Twenty-six years ago in Iran, Islamic fundamentalists captured their first state. They turned it into a theocratic dictatorship and used its resources to fund terror abroad and pursue weapons of mass destruction. Since then, violence, expansionism, and terror against civilians have become hallmarks of Islamic fundamentalism. If the Iranian regime obtains nuclear weapons, it will use them to maintain control of Iran, intimidate countries within missile range, and expand their influence abroad.
To defeat the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, one must understand what keeps them it power. Insight into the role of misogyny ‑ hatred of women ‑ in the tyranny's ideology and its tactics of social control is the key to ending the reign of terror.
The Ideology and State of Islamic Fundamentalism
Islamic fundamentalism in Iran is a political movement conceptualized by Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini based on his interpretation of the Koran. Islamic fundamentalism is not just a conservative form of Islam. It is a pathological ideology and totalitarian political system.
The ruling clerics energize their followers by preaching hatred of their chosen enemies: the liberal west, women, moderate and liberal Muslims, and non-Muslim religious groups, particularly Jews. Their deepest prejudice is for women. Islamic fundamentalists loath women. They hate female shapes, which must be hidden under tent like garments. They hate their female voices, so women are banned from singing in public. They hate their female minds, so women are prohibited from holding decision making jobs. And most of all, they hate their female sexuality, which they claim is a corrupting force on earth.
They hate liberal culture and democracy because women are allowed to dress, travel, speak, think, and even sing, freely. They believe that women’s freedom and equality are what has corrupted western culture, and that is why they must purge it and its representatives from their land.
The Khomeini-crafted theocracy granted dictatorial rule to the supreme religious leader ‑ velayat-e-faqih – thereby creating an unreformable system because all significant powers of the state are held by the supreme religious leader and his appointees in the Council of Guardians. Khomeini crowned himself as the first supreme leader; after his death, the religious reign was passed to the present supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The clerics’ version of sharia law imposes a crushing system of gender apartheid on Iranians based on the premise that women are physically, psychologically, intellectually, and morally inferior to men. Men are legally granted all decision-making power within the family, including control of the movement and employment of women and the custody of children. A public dress code or hejab is mandatory and violations result in reprimands, arrests, whippings, imprisonment, and even summary executions have been documented. All public activities are segregated, and women are banned from attending sporting events in which men’s legs are uncovered. Women are banned from associating with men who are not their relatives. The age of marriage was lowered to nine years of age for girls. Polygamy was legalized. And stoning to death became a legal form of punishment for sexual misconduct.
The clerics made laws on how to control, punish, torture, and kill women and girls. Misogyny and violence against women were institutionalized.
Ideology in Practice
In Iran, terror begins at home. The clerics put their ideology into practice in the most oppressive and barbaric ways the world has seen in recent times. The first victims were women and girls.
Misogynous views and laws reinforced and empowered men’s oldest sexist prejudices and anxieties. Men’s frustrations with life, their insecurities, even their sexual feelings are projected onto women. Suppressing women became the solution to men and society’s failures. Men’s anger is aimed at wives, sisters, and daughters. Women became targets for sadists. Vigilante squads roam the streets and spy on private parties looking for women violating the dress code or talking to male friends. Blaming the victim gave men freedom to commit acts of violence against women and girls.
Women and girls in Iran suffer from physical and psychological effects of the restrictions and harassment. Women and girls have numerous health problems related to their limited physical activity and inadequate, segregated health care system. The suicide rate among girls is among the highest in the world.
Given that mothers and future mothers are the scapegoats of the clerics’ pathology, there are biological limits to what the clerics can do to them. They can’t exterminate them all or put them in gulags as previous dictators have done to political, ethnic, and class enemies. Instead, they perpetually torment and terrorize the female population. For the tens of thousands who have been executed, from teenagers to pregnant mothers to aged grandmothers, their murders are carried out in the most torturous manner. Virgins are raped before execution. Women are stoned to death with rocks that inflict the most pain before death: small stones are not allowed because they don’t cause enough damage; large stones are not allowed because they might kill too quickly. A particularly sadistic form of execution that was used against political resistors following the revolution was one shot through the lower abdomen – the womb.
