Dossier 23-24: The Politics of Theorizing ‘Islamic Feminism’: Implications for International Feminist Movements

Publication Author: 
Shahrzad Mojab
July 2001
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While the increasing internationalization of feminism provides new prospects for women’s solidarity throughout the world, theoretical perspectives such as identity politics, cultural relativism and postmodernism emphasize the uniqueness, particularism, and localism of each and every feminist movement. This paper argues that these theoretical positions (1) set up great divides among women of the world according to their religion, ethnicity, nationality, culture, geographic location, and other particularisms, (2) ignore the heterogeneity within each feminist movement, and (3) endorse incapacitating strategies for women with different cultural and religious backgrounds. My critique focuses on the ways these theories construct entities such as “Muslim woman” and “Islamic feminism” and put them in opposition to Western feminisms.

The East-West Divide

Rudyard Kipling’s (1865-1936) well-known claim, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” has re-surfaced in subtle and astonishingly appealing theorizations in the late twentieth century. Today, hosts of theoretical positions, such as cultural relativism, identity politics, and postmodernism, emphasize the uniqueness or particularism of individuals, cultures, nations, and their experiences and identities. Human beings and their cultures are, according to theorists of particularism, best identified in terms of their “differences” from each other. Ideas of sameness, solidarity and internationalism are, consequently, rejected as “grand narratives,” “universalization,” “totalization,” or “essentialization.” Politically, these theories advocate either defeatism and passivism or the fragmentation of women’s movements into local or “micro” initiatives.[1]

These theoretical positions — postmodernism, cultural relativism or identity politics — can be distinguished in terms of their histories, claims and politics. Each perspective consists of a body of claims that differ in emphasizing the particularity of women or questioning feminist solidarity on national or international levels.[2] For the purposes of this paper, however, I treat them as a theoretical bloc in sofar as they emphasize the particularity of each feminist movement, and arrive at similar conclusions about feminism in general and women in Islamic countries in particular.[3]

Kipling’s “East is East and West is West” can rather conveniently be associated with what an Encyclopédia Britannica (1987, p. 883) biographer calls “his celebration of British imperialism” and his “genuine sense of a civilizing mission that required every Englishman, or, more broadly, every white man, to bring European culture to the heathen natives of the uncivilized world.” By contrast, current theories of particularism revolt against projects of cultural imperialism or ideas of national and racial supremacy. Ironically, however, they confront Eurocentrism by entreating a universe of non-Western ethnocentrisms. In these formulations, women’s emancipation is treated as a “grand narrative,” which can be rescued only if women are segregated into ethnic, national or religious microcosms. In the following section, I engage in a critique of new theorists of particularism by focusing on the way they construct Iranian women into a unique entity defined by their religious, Islamic, affiliations.

The East is not the East

Feminists in the West generally condemn the religious misogynism of theocratic states such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Since the assumption of power by the Islamic regime in 1979, the women of Iran have been at the centre of Western debates about Muslim women.[4] For political reasons, Western media and politicians capitalize on the Islamic state’s forced gender apartheid — compulsory veiling, sexual segregation in public spaces, barring women from access to the legal profession, etc. While politicians and the mainstream media are interested in gaining political ground, feminists and activists in women’s movements support Iranian women in a spirit of solidarity and commitment to the liberation of all women.

Since the mid-1980s, however, some feminists have advanced a new political approach to the state of women living in Islamic totalitarian states. They make a number of claims about the women of Iran: (1) Iranian women constitute a special category constructed by their religion, Islam; (2) their demands have to be confined within the boundaries set up by religious tradition and the legal, theological, and political frameworks established by the Islamic Republic of Iran; (3) the theocratic state and its official religion, Islam, are open and flexible, allowing women a space to engage in negotiating their rights; (4) a new type of “Islamic woman” and “Islamic feminism” has emerged, a situation which has far reaching implications for the transformation of gender relations. For instance, summing up the experience of fifteen years of women’s life under the Islamic state, Tohidi posits the formation of an “Islamic model of womanhood.” She suggests that (Tohidi, 1994, pp. 141-142):

‘the model of Islamic woman’ in Iran has taken on new characteristics which are distinct from, and in some respects contradictory to, the image of a domesticated woman promoted by the Islamic clerics in the initial stages of the Revolution. Among (Èlite and non-Èlite) Muslim women active in the socio-political arena, a new consciousness or a reformist trend, which some have called ‘Islamic feminism’, is quietly evolving. This trend opens up new prospects for Iranian women in general and new challenges for secular feminists in particular. It may change the dimensions, conception, and definition of women’s identity and the woman question for the younger generation of Iranian women and men.

