Ideological Crisis in Iranian Women’s Studies: A Response to Golbarg Bashi
By: Shahrzad Mojab, 21 August 2005
Associate Professor and Director
Women and Gender Studies Institute, University of Toronto, Canada
I have recently returned from a trip to Jordan, Palestine, Turkey and Iraq where I was studying women’s movements, women’s political organizations, NGOs, and the relationship between women’s activism in diaspora and local organizations in setting gender social policy. The IWSF conference took place while I was traveling in the cities and villages of Iraqi Kurdistan and Palestine to discuss these issue with women at grassroots, ministerial, and professional levels. I came back to a myriad of email messages including Golbarg Bashi’s ‘observations’, as she calls it, of the 16th IWSF conference as well as Azar Sheibani’s response to her. More recently also I have received Golbarg’s response to Azar with references to some other communications which I have not seen.
What urges me to add my voice to this debate is the relevance of Golbarg’s problematization of events, behaviours, and attitudes at the IWSF conference to my own observations of what I call the ‘gender scene’ of certain parts of the Middle East which are known as war zones. Let me set, on the onset, a clear boundary for my discussion. As a Marxist-feminist, my theory and method of inquiry is to make a distinction between ‘appearance’ and ‘essence’, to have an integrated and dialectical approach to the study of social relations, and to put at the very centre of my academic/activist work the emancipation of women from patriarchal oppression and feudal and capitalist exploitation. I am reading and responding to Golbarg in this context. Thus, what follows is my attempt to unpack Golbarg’s comments, criticism, and suggestions for future improvement of the organization of the IWSF annual conferences:
1. Golbarg’s critique of the conference has touched mostly on issues of organization, management, and the overall conduct of individuals. These are issues of ‘form’ and formalities, although all of these are crucial issues in the successful delivery of an event. However, her “observations” touch more on questions of content, politics and ideology. A cursory reading of Golbarg’s piece entitled “Crisis in Iranian Women’s Studies” (posted on gooya news on July 15, 2005) gives the impression that she is seriously upset about some participants’ inappropriate behaviour and exchanges, which she claims were disruptive, disrespectful, and intolerant of others’ points of view. She writes, “I believe that the clash we experienced during the Vienna conference is a serious one and is something that needs to be re-negotiated and discussed. We CANNOT (emphasis in original) afford to alienate women from attending/contributing to this conference!” Underlying this call to ‘dialogue,’ ‘tolerance,’ and ‘re-negotiation’ (concepts which occur repeatedly in Golbarg’s writing) is a (neo-)liberal feminist politics which promotes local and global ‘sisterhood,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘empowerment,’ and notions such as ‘authenticity of voice,’ ‘representation,’ ‘location,’ ‘positionality,’ and ‘identicalness.’ Neo-liberal feminists, including many women in the leadership of (inter)national NGOs, write a prescription which reduces the growing war on women to violations of human rights and democracy, as if emancipation has already been achieved in the actually existing democracies. They assume that the exercise of male power with all its violence can be tamed, and even reversed, if women and feminists come up with appropriate behaviour, positive attitude, nicety, “negotiation,” or “dialogue.” If women have been required, throughout ages, to abide by patriarchal rules of propriety, now feminists should follow suit and play according to modernist patriarchal codes of “negotiation.” While feminism is itself under attack, more in the West (see Hammer 2000, for a survey of anti-feminism in the popular culture and academia of North America) than in the East, Golbarg advises us to follow ‘accented feminisms’ and advocate ‘pluralism of ideas’, as if feminists are responsible for the monotony of capitalist or Islamist patriarchy. We are disciplined by “accented feminists” to believe that the systemic violence perpetrated against women, in the West and the East, in and out of state and home prisons, can come to an end through appropriate rules of behaviour and in the course of “negotiations” with the ancient patriarchal order.
