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Interview: Traversing Oppression, Imperialism and Feminism in the Middle East

Nikzad speaks her mind on matters of travel, gender and political rights of Iranian and Middle-Eastern women as well as her own personal experience of travel around the world as an activist. She is a member of Bidarzani, a women’s rights collective based in Tehran since 2010. There, she works on a variety of women’s issues, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), violence against women, and community-based activities to empower local women. Nikzad holds a Bachelor’s degree in Social Planning and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies. Nikzad travelled to India to volunteer with TARSHI on SRHR issues.In 2015, we e-interviewed her on the subject of travel and sexuality.

TARSHI: What is the culture of travel and movement like for women inIran? Both, in terms of physical mobility and also agency and expression.

NIKZAD: As in other countries, travelling in Iran is based on one’s economic and social privileges and has a class dimension. Due to the recent drastic lowering of the exchange value of Iranian money and other limitations because of US-imposed sanctions, travel has become even more difficult in recent years and tends to be an unachievable luxury for many. Besides the financial difficulties, women in Iran face socio-cultural limitations and legal discrimination when it comes to travelling. Often, single women cannot easily travel abroad alone unless their family supports such activities for women.When it comes to married women, there is also a legal difficulty in the way: according to Iranian constitutional laws, the husband’s permission is required for a woman to travel abroad. A man can deny this permission to his wife without giving any specific reason. These cultural, traditional and legal discriminations make travelling a difficult endeavour for Iranian women. Recently, NiloufarArdalan, the captain of Iran’s national women’s futsal team, was denied her husband’spermissionto leave the country and consequently could not compete in the Asian Futsal Championship. The event had led to a controversial discussion among Iranians, and many Iranians have shown their distress about Niloufar’s story and their objections to such a law through online statements and vocal advocacy.

TARSHI: For women from the Middle East who are choosing to emigrate, what is the climate that is causing them to do it?

NIKZAD: The Middle East sufferspolitical oppression and deep-rooted patriarchal values that are a result of specific historical and social conditions of the region. The current political climate has created a special situation for women. Although many women choose to stay and fight for better conditions, there are others who feel forced to leave their countries as a result of the day-to-day cultural, social and political restrictions. Middle Eastern women often migrate with the hope of living in a more free society in which they can have more control over their bodies and lives. The political structure of the region has become so complex that it seems chronically adverse and unchangeable to many women.

TARSHI: As an activist rooted in local issues, have you considered emigrating or even moving within the country? Why or why not?

NIKZAD: Emigration has a different meaning and sets of responsibilities for those who are active in civil society compared to the general public. Emigrating to a free society can potentially create a suitable space for activism as activists would not face as much political and legal oppression and could work with a relative sense of security and peace of mind. However, I believe the whole idea of civil rights and women’s rights activities become meaningful and effective primarily within the geographical borders of the region that they seek to improve. Working from abroad cuts the ties with on-the-ground issues and doesn’t allow for a direct one-on-one interaction with people in society on a daily basis. The whole interaction of the activist is with the issue that she is working on but an activist abroad receives information from media coverage and not through personal experience.The people who are affected become more and more distant to her and eventually she can lose her vital energy.

TARSHI: In terms of liberation, do women imagine a life of freedom outside of the state oppression in Iran? What are the fantasies and desires Iranian people have about the world outside?

NIKZAD: In Iran, women face a history of discrimination. The recent discriminatory laws further limit women in terms of higher education and employment. The laws also encourage women to have more children, while controlling and punishing women with regard to their dress and body. Without doubt, immigrating to another country where all of these limitations are relatively less is an invaluable and significant change for many women. They experience a degree of equality in laws while enjoying their social and individual freedom. This is at least the expectation that leads women to emigrate and often stay in the new country. In contrast, male immigrants, especially those who have emigrated in their adulthood or later, experience a complex set of concerns and issues. They do not have the same patriarchal privileges that they had in their country of origin and the whole process of adapting to the new setting becomes emotionally and mentally more difficult for them

TARSHI: How do Middle Eastern feminisms compare with Western feminisms? How much of the latter has influenced the former, and how much of it do you think is a good thing?

NIKZAD: One of the main differences is that feminist discourse in the Middle East does not receive any support from dominant political structures. Some of the states in the region are a reaction to or resistance against imperialism and their politics with regard to women are informed largely by the history of their relationship with the West and what they perceive as ‘Western values’. We can see this trend in Occupied Palestine, post-revolution Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. At the same time, many of the state powers – including pre-revolution Iran – appropriate and take over feminist and liberating movements. They configure and introduce feminism as a top-to-bottom governmental project. Therefore, criticism of the government often targets its feminist projects as well. Generally, any movement towards equality that is assumed as imported from the West or influenced by it is perceived as an extension of Western imperialism and socio-cultural invasion. Besides, when a government exploits feminist discourse as part of its political identity and participates in international conferences as the feminist voice of the country, bringing feminism into the public domain while staying critical of other policies of the government gets extremely difficult for women’s rights activists. Women’s rights activism in such a historical context is far more complex compared to similar activism in a context in which state oppression, feminism and imperialism are not entangled with each other.

