Women, The Olympics & Islam
by Tina Trent (Oct. 2008)
At the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics, one hypnotically hot day in July, I stood on the pavement outside Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium as two Middle Eastern men angrily snapped photographs of me. Five thousand miles from Iran, a few blocks from my home, five years before 9/11, I came face-to-face with Islamic extremism on a crowded Atlanta sidewalk.
The men were dressed incongruously for the weather in tailored suits, like characters out of a Cold War-era Le Carre. They attempted to look threatening as crowds of tourists pushed past them into the stadium. It might have made for an amusing spectacle: two grey, diminutive figures against a tidal wave of happy, brightly clad humanity. But the circumstances did not lend themselves to amusement.
The men were working for the Iranian government, and the woman they had been sent to intimidate was Iranian expatriate Parvin Darabi. Two years earlier, Parvin’s sister, Dr. Homa Darabi, had set herself on fire in a public square in Tehran to protest the violent repression of women and girls under the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic theocracy. Before dousing herself with gasoline and lighting a match, Homa ripped off her state-mandated headscarf and exposed her face in the crowded square. Onlookers, fearing the appearance of Islamic mullahs, begged her to cover herself. Instead, as her body began to burn, she reportedly shouted, “Death to tyranny! Long live freedom! Long live Iran!”
Homa Darabi doused herself with gasoline and lit a match; Parvin carried her sister’s message to Atlanta on placards protesting Iran’s participation in the Olympic Games. But America in 1996 was not a fortuitous place to mount a protest against Islamic fundamentalist repression of women. American feminists were coming to terms with diminishing power. Battered by two decades of accusations of racism, cultural myopia, and other insensitivities, movement leaders were hesitant to take on a fight that would expose them to such charges once again. Within the American Left, where feminism was firmly ensconced, the oppression of females under Islamic extremism was a no-starter.
But at least some feminists were trying. The Feminist Majority Foundation had been speaking out for years about the oppression of women in Islamic states. In contrast, in 1996, American conservatives were far more interested in condemning feminism than in supporting a movement for women’s rights anywhere, particularly a movement that involved women struggling against an allegedly “traditional” culture.
So when Parvin Darabi showed up in Atlanta in 1996 to protest the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to ban Iran and other Islamic countries that would not let women compete in sports, she did not find many people to join her. Only four women -- Darabi, another Iranian women’s activist, me, and a friend of mine -- stood outside Olympic Stadium holding up signs in the intense afternoon heat. The Iranian men glared, and the crowd hurried by. A drunken stringer from Sports Illustrated harangued us for a while, bellowing that feminists were ruining football. A reporter from Paris Match stopped by for an interview. The French have always been less conflicted about feminism, and the protest had made the news back in France.
In America, however, it could be said that Parvin Darabi was five years too early to deliver her message, that the message would not be understood until the realities of Islamic extremism came home to Americans in 2001.
But that is not quite right, either. After September 11, as events moved quickly from the invasion of Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq, even the extreme suffering of Afghan women under the Taliban failed to linger particularly long in Western consciousnesses. The movement that Parvin Darabi and others were hoping to ignite, to oppose the veritable enslavement of women in Islamic nations, never really took hold, not in America, not anywhere.
Frighteningly, outside a few activist circles, familiarity with Islamic brutalization of women hasn’t bred much of anything beyond collective, uneasy silence in the West. Blame it on the pieties of multiculturalism; blame it on economic ties to Saudi Arabia; blame it on the politics of the Iraq conflict, or the unwillingness of western religious leaders and conservatives to criticize doctrinal restrictions on women: there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“Atlanta Plus” and the Civil Rights Olympics
Unfortunately, the one place where blame for Western silence has landed quite squarely is the one place it should not land at all: on the shoulders of those second-wave feminists who took up the cause of Islamic oppression of women long before 9/11. They might not have won many fights, including the fight with the Iinternational Olympic Committee (O.I.C.), but that is no justification for denying their efforts. Few people have succeeded in overcoming the extreme social forces at work in places like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, not with diplomacy and not with bombs.
