Over the last three years I have had hundreds of conversations with people about life in Iran. I have long believed Iran’s to be a deeply repressed society in which freedom is curtailed in the name of religion and by an assortment of ‘holy men.’ I was initially bemused when talking to people about this, good people with solid left wing principles, and having my criticisms dismissed as those of a ‘cultural imperialist,’ ‘a neo-con,’ ‘an islamaphobe,’ to name a few terms thrown my way. As time went on and I realised that these weren’t, sadly, the views of the odd person here and there on the left, but those of the left’s mainstream, I moved from bemused to shocked, to saddened and then to angry.
Looking at a society where it is codified into law that a women is worth half a man, where the morality police prowl the streets arresting men and women for such ‘unIslamic’ behaviour as holding hands, where stoning is still an allowed punishment for adultery, where children can be hanged, where being gay is a crime, I found the stance of my so called comrades on the left to be unforgivable. I also found it ridiculous. I honestly could not believe that anyone could look at this society and say that people had chosen to live like this – but it became clear that is exactly what they believed. And worse than that, despite the desperate cries for freedom we are seeing now, some of them still do.
I think Nora's absolutely right to use the word 'repressed' to describe Iranian society, and to highlight its oppression of women and obsession with sexual behaviour. Since writing this post on Saturday, I've been unable to get the picture of Neda, shot to death by the religious militia, out of my head, nor to forget the claim of an eyewitness that her murder, as she stood watching a demonstration, was cold, calculating and deliberate. Putting it together with the clips I posted here and here of security forces and government supporters beating up unarmed female demonstrators, not to mention Iran's notorious record of legalised violence towards women, and you can't help wondering about the pathological roots of this institutionalised hatred of women.
Could it be that 'repressed', in a specific, clinical sense, is exactly the word to describe the 'holy men' who rule Iran? And does their vicious misogyny stem from the puritanical repression of sexuality that is part and parcel of their twisted religious outlook? Christopher Hitchens has a great quote from a young Iranian:
I went to the last major Ahmadinejad rally and got the whiff of what I imagine fascism to have been all about. Lots of splotchy boys who can't get a date are given guns and told they're special.
As Hitchens comments: 'It's hard to better this [...] as an evocation of the rancid sexual repression that lies at the nasty core of the "Islamic republic"'.
Theocracy, sexual repression and violence towards women often seem to go hand in hand. Think of Cromwell's Puritans and their vicious campaign of 'witch' burning, or Franco's fondness for summarily hanging female Republican prisoners. This may sound like another puff for Ophelia's new book, but can anyone name me a political system, in which religious institutions have a major role, that does not oppress women? And can anyone doubt that there's a close link between theocratic sexism and the sexual repression that infects fundamentalist religiosity?