“… and By the Way, Led By Women”

iran10616091This was the remark of a TV journalist about the movement to defeat Ahmadinejad at the ballot box-and that was before the protests began. As the weeks wore on, women became even more prominent. They were in the forefront of many demonstrations, exercising leadership, twittering and facebooking tips about police positions and protest meeting places.

Faezeh Rafsanjani, the daughter of a former Iranian president, was arrested last Tuesday when she defied a government ban and risked her life and freedom to speak to a rally. She’s been released, but the message is, in Iran, for any job, uppity women need not apply. Yet she also helped expose a fault line among the mullahs who run the country, and in doing so may help transform the regime.

Alas, the most famous face of the new Iranian rebellion is also female-that of Neda, a young woman dying from a gunshot wound to her chest, for the grave crime of standing up and marching peacefully for freedom. The shouts of the doctor trying in vain to staunch her bleeding and the desperate wailing of her father as she dies make the very graphic 40 second video indelible in memory. It’s been downloaded millions of times and televised to billions.

I would never belittle such a tragedy-I will never forget her face. But as I often say, anthropologists have to take the long view, and I have always found perverse encouragement in the fact Islamic extremists oppress women.

Let me explain. Back in the last Iranian revolution, when the ayatollahs’ iron-fisted reign was solidified as American hostages languished, I said that modernity was destined to win, because of the fifth column inside Islam. “Fifth column” has for decades been used to designate a group within a country that cannot be relied on to support the regime in a war. Usually that group is a minority.

Islam, especially extremist Islam, is vulnerable to a fifth column of unprecedented size and passionate involvement: all who possess two X chromosomes, 51 percent or more of the population in most countries. The more reactionary the regime and culture, the more oppressed is this long-suffering majority, and the more potentially destabilizing.

Not only that, but unlike most fifth columns, this one is intimate with its oppressors, often sharing a bed, a hearth, and a family with them. Their potential impact is something like the Lysistrata effect, but subtler and more powerful. It’s not just that they can withhold sex or make it unpleasant; it’s that they can create conditions in which men become estranged from their own children-conditions in which their children, especially their daughters, consider them irrelevant to their future.

Or, better and less destructively, conditions in which their daughters-and wives and sisters and aunts and mothers-teach them the meaning of freedom.

Once I was on a panel of anthropologists at Harvard talking to freshmen and sophomores about why they might want to consider majoring in anthropology. The young professor speaking before me emphasized the importance of learning about other cultures and very presciently-it was 1978-said that the West would soon have a major encounter with Islam, and that no one in America understood it.

More-than-half jokingly, as he sat down beside me and I got up, I whispered in his ear, “I understand Islam perfectly; it’s exactly like Christianity 500 years ago.” This flip remark may have contained only a grain of truth.

But after all, Christianity is about 700 years older,–500 if you start from when each became powerful. The Shia-Sunni split, the internal conflict between civilization and extremism, the pressure for and resistance to modernity, the mistreatment of minorities, and of course the second-class status of women are all features of the Islamic world today that have parallels in the Christian world of centuries past.

But I don’t think it will take 500 years for the triumph of modernity and of civilized Islam over extremism. For one thing, Islam had an experience of creating and maintaining a high civilization when the Christian world was backward; in this sense, Islam was the elder sibling. For another, today’s pace of communication exposes almost everyone in the world to the facts about how everyone else lives.

This can only favor modernity. And the most hopeful targets of this fast-paced communication are women and girls, especially educated ones. I’ve argued before that schooling girls is the surest path to development. It is also the surest path to democracy. It’s not an accident that 63 percent of the college students in Iran today are women, and it’s not a coincidence that they are leading the fight.

But it is not just in the street that they will ultimately prevail, it is in the bedroom and the kitchen, and in the conversations they have with their daughters and sons while walking them to school. Freedom, like charity, begins at home, and it has a woman’s face.


  1. Dear Mel,

    I’m not sure I agree that educating women is the way to go. As long as Islamic
    men have the following cluster of problems, no amount of women’s education
    will work:

    (1) Islamic men have no empowerment — not economic, not religious, not
    political, etc. This is also why Arabs can’t negotiate a peace; they have to
    be empowered, to win. (2) Islamic men believe that submission is the
    ultimate value — for themselves and especially for those who defy them. And
    (3) Islamic men believe in the right to male violence, even unto honor
    killings, etc. I just don’t see any way out of that. The Islamic elite keeps
    its people disempowered, believing, and violent and, hence, women will
    remain oppressed.

    Finally, we must remember that Iran is not Arabic in culture. We have had
    professors of Iran at Emory who made this very clear. Certainly there would
    never have been such demonstrations anywhere in the Arab world, including
    Palestinian culture. And certainly there would never have been such
    restraint on the part of the already empowered government. (The recent show
    of force is for show, I think.)

    The West wanted to see a genuinely democratic, women-led movement but, aside
    from being wrong about a serious electoral error, this group never stood a
    chance. Furthermore, the imprisonment and intimidation of these people has
    only just begun. In two months, they will have disappeared. At least, so it
    seems to me.

  2. Mel Konner says:

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’ve replied to it with a new posting, “Men, Women, and Iran: An Exchange”

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