Democracy and Recent Obstacles: The Case of
Speech at the Italian Parliament, Sponsored by UNPO,
Ladies and Gentlemen!
Allow me to express my
sincere gratitude and heartfelt thanks to all the organizers and sponsors of
this important event, and also to each and everyone of you kind-hearted folks
here. It is indeed an honour to be here today to discuss various issues facing
I have been asked
to briefly discuss the current state of democratic movements and tendencies in
In my recent book
Religion and Secularism
Secularism can provide a democratic space where difference and diversity are acknowledged as basic features of contemporary societies. For instance, it is only in a secular space that students of different religious backgrounds and spiritual persuasions can be provided a safe environment where they can feel comfortable about their religious identity and their spirituality. Understood this way, secularism cannot be interpreted as anti-religionism or atheism. Rather, it is a praxis which does not favour any particular religious belief over others. According to this perspective, not only all religious communities should enjoy equal access to resources, but also the non-believers and those believing in different forms of spirituality should be provided opportunities equal with those of the dominant religious group.
Obviously, such promotion should not entail a romanticized approach to secularism, as secularism, in and of itself, cannot be equated with democracy and progressivism. Iran under the Pahlavis, Iraq under Saddam, Egypt under Nasser, and Indonesia under Suharto, to name but a few, were clearly secular, but neither democratic nor progressive. 2
Secularism, thus, need not mean hostility to religion in all its manifestations. Crimes and atrocities of unimaginable proportion have been committed historically in the name of both religion and secularism. While religion has caused much suffering through such infamous disasters as the inquisition, the crusades, and various religiously motivated sectarianisms, conflicts, and fundamentalism, secularism is also associated with such experiences as Nazism, Stalinism, etc.. As such, care must be taken so that secularism is not romanticized as an ideal that always stands for democracy, human rights, peace and progressivism.
Evidently, there is a secularist movement in contemporary Iranian society. The perimeters of this movement are defined in terms of diversity, pluralism, social justice and equal access to resources. Why a person of Baha’i faith should be denied equal access to educational and occupational opportunities because of her/his religion? Why a socialist teacher or university professor should be dismissed from their job because of their worldviews? Why a Sunni Muslim or a Jewish student should not have equal access to educational resources, such as a place of worship, curricular and extracurricular activities that a Shia student enjoys? Why women and sexual minorities should be discriminated against based on their gender and sexual orientation?
It is in response to these and other similarly concrete questions that many Iranians are turning to secularism as a viable alternative to religious fundamentalism. Unfortunately, however, many of the spokespersons for the current Green Movement have failed to grasp these defining principles behind Iranians’ secular movement: i.e., the principles of diversity, equity, equality, social justice, and inclusivity. Influential individuals such as Dr Abdol-Karim Soroush and Ayatollah Mohsen Kadivar who are associated with the Green Movement have misguided and erroneous understanding of secularism. These individuals’ definition of secularism does not include issues of social justice, diversity, multiculturalism and human rights. As a result, many secularist individuals and groups are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Green Movement and its leadership.
At the same time one must acknowledge that
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, gender is a most salient site of exclusion that has inevitably become a major site of resistance and empowerment. Shortly after the establishment of an Islamic government in Iran, the new rulers dismantled the ‘Family Protection Act;’ made veiling compulsory; reduced the minimum age for marriage from 18 to 13, and while maintaining polygamy, took away the automatic right for divorce of a wife on the grounds of her husband's remarriage. "The law of the four wives is a very progressive law," asserted Ayatollah Khomeini,
and was written for the good of women, since there are more women than men. More women are born than men and more men are killed in war than women. A woman needs a man, so what can we do, since there are more women than men in the world? Would you rather prefer that the excess number of women became whores, or that they married a man with other wives? 3
Based on the Islamic ‘Law of Qisas’ or the ‘Bill of Retribution,’ the dieh or 'blood-money' to be paid for a female victim of murder is only half of that paid for a male victim. Under this Bill, women's testimony in court is only half the value of men's testimony. Since Islamic law requires two women to testify for every one man, a woman can, therefore, not participate in the legal profession. Since a woman’s right to form judgment is not fully recognized, it is rarely possible for her to become a lawyer or a judge. Since a woman's testimony alone does not carry any legal weight, proof of any kind of abuse, mistreatment and crime against her is almost impossible (see for example Articles 5, 6, 33, 46, 91, and 92 in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Penal Code).
