Issue 276 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Protesters demand reforms|
The student protests in Iran in June were part of the pro-democracy movement, involving secular and religious women, workers, student and the youth, which has been evolving since the early 1990s. The media attempts to show the protestors as sympathetic to Bush, but Israel and the US's policy of Middle East domination is extremely unpopular in Iran. People in Iran, as in the rest of the region, are fully aware of the repercussions of the US and British war in Iraq through the Al Jazeera television coverage. Moreover, 1 million Iranians died and 1 million were disabled in the war with Iraq (1980-88), and people have not forgotten that the US armed Iraq and turned a blind eye to the gassing of Kurdish people.
The demonstrators are not responding to appeals to implement Bush's neoliberal model of democracy. Many Muslim women who are engaged in the democracy movement are not going to burn their hejabs. Liberation for them does not mean destroying their identity, religion and culture. Alongside secular women, they are demanding the right to choose what to wear. Most importantly they are struggling in their own way to dismantle the Islamic laws which enforce women's subordination.
Between 1996 and 2003, women, students, workers and young people have campaigned and won some of their specific demands. In the process, they have become aware of their power to erode the legitimacy of the authoritarian rule of the conservatives and to promote democratic issues. The pressure is particularly from those religious working class women and men who supported the Islamisation of state and society in the 1980s, and later realised the limitations of the Islamic state and institutions. Many Islamists were radicalised by economic and political developments since the 1980s. The 1980s were the years of the Iran-Iraq war and political repression. The state ruthlessly defeated the secular movements including the independent workers' shoras (councils) which were replaced by Islamic shoras and Islamic associations.
Simultaneously, the Islamic state distributed the wealth by confiscating the property of the Shah and his allies--the private domestic owners of capital and their counterparts who had fled the country. The shantytowns were demolished and the people housed in the confiscated properties. The religious middle classes, the urban poor and the working classes who supported the Islamic state were given priority in employment and education. For many Islamists who were alienated and marginalised by the processes of development in the 1960s and 1970s under the secular regime of the Shah, the Islamic state gave them access to material and ideological resources and a space to exercise power.
The war with Iraq ended in 1988, war reconstruction began and the oil money generated funds for economic development. Education and employment expanded and absorbed many religious men and women including the working classes in urban and rural areas. The imposition of the hejab and the policy of sex segregation was originally designed to limit women's access to the public sphere of life. Ironically these policies opened up opportunities for many religious women to go to university, to work and participate in political life. Today 80 percent of the population is literate. Some 74 percent of women are literate, 64 percent of higher education students are women and female employment in the formal sector is 2 percent higher than in the 1970s, the height of westernisation and modernisation.
The years 1990 to 2003 have seen Iran's further integration into the global market. Liberalisation, adjustment policies and cutting of subsidies have resulted in high inflation and unemployment. As a result, there has been a significant number of workers' protests against delays and non-payment of wages, health and safety issues and redundancies. The workers' demands are not limited to economic demands. Many Islamist workers joined the growing reformist and democracy movement and argued for independent workers' shoras and associations. They argued that the term Islamic for workers' organisations will lead to the exclusion and alienation of non-Muslim workers and weaken the shoras. Secular and religious women have been cooperating to demand reform of the sharia Islamic law, mainly affecting family law. They have had some success. The reform of the laws concerning marriage, divorce, custody of children and property have been particularly beneficial to poorer women.
Women and students' political participation in the 1997-99 presidential and local council elections resulted in the defeat of the conservatives and a landslide victory for the reformers in the parliament, the government and the local councils. In February to May 2000 the conservatives, who control the judiciary, responded by closing down reformist newspapers and arresting a number of journalists, students and intellectuals.
From 2000 to 2003 women and men continued their struggle for further reform, but were disappointed by the low level of support from the reformers within the government. The 2003 local elections demonstrated the demoralisation of many within the democracy movement. They boycotted these elections which led to many reformers losing their seats. However, in 2003 we have seen students' protests against the arrest of university lecturer accused of blasphemy by the conservative judiciary. International Women's Day, on 8 March, was celebrated in Tehran and thousands of women and men demanded gender equality. The 1st of May was celebrated by thousands of workers demanding better pay and conditions and in June the students' demonstrations, supported by other movements, demanded the end to the autocratic regime.
Iranians are bravely fighting to establish true democracy. Many were impressed by the millions who marched against the war in Iraq. They believe that the US and their allies are preparing the ground to attack Iran. They notice the linking of Iran's nuclear energy industry to the so called weapons of mass destruction; and both the Shias' resistance to the occupation of Iraq by the US and the resistance to the occupation of Palestine by Israel to Iran. They see this as warning that the US will steal their natural resources and destroy their culture. People in Britain and the west should support their movements by strengthening the anti-war campaign before the war extends to Iran and elsewhere, and by fighting the Blair government for tailing the US imperial project.
Elaheh Rostami Povey is the author of Women, Work and Islamism: Ideology and Resistance in Iran, under the pen-name of Maryam Poya (Zed Books, 1999).
BETWEEN THE LINES
'Reward your curiosity', the advert for Coca-Cola's new vanilla flavour encourages us.
Apparently doing its best to build the day of action against Coca-Cola on 22 July, the hard-nosed soft drinks manufacturer has also been caught fixing a market-testing exercise.
Coke president Steven Heyer had to apologise after his company was revealed during an employee compensation claim to have paid an agent $10,000 to send hundreds of children to Burger King branches in Virginia to boost a 'Frozen Coke' promotion. Cool.
'Today Brent South: tomorrow Soweto,' formerly left wing cabinet minister Paul Boateng promised when he was elected in 1987. Sixteen years on, he almost made it, visiting the South African city Johannesburg to sing the praises of hospital PFIs. Who says politicians don't keep their word?
No sign of justice yet
Has US victory in Iraq set the scene for a revival of the misnamed Middle East 'peace process'? Although both Israeli and Palestinian governments have agreed to abide by the 'road map' peace plan, the chances of this latest round of negotiations producing lasting peace are very slim.
Many of the reasons lie in the 'road map' itself. The document sets out a three-phase plan for achieving 'a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict'. May 2003 was the target date for the completion of the first stage, which envisaged sweeping reforms of the Palestinian authority, including the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister for the first time, the dismantlement of all Israeli settlement outposts erected since May 2001, and an 'end to violence and terrorism'. Naturally the last condition is directed only at the Palestinian Authority, which is meant to confiscate 'illegal weapons' and destroy the 'terrorist infrastructure'.
Phase two, expected to run from June to December 2003, includes an international peace conference, Palestinian elections and the restoration of Arab states' trade links and diplomatic ties with Israel. The final stage runs from January 2004 to 2005. Another international conference is planned which will tie up small loose ends such as 'borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements' in order to realise 'the vision of two states, Israel and sovereign, independent, democratic and viable Palestine, living side by side in peace and security'.
The 'road map' offers little to the Palestinians. Once again the Palestinian Authority is expected to end the intifada. Meanwhile the Israelis are only committed to dismantling settlements erected since May 2001, a small fraction of the total.
The 'road map's' talk of reform also misleads--Arafat's administration may well be corrupt and violent but it is not the same as the occupation. And as for the big issues, it is here that the 'road map' is most vague. It skates over the right of return for the millions of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
While the Israeli side was supposed to have been implementing 'confidence building measures' it was instead targeting unarmed international peace activists and demolishing Palestinian homes. Far from ending attacks on civilians, Israeli forces continued to attack Palestinian leaders and in early June decided to declare war on Hamas, by attempting to assassinate the group's spokesman Dr Abdul Aziz Rantisi. Israel has also continued work on the 'Separation Wall', a concrete fence on the scale of the Berlin Wall which cuts like a wound through the West Bank. According to a UN report published in May more than 10,000 Palestinians have already been trapped between the wall and the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border. Israeli human rights organisation, B'tselem, says that the wall will harm Palestinian agriculture and cut off access to hospitals and schools. The UN report warns that the effective annexation of large parts of the West Bank puts Israel in breach of the 1995 interim agreement, one of the centrepieces of the previous round of negotiations.
