From Enforced Hijabs to Enforced Pregnancies

by | Oct 5, 2022 | Commentary

Seeing and Looking and Thinking Anew

We — the inclusive we — need to see this newest devastating crisis of democracy in the U.S. with renewed urgency because it has too long a history. Look at what is happening to Iranian women (and Saudi, and Indian, and Afghan) and see ourselves together, in camaraderie against illiberal theocracies. A lawless misogynist fanaticism is also here, housed in the Supreme Court that bans abortions. There is a deep trail that connects enforced hijabs and enforced pregnancies. Mahsa Amini, the Kurdish-Iranian woman who was murdered by the morality police for wearing her hijab incorrectly, ignited the latent Iranian women’s movement into the streets. It is where U.S. freedom loving people belong as well.

Let me jump to my conclusion and then I will share my argument, of sorts. If we are ruled by a lawless crew of politicians some of whom we do not even get to vote for, and some of whom are charged with sexual assault, and some who lie openly and do not think that is problematic, and who think facts and laws are to be ignored, and organize to make it harder or even impossible to vote (if you have been incarcerated or Black) then it is time to stop pretending that our country is recoupable without a fight. Our side of the fight must be non-violent, but a fight is needed, nonetheless.

This country has never been fully democratic for peoples of color — indigenous, gay, trans and queer, and disabled. U.S. history stands upon the scaffolding of settler colonialism and chattel slavery. Revisions of the law — civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights — are limited by these structural constraints. These artifices continue through voter denial, the electoral college, the law itself, and most egregiously, the Supreme Court.

Today’s crisis: that the definition of (liberal) democracy is exposed as a lie because the very scaffold that has been a protector is now in clear view. The Court in their Dobbs decision has thrown caution to the wind and openly rejected the long-established legal right of women to abortion. This Court now boldly enforces pregnancy and criminalizes all women who seek to access abortion. The law of the land starkly excludes women of all colors — cis, trans, gender fluid — from their full citizen rights.

We in the U.S. need to recognize that the religious Christian zealots on the Court are more similar than different to the Mullahs in Iran demanding the hijab. And it is now crystal clear that the struggle to free women’s bodies from constraint — over enforced pregnancy or bodily clothing — requires more than adjusting, revising, improving the laws that supposedly protect us. The latest moves by the Court and its January 6 coup supporters demand a revolutionary movement of women across the globe. Why? Because no amount of pressure or legal footwork was able to keep Clarence Thomas or Brett Kavanaugh off the bench. And no existing strategy was able to keep Mahsa alive.

So, although I deeply appreciate the writing of Dahlia Lithwick in “Lady Justice,” and the history she affords us of all the resistance done by women lawyers against the Trump regime, this kind of legal/liberal resistance can never be enough. It is past time to recognize this.

Liberal (racist patriarchal) law cannot give us the radical change we need. We need conversations and imaginings between our different activist communities to see what comes next, to ask how to combine with what we have learned and what should follow. The people protesting in Iran are ahead of us. They understand their leaders — that you cannot get freedom from the oppressors themselves.

What to do? I keep trying to see and think more deeply with words that are not quite up to the task. We need a new dream for these times. Look and try to find your thoughts while they are destabilized and curious. None of us know enough as all the edifices of illiberal democracy and misogynist theocracy are exposed for what they are. It is in the uncertainty of new possibilities that we must locate our strategies. I will “freedom dream,” as Robin Kelly might name it with a guide from Aja Monet, with the old and the new emerging, “we embody what we imagine.”

Why terrorize Iranian women about wearing the hijab when it no longer represents the complexity of their lives? Why terrorize people in the U.S. by criminalizing them if they seek abortion when it has been legal for 50 years? The right-wing attempts to contain the new gender choices that destroy gendered borders with weaponizing hijabs and forced pregnancy. But women — of all colors, trans, cis, gender variant — are not containable.

The Mullahs and the right-wing Court are religious fundamentalists when it comes to protecting patriarchy. Our Court now rejects the separation of church and state — a bedrock of liberal democratic law. This newest Court is completely heedless of any constraints on its patriarchal ideology. Our Court is lawless, and dictates from above, like in Iran. Lawless people cannot be contained by law itself.

Voting is a necessity to try and keep the Right-wing zealots from gaining more power in the Senate and the House. But this is not enough because voting is also part of the scaffolding that holds the repression of women together. So yes vote, and then do more — demand an agenda that is extra-legal, which is where crucial power hopefully resides.


Exposing and Wondering about Open Secrets

Our bodies — female, trans, cis, non-binary, gender curious — are a battleground always. And illiberal/fascist/misogynist states are gaining ground in new fashion throughout the globe — India, Brazil, Poland, Russia. But also take note that democracy — in real, full fashion has yet to exist anywhere, but remains a freedom dream.

Reforms are more destabilizing if you start with ungendered structural power and revolutions come from below. As borders shift and open on themselves what happens to the distinction between reform and revolution? Or revolutionary reforms? This is crucial to think about as we strategize about how to go forward.

As well, what has happened to expose the open secrets? Instead of pathologizing our sadness in this time of the COVID pandemic and climate disaster let us focus on the structural, fundamental, elemental change that is needed. And why does this time feel so fraught? Is it that climate disaster seems ever so present and personal and frightening and limiting? Because Pakistan is under water along with Northern Florida, while California burns? Or is it that COVID is still lurking? Or is it the fact that no one has legal access to an abortion after years of at least having it be a legal right? Is it the 400 million guns that are dispersed through the country? And the mass shootings? And the police violence most especially toward Black people? Is it all of it, or some of it, or is it the way that each exposes more of the other?

