Baring Beauty or Brains? Debate Over “Earthquake” Comment Splits Feminist Activists

By Herald de Paris Contributor's Bureau on May 3, 2010

By Kirsten Brownrigg
COLUMBUS, OH (Herald de Paris) – Just as a fault line fractures the earth, an Iranian cleric’s comment blaming earthquakes on promiscuous dress has caused a rift between two camps of feminists. At the core of this split lies the question: can a woman flaunt her brains while baring her body, and does vaunting the latter really do Iranian women any good?

For Golbarg Bashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Rutgers University, the answer is a resounding “no.”

“One hundred more Britney Spears will not do a thing to help the women in Iran,” Bashi says with conviction.

She is referring to the “Boobquake” campaign, a feminist movement to expose theocrat Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi’s ignorance by exposing your cleavage … or legs, depending on your preference.

At the center of that campaign you’ll find Jennifer McCreight, a Purdue student who, after stumbling upon Sedighi’s remarks, responded by suggesting feminists test his theory that women’s provocative clothing could be blamed for the recent surge in earthquakes. To the surprise of everyone, including McCreight, her sarcastic call to “bare” arms exploded into a national movement and a global media frenzy.

To make her case against Boobquake, however, Bashi launches into a laundry list of issues that she says a campaign for cleavage doesn’t help address.

“It doesn’t help Iranian women get longer maternal leave,” she says. “It doesn’t provide better health care. It doesn’t help them get jobs. It doesn’t achieve anything, other than to create entertainment.”

Yet when it comes to Iranian women’s participation in the Green Movement, Bashi says it’s not their “beauty or bodies” that they’ve used in their stand against theocracy, but rather their “brains” and “creativity.” That’s why she and a colleague, Duke University professor Negar Mottahedeh, formed a countermovement they dubbed “Brainquake.” Brainquake urges women to showcase their cerebral assets instead of their physical ones.

Although Mottahedeh stresses that there is no enmity between the two groups, she says her camp worries the intent behind the Boobquake message has been distorted. In particular, the Brainquake group is concerned with how its counterpart may affect girls’ body images.

“I think that because this movement is playing out in a culture that is so sexualized and so concerned with body image, Boobquake cannot be so light-hearted,” Mottahedeh says.

Moreover, Bashi says Iran already boasts a vibrant feminist community that fiercely responded to Sedighi’s incendiary claims.

“People think that women in Iran are just sitting back and accepting these words from the cleric,” she says, heatedly. “It’s just not true. Women in Iran respond to every single, stupid thing that is said by its leaders.”

Some Boobquake supporters accuse Mottahedeh and Bashi of misunderstanding their intent, making posts to the Brainquake group that they were “missing the point.”

But Mottahedeh dismisses this criticism as “really quite silly.”

“We’ve been thinking about it and talking to Jen [McCreight], and we have been watching Iran since the elections and have been very active in women’s rights,” she says. “If anything, we should be questioning the understanding of certain participants of Boobquake—do they understand how what they’re doing affects Iranian women?”

When asked about the countermovement inspired by her brainchild, McCreight calls Bashi and Mottahedeh “nice, intelligent women” and agreed that the two groups seek a common goal.

“However, I personally don’t think brainquake was a great idea, as it insinuated
that [Boobquake] was somehow brainless or misguided feminism,” she says. “Instead of making a counter-protest, I think it would have been better for [Bashi] to point out the intelligent side of Boobquake and champion that, instead of making this a divisive issue.”

“But she has a right to her own opinion,” McCreight adds.

In response to comments that her movement has hindered rather than helped Iranian women, McCreight says she has seen evidence to the contrary.

“I’ve actually received a lot of support from Iranian men and women who support Boobquake, and really do see it as a force for good for women in Iran,” she says.

As proof, McCreight mentions some of her Iranian supporters who have written her: they include Mina Ahadi of the International Committee Against Executions and Stoning, as well as Maryam Namazie of the Iranian activist group Iran Solidarity, to name a couple. And then there’s Samira Mohyeddin, an Iranian-Canadian feminist who has fiercely denounced the Brainquake countermovement.

“Boobquake was rightly making a mockery of a comment made by a moronic cleric in the Islamic Republic,” Mohyeddin writes in a fiery post on “I am not interested in being invited to join the Islamic Republic at its table; I want to cut its legs off.”

Furthermore, Mohyeddin suggests that the majority of Iranian women do not share the sentiments of the Brainquake group, while questioning whether its supporters rejected McCreight’s concept because of her ethnicity.

“Is it because Jennifer is an ‘outsider,’ because she is not Iranian or Muslim and therefore should not be commenting on such subjects?” Mohyeddin says. “These insider-outsider debates have been a serious impediment in developing a universal movement for women’s rights.”