The Olympic Committee was another matter: it was an international body with rules outlawing discrimination, and it had used those rules to ban offending nations in the past. There was reason to hope they would do it again.
In 1992, second-wave feminists from several countries organized to demand that the International Olympic Committee enforce its own charter and ban from the Games any Islamic country that prevented women from participating in sports. The feminists were inspired by the effectiveness of the anti-apartheid movement, which had garnered massive international support, including teach-ins and protests on campuses through America and Europe in the 1980’s. South Africa had actually been banned from participating in the Olympics since 1964, not because they did not let blacks on their Olympic teams but because they did not allow blacks to compete alongside whites on South African soil. Banishment from the Olympics had been used to great effect to pressure the South African Government to end racial apartheid, which they did in 1991, thus gaining readmission to the Games.
Annie Surgier, a French physicist and feminist, watched as the racially integrated South African team entered the Olympic stadium in Barcelona, to wild cheering. “People were celebrating the end of apartheid and the return of South Africa to the Games,” Surgier told a reporter from the New York Times. “But no one was saying anything about the 34 countries that had no women representing them.”
Together with feminists from Germany, Belgium, Britain and America, Surgier formed the “Atlanta Plus” coalition. The activists called on the International Olympic Committee to enforce its own charter, which states: “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement." Atlanta Plus demanded that those countries intentionally excluding women from their teams be barred from participating in the upcoming Atlanta Games. It helped that the Atlanta Games were being promoted as a celebration of that city’s role in the civil rights movement: perhaps the emphasis on ending race segregation would reinforce the message of ending gender segregation at the Games. But that was not the way it worked in Atlanta. In sharp contrast to their response to racial apartheid, the I.O.C. refused to impose penalties on Saudi Arabia or on any other country for practicing gender apartheid.
At the time, only seven of the 105 I.O.C. members were women, and then-Saudi Prince Faisal Fahd Abdul Aziz held a prominent I.O.C. post. Parvin Darabi attributes the I.O.C.’s attitude in 1996 to entrenched sexism within the organization itself, an attitude that led the I.O.C. to capitulate to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women. “To most of these men, a few female athletes from some backward Islamic countries are not worth getting one’s blood boiled over,” she said recently.
Atlanta Plus also failed to get attention from the American media, which had reported exhaustively on the South African ban and on the story of the Olympics being held in the “birthplace of the civil rights movement.” But every effort to equate the movement to end gender apartheid with the movement to end racial apartheid was rebuffed by the media, just as it was by the I.O.C.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution declined to cover Atlanta Plus, though the paper had just spent months reporting on, and endorsing, a gay-rights protest of the Games. With extensive help from the press, gay activists successfully pressured the I.O.C. to relocate athletic events and a leg of the torch run away from one suburban county outside Atlanta because the county commission there had passed a referendum declaring “the gay lifestyle . . . incompatible with community standards.”
The New York Times did the story on gender apartheid one worse: in a glass-half-full feature titled “How the Women Won,” the Times chattily traced the history of women’s long fight for inclusion in the modern Games but left out the fact that the fight was ongoing. The article seemingly explored every obstacle that woman athletes had faced in the hundred years of modern Olympic history, from false medical beliefs to racial discrimination in the American South, to sex discrimination, to unequal funding, and even anabolic steroids and eating disorders, but there was no mention of the fact that Islamic states were still sending male-only teams to Atlanta, or that the I.O.C. had sided with the Islamists. Threats against female athletes by Islamic militants were mentioned, but only in the context of those women “defying” them, a description that both minimized the threat and implied that the fight for women’s inclusion had been won.
Like much of the journalism that would come after it, “How the Women Won” minimized Islamic gender oppression and ignored opposition to that oppression. What was left was a story about oppressive Westerners trying to crush women’s dreams.
