Chahla Chafiq sought to focus on in her book Caskets
and Rape: The Prison in Iran's Islamic Republic,
was described by reviewer George Tarabishi:
is a journey in the hell of the Middle Ages. Neither
the history nor the geography is of medieval times;
this hell is not Roman Europe, nor are the inquisition
courts the courts of the Catholic Church. Rather,
it is Iran in the ninth decade of the 20th century,
and the courts are the courts of the Islamic revolution.
April 1979, word found its way into our filthy H-Block
cells that there had been a revolution in Iran.
It sounded good. In those days before we had really
met any revolutionary poseurs we believed revolutions
were in themselves good things. We belonged to a
strict militarist body, the IRA, and were hardly
bothered by such matters as Engels having described
revolution as being 'the most authoritarian thing
there is.' Imposing the authority of the revolution
seemed so self explanatory. Nor did we have much
of a notion about how the thoughts of both Engels
and Marx contained within them the seeds of racism.
Had we have been capable of accessing less garbled
news than that which wormed its way from cell to
cell, mutating in the process, we may have heard
the revolution's leader announce, 'today the government
of God shall reign in Iran.' Maybe we would not
have even noticed. God was in big demand to fill
the desolation of the soul within the H-Blocks.
Those of us who did not shout the Rosary out the
cell doors in the evening once the screws had gone
off duty neither minded nor mattered. While not
to the same extent as in Iran, the omnipresence
of God was felt throughout the H-Bocks. Enigmatic
may have been less enamoured of the new revolution
had we learned that towards the end of 1978, its
then potential leader was proclaiming, 'in the future
state, there will not be political prisoners.' To
those on the blanket protest, wise in the ways of
such matters, this would have meant that come the
revolution, no matter what led to imprisonment,
no victim of it would ever be termed a political
prisoner by the government. Circumstances ominously
similar to our own.
living conditions for Britain's protesting political
prisoners in the North were not good. But compared
to what the revolutionaries in Iran were offering
I doubt if we would have traded them in just to
have a revolution. In Caskets and Rape Chahla
Chafiq highlighted the terrible persecution of politically
motivated detainees who the Ayatollah claimed were
not political prisoners. Women in particular were
singled out for the most pernicious treatment. Rape
was frequently the last act to precede the execution
of a woman. The very male serving rationale that
a woman could not be put to death if she was a virgin
- because all virgins go to heaven - allowed men
to violate women in the most violent and demeaning
of ways. The female political prisoner was forced
to marry her executioner who would rape then kill
her. Only then, defiled and degraded, would she
be sufficiently spiritually barren to acquire free
passage to hell. Her murderer of course might anticipate
being made welcome at the side of Allah who for
services rendered should provide him with even more
virgins to ravish. A man's world and a man's after-world.
Chafiq was a left wing activist in Iran at the time
of the revolution. She made the mistake of thinking
that because the Ayatollah claimed to oppose exploitation,
imperialism and America it was strategically prudent
for the Left to align with him. Her attitude then
was simple: 'the veil is not important. It is a
secondary question.' By 1983 she had fled the theocratic
is now settled in France from where she works and
writes. There are three themes to her activity;
prison in Iran, women and the veil, and pedagogy
in socially and economically deprived areas, the
latter taking up the bulk of her professional life.
She has published short stories in the Farsi language,
published by Iranian publishers in exile. Since
1992, she has been a consultant for the Organisation
for the Development of Intercultural Relations.
She studied under Cornelius Castoriadis who seems
to have made a big impact on her thinking with his
disdain for 'Third World' rhetoric and his refusal
to offer 'critical support' to leftist dictators.
For Castoriadis there was neither a divinity that
would deliver justice, nor a teleology that would
lead to revolutionary nirvana, somehow having managed
to avoid disaster and catastrophe along the way.