But Bashi insists their criticism of Boobquake has nothing to do with its founder.

“Obviously, Jen McCreight is an intelligent woman,” Bashi says. “She’s probably among the brightest young women in the country. But the joke is on Iranian women—the joke she started.”

As a counterpoint, Bashi questions why Western media would focus on a Muslim cleric’s comment when so many non-Muslim religious leaders make equally backward remarks.

“Is it a fascination with the Eastern, the supposedly more primitive Muslim nation?” she asks.

As an alternative to participating in Boobquake, Bashi suggests women would do Iranian women more good by donating to causes that advocate their rights, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile, she and Mottahedeh intend to use the Brainquake group to gather pictures of prominent feminists of Iran and solicit inspirational stories about everyday Iranian women.

“We’ll also use it as a forum to share news—both good and bad—that comes out of Iran,” Bashi says.

For some unaffiliated observers, news coverage of both the Boobquake and Brainquake campaigns seemed a mixed bag. Jonathan Livergant, a medical student just weeks away from receiving his M.D. from the University of Alberta, calls Boobquake a “great PR success” in that it captured the world’s attention. Still, he suggests it didn’t shed much light on the deeper issues.

“Although Sedighi himself got a lot of mention in the coverage of this event and came off as quite absurd,” Livergant says, “I saw no references to the issues of women’s rights in Iran or the burgeoning feminist movement there. No connection drawn between the cleric and the regime he is a part of, led by a Holocaust denier.”

With the exception of the Brainquake group’s tweets, he says no one appeared to connect all the dots.

“I think this represents a missed opportunity on the part of national media outlets covering this event,” Livergant says.

For the transcript of today’s Twitter discussion on Iranian women’s rights with Prof. Negar Mottahedeh of Duke University, visit the @LeMorningShow Twitter profile and scroll backward through its history. You can find more information about the Brainquake movement on their Facebook group. For more on the Boobquake campaign, see Jennifer McCreight’s blog.

Maryam Namazie May 4, 2010

Of course women are wrongly sexualized everywhere including with the veil and sexual apartheid. But for Brainquake to reduce Boobquake to the sexualisation of women misses the point. Ridicule is a wonderful way of criticizing religion and religious rules, particularly given that it is becoming more and more taboo. Also intent is important. Jennifer’s intent was a defence of women’s rights and status and cannot be compared with pornography.

More importantly, though, when you are confronted with an Islamic movement that deems women’s bodies as sources of corruption and chaos, and actually criminalises everything from a woman’s hair, her bare arms or legs, let alone breasts, baring one’s body can become a legitimate form of resistance.

I don’t know Golbarg Bashi and cannot speak of her intent but I find her reasoning against Boobquake sounding very much like that of the Islamic regime of Iran’s and other Islamists, which say they promote women’s dignity and intellect whilst imposing medieval laws that veil, segregate and deem women as sub-human. I would think that if was as concerned about women’s rights as she says, she would not be calling on campaigners to remain passive and merely donate to ‘Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.’ Her call is a disservice to the international solidarity that all progressive social movements demand and deserve and particularly the important women’s liberation movement in Iran.

A . Geranpayeh May 9, 2010

I found the article Mohyeddin wrote, it is a great read :

Recently, an Iranian cleric, Kazem Sedighi, stated that it is women’s immodest clothing which leads to promiscuity and is responsible for earthquakes and other natural disasters. The news quickly spread around the world and once again the Islamic Republic of Iran became the butt of many jokes. Sedighi, by no means a seismologist, was taken to task and his assertion put to the test by a Purdue State university student who created an event on Facebook called Boobquake. Jennifer McCreight wanted to test Sedighi’s theory and so asked women to bare as much of their cleavage as possible on April 26th, 2010, in order to see if volcanic eruptions and tsunami’s would ensue as a result of the women’s immodest dress.

A week after the call to action of Boobquake came the creation of another event, which billed itself as Brainquake. The project of two Iranian women, Negar Mottahedeh and Golbarg Bashi, who claimed that, “Everyday women and young girls are forced to show off cleavage and more in order simply to be heard, to be seen, or to advance professionally.” And so, Brainquake was formed for women to post what they are most proud of, including their CV’s and personal accomplishments, on-line as a rebuttal to Boobquake’s supposed further objectification of women. Although their intentions may have been to advertise that women are more than their boobs, Brainquake’s platform and written mandate speaks to something else; something that continues to create divisions and impede the global women’s movement.

