Claire and I have been in San Francisco for our Womenomics book tour and I feel very far away from the events in Tehran but I can’t stop thinking about those pictures out of Iran. It’s not just the crowds, and the thrill of people demanding their democratic rights, it’s who’s in those crowds – it’s the thousands of women taking part that amaze and excite me.
I know, many are dressed head to foot in black covering and, to a Western eye, that makes them look repressed and inaccessible. It’s easy to write off a society that forces it’s women to dress like that as backward and hopelessly sexist – and there is some truth to that argument – but that makes the fact that these women are out on the streets, womaning the baricades, as it were, even more extraordinary.
I grew up in the Middle East, in the mostly sunni countries of the Persian Gulf. In Saudi Arabia, my mother was banned from driving. She sometimes disguised herself in a man’s checkered headdress and drove anyway. But it could get us into hairy scrapes. I vividly remember sitting in the back of my parent’s car as a 12 year old, driving from Jeddah up the steep mountain escarpment to Taif, and another car trying to force us over the edge of the cliff because the driver had realized the “man” at our wheel was not all he seemed to be. Despite that narrow escape my mother still insisted on driving, out on the flat, unpopulated desert tracks, just to feel the independence of being at the wheel again.
Mum worked as a journalist in Jeddah for the Arab news and would sometimes turn up for interviews in government ministries only to be told that she was the first woman ever to have set foot in the office – even the cleaners were all men.
If life was tough for my educated, career minded mother, it was much tougher for her female Arab friends. They were often confined to a life of seclusion at home, surrounded by children and other women but with almost no contact with the outside, male world. In Saudi Arabia, women still can’t even travel in a car that isn’t driven by a male family member.
So, to see all those women, taking part in this mass demonstration of power and freedom of expression, even if they are dressed in black covering, is remarkable. In fact all the more remarkable because of the constraints those coverings can imply. I have my doubts about Mousavi’s real reformist credentials, but the sight of his wife standing by his side on the car in the middle of the demonstration yesterday suggested that at least in the field of gender equality, his heart is in the right place. And she has been a strong supporter of his campaign. So, don’t get sidetracked by what these women are wearing (and many after all are in simple headscarves, pushed back in that sassy Iranian fashion to allow as much hair uncovered as the religious authorities will tolerate), just seeing them out there, marching alongside men in this protest, is a huge step and suggests a culture very different from that of other nations in the region.
We always hear that Iran has one of the most pro Western populations in the Middle East. When I see the picture on the frontpage of T/S today – that is all the evidence I need.
Womenomics translated into Farsi – coming next!