John Stuart Mill wrote in one of his famous treatises that people can only overthrow an oppressive regime by an “arduous struggle to become free by their own efforts.” He argued for non-intervention from foreign powers.
Mill was discussing British imperialism, but speakers at Sunday’s conference on the contributions of women to Middle East peace movements, including journalists, scholars and activists, drew similar conclusions about the more recent interventionist policies of the United States.
“We believe democracy is a culture, something you are raised with, and cannot be transferred by force,” Dr. Jaleh Shadi Talab, a sociology professor at the University of Tehran, said of attempts of outside organizations like the United Nations to “democratize” Iranian society.
The conference was sponsored by the Simone de Beauvoir Institute. It examined the issue of intervention in women’s movements in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
In particular, the speakers at the conference agreed that attempts to impose Western feminism on women’s groups in the Middle East have been misguided.
Yasmin Jiwani, a communications faculty member at Concordia, talked about the notion of gendered racism. “Solidarity work in foreign countries has tended to be predicated on the dynamics of benevolence,” she said.
“Women are often treated like this, like they’re children, and have no agency outside the help we provide to them.”
“It’s patronizing,” added Dr. Roksana Bahramitash, a professor from the from the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, “It undermines women’s achievements and what they’ve been doing so far to help themselves, and really undercuts their efforts.”
Bahramitash said westerners blindly hold a stereotypical image of Iranian women as helpless and oppressed.
“The actual situation in Iran is a lot more nuanced than the way it’s portrayed,” she said. “We have a huge number of writers, filmmakers, journalists, scholars and politicians who are women, and these are the things that are hidden from North Americans.”
According to Bahramitash, pre-conceived notions of Middle Eastern women as being helpless are destructive even when held by people who just want to help.
“There are a lot of political activists who are well-intentioned, but somewhat less knowledgeable, and that is the point of this conference: to bring people who are knowledgeable to inform people’s actions,” Bahramitash said.
Talab belongs to an older generation of Iranian feminists. She supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, an overthrow of the country’s Shaw and his subsequent replacement by Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shiite fundamentalistcleric who imposed Muslim law on the state.
Some objected to Komeini’s strict religious fundamentalism, which among other things required women to obey stricter dress codes.
“Under the Shaw’s rule,” she said, “women’s groups were banned, and female political activists were jailed and tortured. The Shaw instituted the first political prison for women, where they got life sentences or were executed.”
Talab said that women’s groups have always found ways to express their political views, even in traditional societies, but that despite the way it might have appeared to outsiders, the revolution pushed more women into the political forum.
“Women who have experienced a revolution have a higher political awareness,” she said.
Nazanin Shahrokni is an Iranian journalist and senior editor of Zanan, an Iranian feminist monthly magazine. She added that in the 1970’s, Islam became a unifying point for different political organizations.
“Many women temporarily adopted the veil as a show of protest against the Shaw,” she said. She talked about the contribution Zanan had made to political life in Iran by covering stories from a feminist perspective and often criticizing the state in the process.
“Alternative spaces do exist in Iranian society. Zanan is no exception,” she said. The way to empower women in Middle Eastern countries is to support organizations like Zanan, Shahrokni said, and not to try to impose democracy.
Activist Susan Harvie talked about women’s groups in Baghdad, that have been established and are desperate for international support.
“The women’s organizations in Iraq told me that they were counting on the solidarity of women’s organizations around the world, and I hope we don’t let them down,” Harvie said.
Because Iraq is without a functioning banking system, Harvie’s organization, Alternatives is collecting donations to bring to Iraqi women’s groups. She guarantees the money will make it there safely.
Those interested in donating can call Alternatives at 982-6606.