Middle East Notes and Comment: Early Indicators
March 15, 2004
It is rare to read an article these days on political change in Iran that does not include a long passage on how liberalization in women’s dress is a sign of coming political liberalization. First come the jeans, then comes the makeup, and then comes sweeping political change, the argument seems to go, although people differ on the timeframe.
At the same time, many authors writing on secular Arab countries view rising conservatism in women’s dress as a sign that what avenues of freedom exist are threatened by a wave of religiously grounded authoritarianism. Although the image of angry bearded men shaking their fists in the air is a staple of television broadcasts about the difficult present facing Western powers in the Middle East, the presence of veiled young women, often in the background, serves as a chilling portent of the future in the region.
The two cases are opposite, yet they enjoy striking similarities. In each case, observers see governmental systems in danger of falling to their ideological foes, with social trends as harbingers of political trends. They see the efforts of authoritarian governments to grant concessions to their foes in the social sphere as an effort to buy time, but a game which governments will ultimately lose. Western governments (and to a degree, conservative Arab governments) are therefore tempted to look to the social sphere as an early indicator of change and as an important battleground for influence.
But what are the odds that regional governments have it right?