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The Shared Struggle of Iranian Women and African Americans

The far reach of the Iranian and U.S. struggles for freedom is a testament to the tenacity and resistance of both Iranian and African American women against master-slave relations.

Women on the streets of Iran, protesting for human rights.,Photo: Richard Vogel/AP

The struggle for freedom of women in Iran and the fight against racism in the United States — seemingly unrelated or independent – are shared struggles as deep as the ocean. 

The gender segregation imposed after the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution is fundamentally no different from the black code laws implemented after the Civil War (1861-65) in the United States. In both instances, a conservative ruling elite adopted a system of apartheid based upon police terror and religious authority to maintain its hegemonic power through unwritten and written laws.

Historically, African Americans have been at the forefront of movements to make the United States live up to the country’s democratic promise. But sadly, with polls showing Democratic President Joseph Biden running neck and neck with Republican Donald Trump, the indicted former president, there is a real fear that United States could move in the opposite direction as white supremacist voters succeed in ushering an era of fascism, long in the making.

The Persistence of Struggle

The far reach of the Iranian and U.S. struggles for freedom is a testament to the tenacity and resistance of both Iranian and African American women against master-slave relations.

Make no mistake about it, the Woman Life Freedom (WLF) movement is a 21st century abolitionist movement against gender apartheid in the country and region. 

Indeed, the cause of WLF in Iran mirrors the cause of emancipated slaves in a long, persistent struggle for political, civil and economic rights that has continued to this day. Black Lives Matter in the United States is but one strand of a larger abolitionist movement.

African-American activists, philosophers and feminists like Angela Davis view the opposition to police brutality of African Americans in the United States and the challenge of Iranian women facing state terror as a common struggle.  

The two domestic yet international struggles reflect and feed upon each other’s history of activism and have much to share.

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Davis describes the struggles in both countries as a reflection of a growing worldwide movement against patriarchy, segregation, and economic inequality. Davis views the Iranian protestors as “the harbingers of hope for all that want an end to racial capitalism, misogyny, and economic repression.”

Iranian Women’s Bond with the U.S. Civil Rights Struggle

The current rebellion in Iran stems from the death of Mahsa Amini, also known as Jina, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, in Sept. 16, 2022. 

Brutally beaten and tortured, she died three days after being taken into custody by the country’s morality police for improperly wearing her head scarf as required by sharia law. Pieces of her hair revealed from under her head scarf constituted her crime.

The murder–which the theocratic state infamously attributed to a natural heart attack–struck a deep chord that sparked demonstrations in 80 cities throughout the country, revealing the depth of the resentment for the Islamic state and exposing the plight of Iranian women and their fight for freedom to the world. 

In 2022, the state atrocities included the killing of some 530 people many of them children. The number of people imprisoned rose to more than 20,000 by April of this year.

Norway-based Iran human rights group reported 354 executions in the first half of 2023. Where legitimacy has failed, terror has been the modus operandi of the Islamic state’s morality police.

Recalling post-Reconstruction practices of White Leagues, red-shirt groups of Mississippi, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and the lynching of African Americans by the Ku Klux Klan, paramilitary and undercover agents in Iran target and kidnap demonstrators in public to further terrorize public assemblies.

During the demonstrations, the protestors’ signature chants are “Death to the dictator!,” “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, we are all together,” “We do not want Islamic Republic” and “This State is a baby killer,” the last a reference to gassing high schools, as a system of punishing the youth.

Reuters notes “The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is a great guide. Today, America’s best Middle East expert is Dr. Martin Luther King” who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

In conversations, protestors often share how they find inspiration in new methods of struggle. The rap music and protest songs of Toomaj Salehi, currently sentenced to six years in prison, is reminiscent of how African Americans advanced their struggle through spirituals, the blues and jazz. 

In 1978 Khomeini banned chess, music, dance and singing by women. But Persian culture and its spirit of creativity has persevered despite Islamization, as reflected by the protests.

The two historical struggles share much in tactics. Both advocate individual rights, peaceful civil disobedience, general strikes, and creative arts in their calls for political transformation of civil society.

Both struggles have vast international solidarity and are century-old historical struggles. 

Some 8 million Iranians living overseas or in exile are more than an echo of the WLF struggle, as they join with progressive international forces to fight the gender apartheid. This is exposing the international corporate and banking deals that help legitimize the Islamic state’s brutal repression of its opposition, primarily women. 