The Atlanta Olympic Games were promoted as a celebration of the legacy of the American civil rights movement. Tours were offered of significant Movement sites; art projects illustrating the suffering of blacks under segregation filled the city. Against this backdrop, mute acceptance of Islamic gender apartheid at the Games coexisted uncomfortably with vocal celebrations of victory over Western race discrimination. The male-only Saudi Arabian team, and the Iranian team (which had added one female sharpshooter clad in a body-concealing chador) encountered no criticism as they marched inside Olympic Stadium. Nor did any of the other gender-apartheid states, as their male-only teams joined to witness American boxer Muhammed Ali, revered as a symbol of resistance to race segregation, as he lit the Olympic Flame.
Meanwhile, not one word of support for women was heard from the pantheon of civil rights leaders who dominated Atlanta’s Olympic Committee. Shirley Franklin went from being the highest-ranking female on the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games to becoming Atlanta’s first female mayor without once using her unique position to comment on the gender apartheid that had been permitted on Atlanta’s streets. But in fairness, Franklin was a bit player. It was Andrew Young who brought the Olympics to Atlanta, drawing on his diplomatic ties in the Middle East and his reputation as a leader in the African anti-apartheid movement to do so. Young then played point man for the I.O.C. on human rights issues, using his status as a former civil rights activist, former Ambassador to the United Nations, and critic of South African apartheid to speak out against other political protest aimed at the Games. Whether the issue is activism on behalf of women in Islamic dictatorships or political dissidents in China, Young cynically summons the history of racial justice at the Games to justify inaction by the I.O.C., a technique he perfected in Atlanta.
In an interesting footnote, longtime Saudi apologist and Georgia Senator Wyche Fowler went directly from playing a role in securing Atlanta’s Olympic bid alongside Young to being appointed U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. His appointment was announced just two weeks before the opening of the Games. Given Young and Fowler’s prominence in the Atlanta Olympics Movement and Prince Faisal Fahd Abdul Aziz’s prominence within the I.O.C., it is perhaps not so surprising that the Atlanta Plus movement could gain no traction there.
At a moment when the world was focused on Atlanta’s civil rights legacy and an Olympics hosted by African Americans, the civil rights establishment could have easily validated Atlanta Plus’ argument that gender apartheid at the Games is morally wrong. But instead, race was used as a smokescreen by operators like Andrew Young to “bulletproof” the I.O.C. from criticism on issues like women’s equality. And the media fell in line, hyping the civil rights story, the South Africa story, and the gay rights story, while misrepresenting or totally ignoring the subject of women.
Would women have been further along in their efforts at full participation if the Olympics had not come to Atlanta? Discomfortingly, the answer may be yes.
From Apartheid to Veiling
Although Atlanta Plus was effectively silenced, the I.O.C. recognized that opposition to male-only Islamic teams would not go away. It would need to be defused. No better method existed for accomplishing this goal than playing the “cultural differences” card, or arguing that it was Muslim women who did not want to compete in front of men. If women in Islamic states were shown to be choosing to exclude themselves from participating in the Olympic Games, it would undermine the activism by Muslim women who spoke out for the inclusion of women, necessarily, from the safety of exile in the West. That activism was thus deemed “political” and “anti-Islamic” (the I.O.C.’s official justification for ignoring Atlanta Plus had been that they were specifically targeting Islamic countries), and the voices of women in exile were deemed “inauthentic.”
The key to this strategy was to shift the debate from gender apartheid to veiling.
A few months after the Atlanta Games, the I.O.C. convened a conference on women and sports. The conference was promoted as an all-inclusive look at woman athletes around the globe, but it was actually a very determined effort to defuse criticism of the I.O.C.’s refusal to censure Islamic Fundamentalists states. Members of Atlanta Plus were specifically excluded, as were Middle Eastern women who lived in the West and spoke out on the treatment of women in their countries of origin.
The Islamic women who were invited by the I.O.C. were the ones living under totalitarian Islamic rule, particularly in Iran. They arrived at the conference in chadors, bearing state-sanctioned propaganda (apparently the I.O.C. had no problem with that “politics”). The participants from Western nations seemed to have been hand-picked for their eloquence in expressing shame that any Westerner would presume to believe that there was anything wrong with the way women were being treated in places like Afghanistan or Iran. What ensued was something like a dramatization of the Times’ article, “How the Women Won.”
