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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Challenges facing the women’s liberation movement

Against sexual apartheid

This is my open letter to anyone who will listen.

Sexual apartheid is the outrage of our century.

In Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and countries ruled by Islamic laws, millions of women and girls are segregated, degraded and relegated to second class citizenship.

Keeping women and girls separate and unequal are important pillars of Islamic rule, affecting every aspect of people’s lives.

Sharia law itself specifies that a woman is worth half that of a man and that she is the property of her male guardian, needing his permission even to travel and work.

As the source of ‘corruption’ and ‘chaos’, she must be segregated at workplaces, schools, libraries, universities, in sports and recreation, transportation, the health system, and even when attending weddings and funerals. In Iran, there are even plans to segregate pedestrian walkways on the basis of sex. ‘Alarmed’ at the large number of women university students, the Islamic regime threatens to limit female enrolment and change textbooks based on ‘gender differentiation.’ According to an official of the education ministry: ‘The spiritual, physical, and mental needs of boys and girls are not identical, and therefore textbooks that give them information cannot be the same.’

From age nine on girls must be veiled - a symbol like no other of what it means to be female under Islam - hidden from view, restricted and suppressed. Consigned to walking around with a mobile prison of one’s own.

Separate and unequal.

Like I said - the outrage of our century.

They say a society’s treatment of women is a measure of its freedom.

If so, the mistreatment of and discrimination against women is a measure of the degree of influence and power of Islamic and religious laws - whether in Iran or Britain.

But stop, I am told. Saying so ‘just supports Western propaganda’ - something by the way that the Islamic regime of Iran often tells women and men it is hauling off to prison and execution.

How absurd. It is like Iranian women’s rights activists telling one to stop opposing US-led militarism because it supports the ‘Islamic regime of Iran’s propaganda!’

The religious-nationalist anti-imperialist left always ready to act as prefect when women’s rights under Islamic laws are concerned has an affinity towards Islam, which it views as an ‘oppressed religion’ bullied by the USA.

It is an anti-colonial movement whose perspectives coincide with that of the ruling classes in the so-called Third World.

This grouping is on the side of the ‘colonies’ no matter what goes on there.

And their understanding of the ‘colonies’ is Eurocentric, patronising and even racist.

In the world according to them, the people in these countries are one and the same with the regimes they are struggling against.

So at Stop the War Coalition demonstrations here in Britain, they carry banners saying ‘We are all Hezbollah;’ at meetings they segregate men and women and urge unveiled women to veil out of ‘solidarity’ and ‘respect’.

But even their anti-imperialism - their badge of honour - is pathetically half-baked; it does not even scratch beneath the surface to see how political Islam is an integral part of the US’ militarism and new world order.

Their historical amnesia of even the past 30-40 years ignores that the political Islamic movement was encouraged and brought to centre stage by Western governments as a green belt against the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.

They conveniently forget how in Iran, for example, it was supported in an effort to crush the left and working class revolutionary movement. Or how political Islamists are some of the US’ closest allies.

They fail to see that in practical terms - notwithstanding the differences - political Islam and USA-led militarism are two sides of one coin with the same agenda, the same vision, the same infinite capacity for violence, the same reliance on religion and reaction, the same need for hegemony.

It should not be surprising then that anywhere US-led militarism has ‘intervened’ - from Afghanistan to Iraq to Palestine - political Islam has been brought to power or strengthened.

This type of politics denies universalism, sees rights as ‘western,’ justifies the suppression of women's rights, freedoms and equality, under the guise of respect for other ‘cultures’ implying that people want to live the way they are forced to and imputing on innumerable people the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling class.

In this type of politics, the oppressor is victim and any criticism racist.

Whilst the anti-imperialist left defends and justifies political Islam on the one hand, the virulently racist and right-wing defends US militarism and the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine on the other.

They include groups and organisations like Jihad Watch and the Horowitz Freedom Center. The latter even has an ‘Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week’ and rattles off fact after fact about the horrendous status of women under Islam so that it can help promote the neocon agenda of bombing men, women and children into ‘liberated’ swamps like Iraq.

Like the Stop Islamisation of Europe campaign, these groups have ‘difficulty with the concept of moderate Muslim’ and believe the ‘onus is on Muslims to ensure the safety of non-Muslims.’

Why? As if the onus of safeguarding Spaniards is on all those who are Basque or deemed to be Basque.

They are ‘concerned’ about the ‘rights’ of women and apostates so they can ban the Koran and ‘Muslim immigration.’ So they can stop the sub-human teeming hordes destroying the Christian nature of Europe and the West.

