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Women, Islam, Egypt, and Iran


02 Feb 2011 20:41Comments
17_8911111142_L600.jpg6_8911111142_L600.jpgMost female protesters in Egypt choose to wear the hejab, while Iranian women have struggled to shed it.

[ comment ] Many pundits are comparing the Iranian uprising following the June 2009 presidential contest with the one taking place right now in Egypt. One was sparked by the results of an election that seemed rigged, while the other has been prompted by mounting political and economic discontent with the rule of a long-standing dictator. Some say that a better comparison for the events in Egypt is the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which saw the ouster of another corrupt, American-backed dictator and the rise of the ayatollahs and political Islam.

Each comparison contains truths but misses an essential difference that is a gauge of how differently positioned the two societies are on the evolutionary ladder of their respective political cultures. The main difference between the Egyptian and Iranian uprisings is the role of women's demands or, in different terms, the degree of influence of feminist discourse.

Women, whose civil rights have been grievously violated by the Islamic Revolution, gave the reformist campaign its soul, its zeal. They feminized the Iranian uprising of 2009.

While the Internet and social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter may have played similar roles in the Iranian and Egyptian uprisings, it is important to see beyond these organizational tools.

In Iran, the uprising that ensued after the presidential vote was announced in favor of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was characterized by a populace demanding freedom of individual expression above everything else. It was a movement of women fed up with being forced to wear the hejab, of young people tired of being forced to play their music underground, of both an old and a new generation tired of the Islamization of politics and the politicization of Islam.

In Egypt, where women enjoy most of the rights sought by women in Iran, the uprising is about getting rid of a corrupt, American-subsidized dictator. While it is true that in both countries it is the unemployed and the disgruntled youth who are rising, in Egypt they seem more interested in ousting Mubarak than in demanding freedom of individual expression. While freedom is important to the Egyptian protestors, it is not the freedom to dress as one chooses and play rock 'n' roll, but the freedom to oppose the president. It is the kind of freedom that we sought when we ousted the Shah in 1979 before we were stripped of more essential freedoms under the guise of Islamic justice.

There are serious economic grievances in Iran, but people were not hungry or desperate enough to go on strike. The working classes drifted away from a movement that was never really theirs. Nor did the reformist politicians really understand the urgency with which the youth took to the streets. In a sense, the movement highjacked the rather reluctant leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami. Even before the election, there was a gap between what Mousavi's constituents wanted and what he claimed they wanted. The student demonstrations, slogans, and demands were much more radical than any of the reformists cared to admit.

What made the uprising so very different from the one in Egypt or any before it in Iran was the ubiquitous presence of women demanding equal rights and freedom of expression. Iran is a country where people are trying hard to shed Islam and no longer see it as a liberating force. In Egypt, the opposite seems to be true. Though women are not forced to wear the hejab there, nine out of ten female protesters are doing so, while in Iran it is safe to say that a majority of protestors would not wear it if they had a choice. While this may be a small difference in the eyes of those who are unaware of the nuances of life as a Muslim woman, in fact it defines a crucial difference in the character of the respective movements.

We are all hoping that Egypt will become free without becoming Islamist. But whatever happens, it is clear to those of us who have lived our lives as Middle Eastern women that the essential difference between our uprising in Iran two years ago and the one in Egypt today is that one was about the right to shed the hejab and all it symbolizes while the other is about everything else.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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