In the words of Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian activist, interviewed on CNN, “When other countries come in and inject money in that system they are participating in every bloodshed”. That includes the United States, China, and now the Saudis, according to Farahani.

When it comes to defending human rights and women’s liberation, the international community seems utterly paralyzed by multi-national corporate interests’ reluctance to deal with anything but profit. In this international bureaucracy of inter-continental master-slave relations no one is held accountable for violating human rights. Violence, rape and sexual assault as a preferred method of terror has become the nature of it all. 

Black-Code Laws = Sharia Laws

The similarities of black code enforcement of racial segregation and sharia laws of gender segregation is striking.

In the United States, as described by historian C. Vann Woodward, “The code lent the sanction of law to racial ostracism that extended to churches and schools, to housing and jobs, to eating and drinking. Whether by law or custom, that ostracism extended to virtually all forms of public transportation, to sports and recreations, to hospitals, orphanages, prisons, asylums, and ultimately to funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries.” 

Similarly in Iran, gender segregation has extended to restaurants, sports facilities (women are banned from football stadiums), parks, swimming in pools, rivers, lakes, seas, public transportation (women are not permitted to ride a motorcycle), the judiciary (women are barred from becoming judges), mosques, universities and schools.  

Legally, married women need the official permission of their husbands to obtain a passport to travel outside the country. The sharia code allows a husband to prohibit his wife from having a job he regards as against “family values,” while maintaining the legitimacy of having four legal wives for himself.  

Dress codes–including the forced hijabs–are imposed on women from all walks of life. The only exception to these rules seems to be foreigners or diplomats with immunity who, not surprisingly, follow the Islamist rules. 

Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), a chronicler of the horrors of Jim Crow and one of the founders of the NAACP, explains how the system of terror was grounded and applied systematically in United States. Her work applies equally to what is going on today in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. 

Just as Jim Crow enforced segregation, sharia law is the foundation for today’s misogynist practices in Iran. The Jim Crow statutes were upheld by what Wells calls “unwritten laws” based on “customs” and “common senses” that legitimize repression. In Iran, religious and social practices uphold the oppression of women.

“Lynching were public spectacles turned into ways of thinking and customs by a white majority before they became written laws in confederate States,” Wells said. From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States, according to NAACP records, and hundreds of African Americans were killed as they fought for their political rights after Reconstruction.

Today, the Islamo-fascist state is carrying out a similar Machiavellian reign of terror, which is vital for the survival of an autocratic state. Soon after the Jina rebellion began in September 2022, the state hung the bodies of their political opponents in public spaces, from cranes in the town of Mashad, a Shiite holly city in eastern Iran. 

Iran Human Rights reports that bodies were displayed in soccer stadiums and shown on national TV. The public display of terror recalls the public lynching—often announced in advance by city councils—during the Jim Crow era in the United States.

In the southern states governed by Jim Crow practices, segregation was enforced through the terror machinery of citizen councils, whose members included white evangelicals. Similar citizen councils that enforce Islamic laws through custom and terror are also present in Iran. They include liberal men and reformists of all walks as well.

The unwritten laws described by Ida B. Wells find their Islamic versions in Fatwas, which are used to enforce Islamic laws. Any Islamist jurist (mujtahid) can issue a Fatwa and any Muslim can forbid a “wrong” presumably based on the word of God. Fatwas were used in calls for assassination of Persian activist Masih Alinejad and the attacks on writers such as Salman Rushdie and Iranian historian Ahmad Kasravi. 

“The Origin of Others”

The masculine-based superiority complex underlying Iranian patriarchy subjugates women by constructing “The Other,” a term author and Nobel prize winner of literature Toni Morrison uses to describe the method of racism in master-slave relations in the United States.

In “The Origin of Others,” Morrison writes, “What is denied in the other is personhood, the specific individuality we insist upon ourselves.”  She adds, “What more, really, do you know about these characters when you know their race? Anything?”

The concept of master-slave otherness provides a justification for maintaining power over excluded groups, especially minorities, through dehumanization and subjugation. The more slaves, the more the power of the master.

The idea of the “Other” legitimizes economic exploitation and ideological domination through the ruling ideas of an authority (like white power) on what constitutes good or is forbidden, beautiful or ugly. Interpreted broadly, the “Other” is an expression that reflects master-slave relations enforced by black code laws of racial segregation in the South.