Instead of talking about women being forced to wear burqas against their will, depriving them of any sunlight and exercise, conference participants discussed the ways the American system of sports confined women by “forcing” them to conform to certain standards of performance and body size. Instead of challenging nations that banned women from playing or even watching sporting events, participants criticized the West for having more resources for women’s sports than poorer nations. The message, orchestrated by I.O.C. officials, was clear: Western cultural insensitivity, not the mullahs’ reign of terror against women, was the real problem. The solution? Separate, sex-segregated, I.O.C.-endorsed games where Islamic women would compete under literal and figurative wraps, along with abject expressions of deference and ritualized apologies by representatives from Western countries.
The New York Times, of course, heartily approved.
The Times’ coverage of the Lausanne conference on women and sport (“Swifter, Higher, Stronger . . . Gender”) reads like a checklist of strategies used to suppress criticism of Islamic suppression of women. The article opens with an exchange between an Israeli athlete and a young Palestinian woman. The Palestinian is described as the “manager of her would-be nation’s underfunded and understaffed women’s sports department.” The vignette’s thrust is the Israeli’s humble cultural awakening: “I’ve lived in Israel all my life, and I’ve never met a real Palestinian . . . here I am sharing the same hotel and drinking coffee with one . . . I can come over the border and help you with developing sport,” she tells the young woman.
Iran is described as a country “where Islamic dress codes and mores mean that women do not compete internationally in sports like basketball.” Of course, in 1996, Iran was much more than that: it was a country where a woman would be beaten with clubs in the street if a breeze lifted the hem of her burqa, dreams of playing basketball notwithstanding. But the Times did not report this. To do so would be to imply that there was something wrong in Iran’s treatment of women, and that was not the point: the point was to show what is wrong with the West.
To that end, an American delegate worries about America’s “hubris.” A Canadian delegate criticizes herself for “focusing on issues like self-esteem, eating disorders and sexual harassment in sport, [while] others here are worried about economic survival.” It is not made clear precisely how feminists could be taking food from the mouths of children by objecting to being sexually harassed, but the Canadian delegate says this and the reporter reports it: the point, at every turn, is to show Western women as shamefully self-centered and privileged, as moral children who need to be chastised.
The reporter describes the I.O.C.’s decision to support the segregated Islamic Women’s Games instead of enforcing its own charter on women “the path of constructive engagement.” The article closes with a final swipe at America’s relative wealth: “In the United States, a woman’s professional basketball league was launched to considerable fanfare last month. Meanwhile, back in Ramallah, Oreib Araf-Aryan was worried about simply being able to afford a few basketballs.”
The problem, according to the Times, is not women suffering from vitamin deficiencies because they cannot bare their faces in the sun, not women being hobbled by yards of cloth at every step or crippled by beatings by the religious police: the problem, everywhere and always is the West, and the solution is for Western women and other critics to accept the veil, or, rather, stop criticizing it. The veiled Games, the Islamic Women’s Games, are presented as a solution to a problem that has been created whole-cloth by the West, rather than forced veiling being a problem under any circumstances, even the Taliban’s extreme reign of terror against women.
It is, in fact, the very presence of veiling as an untouchable sign of cultural difference that absolves the Taliban and the Iranian mullahs. No matter what is done in the name of hijab, Westerners may not criticize it because insensitivity to non-Western culture is the highest form of Western oppression, and Western oppression is worse than all other oppression. This is the formula practiced in the West as multiculturalism, and once the debate over male-only teams at the Olympics shifted to a debate about veiled athletes competing at the Olympics or at segregated sporting events, Western feminists, and even non-Western critics of forced veiling, such Parvin Darabi, were effectively silenced.
Such absolution is made easier when Westerners studiously avoid noticing the difference between forced veiling and hijab taken by choice. In “Swifter, Higher, Stronger,” the Times reporter writes about the Iranian delegation’s chadors in this way, as if wearing them were a choice and a long-held tradition, instead of the recent dictates enforced by a religious police-state.
