Seeking a Feminist Politics for the Middle East after September 11

By Afary, Janet | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Seeking a Feminist Politics for the Middle East after September 11


Afary, Janet, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


All around the United States, women are attending V-Day events. I am referring to Eve Ensler's wonderful play The Vagina Monologues, which is being performed in small towns, college campuses, and large cities amid great enthusiasm. (1) Although there is not a word about Middle East history or politics in this play, it can help explain some of the issues we face today as Middle Eastern feminists searching for a new discourse on world politics. In the play, three women read selections of interviews that were conducted with hundreds of women of all ages, ethnicities, and occupations and that explore how women feel about this most intimate part of their bodies. The play vividly illustrates the very uncomfortable relationship that most women have with this vital part of their anatomy, either ignoring or being embarrassed by it. And yet by the end of the play the audience comes to a simple realization: This wondrous human organ is capable of offering pleasure, of nurturing, and of giving life to a new human being--and it carries out all these incredible acts without any of the bravado or the boasting that identifies its male counterpart.

The play The Vagina Monologues is an apt metaphor for women in global politics today, especially for women in the Middle East. Most politicians (Western and Middle Eastern) completely ignore women and their issues. When women's issues do appear on the center stage, they often come across as something very uncomfortable, very embarrassing, not just for men but also for women, despite the vital role women play in our world as well as the gendered subtext of so many political issues of the Middle East.

I first found myself in this awkward position after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. I grew up in Iran but left in 1978 to pursue graduate studies at the University of Michigan. My arrival in the United States coincided with the revolution. I joined the women's movement and began to write and translate feminist articles with a group of like-minded Iranian activists in the United States. We immediately faced two major ideological barriers in Iranian and U.S. progressive circles. The Iranian Left, like many other Third World movements of the time, regarded the feminist agenda as "bourgeois" and hence a disturbing "diversion" from the main goal, which to them was fighting imperialism. I recall one incident in 1981 when our attempt to speak on behalf of Iranian women's rights at a conference of Iranian activists in Detroit ended in a physical confrontation. The organizers decided that since our small feminist group had not given any "martyrs" to the revolutionary cause, we should not be allowed to speak. In front of hundreds in the audience, the conference organizers shut off the microphone on me and dragged me out of the meeting.

I could understand our problems with the Iranian Left, but our problems with the American Left were even more perplexing. Many did not understand why we opposed Ayatollah Khomeni and his Islamist movement. Our opposition to Khomeini was equated with support for U.S. imperialism in the region. Khomeini had helped overthrow the U.S.-backed government of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-1979) and was therefore considered to have impeccable "anti-imperialist" credentials. Moreover, his decision to create the Islamic Republic of Iran was ratified in a national plebiscite in April 1979. Our criticisms of the retrogressive laws of the Islamic Republic were seen as "Orientalist" attacks on Middle Eastern culture and Islam, rather than as feminist criticisms of the direction the revolution was taking.

Middle Eastern feminists have not received much support from international agencies and Western governments either. When the Taliban regime was established in Afghanistan in 1997, Western governments had their own reasons for ignoring the plight of Afghan women, even though the dismal record of the Taliban on human rights and women's rights was well known. …

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Seeking a Feminist Politics for the Middle East after September 11
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