Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Protecting the feminine

Maysam Behravesh is an Iranian doctoral student in Sweden. His insights into the political culture of Iran might be helpful. I wish I could ask him how much of the detail is vital to understanding the motivations of Iranian leaders. In any case, the next time you read about a speech by an Iranian leader, ask yourself how much gender assumptions play in his declarations.

The gender politics of Iran’s nuclear policy
‘Dignity’ has been an indispensible part of discussions in Iran over nuclear talks with world powers. “Iran, with millennia of history, will not be intimidated,” said Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister in late May, as he dismissed any solution that was “less than respectful, less than dignified”…

Often lurking within discussions about Iran’s prestige and international standing are terms carrying deep associations with gender. Potency, firmness and resistance are all perceived as masculine characteristics, hence embraced and affirmed, while weakness, flexibility and softness are all associated with femininity, therefore to be avoided and disowned.

The masculine thus constructed needs to protect the feminine in order to prove itself, and, at the same time, avoid being contaminated with feminine characteristics…

Framing the Iranian nuclear project in terms of namous helps construct an aura of sanctity and inviolability around it, meaning that any profane, penetrative or possessive treatment of it by outsiders can elicit a radical response.

In a television interview on 18 April, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), stressed that Tehran would respond with vigour to any attempt at visiting its military sites. “I believe that we will not only not allow foreign countries to visit our military centres, but we will not even allow any thought about this issue,” he said, likening such a visit by nuclear inspectors to “occupation of land” and “national humiliation”…

Closely allied with the concept of namous are two other highly gendered keywords, harim (sanctum) and gheirat (manly moral courage). As projected in the Iranian atomic discourse, military sites are nodes of national power and potency and therefore constitute an integral part of the nation’s harim, which should stay free from alien access and, worse still, inspections…

The resonance of this nationalist-paternalist discourse with conservatives and their constituencies has been shown in the formation of a gathering calling itself “We Won’t Allow”… which has organised demonstrations in several Iranian cities…

Such guardianship of the national sanctum, and its protection from insult and alien hands, is usually carried out through demonstrating gheirat: a type of virile moral courage with an occasional religious touch that is intended to guard namous or harim against external adulteration.

When flexibility (narmesh) and compromise (sazesh) – usually perceived as feminine characteristics – are to be exercised, they need to be “heroic” in order to compensate for the dilution of masculinity.

It took the supreme leader’s speech on “heroic flexibility” – with references to Imam Hassan, the 7th-century Shia leader who negotiated a peace treaty with the Sunni caliph Muawiyah – that paved the way for the Rouhani government to persist with the nuclear talks in the face of stiff opposition from ‘principle-ist’ critics of rapprochement with the west…

In a speech to Iranian ambassadors in August 2014, [Rouhani] called opponents of nuclear negotiations “political cowards”, literally the “chicken-hearted...[who]...say we are trembling as soon as the issue of talks comes up.”

It is clear that for many in the Iranian body politic - not least the leadership – the nuclear programme reeks of masculinity, and denuclearization raises fears of emasculation. But what is the relevance of all this, and how can an understanding of it help facilitate the nuclear negotiations in their most critical phase?

In a nutshell, Iran’s dignity is predominantly of a masculine nature. While this holds true of many other nation-states and their foreign policies, western negotiators will be well advised to take these nuances into account. The choice of terminology can be of paramount importance.

Indeed, the international controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme is, in a way, a clash of masculinities, caught up in an array of coercive instruments and escalatory policies like economic sanctions, sabotage and threats of military action. The bottom line is that negotiations and dialogue can rupture this vicious circle of confrontation and prevent it from degenerating into the most rabid exertion of masculinist power - war.

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