Stop Using Iranian Women as a Political Football

Gender apartheid in Iran is as damaging to that society as racial apartheid was to South Africa. It is time for the world to recognize it as such.
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Gender apartheid in Iran is as damaging to that society as racial apartheid was to South Africa. Don't legitimize it.

FIFA's decision to ban Iranian women footballers from a game against Jordan last Sunday because they wore headscarves and not the approved cap had soccer lovers in a fit of rage all week. They accuse FIFA for being "agents" of their repression and of "Western" discrimination against Muslims.

Please. Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress compares the situation to the rejection of multiculturalism in Western Europe. She writes, "[I]f we're really concerned with how women are perceived and treated in Muslim communities, it seems hugely counterproductive to adopt policies that force women to choose between abiding by the tenets of their faith and participating in activities that let them demonstrate their physical prowess and strategic intelligence."

Say what? How do we even know these women's faith? Iranian citizens have no right to choose their faith. Iranian women have no choice in dress. Some don't have a choice in husband, or to divorce. There is no religious freedom in Iran. There is no freedom of expression. We actually have no idea how many Iranians are actually Muslim, yet we certainly know that no Iranian women -- Muslim or not -- can choose not to wear the hijab even if they don't believe in it. Most of those footballers would take it off if they could, as would most Iranian women, but they would face lashing and jail. I wonder how Ms. Rosenberg would feel living in a country that forced her to think and dress a certain way against her will, or does she think that kind of life is the reserve of only some women. Would she want the world to push back against that treatment, or let her play soccer on unequal and potentially dangerous footing?

David Zirin writes in Al Jazeera that the FIFA decision feeds "profound Western ignorance regarding the position of Iranian women since the Islamic revolution." He describes the improved literacy rate since 1979 (does he honestly expect a nation of 70 million to go backward over a span of three decades?). He also points out that one out of three Iranian doctors is a woman. Oh well, that settles it then! Things can't be that bad for women in Iran since they can be doctors! How is it then that most Iranian women I know desperately wish to leave their country today? That things are good for them is news to my cousin who last month snatched her 14-year-old daughter and left Iran for San Francisco after the regime started mandating different textbooks for girls than those used for boys to start rolling back hard-won progress in education.

Since last week, Iranian traffic cops have been authorized to harass and fine women for failing to wear "Islamic" dress, which means a few strands of hair showing on their forehead. Iranian women's rights activists, which have worked peacefully for decades to gain many of the basic human rights they lost after the 1979 revolution -- such as the right to wear what they want, equal rights in education, work, marriage, and child custody -- have been charged with national security crimes. Women like Nasrin Sotoudeh, Shiva Nazar-Ahari, Maryam Bahreman , Mahboubeh Karami -- have all been sent to notorious Iranian prisons for peaceful human rights activities. The pro-democracy Green Movement -- modeled, and in many ways, led by Iranian women -- was brutally suppressed in 2009.

Let's get some clarity on a few things. First, the regime running Iran should get no credit for the advancement of women. That credit goes to the progressive people of that country for resisting and circumventing a fanatical government which has made every attempt to block their progress by putting them on unequal footing. Forced hijab is the most powerful symbol of that policy. Second, Iran should not be considered an Islamic state -- whatever that means. A prerequisite for a person to be a true Muslim is free choice and since Iran doesn't allow that opportunity to its people, it fails the Islam test. Today, Iran is a brutal dictatorship with misogynist leanings using the guise of "religion" to stay in power. Forcing a headscarf on a women while playing a grueling game like soccer is not Islamic. It's ideological tyranny. Rejecting headscarves on the pitch for safety reasons is anything but Islamophobia.

It becomes deeply disconcerting when free-thinking people start drinking the Islamic Republic's Kool Aid by using the concept of "culture" and "religion" to provide justification for the violations of the rights of women. Western observers should be far more careful in their analysis of these societies, which are all different. Only a few countries in the world force women to wear hijab against their will and Iran happens to be one of them. We should be careful not to accept the definition of a nation's culture sold to us by non-democratic regimes. There is a reason why such oppression in a country like Iran exists, and it is usually because that "culture" is imposed.

One might say that these issues are unrelated to sports and the right to participate in international sporting events should still stand, notwithstanding politics or human rights. Fine, but only if governments and teams abide by the rules. Iran does not. As usual, it tried to bend the rules. There is no reason that international organizations should adhere to the Iranian regime's demands when it breaks the rules and it has harmed the mental and psychological health of its women and men through three decades of gender apartheid and discrimination. The Iranian government has recently declared that it does not agree to universal human rights standards as set out in international treaties and plans to challenge them globally and promote their own "Islamic" version, which denies religious freedom, gender equality, and freedom of expression. Of course, the input of their people will likely not be solicited since Iran's human rights organizations have all been shuttered and their activists and lawyers jailed or exiled.

Make no mistake about it, gender apartheid in Iran is as damaging to that society as racial apartheid was to South Africa. It is time for the world to recognize it as such. The UN has declared that the lack of equality between men and women is the root cause of violence against women. The world should not legitimize institutionalized violence against women which is exactly what forced hijab is.

Put blame where the blame should be. The unfair treatment of women in Iran today is that country's biggest shame. Let the Iranian people deal with the consequences of their government's flouting of international rules and reckless approach to the health of their women. As much as all of us want Iran's women to play the beautiful game, they should play safely and freely and we should help them get there by calling their government out. We should not allow the Iranian government to deflect blame for its abuse of women, and we should also not allow it to erode international standards in any arena, including sport. Dokhi Fassihian is an international human rights advocate who lives in Washington, DC.

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