Yet Again, Saving Brown Women From Brown Men

It is simply, but provocatively titled, Leaving Tehran And Restraints Behind and very, very simplistically – in fact I would argue, cartoonishly constructed and photographed. The entire photo essay is produced at a level that I would expect from a high school photography class student. Its reductive, cartoonish sequencing and linearity unworthy of even the worst of a racist, neo-conservative American think tank. Bad Iran. Innocent Girl. Sadness. Desperation. Dreams of Western Freedom. The Departure. The Arrival Into The Free World. The Emancipation. The Freedom. The Happiness. Done.

What we are witnessing here is a narrative constructive so banal, infantile and frankly idiotic, that it could only be used to tell us about a people we have already been convinced are inhuman, barbaric and unworthy. It is a photo essay that would be laughed out of class, but thanks to the New York Times, it received a publishing credit thanks to the ever obedient James Estrin. Unsurprising, given the low standards and racist tropes this publication has provided to help reduce Iran, its people, and its complex and vivid cultural and historical worlds to a caricature.


Kiana Hayeri_s Photos of Young Iranian Immigrants - NYTimes.com_20130531-193647

Bad Iran. Innocent Girl. Sadness. Desperation. Dreams of Western Freedom. The Departure. The Arrival Into The Free World. The Emancipation. The Freedom. The Happiness. Done.

I will not say too much about this at the moment. But let me just quote some voices – including women’s voices who can perhaps give us some insight in the reasons why such banal and reductive photo essays attract the attention of us Americans, and in particular, American publications that remains at the forefront of the American imperial fantasy.

First, here is John Carlos Rowe, in a piece called Reading Nafisi in Teheran In Idaho, which begins with this summary (I had mistakenly linked to this essay earlier claiming it was to Rastegar’s original piece. My mistake! Rastegar’s piece can be found here however):

A neo-liberal cultural front opened quietly and effectively in conjunction with the George W. Bush Administration’s military imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was supported by the many private think-tanks, foundations, and university foreign policy centers that have since the 1970s played significant roles in the success of political neo-conservatism. Although the election of President Barack Obama and the near collapse of late capitalism in 2008 seemed to indicate a change in political and economic directions, the popularity of Sarah Palin and the rise of the Tea Party and Tea Party Express in 2009–2010 indicate the strength of conservatism even in the face of such political and economic reversals.

The strategic use of women in the new conservative movements deserves special attention, because of what it tells us about both neo-liberalism as a tool of neo-conservatives and about the changing social and political issues facing contemporary feminists. A good deal of attention has been paid since 9/11 to the ways the U.S. has used the issue of the international rights of women to bolster diplomatic and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Morocco, Iran, and Turkey. Barack Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State seems to have extended the entanglement of U.S. neo-imperialism with international women’s rights…

The cynical use of ‘women’ as a foil against which to attack, destroy, humiliate, occupy and dispossess Arab and Middle Eastern societies has a long pedigree. Here is Saadia Toor, a brilliant academic at City University, New York on this particular phenomenon, pointing out that:

Discourses of race, gender and sexuality have always served an important ideological function within imperialist projects. The current phase of American imperialism, characterized by the Global War on Terror is no exception, as evidenced by the cynical deployment of ‘women’s rights’ by the Bush regime to legitimate the bombing of Afghanistan. Given the contemporary geo-political context, the current imperialist project requires the deployment of increasingly explicit forms of Islamophobia, and ‘queer rights’ have become the latest front in this purported battle between Civilization—liberal modernity as embodied by ‘the West’—and Barbarism—as connoted by Islam. Within this neo-Orientalist discourse ‘the Muslim’ enemy is today configured as both misogynyst and homophobic, with an essentialized Islam comfortably posited as the roots of his illiberalism. This illiberalism is then presented as both the mark and the evidence of Islam’s radical alterity from Western civilization, an alterity that cannot be tolerated and must, in fact, be destroyed. Like colonial and imperial projects in the past that relied on ‘civilizing missions’ (cl)aiming to ‘save brown women from brown men’ (for a counter argument see Spivak 1999), the new imperial project thus uses the imperative to ‘rescue’ Muslim queers (as well as women, of course) as an ideological cover for racist wars abroad and xenophobia at home.