The presence in Atlanta of a fully-cloaked sharp-shooter from Revolutionary Iran, Lida Fariman, was greeted as a sort of exotic addition to the Parade of Nations zeitgeist there. Within a few months, however, the I.O.C. put their stamp of approval on the Islamic Women’s Games. Fariman became the norm, and the only acceptable story became one of athletes choosing to, in Darabi’s words, “try to compete wearing fifty yards of fabric,” not women being forced into the chador, out of sports, and under the thumb of the religious police. The dominance of this narrative effectively drowns out what is really happening to women in Islamic states. The realities of hijab and the almost inexpressible dehumanization of women that accompanies it could not be further from “choice” or enlightened morality, but this is a difficult argument to make in the West, where we have now reached the stage of reflexively celebrating veiling.
As if the problem all along wasn’t the stonings and floggings and profound denial of physical freedom for women and girls, but Westerners’ irrational and incomprehensible hatred of an innocent piece of cloth.
The New Orthodoxy
By the time athletes marched into the stadium in Beijing alongside the male-only teams from Saudi Arabia, Brunei and the U.A.E, the story had changed again: it was now, “Veiled Athletes Challenge Stereotypes.” It is acceptable to write inspirational stories about athletes competing in sports while veiled. It is acceptable (across the political spectrum) to write articles that positively contrast the presumed modesty of veiled Eastern women to the presumed sexual impropriety of non-veiled, Western women. Laudatory stories are laudatory, so long as they are laudatory about the right things.
It is even acceptable to write stories about veiling that appear, on the surface, troubling, so long as they ultimately revert to the theme of “cultural difference” and carefully avoid any mention of the human rights of women. In a recent New York Times story that offers a view of state-mandated hijab through the eyes of Saudi men, a reporter accompanies two young cousins as they harass a strange woman in a restaurant, even threatening her with a burning cigarette – punishment for the crime of a female, even one cloaked in a burqa, appearing alone in a public place. The young men insist that what they are doing by doing this is “upholding honor,” and the reporter describes their behavior as “living their faith.” This activity includes terrorizing strangers, simultaneously mocking and enforcing the religious subordination of women (the cousins derisively call the woman a “batman,” a reference to her veils that resists ordinary notions of revering modesty), and even threatening to set the veiled woman on fire with the lit cigarette, a fact which is oddly deflected in the telling.
By presenting this horrifying incident as an entirely unremarkable fact of life in Saudi Arabia, the reporter does truth a service. But there is slippage at work in the article, too, for the troubling scene in the restaurant is buried in a long sequence of observations that overwhelmingly emphasize the pathos of the cousins’ inner lives. The young men are depicted, not as jackbooted thugs enforcing a militant apartheid, but as flummoxed Romeos feeling their ways through late adolescence to the tune of “Titanic” playing on their cellphones. This purported innocence is further emphasized by the packaging of the article and its title: “Young Saudis: Vexed and Entranced by Love’s Rules.”
“Vexed and entranced” is a strange way of describing behavior so profoundly contrary to ordinary notions of human rights. An argument might be made that it is all the more horrifying to witness the social power and brutality of these men precisely because they are fuzz-cheeked youths. But it is utterly unlikely that the Times would display such gymnastic deference in describing a similar scene played out with cigarettes and threats against a gay man or a minority, or if the assailants were American fraternity brothers. Then the default stance would be outrage.
What is not written about anymore are the experiences of women being forced to submit to state-mandated hjijab against their will. Once the Western media decided that “the” story of veiling would be a positive story about women being empowered, in one way or another, by the veil, it became increasingly difficult to acknowledge the details of survival under forced hijab. By extension, it could no longer be easily acknowledged that there were, until fairly recently, ordinary relations between the sexes in many places where gender apartheid is now violently enforced.