The Iranian clerics have shown that sexual exploitation is a complement to sexual repression. Widows from the Iran Iraq war who asked for assistance became victims of clerics’ sexual exploitation. Temporary marriages which allow a man to marry a woman or girl for only one hour came back into practice to legitimize prostitution. Sex trafficking, slavery, and prostitution are escalating problems in Iran. Government officials are frequently involved in running the sex slavery rings.
There has been no moderation of misogyny since the fundamentalists seized power in Iran in 1979. In the past several months, teenage girls have been executed by hanging or sentenced to flogging and death by stoning for “crimes contrary to chastity” and giving birth to an “illegitimate” child. In each case, the girls were victims of multiple forms of sexual exploitation and abuse: incest, rape, prostitution, temporary marriage, sexual abuse in prison, and being sold to a pimp. Officials are frequently corrupt, even complicit in crimes, and arrests, convictions, and punishments are often arbitrary, as well as heinously unjust and cruel.
Stonings and hangings are frequently carried out in public to terrorize the rest of the population. Public executions are one of the ways the clerics maintain social and political control in Iran. It is well known that many of those executed in public are democracy activists or those who have challenged the authority of an official.
Defeat Misogyny to Defeat Terror
The misogyny of Islamic fundamentalism is not ancillary to the Iranian regime’s grip on power in Iran or their global sponsorship of terror. Misogyny is at the heart of their ideology and is the framework of their state structure and authority. Undermine their misogyny by empowering women and the Iranian regime will crumble from within.
The following are recommendations to the U.S. government, the United Nations, other democratic countries, particularly those in Europe that regularly talk to Iranian officials, and international non-governmental organizations on how to defeat the Islamic fundamentalism by defeating misogyny.
Place the freedom of women and girls at the top of the agenda for dealing with Iran. Give the analysis and defeat of misogyny equal weight to efforts to contain terror and weapons of mass destruction. Equate the dismantling of misogyny to destroying the structure and power of the theocratic state.
Voice support for women and their freedom and equality in every policy statement on Iran. Speak directly to Iranian women about their plight under Islamic fundamentalism and their hopes for freedom, equality, and democracy. All governmental departments that deal with human rights, women’s issues, democracy, terrorism, and foreign policy should have a plan for advancing women’s freedom and equality as a strategy to defeat Islamic fundamentalism.
Fund communications technology and broadcasts that focus on women’s freedom. Provide funding for programming on women and women’s freedom and equality for public and privately owned radio and satellite broadcasts run by pro-democracy organization and news agencies. Support programs developed by Iranian women activists, such as Radio Voice of Women produced by Women’s Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran. Provide funding for Internet servers that can be accessed by women activists from inside Iran.
Hold hearings on Islamic fundamentalism and women in Iran. The U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives should hold hearings on the situation of women and girls under Islamic fundamentalism in Iran. They should invite testimony from survivors of the Iranian regime’s prisons and engage strategists on how to undermine misogyny and advance women’s freedom and equality. Parliaments and U.N. bodies, particularly the Commission on the Status of Women, should hold meetings that specifically address Islamic fundamentalism and lend their support to freedom and equality to women in Iran.
Grant political asylum to women fleeing misogynist tyranny. Victims of Islamic laws which institutionalize violence against women should be recognized as political refugees and granted asylum. Women have been on the forefront of fighting fundamentalism. Thousands have already died resisting the clerics’ regime. Women who have risked their lives to oppose fundamentalism should be protected when they are forced to flee. In addition, voice opposition to other country’s deportation of women back to Iran where they face political persecution and possibly execution.
Put Iran on Tier 3 of the 2005 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report. Iran has a severe and escalating problem of prostitution, slavery, and trafficking of women and girls. Government officials frequently collaborate with traffickers. Worst of all, victims are not provided with assistance; instead they are persecuted and executed.
Engage and support opposition groups committed to women’s freedom and equality. The departments of State and Defense, intelligence services, and Executive branch should meet regularly with opposition groups to share information and cooperate on strategies specifically aimed at defeating misogyny and advancing women’s freedom and equality. They should morally, politically, and financially support pro-democracy opposition groups, which include many women members, inside and outside Iran.
