The Worker-communist Party of Iran (WPI) often uses the term sexual apartheid in its literature. What does sexual apartheid mean?
Azar Majedi: 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.
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 in our literature over 15 years ago; we now see other groups using the same term to describe the Islamic Republic.
With respect to South Africa, a large section of the world used the term apartheid for South African rule but we do not see the Islamic Republic being referred to as such, why? Is there a difference between apartheid based on sex and race?
Azar Majedi: One important reason is that the South African regime referred to itself as such. They announced that their policies were based on the 'separate development of races' in order to justify racial discrimination and segregation. These justifications, however, only appealed to reactionary groups and states and that too for a while only. Progressives and communists knew this regime to be a deeply reactionary, oppressive and fascist one. We now use the same term with the same reactionary meaning to describe the Islamic Republic.
The reasons that this term is not used worldwide to describe the Islamic Republic are that firstly, many are still not aware of all aspects of this system and secondly, with the help of the theory of cultural relativism in the 80s and 90s (particularly 80s), the status of women in Islamic-stricken countries was and is justified in the West as being based on their religion and culture and therefore not to be criticised. The WPI and the International Campaign in Defence of Women's Rights in Iran have striven to raise international public opinion on this reality, expose sexual apartheid in Iran and demonstrate that sexual apartheid is as repugnant and reprehensible as racial apartheid in South Africa. And it must be resisted and fought on a global scale. We have striven to show that the ruling system based on sexual apartheid in Iran is as vile as the system of racial apartheid and has nothing to do with people's 'own' religion and culture. We have achieved much success. This term is now a familiar one among many people; many progressive and rights groups have described and condemned the Islamic Republic as a system of sexual apartheid.
Inequality between women and men is a reality that exists more or less all over the world. In response to your statement, it might be said that women's oppression is not unique to religious or Islamic governments. What is your response to this contention?
Azar Majedi: I agree that 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 recognised which in others they are not. When we talk about the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan 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.
Is the emphasis in your discussion on sexual apartheid more focused on segregation or the realm of women's unequal rights?
Azar Majedi: 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.
You referred to a chauvinistic and patriarchal society where there is no segregation but women's rights are not respected. My question is how far is patriarchal and misogynist culture responsible for the imposition of sexual apartheid?
Azar Majedi: Discussing sexual 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 which 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.
How do women in Iran confront this issue? What are the main battlegrounds for resistance and the fight against this system of apartheid? What are the dimensions of this struggle?
Azar Majedi: 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.
As you mentioned, you struggle for the abolition of sexual apartheid. This is a part of the WPI programme. What are the main obstacles standing against this objective and movement?
Azar Majedi: The most important obstacle for any kind of improvement in the situation of women in Iran is the Islamic Republic. In all other areas, too, the Islamic Republic is the primary obstacle but in the particular case of women, the Islamic Republic is primarily the main obstacle. We must abolish the regime and all its discriminatory and patriarchal laws to be able to implement the complete and unconditional equality of women and men as mentioned in the WPI programme.
If the WPI comes to power in Iran, we will declare unconditional freedom and equality for all on the first day. All discriminatory laws will be abolished and the equality of women and men in all facets of life as declared in 'A Better World', the WPI programme will be declared. Additionally, resources must be made available to those who want to continue and extend the fight for equality against the patriarchal culture and outlook in a free environment with access to the media. Furthermore, in schools, universities and the educational system, in towns and the countryside, this struggle must be broadened. There must be a serious enlightened attempt to fight backward and patriarchal culture beyond legal barriers.
What is your view on the relationship between the capitalist system and religious government? Is sexual apartheid beneficial to capitalism in Iran?
Azar Majedi: I think if a typical capitalist state wanted to invest and accumulate capital in Iran, it would not need sexual apartheid and would even see it as an obstacle. Why then does sexual apartheid rule in Iran? The answer goes back to the situation in Iran 23 years ago when a mass revolution against the monarchy was about to shake the foundations of the bourgeoisie in Iran. At the time, the Left had a chance of taking power. To stop the Left and suppress the people's revolutionary demands, the bourgeoisie with the assistance of Western states imposed an Islamic system on the people and society in Iran. To suppress the revolution after gaining power, the Islamic Republic found it necessary to force society's retreat and turn reaction into the dominant factor in all aspects of politics, culture and society. This is when a system of sexual apartheid and women's oppression took shape.