So if the Israeli government can flout past agreements with impunity, what hope is there that the 'road map' will be any different? These negotiations may deliver a stunted bantustan, but neither justice nor peace.
Locked in a crazy system
The rooftop protests at Wealstun and Maghaberry prisons in June--although relatively minor and isolated--are expressions of a deeper, more general malaise gripping Britain's jails. The prison population is growing at such a rate that the system is struggling to cope. It is currently 7,000 over capacity. The scale of the crisis has provoked dire warnings from organisations as diverse as HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Prison Officers Association and the Prison Reform Trust.
The press reported that prisoners at Wealstun took to the roof after changes to the exercise routine and the arrival of inmates from Liverpool and Manchester. However, almost all sides now agree that, like at the high-security jail in Northern Ireland, overcrowding lay behind the disturbances. Even the conservative Prison Officers Association blamed the record numbers crammed into Britain's jails.
Alarmingly, these problems are repeated across the prison system. The Chief Inspector, Anne Owers, recently warned that many prisons are 'struggling on the edge of being able to provide a safe and decent regime'. Cells designed for one inmate are often occupied by two and sometimes three people. Prisoners are routinely denied association and recreation time due to staff shortages. Prisoners are regularly ferried around the country in search of available space. An internal Home Office report leaked to the Guardian reveals a prison system riddled with incompetence and violence. It shows that assaults, protests and suicides are rising sharply.
The government hopes that building more prisons and releasing more low-risk prisoners on the controversial electronic tag scheme will be enough to tackle the crisis. But penal reform charities remain sceptical. Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, told Socialist Review that the prison population is expanding so rapidly that even with additional space the system will still be under enormous pressure. She believes that the Home Office should end its reliance on prisons--except for the most dangerous offenders--and invest in alternatives to custody. Otherwise, Wealstun and Maghaberry may be only the first of many to revolt.
Enough to make you sick
In a recent online discussion, a 'pro-soldier' campaigner was ridiculing the US peace movement's protests. He claimed that in his city of Fort Wayne (population 250,000) a 'pro-soldier' campaign had gathered the support of one in ten of the population. The aim of his argument was simple--that the pro-war lobby in the US dwarfed the peace movement by many magnitudes.
But no one should take part in a debate unless they are sure of their facts, never more so than when the internet can offer information and statistics at the touch of a button. Very quickly, someone posted a reply containing, among other things, links to the US population census www.census.gov which gave the population of Fort Wayne as almost double the original figure. The second link was a report from the local paper reporting the size of a pro-war rally as 15,000.
Of further interest to those of us who have engaged in arguments with the pro-war lobby was a series of links posted for Gulf War veteran organisations. Many of these groups now campaign for justice and compensation for the thousands of servicemen suffering from Gulf War syndrome. A report available at the website of the National Gulf War Resource Centre www.ngwrc.org makes the claim that up to 400,000 US troops were exposed to radioactive uranium waste contamination in the latest war. It also details the attempts made to prevent this information becoming public. Particularly surprising are the statistics at www.ngwrc.org/Facts/ which show, for instance, that over 25 percent of US veterans of the 1991 Gulf War have filed claims for service-related medical disabilities.
A second website, www.gulfweb.org, 'has been a presence on the internet since early 1994, aiding Gulf War veterans in their pursuit for the truth' and contains further links and information. Similar resources relevant to Britain can be found at www.gulfveterans association.co.uk.
The final point made by the anti-war posting in the debate was simple--the war in Iraq didn't just destroy the lives of the people of the region. The young men and women sent to fight the war for Bush and Blair will very likely be suffering ill-health and disease for many years. When they try and seek help from the countries that they fought for, they will be ignored. It's a point worth remembering the next time you hear Tony Blair talking about sacrifice.