"The prisons of the Islamic regime," an Iranian writer has observed,
are full of women who have been subjected to the most degrading and inhumane forms of torture. Rape is one of the commonest, yet horrific, forms of torture. The rape of virgin women before their execution is performed as a religious ritual in all Iranian jails, carried out in the belief that these women are not worthy of the divine place allocated to virgins by Islam and the prophet. 4
Thus, a review of the past thirty years of Islamic rule indicates
the absolute deterioration of women's human, legal, economic and
socio-political rights in
Is it any wonder then, that we see women at the forefront of any progressive movement for gender equality, secularism, human rights and social justice? It is no secret that Iranian women have been staunch supporters of the current Green Movement. The spokespeople for the green Movement, however, have thus far failed to produce a transparent literature regarding the gross violations of the women’s rights in the Islamic republic and how such rights would be restored and respected should the Greens come to power. Similar to their lack of transparency regarding the secularist movement, their lack of transparency regarding gender inequality is alienating many progressive women from the Greens, in general, and their leadership in particular. Mr. Mir Hussein Mousavi, the presumed leader of the Green Movement, continues to cling to “charismatic leadership of Imam Khomeini” and a supposedly flawless, golden and just Khomeini era, failing to acknowledge that all of the violations of the rights of women took place in the golden era of “the Imam” and under his direct supervision.
Finally, we should also note that gender-based struggle intersects with other sites of oppression such as class, language, religion, and race/ethnicity. For instance, an Azerbaijani, Arab, Baluchi or a Kurdish woman does not experience oppression the same way as a Persian woman does. The non-Persian woman, in addition to being oppressed based on her gender, is also oppressed based on her language, culture and ethnic identity. While being victimized by a masculinist culture, the non-Persian woman has to additionally suffer the indignity of a banned language, a stigmatized ethnicity and a racialized community; whereas a Persian woman does not experience any form of language and ethnicity-based oppression.
Similar to gender, class is another site of exclusion-and hence of
resistance- in the Islamic republic. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic
has functioned based on cronyism and favouritism where employment and
occupational opportunities are offered to those within the inner circle of the
regime and those showing extreme forms of ideological affinity with Shi’ism and
Khomeinism. As a result, in today’s
The widening gap between the rich and the
poor is reinforced by an equally widening gap between the mainly Persian
populated central regions of the country and the non-Persian margins—i.e., the
regions of Baluchistan, Kurdistan,
Based on various
estimations, the Iranian unemployment rate has increased by 5.1 percent since
last year and may rise up to 23 percent by the end of this year. The youth and
newly graduated students are most affected by this trend, the unemployment
among whom is estimated to be over 20 percent. Among the unemployed, the
educated and highly educated women suffer from the highest rate of
unemployment. It has been maintained that
Like many Third world
For the workers and government employees it is very difficult to mobilize and to forge solidarity. And this is where the Green Movement could have taken the initiative to champion the cause of working people and the issues of impoverished regions. The Greens, however, have failed to do this. As a result, they have not been able to tap into the resources and creative energies of this vast population—i.e., the underemployed, the unemployed, seasonal workers and internal migrant labourers, those who come in their millions from the impoverished non-Persian regions of the country to work in Persian populated areas of the center.