Think about this while you wonder if the January 6 coup continues even though the rioters of that day have been dispersed to multiple sites. The coup is still happening with the assist of the Court. It is inside the Senate and House. It is in the gun lobby. It is in the media. Supposedly those who were responsible for the coup will be punished, but that presumes the coup is over. The “Big Lie,” that Trump really won in 2020, is believed by millions who are activated and active and pushing forward their agenda. What exactly is a coup in this unordered political world?

I am still looking for the queries that might help us think, and then act. How do you fight for democracy extra legally? I cannot use discredited means to save a discredited system, but how do you move through and against it at the same time? What does a democratic radical revolutionary justice movement look like? There are new imaginaries for us to find here. The state as we know it and its promise of democracy are in crisis and cannot be rehabilitated, so what is the next imaginary?

It is hard to know anything in this moment, but I do think that a courageous, honest, truthful reckoning would be a start. Let us — and I would be happy if progressive Democrats want to take the lead on this — start with a demand that all guns of January 6 participants be confiscated. Because right-wing Republicans, and the Proud boys, and the Oath Keepers openly challenge the safety of lawmakers and individuals who disagree with them they have violated their right to own their guns. And Trump shreds any notion of honesty. He threatens that if legal action is taken against him for his handling of classified documents after leaving office that the nation would face “problems … the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen.” Who knows how this all will play out?

For those of you who are thinking that the U.S. is not ready for this, think about who the “we” is in your mind. Thinking that a full right-wing assault has not happened yet is like thinking that the climate disasters in Pakistan, or Cuba, or Florida cannot come to where you live. We need a new form of resistance that takes account of a mobilized Right Wing led by Trump and his bullies, and to stop pretending that voting and electoral rational proceedings matter enough to protect election choice.

Elections and nations no longer exist as they once did so there is no blueprint for fighting for democracy while pretending it exists. You cannot follow the rules while others openly defy them. How long do you pretend that your democracy is working when it is in shambles? And that sexual predators and racial bigots have been and still are in charge?

We will invent new laws and new radically progressive anti-racist feminist practices.

Maybe the Jan. 6 coup started when Obama was elected. At that time I wrote that the election was a moment of singularity where nothing would look decipherable after. January 6 was a culmination of all this hate that continues apace.


Beyond Binary Democracy

Thanks to many of the queer and gay and trans theorists and activists writing now like Paisley Currah, Hugh Ryan, Mark Gevisser, Kit Heyam, and Steven Thrasher, I am alerted to how careful borders contain and distort realities of the nations and pandemics, through false binaries of sex, gender, and race. Abolish exclusionary genders and whiteness and we won’t need right-wing zealots as Mullahs or state actors.

Mark Gevisser in “The Pink Line” writes of the newest new of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, queer questioning, gender creative, nonbinary, gender queer, gender variant, pansexual, homoromantic, gender fluid ways of being. He says: “If I had to hazard a guess about where ‘queer’ is going, it would be this: a movement away from ‘identity’ understood as a stable, life-long category.”

I am hopeful about creating a real democracy because the world keeps changing and becoming more expansive and history is made by us. So, I attempt to see more and know more and use this knowledge to resist and recreate and find our freedom, even if it is not fully knowable currently. Gender along with race is malleable to the demands of history and I think maybe we are finally opening new possibilities for a non-gendered/racial equality and freedom. Chaos is a crucial part of this process, and so is hope. We must create hope as our practice to end nationalist wars to save the planet.


Beginnings from Endings

Our carceral — punishing — culture is cracking/cracked wide open. The mullahs and Court judges have no clothes left for masking themselves! People are in the streets in Iran and the people in Kansas registered and voted in mass for abortion rights.

The exposure of known secrets demands courageous confrontation with ourselves and the eviscerated structures of race and sex and gender and class. The public health is in tatters; the global climate keeps exploding; labor both demands more and begins to have new power; laws promise us better, but they are part of the visible crisis.

Viruses are with us now like climate crisis. How shall we live with this? How can we see each other and care about each other instead of hating and fearing and punishing? Systems must change. We must change, or we will suffer and die.

So, what is to be done? Recognize that the possibilities are multiple and unknown and yet to be revealed in the very actions we take. Look outside the U.S. borders to see our sisters and brothers who are similarly different and differently similar. Together we will build the love and camaraderie that we need to go forward towards a newer notion of freedom that trumps our fear.

I know I have shared chaotic thoughts here. And created many unanswered questions. But it is exactly in this unknowing space that we will find the answers we need. We cannot get ahead of where we are without risking everything. If you are waiting to feel ready, or think we are ready, it will be too late.

Courage is hard to create. But being courageous is our only choice. It will build the camaraderie that is the power that we need to save ourselves and the planet.


Zillah Eisenstein is a noted international feminist writer and activist and Professor Emerita, Political Theory, Ithaca College.  She is the author of many books, including “The Female Body and the Law” (UC Press, 1988), which won the Victoria Schuck Book Prize for the best book on women and politics; “Hatreds” (Routledge, 1996), “Global Obscenities” (NYU Press, 1998),  “Against Empire” (Zed Press, 2004), and most recently, “Abolitionist Socialist Feminism” (Monthly Review Press, 2019).


Image by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash.


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