Dossier 23-24: Women in Iran Since 1979

Publication Author: 
Nikkie Keddie
July 2001
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Although all countries are unique, Iran may have claim to more surprising political changes in the past century than any other country existing continuously during that period. Among these changes have been notable alterations in women’s roles and status. The birth of urban mass politics during the constitutional revolution of 1906-11 saw women’s first political activism, which continued after World War 1, though that independence was eventually much diminished under the new Pahlavi dynasty of Reza Shah (1921-41) (Afary, 1996; Bayat, 1978; Paidar, 1995; Sanasarian, 1982). Reza Shah forcibly unveiled women in the 1936-41 period, thus going further than his model, Ataturk, in Turkey, and took steps promoting women’s public education at all levels. His civil code regarding women and personal status was mostly a codification of Islamic law, however, and favored males in many ways. A return to more constitutional rule in the 1941-53 period saw the rise of the first successful mass nationalist movement in an independent country in the global South, with the nationalization of the hugely important British-owned oil company. In the politics of this time women participated mostly as members of nationalist or leftist parties. After the overthrow of nationalist prime minister Mosaddeq in 1953, with U.S. and British complicity, there was a return to ever more autocratic royal rule under Mohammad Reza Shah, who again homogenized women’s organizations and created an umbrella organization with royal patronage, while at the same time accepting as part of his modernization program some women’s proposals to better women’s legal and educational position.

As part of his “White Revolution” from 1962 on, the shah ratified important women’s rights measures, including votes for women and especially the Family Protection Law of 1967, modified in women’s favor in 1975. While the Civil Code of Reza Shah had mostly codified Shi’i Islamic law in matters of marriage, divorce, and child custody, the Family Protection Law moved in a more gender-egalitarian direction. Under it strict limits were put on polygamy; husbands could no longer get a divorce with only a thrice-repeated statement; both husbands and wives had to go to court for a divorce; and grounds for divorce were similar for both. Child custody, which under Shi’i law went to the husband and his family, though the mother kept boys to age two and girls to age seven, now went to family courts for adjudication, and could go to either parent. As Shi’i law, like some other Islamic legal schools, allowed special conditions that might protect wives to be put in the marriage contract, the main provisions of the Family Protection Law were put into every marriage contract as a way to try to render them Islamically legitimate. In the same period increasing numbers of women were educated and began to work in a variety of jobs outside the domestic sphere. Although these changes, which had been promoted by activist women, affected mostly the new, western-oriented middle class, they also began to have effects on the popular classes.

Most of the clergy (a western term that is applicable to Shi’ism, because unlike in Sunnism all Shi’i believers must follow a cleric) never accepted the Family Protection Law. A strong clerical opposition movement, in which the intransigent Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini soon came to the fore, opposed both the Shah’s autocratically-induced reforms and his de facto alliance with the U.S., Great Britain, and Israel - and particularly what was seen as subservience to the U.S. The first targets of this movement were the shah’s land reforms and voting rights for women (and also, implicitly, for Baha’is, whom the orthodox saw as apostates). A mass demonstration led by Khomeini in 1963 led to his house arrest, and his continued agitation brought about his exile from Iran from 1964 until his triumphant return in early 1979. From abroad he continued to attack what he considered un-Islamic laws and practices, and said that couples married or divorced under the Family Protection Law were not truly married or divorced.

To clarify terminology used below: First, the term “Islamist” came in the 1970s to be applied to Islamic political trends and at first had considerable coherence. It referred to populist Islamic politics that appealed to Islam for socio-economic justice and anti-imperialism, and called for a “return” to Islamic law, the sharia. Islamist movements enforced “Islamic dress” for women and most opposed gender-egalitarian, western-style legal reforms. Today, so many Muslims of different stripes, from conservative to radical or gender-egalitarian, from peaceable to violent, appeal to political Islam that it is often confusing to speak of Islamists now, as so much political discourse can be called Islamic, though its real content varies hugely. Second, rather than using the controversial term “Islamic feminist,” I will instead refer to Muslims who believe in more equal rights for the genders as “gender-egalitarian”, a term that I also use for appropriate secularists. Even though not all of them believe in absolute equality of rights, that is their predominant direction.

In the 1970s various Islamic political trends became popular among opponents of the dictatorial shah, who was associated with over-imitation of the West and subservience to western Powers. Among them were the predominantly young followers of the lay Islamic reformer, All Shari’ati; Islamic clerics more moderate regarding women than Khomeini, like Ayatollahs Motahhari and Taleqani; and the young, originally leftist, urban guerrillas, the Mojahedin-e Khalq. Shari’ati and Motahhari both wrote treatises on women that interpreted Islamic teachings in a more gender-egalitarian way than did Khomeini, though they were less egalitarian than the westernized women’s groups working with the shah’s regime or the secular opposition (Shari’ati, 1980; Motahhari, 1981). The secular opposition parties, suffering -from suppression, often had their own women’s groups and said something about women in their program. Though their stated aims were quite egalitarian, they actively discouraged any targeted campaign for women’s rights as divisive, saying that once they attained power all such issues would be solved (Moghissi, 1996). Hence, many who most visibly worked for gender equality were middle-class activists at least partially allied with an increasingly disliked autocratic government, while those allied with the opposition during the revolution accepted the 1 leadership of Khomeini, who stood against reform. Although today some Iranian women activists stress Khomeini’s welcoming of women in the public sphere, including his turnaround regarding votes for women, before his death women’s rights advocates stressed rather the limits he put on women.

Behind this contradictory situation, with most liberals and leftists ultimately accepting Khomeini’s leadership in the 1978-79 revolution (though most thought they would have a leading role after the revolution and that clerics could never really rule), lay other contradictions. One important contradiction was the cultural dualism or division of society, found in many societies of the global South, but especially acute in pre-revolutionary Iran. On the one hand there was a highly westernized elite and new middle class, many with western education (before 1979 there were more students from Iran in western universities than from any other country). They were overwhelmingly secular and western in dress, culture, and politics, and often followed ideologies like nationalism, liberalism, or various schools of communism or socialism. On the other hand there were the urban popular classes and traditional middle class, or bazaaris, who had close family, ideological, and practical ties to the clergy and followed what they considered Islamic norms, including top-to-toe chadors for women, traditional marriage, divorce, and family practices. The rapidity of change under the Pahlavis, including major economic and cultural dislocations, the favoring of large, government-tied economic enterprises, and huge rural to urban migration, along with widening income gaps even if average incomes rose with the oil boom, brought much dissatisfaction.

The Iranian clergy, which was more ideologically and economically autonomous than any other Muslim clergy, included some who voiced the dissatisfaction of the popular and bazaar classes in Islamic terms. Partly because the unpopular autocracy had a westernizing culture, the Islamic culture of some dissatisfied groups and classes became a rallying cry for the opposition. In a situation where openly political groups and parties were suppressed while the clergy were harder to attack, the politically activist clerics allied with Khomeini became stronger in the years before the revolution (Keddie, 1981).

Some secular women in the 1970s went back to the chador or a more modern modest dress, often called hijab, as a sign of opposition to the shah and solidarity with his popular class opponents. Some in the more religious classes became political only during the revolution on. Some adopted the ideal of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter and wife of the first imam, Ali, as an active woman chiefly lauded for supporting her husband and sons. During and after the revolution the more activist model of Zainab, Fatima’s daughter and the sister of the martyred third imam, Hossein, who was said to have struggled against his unjust enemies, came to the fore (Tohidi, 1994). just as the traditionalist opposition rejected many liberal and leftist ideas partly because of their association with western oppressors, so too they rejected western models of women’s status and behavior for similar reasons and because they conflicted with still-functional and widely-believed cultural norms.

During revolutions various parties often try to convince themselves that their ideals will be realized once the old regime is overthrown, as happened in the Iranian Revolution. The secular leftists and liberals who participated crucially in the revolution expected a major post-revolutionary role, but instead, after a few months of freedom, they were one by one suppressed and eliminated from government by clerical forces from 1980 through 1983. Although secular oppositionists often call this Khomeini’s “hijacking” of the revolution, it was similar to what has happened in many revolutions, including the French, Russian, and Chinese, where the strongest group successfully eliminated its erstwhile allies and monopolized power for varying lengths of time. For secular women this clerical monopolization of power appeared a wholly bad thing. A reversal of trends toward gender equality was central to the new culture and politics. Women were defined in the constitution in terms of their familial status and duties, and the Family Protection Law was annulled. An unreformed Islamic law was instated, including polygamy, child marriage, father or guardian’s control of the first marriage, custody to the father or his family, free divorce for men but not for women, and an eventual minimum age of 9 for female brides. Women could no longer be judges and were dismissed or hounded from many governmental and professional positions. A government announcement of enforced hejab was temporarily derailed after a mass demonstration on Inter-national Women’s Day, March 8, 1979, but was reimposed soon afterwards. Veiling has become perhaps the central symbol of the Islamic Republic; the veil and “proper veiling” have become definitional symbols of a woman’s faith and loyalty. Although in traditional Islamic discourse the veil is related to modesty and morality, its transformation into a central symbolism of power has imbued it with a total religio-political significance as well (Najmabadi, 1994).

Despite this initially dismal picture for women, a combination of factors led to a gradual partial comeback for women’s rights, which is still far from complete. The pre-revolutionary reforms had been deeper and more popular than many people realized, and many women felt it when they were annulled. Women also felt the de facto post-revolution campaign that greatly reduced their employment and job access, especially in the public sphere.

In response, many women went to work in the private sphere and many became independent entrepreneurs and professionals. Khomeini’s encouragement of women in political life embodied a contradiction, because even Islamist women in parliament and elsewhere became conscious of the need to change men’s and women’s thinking and behavior if women were to have elementary rights. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980- 88) the government called on women to be effective on the home front, which they were, and the war showed up some major contradictions. Notably, the numerous war widows, according to restored Islamic law, were to give up custody of their children to their husbands’ families.

Increasing numbers of women spoke and acted against such injustices and in favor of women’s rights, and over time changes were made in laws and practices. Though these are still far from egalitarian, that is the direction of most changes, despite a few recent contrary laws. At the same time, groups that were formerly culturally and politically at opposite poles have come to unite around specific issues, and this is especially true of women. Some say that the chador and hejab have favored this unifying tendency, as there is no longer such a gap in the public appearance of women from different classes. Whether or not this is so, it is unquestionably true that both men and women, both secular and Islamic, from both sides of the cultural divide have worked together for a number of goals, many of them women-oriented.

The history of women’s rights in modern Iran, only a small part of which can be told here, exhibits the features of dialectical development. Activism, encouraged by internal contradictions, brings change, and often creates a new “synthesis,” which is not, however, permanent but is continually altered by its own activists and contradictions. The pre-modern Iranian cultures and power structures that preceded heavy western influence could not preserve Iranian independence in the modern industrial world. They were followed by the modernizing Pahlavi society and culture, when urban areas especially saw a “two cultures” divide between the more powerful westernized culture of the elite and new middle class, while the “traditional” popular classes did not accept this culture. In the 1970s these classes were joined by disaffected sections of the new middle class in political-cultural opposition. The overthrow of the Pahlavi state by an antithetical politics and culture forced people into the newly-dominant clerical-theocratic mode, which, however, could solve neither economic nor cultural problems, and increasingly alienated many, especially women, young people, and professionals. Out of this may emerge a new synthesis that is developing a more indigenously-based culture than the Pahlavi culture, a culture that finds more local roots for practices of gender egalitarianism and human rights. Human dialectics are never peaceful and much suffering and injustice have been involved at each stage of this changing reality. Nor is it sure that a new synthesis will be achieved; continuing socio-economic and political crises might result either in a more dictatorial traditionalist rule or a collapse of the old system and culture, though most reformers today are hoping for a more peaceful near-term outcome.

Women’s Voices and Struggles for Legal Change

Despite the reduction in women’s rights and the strict limits placed on political organization and the press, dissatisfied Islamic and secular women before long came back with campaigns in the press, the parliament, and elsewhere that led to new discussions and reforms concerning the position of women. Women’s effective agency built on the extension of women’s rights, education, and economic roles that had developed before the revolution and could not be reversed merely by enshrining a patriarchal view of Islam- into Iran’s new constitution and laws.

Before the 1980s, the treatises and general articles about women were mainly written by men, whether secular nationalists who started writing in the late nineteenth century, Marxists who flourished after 1943, or interpreters of Islam such as Ali Shari’ati and Ayatollah Motahhari. The majority of women Is writings about women dealt with pragmatic more than theoretical issues, such as education, hygiene, legal reforms, and the like, and came mostly from secular women. Almost absent were women’s reformist writings from an explicitly Islamic perspective. The groups that cooperated in the 1978-79 revolution were alike in proposing that women’s problems could soon be solved if their own party took power, without any need for separate feminist efforts: Liberals favored further secular liberal reforms for women; Marxists saw gender inequality as based in class and imperialist issues and soluble once these were overcome; and Islamists said the problems between the sexes were based in super-westernization and could be overcome by a return to Islam as they understood it.

During the revolution the stress was on anti-shah unity, and the dominant theme regarding women as put forth by Khomeini and his allies was that many women had been corrupted by westernization, and that this was part of the corruption of Iranian society due to un-Islamic practices coming from the imperialist West. This discourse came mostly from men, and posters calling on women to wear the hejab and behave in Islamic ways were put in the imperative or admonishing voice, implying a male address to women rather than women’s own words (Yavari-d’Hellencourt 1998, p. 214).

The large-scale, organized, and very active participation of women in revolutionary and post- revolutionary politics and demonstrations, however, altered the consciousness of many women, and particularly popular class women, about their political potential. Khomeini and his associates, despite their strong traditionalism regarding many gender and family questions, including endorsing inegalitarian provisions of sharia law, had another side regarding women that was understandably rarely noted by secularists at the time. They insisted on the legitimacy and even necessity of women’s political mobilization in the public sphere, and encouraged girls’ education, once the few coeducational schools were made to meet the new rule of single-sex education, and also encouraged various women’s public activities during the Iran-Iraq War 1980-88. Some women saw a contradiction between such encouragement, expressed in Khomeini’s praise of women’s activism in several speeches, and the simultaneous elimination of women judges; between his applauding of women’s entering a number of university specialties and the dismissal of large numbers of professional women from governmental jobs. The regime tried to encourage women’s work only in certain spheres, but many women did not accept these limitations. Although few women were elected to the early parliaments, many women kept their role in the public sphere, responding to dismissals from governmental and other jobs by entering private employment in imaginative and novel ways. They went in increasing, numbers into other areas open to them, such as small business, teaching, medicine, and the arts (Esfandiari, 1997).

The women’s press, which preceded the revolution by decades, played a key role in women’s resistance to new restrictions on women, beginning with the annulment of the Family Protection Law right after the revolution. In essence, this annulment meant a return to the sharia-based civil code of Reza Shah, with even lower ages accepted for marriage, though women were allowed to insert protective provisions in their marriage contracts. The most vocal opposition to these policies, which meant returning to polygamy, reviving temporary marriage, free divorce for men, and child custody to fathers and their families, came from women, especially in the women’s press and from women parliamentarians. Some of the women’s press was conservative (Neda’) or at first limited implicit criticisms to depictions of women’s sufferings (Payam-e Hajar) (Najmabadi 1998, p. 62). The magazine Zan-e Ruz, however, which had begun in 1964 but changed tone after the revolution, became a platform for opposing the new family laws and practices with arguments taken from new interpretations of Islam, and it was increasingly joined by Payam-e Hajar under Azam Taleqani (Nakanishi, 1998). Women Majles deputies and other women made similar arguments. Against the official virtual encouragement of polygamy, for example, women produced Islamically-based arguments to strictly limit polygamy, positing that court permission should be required (as, in fact, in the Family Protection Law).

The polygamy argument is one where new approaches with some textual basis have been voiced in the Muslim world since the late nineteenth century. The Qur’an puts permission to take several wives in the context of the needs of widows and orphans in a time of warfare, and it is argued that it was not meant for periods when numbers of men and women are roughly equal. The same verse in the Qur’an that says men can have up to four wives if they treat them equally also says that no matter how hard men try they cannot treat multiple wives equally, and reformers say this should be understood as against polygamy. On veiling, the Qur’an tells women cover their breasts and hide their ornaments, and only interpretation said that all except women’s face and hands were ornaments to be hidden. Other verses taken as referring to veiling are similarly doubtful regarding their original meaning. Some other verses of the Qur’an are harder to interpret in a gender-egalitarian way, but attempts are nonetheless being made today, often with sophisticated arguments by men and women with theological training. One main line of argument, in Iran as elsewhere, stresses those parts of the Qur’an and traditions where men and women are treated as equals.

The role of the women’s press in these struggles may be suggested by highlighting their activity regarding a few issues. Women’s magazines featured stories of women’s suffering under despotic husbands, including stories of wife-beatings, suicides, and loss of children. Such publicity and activism helped to bring some legal remedies, already in the 1980s, such as limits on a husband’s right to stop his wife from taking a job. Partly as a result of a campaign spearheaded by Zan-e Ruz, in 1984-85 twelve conditions were printed into all marriage contracts as grounds for women to get divorced, provided husbands signed them all. These were the same grounds as in the annulled Family Protection Law, and, much as in that law, special civil courts were to make the decision regarding family disputes, and, later, child custody. The courts were also allowed to allocate up to half the property acquired during marriage to the wife if she was divorced against her will (Paidar, 1995, pp. 282-293; Najmabadi, 1994, pp. 377-78). As the reformed divorce provisions were valid only if the groom signed them, the change was smaller than in the Family Protection Law, and this was true of some other legal changes that were achieved. judges became more sensitive to women’s rights as a result of these struggles, however, and regarding reforms that were checked by the conservative legislative process, the government tried to mitigate some gross injustices by providing instructions to the courts. These developments, involving the acceptance of some legal provisions castigated as anti-Islamic under the shah, show the flexibility under pressure of what is termed “Islamic” and also show that earlier reforms had more impact than was sometimes admitted.

The granting of child custody to the father or his family at a very young age came under attack with the rising number of war widows during the Iran-Iraq war. In 1985 a bill was passed, despite conservative opposition, which gave custody of minor children to widows, even if they remarried, and provided government funds for their upkeep in cases of need. Khomeini’s approval of this break with the letter of the sharia was followed by other such breaks. On the other hand, in another law at this time, only married women accompanied by their husbands were allowed to go abroad for study.

A difficult struggle occurred over men’s unchecked exercise of divorce, seen as a main cause of a rising divorce rate in the 1980s. A limited divorce reform bill passed parliament in 1989, saying that (as under the Family Protection Law) divorces had to have court permission before being registered, though later studies suggest that male applications were almost never denied (Mirhosseini, 1993). Sometimes the same provisions that had been denounced by clerics as secular heresies passed parliament as Islamic reforms, and even where the literal power of reform was limited, the climate of publicity and struggle favored better treatment of women regarding legal rights.

A novel ideological trend for Iran, of women interpreting Islam in more gender-egalitarian ways, soon became important, encouraged by the entry of more religious women into the public sphere, the spread of religious education up to the highest levels for women, and the limitation of public discourse to Islamic parameters. Many women, not just those in the privileged classes, felt the shock of being deprived of many rights regarding marriage, divorce, property, and child custody after the revocation of the Family Protection Act, and many were hurt by the imposition of severe controls on behavior along with strong punishments. At the same time some women came to master technical forms of Islamic argumentation, partly because of the government’s opening of more kinds of religious education to women. More women were politically active, and more girls and women were being educated than ever before, at the same time as a number of rights granted in the 1967-78 period were revoked. The few, Islamist, women elected to the first parliament were unable to get even timid proposals for women’s rights passed by the male majority. But there soon developed a new core group of Islamic women, including some relatives of major political figures, who were able to press women’s case with greater effect. Some reforms were realized in the 1980s, and that decade also saw women’s entry into and effectiveness in a number of professions after many of them had been dismissed from governmental jobs. Women became successful private entrepreneurs in unprecedented numbers, and more than ever before entered several highly visible professions, including university teaching, art, writing, film-making (including directing), and science and medicine. The women’s press became both a profession and a rallying point.

At first the government tried to remove women from legal practice, firing all women judges, declaring their judicial rank null and void, and excluding women from the law faculty. Women lawyers refused to accept this; some continued to practice in the name of a male family member, others worked as legal advisers to companies, and women Majles deputies fought for them. The critical shortage of lawyers trained in Islamic law soon forced the state to revise the law and allow women to be advisers within the judiciary. A revised bill on the judiciary allowed women lawyers to be advisers in Family courts on matters relating to children. The law helped retain some women already in the ministry of justice retain their positions.

The lack of Islamic judges both allowed secularly trained advisers to assist the courts and caused leading religious figures to undertake informal teaching of Islamic law to young male and female lawyers. With the lawyer shortage, exacerbated by the closure of university faculties (including law) in 1980-83, several women who received this education and had good revolutionary credentials got quite powerful posts. Clerical opposition to women in the judiciary remained, however, and there was an attempt in the Majles to take away their advisory role in 1994. The women representatives, how ever, got the support of the speaker of the Majles, Ali Akbar Nateqnouri, and women’s advisory roles were actually extended. Women lawyers were now allowed to take charge of the custody of minors and act as advisers to the Administrative justice Courts and Family Courts. They also got access to the posts of assistant to the public prosecutor, examining magistrate, and to offices for legal research and preparation of laws, and they could be legal advisers in government departments. By 1996-97 four women Is legal advisory centers were created to help women prepare cases and to deal with the human lights lobby (Afshar 1998, pp. 116-125).

Women deputies pushed reform further, getting a bill through the Majles that told the judiciary to create family courts with the exclusive right to deal with family matters, including marriage, polygamy, divorce, marriage payments, wages for housework, husband’s support of wives, child custody, legal guardians, and other matters. Every court had to have a woman adviser, whose views would be reflected in its decisions. By late 1997 women were occupying most posts at most levels in the judiciary.

Further reform included a bill ratified in January 1997 by which the mehrieh, the sum paid by the groom to the bride, often not collected until the husband’s divorce or death, was to be calculated in terms of real value. This rendered it inflation-proof in a period of rampant inflation.

Though legal reforms have not yet succeeded on a number of issues, arguments in the press and elsewhere over them have raised many people’s consciousness and reform continues to be pursued. These issues include beating of women and of children by men, and the legality of marriage down to age 9 for girls. The age of marriage for women has in fact been steadily going up with the spread of education and urbanization. In 1986 the average women’s marriage age was 20, and by 1996 it had risen to 22 (Afshar, 1998, p. 148).

Reformist women and their allies also campaigned against killings of adulterers, which, however rare, were carried out both by individuals and the state. They were helped by a decision of provincial revolutionary courts to try to curb honor killings that were spreading in some tribal areas. Parliamentary discussion centered on the need for proof that the woman involved was a willing participant in adultery, and the law was changed to distinguish between rape and adultery. The law put the burden of proof on the man, and in strict Islamic law proof of adultery requires several eyewitnesses, who will be punished for slander if they are lying. Such laws are difficult to implement, and such killings do continue, if at a reduced rate.

