“Lipstick Jihad," by Azadeh Moaveni, 2005
This is ‘diaspora’ literature. Populations are moving all over the world and ‘diaspora’ memoirs are the logical result. Whether through war, famine, environmental collapse, political upheaval, pogroms, poverty, unemployment, alienation or just plain wander-lust, millions are on the move. We no longer live in a world of exclusively ‘national’ states and the proof is all around us in human sub-communities the world over. You do not have to understand imperialism and ‘globalism’ to see this.
Stories of other countries are exotic tales for many U.S. readers and this book fits. Moaveni is a young woman born in Iran, but whose upper-middle class family moved from Tehran to San Jose, California after the 1979 Iranian coup by the mullahs. She insists that the majority of that whole class left the country, and many of them jointed the million Iranians in Los Angeles. She spends the memoir trying to figure out her identity - if she’s Iranian enough or too American, and finally decides she is both. Even when she’s not in Iran, she carries Iran with her in her family and friends. She spent two years in Tehran has a reporter for Time Magazine, but decides to leave after George Bush declares Iran part of the “axis of evil’ – a stupid phrase only a Christian Texan could think up.
Moaveni is irritatingly naïve, neurotic, petit-bourgeois and conventional, but she is also an astute observer. Her intense interest in her homeland leads her back to Tehran and there she gives us a picture of what Iranians actually think about the theocratic regime. She improves her Farsi tremendously and becomes more Iranian by the day. Her specific focus is naturally on conditions for Iranian women, which she also has to live through. But as a result, sort of borrowing the logic of CLR James, Moaveni shows how Iranian women try to subvert the cultural and legal domination of the clerics all the time. This is where the phrase ‘lipstick jihad” comes from – jihad in this case meaning ‘struggle.’ Moaveni's perspective will undermine those clueless liberal multi-culturalists who think that every ‘cultural practice’ is worth respecting – even when it results in oppression and misery for women or working class people. She shows that Iranian society is not a simple version of Arab desert, village or tribal politics, but complex, sophisticated and urban too.
Being a reporter for Time Magazine in 2000 might tip you off to the fact that Moaveni is not a radical. She has almost no understanding of ‘blowback’ resulting from American war-making. Her method of changing Iran is to give tepid support to the ‘reformers’ – the liberal wing of the very same religious people who took over after the Shah left Iran. She red-baits by comparing the clerical methods to ‘Soviet-style’ society – but the comparison fails. She makes absolutely no mention of the Iranian working class - unless you include taxi drivers - or any subterranean Iranian Marxist movement. Only one mention is made of the fake opposition represented by the cultish and Islamic MEK, which is treasured by U.S. government figures across our limited political spectrum. Her family has servants and they are invisible. Her mother back in California is a conventionally religious woman while she describes her father as an atheist and Marxist.
The book is rich in the issues facing Iranians, like the cruel violence of the Basij street thugs used by the regime. Or how woman deal with the legally-prescribed head-covering hijab and cloak-like roopoosh – their version of a chador. Or the legal rules related to various forms of gender segregation. Or the social barriers against fraternization with men that women are not married to. Or the bans on street gatherings, alcohol, dancing, bikinis, ‘western’ movies and music, even poodles. Instead, the citizens are treated to occasional public whippings. Or how the Tehranis ignore the prohibition against not eating, smoking or drinking during the daylight hours of the month-long religious holiday of Ramadan. Or how Iranian Islamic repression of sexuality resulted in an overly sexualized environment as a response. Exceptions? If you do want to have sex with someone you are not married to, the law allows you to have a legal Sharia ‘temporary’ marriage to justify it. (!) And you can marry 9 year old girls if needed, or more than one woman if you treat them equally. What Moaveni’s memoir shows is that the ruling clerics in Qom (called the “Mullah Factory” in fun) are alienating a great mass of the Iranian population from Islam, or their interpretation of Islam. That is the dialectic playing out in Moaveni’s book.
The Iranian clerics are allies of the petit-bourgeois bazaaris and also made a block with the Iranian big capitalists. They use religion as a sort of totalitarian ideology to control the Iranian population. The Shia clerics have morphed into a religious elite that controls some state economic entities through the ‘bonyad’ funds, are corrupt through graft and bribery, womanize and secretly – like their Sunni un-brothers in Saudi Arabia – revel in various other ’western’ vices. They control the army, the Revolutionary Guard, the paramilitary Ansar-e-Hezbollah and ‘civilian’ Basaji, the state media and are legally superior to the executive and parliament.
This is not to say that the perpetual war drive by U.S. Democrats and Republicans against Iran is some kind of solution. It is, in fact, the opposite, as it gives more authority to the mullahs, driving the population into their arms. The clerics and the U.S. government are allied in this sense. U.S. support for Saadam Hussein’s war against Iran had hugely damaging consequences to this day. Imperialism has it sights set on control of Iran, as it does on any country that opposes it, for any reason.
Moaveni finalizes her Iranian-American identity, a cross-cultural complexity, at the end of the book. Her book is funny and revealing, especially about the odd lives various women in Tehran lead. Yoga, lipstick, cosmetic surgery, glamorous American fast food joints, jewelry smuggling, fake exercise clubs, veil issues, attempts to jog, designer roopooshs, co-ed hiking in the mountains, wife shopping by ex-pats, the necessity of marriage in a country with many more women than men due to the long war with Iraq - the issues cover the range of exclusively urban life. The book is great about women’s issues but politically weak at the same time. But then, she is a journalist, not an activist.
And I got it at Eat My Words books.
July 15, 2017