The “Muslim woman” and Islamic feminism are viewed here as agents of historical change destined to liberate women and challenge secular feminism. Another researcher, in her study of the activism of the non-government “Women’s Society of the Islamic Revolution of Iran,” concludes that the “Islamic-reformist” orientation of this group is the only “alternative weapon for the survival of the efforts to improve women’s lives in future Iran” (Nakanishi, 1994, p. 206).[5]

Underlying these propositions is a relativist thinking which shows respect for diverse cultures and traditions. Muslim women are seen as active and intelligent human beings who are conscious about their position and status. This is no doubt a departure from colonialist, racist stigmatizations of non-Western societies and, especially, the rejection of Islam as a religion inferior to Christianity. Theoretically speaking, however, this “pluralist” position is based on a simplistic and reductionist view of women’s “experience” or “identity” in Islamic countries. It rejects the plurality of Iranian women’s lives and, inadvertently, promotes the hegemony of a minority over the majority. Politically, it often overlooks the relations of oppression in Islamic states, institutes a great divide among women of the world, and discriminates against secular and non-Muslim women. I will elaborate these points by focusing on the question of veiling.

The Politics of Covering Women’s Body

Particularists authenticate Islamic codes on the regulation of gender relations by, among other things, de-Islamizing them, and tying them into the “lived experience” of Muslim women. When the Islamic regime came to power in Iran, women immediately turned into a prominent tool and target of Islamization of Iranian social and political order. Gradually, women were denied the right to choose their modes of dressing. Using coercive means, the state imposed the covering of all parts of the body except the face and hands, banned the use of buttons, bright colours, make up and fashion. In spite of harsh punishments such as flogging and imprisonment, resistance against imposed dressing was widespread (Paidar, 1997, pp. 337-44). The policing of women’s body has, consequently, been a prominent site of debate about women’s rights. Drawing on her own experience as a “non-veiled Muslim woman of Iranian descent,” Hoodfar (1994a, p. 5) succinctly presents the relativist or particularist position:

the veil, which since the nineteenth century has symbolized for the West the inferiority of Muslim cultures, remains a powerful symbol both for the West and for Muslim societies. However, while for the Westerners its meaning has been static and unchanging, in Muslim cultures the veil’s functions and social significance have varied tremendously, particularly during times of rapid social change. Veiling is a lived experience full of contradictions and multiple meanings. While it has clearly been a mechanism in the service of patriarchy, a means of regulating and controlling women’s lives, women have used the same social institution to free themselves from the bonds of patriarchy. Muslim women like all other women are social actors, employing, reforming, and changing existing social institutions, often creatively, to their own ends. The static colonial image of the oppressed veiled Muslim woman thus often contrasts sharply with women’s lived experience of veiling. To deny this is also to deny Muslim women their agency.

While a colonialist or “Orientalist” bias is certainly present in some Western constructions of the meaning of the veil, the cultural relativist versions suffer from equally problematic ideological commitments.[6] In her own account, for instance, Hoodfar ignores the polysemic nature of the veil, its changing meanings and the contexts of “rapid social change.” The “lived experience” of Muslim women is romanticized while the life of secular, non-veiling Muslim women and non-Muslim women is not treated as a relevant experience.

Epistemologically, experience is conceptualized as something pure, genuine, unmeditated, legitimate, and untainted by ideology and politics. “As if somehow experience magically speaks for itself. As if experiences are self-observances, are auto-didactic, something that gives us an accurate notion of the world” (McLaren, 1995, p. 253). The “lived experience” of veiling in Iran is, however, a highly contested territory in which the Iranian state, in both its secular and theocratic forms, has coercively intervened in gender relations for the purposes of nation-building and state-building. Particularists who celebrate the multiple meanings of the veil often ignore that the family, religion, cultural traditions and the state use combined forms of violence in order to cover women’s body according to the codes of Islamic patriarchy. The inscription of veiling in the “lived experience” is based on a number of myths.

