Sunday, June 14, 2009

Gender exists everywhere, remember?

The Boston Globe has a gorgeous set of photographs (The Globe is always incredible for pictures) about the Iranian elections (pre-protests). This one really stood out to me:

A wheelchair-bound supporter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is lifted above the crowd at his final election campaign rally, on Azadi street in western Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, June 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

I mean, wow.

But something that struck me was the fact that several of the pictures of Mousavi supporters show crowds that are entirely or overwhelmingly composed of women. Look:

There are more. (Really, check the whole thing out, it's gorgeous.) Especially in the context of Anna's discussion of gender in the Lebanese elections at Feministing, I find this interesting. It may be that conservative women are simply less likely to attend rallies (where are all the male reformists, though? Are they not as pretty or something?) Anna:

I would like to think that the FPM’s nauseating “Sois Belle et Vote” (“Be beautiful and vote”) posters had something to do with [the opposition's loss].


Because of its sectarian political system (and corruption, and personality cults, and nepotism, and foreign interference, and its electoral law, and and and), Lebanese politics are at the extreme end of “unresponsive,” and very few politicians or parties boast nuanced, concrete platforms. But it’s one thing to not respond to female voters; it’s another to insult them.

This is in sharp contrast to what appears to be happening in Iran, if we are to believe NPR, the BBC, the WSJ, Reuters, The Times, and a number of other news outlets who are focusing on the power of politicians’ wives and the preferences of women voters in tomorrow’s elections. People here in Lebanon whose political leanings tend away from the Hizballah/Aoun opposition often refer to Hizballah’s Iranian sponsorship and express fear that Lebanon’s free, liberated (read: tank tops, bikinis, bank loans available for plastic surgery) women will find themselves swathed in chadors should the other side ever claim a political victory.

In both countries, whatever they are wearing and whatever they look like, women are highly educated (in Iran they are majority of university students) and have brains of their own in perfect working order. The way these consecutive election campaigns were/are being conducted – with Lebanese politicians ignoring women’s demands in favor of appealing to their presumed vanity, and Iranian politicians at least making an effort to promise things like cabinet posts to women – says a lot more about how women are viewed as citizens than their dress codes.

First of all, speaking of chadors, from the Globe again:

An Iranian women recites the holy Quran as she stands in line to cast her vote at the Masoumeh shrine in Qom, Iran on Friday, June 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

What an incredible image. I wonder why there are only women there; are polling stations gender-segregated? Do conservatives self-segregate? Just (unlikely) chance?

Regardless of the actual explanation, I'm quite sure it will never be explained or even examined by the Western press. I'm ashamed to admit that I had committed the pathetic fallacy that Anna implicitly pointed out of viewing Arab electoral politics only one way (in Lebanon by sect, in Iran by class/political orientation) and viewing Arab gender politics entirely separately. No one here is interested in the gender dynamics of these elections, because we're only concerned with the elections as they relate to us.

The dirty secret of Lebanese sectarianism is that it was revolutionized, fostered and empowered by the Western Great Powers (primarily Britain and France) starting in the mid-nineteenth century. (See Usama Makdisi's fabulous book The Culture of Sectarianism, which everyone should read before talking about Lebanon.) Various Western interests took religious communities as their own special proteg├ęs, partly as a way to get an economic foothold and partly as civilizing projects. The legacy of this dynamic is that we view shifts in the power distributions among various sects as signs of our own power and of the public's opinion of us. This is part of why we're so interested in Lebanese politics (that and all the civil war, and the wars with Israel).

Similarly, in Iran, we are not truly interested in the status of women--we occasionally make concerned noises, but usually it's a prop for a larger dislike of our regional enemy, a way of othering Iranians. I'm not saying women have it peachy keen; they don't. I'm saying that most American political concern for them is disingenuous, at best half-hearted. We're interested in elections and reformers for our own benefit.

And to an extent, that makes perfect sense: nations are self-interested. But the downfall of that view is that it really limits our ability to analyze events like these because we only have one lens. It didn't occur to me to wonder what the gender breakdowns in either election were, or to consider gender as a factor. (And I don't have a self-interest excuse: I'm a person, not a nation, and I study the Middle East.) Now that Anna--and these pictures--have forced me to think about it, it makes lots of sense that young women would be inclined toward the reformers' camp. They're educated, they have few prospects (Iran has a very educated and very unemployed population), and they want more options than Iranian women have had since 1979.

Ultimately, I don't have a lot to say about women in Iran, because I don't know much. I try not to speculate too much about subjects close to my specialty--coming out a doofus close to home is much worse than considering subjects that aren't important to me. But I'm glad that this blind spot has become visible to me. Now I can fix it.

In closing, may I say that Iran is walloping us when it comes to attractive polling places.

An woman arrives at a polling station during the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)

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