People had to manage for themselves and could learn
to do so without priest classes or vanguard parties.
many of the women who signed the Manifesto Against
Totalitarianism Chafiq comes from a Muslim family
background but professes to have no religion. Her
experience since her decision to no longer align
with the Iranian regime has led to her rejecting
any idea that anti-imperialism should be mixed up
with Islam. Arguing that all religions are inegalitarian,
particularly in relation to women, she sees only
a cul de sac when activists promote Islam as a social
and political alternative to imperialism. Her sharp
exchange with Respect luminary, Salma Yaqoob in
2003, underscored her views on the matter. 'I heard
her say she was against imperialism and for social
justice, but she did not say that secularism is
necessary for democracy. For me that is a fundamental
principle. Democracy cannot exist when religion
becomes law and imposes its identity.'
remains tolerant of religion but implacable toward
its imposition on society.
religion is simply a private relation with god,
that is another matter, but when it acquires social
and political force through law, then it becomes
very dangerous for women's equality
essential to differentiate between Islam, the religion,
and Islamism, which is a political discourse. I
am against political Islam, just as I am opposed
to any religion presenting itself as a political
alternative. It is quite possible to be a Muslim,
in the sense of having an Islamic culture, and at
the same time to be secular.
critique of religion is not confined to Islam, believing
as she does that people must be free to criticise
religion of all hues. 'I am an Iranian with an Iranian
culture, but that does not stop me having a critical
attitude towards certain aspects of that culture.'
She is unremittingly hostile to efforts aimed at
forging a communal religious identity.
fact the 'Muslim community' does not really exist,
just as there is no single 'French community' coming
together behind a single political and social project.
You can be French or Iranian, Muslim or Jewish,
but you belong firstly to a social class: you have
your family, your job, your own ideas about religion
and about a model for society. Those who wish to
ignore our multiple identity in favour of a Muslim
or any other community are attempting to create
something that does not exist in order to further
their own political project - in this case an Islamist
her days in Iran when she regarded the veil as a
secondary issue she has shifted her position considerably:
veil is not first and foremost a religious symbol.
It is necessary to ask what its true meaning is.
Why do men not wear it? Clearly this is not a problem
of identity, but one of a patriarchal social order.
We thought that anti-imperialism was more
important than women's rights. Today I regret that.
Women's rights are not secondary, but ought to be
at the very centre of a vision of a different world.
remains hostile to those who claim to be defending
anti-imperialist positions but fail to challenge
those who defend religious law. 'It is not enough
to say, "we will decide that later." For
me it is a condition of any alliance that they must
state their position on this.' An attitude hardly
likely to raise her kudos with the Respect party
which, according to Peter Tatchell, 'not only takes
money from people involved in far right Islamist
groups that want to ban gay organisations and kill
lesbians and gays, it puts these people on its national
council and makes them parliamentary candidates.'
a backdrop of speculation, which has since intensified
to nuclear proportions, that George Bush might launch
a military strike on Iran, she did not believe that
the country was under any serious threat from the
US. Her optimism was based on a calculation of US
strategic interest which would not be served by
waging that particular war. Nor would it be likely
to resolve the problem which was then at the heart
of the dispute.
believed Iran was witnessing growing resistance
to the dictatorship. Nevertheless the regime maintained
its control through oil money and arms. 'And the
left, democratic and secular opposition is very
weak and disparate - because of the repression,
but also because of the absence of a coherent alternative.'
European governments do not take a strong enough
stand for human rights in Iran 'because of the question
of oil.' In her view, in 2003, a more serious problem
facing Iran than that of US attack was how, after
20 years of religious dictatorship, to secure secularisation,
democracy and human rights. 'The separation of religion
from the state will be essential.'
things have moved on. It is now perfectly plausible
to argue that the situation pertaining to US relations
with Iran has deteriorated dramatically as a result
of the dispute over Iran's nuclear capacity under
the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In such circumstances
those concerned with preventing a nuclear strike
might wonder if Chafiq would stand over her 2003
position and if indeed it is possible to project
her then strategic framework into the current realm.
supposing I am wrong. Personally I did not say,
'Defend Iraq' any more than I said, 'Defend America'.
It is possible to adopt a third position. We are
not obliged to defend Khamenei against Bush, or
Bush against Khamenei. In politics it is always
possible to put forward another position. For me
the Iranian government is corrupt and my anti-imperialism
does not lead me to defend a corrupt dictatorship.
her position on the current impasse, Chahla Chafiq
is yet one more courageous feminist who has sought
to take on those who regard women as less valuable
members of human society. She works to flush them
out from behind the very rocks they intend to use
for stoning women to death. Other women, particularly
those pseudo-progressives in the West, who pontificate
against oppression but hide behind the rhetoric
of anti-imperialism as a ruse for failing to confront
religious bigotry, misogyny and patriarchy, should
perhaps wear the veil - to hide their shame.
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