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Laurie Penny: Iranian women are being co-opted into a Nato narrative pointing towards invasion

The West must not use women’s rights to justify war.

Despite an international outcry, Iran seems determined to have Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, stoned to death for adultery. Her plight has become a test case for the global community's response to Iran's barbaric, institutional misogyny. Tehran has responded by thumbing its nose at the rest of the world, forcing Ashtiani to confess her "crimes" on television. In Britain, our outrage is unanimous, and rightly so.

It seems curiously inconsistent, then, that, just a few weeks ago, the Home Office was quite prepared to deport another Iranian woman, Kiana Firouz, to certain execution in her native country for sexual unorthodoxy. Firouz made the film Cul-de-Sac to raise awareness of the oppression of lesbians in Iran, outing herself very publicly and embarrassing the state in the process: both crimes punishable by death in Iran. Nonetheless, it took a co-ordinated campaign by LGBT activists and solidarity networks in the UK to shame the Home Office into granting Firouz leave to remain.

Bita Ghaedi, another Iranian woman facing execution for breaking her marriage vows, also escaped to Britain -- where she was sent to a holding cell and repeatedly threatened with deportation. Ghaedi has been on several hunger strikes to protest at her treatment, but she still lives in fear of being sent back to Iran. Had the unfortunate Ashtiani been smuggled to the UK, it is fair to assume that she, too, would currently be detained in Yarl's Wood, subjected to the indignity of pleading for her life to a government whose professed solidarity with Iranian women has not yet overcome its prejudice against immigrants to extend support to the hundreds of women who arrive on these shores fleeing violence every year -- all of whom, unlike Ashtiani, we could actually do something materially to help.

State violence against women has long been used to justify military interventionism. The government of Iran is rather unusual in taking it upon itself to employ the executioners, but plenty of states with whom the US and UK have no military disputes currently allow men who feel their women have besmirched their family honour to carry out the killings themselves on the understanding that punishment will be minimal or non-existent.

Article 340 of the Penal Code of Jordan states: "He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds or injures one of them is exempted from any penalty." Similar laws were struck down only very recently in Syria, Morocco and Brazil; in Pakistan, incidences of women and girls being slain by their families for sexual transgressions (including having the gall to be raped) are routinely ignored by police and prosecutors.

Moreover, across the world, 68,000 women are effectively condemned to agonising death each year -- 5 per cent of them in developed countries -- for the crime of wanting sexual and reproductive self-determination in states with sanctions against abortion. There has, as yet, been no systemic global outcry at their plight. And in at least one European country, the defence of "provocation to murder" -- the so-called "cuckold's defence" -- was enshrined in law until just two years ago, allowing husbands to plead for a reduced sentence if the wife they had killed was unfaithful.

The country in question was Great Britain. Were the US or UK to launch a systemic offensive against every country brutalising its female citizens because of their sex at the level of policy and culture, it'd be World War Three on Tuesday -- and we would have to start by bombing our own cities.

In this context, it could well be construed that there is another, more sinister agenda at play beyond concern for women's rights. Yesterday, Iran told the west to butt out of its right to murder Sakineh Ashtiani, making it clear that this case is now less about the well-being of one woman than about moral and militaristic positioning between hostile states. There is clear precedent for this callous, ideological long game.

This month, Time magazine published a cover photograph of a young woman, Aisha, whose nose and ears had been cut off by her father-in-law. The cover ran with the unambiguous title, "What happens if we leave Afghanistan". However, as the Afghan women's rights activist Malalai Joya told France24, Aisha was attacked under western occupation and such atrocities have arguably increased since the 2002 invasion.

"Eighteen-year-old Aisha is just an example -- cutting ears, noses and toes, torturing and even slaughtering is a norm in Afghanistan," said Joya. "Afghan women are squashed between three enemies: the Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops. Once again, it is moulding the oppression of women into a propaganda tool to gain support and staining their hands with ever-deepening treason against Afghan women."

