The face of Iranian feminism
Western stereotypes do disservice to Muslim women fighting
BY: ROKSANA BAHRAMITASH and HOMA HOODFAR
The Gazette (Montreal)
March 15, 2001
Some of the biggest challenges for those of us who teach courses on
women's issues are combatting Western stereotypes of Muslim women that
are deeply entrenched in our students' minds.
The movie The Circle, reviewed glowingly by The Gazette (March 9) and
other Montreal media, only reinforces those stereotypes and, in turn, will
feed racism in the name of feminism. The film relentlessly portrays Iran
as backward and repressive, and Iranian women as victims unable to transform
their lives. Review here
Such portrayals have a history dating to colonial times. The British,
for example, used repressive treatment of women in India to denounce all
of Indian culture as backward, and to legitimize their presence as the
ruling power. It is certainly true that burning widows was - and is - a
repugnant practice, but the use made of it in the West was opportunistic.
Similarly, Britain's Lord Cromer, as de facto ruler of Egypt, denounced
Islamic practices such as the veiling of women while back home he was among
the leaders of the elite combatting the extension of the voting to women.
In Muslim countries today, the oppressive aspects of certain laws enforced
in some countries, including Iran, are used to depict Muslims in general
as backward and, therefore, badly in need of being taught civilized practices
by the West. This trend is now reaching a fever pitch because of the situation
in Afghanistan, even though that regime has been denounced as aberrant
and even un-Islamic by most countries where Islam is important, including
Obviously, there are misogynous practices and violations of modern conceptions
of women's rights in Muslim countries, just as there are in Christian societies.
But a movie like The Circle tells at most only half the story. It therefore
creates three distinct kinds of problems for those of us intent on familiarilizing
people with the realities of women's situation in the Muslim world.
First, it ignores completely the multiplicity of women's acts of resistance
to and subversion of oppressive practices. Second, it presents the story
of Iranian women as one of continuous defeat. As a result, they seem in
dire need of a white knight to ride in from the West, much as the Crusaders
did, to rescue them. Third, it compromises Muslim women's position and
poisons the atmosphere among family, friends and community. When one of
our teenage daughters saw the movie, she whispered: "I will never
go back to Iran" because of her shame about being Iranian.
Anyone viewing this film would have no idea that, despite facing oppressive
measures, Iranian women have assiduously come to occupy considerable space
in the public arena and are constantly pushing to expand that space. For
instance, 54 per cent of recent entrants to Iranian universities were women.
The women's press in Iran produces vibrant magazines and books which constantly
take the authorities to task despite threat of closure. It is their defiance,
activism and resistance at home, not the rush to collect medals in Venice,
which has brought about much of the loosening of legal limitations on women.
Incidentally, we hear remarkably little about this, given the Western
media's chronic preoccupation with condemning the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Rarely in North America are Iranian women given credit for their successes,
including their daring candidacies in parliamentary and presidential elections,
or their courage in demanding an end to discriminatory treatment.
During the last two parliamentary elections, women voted en masse for
candidates with the most liberal views on women. During the last national
municipal elections, a considerable number of women, in small villages
as well as cities, stood for election many successfully. Women's education
levels are rising at a much faster rate than men's.
Those of us who travel to Iran have witnessed the dynamic atmosphere
and met enthusiastic women determined to reform things such as restrictive
and discriminatory family laws. Therefore, we find the message of a fictional
work like The Circle objectionable and the adulation in the Western media
troublesome. Inevitably, we ask ourselves why someone would make a film
with such a defeatist attitude and, more importantly, why this film would
be praised as feminist and as a celebration of freedom of speech in the
Interestingly, the movie was made by a man, evidently seeking Hollywood
success. There are many other Iranian movies, technically and aesthetically
of higher quality, which present a far more honest and accurate picture
that have received no acclaim in the West. Evidently they failed to conform
to approved stereotypes or serve the politically correct agenda.
More interestingly, Iranian movies about Iranian women made by Iranian
women depict things quite differently. They certainly show problems, serious
ones, but also indigenous solutions. They show Iranian women to be courageous,
resilient, and intent on improving their own situation. No doubt there
is still a long way to go for women, but they have the strength and courage
to do it, something conspicuously absent from a movie like The Circle.
- Roksana Bahramitash is a faculty member at the Simone de Beauvoir
Institute at Concordia University and a research associate at the McGill
Institute of Islamic Studies. Homa Hoodfar is a professor of anthropology
at Concordia and a founding members of Women Living Under Muslim Law, an
international organization which campaigns on Muslim women's rights issues.