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Women, Islam, Egypt and Iran

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We have many pundits and experts comparing the Iranian election uprising (2009) with the Egyptian one taking place right now. One was sparked by the results of an election that seemed rigged while the other was caused by mounting political and economic discontent towards a long-standing dictator. Some say that a better comparison is the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which saw the ouster of another corrupt, American-backed dictator and the rise of the Ayatollahs and political Islam. Both comparisons contain truths but miss an essential difference that is a good gauge of how differently positioned the two societies are in the evolutionary ladder of their respective political cultures. The main difference between the Egyptian and Iranian uprisings is the role of women's demands or the degree of influence of feminist discourse.

Women, whose civil rights have been the most damaged by the Islamic Revolution of 1979, gave the reformist campaign its soul, its zeal, and feminized the 2009 Iranian uprising.

While the role of the internet and social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter may have been similar in both the Iranian uprising of June 2009 and the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak, it is important to see beyond the organizational tools of the uprisings and look at what essentially defines them. Nowhere is the difference more obvious than when you look at the role of women. In Iran, the uprising (that ensued after the results of presidential elections were announced in favor of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in June 2009) was one of an angry youth who demanded freedom of individual expression more than anything else. It was a movement of women fed up with being forced to wear the hejab, of a youth tired of being forced into playing music underground, of both an old and a new generation that was tired of the Islamization of politics and the politicization of Islam. In Egypt where women enjoy the rights that the women in Iran seek the uprising is about getting rid of an American and Israeli subsidized, corrupt dictator. While it is true that in both countries it is the unemployed and the disgruntled youth who are rising, in Egypt the youth seems more interested in ousting Mubarak than in demanding freedom of individual expression. While freedom is important to the Egyptian protestors it is not the freedom to wear what you want and play rock and roll but the freedom to oppose the president. It is the kind of freedom that we sought when we ousted the Shah in 1979, before we were stripped of more essential freedoms under the guise of Islamic justice.

In Iran, economic grievances are plenty, but people were not hungry or desperate enough to go on strike. The working classes drifted away from a movement that was never really theirs. Nor did the reformist candidate and politicians really understand the urgency with which the youth took to the streets. In this way the movement made up largely of women and youth seemed to have hijacked the rather reluctant leaders such as Khatami and Mousavi. Even from before the elections there was a gap between what Mousavi's constituents wanted and what he claimed they wanted. The student demonstrations, slogans, and demands were much more radical than any of the reformists cared to admit.

But what made the Iranian uprising so very different than the one in Egypt or any before it in Iran was the ubiquitous presence of women demanding equal rights and freedom of expression. Iran is a country where people are trying hard to shed Islam and no longer see Islam as a liberating force. In Egypt the opposite seems to be true. In Egypt, where women are not yet forced to don the hejab, nine out of 10 protesters actually wear the hejab, while in Iran it is safe to say that a majority of protesters would not wear it if they had a choice. While this may be a small difference of attire in the eyes of those who are unaware of the nuances of life, as a Muslim woman it does in fact define the character of the respective movements.

We are all hoping that Egypt will become free without becoming Islamist. But whatever happens it is clear to us who have lived our lives as Middle-Eastern women that the essential difference between our uprising in Iran in 2009 and the one in Egypt today is that one is about the right to shed hejab and everything that it symbolizes while the other is about everything else.