Freedom is Boring, Censorship is Fun

…is the title of a (now several years old) series of photographs by Iranian artist Shirin Aliabadi. You can see some of the pictures from the series here. She has a new series (also several years old) called Miss Hybrid. The Reel Foto blog had great coverage, which you can read here. And here is a sample photo:

All of Aliabadi’s photographs play with the notion of female oppression and the opportunities for freedom and novel forms of “play” that exist in Iran (and perhaps in other male-dominated societies). Just a note, if you’re wondering about the nasal strip across the bridge of the model’s nose, it’s a reference to the nose bandages that many Iranian women proudly wear after having rhinoplasty. Iran is, surprisingly, often touted as the nose job capital of the world. This passage from a Chicago Tribune article is instructive:

Lili is typical of the women who believe in artificial enhancement. She has had her nose fixed to make it smaller and straighter–twice. She has had her eyebrows tattooed to darken them. And she has bought non-prescription contact lenses in four different hues–blue, dark green, light green and hazel–to accessorize her clothing and reflect her moods.

I like these photos because I think they complicate our sense of what oppression means and force us to think a little harder before speaking about a place that many of us have never — and let’s be honest, probably will never — travel to in our lifetimes. One person that did travel to Iran is Rick Steves, the famous Seattle travel guide writer. He wrote this about the country after his return:

From a Western viewpoint, it’s disrespectful (at best) to impose these regulations on women. But from a Muslim perspective, it’s the opposite: Mandated modesty is a sign of great respect. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, women’s bodies are not vehicles for advertising. You don’t see sexy magazines. There is almost no public display of affection. In theory, the dress code provides a public “uniform,” allowing men and women to work together without the distractions of sex and flirtation.

This point of view was echoed by a female Iranian (I think) guest on his radio program that I heard several years ago. A (male) Iranian professor I once took a MENA class from had similar thoughts. And yet, Steves notes that in a local survey 70% of women expressed a desire to dress less modestly in public.

We want these two ideas to be separate — the idea of freedom and oppression — but I’m not sure they are. I think they can exist side-by-side in a sort of paradoxical harmony. Undoubtedly, Iranian society is oppressive in some ways, but just as clearly it is freeing in others. This dichotomy is not unique, it exists just as strongly in the United States, though admittedly the relationship between the two acts differently here. And even within a country what is oppressive for some is acceptable, or perhaps even encouraged, by others.

I don’t mean here to be an apologist for misogyny. I simply mean to say that what constitutes misogyny is more contingent and complex than our normally quick labeling acknowledges. I want what is “best” — whatever that term means — for the women of Iran. But that’s the thing, to be sure different women want different things. And part of recognizing what comprises patterns of oppression must necessarily acknowledge this point. Iranian culture might not empower the women of Iran, but I think it can free them in some respects. Perhaps freedom without empowerment is no freedom at all, but neither is oppression truly oppression when it yields opportunities for freedom. Modesty is a double-edged sword, even if one blade is noticeably sharper than the other. And let us not ignore the more explicit improvement in conditions for women. For instance, free contraception available in all government clinics and a university population comprised of 65 women for every 35 men. I contrast this with the situation of women in Saudi Arabia. That sword, it seems, cuts only against women — and far too deep and true to boot. (Although hopefully this is the start of something).

I know how it sounds, suggesting that the seemingly dismal situation for women in Iranian has virtues. Why not say the same about slavery, or the pre-1920 era without voting rights for women in the U.S., or internment camps for the Japanese during WWII. How far can this disgusting logic be pushed? But those circumstances offer few redeeming qualities; in a country filled with Maximum magazines, the celebration of Playboy and Victory’s Secret models, and indelible stares from hoards of men, surely we can agree that modesty does. “Does it really?” a critic might retort, “If modesty is so virtuous why don’t American women willing choose more modest attire (and choose not to participate in scantily clad advertising)?” One answer is that cultures vary. Iran is not America, and there is a long way to go to get from 70% of women wanting to dress less modestly to anything resembling American sensibilities.

Many people — pop feminists offer boisterous jeers in this camp — blame Islam for the troubles of Iranian women. There are several problems with this argument. First, though I have no evidence, I get the impression that these critics are chiefly non-Muslim and have never stepped foot in Iran. They are, then, prime suspects of Edward Said’s Orientalism, and worst of all, many aren’t even aware of their sin. In fact, this ignorance is the sin. To some extent Said’s attack can be levied against nearly anyone writing about a foreign culture. And, besides, what are we suppose to do, stick only to ourselves, never venturing out of our domain of birth to offer advise or criticism or approval? But as the G.I. Joe cartoons I use to watch advised, “Knowing is half the battle.” Acknowledging the sin is the first step toward its remedy: humility. We should all spend more time critically thinking and examining our ideas and how our notions have been built up by social construction. In some areas pop feminism is deft at this task, but in this case it fails to live up to the challenge. I say “pop feminism” because academic feminism has long acknowledged this dilemma: the need to empower those women who are “oppressed” while simultaneously honoring their culture, society, and religion and our ignorance of it as outsiders. To say the least, it is not an easy endeavor.

