Every once in awhile, something comes along that absolutely devastates me, and some voice in my head says, “[Pilgrim Soul], you and your Western feminism, you are just nowhere.” This week’s New Yorker has an anonymous piece (not online) on the experience of the women of Iran during the last set of demonstrations. To wit:
One afternoon, Shahrzad had come across a rally to mark Ahmedinejad’s official victory. It was a response to a much bigger demonstration, in support of Moussavi and Karroubi, a few miles to the north. Shahrzad found herself in a press of people, most of them women wearing chadors and holding Ahmadinejad posters. “I realized I was stuck,” she said.
“As we stood there waiting,” Shahrzad went on, “I heard a woman speaking in a loud, coarse voice behind me. She was mouthing off against Ahmadinejad’s opponents. She said, ‘They deserve to be killed like dogs! They want to be free and walk naked down the street. Where do they think they are? Europe? America?’”
Normally, Shahrzad would not have responded to this provocation, which was standard government propaganda. But she felt brused and angry. “The people around me had come to celebrate a victory that I considered to be a theft, and there was a triumphalism in the woman’s voice that I couldn’t stand,” she said. “It suddenly occurred to me that she had sized me up as an opposition sympathizer and was addressing me. Suddenly, she said loudly, very near my ear, ‘Revolting uptown girl!’”
Shahrzad turned to confront her antagonist and saw that the woman was not dressed chastely, as she had expected. “She was stuffed into a tight coat that hugged the contours of her body, and she was made up to the nines! I immediately thought of the last regime, when court officials bribed mobs to come into the streets and demonstrate in favor of the Shah, and the mobs included prostitutes from the red-light district.”
There was no way of knowing whether the woman was a hired rabble-rouser, but her appearance, Shahrzad realized, presented an opportunity. In a stern, admonitory tone, Shahrzad asked, “Why are you wearing so much eyeliner? Weren’t you ever told you should only wear makeup for your husband?”
The woman, taken aback, replied that she didn’t have a husband but then realized that this was the wrong thing to say in front of the Ahmadinejad women, so she started attacking former President Mohammad Khatami. “It’s all his fault!” she exclaimed. “He allowed moral corruption to grow and encouraged women to wear makeup. He’s to blame!”
Shahrzad was enjoying herself now. Several conservatively dressed women had gathered and were following the argument with interest. Shahrzad retorted, “You blame Khatami for the fact that you’re wearing eyeliner? Khatami has been out of power for the past four years! Didn’t you find the time to wash off your eyeliner?” Shahrzad’s gaze fell on the woman’s coat. “And why are you wearing such tight clothes?”
In this way, Shahrzad exacted her revenge. Soon, the Ahmadinejad supporters were agreeing that the woman was inappropriately dressed. One of the said, “Someone might think that you were a woman of ill repute.”
“I’m clean!” the woman wailed. “I’m clean!” But the other woman muttered, “The shopkeeper never admits his curds are off,” and everyone laughed. The object of their derision, defeated, swore at Shahrzad, before forcing her way through the crowd and slinking away.
When Shahrzad finished her story, she and I were smiling, but Kaveh was looking hard at the dregs of his coffee. Shahrzad rested her hand on his and explained, “Kaveh doesn’t like this story. He doesn’t like that I humiliated this woman using arguments I don’t believe in.”
Of course, this is, in a nutshell, the argument we all have out here in the West about what to do about someone like Sarah Palin, except in Iran’s case, the stakes involved are far greater. There’s a part of me that, if this is a prostitute hired for the purpose, can’t blame her, can’t blame her for wanting a day off from being a “woman of ill repute.” And yet given what she’s saying, I know where Shahrzad is coming from too. I don’t know how you get out of a situation like this one with feminism. I don’t know what you do. I don’t know what to tell anyone in stories like these, I don’t. And I don’t know what that says about me, and I don’t know what that says about feminism in the West, and if you’ll excuse me right now, I’m going to go and eat some feelings and listen to some music.