What is Apartheid?
The term apartheid means segregation. As far as it relates to a political system, its precedent is the racial apartheid in South Africa which was based on racial discrimination and segregation. That regime was in power from the beginning of the 20th century until a few years back and its entire policies were based on racial segregation. In it, white people were the most privileged section of society, whilst black people were deprived of nearly all their rights. This system was known all over the world as a fascist system and progressives, communists and civil rights supporters both inside South Africa and all over the world struggled against it until that regime surrendered and fell.
What is Gender Apartheid?
When we talk about sexual apartheid in Iran, we are in fact pointing to its similarity with the racial apartheid of South Africa. In Iran, women and men are segregated from each other and women are deprived of their rights. This segregation is the very same apartheid. We began calling the Islamic Republic of Iran a system of sexual apartheid. We now see other groups using the same term to describe the Islamic Republic.
Apartheid means segregation; however, in this segregation you always have a domination of one race, sex, ethnicity, and religion over others. Apartheid does not mean that the segregated group has equal rights and is merely segregated. As we witnessed in South Africa, this segregation is the result of discrimination, lack of rights and extreme inequality between the two groups. In Iran too we see discrimination, lack of rights and the oppression of women. When we talk about apartheid we mean segregation in the said country. There might be extreme oppression of women in a country but it’s possible that segregation between women and men is not the law. Such a system cannot be called apartheid; it is a chauvinistic and patriarchal system. By sexual apartheid in Iran, I mean the segregation of women and men and the imposition of compulsory veiling on women according to the law.
The Islamic Veil and gender apartheid
The veil is the symbol of women’s slavery and apartheid. That is why the veil is a very central issue politically. As far as the position of women is concerned, the veil has a serious restrictive effect on the development and progress of women. Right from the beginning when they impose the veil on little girls in an initiation ceremony, they are making her believe that she is not human, is unimportant and a slave. This is the role that the veil plays and fighting it is important. The veil is the symbol of the Islamic Republic politically too. Right from the first day of its gaining power, this regime raised the banner of the veil; and from the beginning, the women’s equality movement rose up against it. Politically, the struggle against the veil is one of the most important aspects of the battle of the women’s equality movement against the Islamic Republic of Iran and it is very significant. If women win this battle, the Islamic Republic will be overthrown.
Women’s oppression or religious oppression?
There is inequality all over the world but there is a huge difference between what we see in Sweden, France, etc. and countries where Islam rules as the official religion and oppressive governments have imposed Islamic laws and Islamic culture and traditions on the people. Even in these countries there are different levels of rightlessness. In some of these countries, some civil liberties are recognized which in others they are not. When we talk about the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Afghanistan of Taliban or other countries which officially call themselves Islamic and religion is completely intertwined in all aspects of the state, it’s very clear that the position of women in these societies are much worse than other countries. In these countries, apartheid and the segregation of women and men exist officially. This is not women’s lack of rights and discrimination but the complete segregation of two sexes like that of racial segregation in South Africa.
Discussing gender apartheid is completely linked to Islam and religion. Islam advocates the segregation of women and men. The veil is an ’inner and outer sphere’ issue in which women should not be near men because they are evil beings who provoke and stop men from carrying out their duties and tasks. Men are deemed without any control, their hormones rule; just looking at women destroys their lives. This is a reactionary and chauvinistic outlook. Women are portrayed as evil and men as having no resolve and control; although it does ensure men’s dominance over women, in fact it is an affront to both sexes.
Islam prescribes apartheid. That is why sexual apartheid exists only in the Islamic-stricken countries. In other countries where other religions are dominant, there is patriarchy and chauvinism but we do not have systems of sexual apartheid. Men and women can sit on a bus next to each other. Women do not have to veil themselves. Men and women can work in an office next to each other and although there is discrimination against women, they do not have to be segregated. It is Islam that prescribes and advocates sexual apartheid.
Is there resistance in Iran?
In Iran, both women and society have not given in to apartheid at all. Right from the beginning when the Islamic Republic planned compulsory veiling and began to sack women and send them home (shortly after coming to power), the regime saw itself in confrontation with women. We witnessed a massive struggle against the Islamic Republic. At the time, there was still an illusion about the regime and many saw it as the result of rather than the suppression of the revolution.
Right from that day, the history of the Islamic Republic has been filled with misogyny on the one hand and an unrelenting struggle of women against anti women and reactionary laws. During these years, we have witnessed the deepening and broadening of this struggle, particularly by the new generation who refuses to accept these traditions and laws. Female university students form more than 50% of the student population. They are striving to resist the regime, to learn and be independent. Of course, after graduation, the majority face added hurdles in finding employment. Religious laws and traditions prohibit the development of women and girls in the economic, social and political spheres and does not allow even those women who are so- called ’insiders’ and a part of the government system to progress.
The movement for women’s liberation in Iran strives for abolition of gender apartheid and establishment of a free and secular society. It is a strong movement. It can gain more momentum with international support and solidarity. Just as racial apartheid in South Africa was defeated by the help of the international solidarity, so can gender apartheid be defeated in Iran.