sensible analysis of class oppression and class struggle in Iranian society
ought to take into account the intersections of class with race, ethnicity,
language, and the place or region of birth. And this brings me to a brief
discussion of ethnicity, race and language-based oppression in
Race/Ethnicity and Language
It is important to
note that ethnic pluralism, difference and diversity have always been defining
features of what is today called ‘
Up until 1925, the country had been run in accordance with what one may call a traditional confederative system within which all ethnic groups enjoyed the freedom to use and develop their languages, customs, cultures, and identities. With the beginning of the Pahlavi regime in 1925, the natural trend of ethnic and linguistic plurality was abruptly stopped, and a process of monoculturalism and monolingualism started, which continues to date. The aim of this process has been to present the language, history, culture, and identity of the Persian minority as the only authentic language, history, culture, and identity of all Iranians. Needless to say, Western notions of Aryanism, Orientalism and the Orientalist historiography of the region have contributed immensely to this process of misrepresentation and epistemic violence.
that Orientalist historiography has equated
under such generic terms as
Just a few months
ago (on December 15, 2009) the Iranian minister of education, Mr. Hamidreza
Haji-Babayi, revealed that 70% of Iranian students were bilingual. What this
means is that Farsi/Persian is the natural mother tongue to only 30% of Iranian
students. In other words, 70% of
Four General Areas of Oppression
In order to provide a fuller picture of various social movements and
sites of resistance in
Seen this way, it makes a good sense to put class and gender together in that a discursive exploration of these sites of oppression does not pose what is perceived to be a danger to ‘Iran’s national security’ or ‘territorial integrity,’-- the two important conceptual yardsticks employed by ‘Persian nationalism’ in regulating the discourse on social justice and human rights in Iran.
that the progressive and internationalist left in general has had its fair
share of treatment to labelling such as ‘traitors’ and ‘foreigners,’
explorations of class exploitation and class based oppression have become much
more relaxed and less risky in recent years, particularly after the cold war
period. Class and gender, while constituting two significant sites of
oppression and exclusion in contemporary
Whereas class and
gender-based oppression has received considerable attention particularly in
recent years, oppression based on race/ethnicity and language not only has not
received the deserved attention but still remains a taboo subject for many
human rights activists, intellectuals and scholars. Despite the growing social
and political activism on the part of ethnic/linguistic communities throughout
Meanwhile, exclusion and oppression based on sexual orientation, age, ability/disability and body-size are hardly (if ever) mentioned in literature on Iranian human rights issues. Perhaps, a main reason for this oversight could be in the ambivalence and mystification with which the body has been associated in traditional, conventional and dominant Iranian discourse. This dominant discourse has never been able to identify and articulate the body as the ultimate site not only of violations but also of rights and freedoms. In a sense, the current methodological nationalism has shifted the focus from the body and its ultimate rights to the nation-state and its nationalist discourse in such a way that any discussion of human rights has become conditional to issues around ‘national security and territorial integrity,’ the two essential principles whose perimeters are always defined by the dominant intelligentsia .
discourse of disability and its connection with human rights has never entered
the lexicon of rights and freedoms in
There has been a
change of sorts in recent years regarding the topic of disability and the
disabled in general, particularly since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The
disabled veterans of the eight-year war with
Regarding issues around sexuality and trans-sexuality, the Islamic government allocates funding for medical/surgical expenses of transgendered individuals whishing to undergo sex-change. This act of presumed generosity, however, is not out of respect for individuals’ sexual rights and preferences. Quite to the contrary, this funding is provided to ‘cure’ the presumed ‘abnormalities,’ ‘malfunctioning,’ and ‘disease’ of certain bodies deemed curable by those in positions of power and privilege. Here too, missing are the voices of gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgendered and queer individuals and their respective communities to articulate their human rights vis-à-vis the dominant order of heteronormativity.
From physical and mental torture to various disciplinary measures, the Islamic regime exercises all forms of coercive mechanisms to police and discipline the body. It uses the body as the ultimate site of its violations. A clear manifestation of this is in the way the government defines even the size and shape of stones to be used in the punishment of stoning to death. According to Article 104 of the Islamic Republic’s Penal Code: “In stoning to death, the stones should not be so large that the person dies upon being hit by one or two of them, neither should they be so small that they cannot be called stone.” A peculiar characteristic of this kind of punishment is the extreme cruelty aiming to inflict maximum pain on the victim’s body. This kind of physical disciplining is coupled with other forms of normalizing mechanisms whose primary task is to shape the individual into what the government refers to as ‘the ideal Islamic person.’