Occasionally, some extreme event shocks sensibilities in the West, such as the Saudi government sentencing a young woman to public whipping for the crime of being raped. But outrage is rarely sustained. Fear of being accused of insensitivity to Islam is the stronger cue. Reports of outrageous actions by the mullahs are followed closely by peremptory infusions of positive “veiling as culture” stories – and even cries for censorship by sensitive readers.
Selectivity in determining what should be condemned and what should be passed over in silence is a powerful weapon. It is entirely reasonable to equate the long-term treatment of women in Afghanistan and elsewhere with the temporary sexualized abuse of male prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison (that women were abused in Abu Ghraib has not captured the Western imagination). In fact, as even the brief anecdote about the restaurant in the Times reveals, it might be said that the men in Abu Ghraib were simply being treated like women, and that was the horror of it. But while the Western media largely ignored and continues to ignore what is done to Afghan women, both Western and non-Western journalists obsessively revisit and re-narrate and publicize every detail of what happened to men in Abu Ghraib, in articles that continue to drip with outrage.
In contrast, images of cowering female “batmen” and their socially empowered, male, Muslim tormenters appear only rarely these days, and then fleetingly. If the circumstances of women’s lives under Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism appear in the press at all, what is depicted is a sort of cheesily eroticized “behind the veil” glimpse of lives lived in women’s spaces, complete with anecdotes about consumer electronics and pop culture music: the impression is that the laws of hijab are mere inconveniences. But what happens to such women when they accidentally or intentionally break the rules of gender apartheid is not contemplated.
Everything in Afghanistan is About Gender
In 2004, an important and overlooked account of “what happens” appeared in Elinor Burkett’s book, So Many Enemies, So Little Time, An American Woman in all the Wrong Places. A month before September 11, Burkett had traveled to Kyrgyzstan to take a Fulbright position teaching journalism. After the attack on the Twin Towers, she struck out from there for Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, reporting on the conditions of ordinary people as she found them. The result was a nearly unique look at Islamic gender oppression from the point of view of an American-born woman. Reviewers predictably praised Burkett for “transcending her own identity” in the course of her travels (the highest conceivable praise), but the book is actually remarkable for an entirely different trait: her prickly insistence on bringing western sensibilities to bear upon the social conditions she witnessed.
Even before Elinor Burkett entered the woman-free public spaces of Afghanistan, she realized that something vital was missing from her knowledge of the region: “in the dozens of articles I’d read about the plight of Afghan women, I’d rarely seen the faces or heard the voices of Afghani professional women,” she writes. “It had been all too easy, then, to avoid the reality that many of the women being stoned for adultery or whipped for taking off their gloves in public were an awful lot like me.”
Burkett went looking for these formerly professional women, but she had difficulty finding them. A generation had been wiped from the face of the earth, or suppressed so profoundly that they left little trace of having been, a few years earlier, a significant proportion of the nation’s professors and engineers and doctors. She finally located one contact, then another, as she stumbled into a shadow-world of women so traumatized that some were experiencing physical paralysis, some were edging towards suicide, and many had been literally driven insane by the Taliban’s mission to destroy women.
The power of Burkett’s account arises from her willingness to take the fundamentalists at their word when they declare that liberated women are the problem that needs to be eradicated from society. “[E]verything in Afghanistan was about gender,” she writes, “the Taliban’s relentless war against Kabul’s middle-class women wasn’t a simple equation of crime and punishment. There was a desperation to the floggings and stonings meted out to these women, a hysteria behind the ruthlessness and uncompromising humiliation.”
What Burkett found among the women of Kabul sounds more like a genocide than revolution. Certainly, the women she met bore the physical marks and stress syndromes of extreme beatings, and worse. But the damage to society, she observed, went even deeper, forcing a sort of psychic disassociation between the sexes that could not be overcome by simply “liberating” the city from Taliban control. Women had suffered a complete public death, and they were painfully conscious of the fact that something irreversible had been unleashed by forcing them out of the world and into the veil.
The picture Burkett paints in her book is a far cry from the cheery propagandizing about separate women’s spheres and anecdotes about female modesty and domestic bonding that are the staples of veiling stories in the West. The women of Kabul were lost, she writes, in a “contagion” of terror, and the men have been “warped” sexually and socially by the denigration of women. Her narrative strips away all the excuses about culture and tradition and reveals the burqa for what it really is: a symbol of shame imposed out of hatred, not respect.