They are quite happy to defend Christian religious morality, restrict the benefits due single mothers, demand exemptions from the Sexual Orientation Regulations, bar funds for AIDS- related and contraception-related health services abroad if they provide abortions and consider the women’s rights movement’s fight for equality ‘the destruction of the nuclear family and of the power structures of society in general.’

According to their warped worldview, ‘the West has skyrocketing divorce rates and plummeting birth rates, leading to a cultural and demographic vacuum that makes [it] vulnerable to a take-over.’

Both anti-imperialist left and the right-wing refuse to see millions of people as truly human - with innumerable differences of opinions, and belonging to vast social movements and progressive organisations and parties - and worthy of the same rights and dignity as they believe is their due.

Despite all their language to the contrary, the politics of both sides has nothing to do with improving and changing the lot of humanity and women’s status.

It is within this context that left and progressive groups, socialist and mass movements within the Middle East and elsewhere are challenging people and organisations everywhere to take a principled and human stand against sexual apartheid vis-à-vis both camps of reaction.

This is the challenge that the women’s liberation movement in Iran brings to you today.

Clearly, sexual apartheid must enrage civilised humanity into an international movement that is about changing and improving people’s lives.

But in order to succeed, this movement must reject both US-led militarism and political Islam and rely on and support a third camp of the millions of refusing and resisting people across the globe. To do so, it must be uncompromisingly secular and humanist, it must refuse to tolerate the intolerable, it must raise the banner of universal rights, it must defend the right and historical duty to criticise religion, and defend the freedoms and equality of people everywhere.

To succeed, it has to have at its core a defence of the human being.

In 1973, as a result of international attention and widespread opposition to the apartheid system in South Africa apartheid was recognised as a crime against humanity.

On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, let’s together proclaim that sexual apartheid is a crime against humanity.

We must accept nothing less.

The above is Maryam Namazie’s speech at a seminar entitled ‘Sexual apartheid, political Islam and women's rights’ in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day on March 10, 2008 at Conway Hall, London. The seminar was organised by Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and Equal Rights Now - Organisation against Women's Discrimination in Iran, and endorsed by the National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association, the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association and the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq.


Frank Partisan said...

You are exactly right. People like Horowitz, have an agenda that is no different than the Islamists.

Memet Çagatay said...

I really liked your letterspeech. It decently elucidates your critical stance against political Islam and nationalist leftism.

You wrote:

“As the source of ‘corruption’ and ‘chaos’, she must be segregated at workplaces, schools, libraries, universities, in sports and recreation, transportation, the health system, and even when attending weddings and funerals… From age nine on girls must be veiled - a symbol like no other of what it means to be female under Islam - hidden from view, restricted and suppressed. Consigned to walking around with a mobile prison of one’s own.”

When I defined the image of veiled Iranian women as “It masks the absence of a basic reality.” there are two mysterious (at least for me) Lacanian ideas in my mind: The curtain is the idol of absence. and the reality is the lack of intersubjectivity. Therefore, I don’t consider veil and the Sharia dress codes as tools to make women invisible or hide them from the public gaze. For instance, the reality of capitalist exploitation is the lack of intersubjectivity between capitalist and labourer that manifests itself as the twofold meaning of surplus value. And the reality of the oppression of Muslim women is the lack of consensus on the classification of women’s role in the society, originates from the ideological exertion to subjugate the secular world to the spirituality of Islam. But, after 1500 years, this perverted “REALITY” has no factual foundation in secular-material world. Thus, instead of being an instrument of the concealment of a basic reality, the Shaira dress codes functions as a mask to conceal the absence of the reality. Because, there is no scientific and convincing evidence to justify the antiquated gaze that perceives woman “as the source of ‘corruption’ and ‘chaos’.” Then, the only choice for Muslim rulers is to exhibit the veiled women body as the idol of deception and seduction.

In terms of the question of feminism, it is deceptive as long as it ignores the class nature of the oppression of women. And it is illusory as it abstracts it from general emancipation of humankind. I have no objection about feminism except from this. The dead-end of feminism is like the old BBC show, Bring Your Husband to Heel where women treated husbands as dogs to tame them like one learns to cope with her nightmares. (It was a fine show btw. Actually once I had advised a friend of mine a similar behaviorist maneuver to tame her husband. I told her that the simplest way to make him submit is to be sure that he feels guilty with his actions. But I added that it will be worthless if he is immune to the guilty feeling just as me.)

I’m completely agree with you on the other issues.

Greenconsciousness said...

