A FREE Woman
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March 31, 2007
They insisted that she conceal her fatigues with a white abaya, cover her hair with a hijab. It was with her soft voice and in her round, girlish handwriting that the apology for her country’s actions had to be made.
This war has a workaday military guise, but as the treatment of Leading Seaman Faye Turney shows, it is a collision between two irreconcilable civilisations. Its spoils are more than oil reserves, disputed waters or regional influence, but, at its very core, the right of dominion over women.
What a perplexing and alien creature Seaman Turney must appear to this Iranian regime. A young woman working close-knit with men, proud to perform her dangerous task of piloting speedboats as well as any one of them. A wife and mother, moreover, away from her small daughter, who has put military career before marital and maternal duties.
The Iranians were satisfied to have her 14 male comrades surrender as sailors or Marines: Seaman Turney had to surrender also as a woman. While the men were free to eat their pitta bread and lamb stew with weary resignation, she had to work out how best to appear adequately humble, grateful and submissive. She must submit not just to Iran’s military authority but its patriarchal might.
After all, here she stood, the end-product of 100 years of bitterly fought — and now mostly unacknowledged — Western female emancipation. In Britain our own reactionaries may finger-wag at the unnatural spectacle of a mother in a warzone, distracting our male warrior caste. One strain of feminism can question why womankind — Nature’s peacemakers, oh Mother Gaia! — would want to fight men’s wars, particularly this one.
While another might point out the sham of Seaman Turney’s equality: the sexual harassment endured by almost all women military personnel and their ban from the front line.
And the tiresome buzz of these debates can distract us from the wholly magnificent truth: the freedom of Seaman Turney and of all of us, our right to make choices — and mistakes — to fight, to study, to work, to stay home, to have children, to remain childless, to wear what the hell we like — whether basque or burka — to live unenslaved by our fertility, our fathers, our husbands, to have equal rights before the law. So languid are we in this warm bath of freedom, that International Women’s Day — March 9 — doesn’t even figure on our calendar. It is some vestigial Seventies feminist joke. We’d be marching for what, exactly? Is there really anything left? Er, more women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies?
In Iran, however, International Women’s Day is as perilous as patrolling any Iraqi foxhole. A week before, to forestall protest on the day itself, police rounded up and arrested 33 women involved in the Campaign for Equality, which aims to get a million signatures on a petition calling for the end of discrimination in Iranian penal and family codes.
In Iran a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man, her murder requires only half the punishment, girls as young as 9 may be stoned for adultery and mothers after divorce only have custody rights over their children until they reach 7 years old.
On March 9, the few women who dared to gather peacefully outside the parliament building were dispersed or arrested. Any prominent woman lawyer, journalist or politician speaks out at grave personal risk. Five feminist leaders are currently on trial for “propaganda against the system” and “acting against national security.” Compared with their subjugated Saudi sisters, Iranian women have comparative liberty, being permitted to drive, vote and stand for office. Indeed more than half of university graduates in Iran are women. And it is this weight of numbers, a growing confidence and sense of entitlement among these educated women, that threatens the male leadership and has precipitated a recent crackdown.
It is no longer enough, say the mullahs, for women to sit in separate rows from male students in lecture theatres or classrooms. Liberal academics have been purged, there are calls for separate teaching and for CCTV cameras on campuses to monitor “gender-mingling”.
Meanwhile the Islamic dress code is being imposed with renewed zeal. Girls have pushed the rules — as girls eternally will — wearing tight fitting abayas or the sheerest scarves far back on their dark hair, flashing painted toenails in open sandals.
But last year, the police chose the broiling heat of August to caution women deemed “badly veiled” and instructed them to wear the heavy, sweltering full-length chador. In Tehran, in a single month, 63,963 women were given a warning, with some making a written pledge to dress properly. Then, in a move which would be comical if it weren’t so despotic, the police organised a fashion show, displaying examples of outfits considered properly Islamic. Obviously no live models were used.
To think, we live in a parallel universe where “diktats of fashion” mean feeling obliged to succumb to the smock, where “fashion crime” means Christina Aguilera overdoing the sequins and the “fashion police” are a bunch of effete stylists, not zealots wielding night-sticks.
There are, of course, those who have taken up the veil voluntarily in Britain, who fight secularism so bitterly, who would have it that no British Muslim school girl strode to school bareheaded or even barefaced. What would they make of these women who risk a spell in Iran’s notorious Evin prison for supporting a form of political protest as meek as a petition? They might say that these women were infected with Western values — although the richest Iranian women are apparently unwilling to dirty their shoes on this campaign, having the money and connections to skip off abroad at will. And in any case the groundswell of revolt against clerical tyranny comes from the less affluent or educated, who stand to lose most: their children, homes, liberty, lives.
Let the women of Beeston in their chadors flick V-signs at us. Let them wear their slave garb and tell us their invisibility is the will of God rather than the rule of man. Let them do so while reaping all the benefits — education, equality — of Western feminism. As long as they acknowledge that thanks to the values they disdain and too often wish to destroy, and unlike the women of Iran and currently Leading Seaman Turney, they do so because they have a choice.