Alex Shams, Archives

Patriarchy & Islamism between Tehran and Cairo

The newest viral sensation in the Egyptian blogosphere is a video purporting to be a message from the “Women of Iran” directed towards the “Women of Egypt and Tunisia,” exhorting them to fight for their rights lest they suffer the same fate as Iranian women did 1979.

Before I start with any content analysis, it should be noted that the video is a translation of a video originally posted in English by this Youtube user, who states their location as being in Austria but has numerous comments recorded in French & Arabic on videos related to Tunisia. I’m not sure on what authority this person has decided that they can represent the women of Iran in this video, but it’s something to keep in mind while watching.

The original video has decidedly joyful playing throughout, whereas the edited version with Arabic has a much darker theme. The video begins with images of scenes of smiling Iranian women before the revolution, universally uncovered, happy, and captioned as working women or students.

Predictably, the scenes shift to ones of revolution (veiled and unveiled women all protesting together), and then to pictures of women wearing the veil, looking sad, and then getting beaten up.

Unfortunately, this video reproduces various narratives about Muslim women’s rights and freedom that have dominated Western narratives of the Middle East and secularist Middle Eastern narratives since at least the late 1800’s, when colonial feminism gained steam in Iran and the Middle East.

One obvious problem is the idea’s basic category of analysis: that all women in XYZ country have the same experience of secularism or Islamism. Categories like “Women in Iran” and “Women in Egypt” erase difference, suggesting that, for example, all women in Iran experienced absolute elimination of their rights post-1979- which is, of course, factually untrue. Effects varied along lines of class and religiosity, and for many women the years since 1979 have been ones both of struggle as well as great achievements in all fields that trump the decidedly cosmetic successes of the Shah era.

This focus on women’s bodies as evidence- either of modernity or backwardness- has long roots in the region, particularly since the late 19th century as European colonists tried to justify their colonization by using social sciences to prove how great they were and how backwards we were. Soon, elites in the Arab countries (and Turkey, and in our own country) were measuring progress by how much our women looked like Europeans, and presto! Half of Shemiran was blond.

It’s not just fashion- it’s a legacy of colonialism and our own oghdeh (as well as that of our neighbors). My advice? Stop extremism of all sorts (religious and secularist- and definitely no “Bomb Iran” shit), and men: stop taking out your inferiority complexes on women’s bodies.

May I suggest as an antidote to this video another one, this time of an Egyptian woman telling Mubarak to get the hell out and go to London if he’d like, this during the January uprising.


Given the great brutality shown by Egyptian police in the last few days against protesters (notably in stripping and humiliating this young woman in Tahrir Square), there is a great need for skepticism regarding the potential “Islamist threat” to woman- a fear of which diverts our attention the patriarchy- Islamist, secular, Zionist, or whatever- is ACTUALLY inflicting upon women.

About Alex Shams

Alex Shams is bacheye Los Angeles, a fact he has spent years trying to deny but eventually learned to embrace. Raised in the diaspora but with as many summers as possible spent in Tehran, he first became interested in regional politics after being chased out of a history class debate at his evangelical middle school during the Iraq War. After a few years dividing his time between Beirut, Istanbul and, most recently, Boston, he is now working in journalism and is based out of Palestine. His interests include feminism, urbanism and Islamism in Iran and the Arab World. Follow him on twitter: @SeyyedReza He is a co-editor of Ajam Media Collective, a blog focused on Iran, Central Asia, and Diaspora societies and cultures.


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