In her reflections on IWSF, Golbarg’s comes up with an agenda for Iranian women’s studies, which at its best, does not move beyond the outmoded liberal feminist project, that is, the project of challenging structures of male power with “peaceful dialogue,” liberal education, and reform of the status quo. She does not see the present state of gender conflict as a patriarchal war against women in the Middle East and throughout the world. It seems in fact that there is no conflict at all. It seems that the exercise of gender power is a question of discord, misunderstanding, extremism, or miscalculation. It seems she is not moved, intellectually and politically, by the magnitude of the ongoing patriarchal war against women -- a war which is very difficult to ignore even if one is exposed to the mainstream mass media only.
She confuses codes of behaviour (politeness, respect for opposing views, etc) with the political regime known as liberal democracy (which I identify as “bourgeois democracy”). I contend that the two–good behaviour and liberal democracy– are not one and the same. I myself try to use appropriate language, good manners, politeness, and respect in my relations with other human beings, although I clearly state that I have no respect for sexist, racist, imperialist, national chauvinist, or homophobic positions, worldviews, and ideologies. Moreover, I refuse to conflate politeness with belief in democracy, and I try to detect the exercise of power (gender, class, race, etc) behind every polite interaction. Golbarg tries to clear politeness of every trace of male power; it seems that, for her, politeness and violence are mutually exclusive. From my dialectical perspective, however, politeness (in a patriarchal society) and violence coexist (in Persian there is a saying “ba panbe sar miborad,” that is, ‘s/he cuts head with cotton’). It is true that there is a considerable degree of tolerance in academic, parliamentary, and other contexts especially in Nordic or Scandinavian countries. However, even the feudal societies of Iran and the rest of the world developed an extensive code of respect in day-to-day, face-to-face interactions. However, in both feudal and modern patriarchal societies, politeness is gendered, and works as a form of the exercise of male power.
The bourgeois-democratic regime of individual rights is about politics not how to behave in a conference setting. To be polite does not mean to keep quiet and passively accept what we find questionable. If there is no purpose in a ‘dialogue’, if there is no consequences for changing the gendered status quo, if you state your point of view and I do mine, what have we achieved? Does not this mean the perpetuation of the status quo? What is the purpose of ‘negotiation’ if the two sides are unequal, and if it does not lead to a shift in the position of power? In response to Azar Sheibani, Golbarg has refused to “negotiate,” and has indeed re-stated her anti-critical, anti-left, and anti-activist position in a stronger and abusive and violent language. I see no trace of the tolerance or respect which Golbarg is expected to have learned in the bourgeois democracies of Sweden and Britain.
Even worse than degenderizing politeness is the way Golbarg conflates codes of behaviour with democracy or belief in democracy. Thus, if a woman activist shouts at an opponent including a fellow activist, she does not believe in democracy or “does not have the experience of democracy.” Such a position ignores the fact that many Western politicians, who arranged for the mass killing of people (Nazis and non-Nazis), and even ordinary people who participated in the lynching of Afro-Americans were extremely polite and kind to others in their day to day, face to face interactions.
It seems that for Golbarg democracy has no class component and has nothing to do with social formations such as capitalism. I, like many of the feminists she criticises or, rather, attacks, believe that liberal feminism has already achieved its ends. This feminism, dating back to eighteenth century, sought legal reform to redress male domination, and, it got what it asked for, although after two centuries of struggle by women and men, socialists, anarchists, and liberals. The patriarchal regime fought against suffragists with much violence; liberal democracy did not engage in “negotiation” with suffragists, it showed no or little “tolerance”; universal suffrage was imposed on it. There is now constitutional and legal equality between the two genders in the European Union, North America, and even states such as Turkey. However, patriarchal power with all the “tolerance” that it prescribes, perpetrates violence against women every minute and every hour. If Golbarg and many of the mentors she has listed cannot move beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy, I can only suggest that bourgeois patriarchy has found a new voice in this generation of “accented feminists.” Like the earlier generations of liberal feminists, the new milieu treats democracy and dictatorship as mutually exclusive phenomena. Their claims in fact lag behind the feminists of the eighteenth century in light of September 11, 2001 tragedy, when in the birthplace of bourgeois democracy (the UK and the US), the highest organ of democracy, the parliament, argues for the suspension of democracy, and academia theorizes the need for embracing the “lesser evil” in the face of the greater evil of terrorism. If liberal feminism was revolutionary politics two centuries ago, today it contributes to the reproduction of the patriarchal order.