The Iranian government has not agreed to ratify CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) or the Platform For Action of the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. It has maintained and repeatedly asserted gender separation in the legal framework based on its understanding of Islamic laws. Despite the relatively progressive status of women in Iran compared to other countries of the region, the government has perpetuated constitutional discrimination based on gender. But state politics is not the only political issue. The women’s movement in Iran also has a challenging relationship with other civil rights groups and political parties, whether independent or state-related. The relationship is affected by a rather bitter history of many political parties and movements ignoring, exploiting or actively opposing women’s rights activism.

Additionally, women’s rights activists and feminists in the Middle East have a challenging relationship with Western politics and influence in the region. When a platform for women’s equality is sponsored by a Western government and emerges out of the political relationship of a local country with a Western country, the rights, demands and issues of Middle Eastern women and the resulting projects are often articulated by Western groups. As a result, these initiatives for gender equality often follow a liberal though feminist framework. The priority, urgency and nature of the projects do not necessarily speak to the lived experience and everyday challenges of women. In other words, the demands of Middle Eastern women in these international Western-supported projects are often ‘constituted’ for women instead of being based on their real lives. The combination of the local and international feminist politics and the history of imperialism plus the ongoing intervention of Western countries in the Middle East forces a Middle Eastern activist to face issues that often Western feminists do not have to deal with. It also complicates the relationship and collaboration between Middle Eastern groups and Western support groups.

TARSHI: You have told us you’re interested in masculinity studies. How are masculinities constructed in Middle Eastern culture?

NIKZAD: I have recently read a great article related to this topic. It has a sharp explanation about Sociology of Masculinity in the Middle East[1].Western notions of Muslim men are informed by stereotypes about Middle Eastern cultures. The region has been under enormous pressure from the West to undertake reforms and adopt Western democracy as the most appropriate model for governing their societies.In the last three decades, we have witnessed the arrival of Islamist notions of masculinity from Islamic and fundamentalist movements. Core issues revolve around the rights and roles of women and their location within Islamic society. During the last two decades a number of publications on women’s rights and feminism in Islamic countries have appeared. Meanwhile, masculinity has remained under studiedand rendered femininity problematic. There would appear, therefore, a need for extensive research in this area.

Islamist masculinity is grounded within cultural institutions and endures through cultural practices. Gender in the Middle East is certainly shaped by, and works within, a patriarchal society. Patriarchy is defined as male formal control over women and family, exercised by fathers, husbands and brothers. Another feature of patriarchy is the social desirability of male children to carry the family name. In Middle Eastern societies, there is a great social desire for male children. There are several reasons for this. Due to the lack of a welfare state and social security system, there is a great desire for parents to have male children to guarantee their wellbeing in the later period of their lives. As a result, the desire for male children has effects on a man’s social status. It is through his sons, who have more access to establish contacts with other people,that a man can expand his influence within the community, and not through his daughters. Thus there are social, cultural as well as economic reasons for wanting a male heir to carry on the family name.Otherwise the lineage dies out, creating tragic outcomes in a family-centred society. Physical appearance is used to make masculinity visible in the Middle East. Of course, physical appearance and images of maleness vary across ethnicity, social class and religion in the Middle East.

TARSHI: What are your views on the use of social media and general media consumption in Iran with regard to sexual and reproductive health and rights?

NIKZAD: In Iran, media is either owned by the state or is highly regulated and controlled by it. There are, however,alternative, small and independent media outlets that strive to continue their activity despite state regulations, security threats and, at times, legal punishment and imprisonment. Media outlets and social networks are double-edged swords when it comes to women’s rights. On the one hand, in the face of state censorship, media is the main tool for spreadinginformation and raising awareness about women’s issues, especially because women’s issues are difficult to speak about in the public domain on accountof political and cultural sensitivities. On the other hand, most of independent media outlets target a specific socioeconomic class. While the middle class can have access to the Internet and other forms of media, many of the underprivileged groups and working-class women do not have the means and education to benefit from the work of media. The other challenging problem is that digital activities have been gradually replacing fieldwork and face-to-face public education on the street. The world of digital media for women’s rights in general seems to have its own separate, and at times distant, trends of discussion and issues with regard to real challenges. I think media outlets have their pros and cons and must be managed and used with a deep understanding of their qualities and shortcomings. What matters most is that media activity can be effective only when it is combined with other forms of activism.

TARSHI: You seem to travel quite a bit. What do you travel for? What are your travels like? How does travelling make you feel?

NIKZAD: I travel mostly with the aim of participating in workshops and conferences, especially those related to women’s issues and SRHR. Travelling allows me to meet like-minded activists and researchers who are trying to tackle similar challenges in other parts of the world. It also gives me the opportunity to expand my network and connect the activists in Iran to those in other countries. I actively seek to learn about the experiences and activities of other participants while sharing my own experiences. Besides the professional advantages, I believe travelling has allowed me to be part of a global community working for a better future for women. I have always come back to Iran feeling stronger and more energetic.



[1]Adibi, Hossein (2006) Sociology of Masculinity in the Middle East. In Social Change in the 21st Century Conference 2006, 27 October.

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