One of the myths about veiling is the claim that it is worn by the majority of Muslim women. It is often ignored, both in the West and in Iran, that most women, Muslims and non-Muslims, have never put the Islamic veil on their heads and bodies. Women, both veiled and non-veiled, had lived side by side for centuries, and the clergy either failed or did not care to persuade everyone to follow the rules. The covering of women’s body became thoroughly politicized when the first Pahlavi monarch, Reza Shah (1925-41), used coercion in order to unveil women in 1936. Contrary to widespread claims, the majority of women (in Kurdistan, Guilan, Mazandaran, among tribal peoples such as the Bakhtiaris, Lurs, and Qashqais, and religious or ethnic minorities such as the Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews) did not veil when the government launched its forced unveiling project. Confidential documents of the Pahlavi state related to the unveiling campaign of the 1930s, recently published by the Islamic government, reveal that women in rural and tribal areas did not need to be unveiled because they never used the cover (Iran National Archives 1992). The reports from officials who were in charge of implementing the policy in the provinces indicate that veiling was primarily an urban phenomenon. According to one report dated August 20, 1936 from Tikan Tapeh, Azerbaijan to the Ministry of Interior, “the people live tribally non-veiled, and hijab (head cover) and chador (full body cover) are restricted to the families of the notables and important merchants... But women of peasants and farmers as in the past work and toil without hijab...” (pp. 47, 48). Another report dated January 29, 1936 from Bavandpour, Kermanshah, to the Ministry of Interior noted: “As you are aware, the women of tribes who form the population of this region have not been veiled and now that other women [of Iran] are welcoming this regeneration [unveiling], they are happy, too” (p. 240). According to a letter dated January 30, 1936 sent from officials in Gorgan to the governor of Gonbad-e Qabous, “the tribes, villages and small towns in Iran never had the veil” (p. 274). It must be noted that 79 per cent of the total population was rural in 1934 (Ehlers, 1991, p. 624). It is not difficult, then, to argue that an essential Muslim woman enchanted by the veil is largely a construction of relativists and Islamic ideologists. They universalize the particular case of the imposition of the veil on a minority of urban women into the “lived experience” of all “Muslim women.” The cover, even if it can be traced back to Islam, entails different meanings for Muslim women who are very heterogenous in terms of the politics of dressing female body.

The last Pahlavi monarch adopted a more relaxed policy about (un)covering women’s bodies. When the Islamic regime came to power in 1979, the majority of Iranian women were, as in the past, non-veiled. Like Reza Shah who forcibly removed the veil, the Islamic state uses extreme forms of coercion in order to impose it on even non-Muslims. Disciplining women’s body through dress codes has been a priority of the state in and outside Iran. If Reza Shah could unveil urban women only, the Islamic regime has tried to impose the veil on both urban and rural women. Using diplomatic power, the state promotes the veil globally, from the Olympic games to the UNESCO. If the use of hijab signified anti-state action for some Muslim women in 1979 Iran, its rejection today means resistance against theocratic despotism. Imposed through state violence, the veil has turned into a means of repression rather than liberation.

The veil in post-Revolutionary Iran is not a site of struggle against patriarchy. If in Turkey or Algeria it is one means of resistance against secular and rule, in Iran the reverse is the case. The Islamic state has developed a machinery of repression, which distinguishes various levels of violation of the official codes of covering the body, e.g. bi-hijabi (non-veiling), nim-hijabi (half-veiling), and bad-hijabi (improper veiling). While each form of resistance invites a certain level of punishment — physical, financial, social and psychological — this language has been the target of popular ridicule and joking. In fact, resistance against the hijab involves more than a spontaneous reaction against a theocratic state’s use of force. Women defy the state by violating all the official dress codes including a ban on bright colors, the proscription of the use of buttons, and the official shape of the veil.

The second myth is the claim that resistance against the veil is not “authentic.” It is the “corruption” of the authentic Islamic culture by the West. It is no secret, however, that opposition to the body cover is rooted in more than a century of democratic revolutionary movements in Iran. In mid-nineteenth-century, the Babi movement called for the reform of religion and the harsh treatment of women. One of the leaders was a female poet, Tahereh Qurrat al-Ain who lived in 1814-1854 (see, among others, Amanat 1989:295-331). Although the movement was brutally suppressed, it continued to influence many intellectuals who “wrote against women’s subjugation in family and society and condemned the practice of veiling” (Afary 1992, p. 104). Women participated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, which aimed at the establishment of a democratic and independent political system. Some of the targets of women’s liberation movement of the early twentieth century were veiling, polygyny and restrictions against their right to education (Ibid). By the early 1920s, the Iranian poet Mirzad-e-ye ‘Eshqi’ (1894-1924), in one of his best known poems, the Black Shroud (kafan-e siyah), denounced the chador.[7] Thus, the intellectual and political struggle of women and men against the veil predates the project of forced unveiling in the 1930s.