2. Golbarg religiously adheres to masculine-feudal notions of academic knowledge, or “scholarly” positions of some Iranian women authors. Academics whom Golbarg has named, with a few exceptions, propagate various versions of (neo-)liberal feminism almost always couched in the jargon of poststructuralism, and its various offshoots. No doubt, the academic establishment has always been divided over social justice struggles, but usually only a minority of the professoriates has been on the side of the poor, slaves, peasants, women, and the “underdog,” and this minority has usually been persecuted by the academic establishment itself. The student movements have been different and made important contributions to the struggles such as the abolition of slavery or against US aggression in Vietnam. I am speaking here as a long-time insider. What do these scholars offer that it is so valuable for Golbarg to the extent that she is willing to insult others who do not follow in their steps? It is for me, as a feminist, truly a tragedy when I see how this academic “feminist scholarship” has put a yoke on women in the war zones of the Middle East, in particular in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Women throughout the “majority world” are losing whatever limited freedoms and rights they had, this time under the guise of projects of ‘women empowerment,’ ‘gender mainstreaming,’ and other projects of ‘dialogue’ and ‘negotiation’ all originating from the theoretical arsenal of academic feminists.
Let me be frank, the academic and political record of some of Golbarg’s mentors is a disgrace to feminist knowledge, and to the Iranian women’s movements. Feminist activists of Iran (rather than ‘Iranian feminist activists’) both in the diaspora and Iran are familiar with the harsh reality of feudal-religious-capitalist patriarchy of the Islamic regime as well as bourgeois democratic patriarchies of the West to the extent that they will not be misled by the results of the petty, conformist, fieldwork conducted hear and there under the surveillance of the Islamic theocracy. Critical and Marxist feminists have made a significant contribution to the critique of positivist and empiricist approach to research, and often treat it as an archaic and mundane method of inquiry. The production of knowledge is a site of power struggle. Knowledge production is not neutral and should always be challenged. I find the passion, political commitment, critical response, and enthusiasm exhibited by activists towards my academic work inspiring. At times the boldness of criticism, frankness, and directiveness of the activist’s criticism is jarring. I am not advocating anarchical approach to the process of knowledge production. I am proposing an integrated, dialectical approach to activism and scholarship. Golbarg is advocating a passive and de-linked approach. She believes in the neutrality of knowledge production, and treats academic knowledge as the source of truth. In her vision, there is no place for social movements (in this case women’s movements) as a more reliable, more significant, source of knowledge. Marxist feminism, among other critical frameworks, has effectively rejected the claim to an objective, neutral knowledge.
Finally, let me end with a personal note. Emotionally, I found Golbarg’s writing deeply hurtful. She shows contempt, hate, and anger towards women whom she labels variably as ‘undemocratic,’ ‘radical regulars,’ or ‘radical leftist.’ I wonder if, contrary to her wish, she is indeed taking more ‘women to be sacrificed on the alter of hypocrisies and intolerant activisms/ideologies’ (emphasis in original). I concur with Azar Sheibani in identifying Golbarg’s usage of language disrespectful, patronizing, and reductionist. It is disheartening to see that in her response to Azar, Golbarg’s level of tolerance of other points of view is diminishing fast. Her usage of language is more coercive, dismissive, arrogant, and elitist. There are many unsound, illogical, and erroneous arguments in Golbarg’s writings which require more time that I cannot afford right now to deal with. I hope these exchanges contribute to enhancing the quality of the next year’s IWSF’s conference.