In the Islamic Republic of Iran then, it is always the body which is the ultimate site of violations, exclusions and denials. It is the body which is denied access to resources, to rights and freedoms. When it comes to issues around sexuality, it is the sexual rights and desires of the body that are violated; when it comes to gender-based oppression, it is the body that is socially constructed and defined as gendered within relations of power and domination. And when it comes to language-based oppression, it is the language, the tongue and the means of communication of the body which is banned, mutilated and violated.
The body, however, is not an abstraction; it is not devoid of a communal dimension and social existence; nor does it exist in vacuum and outside of society. It is subject to relations of power that characterize all social formations. The body, as the ultimate site of violations, cannot be studied outside a social context, outside relations of power and domination, i.e., a host of relationships which are multi-dimensional in nature with multiple bases of origination and methods of functioning. This demands a holistic approach to understanding violations against the body, the rights of the body, and the rights of humans—human rights. It also demands an understanding of what is referred to as ‘matrix of domination.’
Matrix of domination is an approach that takes into full account issues around transsectionality, intersectionality, and the interlocking nature of systems of oppression. These systems include sites such as race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, language, religion, geography, citizenship, and so forth. It is then imperative to acknowledge the intersecting and interlocking nature of systems of oppression to which the body maybe subjected. I take the position that issues around human rights can be understood more richly and comprehensively by highlighting the matrix of domination and by centering the standpoints of the marginalized and the subaltern.
Regrettably, this kind of holistic approach is missing from the analyses of many Iranian scholars and intellectuals. They study the phenomenon of class detached from race/ethnicity and gender; and they analyze gender without at the same discussing how gender can be raced and classed. Clearly a lack of attention to intersecting and interlocking nature of systems of oppression is a major shortcoming in the current discourse on social justice and various social movements. If we understand the need and necessity for solidarity, we should also understand the importance of addressing diversity not only of ethnicities and languages, but also of oppressions, marginalizations and exclusions—and of how these are linked to one another.
Like any other environment plagued by methodological nationalism and, to use Spivak’s terminology, “national-fascism,’ in an Iranian context the need for free expression, dialogue and multi-logue cannot be overemphasized. As such, I like to conclude this speech by highlighting the importance of the need for an open and transparent conversation: One which is not afraid of speaking truth to power; which boldly interrogates antiquated and degenerative notions of ‘Aryan race,’ monolingualism, monoculturalism, heteronormativity, racism, abelism, sexism and homophobia. This requires a crossing of boundaries, not only of race, gender, class and sexuality, but also of ways of thinking and acting. This conversation should aim to replace nationalist/fascistic methodologies with contemporary understandings of human rights and freedoms. As social scientists, intellectuals, researchers and activists, we need to utilize the insights of a host of contemporary theories, methods and conceptual tools that the world is now using: anticolonial theory, postcoloniality, subalternity, critical pedagogy, studies in Orientalism, gay/lesbian/queer studies, critical disability studies, feminism and feminist theory, anti-racism discourse and praxis, theories of multicultural, multilingual, and inclusive education, critical white studies and notions of white privilege, among others. Needless to say, Iranian Diaspora and diasporic intellectuals can and should take the lead in generating this conversation and bringing it to the attention of larger and broader audiences.
Asgharzadeh, A. (2007).
Fundamentalism, and Democratic Struggles.
See also: Asgharzadeh, A. (2008). “Secular Humanism
and Education: Reimagining Democratic Possibilities in a Middle Eastern
Context.” In Carr, P.R. and D.E. Lund (Eds.). Doing Democracy: Striving for Political Literacy and
Social Justice. (pp. 177-194).
3) Sanasarian, E. (1983). The Women's rights movement in
and repression from 1900 to Khomeini (p. 134).
4) Hendessi, M.
(1990). Armed angels: Women in Iran (p.16).