Being a Woman Is Not a Punishment: What’s at Stake for Men in the Policing of Women’s Bodies

I initially wanted to make this post about what’s at stake for men in the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade. Then, in September, women in Iran began to protest the brutal death of Masa Zhina Amini after she was arrested by Iran’s morality police for not properly wearing her hejab. Those protests, in which women began to appear in public with their hair uncovered, very quickly grew into the beginnings of what has become the first real challenge to the existence of the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979. While these protest and the overturning of Roe might seem like two completely unrelated events, they are in fact connected in a very significant way. Each one not only concerns the policing of women’s bodies, but also raises the question of what’s at stake for men in that policing. Given the rhythm of my life, it’s taken longer than I thought it would to articulate this in a way that satisfied me. I hope that what I’ve written here makes sense to you as well.

Iranians have been protesting against their government for decades. What makes this time different is that protestors’ calls for regime change are rooted in a quintessentially feminist rebellion: women’s refusal to cooperate in the policing of their own bodies. In openly rejecting Iran’s compulsory hejab, the Iranian women who catalyzed the current wave of protests have demonstrated that the patriarchal state can stand secure—and the Islamic Republic’s response has been a clear sign of its insecurity—only so long as women agree to abide by the terms of their own oppression.

Here in the United States, Iran’s compulsory hejab is often portrayed, both implicitly and explicitly, as Islam’s compulsory hejab, a rhetorical sleight of hand that fits very neatly into the portrayal of Islam as a uniquely oppressive religion, diametrically opposed to the individual freedoms we like to tell ourselves it is our worldwide mission as a nation to guarantee and defend. That view of Islam is problematic in itself, of course, since any religion is more complex than its most extreme and fundamentalist expression; but focusing on Iran’s female dress code solely as a trespass on women’s freedom of choice actually ends up serving the interests of the status quo, conveniently eliding the fact that the hejab is only the most visible part of a social structure that effectively excludes women from meaningful participation in almost every facet of Iran’s civic and cultural life.

Women, for example, make up only five-and-a-half percent of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament. Women’s presence in the workforce is 14%, which is very low even when compared to other strictly Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, where the rate is 30%. Moreover, depending on their age and marital status, Iranian women cannot travel without the written permission of their father, male guardian, or husband. The law even limits the professions women can enter and grants a husband, for example, the right to prevent his wife from working in occupations he deems unsuitable. In this regard, some employers even require written consent from husbands or fiancés before they will hire the women to whom those men are or will soon be married.

Whatever else might be true about the meaning of the hejab within Islam, in other words—which, frankly, is a discussion for Muslims to have on their own terms—the laws in Iran making it compulsory for women to cover their hair are also a mechanism of social engineering, marking women as those members of society for whom the roles of wife and mother are the only truly appropriate ones. That Iranian men benefit from this social engineering, that enforcing those laws with violence is one way the Islamic Republic protects those benefits, goes without saying. Nonetheless, it is also true that the heteronormative policing of women’s bodies always implies by definition a similar policing of men’s bodies, making the violence done by the Islamic Republic in enforcing the compulsory hejab, perhaps especially when it results in a woman’s death, a kind of loyalty test for Iranian men.

The Islamic Republic made this explicit in 2009, when student leader and human rights activist Majid Tavakoli was taken into custody after giving a speech protesting that year’s contested presidential elections. In order to discredit Tavakoli, the government tried to call his manhood into question by claiming that he had dressed in women’s clothing to escape arrest. The strategy backfired. Not only did eyewitnesses dispute the government’s account, asserting that those who arrested Tavakoli forced him to put the women’s clothing on, but, in a show of solidarity, Iranian men launched a social media campaign in which they posted images of themselves wearing hejabs.

Nor has that been the only time when Iranian men have been willing to engage in gender disloyalty to protest the Islamic Republic. More recently, in April 2013, and more explicitly in solidarity with women, Kurdish men in Iran started a similar campaign to protest the sentence handed down to Saman Rasoulpour in the city of Marivan. Rasoulpour had been found guilty in a domestic dispute and, as his punishment, was paraded through the city streets dressed in traditional Kurdish women’s clothing. In response, Kurdish men set up a Facebook page on which they posted pictures of themselves dressed in that traditional clothing. You can scroll through the feed or look through the photos to see the pictures, but the collage they use as their cover image gives a good idea of what the campaign was about:

The caption, which I have shortened for the purposes of my title to Being a woman is not a punishment,” functions on at least two levels. In direct response to Rasoulpour’s sentence, it can be read as asserting that forcing a man to wear women’s clothing does not make him less of a man, ie, that the identity woman cannot be used to punish men. It can also be read, however, as meaning more straightforwardly that being a woman should not be viewed in and of itself as cause for punishment, which is the only way I can make logical sense of the Islamic Republic’s treatment of women when they violate the dress code or in some other way run afoul of what their government believes it means to be a woman. (Lesbianism, for example, is punishable by death.)


Punishment is also one of the words that accurately describes the antiabortion laws being enacted throughout this country in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Opponents of abortion may truly believe that a full and complete human being is created at the moment of conception, but the legislation in which they have enshrined that belief so unambiguously devalues women’s lives—and, by extension, the lives of all who can get pregnant—that to see the laws as anything other than punishment is to engage in a level of doublethink that would have done George Orwell’s O’Brien proud.