Of course, I too, in writing this piece, am suffering from the disease of Orientalism so let me here acknowledge that fact and that as a result everything in this essay may be — how to say it politely? — horse manure.

But distrust of Islam also fails on further grounds. Namely, it fails to extricate “religion” from its allied but distinct bedmate “culture.” In reality the two are not completely separable, not even close, but what I mean to say is this: there is no one Islam. There are as many Islams as their are Muslims. Each person’s religion is shaped by their own life experiences, their personal relationship with God (to the extent they perceive communication with God), the way they interpret the Qur’an, and so on. Needless to say, there are Muslims throughout the world who both value and fight for women’s empowerment. Indeed, even outwardly Muslim countries exercise female oppression to varying degrees. The extent to which Islam is used as a tool, or an excuse, by the patriarchy of some male groups in Iran is an issue of culture and the ways that laws, social norms, and patterned behaviors within society have become fused with religion:

The veiling and seclusion of women, for which Islam is often criticized, is more a matter of folk practice than an intrinsic part of Islam. Although the Qur’an advocates sexual modesty on the part of women, it makes the same requirement of men. The social custom of keeping women veiled or behind closed doors is not specifically Muslim, but reflects traditional Middle Eastern concerns…Over the past century, many Muslim intellectuals have objected to the seclusion of women on the grounds that it is contrary to the tenets of Islam.

That passage was from Politics and Change in the Middle East: Sources of Conflict and Accommodation. It corrects many other misunderstandings about Islam — many of them about the religion’s relationship with women — in addition to the one above. Clearly, then, Islam is not to blame for oppression in Iran and, in my view, just as clearly notions of oppression are complex and multidimensional. This complexity suggestions caution in mass labeling such as “Women in Iran are oppressed.” While obviously true in some dimension, such statements do not lend enough contingency to our operational definition of “oppressed”; nor do they attempt in any meaningful way to honor the daily lives of women in Iranian society and their identity as Muslim; nor do they properly account for the importance in non-Western societies of foreign virtues (such as modesty), that while perhaps not empowering women, certainly give more opportunity for particular types of freedom and “play” than are widely acknowledged.

This view also assumes a population of millions of helpless Iranian women. Many of whom are, in point of fact, not asking for our help, but going about the much more mundane task of living their daily lives. We, however, being the good neocolonialists that we are, seem to be much more comfortable giving Iranian women the moniker of “victim,” presupposing the West as a necessary savior that, having already progressed substantially down the path of women’s empowerment, is at liberty to offer normative prescriptions to Iranian society at large. That Iranian women have in many cases followed the Western model voluntarily does not suggest that Western and Iranian women’s rights are coterminous, and certainly does not imply that the movement’s ultimate trajectory is destined to make anchor along side the USS Hillary Clinton. As such, the mother-knows-best admonishments directed to guilt “backward” Iranian men, strategically erode Islam’s “sexist” foundational teachings, and energize “oppressed” Iranian women are nothing more than a modern regurgitation of the taming-the-savage doctrine that led us toward a profound exploitation of peoples throughout Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Simple because “we” are doing nothing, does not mean that nothing is being done.

Lastly, such statements presupposes repression — again, as measured by Western ideals — is the primary concern of women in Iran and not improved economic prospects, ethnic or regional tensions, threats of war, education, or simply raising a family. This in a country with GDP per capita of just $12,000 a year (one-forth that of the US) and growing income inequality, a predominately Shia population surrounded by mostly Sunni neighbors that are often politically unstable, an oft-belligerent president in Ahmadinejad, a nearby country in Israel that has threatened bombing runs more than once, an extremely contentious nuclear program, and notorious membership in the “Axis of Evil.”  Like many countries there is plenty of worry to be spread around in Iran, which may or may not be directed toward securing “women’s rights” as conceived by Western observers. I don’t want to oversell the point, however, there are plenty of positive trends in Iran as this Brookings paper highlights (it also points out some worrisome developments). If you read academic feminism you will encounter much more on the subjects of oppression and Orientalism, both in agreement and disagreement with my thoughts.

I will end with what I found a thoughtful and provocative set of questions from UK’s online broadsheet The Independent in a piece by Katherine Butler. I liked that she acknowledged the complexity of Iran’s female fashion movement and hinted at the question of what Iranian women are giving up in order to push back against repression:

Are these Iranian women just expressing themselves like members of a youth subculture anywhere in the world, or are they intentionally building a new image, a different identity, one that is in conformity with and at the same time utterly at odds with the expectations of the repressively conservative theocracy in which they exist? And if it’s the latter, have they unwittingly fallen into another trap, mocking the shackles of chadors “manteaux” and hijabs but substituting them for the tyranny of perpetual grooming, dyeing, plucking, nipping and tucking, all to achieve a “Western” ideal of beauty?