Can I be a feminist and still go to Iran?

The complicated relationship between Iran and women’s rights has been making headlines again.
PHOTO CREDITS: IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency)

Two events of particular importance took place last week: the opening of the Women’s World Chess Championship and an official visit by Swedish EU Affairs and Trade Minister Ann Linde leading a business delegation in  Tehran. Both events have reignited the debate about how self-proclaimed feminists should engage with Iran without being accused of being hypocritical.

Let’s start with sports. The Women’s World Chess Championship took off on the 11th of February in Tehran, an event that includes sixty-three women from twenty-eight countries. It is unusual for women’s chess to attract such media attention, but the event has been surrounded by controversy ever since last year’s champion American Nazí Paikidze announced a few months ago that she would boycott the championship. Why? Because she views the mandatory use of the hijab ordered by the Islamic Republic as supporting the oppression of women. She began a petition, which currently has over sixteen thousand signatures, to change the location of the championship, the required attire, and restrictions on speech and travel, as these are the main causes of her indignation.

Controversy ensued, of course, with the usual debates among feminists, activists, journalists and scholars about whether or not to boycott countries which have tainted human rights records. Some hailed Paikidze’s action a civil rights-era kind of defiance, while others were more cautious in their approach, reminding us that the divisions created by these sorts of actions are exploited by the Iranian hardliners as a way to isolate the country.

Iran has not hosted many female-centered international sports events, which turns this championship into a golden opportunity for Iranian women. In fact, the reaction from Iranians themselves towards the calls for boycott, even those with a track record of fighting against oppression and serving time for it, has been largely negative. Mitra Hejazipour, a renowned Iranian chess grandmaster stated the following: “It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.” Western appeals for human rights that rely on boycotts have been labeled as misguided, a step backward after the recent attempts by Europe and the U.S. to reconcile with Iran.

Other Iranians have disagreed. The celebrated online movement My Stealthy Freedom routinely criticizes Western feminists for complying with the hijab and asks them to revolt against the mandatory use of the veil. The National Council of Resistance of Iran also voiced its strong opposition to the championship taking place in the country.

Although it is hard to disagree that the current law regarding mandatory use of hijab in Iran is oppressive, many Westerners and Iranians take issue with the isolationism that a boycott imposes. Iran as a tourist destination has only recently been re-discovered by the West, enchanting a whole new generation of travelers that look forward to seeing the country behind the headlines (the current number of tourists per year – five million – increased so much that the country now faces a shortage of hotel accommodation).

But so far we have been dealing with sports and one individual’s decision not to go to the country and comply with its laws. We may question her motives and disagree with the petition, but it’s still a private matter made public through mainly online activism. The debate becomes more intense when it jumps into the public sphere of state relations and raises the question of how a ‘liberal’ Europe should engage with Islamic Iran.

The current Swedish government has proclaimed itself feminist and aims to make women’s rights a priority. A number of news sources and commentators decided that such a purpose was completely contrary to the actions of  EU Affairs and Trade Minister Ann Linde, who is leading an all female business delegation to Iran this week. Shock and indignation erupted when the delegation was photographed wearing headscarves, complying with Iranian law. The most vicious critics emerged especially in right or conservative-leaning outlets, who immediately seized the opportunity to label the Swedish government as “hypocritical”, accusing them of parading around under a veil, but there were also critics from left deputies in Sweden. The most important critic though was, again, My Stealthy Freedom founder Masih Alinejad, who stated: “Women in Iran are not allowed to exercise their freedom of choice without facing harassment by the government. It is ironic that many female Western politicians who visit Iran keep silent about the Islamic Republic of Iran banning all women if they said no to forced hijab.”

This debate, however, is highly flawed. It confuses activism with foreign policy for one. Even if a government’s long-term goals are to advance human rights, the tools at its disposal are not the same as those granted to a human rights NGO. In some cases, it might have more leverage, in others less. An Iranian woman can organize a human rights campaign based on civil disobedience but a foreign dignitary on an official mission blatantly disrespecting the law would quickly be sent back home. If the Swedish representatives were to unveil themselves for feminism, it would probably severely damage relations between the two countries and it is doubtful any meaningful action would emerge from it.

Also, engaging with Iran might have better long term effects for women’s rights than walking away. All this criticism seems to impose a two-way street on self-proclaimed feminists hoping to engage with Iran: either disrespect the country’s laws or not go at all. Why? What would that accomplish? If from these trade deals between the two countries better job opportunities emerge for women, possibly scholarships and traineeships in Sweden, won’t that have a long-term impact on women’s rights in the country? While a “heroic” gesture of provocation will soon fade among other controversies and leave a dent only in foreign relations, economic cooperation between the two countries might change for the better the actual lives of women in the country.

It is not a coincidence that many outlets divulging this story are usually adverse to feminism or Iran. One of the most shared versions on social media was from UN Watch, a pro-Israeli website critical of the UN. Others came from conservative-leaning outlets usually very critical of the feminist movement. In case the Swedish representatives decided not to go to Iran or make a stance, I wonder whether they would, in turn, be criticized by the same outlets of being too ideological, to the point of endangering foreign relations and trade deals. As usual, this story became politicized and served as a pretext to criticize feminism as a movement and Iran as a hopelessly backward (and dangerous) country. At no point were women’s rights in the country the true core of conservatives’ concerns, otherwise, they should be quick to recognize the approach they seem to suggest (one of complete hostility towards Iran) will not and in fact has not worked.

Change is up to Iranians, not foreign envoys. Iranian society is dynamic, contradictory, youthful and educated. Even at its time of greater isolationism, Iran changed – and will continue to change. That’s all due to Iranian’s capacity to work creatively within the scope of the regime, constantly pushing the boundaries. Iran also has quite a tragic story of foreign interference that is constantly leveraged by hardliners to push against human rights in the country. But that doesn’t mean Iranians don’t fight for these rights in their own way. In fact, in the midst of all this controversy, in Iran itself, the problem that was pointed out was not the wearing of headscarves by foreign feminists, but the fact the Iranian government sent an all-male delegation to meet them. And that should tell us exactly where their priorities stand: not in a strategy that relies on foreign pressure and blackmail, but in changing Iranian society from the inside out.

Margarida Teixeira

Margarida is a Human Rights & Humanitarian Action Portuguese student in Paris, with previous background in Philosophy and Cinema. She is mostly interested in gender issues in the Persian-speaking world (Iran and Afghanistan).
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