Are Women’s Rights not the same as Human Rights?
Nadiry: Aren’t women’s rights the same as human rights? Why underscore women’s rights? This question has been posted by one of our users, Haleh, who’s an engineer, and is the topic of today’s discussion with Shadi Amin. Ms Amin is a human rights activist and researcher and a co- principal of the Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network. You can find her profile on our website. Amin: The reason women focus on issues specific to their gender is inequality between men and women. Gender discrimination is the legacy of patriarchal societies and dates back thousands of years. Nowadays women challenge this legacy, and a lot of people are upset by that. Nadiry: Doesn’t treating women’s rights as distinct from human rights widen the gender gap in Iran? Why not treat them as part of the same discourse? Amin: Everyone is free to choose their own cause—capital punishment, children’s rights, environmental issues, nuclear energy, capitalism, and other universal issues. Women’s engagement in these domains is very beneficial; it diversifies the domains and enhances them with women’s perspective, women’s perspective being a subject of literature, art and politics. I agree that women’s biology and their experience of social injustice and prejudice gives them a deeper understanding of these problems, not automatically, of course: being a woman does not necessarily mean being anti-fascist or pro equal rights for homosexuals. Everything depends on one’s awareness and understanding. Nadiry: If the Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were to be thoroughly respected and applied with no gender or racial discrimination, wouldn’t that lead to a society free of all forms of discrimination, including discrimination against women? Amin: Article 16 of the UDHR refers to marriage. It states that people should enjoy equal rights without any discrimination. But is that the reality of the world we live in? Are men and women in fact equal? In today’s world human beings are equal but some are more equal. We ought to be asking men to relinquish their privileges and to openly denounce gender discrimination. We don’t advocate separation of the sexes, but men are not willing to give up their privileges and continually regenerate and sustain them. The feminist movement in Europe during the 1960s—the first phase—led to equal education and to women’s suffrage; it is what allowed Haleh to become an engineer, and for us to be having this discussion today; it is our responsibility to uphold these achievements. We should defend the ideal of equality between men and women, and women’s emancipation, and pass them on to the next generation. Unfortunately, young European women do not know the history of these struggles and think women have always enjoyed equal rights; they’re not aware that these rights were not accorded them as a matter of course and therefore do not appreciate feminism. This has elicited a crisis of complacency, of an emphasis on family values and relinquishment of women’s rights. As a result, women are today taking a step backward. Nadiry: Why is this happening? Are women’s rights activists and feminists responsible? Amin: We’ve struck a blow and are getting hit back. Patriarchal society strikes back; they want to hold on to their status, and that’s a daily struggle. Just because our brothers, fathers, and spouses are good men, we assume the whole society is good. Take a look at Uganda, Congo, and Mexico where the massacre of women, and violation and aggression against them is routine. Political figures, Church and Mosque—all masculine institutions—try to institutionalize these inequalities in calculated ways through education. Over the past 35 years since the [Islamic] revolution, people have submitted to extensive gender discrimination. But the moment women demand a higher status and gender equality, there’s remonstration. Women are disparaged and threatened on a daily basis. Many are spurned. This is noticeable in the Iranian women’s movement and even in the West. Women activists are rejected allegedly for being anti-men. Many women explain that they’re not against men. Do men condemn these crimes against women? They claim they’re not against women in a society that abuses the rights of mothers, sisters and wives. Nadiry: Yet many men today identify themselves as feminists. Amin: I don’t agree with that. Feminism is the product of a feminine existence; few men could claim to have had such an experience. If a man parks his car badly, no-one says men are such and so. But women face these disparagements every day. Their body and appearance is the subject of discussions by the media, the church and Islamic and Christian fundamentalists. What we’re supposed to do is decided for us. I don’t think men can claim having occupied such a place. Fortunately, there are sections of human society that haven’t experienced this injustice. Men likened women-only seminars to the ways of the Islamic Republic; then they’d refuse to participate in conferences open to both sexes. In general, women’s activities were always undervalued. What are these men who promote feminism at the dinner table but never object to the media nor support women’s movements? In all the past 35 years, these feminist men have not left a positive impression except at parties. Nadiry: In many conferences, the number of female participants is far less than men; this goes to show that many middle-class, educated urban women are not sensitive to sexist issues and instead of relying on a human perspective and their human identity, follow sexist schemes. What do you think? Amin: I agree that many conferences are shunned by women. One reason is the failure to recognize women’s independent thinking. I’ve attended many seminars in different parts of the world. I’ve seen many cases where a man has given a speech, but when his wife, who is an intellectual and an activist, walks up to the podium, many leave the hall as they expect her to have nothing new to add to what her husband has just said. Society constantly undercuts a woman’s self-confidence; these conditions become so deeply ingrained