I don’t mean to differ too starkly from my usual diatribe, but the hoopla about Iran joining the board of the newly formed UN Women, and comparing its track record to that of Saudi Arabia on women’s issues, is really misplaced.
Through my research, and personal experience, I’ve had to make note of the fact that women fare far better under the patriarchal control of Iranian laws than they do in Arab countries under the control of authorities that impose a tribal version of traditional Islam that, simply and unequivocally, dis-serves women.
Not to say that Tehran looks like Paris, but neither does it feel like Riyadh. To begin with, we in the West seem to believe we corner the ideological high ground on women. To be sure, we do intellectually. That is not to say that women everywhere are not as bright as those in the West, but that as women of the west we spearheaded (at least 1.5 generations ago) the movement toward empowering women intellectually, legally, culturally and constitutionally. As a result, women in the west began seeking college educations, entering the workforce, and succeeding in a manner that gave them credibility and by extension, the ability to speak out. It is by virtue of women’s achievements in the Western world that so many aid groups have cropped up in the Western hemisphere to help countless women in the East. I would list them, but there are too many to list. A “google” search will yield hundreds of pages with organizations large and small. Each is dedicated to the empowerment of women – from the ones with a global reach to the smallest grass roots movements that focus-in on intimate groups of women and lift them by sheer will and financing cobbled together by — well, women.
But the intellectual empowerment that led to financial strength, which enabled women to begin to spread the word does not equally apply to sexual empowerment. Western women are credible because they are educated and wealthy, by a global standard. The combination garners due respect around the world. But their sexual emancipation does not garner the same respect, nor does it lend us any credibility around the world. It is here that I scoff at the collective western cry against the inclusion of a country like Iran on the board of UN Women. Iran has proven not to be against the intellectual empowerment of women.
Iran is not Saudi. To begin with, Iran was not a Muslim society. Islam was brought to Iran (Persia at the time) by the Arab conquests of 633-651AD, and foisted upon its people. Persians will pledge that Islam never really took root of their soul and that to this day, they separate themselves from its strictest scriptures. In fact, women in Iran have the undeniable right to drive, go to school and on to universities where they now comprise statistically more than 50% of the nation’s students, vote, inherit (although at half the rate of men if intestate), divorce, re-marry, work outside the home and even roam the streets without a burka or chador. Yes, they do have to cover their hair and can’t wear revealing clothes. But Iranian women constantly test those perimeters and live to tell about it.
To the Muslim eye, the “freedom” in the West that is defined by the freedom of thought is applaudible, but the freedom of sexual expression is frowned upon. Ask a Muslim and they will tell you that they treat their women better. I can’t agree. But I comprehend what they are trying to convey. They believe that the instinct to protect women from the male predator is a respectful thing, but that the forward impulse by western women to be with multiple men is a disrespect to the female entity. In Islam, the chastity of the woman is equivalent to the honor of the family, and by broader definition, society. For this reason, a raped woman is an embarrassment to her family. But again, by statistic, fewer raped women are shunned by their communities in Iran than in most of its Arab neighbors. I remember Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani and her stoning sentence. (see post at http://womenfound.org/2010/07/09/honor-stoning-stomach-turning/). That sort of state action cannot be condoned or qualified in any way. But in relation to the area, Muslim Middle East, Iran is a sanctuary for women, dare I say it. Not that I propose Iran is an oasis of freedom and equality, but for every horrific tale of discrimination that comes out of Iran, there are plenty of instances of triumph for women. Today women in Iran occupy positions as scientists, lawyers, doctors, writers, artists, movie-makers, members of parliament, teachers and professors, as well as mothers, wives and daughters. The older they get, the higher they are held in regard as the matriarch of the family, and the ones with the greatest decision making power in the household. This is true of families who are poor with multiple children, to the more modern families who are educated and have fewer children. Across the board, the girls are expected to be as smart as the boys and if the resources exist, they are to study as hard as the boys and achieve as well as they do. The difference is that as a traditional society, the women are expected to marry earlier and bear children after marriage. ‘Stay-at-home Dads’ are still a non-starter. But that is a cultural referendum, not a legal one.
Saudi is a different matter. It is the only country in the world where women cannot drive, nor can they vote. They are rarely seen in the public sphere and when they do venture out, they must be accompanied by a male relative. They do not comprise a surprisingly large percentage of the university population in the country, nor can they be elected to public office. They are subservient to their men in far greater numbers than in Iran, particularly in the villages outlying the cities; and stoning as a form of punishment for immoral digressions are far more frequent. Even within the cities, abuse and beatings within the family nucleus are appallingly widespread and tragically tolerated by authorities and communities alike. Children are married off at an early age, and not much is expected of them other than reproduction.
So if there is protest against Saudi having a say in the global empowerment of women, perhaps it is well-placed. But in fairness, Iran is a respite for women in Muslim Middle East and certainly cannot be compared to Saudi Arabia – no matter how much we may prefer King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz to President Ahmadinejad. To the extent that UN Women; “The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women” is looking to empower women, not sexually – but intellectually, emotionally, culturally and financially, they will be enriched by the participation of Iranian women who have succeeded in navigating a decidedly up-hill thoroughfare obstructed by a patriarchal system that could have impeded their progress, but ultimately didn’t.
For perspective see also: