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by Bruce K. Byers

A retired Foreign Service Officer with experience in pre-revolutionary Iran looks at the role of women in today’s Iran, especially in light of the recent anti-government protests. What may that mean for the future of Iran and any U.S. engagement with that country? –Ed.

In his June 4 Cairo speech President Obama addressed the issue of freedom and equality of women and girls and stated: “I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons. Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity — men and women — to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. And that is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams.”

Following the President’s Cairo speech and in the weeks after the June 12 presidential election in Iran, the first major anti-government protests since the 1979 revolution revealed cracks among Iran’s power elites and showed that there are at least two poles in the domestic Iranian debate over the definitions, interpretations and uses of cultural and political symbols in Iranian society. The cracks have expanded into a major schism among revolution loyalists and it appears as though the revolution is consuming many of its own. Recent crackdowns on protesters have only hardened resistance and revealed weaknesses among hard-line supporters of President Ahmadinejad.

Taking a leaf from the American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz (“Religion as a Cultural System” in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion), we need to examine more closely the “historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols…by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.” The post-election protests in Iran have demonstrated that significant segments of younger, educated Iranians have challenged the conventional wisdom and the political and cultural symbols by which the revolutionary elites have held sway over the populace and territory of Iran for the past three decades. Iranian women have been among the most motivated groups of protesters and one of them – Neda Soltani – was shot and killed on the street while trying to express herself. Her killing violated ancient and deeply rooted social taboos against harming women and girls. As a symbol of peaceful protest she is important, and her death sent shock waves through Iranian society and around the world.

The killing revealed the still deep-seated misogyny within certain circles of the dominant political elites in Iran. If innocent women can be gunned down on a public street, everyone is subject to arbitrary violence. In this regard, the current regime under Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad is no different in its application of force than was that of the Shah. In fact, it is more brutal because it targets women in many ways that the Shah’s police did not. For example, under the Shah there were no “morality police” forcing women to conform to dress codes and codes of public behavior.

The overwhelming use of force against unarmed protesters and the use of agents provocateurs to excite people and lead them into traps set by hired gangs of thugs is a manifestation of how the powerful in Iran (and other authoritarian societies) choose to interpret and use political and cultural symbols commonly known and accepted by the general populace. Only this time an unprecedented number of Iranian women challenged how these symbols were being used against their interests. They deserve our admiration and public support.

As in the histories of earlier revolutions, the Iranian revolution continues to be a struggle for the control of cultural symbols and their uses. The fact that Ayatollah Khamenei found it necessary during the height of the post-election protests to step forward and remind Iranians that they are all citizens of one country is testimony that the highest leader in Iran was shaken by the extent and vehemence of the protests against the outcome of the national election. Khamenei’s remarks underscored his attempt to reassert the national validity of the religious-political axis of symbols and values that the protests had threatened. Ahmadinejad’s re-election was almost anti-climactic. Neda Soltani’s murder ignited public anger all the more and threatened the authority of the interpreters of Iran’s cultural and political symbols.

Khamenei has only been able to retain his grasp on authority through state violence against protesters. He forbade a public funeral for Soltani because he feared what its symbolism would mean to millions of frightened and angry citizens. He and his supporters are grasping at weak reeds as the not so silent will of millions of Iranians continues to percolate in ways that cannot be predicted or controlled.  The only recourse to maintaining public order is violent suppression of any peaceful demonstrations and muzzling independent media. And they must stage pro-regime protests that the state media cover to reassure the general populace that their society is still largely intact. Yet Khamenei and his followers must fear that further protests against their actions could assume less peaceful forms.

Long before these recent events in Iran Clifford Geertz had described what Khamenei was attempting to protect: “A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”  (Geertz, ibid.) The post-election demonstrations have shown that the current system of symbols is under attack. The government’s explanation for this is to blame foreign provocateurs.

In contemporary Iranian society where unemployment is high, the average age of the population is below 25 years. Women constitute at least half of the population, and a slow-burning feminism is beginning to raise fears among the dominant male political culture. This has long been a fear that the “morality police” have sought to control. It is a fear that exists in other Islamic societies. It is exacerbated by the fact that in Iran urban women tend to be well educated and hold more university degrees than men. It is, therefore, worth looking at the relationship between gender and power in Iranian society and how the conjunction between the two finds expression in communication situations. More knowledge about this would help sharpen U.S. public diplomacy efforts and also reflect America’s active concern about the political and cultural position of women in Iran.

German-American sociologist and communications theorist Gertrude Joch Robinson has written extensively about the nexus between gender and communication and her analyses have some bearing on what is unfolding in Iranian society. A pioneer in gender studies at McGill University in Canada, Robinson wrote that “gender roles and stereotypes…are socially constructed through communicative interaction. Sex and gender are ‘different things,’ the first being fixed and defined biologically, the second being culturally constructed and unstable”  (Gertrude Joch Robinson, “Some Thoughts on the Role of Gender in Media Analysis,” p. 237, cited in Canadian Communication Thought – Ten Foundational Writers, by Robert E. Babe, University of Toronto Press, 2000, p. 220). In contemporary Iranian society instability in gender roles has many in the power elites worried. They view women in an archaic context based upon their interpretations of Koranic texts and Iranian social customs, but the current generation of women has moved beyond this context and is defining new cultural, social, and political relationships among themselves.

In analyzing the ongoing developments in Iran, U.S. policymakers should focus more on the conjunction between gender and power in Iran. Yet this may be last on a list of priorities for policy analysis because much current analysis is driven by advisors who are seized with studying the machinations of Iran’s male power elites and the concern over Iran’s nuclear research and missile programs.  Robinson affirmed in her studies that women are significantly underrepresented in institutions where ideology is produced. Although she was writing more about developments in Europe and North America, her conclusion also holds for media organizations that the Iranian government uses to influence and manipulate public opinion, especially opinion directed against the United States and its allies. It also obtains for those media that the government cannot easily control: Facebook, Twitter, and other “hot” media that are very adaptable and instant.

In the use of symbols of power and the content of ideology Robinson also saw that depictions of men and women differed according to occupations, behavioral patterns, personality traits, and marital and parenting status (R. Babe, op. cit., pp. 220-221). Iran’s power elites have long pursued policies segregating women in public institutions and subjugating them to men’s control. Such policies are also evident in other Muslim and non-Muslim societies. These policies underline a deep fear of the potential power women can exert in shaping social, moral, and ethical values.

If we are to improve our understanding of the future of political protest and accommodation in Iran, it is imperative to study and analyze what women are doing in manipulating social and political symbols. What are the symbols women are using in interpersonal communication that are ignored or discounted by male political elites? What are the dimensions of the cultural maps women use when discussing topics among themselves and, more important, in raising and influencing their children? Again, the careful analysis of the conjunction between gender and power in Iran is worth more attention and resources.

It would be useful to do more than conduct brief public opinion surveys using Iranians based outside the country to assess Iranian women’s attitudes about gender and power.  Julie Barko Germany, the director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, has been active in research on how technology is being used in the political space and how the online techno-driven environment is starting to drive real off-line behavior across a wide spectrum of information fields. While her research is primarily focused on the U.S. and Europe, her group’s efforts might have application in assessing Iranian women’s attitudes towards gender and power. Certainly, her research reveals important new developments in the ways people are using new technology to expand communications and influence public attitudes.

For example, her institute’s recent demographic research shows that one of the most active groups of American women using the blogosphere is young mothers. These women are capable of quickly influencing women’s attitudes toward what they deem important to their children and themselves. Who among our policy makers knew this?  What are the chief concerns of young Iranian women who are engaged in communicating via blogs? Answers to these questions might provide a key for assessing their attitudes towards a host of popular cultural and political issues and also towards the United States.

During the general campaign for the Iranian presidency Zahra Rahnavard actively spoke out in support of her husband Mir Hossein Mousavi, the strongest opposition candidate to the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. She won widespread acceptance among many Iranians, and her statements elicited a strong echo among Iranian women to overcome the objective inequality that the revolutionary regime has imposed on women since 1979.

In the early months of the revolution there had been a growing movement among women supporters of the revolution to demonstrate their dedication to its goals and to establishing themselves as equals. This was not unlike the roles that women played in the early period of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Yet both in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and in the fledgling Soviet Union under Lenin, women were increasingly marginalized from political power circles and repressed in the general population. As Iranian revolutionary fervor subsided Khomeini and his advisors mandated that women return to wearing the chador in public. This was a slap in the face of those women who had felt that the revolution would further emancipate them from traditional roles and stereotypes.

In both cases, men retained control of political and social symbols. Yet in the case of contemporary Iran, will this be enough to control the social behavior of educated and even of lesser educated men and women in different strata of Iranian society? To what extent can Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and his inner circle continue to impose scripted behavior patterns on the younger generations in Iran? To what extent will “common sense” derived from habitual interpretations of gender behaviors endure? The June 12 election and the ensuing protests continue to show that wide segments of the population are challenging the right of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to perpetuate their interpretations of “common sense.”  Answers to these questions lie in much more extensive study and analysis of women’s status in Iran and their roles in the distribution of political and social power. Answers also lie in more careful analysis of the media, especially the printed word that circulates throughout women’s groups in Iranian society and the use of cell phones, texting, and “hot” media.

President Obama has called for Islamic nations to do more to promote the education of girls and women and to make them stronger players in the political life of their societies. This is a shrewd gambit on his part, but U.S. policy analysts now need to devote greater resources to learning what drives girls and women in different Islamic societies. If they are more educated but kept from playing greater roles in the development of their societies and the political structures that govern them, then social unrest will continue to seethe under the surface. And despite efforts by “morality police” to intimidate and control women’s behavior, women will continue to strive for political legitimacy and pursue feminist ideology beyond the comprehension of powerful men. They will note what is present in their lives and what is missing, what they can access and what is off limits, and where they can speak out and where they have to remain silent and adapt accordingly.

Gender and feminist ideologies will continue to play a role in the evolving post-revolutionary era of Iran, and it behooves us to study them and recognize their manifestations. In her analyses of evolving feminist ideology in Canada and Europe, Gertrude Joch Robinson has noted that, “gender also creates ways of exchanging and not exchanging information, help, emotional sustenance, ethical enlightenment, and human closeness. Gender does not cause communication practice, it is communication practice and this practice is structured by deep-seated assumptions about inequality.” (Robinson, “Monopolies of Knowledge in Canadian Communication Studies,” 66-7, cited in R. Babe, op. cit., p. 222.)

President Obama’s Cairo speech showed that he recognizes what Robinson has stated and seeks to engage people in other societies that recognize it as well. The President’s Cairo speech and subsequent statements offer American diplomacy an important framework with which to engage foreign publics and present U.S. values and policies. It remains to be seen how we will use it.End.

The views expressed here are entirely the author’s own and do not reflect any official U.S. government policy.
No publication or reproduction in any media is authorized without the author’s permission.

Bruce Byers
Bruce Byers

Bruce K. Byers lived in Iran and worked as a cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran from 1972-74. He traveled widely in Iran and met with many people at universities, colleges, news media, and cultural institutions.


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