in us that even women come to underrate their own thinking. Fifteen years ago a band called Fetneh (lit., sedition; also seduction) had invited women to attend a concert in Frankfurt without their husbands or boyfriends. It took me hours to persuade women to go. But once there, they had so much fun they didn’t want to go home. We have to know that we can have fun without men. Men have had more social history than we have; women are just starting. Many circumstances are macho, heavy and judgmental. We have to overcome these. The age when women were relegated to selling tickets or cooking at political or human rights events is over. Many individuals and groups use women as a tool to show they are democratic; aware that their presence is merely for show, women pull out in protest. But many women have chosen their domain and trying to rescue the discourse from male domination. Many women, some of whom are abroad, specialize in various fields. Nadiry: As a journalist I have been interested in talking to women about subjects other than women’s issues. But there are fewer women in some domains; plus, men are more readily willing to give an interview. So, women themselves play an important role in achieving equal rights, but unconsciously or otherwise, they sometimes allow men to take over, which is an affirmation of existing inequalities. What do you think? Amin: When I was at the women’s conference in the U.S. in ‘97 or ’98 friends asked me where my kid was. When I said he/she was with his/her father, they said he was a model spouse to be willing to look after the child. No-one asks the same question of men. So, children are still an obstacle to women’s lives. Many women have to look after their home and family, their sick mothers and children; this makes it difficult to schedule seminars. Women have more economic limitations than men as well, as well as cultural problems. Wiki articles about women identify their spouses and number of children, but that is not the case with men. So, a woman’s profile is a constant reminder of her maternal and marital responsibilities. Powerful women in various fields abroad have fought hard to achieve their positions. Nadiry: A user says women’s rights undercut men’s rights and are therefore different from human rights. What do you think? Amin: Feminism is misrepresented in Iran. They think we’re against men, which is not the case. Is feminism a menace? Has any man ever been killed by a feminist? The feminist movement does not advocate violence against men and does not strip off men’s rights. Nadiry: What is the root of this misinterpretation, do you think? Amin: It’s not a misinterpretation but an accusation, which moreover is made consciously. The user who posed the question is right to think that the growth of feminism means taking men’s privileges away and distributing them equally. A woman thinks of herself as a human being equal to a man; a lot of people are disturbed by this because it submits that men and women share equal responsibilities at home. Gender inequality persists even in Europe, of course not on the same scale as in Iran. Nadiry: Why has the term feminism turned into a kind of anti-values swear-word in Iran? Amin: For the past 35 years, we have been retreating from our rights. Defining feminism as anti-values benefits a lot of people. Whoever is called a feminist immediately becomes defensive. We have to break through this and declare openly that we are feminists; we have to insert feminism in society and define it as a value. Feminism considers both sexes as equal in a human context; it takes up a combative position when faced with men’s injustices and inhuman behavior; it does not tolerate injustice against women. All feminist movements believe there is gender inequality and aim to take away men’s special privileges. A person who defines women’s rights as no rights for men understands the loss of these privileges. A man on the street is aware that he carries more privileges; men enjoy more privileges in the sexual domain where many women are in fact disparaged. In Iran men don’t marry their girlfriends and consider them unworthy of marriage. Many men consider multiple girlfriends as a sign of sexual prowess; the same is disparaging for women. The idea is to take these privileges away from men; they are displeased and consider this a clear declaration of war. Of course this doesn’t mean we’ve taken up arms against men; we invite them to recognize our rights formally and to relinquish their special privileges. If they’re democratic, they’ll accept this proposition. When man is repeatedly invited by public media he ought to ask, Why don’t you invite women who have expertise in this area? Women ought to be heard as well. But when has a man ever given up his place to a woman? I’m very pessimistic. I believe that the very close ties between an anti-feminine, patriarchal culture and the government’s position over the past 35 years have protracted these conditions. Nadiry: Are you a radical feminist? Amin: Yes, unlike those who are cautious in expressing their demands, I state them clearly and .without apprehension, because I draw my strength not from men but from the women’s movement and the social trends that support equality among men and women. I look for support first and foremost to women who demand equality, and then to men. But I’m not looking to men to grant us privileges, which is why I can speak very candidly. That’s why I consider myself a radical and call for radical change in social relations at the root level. Nadiry: What do you think about the Million Signatures Campaign? Amin: This was a valuable campaign; however, some people who wanted to take over the women’s movement changed its name to the Million Signatures Movement. They over-extended its span to marginalize other women’s organizations and campaigns. I’m not in favor of this outlook. This campaign was not the entire women’s movement and it isn’t today; it’s a part of it. This was a successful awareness-raising campaign. But I have my own boundaries and do not approve of the campaign’s silence in regards to forced hijab. Nor do I box myself in the framework of theology (figh) and religious law (shari’a). They refer to equality in blood money [as a measure of gender equality], but I’m altogether against [the institution of] blood money. As a laic and secular woman, I do not address issues that have to do with religious duties incumbent upon Muslim women. I cannot consider Ayatollah Sane’i, whose anti-human policies in the 1960s are well known–a legitimate defender of women’s rights. These are the reasons I have a difference of opinion with the Million Signatures Campaign. Nadiry: Another user, named Azadi, says: ‘Third general feminists are always riding the waves and are full of contradictions; their policies are ambiguous, emotional and purely theoretical; they have a victim mentality; none of their arguments are rational or worth time and discussion.’ What is your responses to this statement? Amin: I’d like to invite this person to a debate and to express their views using their real name. One of the problems with cyber space is that some people try to use it to push us backward. Cyber space is full of trashy thoughts from people that have neither read a word nor participated in social movements. One must always clear this kind of trash away from one’s mind. Someone posts something against homosexuals and gets 4,000 likes, for instance; well it’s not clear whether people have actually read the post before clicking ‘like.’ Someone who claims erudition and states that feminism is not scientific but emotional should articulate their view in a sound and written form. I can’t respond to their [personal] taste and baseless view given that they offer no analysis or examples, nor any associated dates. It is not clear why they feel feminism lacks authority. The fact is that feminism and other has accomplished a lot and benefited humanity. Women’s presence—from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler and others—has strengthened economic institutions and the world of science and contributed a host of values to this world. Nadiry: How do you see the future of the women’s movement in Iran and the activities related to achieving equality? Amin: Activists in the women’s movement live in this society where their political life unfolds. The oppressive shell that encases Iranian society extends to these women as well. Women’s demands are conditioned by serious changes in other fields. The women’s movement is not an island separate from the cluster of other existing islands. Restrictions against free speech and against organizing—labor, students, women—affect women’s movements and hamper efforts to resolve issues specific to them, such as forced hijab. So, women are oppressed just as are other social groups and need to collaborate with other movements. As to why the women’s movement has been silent over the past three years, we must remember that other social movements have also failed to get back up on their feet. Women are aware that to dismantle laws such as forced hijab and polygamy, and to gain legal equality and the right to divorce, they have to fight a system that is bent on preserving these laws nail and tooth; women need a lot of power to succeed. Unfortunately, the women’s movement today is lacking a social base and is experiencing one of its weakest periods of the last decade. On the other hand, we should not forget that women activists represent different political viewpoints and have divergent outlooks and strategies. While I think the Islamic Republic should be completely disbanded some women believe in reform and yet others ask only that some laws be changed. These differences in strategy weaken the women’s movement. We’re not talking about 35 million women with a shared goal, all of them aware of their needs and networked. Unfortunately, we’re only talking about middle class urban women, mostly in cities close to the center, and even within those limits, we are very weak. Nadiry: A ceremony was held in Tehran on March 8  with women’s rights and human rights activists in attendance. There were a few speeches and a final statement, one of whose major demands was to form women’s civil organizations. Do you support this approach? Amin: Yes, no doubt there is a great need for organization, creating a space where people can share ideas without fear and without feeling threatened. But the International Women’s Day, though it was originally green lighted, was not allowed to be convened. The gathering that you refer to was not an official event. In my opinion, the composition of the participants reflected the regression in the women’s movement. Secular women with more fundamental demands found themselves next to women who until recently were part of the regime or were considered members of its inner circle; and then there were Muslim women who will not even tolerate the views of religious reformists; a very discordant composition. Such a gathering may bode well at first sight, but in fact it signals—and results from—a weakening trend in the movement in Iran over the past several years; it derives from a position of weakness. Nevertheless, I hope that it will provide a base where all activists in Iran have an opportunity to speak louder; I therefore welcome it. Nadiry: Why don’t you consider the positive features of this gathering that could help overcome various obstacles to the women’s movement? Amin: As I said, I have a different position. In my view this strategy has not been successful over the last 16 years; it regularly chooses between bad and worse and chases small reforms, and personal security and well-being and does not raise serious objections to the existing structure. I don’t believe this strategy can succeed in Iran. Iran is firmly a security state where many people cannot raise the issues that people like me tackle. But those living outside Iran and anonymous activists living in Iran should advocate this view. Movements do not emerge out of a need to adjust people to an existing framework; they’re formed because there’s new thinking and a need to change the current conditions. Unfortunately, the dominant discourse over the last 16 years has been reform within the framework of the regime, and I believe we ought to shed this framework.