Unlike Boobquake, which rightly raised awareness and exposed the absurdities of the ideological underpinnings of the Islamic Republic in Iran, and which was steeped in satire, Brainquake did not come about as an organic call to action against the comments of Mr. Sedighi, it was formed as a response to Boobquake, nothing more and nothing less. In fact, their statement of intent makes an unnecessary and illogical comparison between the words of Mr. Sedighi and the words of evangelical preacher and 700 Club leader, Pat Robertson. It reads:

“When Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi made his stupid comment that immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes, he of course joined fellow fundamentalist religious preachers such as Pat Robertson who have made similar claims about marginalized groups, women, the poor, third world nations, etc being responsible for natural disasters.”

What point could Brainquake have had in making such a comparison? Was it the old – “Hey we might have our moronic clerics but you have your own lunatic preachers” – or is it that tired ailment that some of us Iranians are afflicted with which does not enable us to speak of our country without mentioning the proverbial United States of America in the same breath? It is a childish tit for tat, or in this case tit for Pat, which relegates the Islamic Republic to a non-state entity; an intellectually odious and dangerous position to take.

What Brainquake conveniently fails to acknowledge is that preacher Pat and the 700 Club, do not run the United States government. However, Mr. Sedighi’s comments are the hallmark of the regime in Iran, a system of governance that has mandated that all girls, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike must cover their hair and dress in a modest manner from the age of nine on! Let’s talk about that! Let’s talk about the sexualization of pre-pubescent girls! These are not social constructs in Iran, this is the law for the past thirty-one years. Women’s bodies in Iran are legally not their own: women have no freedom of mobility, nor freedom to clothe themselves as they see fit. Brainquake’s churlish comparison between a woman’s CHOICE to show her cleavage and FORCED hijab is irresponsible and a further slap in the face to all those women being subjugated under such misogynistic and patriarchal laws. It is as reprehensible a comparison as breast augmentation would be to female genital mutilation.

Ms. Bashi and Ms. Mottahedeh’s further promulgations include: “Mr. Sedighi and the Islamic Republic of Iran are afraid of women’s abilities to push for change, to thrive despite gender apartheid (Did you know that over 64% of students studying at universities in Iran are women?).” Do Mottahedeh and Bashi care to know that the same regime that they assert is afraid of their accomplishments repeats this same statistic ad nauseum to show how advanced it is! Mr.Sedighi never lamented women’s brains and academic activity as being disturbing to Iranian society. He referred to immodest clothing and promiscuous behaviour on the part of women; to our strands of hair, that for the past thirty one years has been branded as potent potential threats to its national security.

The Islamic Republic occupying Iran does not care how educated, ‘nobled’, statured, or employed, we become. In fact, the more educated and accomplished, the more they will claim it as a victory of the revolution and will proudly proclaim: Look what OUR women have achieved! It only cares that women in Iran continue to be coerced and violently punished into remaining the only signifying marker of this regime; the living, breathing, walking, billboard signs of its Islamization process. Mandatory veiling of women was the first imposition on Iranian society after the revolution and so it shall remain the last.

Boobquake was rightly making a mockery of a comment made by a moronic cleric in the Islamic Republic. Brainquake’s – HEY EVERYBODY WE HAVE BRAINS! – project is further unpalatable because of its pandering to a challenge that women should not even be engaged in; we should not have to sell ourselves and our accomplishments, we should not have to sell our boobs or our brains; if after more than a century of struggle for our inalienable rights we are still shouting these banal and insipid statements as women – perhaps it is us and our movement that needs a shaking at the core, and not mother earth. You see, I am not interested in being invited to join the Islamic Republic at its table; I want to cut its legs off.

In the title of this editorial I have used the word censorship, in reference to my comments having been barred from Brainquake’s event site. The comments that were erased were no different than the one’s outlined above. In fact, it was Ms. Bashi, who referred to me as a “brain dead lunatic who has too much time on her hands.” For some reason, the creators of Brainquake found it necessary to silence voices of critical engagement with their project. We no longer have to worry about governments censoring us, it is our peers who have, as Ms. Bashi put it – “reserved the right to do so” – a sentence the Islamic Republic has frequently uttered when being rebuked for its censoring of dissidents. Congratulations Ms. Bashi and Ms. Mottahedeh for becoming that which you claim to abhor.

Since the creators of Brainquake denied this Iranian woman the opportunity to say what she is most proud of on-line, I will tell you now:

I am most proud of growing up and living in a society that did not try and shame my body, and that did not fascistically attempt to shape my mind. I am proud that I do not need the written permission of the male guardian in my family to board a train to Montreal. I am proud of my Masters in Women and Gender studies from the University of Toronto. I am proud that I am allowed to ride my bicycle throughout this beautiful city and I am proud that the country of Canada, for the past fifteen years has recognized my inalienable right to go topless, should I so choose to do so. But what I am most proud of is my ability to distinguish between something that is chosen by me and something that is physically forced upon me.

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