Why the Trump Administration Is Suddenly Feminist When It Comes to Iran

Does the administration really care about women's rights, or is it just angling for a war with Iran?

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Jul 26 2018, 5:28pm

An Iranian woman at protests over economic conditions at the Universtiy of Tehran in December. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Even if you just go by Donald Trump’s Twitter, it’s clear that the drumbeats of a US-led war with Iran have begun. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made that clear on Sunday in a fiery speech that marked the latest step down a path that some experts worry could lead to armed conflict with Tehran.

“We are asking every nation who is sick and tired of the Islamic Republic's destructive behavior to join our pressure campaign. This especially goes for our allies in the Middle East and Europe, people who have themselves been terrorized by violent regime activity for decades," Pompeo said at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles. "I have a message for the people of Iran. The United States hears you. The United States supports you. The United States is with you.”

Iranians in America who study the Trump administration’s positions closely may have whiplash at this point. On one hand, Pompeo was invoking the plight of Iranians, but on the other the US under Trump has imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, cancelled Barack Obama’s nuclear deal that was the product of years of negotiations, and banned Iranians from visiting their relatives in America.

What’s also baffling, though less obvious, is how Washington, in trying to build a case for punishing Iran, is simultaneously exploiting the ongoing political reform movement there, especially when it comes to women’s rights.

Recall first the Trump administration’s disgusting and deeply misogynistic approach to women’s rights policies more broadly. From slashing funding for international family planning programs to refusing to support a World Health Organization initiative to promote breastfeeding, Trump and his officials have displayed complete indifference—if not hostility—toward issues important to women. Yet when it comes to the struggle for women’s rights in Iran, the administration has decided to sing a different tune.



In a column for the New Yorker this month, Iranian author Azadeh Moaveni chronicled a series of rhetorical moves from Pompeo that, she writes, “has put Iranian women at the center of the Administration’s new strategy.” From earlier policy speeches directly targeting Iran’s leaders (“the brutal men of the regime seem to be particularly terrified by Iranian women who are demanding their rights,” Pompeo declared in May to a conservative think tank) to tweets suggesting a parallel between Iranian women and American suffragettes (“Iran 2018” and “America 1917”), it’s clear Pompeo thinks that one of the ways to persuade Americans to support "regime change" in Iran is to get them to buy into the lofty, oh-so-familiar “oppressed Muslim women” narrative.

The image of the fiercely politically defiant Iranian woman forced to cover her hair has always been a popular one projected in Western media and political circles. Take the case of Maedeh Hojabri, a teenage girl who was arrested by Iranian authorities earlier this month after posting videos on her popular Instagram account dancing in her bedroom with her head uncovered. In Iran, wearing a headscarf, or hijab, in public is mandatory for women, and dancing in public is prohibited.

Predictably, the story went viral and rightly led to an outcry of support from human rights groups and Iranians worldwide. Some people posted videos of themselves online dancing in solidarity with the hashtag #DancingIsNotACrime. The US State Department decided to join the uproar. Two posts from its Farsi-language account endorsed these condemnations, along with a pointed message to Iran’s leaders: “Really #what are you afraid of?”

There’s nothing wrong with people protesting charges as ludicrous as the ones imposed against Hojabri. It’s a natural response to an authoritarian regime. But it is worth asking why it’s this particular cause that has so energized the Trump administration's normally lethargic attitude toward human rights.

“We’re seeing a very concerted campaign to show an Iranian government on the verge of collapse—and then destabilize it internally,” Moaveni told me. “Then comes the economic stranglehold, currency collapses, and the discontent of women who have been fighting inequalities. They want to project a huge divide between people and the government.”

A woman walks in Isfahan, Iran. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty

Even women inside Iran who are critical of the Rouhani administration feel resentful. “I don’t know why people from outside are thinking about reforming Iran and bringing the government down,” a female engineer from Iran who did not wish to be identified told me. “We have more than 80 million people inside the country, and lots of intelligent women and men. I believe in my people’s power.”

The engineer acknowledged there are problems for women living in Iran, but believes solutions must be led by women inside the country. “[Mandatory] hijab is not the hardest thing we’re dealing with here,” she said. “If I could make a list of all the hard situations for women in this country, hijab would be maybe tenth.” Divorce laws, traveling (married women have to have permission of their husbands to cross the border) and getting custody of your child all take priority, she added.

“It’s harder to be a woman in this country—yet women are still taking more seats at universities these days,” she said, referencing a little-known statistic: Women in Iran make up the majority of university students (60 percent) and the majority of science and engineering graduates (70 percent).

“I started studying engineering in Iran and then I went to Canada and started over from scratch,” she told me. “It was very interesting for me to see there were more girls in the program in Iran than there were in Canada.”

"How can the Iranian government take [Iranian feminists] seriously if one of the world’s most disgusting politicians—Donald Trump—is supporting them?”
–Hoda Katebi

Iranian women in North America echo these sentiments. “Women in Iran are protesting mandatory hijab but they’re also fighting for greater economic rights,” noted Hoda Katebi, a 23-year-old author of a political fashion blog based in Chicago. Katebi became an overnight viral celebrity after appearing on a Chicago news morning show in February and criticizing US military interventions in the Middle East. “But this discourse is erased. We tend to minimize women’s liberation or freedom or oppression to just her clothing.”

The emphasis on the hijab actually does more harm than good, she added. “The fact that the government is trying to co-opt this narrative is doubly damaging to Iranian women. Because how can the Iranian government take [Iranian feminists] seriously if one of the world’s most disgusting politicians—Donald Trump—is supporting them?”

Soudeh Ghasemi, the Vancouver-based president of the Iranian-Canadian Congress, told me she feels deeply insulted seeing Pompeo endorse actions from Iranian feminists and resents the implication that the fight for gender equality started only recently. “It’s important to acknowledge that the women’s movement in Iran has been happening since 1910,” she said. “In 1934, women were forced to unveil their hijab. Now it’s the other way around. Trump is a hypocrite and is using this as an excuse to justify any hawkish behavior.” (Under Reza Shah Pahlavi, hijab was banned in Iran as part of a modernization effort.)

The most chilling part about Pompeo’s rhetoric is how familiar it is.

George W. Bush portrayed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 as part of the effort to improve the lives of women. But while neocons used the images of suffering women and girls under the Taliban and Saddam Hussein to legitimize their wars, the US has largely failed women in these countries: Nearly 20 years and 210,000 civilian deaths later, women in Iraq and Afghanistan are still suffering horrific abuse. Anyone thinking that a potential conflict with Iran will “free” its women should consider what a war would actually mean.

Follow Shenaz Kermalli on Twitter.

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