You mean they were forced to accept an Islamic Republic despite their preferences?
Azar Majedi: Precisely. The Iranian revolution was one of the great revolutions of the 20th century - a major mass revolution against dictatorship and suppression. Despite all its illusions, the revolution was able to overthrow the monarchy and was about to bring a Left force to power and establish freedom in society. That is why the bourgeoisie saw its only chance of survival in an Islamic Republic.
Since then, the question of women has become a political barometer of Iranian society - that is, whenever the Islamic Republic wants to launch an offensive against society and force the people's retreat, it attacks women. It whips unveiled or 'improperly' veiled women; it slashes and throws acid in their faces. Whenever this regime wants to instil terror in society, it attacks women. This has been the situation of society in Iran for the last 23 years. In the first instance, if sexual apartheid rules in Iran, it is due to the Iranian and world bourgeoisie's need to suppress the people's revolution. These days, however, if sexual apartheid is eliminated nothing will remain of the Islamic Republic; this has become a major contradiction for the Iranian bourgeoisie.
What is the position of Western governments toward this today given that religious government is an impediment for capital? Do these states oppose the severe Islamism and religious interference in people's lives?
Azar Majedi: The Islamic Republic and the bolstering of Islamic movements in the region are of their own making. The West led by the USA provided financial, political and military support and backing for these movements and unleashed these beasts on the people of the region to challenge the Left and communists and the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. The case of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Afghanistan are very important examples of this policy. These groups are now, however, sometimes becoming a headache for the West. Western governments or the international bourgeoisie are not compatible with a religious and particularly Islamic regime such as the Islamic Republic of Iran; as long as such a regime is in power we will not see capital investment in Iran or the normalisation of capitalist development in this country.
They cannot, however, easily decide that this regime is useless and must therefore be replaced. Despite the fact that the Islamic regime in this form is a barrier to the accumulation of capital in Iran, Western governments will continue to back the Islamic Republic vis-à-vis the people's movement for its overthrow and will oppose the people's movement. If you monitor the Western media, you will see that they are full of lies and misrepresentations about Iran. This is because the bourgeoisie is afraid of a people's revolution. They want to bring about reform from within the regime, although this has proven to be futile.
One important fact is that if another revolution occurs in Iran, this time communism is a serious contending force on the scene. Worker-communism is a serious force in the future revolution of Iran and has a considerable chance of victory after the Islamic Republic's overthrow; that is why they will not even easily challenge the Islamic Republic. They strive to reform the regime from within and bring about a more conventional Islamic Republic. Their strenuous support for Khatami in the last few years has been based on this. By doing so they thought they could reform the Islamic Republic and turn the current situation into a more typical one.
Usually in the West, the rule and practices of sexual apartheid are justified by reference to the people's culture and the theory of cultural relativism. How would one then explain the West's opposition to the Islamism of the Islamic Republic?
Azar Majedi: Most definitely, Western governments prefer to deal with societies that have cultures closer to Western culture - that is from a cultural and social viewpoint, including that women do not veil, drinking alcohol is permissible, people can go to the movies or other centres of leisure without worrying, etc. Politically, the majority of countries with brutal dictatorships are directly supported by the West.
On cultural relativism, I think that this view has been able to grow for two reasons. Firstly, Western governments fear the terrorism of Islamic currents particularly that of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The death threat against Salman Rushdie and the assassination of Iranian nationals abroad have caused a wave of fear in Western public opinion. Western governments and people are worried that Islamic terrorism could spread to their societies. This fear is one of the reasons for the growth of this theory in the West. The general conditions after the end of the Cold War, and the defeat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc have also contributed to the growth of this theory in the West, which accepts the view that the veiling of women, sentences of stoning and retribution, sexual apartheid, etc. are people's culture, that everyone's culture is to be respected, and that they and the crimes committed in those societies must be left alone.