I wrote a small critique of your above article, (much of which I agree with), here in the green writing 1/2 way down the last post:

Here,on your blog, I want to deal with something I did not say there.

I think much of what you call right wing feminism is actually women centered feminism. Radical feminism. Policy and analysis based on the actual experience of women in society not as the male left defines women's needs or fantasies about women but as women express their experience in their CR groups.

You write that what "right wing” feminists want to do is "restrict the benefits due single mothers".

This is an incorrect understanding of the feminist welfare benefits analysis. It is a male identified position.

The feminist objection is to welfare benefits increase or decrease being tied to female reproduction. This is a trap for women.

It substitutes the State for the husband and encourages reproduction.

Benefits such as medical, housing, employment training and apprenticeship should not be dependent on a female's reproduction and should not increase or decrease depending on an individual’s choice to reproduce. Only self improvement should increase benefits.

What if social welfare benefits were for all individuals? In a related issue, what if benefits that are now only benefits conferred by marital status were no longer based on marital status?

What if instead of extending marital benefits to gay unions we extended the rights and benefits to single individuals? Employment and marriage benefits stripped of those basis es and instead assigned on a pro rated system to individual without regard to the relationship between the individual and any dependent she selects. If Tom can put his wife and two kids on his medical insurance than Jane should get one dependent and two children as well for the same rates. Jane might choose Jane's mother or best friend. Benefit would be confirmed as a limited resource without regard to marital status or children produced.

Do you see the difference between male centered thinking and female independent individualistic thinking?

An example is Social Security as it is now for every old individual. What if every old individual could assign their benefit at death, not just a husband to his wife?

In the same manner what if basic welfare benefits were strictly class based rather than based on reproduction? Available to all those individuals whose income without social welfare security benefits is too low even to maintain or secure employment? Or anyone who needs aid finds it available whether or not they are pregnant?

Abortion, sex education and birth control should be free and available.

However, Children’s Villages can be part of every neighborhood with benefits for children depending on their need up to and including living in the villages with parental visitation. Economically dependent children would be viewed as separate individuals if they are economically state dependent. Their aid does not go to the mother but directly to the child while the mother as an individual gets training and rehabilitation as needed.

The child has rights as soon as they are born; to minimally a stable, healthy, safe and age appropriate environment. The state has responsibility to support the individual not the family in a feminist social service system.

Therefore there are no inherent conflicts in the state’s obligation to prevent parental abuse and or neglect.

This removes the male model of benefits for women only if they are mothers (the only obligation of the patriarch is to the children as opposed to every individual equally). Emphasis on the individual as the welfare unit puts the emphasis on helping the single female become self sufficient while discouraging reproduction Discouraging the reproduction of those who cannot be self-sufficient is sound social policy and consistent with feminist policy.

A lot of what you label right wing feminism is radical feminism which is woman identified thinking. This is different from being left or right - it strives to ask what is good for women and debate those issues honestly from an experientially based perspective.

The Conscious raising Group is where women born women speak their experiences in the I voice unable to criticize or challenge other women's stories.

Feminist theory is based on how women actually experience the world as they express it in CR groups where their stories are documented. Women identified social programs are based on these documents and Eco/feminist policy.

I would suggest reading NY Redstocking's, Notes; I and II published in the 1970s - they did some welfare benefit analysis.

Anonymous said...

Dear Maryam, I think you are not right when you say that the US has brought Islamic governments to Afghanistan and Iraq. I agree with you that the US supported Islamic groups in the past. But now many people in AFghanistan and Iraq are attracted by Islamic groups. The situation is even uncontrollabe for the US. I don't think that the US want Islamic governments in Middle East or anywhere else nowadays. But the problem is that many people now are in favour of Islamic regimes. Iran is an exception in Middle East.

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)

Anonymous said...


I went through and compiled the latest SVN, but the widgets did not appear as in your examples. However, I did get an error during configure saying that 'libhildon' could not be found. I'm using OS2008 and Maemo 4.0 under scratchbox. Thanks.

Neal O said...


I am confused! Do moderate Muslims exist? ie who are quite happy for people to be openly gay, don't want to veil women, believe apostasy is not a crime, oppose sharia law etc etc etc. Where can I read a good article about this? Where do they hang out? Where is the liberal web site for Muslims because I can't find it?

Anonymous said...

Hi Neal,

Here is the website that may be of assistance to you.

Progressive British Muslims is a small organisation that was set up by Progressive Muslims in the wake of 7/7.

As a homosexual man who is also a committed humanist, I have battled with my feelings towards Muslims, but these people have given me hope that we can all progress together ;)