The emergence of sex as a bullet of change in Iran

Understanding Iran’s so-called Green Revolution is largely ignored in the West. It’s often framed as Islamic dictatorship versus rampaging democrats. The picture is far more complex.

Middle East Report has published a fascinating study about this:

The hardliners in the Islamic Republic of Iran thought they had hit upon the perfect way to ruin Majid Tavakoli, a student leader arrested on December 8 after delivering a fiery speech denouncing dictatorship. They would publish photographs of him dressed as a woman and spread the story that he had tried to escape jail in the gender-bending disguise. But the clumsy maneuver backfired: At the urging of an Iranian photographer, men inside and outside Iran rushed to post pictures of themselves in headscarves and chadors on Facebook. As one poster reads, “Majid Was Multiplied, Not Humiliated.” There are many ways, indeed, in which the Green Movement protesting the fraudulent June presidential election also heralds the coming of an egalitarian shift in the politics of gender and sexuality in Iran.

In 1995, I heard a recording of a lecture given by the leading religious intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush to Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat, the main student organization, on the theme of the emergence of rights-based as opposed to duty-based approaches to religion. In response to a question about the disregard for human rights in Iranian society, Soroush said something that stayed with me, to the effect that, “Until we recognize rights (haqq) as just as important as sexual honor (namus), we cannot speak of respect for human rights.”

The analogy between the defense of rights and honor is intriguing. It captures the Islamic Republic’s obsession with sexuality and the control of women, as well as the intimate link between democracy and sexuality that energizes the Green Movement.