- Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran
In this highly theoretical work, Nima Naghibi brings together postcolonial studies, gender studies, Middle Eastern studies, and Iranian studies. Critiquing global sisterhood, she cites literature that tackles assumptions about women in Iran from a postcolonial feminist perspective. This critique challenges the perceived binary opposition between the West and "the other" Middle East/Muslim world, in this particular case, Iran. In line with this binary relationship it is often assumed that the West is modern, progressive, and, with regard to the role of women, liberated in contrast to the Orient/Iran, seen as backward, uncivilized, and oppressive of women who are further categorically understood as "the victim." Naghibi brings to light nuances and complexities of the history of the feminist movement in Iran. This is particularly important because assumptions underlying the perceived binary relationship of the Oriental woman/Iranian woman and Western women require that the former be saved by the West. In the words of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the West's civilizing mission is to "save brown women from brown men."1 Naghibi traces the civilizing mission to the early days of Christian missionary activity when, as part of the colonial enterprise, some European women, Gertrud Bell, for example, saw Iranian women as prisoners of Islam. In other words, it was the job of self-sacrificing Western sisters to save Eastern women. Yet in examining the history of Iran more closely we find many instances of women's resistance, first as part of the Tobacco protest against the British in 1890 and then as women fought in men's clothing during the constitutional revolution in the early twentieth century.
By adopting a historical analysis, Naghibi brings to light the relationship between the sisterhood efforts of Christian missionaries and Westernstyle feminist liberative endeavors that followed in their wake. From the start, there appears to have been an alliance between the colonial civilizing enterprise, the self-sacrificing mission of Western women, and the activities of local elites, best illustrated in the writings of Taj al-Saltaneh. Al-Saltaneh was a princess from the Qajar dynasty who had no confidence in "backward Iranian women" (43). The [End Page 586] views of women like al-Saltaneh, who saw Iranian women as backward, gave rise to a discourse promoting a nationalist and modernist agenda articulated by the local elite in terms of a global sisterhood mission to save Iranian women from the veil and to lead them directly from backwardness to modernity. Naghibi identifies the paternalistic manner in which al-Saltaneh and other women of elite background treated women of the lower classes. Similar attempts occur later during the rule of the shah of Iran, when the Women's Organization of Iran (WOI) was established and received funding from Ashraf Pahlavi, the shah's sister. Both she and Farah Pahlavi, the shah's wife, regarded themselves as saviors of Iranian women and founders of the women's movement in Iran (89). Ashraf Pahlavi provides support for the WOI, headed by Mahnaz Afkhami, and the organization hosts a gathering of elite women with Betty Friedan, thereby linking the WOI to the liberation agenda of the global sisterhood. Naghibi correctly points out that there is no doubt that the WOI did bring about legal reform and improved conditions for women; however, she notes that such changes were from the top down and remained isolated from the masses of women who were not of the elite. Thus global sisterhood was composed of unequal sisters-the elite among them seeing it as their calling to "rescue" Iranian women, which they approached in a paternalistic way. In perhaps one of the most interesting points of the book, Naghibi illustrates how, during the first International Women's Meeting in Mexico in 1975, the list of invitees was drawn by heads of state, but in the case of Iran, it was Ashraf Pahlavi who was drawn.
It is therefore not surprising that when Robin Morgan publishes an anthology on global sisterhood, Afkhami, who left Iran after the revolution, contributes...