Dreyfuss and Iran’s “Women Commandos”

If you’ve been following coverage of the fallout from the recent Iranian elections, you have been bound to see images of women in the streets as part of protests against the election results. In fact, the Western media has put a feminine face on much of its coverage of what is happening in Iran connecting feminism once more to Western interests in Iran and the region as a whole.

Robert Dreyfuss’s op-ed for The Nation explores women’s role in the recent rebellion as well as the women’s rights movement in Iran, which was in existence long before the recent election and whose goals coincide with the goals of the overall reform movement in Iran. Dreyfuss uses his attendance of a recent panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., which featured an impressive group of analysts who were all women: Pari Esfandiari, Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, Nayereh Tohidi, Norma Moruzzi and Jaleh Lackner-Gohari. Dreyfuss used this to segue into a further discussion about women’s rights in Iran.

The article itself gives a very positive view of Iranian women, portraying them as active participants in the struggle to gain gender equality and a more open political system in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In fact, the op-ed gives a nuanced portrait of Iran, citing panelist Norma Moruzzi, who noted that in some areas, such as literacy, Iranian women have reached parity with men. She also stressed that since 1979, Iran “has invested in education, health care, and family planning, in a way that has allowed women to flourish.”

Reading the rest of Dreyfuss’s piece, I got the sense that he was more concerned with how the women’s rights movement in Iran would affect U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. This is understandable, considering that The Nation is ultimately concerned with politics. Still, I do wish that the issue of women’s rights in Iran and other Muslim countries in the region was not always connected to American foreign policy and that we would care about these issues simply on their own merit. This line of thinking has colored Western opinion about gender norms in the region since the rise of colonialism and has made the concern of people in the West about gender rights in the region appear disingenuous.

Dreyfuss asks towards the end of the piece what the U.S. should do now. How does the progress of women in Iran affect the U.S.’s actions towards Iran? I agree with Dreyfuss’s conclusion that the U.S. has to engage in talks with Iran. Dreyfuss’s reasoning is sound: talks with Iran help to eradicate the isolation that for so long has been a hindrance to the gender rights movement in Iran.

“And, when I asked about President Obama’s options now, the entire panel came out against US engagement with Iran, for fear that by so doing the United States will “legitimize” the regime. “Now is not the time for Obama to sit down with this government,” said Moruzzi. She suggested that the leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Ahmadinejad see talks with the United States as the “big carrot” that could restore their discredited regime to legitimacy. Others on the panel agreed.

To me, this is utterly wrongheaded, and self-defeating. If Iran wants to talk, President Obama can embrace such talks on a realist, state-to-state basis, without endorsing the regime’s bad behavior. To reject an offer from Iran to talk, now, would fatally undermine Obama’s carefully constructed opening to Tehran, pushing Iran deeper into isolation, strengthening the hand of the radical right, and weakening the very reform movement that human rights groups want to enhance.”

Dreyfuss seems genuinely concerned with how U.S. foreign policy can help further the cause of human and gender rights in Iran. Although his tone seems slightly paternalistic (“without endorsing the regime’s bad behavior”), his conclusion focuses on the potential effect of U.S. foreign policy on gender rights in Iran and also shows a respect for Iran as a nation that has been lacking in the past, a respect that will hopefully benefit Iranian women in the future.

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