Men, Women, and Iran: An Exchange

My friend and colleague Prof. David Blumenthal wrote this comment on my last posting, and I try to answer it below.

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.


Dear David,

You are, as always, very insightful, but here I think too pessimistic. It’s not that I was or am optimistic for the short run. I thought this round of protests would be put down or peter out, and I fully agree that the repression will be severe and effective. I also agree that many men in the fundamentalist part of the Islamic world oppress women because they themselves are disempowered-among other reasons. But why should we think this is permanent?

Anthropologists, as I always say, take the long view. In my last posting I tried to make the point that women are a vast fifth column behind the lines of the more fundamentalist communities in the Islamic world. What I mean is that over the next few generations (not years) women in that world will inevitably become more aware of the difference between their lives and those of women in even moderately liberal countries. They will demand and get education and then they will demand advancement. No doubt they will experience many setbacks, but they will be a long-term force for modernity.

Anthropology has two sorts of things to say about why men oppress women, one biological and one cultural; one applies to the human species as a whole, and one is more applicable in some cultures and historical periods than others.

Men in general oppress women because they can and because it is part of their biological heritage. Barbara Smuts of the University of Michigan has compiled convincing evidence that male violence against females is very widespread among primates, but in addition males in many species, including ours, stringently restrict women to control their reproductive destinies. In our species this desire to control uteruses-the most valuable biological resource-became a formally instituted obsession in many cultures.

Cultures around the Mediterranean have traditionally been more restrictive and oppressive of women than other cultures, and today the Arab cultures are probably the most extreme version of this pattern. Honor killings are a particularly egregious instance of it, and the clash of cultures between some Islamic immigrants and their European host countries is no more evident than when an honor killing is perpetrated.

But let’s not forget that in centuries past the Western tradition was not much less interested in controlling women. And when men in some Western countries felt too threatened by modernity, they created Fascism, which attempted to put women (along with feared minorities) back in their “proper” places. “Kinder, kuche, und kirche-Children, Cooking, and Church” was one of the Nazi slogans designed to hold back the tide of history in marital relations. Two generations later, Angela Merkel, a nuclear physicist who became Chancellor of Germany, is modernity’s answer.

Iran is of course, as you say, not part of the Arab world and is quite different from it in some ways. But Iranian and Arab fundamentalists are similar in others. One of the most interesting quotations to come out of Iran in these two weeks was hearsay, but it corresponded to countless documented statements. A man asked why he supported Ahmadinejad reportedly said, “All the whores are with Moussavi.”

This, psychologically and in a sense biologically, is what it is all about. Some men are so frightened by women’s freedom that they hyper-sexualize it. For them, a woman in modest Western dress, even in hijab, is a whore if she has a strand of hair showing. Some men simply cannot separate their politics from their fear of female sexuality.

In addition, of course, as you suggest, they are often severely oppressed themselves, and cannot psychologically afford to give real rights to the one class of human beings they can plausibly consider beneath themselves. In this sense they are like the most oppressed whites in the American South a generation ago watching the liberation of blacks.

We Americans are not many generations away from our own version of Kinder, Kuche, and Kirche, nor China from the “lotus foot” that crippled countless women, nor India from burning widows alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres. The wheels of social history may grind very slowly, but they keep on turning.

One comment

  1. Mel — Thank you for your comments. I agree that repression of women is certainly not only an Islamic phenomenon. Haredi [Ultra-Orthodox Jewish] men repress their women in certain ways, including violence in some circles. Haredi men, too, are disempowered economically, intellectually, etc. The difference is that haredi men are not a majority; they are a small subculture and, even in that subculture, there are very strict restraints against misusing women. In Arab cultures, this is the mainstream and the economic and political, as well as religious, structure of society support this repression.

    My point is that I think that this comes from the culmination of various forms of disempowerment. The answer to women’s liberation, then, should be empowerment of men. The great advantage of my theory, however, is that it is more than possible that I am 100% wrong. The early stages of empowerment will certainly bring more repression as the fear of falling back becomes greater but, ultimately, I should be right. Primates with abundant females and food should be less aggressive.

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