Sunday, April 27, 2008

Gender and Criticism

Recently, a journalist writing in one of Iran's major newspapers created a lot of controversy by comparing the masses who eagerly greet Ahmadinejad in his visits to every little corner of the country with a certain (albeit cute) type of animals who dance hungrily for a piece of food from their trainer.

Iranians, like most people in the world, don't enjoy negative comparisons to non-human animals, so it is hard to believe the author when she pleads surprise at the angry responses she has gotten. What bothers me about the article is not whether or not she intended to insult millions of Iranians, but that she--like many of her colleagues who share parallels in their political outlooks--refuse to recognize the fact that Ahmadinejad has a large and enthusiastic constituency from all over Iran. It should be obvious that until that basic fact is acknowledged, analyzing why he has support or convincing his constituency to abandon him is an impossibility.

In short, I was annoyed by the article and am not particularly fond of the writer's work in general (she even writes for Roozonline, and I've made my feelings on that publication pretty clear). Nonetheless, I find the ferocity of her critics rather disturbing. It is the same furor one finds, for example, in assaults on the Iranian Feminist movement. It is also similar to the nasty attacks on Fatemeh Rajabi, the bold ultra right wing writer often referred to as the "wife of Elham" (the spokesperson for Ahmadinejad's government).

Male journalists and writers, as well members of male-dominated social and political movements of all stripes often come under attack in the lively press inside Iran and the zombie press in diaspora. Yet there seems to be substantive differences in the tone and nature of criticisms targeting women and women-identified movements and organizations. Documenting and detailing these differences is on my to-do list, but for now, I want to flag the phenomena, since it seems to be a persistent feature of Iranian discourses.

Of course, this issue is not unique to Iranian discourses. Compare the kind of comments routinely made about Hillary Clinton (her outfits, her hair, her wrinkles, etc.) with what what the US press says about John McCain. That man has a tumor the size of a basketball on his face but, how many of his critics bring up his deformed jaw in their analysis of his views? Yet Clinton's critics will talk about the highlights in her hair in the same breath as her health care plan. Clinton is routinely photographed from unflattering angles or close-up shots that emphasize her wrinkles. When was the last time you saw a McCain photo that enhanced the size of that thing in his jaw, his thinning hair, or the 600 deep wrinkles in his forehead?

Clinton may be loathsome, but so is the gendered double standard to which she is subjected, even by Democrat-identified magazines such as The New Republic. One might even feel a bit of sympathy for her as a result (imagine how bad it has to be to make you feel sympathy for that woman). Similarly, the Iranian journalist, despite her rude and shallow article, the Iranian feminist movement, despite some of their troubling stances, and Fatemeh Rajabi, despite her abrasiveness, deserve the same respect (as minimal as it may be) as what is accorded to their male counterparts.