Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal

Fred Halliday
20 April 2008

The intellectual, moral and historic confusions that mark the contemporary age - and the middle east as much as any other region - make the loss of thoughtful and humane voices all the more bitter. When these voices have illuminated the central issues of women's rights and human progress, the gap they leave is indeed impossible to fill.

Mai Ghoussoub - artist, writer, publisher, and (with André Gaspard) co-founder of the publishers Saqi and Telegram - was a friend of and contributor to openDemocracy. Her articles included:

"Who is serious?"
(9 June 2004)

"Lebanon: slices of life"
(31 October 2006)

"Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award"
(13 February 2007)

also published these articles in tribute:

Anna Wilson, Maggie Gee, Anthony Barnett, "Remembering Mai Ghoussoub"
(20 February 2007)

Neil Belton, "Mai Ghoussoub in her time"
(22 February 2007)This is certainly true of two outstanding public intellectuals, the Iranian scholar and activist Parvin Paidar and the Lebanese artist and publisher Mai Ghoussoub, the cruelty of whose deaths is accentuated by how much they had still to give (Parvin died in October 2005 at the age of 56, Mai in February 2007 at 53). But if they deserve commemoration, it is for what they did and embodied as well as for their premature end, for in these too lie their legacy.

What is striking about each of these figures was the resolute clarity of commitment on perhaps the single most burning question of our times: the full emancipation of women. In light of the experience of the different countries that had formed them, they resisted oppressions both international and domestic; refused to accept the silence and subjugation demanded of them (by nationalist and religious leaders, but also by authoritarian parties of the left); and engaged confidently and enthusiastically in the global debates about gender and politics in the 1970s and 1980s through which their generation of women transformed themselves - and their menfolk. They were the finest and most principled exemplars of that proud and unheralded tradition, that of modern middle-eastern feminism.

For many of us who originated outside the middle east yet whose professional work demanded that we understood it, the writings, criticisms, and example of Parvin Paidar and Mai Ghoussoub were a sure guide - as much as their encouragement and humour were life-affirming. Mai, who came to London in 1979 and (with André Gaspard) founded the unique publishing house Saqi in 183, and Parvin, who after studying in London made a distinguished career with the United Nations where she promoted women's rights in Afghanistan and central Asia, made generosity an art-form.

An internationalist heart

Their writings leave a complementary legacy. Mai fused literature and political analysis to dissect the mix of political dogmatism, violence, and nationalism that tore apart her Lebanese homeland in civil war and also disfigured much of the Arab left. Her poignant short stories, Leaving Beirut: Women and the Wars Within (Saqi, 1998; reprinted 2007) and her reflections on art and memory (Selected Writings, Saqi, 2008) interweave the domesticity and fantasies of Lebanese women with the political upheavals that afflicted her country and speculations on the place of women in contemporary art. In retrospect, her earlier critiques of Arab nationalist violence and sexism - published both in the New Left Review and in the independent journal Khamsin (which she co-edited with comrades from Palestine, Iran, Israel, Syria and Iraq) are distressingly prophetic in regard to "Islamo-nationalist" groups like Hamas and Hizbollah, as well as excoriating.

Parvin's experience grew out of the debates and struggles of the independent Marxist left that emerged in Iran in the last years of the Shah's rule, and the confrontations with the new authoritarianism of the Islamic Republic that emerged from the 1979 revolution. Indeed Parvin, and the Iranian feminist current she helped to develop, quickly took the measure of the zealous patriarchy of the Ayatollah Khomeini regime - a vivid lesson that women's equality, and freedom not to wear oppressive clothing, were (as the orthodox left believed) primary not secondary issues.

Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. Among his many books are The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005). His many books include
Islam and the Myth of Confrontation
(IB Tauris, 2003),
100 Myths About the Middle East

(Saqi, 2005), and
The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Fred Halliday's "global politics" columns include:

"Crises of the middle east: 1914, 1967, 2003" (15 June 2007)

"Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix"
(13 July 2007)

"Eternal Euzkadi, enduring ETA"
(3 August 2007)

"Islam and Europe: a debate in Amsterdam"
(1 October 2007)

"The mysteries of the US empire"
(30 November 2007)

"The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine"
(12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control"
(4 March 2008)

Parvin was one of the founding editors of the Persian feminist journal Nimeh-ye Digar (The Other Half). Her PhD at London's Birkbeck College (of which I had the honour of being one of the two examiners) set the experience of women in the Iran of her time within the broader sweep of modern Iranian political and social history; published as Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-century Iran (Cambridge University Press, 1995), it won deserved acclaim as one of the finest books written on modern Iran. Indeed, in tracing the intertwining of gender and politics through Iran's tumultuous decades from the constitutional revolution of 1906, through monarchism and nationalism to Islamic revolution, it is an outstanding work in the entire field of scholarship on women and public life.

Their personal and political experience made these two women profoundly internationalist. Each came from countries with a variety of religious and linguistic groups; each was consciously part of the broader international embracing of women's rights that (in the middle east as much as in Europe or Latin America) broke through in the 1970s; each, in exile, sought to join with feminists and independent socialists from other nations and ethnic groups.

Mai, at Khamsin and later in Saqi, worked with a variety of colleagues from Israel, other Arab countries, and Iran, as well as with some of us from Europe and the Americas who were fortunate enough to know and collaborate with her. Parvin, after finishing her doctorate, lived in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, working on behalf of Save the Children and Unifem, promoting women's rights and economic participation in the face of the religious, tribal (and often violent) groups that had emerged from the wreckage of communism.

This quality is even more vital in light of the political, social and intellectual trends in the broader region in recent years: increasing marginalisation of and violence against women, and the emergence of a slippery, relativising discourse on women's rights (on such issues as the imposition of the veil). The whole cast of Mai and Parvin's work stood against the grotesque and pervasive re-masculinisation of public space that has swept across the middle east, symbolised by barking and bearded clerical leaders; as against such confections as "Islamic feminism", "cultural difference", "tradition", "re-veiling", and "identity politics". In face of misogyny and mystification, they insisted, without concessions to particularity or nationalist sentiment, on the right of women to speak, dress, work, organise and love freely.

A generation's trail

There are many in the middle east - women and men alike - who have, despite all obstacles, threats and depredations, remained true to the egalitarian, feminist and universalist commitment exemplified by Mai Ghoussoub and Parvin Paidar. Yet it is notable that - as in other regions of the world - it is those of a liberal (and often "individualist") orientation who do more to defend the collective rights of (for example) women, gays, ethnic minorities or workers, than the supposedly more principled and "combative" groups of the socialist or Marxist left.

In regard to women in the middle east, the Arab women intellectuals who have produced the Arab Human Development Reports - documents that hold middle-eastern societies to account in terms of universal performance indicators - are liberals of a progressive, United Nations-centred persuasion. They, as well as lawyers like the heroic Shirin Ebadi, and other women in Iran and across the Arab world, carry the torch of progress with little support from what remains of the political left. The work of this new generation of feminists - whether or not they would so describe themselves - is also a testimony to the pioneering trail Mai Ghoussoub and Parvin Paidar lit a generation ago.

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