By Azar Majedi | 8 March 2003
Center For Inquiry
This is based on Azar Majedi’s speech made at a conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in commemoration of International Women’s Day on 8th March 2003.
When Nahid Riazi asked me to make a speech on the theme of the conference, “the good, obedient and pious woman”, I thought to myself how this topic is irrelevant to Danish women. Maybe in the 18th or 19th century you would make such a speech here in Denmark but in the 21st century? Then I realized that we are talking about women who are born in the East, or Islam ridden countries. This contrast made me think that at one time in history there was a universal image of such a woman. Once, this topic was relevant everywhere, be it Scandinavia, France, or Iran, and Egypt. But social upheavals, political revolutions, cultural movements succeeded to change this image in the West. In the East however, the story is different. The West moved into the era of capitalism faster, the era that brought about massive social movements and political revolutions, equal right movements, civil liberties, women’s rights, and socialist movements. In the West, too a great deal of effort and struggle were needed to change the prevailing image of the obedient woman.
Here in the West, too, women were burned and stoned to death. They were as rightless as a piece of property. Great movements and upheavals, such as the Great French Revolution, the October Revolution, the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s were needed to change this patriarchal-sexist view of women.
In the East, in what I call Islamic ridden countries, the social movement and political upheavals to transform this image were crushed. One dictatorship after the other with help of the west was imposed upon the people. And recently we have been witnessing the rise of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, which owes its existence completely to the western aid, especially the USA.
11 September brought the cruel and brutal capacity of political Islam to the attention of the world. Before that for two decades, we the first hand victims of political Islam exposed its reactionary and oppressive nature relentlessly, told the world of countless attacks on human rights, women’s rights, of murders and torture committed by this movement. Our stories, our accounts, our witnesses were at best brushed aside by resorting to the racist concept of cultural relativism.
What is cultural relativism?
Cultural relativism is a racist concept, with a fancy name. It justifies two sets of values, rights and privileges for human beings according to a subjective, arbitrary concept, such as culture. To put it bluntly, according to this concept, because of my birthplace, I should enjoy fewer rights relative to a woman born in Sweden, England, or France. I should be content with my second-class status, because I was born in a country, which is under the rule of Islam and because a reactionary, misogynist government is in power. It goes even further and the second generation also becomes victim of this racist policy. They, too are discriminated against because the birthplace of their parents.
The defenders of cultural relativism have told us repeatedly that we have to respect our so-called culture, our so-called religion and silently and respectfully accept the fate they have assigned to us. We are told that all this brutality, deprivation, oppression is our culture – that we should be subjected to the most brutal form of misogyny, to sexual apartheid, to lashing and stoning, because it is dictated by our culture. I always wonder: is that what they think of us? Do these people think we belong to a nation of masochists? That we like to practice “our culture” not out of free will but by being subjected to imprisonment, torture, lashing, hanging and stoning?
Have you ever asked yourself if this is people’s culture, which has been chosen freely, and is practiced voluntarily, why is such a sophisticated system of oppression necessary? Why are Islamic states brutal dictatorships imposed upon people? Why do Islamist groups resort to terror, and as a matter of fact their only method is terrorism? Have you ever asked yourself why in Islamist communities women are so rightless? Why are they kept in their place by the threat of knife, acid, beating, and honorary killings? The ones who dare to question this rule and the so-called culture are punished by the “brave” men of their families, and the silent majority suffers alone? These are some very simple but valid questions that we have to answer. We have the moral obligation to answer.
Terror has always been the main weapon of political Islam. This force has committed countless crimes both where they are in power, like the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Mujahedin and the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the Sudan, and in Saudi Arabia, and where they are in opposition, as in Algeria, Pakistan, and Egypt. Terrorising the population is the policy and strategy of political Islam for seizing power.
11 September and its aftermath thrust political Islam and Islamic terrorism onto the center stage of world politics. In its present form and shape, political Islam as a powerful force in the mainstream of political conflicts in the Middle East, is a product of the West. Everyone knows how Bin Laden and the Taliban came to power, and gained political influence. It is a commonly known fact that stoning. But this terrorism did not remain confined to that region. It paid a home visit to the West too.
Women are the first victims of political Islam and Islamic terrorist gangs. Sexual apartheid, stoning, compulsory Islamic veiling and stripping women of all rights are the fruits of this reactionary movement. Political Islam must be relegated to its rightful place, to the margins of the societies they have been tearing apart. It must also be subdued in the Islamist communities in the West by upholding the basic principles of freedom and equality, by respecting women’s rights and its universal nature, by upholding children’s rights and secularism.
Going back to the issue of culture, I must emphasise that this is not the culture of the people living in the Middle East or so-called Moslem countries; this is actually the culture and politics being forced upon these people by the West spearheaded by the US. The dominant culture in any given society is the culture of the dominant system.
But suppose, only suppose that this assumption were true, and these atrocities were part of the culture of a given people. My question is, is this sufficient reason for turning our head around and stay indifferent to what seems, to our so-called culture, brutal, discrimination, sexism? Does the word culture sanctify any forms of brutality, oppression, violence and discrimination? Why is it that the concept of culture is so glorified, that overshadows any sense of justice, liberation, and human rights? These questions too, must be answered. All freedom loving, decent human beings with any sense of devotion to justice, equality and freedom must find the right answers.
Our movement has upheld progressive, libertarian and egalitarian values. To us a culture that is oppressive, that degrades women, advocates inequality, violence, misogyny, that promotes sexual apartheid has no sanctity, is not glorified and it must be changed. This is our response, this is our struggle. Secularism is part and parcel of this culture.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Azar Majedi is an Iranian communist activist, writer, chairperson of the Organization for Women’s Liberation and one of the leaders of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran. Majedi was born in Iran to an atheist father and Muslim mother.
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