The Quest for Identity
Egypt and Iran
Touch us women, in much of the Middle East, and you touch the essence of life. This is how entangled our story has become with that of politics and culture and religion.
Call it destiny, the way we find ourselves, willingly or not, at the center of our societies’ passionate quest for identity. In a century of existential struggles, large and small, real and imagined, we could be the clearest expression of a beleaguered people’s thirst for a sense of self. In times during which practically every argument of consequence has been with a much too domineering West, we could be at once a symbol of resistance to colonial cultural theft and a measure of resilience against its encroachments. Still more, we could be deployed by the conservatism that envelops us--or indeed offer ourselves--as the first line of defense against the very temptation of modernity. Such has been the importance of this fight that the narrowest interpretations of Islam would always be invoked to imbue earthly purpose with heavenly intent.
Colliding ideologies thus found common cause against a common enemy: the West. No less significantly, the pseudo-secular state and ascendant Islamists clashed over practically everything but agreed over the finer sex, the “weakest link” in embattled societies. Tradeoffs were sealed: politics in exchange for family.
The veil—imposed or freely taken up-- became the public face of this debacle. Multitudes of women covered up and “stood emancipation on its head.” But, in truth, the real high stakes were in the web of canons and precepts and customs and caveats that intertwine to define a woman’s position at home and out. For these, personal status laws became both shield and sanctuary. Meddle with them and you would be meddling with much more than the old way of doing things; you would literally be opening the backdoor to foreign conspiracies. Worst still, you would be challenging the word of God himself.
However diverse the histories of women in various countries of the area, this same story more or less played itself out wherever they lived. It did in Egypt.
Between 1919, when Egyptians revolted against colonial Britain, and 2011, when they rid themselves of Mubarak, is close to a century of activism for and against women’s rights. Every victory came with a pack of setbacks and a throng of accusations; and change, when it happened, was always hard fought and piecemeal.
As the 21st century drew its first breath, Egypt yielded some more and finally allowed its women to apply for a passport or travel without permission from a male guardian (2000), to give citizenship to children from foreign husbands (2004), to become judges (2008)…
Still, if you were to stack up the results, the tally, for those sympathetic to the cause, is sure to be very disappointing. The discriminations are not only spotted in the huge gap between the “in principle” and “ in practice,” but in the actual paper trail itself. Exceptions and conditions come with every established right. While Islamic jurisprudence qualifies the “equality” of women in citizenship, the penal code is no less bold about its prejudices even at their most ridiculous, as they are in Article 277 of the penal code which states that the “man is guilty [of adultery] only if he commits the act at his marital home, a woman is guilty regardless of where the act takes place.”
To be sure, some aspects of this protracted struggle for gender equality echo others East and West against entrenched patriarchy. And yet, from the outset, here, in this angry patch of the earth, the issue has always been just as much about fortifying “Muslim” identity and safeguarding indigenous tradition against perceived Western assaults as it has been about preserving male privilege.
It is in fact this shared sense of injury and indignation against an imperialist West that rallied Iranian leftists and secularists of most stripes behind Khomeini before the revolution—at last the dawn of an “ethical Muslim society,” they thought. Certainly, it is what rendered them mute when, immediately after toppling the Shah, Khomeini moved to topple the freedoms women had gained under him. Whatever was achieved under a despotic regime backed by the US became the kiss of death. As Janet Afary explains in Sexual Politics in Iran, “For the Ayatollahs, the modern woman was a source of ritual pollution; for the radical lay thinkers, the apolitical westernized woman was a duped agent of imperialist cultural hegemony…” (p.237). And hence, as Iranian women, in the tens of thousands, descended on the streets of Tehran on March 8 and 12, 1979, to protest Khomeini’s flurry of edicts and actions, the left demanded that they put their claims to rest. “Not Now,” was the message.
Khomeini issued his pronouncements, much like one ticks off a long overdue to-do list: On February 26, he suspended the Family Protection Law; on March 3, he put a stop to decrees appointing women as judges; on March 4, he deemed divorce solely the man’s prerogative; on March 6, he froze women out of the army; on March 7, he brought the veil to the workplace; on March 29, he segregated sports; on May 21, he banned co-education; on June 3, he told married women they could no longer attend regular high school; on June 13, he shut down daycare centers, admonishing working mothers to quit their jobs and attend to their households.
By 1981, the ground rules were all set. For those women who had hoped for a freer life, the new constitution and penal code coalesced as bars do in a prison. For those who enjoyed so little to start with, khomeini’s blessings and tokens, though few and miserly, were enough to win more legroom in very oppressive environments. From the start, the revolution would crow about and rely on its own female cadre.
If Islamist Iran stood in 1979 as a spritely promise, in 2011, it stands as a feat with a few gray hairs in its beard: thirty two years as telling about the limitations of Islamism as they are about civil society’s own remarkable bounce.
Today, austere as the regime still is, women are walking around with fewer shackles. In fact, they can pretty much tick off their accomplishments over three hard decades, much like Khomeini ticked off his strictures at the beginning of them. They are
ü palpably more literate (88%);
ü more educated, comprising 60% of university graduates and the majority of students in Medicine, Basic Sciences, Experimental Sciences and Humanities and Arts;
ü more literary (in the mid-1990s, there were 20-30 female writers; in 2009 they topped 450).
Iranian women have yet to sit on the bench or run for the presidency but they are in parliament. By 1986, their participation in the formal sector fell to 9%; by 2010, it had climbed back up to 14%. In the 1980s, they presided over a trickle of publishing houses; in 2005, they boasted 100 of them.
To the state goes the credit for embracing literacy and health care, especially in the rural areas. Everywhere else, applause has to go to the tenacity of Persia’s women who ran with every windfall and opportunity: a devastating Iran-Iraq war that changed the dynamic of marriage and family; the harsh economic realities that made it easier for them to go out and earn an education and a living, a tired Islamist idea that gave way simply because it had to…
On their own, these strides may seem modest—and they are if measured against ambition and possibility. But they tower when compared to where it all began back in 1979. This, in an Islamist state that, as recently as 2006, declared with a straight face feminists along with “mystics, dervishes, devil worshipers, journalists, bloggers, secular students and intellectuals, reformists, as the main threats to the national security of the country.”
At present, Iran may well be post-Islamist, as Assef Bayat describes it. You can tell by the constant jostling for space between system and society that the ruling elite is well aware that after “a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism” have been “exhausted even among its once-ardent supporters.”
 Mariz Tadros, The Status of Women in Egypt: What Would the Post-Mubarak Era Offer Them, Freedom House, 2010, p.4.
 Classification was made in a security report produced by the political bureau of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Mentioned in Fatimeh Sadeghi’s Foot Soldiers of The Islamic Republic’s Cultural Modesty. MERIP, The Islamic Revolution At 30, Spring 2009, no.250, p.51.