Like most people I have been following the harrowing story of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. The latest in this horrifying tale is that, according to her family, Ms Ashtiani has been given a further 99 lashes for being party to the publication of a photo in the Times of a random woman, seen without Hijab (head scarf that obscures all hair), proporting to be her. Even though the photo was not of her, it is believed that she has been flogged because at the time, the Times said it was her, and the woman was not modestly dressed. It's a nightmare straight out of The Handmaid's Tale by the unequalled Margaret Atwood. There is no justice in such arbitry retribution. It seems the more the Iranian authorities' behaviour is highlighted by domestic and International protest, the more they make 'an example' of Sakineh.
It is a travesty in so many ways as Iran is the birthplace of learning and enlightenment and the Muslim faith is based upon tolerance, rational thought and compassion. But frankly, you can keep this patriachal mumbo jumbo which looks more like oppression than religious observance.
My first experience of cultural female oppression and for that matter the Burka was in the early 80's. I was helping to woman a picket line outside a Harley Street clinic which was carrying out, now outlawed in the UK, female circumscision. Though not just a Muslim issue, female cicumcision is part of a suite of measures, used worldwide to single out female sexuality as something that requires censure. I can still remember the girls, babies some of them, taken through the picket.
Years later, I ran a women's organisation where I worked with a lovely Iranian, who shall remain nameless. Once released from prison, she had fled Iran where her crime was publishing an academic article that discussed the increase of male aggression, particulalry in young men, through militarisation. Her experience had left her scarred and isolated from her country and family. From my subsequent discussions with Muslim women, including family members, I've concluded that what those Muslim women who have found themselves subjugated by unwelcome sanctions need, is support.
So how can we help? Firstly we should join the international protest against Ms Ashkiani's treatment by signing the petition attached. Sakineh's freedom should be secured and asylum granted wherever she and her family feels safe, three cheers if its Blighty. Then, and this might seem unhelpfully controversial, I think we should have a debate to consider following the French and Turkish examples of discouraging the Hi-jab in schools. I believe Turkey, a muslim country, go further, and prohibit the Hi-jab on Government workers and in all Universities. The issue here is that whilst the state allows it, women living in families where personal choice is not encouraged, have to wear it, wether they like it or not. Interestingly this was the view of Turkey's constitutional court which upheld the ban in the face of Government opposition who took a more 'religious' line and wanted it lifted in 2008.
The Burka which achieves full body, face and often hand coverage goes even further. It's interesting to note that neither the Burka nor Hi-jab get much of a write up in the Quo-ran. I think we should have an open a debate about it, that women are encouraged to lead. I know women are often vocal supporters of both garb, and let's hear about that, but for me that's not the point. Uncle Tom might have thought slavery offered benevolant patronage, but an enlightened state must decide if subjugation, in any form, can be tolerated for the state to be 'free'. In the UK we have a long, sometimes noble history of defending free religious observance, although we are a bit woollier on the contravention of women's rights, which I think the veil speaks more of, as for me its about putting women "in their place" rather than granting religious freedom. In offering asylum to the persecuted, like my Iranian colleague (who said she would never wear the veil again), we have acted well but by making this a country where the conspicuous oppression of women is frowned upon, we could do more. As long as we don't let our support for women slip into anything that is experienced by them as innate criticism of them or their religion. I accept that this is an almost impossible path to follow, but that shouldn't put us off.
Spare a thought for Sakineh Ashtiana, her courageous, persecuted and exiled lawyer, Houtan Kian, and her frantic family. The Iranian Government are still threatening to hang her, so she and her supporters will need all the help they can get.