Furthermore, here a story of one girl, and one family, becomes a metaphor and representative of all girls, and all families in Iran. This remains a very popular journalistic trick when writing and reporting on the rest of the world – anything, and everything becomes a metaphor for the entire thing that is the nation. Here I quote Mitra Rastegar from her piece Reading Nafisi In The West: Authenticity, Orientalism, and ‘Liberating’ Iranian Women’ where she points out that:

Reviewers take … women’s oppressive experiences in Iran to represent the concerns and priorities of all Iranian women and represent the women as “an already constituted, coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial location, or contradictions” (Mohanty 1991, 55). In seeking to summarize women’s oppressive conditions, reviewers focus primarily on restrictions on dress, makeup, and accessories, without wondering whether all Iranian women find these equally oppressive or important.

They also discuss the regulation of women’s behavior in public, state violence  against women, and changes in family law. Without disagreeing with the importance of these issues, one may note the absence of the issues of poverty, food, housing, education, and the repercussions of the Iran-Iraq war are notable. It is typical of much Western human rights discourse on the Third World to focus on such practices of regulating women’s bodies, especially those identified with Islamic law, while ignoring socioeconomic concerns (Grewal 1998). The result in the reviews is that a set of class-biased priorities and perceptions regarding hardships under the Islamic Republic become authenticated as the priorities of all Iranian women.

In fact, and by sheer coincidence, I came across the research work of Alex Shams, a Harvard MA student, and co-editor of Ajam Media Collective, whose research into the situation if the women of Iran in the years after the 1979 revolution led him to this conclusion:

I looked at the years between 1987 and 1997. During that time, I found that opportunities for women in the country actually increased. The rates of employment, the kind of jobs that women took up – those figures pointed at an improved situation. The situation today is that women in Iran make up 65 percent of the higher education student body and female employment rates are higher than ever before in history. The increase began in the 1980s and 1990s when women of all classes and backgrounds began entering the public sphere en masse, in a way that had not happened before.

The average family size dropped  following 1979. In only one generation, families went from having seven kids on average to only two. This was much the result of a highly effective government family planning program that distributed condoms for free and emphasised sex education instead of abstinence. Literacy rates improved too. Between 1980 and 1989, eight million Iranians learned to read and write, 70-80 percent of whom were women. There was a nation-wide call to eradicate illiteracy, which had tens of thousands of teachers go across the country and teach. The majority of both students and teachers were women.

Of course, we Americans cannot tolerate this reality, and neither will be understand it. The experiences of a small elite that did lose their privileges in the post-1979 years then become the main and only narrative about Iran. From Nafisi to this young girl’s family features in this photoessay, we see a very selective presentation of Iran to confirm our worst fears, prejudices and bigtoed opinions.

This banal stories, this cartoonish summaries of complex societies, these inhuman reductions of our ‘enemies’ into binaries of good vs. bad, is part and parcel of a now nearly six decades long deconstruction and dehumanizing of those we wish to murder and destroy. The cynical, cheap and easy use of women to further this agenda is today so blatant that it has become a bit of a joke. Pakistan too stands at the forefront of this exploitation of women, and the liberal class’ obsession about protecting their ‘freedom’ while happily advocating the cold-blooded slaughter of their apparent ‘oppressors’ is a sight to behold. Just as Time Magazine used Aisha to convince us of the need to continue to kill, torture, incarcerate, brutalize and terrorize the Afghanis, we have a continued use of this tactic by the New York Times.

It all seems so liberal, so civilized, so innocent, so true, so real , so meaningful. It is as much about the benign, tolerant nature of America as it is about the brutal, intolerant nature of Iran. But this too is a myth as Rastegar explain (from Naming Jumpa Lahiri: Canons & Controversies)

Contrary to many sociological conceptions of the United Statesas a secular state that is neutral and non-interfering with regard to religion, there is emerging evidence that the state is seeking to constitute religious identities tied to patriotic citizenship, promote particular religious meanings and foster an ‘American Islam’ in the service of the US -led ‘War On Terror’…The United States presents itself as a place of tolerance where ‘true’ Islam can thrive. However, in producing this image, and implicitly promoting specific religious positions, the United States proves itself to be invested in constituting an ‘American Islam’ in opposition to the other ‘enemy’ version of Islam. In this process, those who do not abide by a state-supported definition of Islam are constructed as anti-modern, un-American, and potentially dangerous.

