but the first part was frustrating to read. First, dismissing the Green Movement and saying it has been masculinized because they apparently found 'a spiritual father' in a cleric who had just passed away. Perhaps if Shirin Ebadi, whom I have great respect for, had as much clout and as many followers, and passed away, she would receive the title 'activist mother' or something. Alas, that's not the case.

Then there's the talk about anti-Arab racism. I agree with the general statement that Iranians can at times be very racist towards their Arab neighbors, though in my experience this is mostly talk and once these Iranians go outside of Iran, they easily talk to and make friends with Arabs. But to say the movement has racist elements in it because of slogans such as "No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, I will die for Iran" has at least two flaws. First, the slogan is not racist at all. It's a political statement indicating the preference of Iranians to spend money and blood on their own country as opposed to the Palestinian cause or for Hezbollah in Lebanon. There's nothing wrong with that. Second, even if the slogans were racist (which they're not), the author generalizes a whole movement based on a slogan from 3 months ago.

And too bad it does this. Instead of me talking about the interview, I'm sitting here typing about the author's initial commentary. Too bad.

Sepand / January 12, 2010 7:10 PM

A powerfully loaded peace, out of which feminist scholars like myself can extract multiple sub-theories of human realities and social situations that are peculiar yet universal from a certain distance. I still need to think more before I can claim it to be intellectually internalised with its rich idiom and meanings that only an extraordinary mind like Gayatri S. can use and handle, still feel brightly radiated with the rub on.
Thanx for bringing this to us/me.
warm wishes,
Sheeba Aslam Fehmi
CPS,SSS, JNU, N.Delhi, India.

Sheeba Aslam Fehmi / January 13, 2010 12:35 AM

@Sam

By the by, Iran is stated by numerous organisations:

IMF
UN
World Bank

As a "developing country."

And by the by, the term 'third-world' is a politically incorrect term no longer used on the international scene.

Now I (underlined) would greatly appreciate it if you would research matters before statin them as fact.

Furthermore I would like you to explain the logic behind being half Iranian therefore only being allowed to give a half-a-right. Sam, there are numerous experts on Iran that have no Iranian blood that know much, much more than you or I.

Ashkan / January 13, 2010 5:11 AM

@Ashkan, you've dragged me into a petty fight...

Pirouz - "I'm curious, why is an Indian being interviewed about women's rights issues in Iran?"

Me - "Pirouz, are you not half-American? Surely that gives you only half-a-right to speak about Iran?"

You - "Iran is stated by numerous organisations as a developing country"... "the term 'third-world' is a politically incorrect term no longer used on the international scene"

Me - OK I'm sorry... let me re-phrase my point in accordance with what you said: Iran is ranked among the lesser developing countries. It's not third-world, therefore keeping sensitive people like you happy. Anyway you've misunderstood my point, again.

You - "Now I (underlined) would greatly appreciate it if you would research matters before statin them as fact."

Me - it's spelled "stating"

Sam / January 13, 2010 2:11 PM

Ashkan,

Sam's comment about half Iranian is directed at the ever present PIROUZ who writes nonsense defending the regime. His (Pirouz) original comment above questioned why an Indian should write about Iran and as you and Sam both correctly point out his comment is (as usual) utter garbage.

Agha Irani / January 14, 2010 2:00 PM

An interesting article.

The author’s claim about the racist anti-Arab component of the Green Movement is totally out of sync with the article’s main focus.

My take on the slogan "Neither Gaza, Neither Lebanon, I will die for Iran" is that people are fed up with the Iranian government’s hypocrisy over the issues of justice.

I have also noticed that Mr. Dabashi, for whom I have great respect, has mentioned the anti-Arab sentiment in many occasions in his books and in a relatively recent article.

It puzzles me why both authors in their articles about the Green Movement have emphasized this point. To what end I don’t know!

Piroz / January 15, 2010 8:54 PM