Europe: 8 March comes to Europe March 28, 2006

German and Dutch people woke to a very different kind of 8 March commemorations this year.
Through the streets of Frankfurt, Mainz, Cologne, Düsseldorf and The Hague, exiled Iranian women together with their male compatriots walked, spoke, sang, raised slogans, held their banners and placards high to draw attention to the legalized and institutionalized violence perpetrated against Iranian women under the pretext of culture and sovereignty of the nation by the Islamic regime in Iran.
Beginning in Frankfurt on 4 March, the march ended in front of the International Criminal Court at The Hague stopping on the way in front of the Iranian embassy in the Netherlands.

About 50-55 women and 20-25 men traveling in a caravan walked through the city streets and held public meetings in the centre of each city. There they were joined by local supporters, varying from 50 or so in Frankfurt to 1000-1100 in The Hague. In each city the local Iranian community organized hospitality and facilitated cultural events and public addresses.

Organised by the Campaign for the Abolition of All Misogynist, Gender-Based Legislation & Islamic Punitive Laws in Iran, a coalition of Iranian women's organisations, individuals, creative artists and media persons in exile in Europe and America, the Campaign hoped to bring out many different nationalities including Kurds, Turks and Afghans, their close neighbours with shared histories, and Europeans from their host societies at present. As it happened, the Turks, Kurds and a few progressive Afghans came out to support the Campaign, participated in the rallies and organised local hospitality. The only German organisation to support the march was the Caravan of the Rights of Refugees and Migrants from Bremen. The political presence of the German "Left" was conspicuous by its absence throughout, although a few individuals participated on their own initiative as individuals. Although better than Germany, their support was lukewarm at best.

"We don't any longer celebrate 8 March in Netherlands these days", a woman from the Socialist Party in Netherlands who joined the march at The Hague told me. "We used to hold rallies like this, and there used to be public meetings and such things. But these days women's organisations and trade unions sometimes organise a party or evening cocktails" she added. Another young German woman with anarchist political leanings in Cologne was puzzled. "I don't understand why no German organisation has supported such a march", she asked genuinely. Indeed her question touches on an issue that goes to the heart of the struggles against imperialism, a subject of considerable importance in contemporary politics of resistances everywhere.

The reasons had to do with the way the Campaign had framed the women's question in Iran today. The Campaign brought together a coalition of organisations and groups on a minimum programme of two demands. The first is the demand for repeal of all repressive and discriminatory laws that relegate Iranian women to second class citizens in their own country. The second is unequivocal opposition to the impending US aggression on Iran, designated as one of the "rogue" states in George Bush's "Axis of Evil".

Both of these demands on their own, one viewed independent of the other, have the support of people from a wide spectrum of democratic opinion and politics, from the moderately liberal to the radical "Left". What kept the "Left" and the so called "New Social Movements" in Germany indoors during the Iranian women's march was not the weather, which was appalling by any reckoning, but the fact that the Campaign had brought the two questions together at the same time on the same platform. >From the debates that have followed the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan it is possible to surmise that the views of the German "Left" and "New Social Movements" are shared by a large number of progressive people in Europe and North America.

For this reason it becomes important to deal with the views on their own merits and to understand the sharp divergences between the progressive voices of Germany and the Campaign. This is all the more so because the voice of the Campaign resonates with similar voices in the "Third World". (See the next Z-Net commentary on Adivasi women's struggles in India.)

Turning to the oppression of women in Iran first, twenty seven years ago Iranian women took to the streets in their thousands to oppose mandatory veiling shouting "We Did Not Make a Revolution to Go Backwards!", when the then triumphant Khomeini regime introduced it. Since then they have had to struggle against some of the most barbaric laws against women at any time. Such laws include a constitution that affirms that men have domination over women and women must be obedient to their husbands; civil laws that give complete powers over a girl to her father and paternal grandfather, allow her (grand)father to marry her at the age of nine, and require the wife to obey the sexual needs of her husband.

The criminal laws give punitive powers to the husband over his wife in case of adultery and create a police apparatus to enforce the laws in connivance with men in society. For example, a woman breaching the Islamic dress code can be arrested. Her release from imprisonment can only be obtained by a male relative. There is a wide convergence of views on the extreme male barbarism against Iranian women everywhere.

Much of this is rationalised by the Islamic regime as part of Islamic law and a matter of sovereignty of the state to rule without external interference in its internal affairs. The "cultural turn" in social theory in Western nations including cultural feminism buys into the cultural argument and sees gender oppression in Iran as something essential to Middle Eastern societies and an inalienable part of Islam. This cultural interpretation overlooks the simple fact that these laws were introduced only twenty seven years ago by a regime that came into power not only with the tacit support of Western governments but also progressive intellectuals. None other than Michel Foucault an influential figure in the "New Social Movements" supported the Islamic regime when it came to power (see Afary, Janet and Kevin B. Anderson: "Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism").