These laws, of course, are part of a much broader, right-wing fundamentalist Christian attack on anyone and anything that does not fit neatly into a cisgender, heterosexual, and heteronormative framework— the purpose being, broadly speaking, to return us to a time when women were women, keepers of home and hearth, and men were men, procreators, providers, and protectors. This reorganization of society will necessarily entail a reorganization of the labor market. If forced birth laws ever become the law of the nation, in other words, one consequence will undoubtedly be a return to the limits on women’s employment and career opportunities—and, therefore, their independence—that existed when housewife and mother were the only roles to which women were supposed to aspire, no different, essentially, from the female status Iran’s compulsory hejab is supposed to help cement into place.

Focused as we reasonably are on the immediate threat to the lives and well-being that abortion bans represent to those who can get pregnant—which also means, of course, the threat to the well-being of their families—we don’t immediately think of reproductive autonomy as a labor issue, pun intended. Employers, however, or at least some corporate employers, understood the issue this way as soon as the court handed down its decision. These companies made a point of either adding benefits or highlighting existing ones intended specifically for those employees who might need to be protected from the immediate impact of Roe’s demise.

While there is no disputing that these companies did a good and decent thing, the fact that they acted only on behalf of their own employees also meant that they were, in the end, acting only on behalf of their own bottom line. No matter how well-intended, no matter how motivated by a real desire for social justice, the benefits themselves need to be understood as a form of self-interested corporate largesse. Given a set of circumstances in which those benefits seriously compromised the bottom lines of those companies, in other words, they would, I am sure, not hesitate to withdraw them, whether in whole or in part. To put that another way—and, again, pun intended—we should not count on those whose profits depend on the exploitation of labor to be the protectors or guarantors of a pregnant person’s right to choose freely whether or not to go into labor.


Regardless of their differing beliefs about abortion, workers nationwide have benefitted from the increased presence of women at all levels of the workplace. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), for example, imperfect as it is, would not exist were it not for women’s demands that the workplace adapt to their needs as caregivers. Nor would the concept of family leave even exist if maternity leave had not existed first. Indeed, the whole concept of a healthy work-life balance has its roots in women’s refusal to define themselves solely in terms of their jobs, the level of commitment employers have long believed it reasonable to expect from men.

Women’s leadership has brought other benefits to the workplace as well. They fought to redefine the old boys network” as a form of sexual discrimination, which helped not only women, but also workers who might have been excluded from those networks for reasons other than gender; the laws against sexual harassment, which were originally intended to protect women, have made the workplace (at least relatively) safer for all genders and sexualities; and there is even evidence to suggest that greater numbers of women in the workforce leads to higher wages for all workers. None of these benefits and protections are perfect; none are distributed fairly throughout the nation’s workforce; but they all demonstrate that women have helped redefine in progressive ways what it means to be a worker, regardless of gender, something that would not have been possible if they did not have control over their own reproductive lives.


It is a central tenet of unionism that an attack on one member or group of members is an attack on all. That’s why, after Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 2018, when I was secretary of my faculty union, I wrote a statement for the executive committee expressing solidarity with the people most immediately threatened by the overturning of Roe that Kavanaugh’s appointment foreshadowed: women and anyone else who could get pregnant. Some of our members—all of them men, as far as I know—threatened to leave the union after reading that statement, arguing that we had inappropriately politicized the organization. Since the only reason a union exists is to negotiate and protect its members’ contractual rights, they argued, regardless of where individual members’ views might fall on the political spectrum, it should be the union’s practice, if not its policy, not to take a position on partisan political issues like abortion.

This neutrality, however, only looks neutral on the surface. To take the position my colleagues wanted us to take would have been to ignore the fact that when two people conceive a child, the position of the one who is pregnant and the position of the one who isn’t are fundamentally irreconcilable, if only because the position of the one who is pregnant impacts their professional lives in a way that falls well within the union’s sphere of concern: advocating for its members the right to balance the relationship between their personal and professional lives. It would be, in other words, to agree that the public world of work is somehow separate and distinct from the private world where children are conceived, born, and raised; that workers who become pregnant have crossed from one side of that line to the other and, at least in relation to their pregnancy, should no longer be considered workers.

Whatever else it might be, in other words, a pro-choice position should also be understood as an expression of worker solidarity, a perspective from which the question of abortion represents for men essentially the same kind of patriarchal loyalty test that the question of the compulsory hejab represents in the Islamic Republic. In each case, men are being asked to declare our allegiance to the patriarchy by supporting, implicitly or explicitly, passively or proactively, the relegation of women to second-class status. In Iran, in addition to those I talked about above, at least some men have publicly declared their disloyalty, putting their own bodies on the line to stand in solidarity with women. It remains to be seen, of course, how deeply that solidarity will be incorporated going forward into the public and private lives of the men and women of Iran—assuming that the current protest movement succeeds—but it is beyond dispute that, at least for now, those men are acting out of a shared interest in undoing the patriarchy’s gender norms.

Here in the States, we may not live in a theocratic autocracy like the Islamic Republic of Iran, but we know for a fact that there is a movement on the Christian right and in the Republican Party to push us in that direction; and we know as well that they see a nationwide abortion ban as a lynchpin, analogous to the hejab, of the power to which they aspire. If they succeed in turning back the clock on reproductive rights and in locking down as the law of the land the complete erasure of those rights, they will also have succeeded in turning back the clock on gender and the workplace in a way that will hurt not only those people who can get pregnant, but also those of us who can’t, whether we are pro-choice or not.

I don’t know if this argument would have persuaded the members of my union who objected to the statement that I wrote, and I certainly do not think this argument trumps the more straightforward one which establishes reproductive rights as human rights, but I wish in hindsight that we’d tried to make it nonetheless. It is a call to solidarity that men ought to be able to get behind.

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