Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran
Nima Naghibi
University of Minnesota Press
187 pages, $27.00 cloth
ISBN: 9780816647606

by Gwen Nowak

Review published in Books in Canada, March 2008.

The cover of Rethinking Global Sisterhood is a black and white photograph titled Unveiling [by Shirin Neshat, The Women of Allah series]. The image is the face of a Middle Eastern woman - young, sad dark eyes, lips unsmiling. Lines of Arabic script cover her face. The same image appears twice, facing in opposite directions, West and East. On a narrow red banner dividing the two images the book’s title is inscribed. The female image resembles a mug shot. The Arabic script is disturbing; is this woman a target?

Nima Naghibi is a diasporic Iranian feminist. It is her mission to identify this woman, to tell us what threatens her, and in that telling, to expose the various forces which could determine her fate. Having taken up position at the interstices of postcolonialism and feminism, Naghibi surveys the background context of this image through the lens of British and American imperialism in the Middle East as well as Western feminist activity and influence in Iran. She charts relevant data from the late 19th century to the present.

Naghibi argues that the fate of this woman is more than a cultural concern; it also has geopolitical import: “At a time when Western, and particularly (North) American, relations with the Middle East are in a state of crisis, [my analysis] attempts to provide historical perspectives and current insights into a nation branded by U.S. president George W. Bush as part of an ‘axis of evil,’ and examines the ways in which liberal feminist discourse has been and continues to be complicit with dominant discursive representations of ‘Other’ nations and women.” Naghibi demonstrates that Iranian women have been used as a yardstick to measure the progress of the Iranian nation, not only in Western eyes, but also in the eyes of such oppositional Iranian rulers as Reza Pahlavi Shah in the 1930s and Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s. Having noted the 19th-century missionary drive to rescue Muslim women suffering “under the yoke of Islam”, Naghibi raises the alarm that post 9/11 Anglo-American imperialists could use the rescue of this woman as justification for an invasion of Iran.

Naghibi describes two occasions of national ferment in Iran when the state produced legislation on the veiling of women: in 1936 the pro-American Shah legislated the Unveiling Act; in 1983 the anti-American Islamist Khomeini legislated the Veiling Act.Both pieces of legislation were violently enforced on any woman who chose not to obey the directive. To the Shah and westernized Pahlavi feminists, the un-veiled woman marked the nation as secular, modern, or Westernized; according to Khomeini the veiled woman marked the nation as Islamic, modern, and anti-imperialist. Naghibi claims that “Beneath these two polarized representations lies a desire to possess and to control the figure behind the veil by unveiling or re-veiling her.”

Inspired by the urging of feminist scholar Minoo Moallem regarding the necessity of grasping “the complexity of an unstable and contested world of meanings, identities and subjectivities” vis a vis Muslims and the West, Naghibi takes on the task of sorting out the turbulent sea of data related to Western and Iranian feminist interaction and comes to the conclusion that their attempts to achieve global sisterhood are so compromised by issues of class, gender, and nationalism as to render trans-national sisterhood a feminist fiction. She also catalogues the attempts of Iranian feminists to achieve their own nationalist sisterhood, which also founders on the shoals of hotly contested motivations and meanings.

The reader is left to wonder if the fault lines that appear in any attempt to institutionalize gender-related activism are the same as the fault lines which are a feature of institutionalized religion: the project ultimately breaks down as a result of evolving and competing visions and positions. This is especially evident in Naghibi’s critique of a poem titled “A Woman’s Creed”, a collaborative poem written by American and Iranian feminists and published under the auspices of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute. Many feminists read this creed as an inspiring mobilising vision of liberation and empowerment for all women on behalf of all women, including the most marginalized. Naghibi challenges this interpretation and contends that as a ‘creed’ it “evokes the doctrinal Christianity of colonial missionaries…demanding a dogmatic adherence…[and that] those who do not believe the creed cannot be good feminists.” Her critique is grounded in her conviction that culture and class differences between feminists has bedevilled the best efforts of privileged feminists of the upper classes to advocate effectively on behalf of their vastly underprivileged ‘sisters.’

Naghibi’s purpose is to identify the authentic agential Iranian woman who knows who she is and what she wants, including whether or not to wear the veil; such a woman resists all the discursive labels written onto her persona by the Iranian state, by the West, by well-meaning but misguided feminists, not to mention the hosts of Iranian fathers, husbands, brothers whose notion of ghiyrat, male honour, depends so disproportionately, even pathologically, on their power to control their daughters, sisters, and wives.

Functioning below the radar of fractious intra-feminist debate, Naghibi focuses her lens on Iranian women actively engaged in the work of reconfiguring gender roles in their own society. In her highly dramatic and emotionally gripping concluding chapter, she directs our attention to the various places and spaces where Iranian women are challenging and subverting the patriarchal status quo—within Iranian families, in courts of law, and even in public washrooms. Much of this evidence is viewed through the lens of internationally acclaimed Iranian film and documentary. In Naghibi’s rendering, the existence of this resilient indigenous Iranian feminism is a result of female bonding, a productive form of bonding which is both situational and transient, a bonding not limited by the rigidities of feminist ideology.

Rethinking Global Sisterhood is scholarly enterprise fuelled by passionate purpose. Naghibi’s analysis is compelling and disturbing, especially in her unveiling of the relationship between gender and geopolitics. There is a fine line between the perception of woman as marker and woman as target.