The third myth is the unanimity of the Islamic leadership on the strict imposition of veiling and sexual apartheid. The religious hierarchy has, however, been divided over the scope of policing women’s body cover. For instance, the Iran Liberation Movement, whose late leader, Mehdi Bazargan, became the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic, advocates a much more relaxed regulation of gender relations. In fact, faced with persistent resistance against the veil, some of the factions sharing power in the government do not support the strict implementation of segregation policies.

The fourth myth is the construction of Iran as a “Muslim society.” Why should any social formation be reduced to its religion and defined by it? Moreover, contrary to the dominant image, Iran is a religiously heterogeneous society. Even the dominant religion, Islam, is not homogenous. Most of the Kurds (8.8% of the total population of the country), the Baluch people (2.9%), the Turkmans (1.2%), and some populations along the Persian Gulf are Sunni Muslims of different denominations. Even the official brand of Islam, Twelver Imam Shi’ism, is not unified, as we can readily see from the suppression of the clergymen who are labelled as believers in “liberal” or “American” Islam. Moreover, there are minorities such as Baha’is, Isma’ilis, and Ahl-e Haqq who distinguish themselves from the Muslims and whose religions are not recognized by the state. There are also sizeable Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish minorities, all with their own seats in the Islamic parliament.

The fifth myth is the construction of a static, unidimensional “Muslim woman,” whose consciousness or identity is shaped by one factor only — religion. An Iranian woman’s identity is, however, a changing mix of social class (based on sharp socio-economic cleavages), nationality (Baluch, Kurd, Persian, Turk, etc.), ethnicity (Armenian, Assyrian, Jew, etc.), religion (Baha’i, Christianity, Islam, etc.), language (Arabic, Baluchi, Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, etc.), urban/rural background, education (in a half-literate society), political affiliation or non-affiliation, and other social and cultural cleavages.

Based on a-historical and reductionist claims detailed above, particularist positions deny the diversity —social, cultural, linguistic, political, religious — of Iranian women in order to universalize them into a population whose identity is determined by an imaginary uniform religion, and whose resistance against patriarchy should inevitably conform to the dictates of Islam. This position is consistent with the policy and practice of the Islamic state, and shares the Orientalist worldview, which depicts the world’s Muslims as fanatic followers of their religion. The very concept “Muslim woman” is questionable in so far as it involves the construction of a diverse population into a universal entity (the Muslim woman), which is then reassembled into a particularism to be separated from the non-Muslim women of the world. The concept “Muslim society” is equally untenable (see Zubaida 1995, who questions the conceptualization of “an essential Muslim society”).

The positing of an Islamic feminist consciousness or a “lived experience” determined by Islam is, thus, questionable. How can this experience be unaffected by competing ideological, political, legal, and religious positions that have torn the country apart? In Iran, more than many other contexts, the every-day experience of veiling and dressing is a conscious political act, involving reflection, interpretation and the calculation of the often dangerous outcomes of violating a dress code. Such experiences occur in a society where the regulation of gender relations is enshrined in the constitution, and the repressive and persuasive organs of the state implement the policy on a daily basis. In Iran today, state power lies behind every woman’s attire, whether voluntarily or coercively veiled.

For many feminists critical of the Islamic project, the question is not, contrary to Hoodfar, “to deny Muslim women their agency.” The debate is, rather, over agency itself. By “agency,” I mean consciousness, especially feminist knowledge, politics and organization. The post-1979 Islamic feminist “agency” in Iran is not the outcome of a free exchange of ideas in an open space where all women, Muslim and non-Muslim, secular and religious, can participate. It has, rather, evolved in the wake of violent repression of the secular women’s movement, and the forced Islamization of gender relations. The opening of a limited space for secular women who do not or cannot challenge the legitimacy of the Islamic state is, thus, the outcome of the closure of all the spaces opened up by the revolutionary outbreak of 1978-79. The state has taken an active role in creating an “ideal” Muslim woman identity, which is being propagated through the strictly controlled educational system, the media and the mosque networks (on the “regime’s ideological imposition of an ‘ideal’ woman,” see, among others, Nakanishi 1994, pp. 51-86). Although there is room for pro-regime Muslim women to engage in debate, the state has set the agenda and its discursive frameworks. To put it bluntly, the Muslim women’s “agency” acknowledged by particularists is the agency of a minority of women activists. While it is part of the diverse political spectrum of Iranian society, there is no ground for universalising it as the agency of all Iranian women. Moreover, this is an agency that has achieved state power. Far from being denied, it is scripted into the constitution of the “Absolute Rule of the Jurisprudent” (velayat-e faqih-e motlaqqeh), a form of state imposed on Iranians through the most violent repressions recorded in the country. Under the conditions, it is the agency of the non-veiled women that is denied, and needs to be confirmed.