Like many other societies of the East and West, there were many cultural and social practices that had survived from a medieval era that were oppressive to women. Like in many other places such practices never existed in any "purist" form and had undergone social transformations over time. What makes the present laws in Iran particularly vicious is the fact they are codified and enforced by a modern state with all the trappings of bureaucracy and techniques of policing unknown to medieval societies. The constitutional status of the laws is the result of a modern state machinery formed in response to the machinations of imperial powers in the region. The representations of the anti-women laws as something quintessentially Islamic absolves progressive intellectuals of interrogating the role of imperial powers and the semi/neo-colonial state in Iran in the oppression of women.

Thus while most will agree on the liberal principles of equality, non-discrimination and autonomy for women, it is the combination of traditional male domination with imperial powers that characterises the oppression of women in Iran and indeed in many other so called "Third World" countries.

Turning to the question of US militarism, after the naked WMD lie (weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) the US is beating its war drums on Iran over the nuclear facilities. The nuclear argument is transparently specious. Iran's nuclear facilities are neither new nor unknown to the Western powers. Indeed, they were developed with the technological know how of Western powers. The US has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The US military budget is more than six times larger than the Russian budget, the second largest spender and twenty six times more than the spending of the seven "rogue" states on the US hit list, including Iran. The U.S. and its NATO allies account for two thirds of all military spending in the world. What is worse - they actually use the weapons against people. After the end of World War II these weapons have been used primarily against the peoples of the "Third World" and more recently against selected Eastern European states like Serbia.

At the same time as the US is drumming up support for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities it is also providing India with enriched uranium for her nuclear plants and inviting India to greater military collaboration. Bear in mind that India's vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency recently was "purchased" with promises of nuclear material. A bill is before the Congress to approve the agreement to provide India with enriched uranium. The IAEA itself has been "softened up" by awarding its Egyptian chairman a Nobel prize at a critical juncture in contemporary international politics when weapons of mass destruction are freely deployed in several parts of the world ostensibly to bring democracy. Many other states including Israel possess nuclear weapons.

Not all of them are targeted for attack in a world where in the now infamously popular Bushism "you are either with us or against us". Most progressive public opinion in the West and indeed the world opposes continued US militarism in Iran. They have turned out in large numbers to protest, and protest consistently, against the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The question then is this: if it is true that Iranian women are oppressed and subjugated by the Islamic regime and their demands for freedom from oppressive laws is justified. And if it is also true that US militarism and aggression is nothing but naked imperial domination over the nations of the "Third World", and it happens to be Iran's turn next. That the rationale for the war mongering about freedom and democracy is transparently phoney, why the hesitation to support a social movement that seeks to combine both: freedom for women and struggle against US aggression?

Summarising briefly, there is a strong current in European social movements today which believes that in the context of the war clouds that are looming large over Iran today opposing the oppressive regime in Iran will play into the hands of the US military administration. They believe opposing the regime at this present juncture will legitimise US invasion when it happens and provide a rationale as in Iraq and Afghanistan. They believe at this juncture there must be unanimity against US militarism. That is exactly what the Islamic regime calls for in Iran: national unity in the face of external imperialist aggression against the sovereignty of Iran. And it is this rationale that is used for extended domestic repression against all opposition to the regime including opposition by women.

In a curious way the view that the regime must not be opposed because of fears it will play into US militarism reverses the Bushism about friends and enemies. Effectively their argument is "we are not with you therefore we are with them", i.e. we are not with Bush therefore we are with the Islamic fundamentalists.

Such a view provides people with only two options: either they must side with an Islamic dictatorship or with a US military dictatorship. The only "choice" before the people of Iran then is to "choose" who should be their oppressors. This means Freedom is not a choice at all. The Campaign by putting Freedom on the agenda of contemporary politics calls into question the foundations of the world order today which is founded on the relationship between both kinds of dictators: the "First World" types and the "Third World" types. The struggle for Freedom on the other hand must always be based on truth and justice. It can only be fought by people who long for it and who come out on the streets to defend it. The Campaign for the Abolition of All Misogynist, Gender-Based Legislation & Islamic Punitive Laws in Iran by drawing the two questions together in their campaign have in effect made a statement that it is the Iranian people who will defend Iran against dictators, Eastern or Western and that includes women who constitute half of society.

They are calling upon other freedom loving people to join them and not choose between dictators in their names. Will freedom loving people everywhere support their call in the days to come? What is at stake here is the very idea of freedom itself.

ZNet Commentary
By Radha D'Souza