An Iranian channel ran a story about how a certain kind of martial arts is enjoying increasing popularity among Iranian women. This means that a) Iranian women have rights, b) Iranian women can access the public sphere, c) Iranian women participate in organized, public sports, and d) an Iranian government news channel has no problem with any of this.
Faced with these facts, the Western media panicked: some news agencies resorted to the stereotype of Iranian women as veiled, militant fanatics; others opted for infantilizing portrayals of suffering women using martial arts as their only escape. Can you imagine any self-respecting Western reporter writing a story that explained, unprovoked, the popularity of karate among girls in suburban Los Angeles by citing America’s high rates of sexual assault? Additionally, few bothered to mention that recently it has been Western sports organizations that have prevented Iranian women from playing, for example in 2011 forcing the Iranian women’s soccer team to forfeit hope of reaching the Olympics because they wore sports hijabs on the field.
Narratives of weak or militant Iranian women are not just dishonest; they also fuel a political narrative whereby Islamism is equated with backwardness and the ability of women to reconcile Islamic ideals with feminist goals is entirely obfuscated. Both Western conservatives and many secular feminists often participate in this obfuscation, effectively trying to either hide Iranian women’s successes in order to demonize Iran or by ignoring the ideologies of liberation they have formulated in order to preserve the status of secular feminism as the only path to women’s liberation.