Cultural relativists including, ironically, many anthropologists deny the authenticity of the culture of non-veiling practised by the majority of Iranian women, the culture of anti-veiling, and ignore the demands of non-Muslim Iranians. A century of Iranian women’s movements, mostly secular, both liberal and socialist, is not treated as part of Iranian culture.

In recent years, many particularists have been fascinated by the use of veil as a means of resistance (MacLeod, 1992, pp. 533-558). However, these observers are not able to demonstrate how the veil can be used to oppose let alone subvert patriarchy. In countries such as Egypt and Turkey, some Muslim women use the veil for opposing secular and dictatorial states. The body cover remains, at the same time, a major tool of sexual segregation. Feminists can indeed respect any woman’s voluntary choice of veiling, without romanticizing it as a means of liberation.

While particularists can readily universalize the highly diverse population of Iranian women into an Islamic particularism, they refuse to see in the universe of patriarchy the universality of oppression. It is not uncommon to hear, for instance from a feminist anthropologist, that “most Iranian women (rightly or wrongly) are probably in agreement with an ideology that stresses complementarity of male and female roles and partial separation of male and female spheres of activity” (Higgins, 1987, p. 608). In other words, Iranian women endorse the official policy of sexual apartheid because they believe in Islamic rulings about the “complementarity” and “separation” of male and female roles. Consistent with this position, particularists do not discern universal trends in women’s resistance against patriarchy.

If patriarchal systems of power do not share common features, the resistance against them should necessarily be confined within the particularism of each culture and religion. Advocating a cultural relativist position, Higgins, for instance, rejected the views of Kate Millett, an “international feminist” who was “convinced of the contemporary universality of patriarchy and of the need for a women’s movement that ignores national boundaries” (Higgins 1982). Millett was criticized for treating “equal education; equal pay; equal opportunity; access to abortion, contraception, and sex education; and childcare facilities... as the universal minimal accoutrements of sexual equality.” She complained that Millet was proposing a “model for sexual equality,” which was Western and could not apply to Iran or other non-Western cultures. Addressing the question Millett had raised in her book, “How can we help [the women of Iran]?,” Higgins answered: “Perhaps we cannot.”[8] The separation of the East and the West seems to be final.

Contrary to Higgins, however, the demands that she particularizes as Western have been on the agenda of Iranian women throughout the twentieth century. It is indeed difficult to imagine how working women, often ruthlessly exploited, in Iran or in any other society would not demand equal pay, equal opportunity or childcare facilities. Even if “childcare facilities” emerged in the West, how its adoption (its practice, or even the need or demand for it) in the megacities of Tehran, Cairo or Istanbul would still be branded as foreign (Western)? In fact, since Higgins declared contraception as a Western feminist demand, the Islamic state itself has actively promoted it.[9] Punishments are in place for couples who aspire to form large families (Paidar, 1997, pp. 286-89). Ayatollah Khomeini who had strongly rejected women’s suffrage rights as Western corruption, decided to endorse it when he assumed power.

The separation of Muslim and Western women is achieved, inevitably, through the construction of a universal West with its unique women and feminisms. Since religious values are seen as determining in the identity formation of believers in Islam, conflict between Muslim women and the rest of the world is deemed inevitable. The West is the “Other” of the Muslim East. The result is a global segregation of women on the basis of religion. Under the conditions, there is little room for a critique of the Islamic regulation of gender relations. All Western critics of the veil can be readily dismissed as negotiators of “racism” and “colonialism.” The West, like the Muslim woman, is constructed into a monolithic world. According to Hoodfar (1994a, p.16). The assumption that veiling is a static practice which symbolizes the oppressive nature of patriarchy in Muslim societies has prevented social scientists and western feminists from examining Muslim women’s own accounts of their lives, hence perpetuating the racist stereotypes which are ultimately in the service of patriarchy in both societies. On the one hand, these mostly man-made images of the oriental Muslim women are used to tame women’s demand for equality in the Western world by reminding them how much they are better off than their Muslim counterparts. On the other hand, these oriental and negative stereotypes are mechanisms by which western dominant culture re-creates and perpetuates beliefs about their superiority and dominance. Western feminists, by buying into a racist construction of the veil, and taking part in daily racist incidents force Muslim women to choose between fighting racism or fighting sexism. The question is why should we be forced to choose?

