Yes, You Can Criticize Oppressive Islamic Theocraciese without Being Islamophobic
Darya Farah Foroohar
June 25th, 2018
Recently, we have seen the yawning cavern between two different sides of America become more apparent as incidents of hate crimes, school shootings, and protests from both sides of this divide increase astronomically, fueled by a sense of urgency to impact the ever-fluctuating world we live in. But just as many liberals, especially the youth, have been fighting back against the neo-Nazi resurgence with marches, social media campaigns, and lobbying for more progressive legislation, the “resistance,” as it has frequently been dubbed, is often glamorized and cleaned up so that there is only an illusion of making a difference. This is not to say that activism has become a superficial process focused only on looking good. But with the commercialization of events like Pride, heavy police regulation of marches, and performances that make protests seem more like concerts, it appears we have forgotten much of what-- and who-- we are fighting for, in favor of an easy-to-digest “us vs them” narrative.
Alas, the truth is not so simple, which is what brings me to the issue of women’s rights in Iran, a country that is on the surface a hardline Islamic theocracy but in truth containing much political dissent hidden by both the militaristic government and the narrative of American mainstream news outlets. In 1979, the Shah was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution, which led to a government takeover by Ayatollah Khomeni, a much-lauded imam by the masses, many of whom realized their faith was not well-founded when their civil liberties began to get stripped away. Women in particular required the permission of their husbands to get divorced, were not allowed to sing in public, and had to wear the hijab from age seven— a regulation enforced by police violence and arrest. These laws are still in place today, but— unlike many Westerners may believe— the citizens of Iran are protesting with just as much fervor as their Western counterparts; they just don’t receive the same kind of support. The Middle East is often portrayed as alien, with its people having a completely different culture than ours, and under this topic the Western left and right unknowingly unite by refusing to properly address the issue: the right because they believe all Middle Easterners are the terrorists described in the news or choose their autocratic governments, while the left are hesitant, wanting to stick to a narrative of people they can easily blame and helpless victims they can save.
My stepmother, Masih Alinejad, is an Iranian women’s rights activist who has started several social media campaigns to help women liberate themselves from the daily oppression they face, made physical by the hijab, a symbol of their entire lives being controlled by a government that doesn’t respect them. While she does not wear the hijab herself, she supports pro-hijab activists and advocates for women to choose what they wear. However, she has expressed frustration after being ignored by these activists, who claim she is against Islam and trying to take away their right to wear the veil. Their response, if disheartening, is understandable: in this climate, where details are forgotten in favor of broad, often misleading headlines, for them to support an activist helping women take off the hijab would be asking for slander by trolls and accusations of hypocrisy and Islamophobia.The environment of instant, rapid-fire condemnation has forced activism to be oversimplified: we are all supposed to fight for one side, for example, the right of women to wear the hijab; once another narrative is added, the issue starts to get a little more complicated and the outraged masses begin to wonder who is really the ‘bad guy’ in this situation.
However, just because you believe in the right to wear the hijab doesn’t mean you should ignore the struggles of those trying to take it off. The women in Iran face daily oppression, whether it comes in the form of street harassment from both men and the morality police, restrictions on driving and singing in public, and multiple-year prison sentences for nonviolent protests. But their situation runs the risk of being dubbed a “third-world issue,” or a part of Iranian culture, not prevalent enough to merit widespread western attention. It is true that the oppression of women under the guise of religious freedom is common in the middle east, but this is not just a middle eastern issue. Women all around the world are being oppressed in different ways, physically, socially, and economically; to dub one type of oppression lesser than others is to deem these women not worth helping. Furthermore, not doing anything about the issue because you think it’s a part of Iranian culture or fundamental to Islam frankly makes my blood boil. Murder is not religious freedom. Beating a woman is not religious freedom. Telling girls they need to cover up or else they will get raped is not religious freedom; it’s using the excuse of being in a position of power to control the female population. Most Muslims believe in a woman’s freedom to choose whether she wants to wear the hijab, and they would not force their faith on people who do not believe in it. Thus, the human rights violations in Iran are not due to its culture (which is much older and distinct from Islam) but to a violent, corrupt interpretation of Islam that allows people like President Hassan Rouhani to manipulate the population and profit off of western ignorance and indifference.
Yet the fact that the oppression of women in Iran and many other countries comes under the guise of a utopian Islamic Republic is not an excuse to be Islamophobic. Criticism of Iran’s government is natural, almost encouraged, and definitely supported by Iranians themselves, as shown by the 2009 Green Revolution and February protests. Speaking up when someone brushes off issues in Iran is definitely welcomed, as is spreading the word about the situation and sharing news. But to blame the issues on “the oppressive tide of Islam” is using a repressive situation to brand all of Islam as violent and oppressive; it is just using this problem to promote your own Islamophobia. Those who do not choose to be Muslim should not be forced to abide by its practices, but those who do should be respected just like everyone else. It’s not that difficult to respect both those who choose to wear the hijab and those who do not, and honestly, that choice is (gasp) none of your business.
To those unsure of how they should proceed, I encourage you to learn more about Islam, Iran, and how the two interact. One of the main reasons why a lot of Middle Eastern issues do not get a lot of attention in the West is because Westerners often don’t want to get involved because they don’t know enough. To this, I say: get involved! It doesn’t matter if it’s just reading and educating yourself -- just the act of learning about the world’s issues will help you become less westernized and see that across borders, activists are all fighting for a fairer world, just within different contexts.
If you liked my article and want to know more, here are some organizations that are working to and compulsory hijab and increase women’s rights in Iran!
My Stealthy Freedom: http://mystealthyfreedom.net/en/
Author's note: This piece was originally written for Third Eye Media, an online media magazine for which I am a staff writer.