T K Arun
Women’s struggles for the right to autonomy on par with men are evolving into a potent political force in the world today, a force for good.
In the simple act of removing the headscarf (hijab), the women of Iran have found a powerful tool of civil disobedience that, if sustained, can wholly undermine the authority of the Islamic regime. In resisting abortion bans in the US, American women are blocking a conservative backlash that Donald Trump has been hoping to ride to victory in the presidential elections of 2024. Women’s struggles for the right to autonomy on par with men are evolving into a potent political force in the world today, a force for good.
The death of a 22-year-old girl in the custody of Iran’s morality police has brought out protesters across the country. They chant slogans, burn headscarves and demonstrate to demand not just an end to moral policing but also an end to the Islamic dictatorship. There are reports of protests in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in solidarity with the women of Iran. If Afghan women find the courage to defy the Taliban’s orders on wearing the veil in public that would be the beginning of the end of Islamic rule in that country, too.
Sitting in Fascist prison under the eyes of the censor, Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci theorized about the war of position, in which the working class resists the hegemony of ruling-class culture by drawing on its own cultural resources to build a shared counterculture and solidarity that spreads across society. That cultural resistance, he said, would unite and empower the opposition to the ruling class.
During India’s freedom movement, Gandhi picked on passive resistance as a form of opposing the rulers without inviting mass repression. In persuading people to reject mill-made cloth and wear home-spun, handwoven cloth, Gandhi presented the British with a cultural, political and economic challenge, which a regime that professed to seek to civilize the natives found difficult to suppress. Defiance of the salt tax and asking people to pick up salt directly from where it formed in pans near the sea, Gandhi demonstrated how non-violent, passive resistance could undermine the regime’s legitimacy.
The simple act of refusing to wear the veil would resist the ruling culture, challenging it with a culture of the democratic right of the woman to wear what she wants. The right to wear what a woman wants is, of course, a right to liberty from male control over women, their conduct, and their role in social and political life.
In the United States, when the Supreme Court ruled, overthrowing its own verdict in the case referred to as Roe vs. Wade, that the Constitution did not offer any right to abortion, Republican states began to curtail or remove women’s right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term or not. Women, who were happy to go along with Republican politics, even when it sought to restrict abortion rights, so long as such politicking could not take away what they thought was their basic right to decide what they want to do with their own body, suddenly confronted the reality of having to fight to protect essential control of their own body.
Even in traditional Republican states, women became politically active. They registered in large numbers to vote in the midterm elections scheduled for November. They took part in referendums, such as the one in Kansas, to defeat legal changes that would take away their freedom of choice. They voted against conservative Republicans such as Sarah Palin in Alaska. They are poised to reverse the Democrats’ slide into impotence by losing their majority in both the House and the Senate.
The end of the Islamic regime in Iran, if it comes about, and the reversal of what seemed to be a winning streak for Republicans in the US, would both have world-historical significance.
The version of Islam that gained currency in the second half of the 20th century is illiberal, by Islam’s own standards of the Ottoman empire or even the social norms described in the tales of the Thousand Nights and One Night, and ill-suited to multicultural coexistence. Islam became a victim of the Cold War. All modernising, democratising tendencies in the Muslim world were supported by the Soviet Union and, therefore, actively opposed by the United States. In Iran, Iraq and Indonesia, thousands of Communists and democrats were killed by anti-Communist governments installed with western help. The potential for modernisation of Islam in the Indian subcontinent was disrupted by the Partition.
The Pahlavi regime in Iran sought to impose a superficial modernity on Iran, but quashed all democratic rights, after the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh was ousted for showing the temerity to nationalise the Anglo Iranian Oil Company. The Americans and the British supported the restoration of absolute monarchy in Iran. In the absence of political space, opposition to the Shah’s excess found expression in the religious idiom. Counterculture took the form of the Islamic Revolution.
If the Islamic Revolution unravels, thanks to its antipathy to women’s rights, it would pave the way for democratizing the Islamic world.
In the US, President Trump represents US unilateralism and isolationism, which, if allowed to develop, would undermine contemporary global power equations, in a fashion that would impose huge costs on a country like India. If American women succeed in blocking Trump’s return to power by making the November mid-terms a rout for the Republicans, it would make for a more orderly transition to a multipolar world.
Here’s wishing more power to the women of the world!
The article was also published in Money Control as Women unravel authoritarian power in Iran and the US on October 3, 2022
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About the author
T K Arun, is a Senior Journalist and Renowned Columnist based in Delhi.