Here, Western feminists are made responsible for pushing Muslim women into abandoning their struggle against sexism. Several objections to this claim are in order. First, the West is as diverse as any other society; it is not appropriate to universalise Western critics as pro-colonialist and pro-racist. Such a discourse, widely diffused by the Islamic state, is not shared by many Iranian women and men who are inspired by Western peoples’ struggle for freedom, democracy, and socialism. In North America, for instance, the struggle against racism is much more advanced compared with any Islamic country.[10]

Second, Western feminist criticism of the veil and the sexual apartheid policies of the Islamic regime cannot be equated with the positions of Western states and mainstream media. Many feminists are inspired by a deep commitment to the democratization of life, particularly a radical transformation of unequal gender relations. Contrary to particularist claims, it is appropriate to critique the veil even if many Muslim women voluntarily use it. There is nothing sacred about veiling, Islamic or non-Islamic. Indeed, feminists in the West have not outdone Iranian women and men who have denounced the hijab and chador throughout the twentieth century.

Third, to claim that Muslim women are forced to choose between racism and sexism is a serious underestimation of their intellectual and mental abilities to distinguish between racism/colonialism and feminism. Indeed, the choose-between-the-two claim has been a major propaganda line of the Islamic state, which equates Western peoples with their governments, and denounces the entire non-Muslim world as either communist or imperialist. This xenophobic policy is highlighted in the slogan, “Neither the East nor the West, the Islamic Republic.” Women in Islamic countries do not have to choose between racism and sexism. Relying on Iranian women’s experience as well as the rich theory and practice of the world feminist movement, they can resist the racism of Western states and the media as well as the racism and xenophobia promoted by their own Islamic leadership. “Muslim women” can easily discern, for example, the united platform of the Islamic Republic and Vatican against women’s rights (see Bronski 1994, on the Vatican, Iran and Beijing Conference). The globalization of life calls for alliances on all sides. While veiling must be respected as the right of any woman who voluntarily chooses it, any attempt to intimidate its critics into silence by accusing them with racism is inappropriate.

And the Twain Always Meet

Some particularists point to the political advantages of a feminist movement that confines itself to the agenda of the Islamic state, and avoids the “Western model of gender relations.” According to Hoodfar (1994a, p.17), for example, “[T]he advantage of the new Islamist feminists over more secularized ‘Western’ activists is that they challenge and reform the Islamic doctrine from within rather than advocating a Western model of gender relations.” The emphasis here is on an agency that develops on the basis of Muslim women’s own practice within the limitations set by the Islamic state or the religious world view. I argue that, as conscious human beings, women are capable of transcending the limitations of their religion, nationality, culture, and the space and time in which they live. This has been done in part by learning from the experience of women in other parts of the world, especially in the West. Feminist theory has been an inspiration in this struggle. The internationalization of women’s movement has, in turn, enriched feminist theory and practice in the West. Today, feminists in Asia, Africa and Latin America contribute to the global struggle against capitalist and pre-capitalist forms of patriarchy.

The feminist movement is global in the sense that women in almost every country of the world are engaged in various struggles to change their lives. This trend of globalization began in the latter part of the nineteenth century with the rise of feminist consciousness in Asian and African countries, both as a result of internal dynamics of these societies and learning from the feminist movements of the West. Events like March 8th, the International Women’s Day or decennial conferences held by the United Nations are aspects of internationalization. Today, many states take at least symbolic action in order to show interest in improving the status of women. The formation of global systems of communication, ranging from satellite television to the Internet, have further contributed to the globalization of the movement. No doubt, while the potential for solidarity is great, the practice is limited. There is, for example, no feminist organization comparable to the environmentalist Greenpeace.

Taking the Iranian feminist movement as an example, it has experienced considerable expansion beyond its territorial borders. The coming to power of the Islamic regime led to the suppression of the secular feminist movement, which consisted of a diverse spectrum ranging from liberalism to socialism. As a result, a large number of political activists, both male and female, had to leave the country. Today, the emigré feminists are organized in at least a dozen women’s organizations and produce no less than a dozen magazines and web sites. Many immigrant Iranian female academics teach and engage in feminist research in universities in the West. Many of these feminists are eager to contribute to the struggle of women in Iran. In recent years, these feminists are sharply divided in terms of their strategies. One group continues to reject the possibility of a radical change of the Islamic regime’s regulation of gender relations. Although the activists in this group are quite diverse in their perspectives, they reject the religious, political and ideological bases of the Islamic state’s policies. Other feminists inspired by particularist or relativist perspectives believe that Islamic feminists who work within the system are capable of reforming the regime and eventually dethroning patriarchy.

