Hope & Frustration
November 14, 1997
From "Nine Parts of Desire; The Hidden World of Islamic Women" by Geraldine Brooks (Anchor Books, 1995). Brooks is a native of Australia and a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Virginia and was the Wall Street Journal's U.N. correspondent when this book was written.
In Iran, which has tried to model many of its political institutions on those of the original Islamic community, women's political participation has been encouraged since the demonstrations that brought the revolution. There are women in the Parliament, and some women have risen to as high rank as deputy ministers.
After its revolution, Iran nodded once in the direction of democracy by holding a referendum asking the question: Islamic Republic, yes or no? An overwhelming "yes" opened the way for a ban on political parties and a prohibition on anyone standing for office who didn't support the goals of the Islamic revolution. In Iran everyone over the age of sixteen has the vote. Since voting is considered a religious duty, turnout is high. But the choice of candidates is strictly limited to those acceptable to the theocracy.
Marziyeh Dabbagh, one of four women elected to Iran's first post-revolutionary parliament, is typical of politicians likely to succeed in the Iranian system. With a hunched asymmetry caused by severe beatings, she looks much older than her fifty-three years. Her wrists bear a bracelet of scars from cigarette burns, inflicted in the jails of the shah's secret police.
Before the revolution, Marziyeh used her father's book business as a front for arms smuggling and bomb making. When the police tracked down and tried to torture information from her, they forced electrodes into her vagina, causing an infection so severe, she says, that "the Savak chief wouldn't come into my cell for the smell." In a final effort to extract a confession, the police tortured her twelve-year-old daughter. But even that failed. "When I heard my daughter screaming," she said, "I recited the Koran."
Marziyeh would probably have died in the Savak prison if a woman relative hadn't agreed to take her place while Marziyeh crept out disguised in the woman's chador. When she recovered her health, she went back to smuggling arms and training commandos from bases in Lebanon. During Khomeini's Paris exile, she became chief of his household security.
She told me she'd never quite forgiven the press for making her miss Khomeini's historic flight home in 1979. The day before, a French reporter had tried to get a scoop by climbing into the ayatollah's house over a back wall. "I tackled him, and sprained my ankle," she confided. When she did get home, she found her military skills in heavy demand. For six months she commanded a Revolutionary Guards corps in her hometown of Hamadan. "I knew how to shoot and they didn't."
After the election to Parliament, she became one of the Khomeini's two envoys to Mikhail Gorbachev when Iran restored relations with the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev extended his hand in greeting, she remembers a moment of alarm. Muslim women aren't allowed to touch unrelated men, but she didn't want to insult the Soviet leader at such a sensitive diplomatic moment. She solved the problem by sticking out her hand wrapped in her chador.
In Parliament, Marziyeh generally voted with the hard-liners on matters of foreign policy and economic reform. But she always supported initiatives for women, such as easing access to pensions, improving benefits for single mothers and ending discrimination in the distribution of foreign-study scholarships. (pp 190-191)
Once I began working on the book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam's positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Mohammad had remade the lives of many women (other than his own wives and the Muslim army's war captives) in the first Muslim community at Medina.
It turned out to be a frustrating search. In most places the direction of the debate seemed to be exactly the reverse. Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian and Afghani women were seeing a curtain come down on decades of women's liberation as Islamic leaders as their countries turned to the most exclusionary and inequitable interpretations. For those women who struggled against the tide, the results were a discouraging trio of marginalization, harassment and exile.
In Morocco, Fatima Mernissi's Koranic scholarship has made a formidable case for Islam as a religion of equality and human dignity, whose message has simply been buried over time by self-serving misogynists in position of power. Yet her work is read in Western universities much more than it is in Moroccan mosques. No matter how precise her research into the hadith, the male-dominated Islamic establishment doesn't seem willing to open its ears to the scholarship of a Muslim woman who doesn't veil or otherwise flaunt her piety.
Perhaps that is why I found the brightest hope for positive change camouflaged among the black chadors of devout Iranian women. Even the most-narrow-minded fundamentalists can't criticize the Islamic credentials of women such as Khomeini's daughter Zahra Mostafavi or Rafsanjani's daughter Faezeh Hashemi. Their conspicuous adherence to religious rules gives them a high ground from which to make their case for women's rights.
So far, they have used that position sparingly, to get women a greater political voice, more equal job opportunities and the right to participate in sport. To be sure these women will never tear down the walls of tradition. They will never make the arguments that can be made within Islamic reasoning against veiling or polygamy. But within those traditional walls they can make a much safer haven for women at risk of abuse and exploitation in the name of Islam.
To Western women, that mightn't look like much. It is easy to see these grim figures in their heavy shrouds as symbols of what's wrong rather than what's right with women and Islam. But to Muslim women elsewhere in the strictest parts of the Islamic world, the Iranian woman riding to work on her motorbike, even with her billowing chador gripped firmly in her teeth, looks like a figure to envy.
"They are our superwomen," said Imam Fadlallah, the shy twenty-four-year-old wife of the Hezbollah sheikh in southern Lebanon who had sat on his terrace and warned me about this book. Iman's father, the most prominent Hezbollah cleric in Beirut, had abruptly ended her schooling when she was fourteen years old, choosing a husband for her whom she didn't meet until the wedding. Now she stayed mainly in her house raising her children.
In Iran, where she had lived with her husband while he continued his clerical studies, she had glimpsed a much wider world, even for the most devout of women. She spoke wistfully of Iranian women's opportunities to study and work. "We have to struggle to be as strong as they are," she said. (pp232-233)
Every time my hand brushes the smooth fabric of the chador, I think of Nahid Aghtaie, the Iranian medical student who gave up an easy life in London to go home and work at low-paying jobs to advance the goals of her revolution.
I remember her, in Qom, drifting toward me over the marble-floored mosque to tell me that she'd prayed for me "to have nice children." And then I think of her beautiful face -- the small visible triangle between brow and lip -- radiant on the morning of the murder of [Salman] Rushdie's Japanese translator in July 1991. "This," she said triumphantly, "shows the power of Islam."
I told her that, to me, it no more showed the power of Islam than an Israeli soldier's shooting of a Palestinian child showed the power of Judaism. Why not, I asked her, cite the "power of Islam" in the humanitarian work that Iran was doing for the flood of Iraqi refugees that was pouring over its borders? "Because nobody notices when we do such things," she said. "But every news report in the world will note this execution."
Eventually I became worn out by such conversations. Friendships with women like Nahid were an emotional whipsaw: how was it possible to admire her for the courage of her convictions, when her convictions led to such hateful reasoning? (p 235)
You can order "Nine Parts of Desire; The Hidden World of Islamic Women" from Amazon.com, the world's largest online bookstore. THE IRANIAN is an associate of Amazon.com.
Steinem could learn a thing or two -- Three women and a man debate
women's issues in Iran
* Agents of change -- From "God has ninety-nine names" by Judith Miller
* A new generation? -- A paper by Prof. Afary
* Being a woman in Iran -- An interview with Prof. Nafici
* ZAN -- The Iranian women's homepage
* THE IRANIAN Satire Section