The International Herald Tribune site has published a thought-provoking article on the role of women in Iran and their achievements. The author, Roger Cohen, has travelled recently to the country and had a privileged look on the revolutionary part many women are playing there.
He tells of the piteous moments he witnessed:
...a slender woman clutching her stomach outside Tehran University after the blow; a tall woman gesticulating to the men behind her to advance on the shiny-shirted Basij militia; women shedding tears of distilled indignation; and that young woman who screamed, “We are all so angry. Will they kill us all?”
Many of us Western girls know prejudice, scorn and even hostility, but few know it to that extent. Many of us fear walking in certain parts of town, not always really dangerous ones, nourishing mostly imaginary fears of attack and robbery. All of us know how annoying and disgusting it feels to be called names on the street just because we are women, but in such parts of the world, women face much harder challenges than that.
Let's all of us, both men and women, when we hear of such accounts reconsider the ordeals we face daily, and even if our lives are as hard as theirs, value the counterbalances we have, which they don't.
It's so easy to claim that our problems are worse than everybody else's, despite the (relative) freedom, knowledge, joy and support we have. Though regarding their problems in all their seriousness doesn't end ours, it should give us strength and solace to know that there are others carrying their burdens, not wasting time with defeating thoughts.
This closing remark in Cohen's article is sobering:
I asked one woman about her fears. She said sometimes she imagines an earthquake in Tehran. She dashes out but forgets her hijab. She stands in the ruins, hair loose and paralyzed, awaiting her punishment. And she looked at me wide-eyed as if to say: do you understand, does the world understand our desperation?
A hijab is just a piece of clothing, but such a deep meaning it has. Just as clothes can express all the character of the one who wears them, they can also tag the wearers with all the shame, guilt and humiliation society intends for them. It has been so from the loincloth of slaves to the Star of David stitched on the sleeves of Jews during the Holocaust era.
It's all too easy for us in our advanced countries disregard what it must feel like to be hived off like that, when we are used to expressing our wildest dreams (and nightmares) in our daily wear, and trivial as it is, such freedom shouldn't be taken for granted.
Some of the comments are as challeging as the article itself. For instance, this one by Tom Wonacott:
But your commentary is heresy to multiculturalists - and offensive to Muslims, Mr. Cohen. Multiculturalists teach us that one culture is not better than another, just different (cultural relativism). Multiculturalism celebrates and teaches respect for all cultures - even those cultures traditionally criticized because of their poor human rights record - like Iran.
Judging what is moral in another culture is “unfair” since we must judge the culture by our standards of morality. For example, gender discrimination is not tolerated in our society, but inequality of the sexes is the norm in most Islamic states or within the caste system in parts of India, thus gender bias is culturally sensitive. Thus, you are an insensitive, cultural supremacist, Mr. Cohen. Keep up the good work…
Yes, we must give respect as we like to receive it, but according to Tom, there's no common truth, no common sense at all. And if each can bend truth according to their whims, then there's no right or wrong, or so such a shallow concept would lead us to believe. But there's one seemingly insignificant fact that proves that, at least in this matter, cultural respect is not lacking on those who condemn the hijab, and all such discriminatory clothes: There are local women rebelling against it, and everything it embodies.
Yes, there's a great number of women who are resigned to it in Iran and all the other countries that keep such customs, but the amount of women who show their displeasure is considerable, not taking into account all those who fear expressing their resentment. And they don't do that because they are influenced by some Hollywood movie in which women wear miniskirts, but because that is clearly offensive.
The very act of wearing such clothes in the intemperate heat of those countries is unhealthy. I wonder if any of those men who agree to its use, including Tom, would put up with wearing that under a torrid 40°C sun!
As for the gender discrimination, does culture excuse people to discriminate against others for difference in gender, sexual preference, culture, race, nationality, religion, disability or any other form this many-headed monster has taken? Can any of us give some evidence of being inherently better than anybody else? And if we're all equal in nature, such disparaging attitude isn't supposed to be fought? Well, one can always choose to ignore reality...This other comment, by seattlesh, sums up any argument we can use to counter such simplistic ideas:
Yes, there are those in every nation that... understand the desperation. Ask any person of color, any gay or lesbian or working mother here in the US. Ask a union worker who has fought for a shred of dignity and recognition for his or her accomplishments and contributions to their employer after being outsourced and cast aside.
Ask one of the millions of people who live in fear because they lack basic health care. Ask the university student and their parents about the staggering student loan debt that they enter the adult world with. Ask the returning disabled veteran unable to obtain proper physical and psychological care. The fight never stops. There is always someone to demonize or try to control by those drunk on power and their sense of entitlement.
The Iranian women will prevail. Iranian society and the power elite cannot eradicate their knowledge that they have gained through higher education. The information age brought on by computers and the internet is an unstoppable train. As we all know from Sir Francis Bacon's famous quote, "Knowledge is power".