The case of Iranian feminist movement provides a complex interaction of the universal and particular, the local and global, the national and international, theory and practice, and agency and structure. Although postmodernists have already announced the collapse of these bipolar, dichotomous oppositions, they continue to occupy much of the discourse and practice of all sides involved.

In their denunciations of universalism, particularists eliminate or, rather, deny one side of the opposition, the universal, and celebrate the other side, i.e., the particular. I have tried to demonstrate, however, that in practice their particularisations have necessarily required extensive universalization. By contrast, a dialectical approach recognizes the individuality and particularity of each woman and every feminist movement. However, dialectics posits a relationship of unity and conflict between particular feminist strategies. Viewed this way, while Muslim women’s voluntary choice of the veil is respected and forcible unveiling is rejected, it challenges the institution of veiling and resists the segregation of human beings along sex lines.

To give another example of dialectical approach, let us look at Mayer’s analysis of the “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam,” issued in 1990 by the Organization of Islamic States. The declaration announced that all rights were subject to Islamic law, and made no provisions for granting women equal rights with men (Mayer 1994). Examining this document, Mayer notes that “particularisms” such as Islamic claims about gender relations “are nothing more than disguises for the universality of male determination to cling to power and privilege.” Islamic particularism entreats “the universal claim for the subordinate status of women” (Mayer 1995:185).

Particularist approaches also ignore the unity and conflict of agency/structure by eliminating one side, i.e., structure. By contrast, a dialectical approach is interested in the inseparability of the two, and their ever present coexistence and conflict. Thus, viewed from this perspective, “Muslim women” should not be held hostage to their religious identity or agency. There is no agency or identity outside the complex web of social structural relations that are increasingly becoming global while, at the same time, remaining local. Identity and agency both change and are capable of challenging structural constraints. Certainly, resisting patriarchy in its Islamic local forms is primarily the project of women and men in Islamic countries.

Feminists in the West are also not held hostage to their religion, race, or geographic location. They are capable of solidarity with the struggle against sexual apartheid in other societies. It is obvious that Western feminists themselves have not turned the world upside down. Patriarchy is still in place, while new forms of male domination emerge and coexist with traditions of oppression. They have made great strides, however, in democratising unequal gender relations in domains such as language (inclusive language), in the classroom (inclusive curriculum), workplace, the parliament, and even in the church. These achievements are the result of intellectual and theoretical as well as political resistance to capitalist patriarchy. Western feminism is, thus, in a good position to contribute to the struggle of other women for equality. This has happened, to some extent, since the late 19th century when Muslim women relied on the experience of Western feminists in their demand for universal suffrage and other rights.

The postmodernist project of equating the universal and the global with totalization and totalitarianism is at best simplistic. Totalitarianism, in theory or practice, is a political phenomenon. It has nothing to do with the scope of generalization; even small-scale narratives can be extremely oppressive. Neither is totalitarianism related to size and geography. It can appear in small-size locations such as a family, a court, a classroom, a village, and in large-size spaces such as a city, a country or a whole region of the world. The feminist movement does not necessarily become totalitarian by forging alliances on the national, regional or global levels. Women will be empowered if their practice is not constrained by theoretical positions which fragment feminist agency and subject it to the dictates of ethnic, national and religious traditions of patriarchy. Indeed, particularist theories divide feminists and deny them the will to act globally. One may well ask whose side they are on?

The great divide theorized by particularists fell apart recently in Uruguay. According to La Republica (Year XI, No. 3,768, February 9, 1999), a group of women in the capital city of Montevideo, “radically changed Uruguayan cultural customs” by appearing completely naked in the downtown Plaza Cagancha. Their purpose was “to fight against the discrimination, terror and pain that the Afghanistan women” were going through. The action was, according to the newspaper, “something never seen in our country, but these women received support from the people that were walking by and from people that wanted to express their anger of what is occurring to those women; even though it is a subject totally unknown for our country.” The group issued a resolution condemning the genocide conducted by the Islamic regime of Afghanistan:

Latin American women cannot ignore what the Afghan sisters are going through since the forces of the fundamentalists of Taliban took power in 1996. The victims of this crazy act of the fundamentalists are once again the women. Converted into hostages, they have lost all their rights. The ones that are not killed prefer to let themselves die, because it’s the only form of freedom... How many women should die before the world reacts? Where are human rights organisations? What action do the governments that claim to be democratic take? We are confronted with a crime against humanity. The victims are women but the right to life makes us all (women and men) responsible. No to the genocide of the women of Afghanistan! We are tiered of death! We are the ones that bring life to this world and we want life![11]

The particularity of oppression has, thus, invited an even more particular form of struggle against it. The fully naked bodies of Uruguayan women was a revolt against the brutality of state violence inflicted on the fully covered bodies of Afghan women. Women in Montevideo broke all the fetters imposed on their agency by their own culture, and by the enormous physical and cultural distance that separates them from their Afghan sisters. The challenge for feminist theory is clear: can we see, in the particularisms of Uruguay and Afghanistan, the universality of both patriarchy and the resistance against it?


