The call by activists to throw Iran out of the upcoming World Cup finals in Qatar due to its refusal to allow female fans to access football stadiums has been welcomed by popular sports commentators and political analysts who have painted the Islamic Republic of Iran as a misogynistic, tyrannical state that oppresses women and which funds terrorist activities abroad.
The call came in the wake of anti-hijab protests in Iran which have resulted in the death of more than a hundred people, including teenage girls. The “morality police” of Iran has also been accused of torturing and killing women who dared to show their hair in public. As in Afghanistan under the Taliban, women in Iran are paying the price of living in a patriarchal society where mullahs determine what women can or cannot wear.
There is no doubt that the ultra-conservatism of Iran is being challenged in ways that were not possible even a decade ago because the world is much more interconnected now due to social media. Iranian women in the diaspora have also become much more vocal about the stringent hijab rules in Iran, which has encouraged Iranian women in Iran to defy the state.
But to say that Iran and Afghanistan are exceptions to the rule where the rest of the world’s women enjoy greater freedoms is to ignore the reality of women’s lives around the world. Iran is just one among many countries, not just in the Muslim world, but in the rest of the world, where women’s rights are being trampled upon and actively curtailed. Yet there are no calls for these countries to be banned from the World Cup.
Take Saudi Arabia, for instance, where just this year, a Saudi female student was sentenced to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting Saudi dissidents and activists. In the last four years, dozens of women’s rights activists have been jailed for defying the kingdom’s draconian anti-women laws, including banning women from driving cars. Saudi Arabia is also constantly in the Kenyan news for Saudis’ mistreatment of Kenyan female domestic workers. These human rights violations do not attract the attention of FIFA or the organizers of the World Cup.
In many cultures and religions, women’s sexuality is considered so “dangerous” that procedures are carried out to ensure their sexuality is curbed. In several African countries, including Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Mali, the majority of women have undergone female genital mutilation, a painful procedure that leaves women and girls emotionally and physically crippled. Although several countries, including Kenya, have banned the practice, it continues unabated.
In countries such as India and Pakistan, women who dare to break sexual norms are dismissed as prostitutes. To ensure that a woman remains “pure”, a lot of emphasis is placed on her reputation. Women who cross a line set by patriarchy—those who gain a “bad” reputation—are severely punished. In some deeply patriarchal and conservative Hindu and Muslim South Asian societies, a woman’s izzat or honour is so important that women who break social mores, like choosing their own marriage partners, or having sex before marriage, are even killed by their own families. “Honour killings” ensure that both the “sin” and the “sinner” are eliminated, thereby preserving the family’s izzat.
The backlash against women and the move to curb their right to own their bodies is also gaining momentum in the Western world, where women ostensibly enjoy more rights and freedoms than women in the Third World. In June this year, the US Supreme Court overruled the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision that conferred women the right to abortion. This ruling has made it impossible for women in many states in America to obtain an abortion.
But American women were under attack even before this ruling. The advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s—with its push towards free market economies and privatization—unleashed regressive, conservative forces that canceled many of the gains achieved by the American women’s movement. In this post-feminist world, the billion-dollar porn industry (today fuelled by the internet), has elevated pornography to a legitimate form of entertainment. Women in porn films are violently pushed, shoved, called dirty names, urinated on, forced to inject objects into their vaginas, and sometimes even raped in full view of cameras. If these things were done to men, they would be viewed as human rights violations.
Very few Western feminists have spoken out against the multi-billion-dollar porn industry. This is because they fail to see that the woman in a skimpy bikini on a Florida beach is as much a prisoner of the male gaze as is the hijab-wearing woman in Iran.