“I’d arrived in Kabul,” Burkett writes, “with the image of blue borqas scurrying down the street, unsure why scurrying seemed so fixed in my imagination.” Then she attempted to walk down the street with her husband at her side. The men made room for him to pass while physically battering her. “I was utterly unable to avoid being kicked, shoved, stepped on and knocked into,” she reports:
When I paused for a moment to watch the flow of pedestrian
traffic, I got it, and was chilled by the implications: Women
didn’t exist. Men walked down the street as if the women
simply weren’t there, assuming, without even thinking about
it, that the women would dash aside.”
The Taliban had officially been routed before Burkett and her husband arrived in Kabul. But Afghan women had good reason to fear that the gender oppression would not be so easily reversed, if at all. Kabul was “an almost primeval world where women never quite knew what unseen force might hit them.” And there was another problem with shedding the burqa, as Burkett discovered:
It was the leering, the unabashed, uncontrolled lust of men catching their first glimpses of hair on the heads of foreign women. It was the sight of groups of men panting audibly at local women who dared to expose their ankles or their hands. It was the unrelenting questions about sexual positions . . . with which [Burkett’s husband] Dennis was barraged by men already fantasizing about what they could do in a democracy . . . Looking at women in public was as illicit as watching pornography in private, and the reaction was identical.
Because of forced veiling, everything about females had become pornographic to men.
Liberated nations do not ordinarily keep their concentration camps up and running once the liberators arrive, but the women Burkett met in Kabul were wisely keeping their heads covered. After all, elsewhere in the Middle East, the regime of gender apartheid was hardly being challenged. And in the West, freedom of the press notwithstanding, the real consequences of creating a society where faceless female “batmen” cower before their socially empowered male tormentors was already deemed too distasteful to discuss.
Talk to an expatriate like Parvin Darabi, however, a woman who is free to speak and has witnessed the effect of the religious police on her own family, and the intergenerational consequences of mandatory veiling is foremost among her worries. What happens to children when they grow up watching men exercise absolute dominance over women? What happens when virtually every woman they see is shrouded in the most ostentatious way, allegedly to cover the shame of being female? What happens to a culture when people cannot even remember a time when women and men sat at restaurant tables across from each other, shared public sidewalks, saw each other’s faces?
And what difference does it make whether hijab consists of a head-to-toe burqa or a headscarf, so long as both are enforced with the threat of violence or imprisonment?
Darabi poses questions others don’t even imagine. “In segregated societies,” she told me recently, “men lose a lot. The Islamic female games were conducted underground, and men were not allowed to be present . . . what a joy they miss.” Muslim women, restricted from the international stage, lose too: “[i]t is no competition if one becomes third place in a competition where three women participated. But to finish third in a worldwide competition is an honor to cherish forever. Muslim women are denied such honors,” she explained. Men lose out when they cannot watch their daughters compete in sports: entire societies lose the potential their young women can offer.
When runner Mehboba Ahdyar, the only Afghan female training to attend the Bejing Games, was forced to flee her country because of death threats, few in the international media bothered to condemn the Islamists who were agitating for the 19-year old’s murder. Expectations were high for Ahdyar, who competes in a headscarf and loose garments and was being promoted in both the Islamic and Western media as a “poster child” and a “force for good” at the Bejing Games. But once the Islamists decided that international goodwill was less important to them than continuing their reign of terror against women, and the “poster child” was forced to flee, the media fell silent.
That is quite courageous of Mehboba Ahdyar to participate
on behalf of a country which has no regards for her
achievement. I believe she should apply for asylum and
leave Afghanistan and try to compete in the next Olympics
as a national of another country where women are
considered human beings with the desire to achieve and accomplish.
But once again, her voice was a lonely one. To openly criticize the personal consequences of forced segregation of women sounds strange to Western ears: it simply isn’t done here. But Darabi has never stopped speaking out about the plight of women in her own country, Iran.