This photo essay, and its rather surprising appearance on Lens – a site that otherwise claims to offer serious photography, is of course all about political agendas, and about instilling prejudice, hate, anger, resentment, outrage and a removal of any sense of human-concern for the dastardly Iranians. It would never occur to the editors that the condition of women, their oppression and their deprivation, is intrinsically tied to the social-political realities of a nation, and that the policies and practices of the USA towards Iran – those of depriving and marginalizing the nation since the overthrow of the Shah, are part and parcel of the pathologies that inflict the lives of the people (not just the women, mind you!) there. As Saadia Toor points out when speaking about women in Pakistan:

In a society defined by a history of disenfranchisement of the people by dictatorial regimes (with support of the U.S.), and under siege from joint pressures of a corrupt ruling class, a heavy debt burden, predatory and conspicuous consumption, and ongoing (neo-)colonial intervention, cultural identity becomes a contentious issue and—as is invariably the case regardless of the kind of state/society under question—women’s bodies become sites for these cultural politics and the class struggles they embody. The regulation of women and their sexuality becomes the key hegemonic move through which consent across social classes can be secured.

Globalization—defined as the increasing interconnectedness of different parts of the world at economic, political, and cultural levels—has resulted in an intensification in the dynamics of social change across the developing or postcolonial world. Such rapid and intense social change produces anxieties in the societies and communities experiencing this change, anxieties which feminist scholars have shown to result in greater regulation of women. This was just as true of Europe during the period of capitalist modernization in the 18th and 19th centuries, and of colonized and decolonizing societies in the mid-20th century.

We love to talk about the women, but we refuse to talk about the broader realities that may provoke the very pathologies we are so concerned about. This – the broader socio-economic structures within which the control of the women tends to rise, is never really discussed, and our – the liberal West’s, direct role in the formation and creation of these desires of control, never acknowledged. Its just easier to blame culture, or Islam. To quote Toor one last time:

What passes for the victimization of women by ‘Islam’ is all-too-often part and parcel of a more global phenomenon—an increase in the moral and sexual regulation of women by communities and kin-networks as a response to political, social and cultural anxieties; such anxieties have intensified under economic and cultural globalization. The regulation of women and their sexuality is, after all, a common feature of all patriarchal societies, traditional or modern, and certainly not simply Muslim ones. It is the discourse of Islamic exceptionalism—in essence the form of Orientalism operative today, which is defined by an exclusive focus on Islam—which prevents us from seeing the ‘family resemblances’ between honor killings in the Pakistani or Jordanian Muslim communities and honor killings in Hindu and Sikh communities in India, between the violent protests against the celebration of Valentine’s Day in Pakistan and India (led by the goon squads of the Muslim and Hindu religious right respectively), and between the attempts at the regulation of women by ‘Islamists’ and the Christian Right in the U.S. alike.

The liberal class is a pusillanimous lot. The fear of the bogeyman of evil Islam is enough for it to surrender its intellect, morality and common sense. The New York Times happily provides the pretext, and the readers are expected to provide the silence and acceptance that will open the doors to more violence, repression, deaths, brutalities and inhumanity.

These infantile stories, these banal photo essays, can only be produced about communities, societies and peoples we have a deep racial prejudice against but of course can’t overtly reveal. And so we must veil our hate, our bigotry, behind a a rhetoric of ‘liberation’ and ‘liberty’ and at worse, ‘women’s emancipation’. Even as tens of thousands lie dead on the fields of Afghanistan, our lust to ‘liberate’ their women remains unfulfilled. And our desire to repeat this for Iranian women, is quite humbling to see.

This is seriously ignorant work, not the least because it falls right into the very priorities and agendas of a war-mongering class in the USA and Israel that cannot wait to attack yet another sovereign nation that is no threat to either of the two belligerents. That it is about Iran – a nation in the cross-hairs of American imperial desires, makes it a seriously dangerous work because of the propagandist elements it carries within, and the violent and brutal political and military intentions it justifies. It is literally a work that builds an argument to kill. And we have seen many others like it – recently this same Lens blog ran Ebrahim Noroozi’s Documenting Death Sentences In Iran piecewhere an otherwise basic work by a news photographer, takes on insidious, and dangerous overtones with its sweeping generalizations about Iran, its government, and something the editors call Islamic jurisprudence. Set alongside the near daily calls by politicians, pundits, intellectuals and celebrities to attack Iran, such works become part and parcel of a march to war as they contribute to the demonization, and dehumanization of the Iranians.

It is tragic that peope like Noroorzi and Hayeri do not understand how they and their works are being put to use and that they too are being exploited in the march to war. Perhaps a desire for ‘exposure’ overwhelms their common sense, which would tell them to retain an intellectual, and ideological control over their works, and not allow themselves to become tools in the machinery of violence and imperialism. This interest in Iran – so ideological, so limit, so shallow, so exploitative, has an agenda that is blatant and visible to anyone with a modicum of common sense.

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