Paved with Good Intentions

Political opposition and the pitfalls of international support

I’ve often been told that the women’s rights that were curtailed after the 1979 revolution had once been imposed from above — that only a small urban class had had a say in their ratification, and that they didn’t reflect the needs of the majority of Iranian women. Local women, I’ve been told, did not fight the annulment of said rights, and when they did, their struggle was barely noticeable.

This is in some ways true; it is a reminder that social issues cannot be solved from above in any lasting manner. And yet it seems that with the growth of the “global village” and the rise of international NGOs, top-down emancipatory policies are still with us today, presenting us with a new set of questions, more complex and challenging than ever before.

Generally speaking, one tends to judge oneself from the viewpoint of a dominant gaze — of an individual, a social class, or a gender with privileged access to resources and power — so disposing over proficient means to build self-esteem and self-confidence. However, in the wake of recent international developments, you can judge yourself not only from the assumed perspective of a dominant eye, but, more precisely, from that of an unspecified gaze that is not so much politically superior as “exterior” to one’s own environment.

When considering all the conflicting and confusing movements that have developed in Iran over the last decade or so, one can make out a pattern of both the people and the ruling factions viewing each other through the prism of an “outside” eye. When student movements were repeatedly met with armed forces outnumbering demonstrators ten to one, this was arguably a case of the influence of reports from outside the country’s borders. On the one hand, sensational satellite TV programs delude students as to their own potential as a movement; on the other, these same media representations leave our astoundingly paranoid statesmen even more suspicious and insecure than they were before. This outside representation is tremendously influential both with respect to the popular movement and the government’s reaction towards it.

To take another example, when the regime shuts down dozens of newspapers, it inspires two contrasting reactions. At home, there tends to be little or no reaction beyond the lamentations of the journalists themselves, while abroad, we tend to hear heated objections — often without the historical and structural context of the newspapers in question. One may wonder, how can such papers be so easily shut down, without any citizen batting an eyelid? And why were such drastic measures taken in the first place? Were these papers really a threat to the powers that be? Hardly. So why all this frenzied hostility? Once again, both sides were subject to an outside gaze: The press, which had transcended the actual scope of social support for its causes, moved at an extremely high speed without bothering to take a realistic look at its actual surroundings. And for the authorities, overexcited and overly apprehensive after tuning in to foreign radio and TV stations, suddenly seeing their opponents in a format that was larger than life. Speaking from my own experience as an activist, I know you can struggle for many years without ever being applauded or even criticized by your peers. But as soon as you’re praised from somewhere “outside,” those at home produce an immediate reaction, be it positive or not. The government is a case in point here — and as it steps in to interfere, you realize that no one ever comes to see what you’re really doing. At the precise moment of the authorities’ intervention, when all eyes are on you, whatever you were doing is now sensationalized, restricted, or made to disappear.

Ultimately, what I am trying to convey is that, in some cases, there is a link between international support and the severing of close connections between activists and society. International backing can make it (even more) difficult to reach a genuine understanding of the society in which you’re active, to discern the potential of your own movement and to analyze and predict the government’s response to your actions. Needless to say, as there’s a chronic lack of social support systems in Iran, international institutions can be extremely useful. But if a society cannot correct the disproportionate weight of “external” support systems, no long-term social transformation can take place, particularly since transnational institutions must pay close attention to developments in government relations, and are thus liable to change priorities at any time.

It is not my intention to completely disavow the role of international organizations. I simply wish to draw attention to these issues in the hope of acting less naively with respect to the potentially negative repercussions of helping hands from “without.” The support of international NGOs is a mixed blessing, and the fledgling women’s movement is no exception here. The incentives handed out by NGOs, through invitations to speak in prestigious venues, or the investment of funds, have convinced a large number of women to get involved. But on the other hand, not only do the NGOs spark disagreements between the women they deem worthy of such inducements, and those they do not, they also introduce an “outside” perspective among active women, who are suddenly no longer restricted to any framework imposed by the needs of the local population alone.

Advanced capitalist societies, with their sophisticated methods of social management, have long realized that by drawing on popular forces, by getting them involved on various levels of decision-making, one can discourage any radical ambitions; the legitimacy of the ruling faction is in fact consolidated. The dominant ideology of post-industrialized nations was adapted in such a way as to include opposing movements, and offer them a specific outlet for objection and protest. In such cases, therefore, NGOs and other organizations were established in a manner that was ultimately to the advantage of the state.

But what goes on in countries like Iran? The sporadic injection of (at times, staggering amounts of) money for projects through various nongovernmental and non-profit organizations creates an enormous, confusing buzz. These flurries of activism do not spring from within Iranian society itself, nor are they long lasting, since they’re subject to the ups and downs of international relations, and the development of any given project is always liable to stop halfway.

Moreover, in countries such as Iran, due to the aggressive and pervasive approach of the authorities, NGOs, including women’s associations, are prevented from extending their existing networks, services, research capacities and strategies of protest. They must content themselves with superficial work methods, and cannot have the productive impact of similar organizations abroad. The international institutions often attempt to compensate for the situation by injecting generous amounts of money into select projects, and training a small class of outstandingly qualified, highly professional women. These specialists, however, rarely become acquainted with the culture of collective protest. Nor do their motivations stem from a local context per se. Generally speaking, when social protest becomes a livelihood, convictions become less stable, and more vulnerable to shifting geopolitical circumstances and funding policies. While this needn’t necessarily be negative or problematic, the possibility that political beliefs become subject to the pressures of making a living creates many potential pitfalls — with creativity and commitment potentially channeled toward the means rather than the end.

Today, the issue of “Iranian women” is highly fashionable on the international scene, while a gesture of support for the women’s movement is always beneficial for the NGOs themselves. Filmmakers, artists, writers and beyond now engage with women’s issues, albeit from trivial, superficial angles favored by the international audience. Nevertheless, one continues to worry about how long such interest will last, and what impact the fickle relations between governments will have. Women’s issues are now hip, and that’s fine, but if we don’t find ways to deepen and develop the feminist opposition and feminist thought — despite the aforementioned problems, the recent arrests, and the shutting down of both local and international organizations — someday, when the dust settles, when the gallows are put away and the bloodstains are washed out, we’ll come face to face with a society which does not have any foundation for women to build on. And women will lose once again. But if the needs of a social movement are met from within, we’ll be less likely to fall victim to government oppression or shifting international relations. For under such circumstances, the gap between various groups of women is lessened. As they gradually become dependent on one another, a realistic awareness of society’s needs becomes possible.