Troubling parallels, hopeful differences: Iran, women, and the 'Arab spring'

Despite parallels with Iran, Haideh Moghissi notes more hopeful prospects for the future of women’s rights and democracy in post-Arab spring regimes

It is  hard not to inspired by the popular uprisings, that have come to be known collectively as the ‘Arab Spring.’ Yet, the swift turn in favour of Islamist parties, in Egypt and Tunisia, while not unexpected, is cause for concern. For Iranian women who lived through the establishment of the Islamic regime in Iran, what we are witnessing in relation to Tunisia and Egypt is distressingly familiar. Expressing concerns over emergent regimes  in Arab countries, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi called upon Arab women in March 2012 to Iran. We understood very well the hidden meaning of President Morsi’s statement after his electoral victory  – that the Muslim Brotherhood’s success reflected the second conquest of Egypt by Islam.”

Protestors in Cairo calling for reform and justice. Demotix/Nameer Galal. All rights reserved.

The developments that have taken place in the region, so far  justify  our misgivings. Attempts at redefining women’s rights and status in the new constitutions and at rolling back of the reforms to family law achieved in previous decades, as well as intimidating tactics for pushing women out of public spaces speak to the challenges ahead for women in the Arab counties in which military regimes were overthrown  through a revolution.  

Not withstanding all of the foregoing, no one can truly anticipate the direction that the Arab uprisings will take in the near future. For a variety reasons, including the lessons learned from the revolution in Iran, as well as differences between the conditions and the major players in the Iranian and the Arab contexts, it is possible, and one should certainly remain hopeful, that the unfinished revolutions, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt will produce results more favourable to the democratic forces that started the uprisings.

To begin with, the revolutions in Arab countries that succeeded a regime change were aborted through the advice and active assistance of foreign powers. Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s early exit was designed to prevent total breakdown of the whole system and to keep the military and security forces intact, unlike what  occurred in Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda did succeed in winning the elections and they now control both the Parliament and, in the case of Egypt, the Presidency. However, since the whole system did not collapse, they have to recognize the existence of diverse opposition forces with some clout, as reflected, among other things, in the cancellation by the Egypt’s administration court of President’s decree for parliamentary elections in April. Such was not the case in Iran, where many members of the leading industrial business classes in the country, generals and top bureaucrats  departed the country  before the Shah’s fate had been decided. The existence of diverse forces in a post-dictatorship milieu offers an opportune moment for  secular democratic forces, including the secular left,  to regroup and  organize themselves – a possibility that they were denied in Iran _ as the main target of  repression that  made mosques the only available venue for mobilizing discontent and helped the growth of Islamist parties.

Two other important differences between the experiences of Iran and the new post-authoritarian transitions  in the region need special attention. First, both Tunisia and Egypt escaped the immediate bloody episodes of post-revolution Iran which had witnessed the effective slaughter of hundreds of the former regime’s figures, army generals, ministers, members of parliament, top bureaucrats, and lower-ranked army officers and security police within the first weeks and months after the revolution. This butchery generated a lasting rage among sections of the population who were affiliated with the victims or simply hoped for fair and open trials for these individuals. The ruthless killings continued later, after the Iran-Iraq war. Also before his death, Khomeini ordered the massacre of several thousands of political prisoners, followed by kidnapping and assassinations known as “chain-killings” of prominent figures inside and outside Iran.

The consequences of the Islamic regime’s  brutality were manifold. They desensitized people  against violence – a problem that has deeply infested Iranian society and is now a major social concern and source of fear for ordinary citizens. State violence and systematic bloodshed also demoralized and frightened others who had enthusiastically participated in pre-revolution street demonstrations, and who were disappointed at its outcome but became fearful of, or paralysed by the brutality of the new regime. 

A second important factor is that, contrary to the case of Iran, the uprisings in the Arab countries did not rely on anti-Western and anti-imperialist rhetoric to mobilize people’s support. Neither was the establishment of an Islamic state, the return to more Islamic practices or the rule of Shari’a a key demand of the demonstrators. What united the various forces that produced the revolution were , distinctly secular demands that stressed the shared imperative of  replacing  existing regimes with an accountable state which has the interests of the public in mind, and that could bring an end to the political and economic crises.

It then follows that the governing Islamists are not able to manipulate people’s religious emotions with the same ease and label the opposition’s challenges as anti-Islamic, as their counterparts did in Iran. Neither do they have a charismatic leader comparable to Ayatollah Khomeini, with an ideological blueprint for the kind of Islamic regime that was to replace the monarchy, ( evident in the doctrine of velayat fagih or supremacy of jurists), with a remarkable talent to reach out to people and manipulate their religious emotions, and get away with unimaginable forms of violence against the opposition. In addition, the relatively late entry of both al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood into the mass protests leading to the overthrow of the regimes, deny them any claim against other forces to the effect that they initiated the uprising and therefore have legitimate claims to rule.

All these factors should assist the opposition in keeping its focus on the very issues that prompted the revolts in the first place: the military dictatorships; the high unemployment of youths who constitute from 50 to 65 percent of the total population in the Arab countries; the low wages, police harassment, brazen state corruption; and the concentration of wealth, businesses and job opportunities in the hands of those connected to the regime.

