Women and Islamic Fundamentalism
Donna M. Hughes
Professor & Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair Women’s Studies
University of Rhode Island
March 6, 2013 – United States Capital Visitor Center, Washington, D.C.
In 1979, the citizens of Iran rose up against the king, the Shah of Iran. The protestors were politically diverse. Some were liberal and wanted a secular government. Some were socialists or communists. Some were liberal Islamists. And some were extreme Islamic fundamentalists. In the end, the fundamentalists overpowered all other groups and formed the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocratic dictatorship, ruled by the Supreme Leader, then Ayatollah Khomeini, and now by Ayatollah Khamenei.
They merged their interpretation of the Quran with terror and politics to form a government and a movement with the continuing goal to export their revolution of sharia rule to other Muslim countries. To their enemies, they promise death. They have carried out assassinations of political opponents in the heart of Europe. They have carried out bombings of buildings and buses to kill Jews in foreign countries. They regularly promise death to America and the annihilation of Israel.
The Iranian regime tolerates no political opponents internally. Even social critics, such as artists and bloggers, have been imprisoned and died under torture. Iranian prisons are full of political prisoners, and even the relatives of opponents. Opponents that exist outside the country are targeted for destruction. The main opponent of the fundamentalists at the time of the formation of the fundamentalist regime is still their main opponent today: the Mojahedin (Peoples Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) or Mojahedin al-Khaleq (MEK)). They estimate that 120,000 of their members and supporters have been killed by the Iranian regime.
After it was impossible to continue their movement inside Iran, the Mojahedin built a camp, Camp Ashraf, in eastern Iraq.
For two and a half decades, the Iranian regime has manipulated western powers to weaken the Mojahedin. A serious blow came in 1997, when the U.S., followed by the E.U. and U.K., as a good-will gesture to Iran put the Mojahedin on the terrorist list. In 2003, the U.S. after the invasion of Iraq, disarmed the group who lived in Camp Ashraf. The U.S. gave them protected person status. Since then, the Mojahedin has reformulated their strategy toward the Iranian regime as non-violent resistance. And after many years of legal struggle, judges ruled that they were not terrorists, and they have been removed from all terrorist lists. The process of delisting revealed the political motivation of governments to appease the Iranian regime by delegitimizing their opponents.
I want to go back to the beginning of the Mullah’s regime again for a moment. After the fundamentalists seized power in post-Shah Iran, they began shaping their vision of society. Even a brutal dictator cannot suppress and change every segment of society at once. The Ayatollah Khomeini chose to begin with women by rolling back all rights to freedom and dignity. They lost their personal freedom to dress as they wanted in public. New laws reduced women to the status of a dependent who required their father or husband’s permission to work or travel. All means of violence, from public humiliation to lashings, to imprisonment, were used to force the women into submission. Since then, the misogynous control and suppression of women has been an ongoing obsession of the Iranian government. Women have not been spared arrest or execution for rebellious behavior, especially any involvement in political opposition.
The Mojahedin developed a unique strategy for combating Islamic fundamentalism:empower the most oppressed to lead the opposition. Women within the organization started learning every job and skill needed by the organization, mostly importantly leadership. According to Maryam Rajavi, leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the blow to defeat the fundamentalists would come from the ones they most oppressed: women. As a complement to the empowerment of women, the men of the Mojahedin were transformed as well into men who can work with women as equals.
Today, as we look around the Middle East and North Africa at revolutions and uprisings, women are participants in all the protests to overthrow dictatorships. Many of them are looking for freedom and equality. Yet, we are seeing the same pattern repeating itself as happened in 1979 in Iran. Women are losing rights as Islamists take over the governing of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. We are not here to talk about these countries today, but women’s leadership of political movements with a dedication to women’s equality is something we must recognize as a very important strategy.
Now, we need to turn our attention to the current crisis faced by the 3000 members of the Mojahedin, which includes about 1000 women, who live in Iraq. Since they were disarmed, their status and vulnerability as escalated. While at Camp Ashraf, Iraqi troops with the assistance of Iranian forces have murdered 47 residents injured hundreds.
As part of a bargain with former Secretary of State Clinton, they agreed to be moved to Camp Liberty, near the Baghdad Airport, to undergo interviews for placement in other countries as refugees. The conditions at so-called Camp Liberty are substandard and utilities have not been maintained. People have died because they have been prevented from leaving the camp to get emergency medical treatment in Baghdad. Worst of all, seven people have been murdered and a hundred more injured, some of them seriously enough to be permanently disabled, by rocket attack from outside the camp. Hezbollah in Iraq, an affiliate of the Maliki government organized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Qods Force has claimed responsibility for the attack. Since the attack, Hezbollah in Iraq has stated that they are committed to Ayatollah Khamenei and killing members of the Mojahedin is a religious and ethical duty and they plan to target them again in the future.
The murders and increasing risk of more murders of unarmed, essentially imprisoned, members of the Mojahedin are the result of inaction by the United States and the outright corruption and complicity of the Iraqi government and the United Nations. The U.S. gave the members of Mojahedin at Camp Ashraf protected status, but have now shamefully gone back on their signed agreement with these women and men. The United Nations Representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler, has outright lied about the safety and security of Camp Liberty. Since the missile attack, he has refused to visit the camp. Apparently there is collusion among officials to murder the political opponents of the Iranian regime.
No group of people should be held in a confined area and deliberated shelled. This is a massacre of unarmed people who cannot protect themselves or flee. The people at Camp Liberty are a politically important group of people, as well as human beings with basic rights. They are the main opposition to the terrorist state of Iran. They have deep intelligence sources inside Iran that have revealed secret nuclear projects. They have social networks that are helping to organize protests against the regime. We should also value them as an elite group of women and men who have worked diligently to solve the persistent problem of gender inequality. We need them for the same reason the Iranian regime is determined to destroy them.
The overthrow of the theocratic dictatorship in Iran would end the threat of this terrorist regime getting a nuclear weapon; it would end the export of terrorism to countries around the world; it would end the brutal treatment of Iranian citizens for practicing such basic rights as freedom of speech and artistic expression. But on this day of celebration of International Women’s Day, it is worth thinking about what this would mean for women. The women of Iran would be liberated from the vilest oppression, and there will be the opportunity to create a state in which women’s rights don’t get swiftly forgotten or buried again.
I personally have learned much about women’s rights, dignity, and empowerment from Maryam Rajavi and all the Iranians — women and men — in the resistance organizations.