I come from a fairly matriarchal country – our Queens are far more powerful and effective than our Kings could ever hope to be (well, OK, we’ll skip over Queen Anne), and we had one of the first woman heads of state in the world. In the Middle Ages women were slaughtered throughout Britain and Europe, mainly because they were becoming the richest landowners – following all those wars and the inheritance that came when hubby copped an arrow in The Crusades – and also because men were getting interested in medicine and were beginning to cook up all kinds of drugs, and didn’t like the fact that the women had the market in curing people with the tinctures and potions they made from herbs. Thus it became expedient to call them witches and get rid of the pesky nuisances.
But from the earliest times, across the continents and cultures, there have been more than a few strong courageous women who have led nations, cared for the sick and the poor, who have taken up arms alongside men, and who have kept the farm from going under while those men were away – which is yet another reason why events unfolding in Iran, with women at the forefront of the demands for a more democratic way of life, should make us all sit up and watch. And this isn’t a matter of whether or not anyone wants to wear the veil and keep their arms covered (many women prefer such modesty, as they feel it gives them freedom from the prying eyes of men), but the sheer guts of women in Iran who are stepping forward and saying “enough” as they lead the charge is just mindblowing.
Last year I was a guest at the annual Santa Barbara Women’s Literary Festival and while I was there had the great pleasure of listening to a wonderful poet – Dima Hilal. She was there with her Irish husband – her family left Iran when she was a child, and they had settled in Ireland. She now lives in California. When she began to speak – she did not read her poem, she seemed to be part of it – I was absolutely transported by her words, so of course I rushed to buy the book in which Dima’s work was published: The Poetry of Arab Women, edited by Nathalie Handal. As I read some of the poems in the book, I remembered meeting another Iranian woman some years ago, who had shared her verse with a small audience. I said something about her being a thoughtful and sympathetic poet, and she blushed, saying that in her culture, to be a poet is such an honor, and it is such important work, that you would not readily refer to yourself as a poet unless you had written far more deeply and for much longer than she. In the midst of the rhetoric about the Muslim world and about Iran in particular, it is easy to forget that it was once considered to be a country of intellectuals, of writers, artists, poets, indeed, of seers and sages. It was a country where to have a voice was honored.
I think President Obama has done no more or no less than he should, in terms of a response to the events in Iran over the past two weeks. It’s a tricky position to be in, and one that must be handled with utmost care. But I wish there was a tangible and realistic way to stand up and support those – especially the women – who would give their lives for the freedom to have a their votes counted, for the right to a leadership of their choosing. As Tom Friedman noted in his New York Times column last weekend, there is only one Arab country with a history of demonstrating in the streets – and that is Iran. Some thirty years ago they ousted the corrupt Shah of Iran, and now they are trying to get rid of more oil-fueled corruption (he pointed out that the oil money keeps the leaders up on their pedestals). But these demonstrations took on the stuff of mythology when the young woman whose image in death was seen the world over after she was shot, has a name that means “Voice” in Farsi (and I am sure someone will correct me if I have that wrong).
When I read about this terrible event, I remembered Dima reading to us. Here’s a partial verse from one of her poems:
I hear the prayer of my family
a tight canopy against the falling sky
while you count mortalities, I see faces
that look like mine
Let us give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy. Let us take a moment to reflect upon the women, in particular, who have given their lives, in one way or another, for that blessing – the freedom to be heard.
In Iran, Neda Agha Soltan, apparently not a particularly politically motivated young woman, stepped out of her car while in a traffic jam so that she could get some cool air. And she was shot. Neda may never have wanted to be a guiding light, but it makes you consider destiny, and why it was that a woman named Voice was chosen by the Fates to inspire so many who are clamoring to have their voices honored by the leadership of their country. I cannot imagine living in such a place.
And here’s a really funny thing. I tried to look up Dima’s website, so I could ask permission to quote from her poem (I probably don’t need it, but it seemed like the right thing to do). Instead of a home page, a Google warning came up saying that this site has “malicious software” and makes the point that it is unknown to the user but says that if I do open the page, basically the world will come to an end and no one will ever read my next book because, heck, it’s on my hard disk and I might not have backed it up properly and the cooties will leap off that site and have at my words with invisible ink. Well, it didn’t say all that, but the meaning was there. I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but I wonder ....
PS: And I am sure John Knox never imagined what he was doing when he wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women in 1558 - he effectively created an advertising slogan that's been used for and against women for centuries.