Sharia laws have codified similar master-slave relationships in Iran through the state, mosques and schools, down to city councils and families.

The categorization of women as society’s “Other” has led to a marginalization of women in the economy. In 2020, the labor force participation rate of women was 14 percent compared to 70 percent for men—even though over 57 percent of university graduates were then women. A quota system in admissions further restricted Iranian women.  

But women are fighting the mullahs’ gender-based dehumanization through the art of politics, creative arts and freedom of expression.

They are challenging their rulers through music, songs, dance, theater, cinema, photography, painting, and literary works and performing arts. Women are defending the right to flow their hair in the air freely—anywhere.

Similarly, for the black community in the United States, music, songs, history and literature have often been tied to identity and rebellion against bigotry, perhaps best exemplified in the case of Billie Holiday 1939 protest song “Strange Fruit.”

The Fight for Democracy

Increasingly, the Women, Life, Freedom movement is about democratic rights. Formally, Iranian women have the right to vote. But in practice that’s meaningless as the mullahs control the political agenda and name their own candidates. 

In the United States, African Americans confront voter restriction laws, the weakening of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court and voter intimidation–reminders of how fragile the country’s democratic institutions remain despite historic civil rights gains. 

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, in a talk at Colorado University earlier this year, expressed her optimism that the women’s rights movement will lead to a permanent rebuke to the mullahs and the rise of democracy in Iran.

“Today’s fight led by women stands to be more far-reaching than the male-dominated overthrow of the Shah in 1979 that led to the installation of the country’s theocratic, dictatorship,” she said.

“This time, in 2022, when women took to the streets and decided to cut their hair off, the men decided to support the women, and that’s why this revolution will succeed,” Ebadi said. 

“It’s a glamorous revolution—the men have found out that democracy will come to Iran through women’s rights,” Ebadi said. She said that the rebellion carries a message for U.S. women, who must not back down in the face of the loss of the constitutional right to abortion that threatens to result in a further loss of their rights.

Economic Rights

The women’s movement is occurring as Iranians face a deepening of the country’s long-term economic problems, including growing inequities, insufficient jobs, and a gender-based segmentation of the work force. 

As more Iranians fall into poverty, women have suffered disproportionately. Mullahs are the top beneficiaries of Iran’s annual billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues. Without oil, the Iranian theocracy has no material or financial base. Its rial currency does not circulate on the basis of a fatwa or Islam.

In his 1963 “I have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the “othering”—or marginalization–of African Americans in the U.S. economy, saying “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” The government reneged on its promise to provide freedmen 40 acres and mule after the Civil War.

In the more than 150 years since then, African Americans have faced persistent economic and other hardships including job, housing and credit discrimination, pay inequity, redlining and educational inequality, all of which has led to a great racial wealth gap. The average per capita wealth of white Americans was $338,093 in 2019 but only $60,126 for Black Americans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. That’s a 6 to 1 gap.

The End of the Islamic State?

Today, activists and political analysts are increasingly predicting that women’s revolution in Iran will ultimately topple the mullahs and lead to democracy. “How long? Not long” as Dr. King would ask in relation to the 1960’s civil rights movement in United States. 

Increasingly, the international community and its civil groups need to take the initiative themselves rather than rely on their respective governments’ empty slogans to stand for and uphold individual or human rights at home or abroad. WLF is an abolitionist movement waging a protracted civil war against slavery. International support for the movement is building, despite growing banking transactions for Islamic state’s oil and gas exports. 

The Islamic state’s widespread repression and terror speaks to how seriously the mullahs have taken their opposition to Iran’s civil society, especially women. The repression also has shown how through executing absolute terror, the Islamic State lost legitimacy.

Without legitimacy, no state can govern for long by relying solely on violence and terror. Today, what gives these mullahs their power is not just the Sharia laws but also state power backed by morality-police terror. 

The billions in oil and gas revenues accrued with the support of international corporate finance, led by United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and China, provides the material basis and literally the bloody fuel for the Islamic theocracy. 

Piruz Alemi is a contributor to the Antonio Gramsci International Studies at Marxist Education Program (MEP). He is guest lecturer in the Dept of Politics, Economics and Law at the State University of New York and a faculty member at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Blogger Gregory N. Heires is the former president of the NY Metro Labor Communications Council.