Against Sexual Apartheid

This is my open letter to anyone who will listen.

Sexual apartheid is the outrage of our century. In Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and countries ruled by Islamic laws, millions of women and girls are segregated, degraded and relegated to second class citizenship. Keeping women and girls separate and unequal are important pillars of Islamic rule, affecting every aspect of people’s lives. Sharia law itself specifies that a woman is worth half that of a man and that she is the property of her male guardian, needing his permission even to travel and work.

As the source of ‘corruption’ and ‘chaos’, she must be segregated at workplaces, schools, libraries, universities, in sports and recreation, transportation, the health system, and even when attending weddings and funerals. In Iran, there are even plans to segregate pedestrian walkways on the basis of sex. ‘Alarmed’ at the large number of women university students, the Islamic regime threatens to limit female enrolment and change textbooks based on ‘gender differentiation.’ According to an official of the education ministry: ‘The spiritual, physical, and mental needs of boys and girls are not identical, and therefore textbooks that give them information cannot be the same.’

From age nine on girls must be veiled – a symbol like no other of what it means to be female under Islam – hidden from view, restricted and suppressed. Consigned to walking around with a mobile prison of one’s own. Separate and unequal. As I said – the outrage of our century.

They say a society’s treatment of women is a measure of its freedom. If so, the mistreatment of and discrimination against women is a measure of the degree of influence and power of Islamic and religious laws – whether in Iran or Britain.

But stop, I am told. Saying so ‘just supports Western propaganda’ – something by the way that the Islamic regime of Iran often tells women and men it is hauling off to prison and execution.

How absurd. It is like Iranian women’s rights activists telling one to stop opposing US-led militarism because it supports the ‘Islamic regime of Iran’s propaganda!’

The religious-nationalist anti-imperialist left always ready to act as prefect when women’s rights under Islamic laws are concerned has an affinity towards Islam, which it views as an ‘oppressed religion’ bullied by the USA. It is an anti-colonial movement whose perspectives coincide with that of the ruling classes in the so-called Third World. This grouping is on the side of the ‘colonies’ no matter what goes on there, and their understanding of the ‘colonies’ is Eurocentric, patronising and even racist. In the world according to them, the people in these countries are one and the same with the regimes they are struggling against.

So at Stop the War Coalition demonstrations here in Britain, they carry banners saying ‘We are all Hezbollah;’ at meetings they segregate men and women and urge unveiled women to veil out of ‘solidarity’ and ‘respect’. But even their anti-imperialism – their badge of honour – is pathetically half-baked; it does not even scratch beneath the surface to see how political Islam is an integral part of the US’ militarism and new world order. Their historical amnesia of even the past 30-40 years ignores that the political Islamic movement was encouraged and brought to centre stage by Western governments as a green belt against the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. They conveniently forget how in Iran, for example, it was supported in an effort to crush the left and working class revolutionary movement. Or how political Islamists are some of the US’ closest allies.

They fail to see that in practical terms – notwithstanding the differences – political Islam and USA-led militarism are two sides of one coin with the same agenda, the same vision, the same infinite capacity for violence, the same reliance on religion and reaction, the same need for hegemony. It should not be surprising then that anywhere US-led militarism has ‘intervened’ – from Afghanistan to Iraq to Palestine – political Islam has been brought to power or strengthened.

This type of politics denies universalism, sees rights as ‘western,’ justifies the suppression of women’s rights, freedoms and equality, under the guise of respect for other ‘cultures’ implying that people want to live the way they are forced to and imputing on innumerable people the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling class.

In this type of politics, the oppressor is victim and any criticism racist.

Whilst the anti-imperialist left defends and justifies political Islam on the one hand, the virulently racist and right-wing defends US militarism and the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine on the other. They include groups and organisations like Jihad Watch and the Horowitz Freedom Center. The latter even has an ‘Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week’ and rattles off fact after fact about the horrendous status of women under Islam so that it can help promote the neocon agenda of bombing men, women and children into ‘liberated’ swamps like Iraq. Like the Stop Islamisation of Europe campaign, these groups have ‘difficulty with the concept of moderate Muslim’ and believe the ‘onus is on Muslims to ensure the safety of non-Muslims.’ Why? As if the onus of safeguarding Spaniards is on all those who are Basque or deemed to be Basque.

They are ‘concerned’ about the ‘rights’ of women and apostates so they can ban the Koran and ‘Muslim immigration.’ So they can stop the sub-human teeming hordes destroying the Christian nature of Europe and the West. They are quite happy to defend Christian religious morality, restrict the benefits due single mothers, demand exemptions from the Sexual Orientation Regulations, bar funds for AIDS- related and contraception-related health services abroad if they provide abortions and consider the women’s rights movement’s fight for equality ‘the destruction of the nuclear family and of the power structures of society in general’. According to their warped worldview, ‘the West has skyrocketing divorce rates and plummeting birth rates, leading to a cultural and demographic vacuum that makes [it] vulnerable to a take-over’.

Both anti-imperialist left and the right-wing refuse to see millions of people as truly human – with innumerable differences of opinions, and belonging to vast social movements and progressive organisations and parties – and worthy of the same rights and dignity as they believe is their due. Despite all their language to the contrary, the politics of both sides has nothing to do with improving and changing the lot of humanity and women’s status.

It is within this context that left and progressive groups, socialist and mass movements within the Middle East and elsewhere are challenging people and organisations everywhere to take a principled and human stand against sexual apartheid vis-à-vis both camps of reaction. This is the challenge that the women’s liberation movement in Iran brings to you today. Clearly, sexual apartheid must enrage civilised humanity into an international movement that is about changing and improving people’s lives.

But in order to succeed, this movement must reject both US-led militarism and political Islam and rely on and support a third camp of the millions of refusing and resisting people across the globe. To do so, it must be uncompromisingly secular and humanist, it must refuse to tolerate the intolerable, it must raise the banner of universal rights, it must defend the right and historical duty to criticise religion, and defend the freedoms and equality of people everywhere. To succeed, it has to have at its core a defence of the human being.

In 1973, as a result of international attention and widespread opposition to the apartheid system in South Africa apartheid was recognised as a crime against humanity. On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, let’s together proclaim that sexual apartheid is a crime against humanity.

We must accept nothing less.

The above is Maryam Namazie’s speech at a seminar entitled ‘Sexual apartheid, political Islam and women’s rights’ in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 10, 2008 at Conway Hall, London. The seminar was organised by Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and Equal Rights Now – Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, and endorsed by the National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association, the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association and the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq.

Posted March 20, 2008

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