By Salman Parviz

Prof on women’s rights, Iran-U.S. tensions and Majlis elections

February 21, 2020 - 9:50

Dr. Hakimeh Biria is an assistant professor at the University of Tehran at the Faculty of Islamic Education and Thought. She is also a mother of four children. She was with her father in Canada for one and a half years and went to Houston, Texas and eventually to Louisiana for her studies.

Returned to Iran in 2009 and completed her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Tehran. Her research has been focused on U.S.-Iran relations and Islamophobia in the West.
She has also had some research on women’s portrayal in Western media.

The following is an excerpt from the interview with Dr. Biria:

Q: You have graduated from Tehran University with a Ph.D. in American studies. Also studied in U.S., with a BA from Univ. of Houston and MA from Louisiana State University in mass communication. Please comment on women’s rights in the Islamic Republic compared to other Islamic countries and also the West.

A: There are those in the West who make an allegation against the Islamic Republic with regard to women’s rights.  This position is indicative of oppression that is actually made in the West against Islam in general. Many people have misunderstandings against Islam. Islamic Republic is hurt by such propaganda.

Does Islam oppress women? So if you go back to the words of Imam Khomeini, you see that they always talk very highly about women’s position, stating there is no difference between men and women’s position status wise. 

They both (genders) have a chance to grow spiritually and materially including academically and to play a role in society. Basically there is no truth behind such a statement and allegation that women are oppressed in the Islamic Republic.

In action, women have been oppressed in many societies and in history, in Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. That has nothing to do with the Islamic Republic.

In actuality, before the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran, women had been oppressed because of the fact that for decades there were people who were trying to make them lose their Islamic identity. So we are talking about a different kind of oppression. 

The full-fledged oppression of women in the West, including sexualization and objectification of women, trying to use women for the purpose of selling things in society. Women have become tools for selling in a system of capitalism. Islam’s idea is to bring women out of such oppression.  

Q: The headscarf, or the hijab, has been a mandatory part of women’s dress in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Many people in the West, including Iranian diaspora, think mandatory hijab is an infringement on women’s rights in Iran as well as some Islamic countries. Having spent your childhood in the West, you have seen both cultures. What is your opinion? 

A: You can look at both ways as placing restrictions on women. Freedom of covering. If you go to the West you actually see a different sort of infringement on women’s freedom. Women are forced not by law necessarily, but by culture and pressure from society to dress in a certain way, which brings me back to the objectification and sexualization of women.

This objectification and sexualization is portrayed as an important part of the empowerment of women in the West. In the West, a woman is considered empowered according to those standards of appearance.

In the Islamic Republic, we want men and women to work side by side together. The reason is that we want society to be free of objectification and sexualization. 

The idea that hijab is a hindrance in the way of women’s empowerment is a colonialist/orientalist trope with a political agenda.  You see women in Muslim societies have played an active role in standing up against colonialism and later forms of foreign domination of their countries.  What gave them the power and energy to play such a role was their Islamic identity.  One can see the most perfect example of such women’s empowerment in the course of the Islamic revolution.  In some places as in Mashhad, women are forerunners of the revolutionary cause.  Later on, during the eight-year holy defense, you see many women who send their husbands and sons to the war front and persevere after their martyrdom.  They become the messengers who try to bring the message of their martyrs to the wider society.  They show unbelievable patience and resilience.  Hijab is a symbol of this sort of women’s empowerment in Muslim societies: women who are so powerful that they can overcome unbelievable levels of hardship on the way to achieve their goals.  

All this has made hijab, to use the words of one of United States’ think tank experts, a minefield for those powers who wish to achieve domination over the Muslim world.  So in my view, the pressure that is exerted on Iran to abandon an Islamic law is very much political.  It is similar to the French colonialists’ attitude and behavior toward practicing Muslim Algerians.  The French made two sorts of attempts to overcome this so-called minefield.  First, they used force to humiliate Muslim women who were wearing hijab.  They also used propaganda campaigns to make Algerian women adopt a non-Islamic identity.   

In 2010 report from the American Psychological Association about the sexualization of girls in U.S. in which many psychological problems were reported for women. We have similar reports in Britain, Australia and other Western countries, where researchers say this is hurting children’s lives. Because we are in a situation where girls are being told that their identity is not complete without sexualization.

The other part is that this sort of quasi empowerment is being imported to third world countries, especially Muslim countries.

Q: What about women’s presence in the work force and the educational sector? We know the number of women in graduation program in national universities exceeds that of men. Any statistics? 

A: Let me just make note of some statistics with regard to the progress made in women’s position in society in Iran compared to the pre-revolution era.  Before the revolution, women comprised only 1 percent of university professors.  Today they make up 20 percent of university faculty members.  In 1355 (Iranian calendar year), two years before the victory of the revolution, just about six percent of university graduates were female.  Today the statistic stands at 44 percent.  We had about 3,500 female physicians before the revolution.  This number stands at over 60,000 today.  Today we have about 30,000 specialist female doctors compared to only 597 prior to 1979. Women have progressed in literature and in sports as well.  

Q: It is reported that for U.S. president a war with Iran will ruin all chances of re-election in November. Both sides have said that war is not a solution. However, Iran has vowed revenge for the murder of major general Qassem Soleimani and Iranian missiles landed in a U.S. base in Iraq. Do you think there is a chance of war between Iran and the U.S. in the future?

A: I think the American government realizes it is not in the same situation it was two decades ago. It is experiencing a decline in power in all the dimensions of hard and soft power.  As a result, you see the American response to the flurry of Iranian missiles to its bases in Iraq was not a military one. They imposed some more sanctions adding to the “maximum pressure” which is intended to increase the gap between the Iranian people and the government. This is because the most important power of the Islamic Republic is the people. That is what the U.S. is attacking actually.

Q: During the 2016 parliamentary election turnout was 62 percent.  This Friday 57 million Iranians are eligible to vote and about three million are first-time voters. As you know the leader and president have asked for a high turnout for parliamentary elections on Friday.  However many people are frustrated because of the hope for a better economy they had pinned on the outcome of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Now the nuclear plan is almost dead, or at least there is very little chance for its survival. What connection do you see between the JCPOA and the upcoming parliamentary election turnout?

A: Iranian people are often unpredictable in Western power’s eyes.  That is they show a sort of willful ignorance in this regard.  Who expected so many people would turn up for Gen. Soleimani’s funeral in Iran and as well as Iraq. Who expected the people to turn up in millions for the 41st anniversary of the victory of the Revolution?  This is while the same people who show up for such events are the people who are under the most economic pressure. 

The Iranian people are more resilient than what the U.S. government thinks. At the same time because of such a “maximum pressure” and the dire economic situation in today’s Iran, you might predict less than 60 percent participation this time. I don’t want to make a prediction though.

People are coming to the realization that you should not have any expectations from the United States for help to come out of the economic problems of the country. 

Both the public and the political elites have realized that you should put all your hope in your own capabilities. What happened with the JCPOA clarified for many Iranian people and elites that we should not depend on foreign assistance for progress.

We are at a turning point in the Islamic Revolution. The Western media is encouraging Iranian citizens not to show up in the polls. We have to wait until Friday to find out.

Inshallah, people are going to this election with a clear view and know that their vote counts, irrespective of which faction wins.  

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