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Shahrzad Mojab, teaches at the Department of Adult Education, Community Development, and Counselling Psychology, the Ontario Institute for the Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Her areas of research and teaching are adult education and emancipatory theories; adult education and civil society; the impact of war and violence on women’s learning; minority and immigrant women’s access to education; women, state, and globalization; anti-racism education; critical and feminist pedagogy; social justice and equality; equity and diversity in the workplace; feminism and nationalism; and gender relations in the Middle East.

Shahrzad Mojab, Assistant Professor
OISE/University of Toronto
Department of Adult Education, Community Development, and Counselling Psychology
252 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario
M5S 1V6
Tel: (416) 923-6641, Ext. 2242/Fax: (416) 926-4725


[1] For a brief survey of “post-modern political orientations,” see Rosenau (1992:138-66).

[2] One may refer, for instance, to two major trends within postmodernist theory, often identified as conformist and critical or sceptical and affirmative (see, e.g., Rosenau 1992).

[3] The conflict between universalism and particularism, sometimes confused with essentialism and anti-essentialism, is being debated in diverse disciplinary domains ranging from philosophy to law to sociology and feminist studies. According to Fraser and Nicholson (1990:34), postmodern-feminist theory should be “nonuniversalist.” Salecl (1993:89) is already convinced that in “today’s ‘postmodern’ world,... universality has been abandoned in all areas of social life,” except in the realm of human rights. There is, however, an extensive body of literature which rejects particularist approaches to human rights. Donoho (1991) provides a general survey of the debate. Donnelly (1989) argues in favor of universalism while Renteln (1990) advocates a relativist position on rights. While Marxists theorize the dialectics of the universal and particular, most postmodernists advocate a total elimination of the universal. For theoretical and philosophical debates on the topic, see, for instance, Stoljar (1995), and Wit (1995). For a critique of particularist views such as postmodernism and identity politics, which deny a common struggle against patriarchy and capitalism, see Ebert (1996).

[4] Although Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are more misogynist than the Islamic Republic of Iran, the media and academia in the West generally ignore them. One plausible explanation is their pro-Western, especially pro-American, policy.

[5] According to this study, WSIR and its journal Payam-e Hajer (Message of Hajer) employ a “quite effective strategy: to make a protest to the government, the organization disguises itself as a proponent of Islamist ideology on women, while actually criticizing the government” (Nakanishi, 1994, p. 201). This is a “middle of the road approach,” advocating neither Western feminism nor a “rigid interpretation of the Qura’n” (Ibid, p. xii). The organization does not “seek rights equal to men (in the Western sense)” (p. 205).

[6] For a similar view see also Shirazi-Mahajan (1995, pp. 35-51).

[7]Kafan, or the shroud in which a dead body is buried, must, according to Islamic tradition, be white; the chador, i.e., full body cover for women is usually black.

[8] Ibid., p. 156.

[9] See, for instance, Homa Hoodfar 1994b.

[10] In the West, a rich and growing body of anti-racist theory and practice has developed over the decades largely as a result of the struggle of Black and Native peoples, immigrants, ethnic groups, as well as Whites. However, in multinational and multilingual Iranian society where Persian language and culture are official and dominant, non-Persian peoples such as the Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Jews are subject to harsh racism in both the state sphere and civil society (to the extent that it exists). In a country where only half the people are native speakers of the Persian language, non-Persian peoples are constitutionally denied the right to education in their native languages. The Islamic state has refused to implement Article 15 of its constitution which allows the teaching of the literature of “ethnic and local languages.” Racism of the anti-Semitist type, for example, is rampant in modern Persian literature (see Pirnazar 1995 for a brief survey). My own experience indicates the existence, among Iranian immigrants in North America, of extensive racist attitudes towards Black and Aboriginal peoples. Many Iranians deny the existence of racism within Iranian society.

[11] Report translated in Voices Rising (produced by the International Gender and Education Office of the International Council of Adult Education), No. 13, Tuesday, 23 Feb 1999, can be reached at The translation of the quoted sections are edited.