This was the justification for what was going on and not necessarily the belief of those academics churning this theory out. This theory is supposed to convince public opinion in the West that if the Iranian woman is forced to veil, if she is stoned to death, if sexual apartheid is officially implemented, if the Afghan woman is not permitted to leave her house and go to hospital and dies because there is no man to take her there, these are people's culture. This is what they call the culture of Islamic-ridden countries. As I mentioned, this was a theoretical and intellectual justification for imposing a reactionary viewpoint on people.
This theory doe not have its original command, however, because of the consistent opposition from groups and currents such as the Worker-communist Party of Iran which have for more than 10 years exposed the inhuman nature of this reactionary theory. Our struggle, campaigns, and seminars have led to fall of this racist theory of cultural relativism.
As you mentioned, the question of cultural relativism appeared after the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the rise of political Islam and effectively forced progressive movements to retreat by defining different rights based on different cultures. Where does this theory stand now that political Islam is falling? More generally, where does this thought-process stand in the world today and what role does it play?
Azar Majedi: Cultural relativism no longer has much of a role in universities and among academics and is not spoken of much in the media. We are now seeing much more awareness on the situation of women in Islam- ridden counties. The papers have begun writing about it. Our campaigns such as the International Committee against Stoning have received widespread support. The progressive section of society which was previously disarmed by the question of cultural relativism has become more assertive in opposing it and this view is also becoming isolated in public opinion. For example in Scandinavian countries, the activities of our comrades against Islam, religion and religious laws and their role in the oppression of women have had a significant role in raising public awareness. The fact that political Islam is falling plays a part but I believe our struggle and unrelenting awareness-raising campaign have played the main role. In recent years in the West, we have witnessed society's turn to radical and progressive ideals compared to the 80s and 90s when society was inclined to the Right.
The Islamic Republic talks about Islamic human rights basing its arguments on cultural relativism and that Iran is an Islamic society. How do you think activists of the women's equality movement should confront this debate?
Azar Majedi: I believe that the issue of Islamic human rights is nothing more than a joke. The Islamic Republic is forced to defend itself vis-à-vis the immense pressure both from abroad and inside the country. What are Islamic human rights? Does it mean that women are slaves? Islamic human rights are stoning, executions, retribution, gorging out of eyes, etc. In fact they must be called Islamic human rightlessness. I think that the inhuman nature of these laws is clear to everyone and it is not necessary for us to expose them much. In general, Iranian society is antagonistic toward Islam, religion and Islamic laws and the majority want the regime's overthrow.
The Islamic regime is aware that people are completely antagonistic towards religious and Islamic laws and that these laws are obstructing the development of capitalism in Iran and prolonging the economic crisis. Why do they then insist on the system's Islamism?
Azar Majedi: It is because if they let go of the regime's Islamism, nothing will be left of it. They are forced to hang on to its Islamism. If they let go, there would be nothing left of this system and this regime. Even if they change some aspects of the regime such as the abolition of compulsory veiling or sexual apartheid i.e. if they just allowed women to go onto the street unveiled without fear of retribution, nothing would be left of the regime's Islamism and this would mean its destruction. Islamism, reaction and backwardness are part of the Islamic Republic's essence and if they are taken away, this regime will be destroyed. This is what we are currently witnessing.
Your argument is that this is a result of the Islamic Republic's crisis; they have no way out, cannot continue as before and are not able to change the regime?
Azar Majedi: I believe it is exactly so. If they accept some reforms, they know that people will not be satisfied and will demand more and more. When they say, for example, freedom for religious-nationalists, the people call for freedom for all. When they say their 'own' prisoners must be freed, people say all political prisoners must be freed. If they want to maintain the situation as before, then people will not tolerate it; we are currently witnessing a huge movement for the overthrow of the regime in Iran. This is the crisis that the Islamic Republic is in and sooner or later it will lead to its downfall.
You referred to the veil as a barometer for the political situation in Iran. In the WPI's literature, too, the veil is the symbol of sexual apartheid. Why do you think the struggle against the veil is so important?
Azar Majedi: 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.
The above interview was conducted by Siavash Daneshfar in Radio International. It was first published in WPI Briefing number 46 and 47 February 2002.