In recent years, Iranian women regained some of the freedoms they had lost during the revolution: unlike women in Saudi Arabia, they could drive cars again, vote, attend university, and run for elected office. But such gains coexisted with the ominous presence of the religious police, the threat of stoning for adultery, the universal enforcement of head-to-toe hijab, and the continual threat of regression back to the worst days of post-revolutionary Iran. In July, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began rolling back the clock on women again. The Iranian parliament proposed a law to make it easier for men to practice polygamy and so-called “temporary marriage” and to strip away some of the minor legal protections accorded to women in divorce. Then Ahmadinejad announced a stepping-up of the presence and scope of powers for the religious police who roam the streets watching for women who disobey the strict laws of hijab.
“Many women activists in Iran feel that this law will push them further back in time,” Darabi said. For every fragile step forward that women achieve in Islamic states, outrage, violent reaction, and renewed repression seem just around the next corner, a circumstance that is now spreading to Europe as well. As Elinor Burkett repeatedly reiterates, “everything” is about gender in these places. Her need to repeat herself implicates the timidity of other Western journalists, who seem to seek any excuse to avoid seeing this reality.
Setting aside, too, all the “separate-but-equal” events like the Islamic Women’s Games, we are actually deeper into the war Islamists are waging against women than we were in 1996, when Parvin Darabi brought her fight for women’s rights to Atlanta’s “civil rights” Olympics. By now, we should be much more aware of the ways state-mandated Islam unfolds and brutalizes women “back to the Middle Ages,” but we’re still not paying attention, or we are paying attention to the wrong things. The story of Homa Darabi – dead fifteen years this February, is one we should remember again.
Dr. Homa Darabi
Homa Darabi had once been a prominent child psychiatrist and university professor and had founded a psychiatric clinic in Tehran after returning there from the United States in 1976. Before the 1979 revolution, she was also a member of a movement that opposed the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi because of his regime’s repression of women. But after the Shah was overthrown, she became an outspoken opponent of the new Islamic Republic. Because she refused to observe, or as a doctor, enforce, the rules of hijab, she lost her position at Tehran University and eventually her private practice as well.
But what ultimately drove Homa Darabi to despair, then public suicide, was the enforcement of the hijab. As a pediatrician, Homa felt deeply the plight of adolescent girls who were being subjected to whippings and murder for wearing make-up or failing to cover themselves in public or attracting sexual attention, however inadvertently. And as a former political opponent of the Shah, she felt responsible for her role, however inadvertent, in helping bring about the Islamic Revolution.
However, there was little she could do. Until the Islamic authorities harassed her into giving up her medical practice, Homa attempted to shield some of her patients by declaring them “mentally incapacitated,” a diagnosis that provided some protection from public whippings. “So many perfectly intelligent, bright young girls,” her sister Parvin wrote of that time.
In essence, the mental incapacitation diagnosis was a sort of medical simulacrum of the chador itself: women are innately sinful and lack the psychic or moral ability to be otherwise. And like the chador, the protection it offered was not guaranteed: Homa rescued some girls from immanent punishment, but that was all. When she could no longer provide even this imperfect service, and directly following the execution of a sixteen-year old for the crime of wearing lipstick, she opted to seize the only agency she still possessed: public self-immolation.
It is practically unbearable that, fifteen years later, the story of two young thugs in Saudi Arabia flicking a lit cigarette at a woman cloaked in a burqa – knowing what they are doing -- can be excused in the Western media as a meaningless act of adolescent bravado. Have we become so accustomed to seeing burqa-clad women from the perspective of those young men – because it is the men’s faces we see -- that we accept such things as natural? The life, and death, of Homa Darabi must mean something more than that.
In 2012, the Olympics will arrive in Britain. Whether the I.O.C. will side with the Islamists, again, this time remains to be seen.
Parvin Darabi is the author of the book Rage Against The Veil. She runs the Dr. Homa Darabi Foundation.
Tina Trent is a writer living in Florida
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