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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Profile: Chahla Chafiq

The Germans and the Scandinavians - who both belong to one overall race - will only pave the way for their hereditary enemy, the Slavs, if they fight with one-another rather than uniting … the classes and the races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way - Karl Marx

The Blanket will feature a biography of each of the 12 signatories of Manifesto: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism, along with each of the Danish cartoons their number represents.

This is the seventh in the series.

Anthony McIntyre • 9 May 2006

What 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:

This 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.

In 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 beings, revolutionaries.

We 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.

The 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.

Chahla 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 nightmare.

She 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.

Like 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.'

Chafiq remains tolerant of religion but implacable toward its imposition on society.

If 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 … It is 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.

Her 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.

In 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 project.

Since her days in Iran when she regarded the veil as a secondary issue she has shifted her position considerably:

the 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.

She 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.'

Against 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.

She 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.'

Today 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.

However, 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.

Whatever, 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.


See also:

MANIFESTO: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism
Freedom of Speech

Chahla Chafiq
Philippe Val
Antoine Sfeir
Maryam Namazie
Taslima Nasrin
Irshad Manji
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Freedom of Expression: No Ifs and Buts
Manning the Firewalls
Ulster Muslims' Fury at Web Cartoons
For Freedom of Expression
Muslim News Interviews The Blanket
Who Fears to Speak
Cartoons and Caricatures: An anarchist take on the cartoon row
Taslima Nasrin (2000)
The Clash of the Uncivilized
Misunderstandings Abound
A Vital Question Not Easily Washed Away
Zen and the Heart of Blasphemy
Closer to Home
The Right to Offend
Wrong to Claim Freedom of Speech
The Parameters of Free Speech
Unreal Paradigms
Cowardice on Cartoon Controversary

Standing Up to the Enemies of Free Speech
Irish Republicanism and Islam
Real human rights - without any religious blackmail
Resisting Censorship
Controversy over the publication of cartoons
Stereotypes Must Be Challenged Openly
New Convert
About the Possible Posting of the Muslim Cartoons
Well Done
A Muslim's Response
Straight Talk vs Orthodoxy

One Man's Terrorist is Another Man's Prophet
Christ Collage
An Eye for An Eye
Glad to See Someone is Not Afraid
There Are No Sides to Peace
Rights and Responsibilities

Censorship: The Blanket's first article (2001): Silence is Not Golden; It is Complicity



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

11 May 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

The Incorruptible
Anthony McIntyre

Ruarí Ó Brádaigh: Robert White's biography of a Republican idealist
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Can of Worms
John Kennedy

The Wrong Man
Martin Ingram

Gotta Be Cruel to be Kind
Dr John Coulter

Revising the Rising?
Forum Magazine Editorial

Solving the Irish Problem
Michael Gillespie

Geoffrey Cooling

Thank You, Bobby Sands
Fred A. Wilcox

Welcome Back, David. Now, Go Away Again!
Eamon Sweeney

Give Them That Auld Tyme Religion
Dr John Coulter

Meal Ticket
John Kennedy

Examples of Dialogue
Conn Corrigan

Two-State Solution
Mick Hall

Peter King - Still Irish America's Champion
Patrick Hurley

Statements on the Murder of Michael McIlveen
RSF; 32 County Sovereignty Movement

Profile: Chahla Chafiq
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index

18 April 2006

Grave Secrets
Anthony McIntyre

Spoiled Rotten
David Adams

Let Bygones be Bygones
Mick Hall

Urgent Memo — Judas Was One of the Bad Guys!
Dr John Coulter

Cluedo in Donegal
Anthony McIntyre

Easter Message
John Kennedy

Óglaigh na hÉireann Easter Statement
The Sovereign Nation

IFC Easter Statement, 2006
Joe Dillon

Lincoln's Despair
John Kennedy

Fred A. Wilcox

Hamas Being Forced to Collapse
Sam Bahour

Profile: Philippe Val
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index



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