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War can never be feminist: why America’s concern for liberating Iranian women is an imperialist scam

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14 Jan 2020

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Trigger warning: mentions of rape and abuse

America’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, chose to mark the recent occasion of International Day for The Elimination of Violence Against Women, (25 November 2019), with a tweet. “Today and every day, we stand in solidarity with the women of #Iran who face the wrath of a regime that has institutionalized and condoned violence against those who demand equality whether for the way they wish to dress or for their desire to pray & worship freely,” wrote Mike, seemingly referring to the mandatory hijab law in Iran. 

This month, I saw a similar vein of surface-level concern for Iranian women expressed by Michael Coudrey, after the American-led execution of General Qassem Soleimani. Michael, a co-founder of the New Right US movement (an organisation that aims to bring together conservatives who want to “put American First”) tweeted a side-by-side photo comparison of Iranian women. The first was dated 1973 and showed a woman wearing shorts with bare legs, her hair loose down her back. The other was a photo of two women in the full niqab, which Michael labelled “Iran in 2019”. Replying to a comment criticising his post, the right-wing activist said he found it “troubling” to see “how little freedom” Iranian women have in 2019.

Both tweets attempted to portray America as a liberator and argued that Iran is committing women’s rights violations. But their sympathy for Iranian women is false; one look at the political records of both men show their hypocrisy. Between them, they’ve sought to strip women of agency over their own bodies, through championing policies like the global gag rule and, openly advocating to expand the abortion ban across federal states.  

It’s clear they don’t really care about the experiences of women in Iran. Instead, they’re weaponising the suffering of women as justification for America’s legally questionable actions against Iran, including the recent assassination of General Qassim Solemani, which was judged as violation of international law by the United Nations. 

Throughout history women have often been wheeled out as scapegoats by politicians. Both George Bush and Tony Blair’s administrations weaponised the struggle of Afghan women in the Afghanistan war, with the first ladies of both countries publicly linking the war with the advancement of women in the Middle East. Laura Bush, in 2001, stated that the fight against terrorism was “also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”.

“The oppression of women is only a concern for Western powers during the decision-making process of whether to intervene in foreign countries”

But Afghan women have been excluded from the Iraqi peace process talks ever since they started in September 2018, even though women were direct victims of the war. Afghanistan is ranked as the second most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.  The oppression of women is only a concern for Western powers as a justification during the decision-making process of whether to intervene in foreign countries. Yet, after the conflict is concluded, women become invisible on the negotiating table and are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. 

The West claims intervention is their moral obligation in order to save women. Yet women are among one of the groups who become most vulnerable in these conflicts and suffer the worst impact. Wartime sexual violence by military men is a repeated pattern in conflicts; rape has been recognised as a weapon of war for centuries. Yet Donald Trump’s administration has done nothing to tackle the issue. In fact, last year the US threatened to veto a UN resolution to crack down on the use of sexual violence in conflicts – because they viewed references to reproductive health within the document as implied support for abortions.

Donald has signed Republican-backed legislation that would block abortion clinics around the world from recieving federal funds, an abortion ban that marginalises low-income women, restricting their access to basic health care. Under Trump, the United States has debuted on lists of top 10 most dangerous countries for women. The United States continue to use women and minorities as scapegoats for their foreign policy agenda, while domestic policies reveal the extent of their hypocrisy. 

Donald’s own track record on women’s rights is patchy, to say the least
Credit: Rosa Pineda

It is true that many women in Iran face oppression; the country is currently ranked 185 out of 187 on the World Bank index of gender equality. Human rights groups around the world have long called for Iran to address the inequality within its borders and in recent years, small and very hard won gains have been made on that front in education, public life and politics. 

We can, and should, criticise the effect of the Iranian regime on women. But we cannot let ‘hawks’ like Mike use that criticism to further their own agenda of waging war. And it is clear that is his only aim. Or why else would he have made no public opposition to treatment of other women in the Middle East? He is yet to say anything in relation to Saudi Arabia, where victims of rape face prosecution, being part of the LGBTQI+ community is punishable by death and women right’s activists, like Loujain al-Hathloul, are imprisoned, under conditions of torture and sexual assault.

“The most damning indictment of America’s hypocrisy when it comes to women’s rights is how it treats Iranian women within its own borders”

Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia is viewed as an important American ally. Trump brags that Mohammed bin Salman is “a friend”, and dismissed a United Nations call for the FBI to investigate the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, indicating he didn’t want to jeopardise arms deals with Saudi. Relations with Iran tend to sit at the opposite end of the spectrum, with Trump pulling the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal, tweeting threats at Iranian President Rouhani, and ordering the killing of Qassem Soleimani. 

Perhaps the most the most damning indictment of America’s hypocrisy when it comes to this issue though, is how it treats Iranian women within its own borders. This month, rising tensions between America and Iran resulted in 200 Iranian-Americans being detained and questioned.

One of those detained, Negah Hekamati, was stopped at the US-Canadian border and held for five hours overnight, including interrogations into the identity of her parents, uncles, siblings and cousins. Iranian women were also a victim of Trump’s 2017 travel ban. Sara Yarjani, an Iranian student studying legally in California was detained for 23 hours and faced deportation as a result of the travel ban. America can’t even protect Iranian women on its own soil. Yet, they want the American public — and the rest of the world  — to buy into the idea that war with Iran will be an act of Western liberation for women there. 

Let it be the time to call out the right-wing leaders and warmongers that forcibly hijack feminist movements to serve political aims of waging war.  Wars have never, and will never, benefit women. Not in our name.