Setting aside for the moment the issues of the Iranian government’s allegations and treatment of these captives, it is interesting to consider the significance of a woman in this role being held captive in a country where women do not traditionally serve in this role.
Women in the military do represent, however imperfectly, progress women have made in society in general. Progress, by that measure, has been considerable in the West. According to the Independent, “In 1961 there were just 30,000 women in NATO uniforms; today there are more than 288,000.” It would be interesting to know how this compares to the role of women in a cross section of Muslim countries.
In Iran, there is a struggle between cosmopolitan elements of the population supporting some degree of modernism on the one hand and, on the other hand, reactionary forces led by clerics seeking to impose traditionalism that, among other things, limits the role of women in society. In the eyes of the Iranians as well as others around the world, Seaman Turney is not merely a Brit in uniform who finds herself in an unfortunate situation but woman in uniform equal to the men she serves with. She is a symbol of the best or the worst – depending on your point of view – of the modernism the West has come to represent.
This is Janice Turner’s assessment in the London Times:
What a perplexing and alien creature Seaman Turney must appear to this Iranian regime. A young woman working close-knit with men, proud to perform her dangerous task of piloting speedboats as well as any one of them. A wife and mother, moreover, away from her small daughter, who has put military career before marital and maternal duties.
The Iranians were satisfied to have her 14 male comrades surrender as sailors or Marines: Seaman Turney had to surrender also as a woman. While the men were free to eat their pitta bread and lamb stew with weary resignation, she had to work out how best to appear adequately humble, grateful and submissive. She must submit not just to Iran’s military authority but its patriarchal might.
After all, here she stood, the end-product of 100 years of bitterly fought — and now mostly unacknowledged — Western female emancipation. In Britain our own reactionaries may finger-wag at the unnatural spectacle of a mother in a warzone, distracting our male warrior caste. One strain of feminism can question why womankind — Nature’s peacemakers, oh Mother Gaia! — would want to fight men’s wars, particularly this one.
While another might point out the sham of Seaman Turney’s equality: the sexual harassment endured by almost all women military personnel and their ban from the front line.
And the tiresome buzz of these debates can distract us from the wholly magnificent truth: the freedom of Seaman Turney and of all of us, our right to make choices — and mistakes — to fight, to study, to work, to stay home, to have children, to remain childless, to wear what the hell we like — whether basque or burka — to live unenslaved by our fertility, our fathers, our husbands, to have equal rights before the law. So languid are we in this warm bath of freedom, that International Women’s Day — March 9 — doesn’t even figure on our calendar. It is some vestigial Seventies feminist joke. We’d be marching for what, exactly? Is there really anything left? Er, more women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies?
In Iran, however, International Women’s Day is as perilous as patrolling any Iraqi foxhole. A week before, to forestall protest on the day itself, police rounded up and arrested 33 women involved in the Campaign for Equality, which aims to get a million signatures on a petition calling for the end of discrimination in Iranian penal and family codes.
In Iran a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man, her murder requires only half the punishment, girls as young as 9 may be stoned for adultery and mothers after divorce only have custody rights over their children until they reach 7 years old.
On March 9, the few women who dared to gather peacefully outside the parliament building were dispersed or arrested. Any prominent woman lawyer, journalist or politician speaks out at grave personal risk. Five feminist leaders are currently on trial for “propaganda against the system” and “acting against national security.” Compared with their subjugated Saudi sisters, Iranian women have comparative liberty, being permitted to drive, vote and stand for office. Indeed more than half of university graduates in Iran are women. And it is this weight of numbers, a growing confidence and sense of entitlement among these educated women, that threatens the male leadership and has precipitated a recent crackdown.