In March, WikiLeaks published a CIA briefing that outlined a strategy to counter growing opposition in Europe to participation in the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. It recommended using a narrative about the oppression of women in the country that highlighted the Taliban's misogynist violence, while ignoring that of the pro-occupation warlords and the occupation armies. A similar story is now being disseminated about the plight of women in Iran and poor Ashtiani has become a tokenistic figure in that absolving narrative.

Instead of the solidarity they deserve -- solidarity that might first be extended by treating asylum seekers with something less than contempt -- Iranian women are being co-opted into a Nato narrative whose trajectory seems to point inexorably towards invasion.

That the state of Iran hates and fears women is not up for debate and if even one person can be saved from fascistic, fundamentalist woman-haters, an international campaign is more than justified. However, if, as seems likely, Iran executes Sakineh Ashtiani anyway, it would be beyond distasteful for Nato governments to cannibalise her corpse as part of the moral groundwork for further bloodshed.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: National Theatre
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I hate musicals. Apart from Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Follies – oh, wait

Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling.

I always thought I hated musicals. Showy, flamboyant, and minutely choreographed, they seemed to be the antithesis of the minimalist indie scene I grew up in, where a ramshackle DIY ethos prevailed, where it wasn’t cool to be too professional, too slick, too stagey. My immersion in that world coincided with the heady days of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s triumphs in the West End – Evita in 1978, Cats in 1981 – neither of which I saw, being full of scorn for such shows.

From then on I convinced myself that musicals were not for me, conveniently forgetting my childhood love of West Side Story (for which I’d bought the piano music, bashing out “I Feel Pretty” over and over again in the privacy of the dining room, on the small upright that was wedged in behind the door).

I was also conveniently forgetting Meet Me In St Louis and A Star is Born, as well as An American in Paris, which I’d been to see with a boy I was actually in a band with – he somehow finding it possible to combine a love of The Clash with a love of Gene Kelly. And I was pretending that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t really a musical, and neither was Cabaret – because that would mean my two favourite films of all time were musicals, and I didn’t like musicals.

Maybe what I meant was stage musicals? Yes, that was probably it. They were awful. I mean, not Funny Girl obviously. When people ask “If you could go back in time, what gig would you most like to have attended?” two of my answers are: “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, and Barbra Streisand in the original 1964 Broadway production of Funny Girl.” I would, of course, also make an exception for Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, and… oh God, what was I talking about? I’d always loved musicals, I just stopped remembering.

Then one of our teens took me to see Les Misérables. She’d become obsessed with it, loving the show so much she then went and read the Victor Hugo book – and loving that so much, she then re-read it in the original French. I know! Never tell me today’s young people are lazy and lacking in commitment. So I went with her to see the long-running stage version with my sceptical face on, one eyebrow fully arched, and by the time of Éponine’s death and “A Little Fall of Rain” I had practically wept both raised eyebrows off my face. Call me converted. Call me reminded.

I was late to Sondheim because of those years of prejudice, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, keeping my eyes open for London productions. Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory was stunning, and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy (yes, I know he only wrote the lyrics) was a revelation. Here she is again tonight in Follies at the National Theatre, the show that is in part a homage to the era of the Ziegfeld Follies, that period between the wars that some think of as the Golden Age of Musicals.

Although, as Sondheim writes in his extraordinary book, Finishing The Hat, (which contains his lyrics plus his comments on them and on everything else): “There are others who think of the Golden Age of Musicals as the 1950s, but then every generation thinks the Golden Age was the previous one.” How I would have loved to have seen those shows in the 1970s, when they were new and startling.

They still are, of course, and this production of Follies is a delight from start to finish. A masterclass in lyrics – Sondheim’s skill in writing for older women is unmatched – it is also sumptuously beautiful, full of emotion and sardonic wit, switching between the two in the blink of an eye, in a way that appears effortless.

And I realise that what I love about musicals is their utter commitment to the audience’s pleasure. Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling, and my mascara has somehow become smudged from having something in my eye, and I have already booked tickets to go again. So sue me.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left