The left and liberal intellectuals who started the protests in Iran against the Shah had similar grievances. However, the inability of the regime to respond to their demands effectively and promptly, coupled with the devious skill of Khomeini and his associates to rally people around the idea of foreign threat, successfully diverted attention, temporarily at least, from the original economic and political demands of the revolution. A good part of the left also began to articulate a discourse to the effect  that the issues raised by women were peripheral to the goals of national and anti-imperialist struggles. Khomeini’s support of the Muslim students’ takeover of the American Embassy fooled many, particularly those among the left, that the regime was “anti-imperialist.” The Iran-Iraq war made the situation even worse, and in the process silenced women’s voices against the Islamists’ gender agenda, and assisted in the rolling back of the modest  gains achieved by women under the Shah’s regime as well as the introduction of unimaginable new restrictions on women’s social status and mobility.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s response to the hundreds of thousands of people who were driven to poverty in the aftermath of the revolution, and who were hoping for the delivery of the Islamists’ pre-revolution false promises, such as relief from bank loans, free electricity and equal distribution of the oil revenues was that the people revolted for Islam, not for economic rewards. His famous words - ‘economics is for donkeys not for believers’ - clearly shows what we were dealing with.

What conclusion can be drawn from all this? Surely there are many signs of the hard challenges ahead for the peoples of the Arab countries, and particularly for the opposition of which women are a part. But we also see many signs that militant Islamists are losing their grip on the people in every Muslim-majority country that has tasted a dose of their violence and utopic plans to restore Islamic traditions that have little to do with peoples’ genuine concerns and urgent needs. The continued resistance against ruling Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt; people storming the headquarters of the Islamist militia in Libya, following the killing of the US ambassador; protest rallies in Pakistan following the shooting of Malala Yousufzai and the massacre of the polio vaccination campaigners, massive street demonstrations against Jama’at Islami in Bangladesh, all speak to one fact: that while women and men certainly number among the Islamists, there are at least as many women and men who oppose the rise of the Islamic brand of religious right in their countries. And that the majority of people don’t feel they need for the Salafists or Talibans, or offshoots of al-Qaida, to tell them how to be good Muslims.

May Day protests in Tunisia. Flickr/scossargilbert. Some rights reserved.

Surely, the case of Iran has made people in the region aware of the fact that when it comes to the issue of freedom, dignity and social justice, a theocratic state is no alternative to  pseudo-secular authoritarianism. And that when religious conservatism is combined with sexism, classism and ethnic and religious discrimination, as well as neoliberal economic policies, the battle for democratic rights and social justice becomes even more precarious.

The resistance of intellectuals, workers, youth and women’s groups against the ruling Islamists, the military and the business and propertied classes in revolutionary Arab countries show that the prospects of a more democratic future for people, and more specifically for women, is not lost in the face of post-uprising developments.

Right now we see the formation of  major political coalitions in Egypt and Tunisia, Libya and other Arab countries by change-seeking individuals and political parties, the left, the liberals, religious minorities, youth, trade unions and other organized sections of the civil society. By all accounts , they are determined to protect the existing rights and civil legal institutions, and to push for the realization of the democratic demands of the uprisings. In this respect, mention can be made of coalitions such as the liberal National Salvation Front, and the left’s Democratic Revolutionary Coalition (DRC). The Egyptian opposition is also holding its ground against United States’ veiled support for the Islamists, aimed at maintaining the status quo in economic matters and the peace accord with Israel as reflected in their refusal to accept John Kerry’s invitation to meet with him in his official visit and the US new Secretary of State of the region in late February. 

The women’s rights activists in Egypt and Tunisia seem to have taken the alarming signs of the rising tide of authoritarianism in religious garb seriously. In Egypt, they are trying to form a united front against the Islamists’ ideological and organizational assaults as reflected in the coalition of thirty three women's rights organizations, that came together around the issues the women wanted to see included in the constitution such as a law criminalizing sexual harassment. They are raising public consciousness against the sexual harassment of women, which they see also as a veiled policy of the Islamists to drive women out of public spaces. 

We see the same determination in Tunisia. The ‘Coalition for Women of Tunisia’, made up of fifteen registered NGOs, was announced in September 2012, with the objective of not only  preserving and defending Tunisian women’s acquired rights stipulated in the Tunisian Law since Independence but to make women’s full citizenship status a reality. Similar steps, even though on a smaller scale, were taken in Libya through launching the Libyan Women Forum (LWF) that represents eight women’s rights organizations, immediately following the GNC election results in 2011 with the objective of advocating that Libyan women’s  rights be embedded in the forthcoming constitution.

These are significant developments, and their success will have defining impacts on future political direction in the region, including in Syria and in Iran. The experiences of women in Iran during the last three decades have taught us not only the fragility of legal and social rights gained under authoritarian regimes, but also that women rise to the challenges, face gendered limitations head on, and respond creatively to policies expressly designed to enforce domesticity and male notions of ‘Muslim womanhood.’ Indeed, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, women are raising their voices, against the excesses of the Islamist ideologues and functionaries, and have placed the issue of women’s rights and their legal and social demands firmly at the heart of all political discourses about democracy in the region.

About the author

Haideh Moghissi is Professor of Sociology and Women’s studies at York University, Toronto. She is the author of a number of books, including Muslim Diaspora, Gender, Culture and Identity,(ed.) 2010; Diaspora by Design: Muslims in Canada and Beyond, (co-author) 2009. Women and Islam: Critical Concepts in Sociology (ed.); Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis, 2000,