Women, Iran, and Democratization
On September 27th, 2013, Barack Obama broke three decades of diplomatic silence with a phone call made to Hassan Rouhani, the newly elected President of Iran. The historic phone call between the two heads of state laid a foundation of trust that led to the eventual passage of the Iranian Deal in 2015.
As other year-old headlines slip into collective memory, today’s presidential race has ensured that the hotly contested agreement remain in the fore of American purview. While the merits and pitfalls of such a monumental deal ought to be scrutinized at length, today’s partisan discourse is often myopic in scope. Politicians from both sides of the isle invoke the deal largely to fire up their base of supporters, further polarizing the already divided electorate. Instead of exploiting the deal as fodder for partisan feuds, the deal ought to be understood within the arc of Iranian-American diplomatic history.
In his talk at Yale University, professor of sociology at the Naugatuck Valley Community College Farshad Malek-Admadi attempted to do just this. In summarizing his book, Democracy and Constitutional Politics in Iran, Malek-Admadi sought to situate today’s diplomatic realities within a broader context of Iran’s struggle for democracy as it relates to the progression of American-Iranian relations. While his intention to broaden the scope of political understandings was well-guided, a significant portion of his audience walked out on the event, suggesting his talk was not as well received as it could have been. Repetitive, unorganized, and punctuated by extended silences, his lecture relied on gross generalizations that often upheld Orientalist notions of Middle Eastern society as a stagnant foil to the progressive West.
At the onset of his talk, Malek-Admadi argued that there “has always been a strong bond” between the Iranian and American people because both countries have a diverse population as well as a history of female activism. Despite the persecution minority groups face today, Malek-Admadi cited Iran’s twelve major ethno-religious groups as evidence of the nation’s diverse makeup. In truth, Iran, with its significant Azeri, Kurdish, and Arab populations, is one of the most diverse nations in the Middle East. That being said, Malek-Admadi failed to demonstrate how Iran’s ethno-religious diversity has ever factored into America’s diplomatic efforts.
While popular stereotypes depict Iran as a perpetual site of female oppression, Malek-Admadi aptly noted that the first women’s liberation movement emerged nearly a century earlier in Iran than it did in the United States. Moreover, Iranian women stood at the forefront of the Tobacco Rebellion of 1891-92, campaigning for national sovereignty in the face of imperialist encroachment. In stark contrast to history’s heyday of female activism, Malek-Admadi claimed that Iranian women have “no freedom” in today’s world. Just as he commenced his lecture with generalizations concerning the state of women in Iran, so too did he conclude his with an anecdote of domestic abuse as a paradigm representative of Iranian gender relations more broadly.
According to Malek-Admadi, the oppression of Iranian women stems not from popular will but from an utter lack of legitimate governance. Under a Weberian framework, there exist three forms of governing structures, whereby legitimate authority is borne by tradition, charismatic leadership, or the rule of law. Malek-Admadi contends that Iran’s theocracy fails to fulfill any of Weber’s criterion, for in Iran, it is the arbitrary will of the ruling elite that prevails. Rather than deriving authority from tradition, leadership, or law, Iran’s elite foments instability so as to justify oppression and consolidate power. In light of this reality, Malek-Admadi dual conclusion is that today’s Iran is both less free than it was a century ago and “incapable of real reform and democratization.”
After the hour-long lecture drew to a close, Malek-Admadi turned to his audience for questions. Asked how exactly Shah’s regime was “more free” than today’s society, Malek-Admadi explained that under the Shah women often served as judges and “could dress as they wanted,” as if to imply that Muslim practices surrounding female dress are somehow inherently oppressive. Malek-Admadi was then solicited for his evaluation of Rouhani, who he believes is utterly powerless and has not effected change. While it’s recognized that the Ayatollah wields great authority in Iranian government, it is known that Rouhani has used what authority the president does hold to expanded women’s rights. For example, Rouhani has repeatedly appointed women to the foreign ministry throughout his tenure.
While Malek-Ahmadi’s talk left many in the room disappointed, the 2015 Iran Colloquium series has two remaining modules that will hopefully promote more nuanced narratives of often distorted histories. Yale’s Kevin Gledhill’s lecture “The Caspian Merchants and Regional Autonomy in Gilan, 1764-1786” is scheduled for November 11th. Columbia University’s Mahnaz Moazami’s talk “Zoroastrian Intellectual History” will take place on December 2nd. Both are open to the public.