Visiting delegations should challenge misogyny. Delegations from the United Nations, European countries, and international non-governmental organizations that visit Iran should challenge the Iranian regime on their treatment of women and insist on visiting women’s prisons and talking to the inmates.
Support pro-democracy activists’ calls for an internationally-monitored referendum in Iran. Support the non-violent strategy of holding a nation-wide referendum in which the Iranian people can vote on the system of government they want.
Take the women led resistance groups off the terrorist list. There are two Iranian opposition groups that are led by women dedicated to women’s freedom and equality: The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, also known as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq or MEK) and the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The PMOI is a political and formerly armed resistance group that is strongly opposed to Islamic fundamentalism. The Secretary General, Mojgan Parsaie, is a U.S. educated woman, the entire Leadership Council is composed of women, and many of the experienced military commanders are women. The National Council of Resistance (NCRI) is also led by a woman, Maryam Rajavi, with a long record of supporting women’s freedom and democracy. The NCRI’s parliament-in-exile is composed of more than 50 percent women. In 1996, Maryam Rajavi made this promise to the mullahs: “You have done your utmost to humiliate, torture, and slaughter Iranian women, but rest assured that you will receive the blow from the very force you discounted, the very force whom your reactionary mindset cannot allow you to take into consideration.”
The PMOI and NCRI are on the U.S. terrorist list as an act of appeasement to the Iranian regime by the Clinton administration who sought to normalize relations with supposed “reformers” in Iran. Later the PMOI was also added to the European Union’s terrorist list, also as an act of appeasement to the Iranian regime. A recent 16 month review of the PMOI by the U.S. found that none of their personnel was linked to acts of terrorism.
The Iranian regime holds the upper hand in the power struggle with the west as long as the U.S. and Europe constrain their opponents. Removing these pro-woman, pro-democracy resistance groups from the terrorist lists and supporting their efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime provides an alternative approach to appeasement and attempts to normalize relations with terrorists or military action.
Encourage allies to adopt the same anti-misogyny policies. Urge democratic allies to confront misogynous practices in all their dialogues with Iranian officials and businessmen.
This new policy approach offers a strategic psychological advantage: It will drive the clerics crazy! They are terrified of any interference with their “prison for women” as Iran was called by a U.N. representative in his report to the General Assembly. The clerics are so afraid of discussion of women’s issues that they have banned any publication of materials that defend women’s rights. Promoting women’s freedom and equality is the most powerful psychological weapon to use against the clerics because it goes to the root of their pathology, their ideology, and their social and political control of the population in Iran.
A policy of defeating misogyny and supporting freedom and equality for women in Iran will complement other policies aimed at defeating terror and stopping the development of nuclear weapons.
Supporting a policy of freedom for women in Iran will send a powerful message to pro-democracy activists in Iran. It will convey to those struggling to survive that we really understand the fundamentalists, their mindset, and tactics of control. It will empower activists in their efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime.
Women in Iran have been politically active for over a century. Those with access to universities have pursed their educations as an act of political resistance to Islamic fundamentalism. Women are active in the pro-freedom, pro-democracy movement inside Iran. While everyone in Europe and the U.S. is stumped by how to contain the clerics, the solution is right there in Iran just waiting for the opportunity.
Women, Freedom, Democracy and Foreign Policy
Equality for women is on every list of changes needed to modernize and democratize countries in the Middle East. Yet, it is always assumed to be a lagging issue that can or must wait until other more significant changes are made. In fact, there is tremendous transformative power in advancing women’s freedom and equality. It challenges all the backward ideologies, practices, and state and social structures that need to evolve in the Middle East.
The calls for more equality for women need to be operationalized into policies, strategies, and programs that address specific barriers to freedom and advancement in each country. Women’s freedom should be placed on the table at diplomatic meetings and linked to foreign policy. Engagement and support of advocates for equality for women should receive the highest priority. Assisting women gain freedom and equality can be the solution to major problems facing the world today.
Donna M. Hughes is a Professor and holds the Carlson Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island, http://www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes , firstname.lastname@example.org