Another long struggle in the press and in parliament was to increase the very few grounds on which women could be granted divorce without prior authorization by the husband in the marriage contract. A Majles law, rejected by the Council of Guardians in 1993 but then reinstated by the Council of Public Interest in 1994, extends women’s right to request divorce to twelve cases ranging from the husband’s impotence or imprisonment to his desertion or polygamy. It also makes divorce much more expensive for men. The marriage contract forms from 1994 also gave women the right to half the wealth and property of a husband who decides to divorce his wife without good cause. This change came out of discussions saying that wives were entitled to wages for their housework (Afshar, 1998, pp. 186-191). Very few divorcing husbands in fact pay out half their wealth.

Overall, major struggles and arguments in the Majles, the press, and elsewhere, resulted in changing inegalitarian features of the law, but these changes still fall short of the pre-revolution Family Protection Law, not to mention any more egalitarian ideal. The struggles and arguments continue, however, and support has been gained from some clerics, while secularists and religious persons continue to work together for reform. To some degree, since the reformist electoral victories from 1997 through early 2000 emphasis has shifted away from reforms in women’s status (none having passed parliament during this period) to strengthening press freedom, civil society, and democracy, which many women see as preconditions to further expansion of women’s rights.

The Islamic Republic’s women’s press, begun the 1980s, developed and flourished (especially in the 1990s) as an important part of the general press liberalization of that decade. The weekly Zan-e Ruz, edited by Shahla Sherkat from 1984 to 1991, reflected the views primarily of women Islamic activists and included discussion and advocacy of several women’s demands. Following a disagreement with others in Zan-e Ruz, Sherkat quit that journal and launched the monthly Zanan in February of 1992, which became notable for the high quality of its articles and for its gender-egalitarian stance. This journal combats women’s oppression in many spheres, addressing men as well as women. It raises forbidden subjects and publishes important articles analyzing the judicial system in relation to women’s rights. It carries articles by men and women, both Islamic and secular, including, recently, secular Iranian women scholars living abroad. Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent secular woman lawyer, is a frequent contributor and has written a series of articles about the Civil Code. The journal also carried articles by the notable reformist cleric Saïdzadeh, who has also written articles under a feminine pseudonym, whose argumentation shows them to come from someone well-trained in the religious sciences formerly almost limited to men (Mir- Hosseini, 1999, p. 248).

Many of the arguments found in Zanan, which would be called feminist by westerners though rarely (in public at least) by Iranians, differed from most pre-revolutionary feminist positions in stressing, or adjusting to, reinterpretations of Islam. They are based on what is presented as the egalitarian spirit of many verses in the Qur’an that address men and women equally, and often explain inegalitarian verses, such as those allowing polygamy, as due to special temporary circumstances. They present their view as the authentic view of Islam, and later inegalitarian laws and doctrines as deviations caused by various kinds of male prejudice and historical circumstances.

Among the important articles in Zanan were two from 1992, soon known to be written by a clerically-educated man using a female pseudonym, refuting the early decision by IRI authorities to exclude women from judgeships. Among other arguments, the author reinterprets a Qur’anic passage usually taken to mean that males are naturally superior. As is often done by Islamic reformists, the author rejects some Islamic Traditions (hadiths) as inauthentic and reinterprets others, concluding with a formula of the type found in Islamic religious decrees: “We affirm that the potential of women is the same as that of men whatever the employment and function; this goes equally for the function of judge or jurisconsult (faqih)” (Zanan, No. 5, June 1992, p. 23).

Once Zanan launches such a novel theme, the rest of the women’s press may take it up, often in less radical ways, which is one sign of Zanan’s influence. Months after the articles on women judges, the more conservative journal of the Islamic Center in Qom published notes by the late moderate reformist cleric, Ayatollah Motahhari, who said that among the hadiths cited by clerics to exclude women from judgeships “only two are authentic and they do not justify in any way the prohibition of women to be judges” (Payam-e Zan, No. 5, 1992, p. 10). Despite the campaign, women still cannot be regular judges, though since 1995 they can be consulting judges, especially in matters regarding the family and minors. Their judgments are, often pro forma, countersigned by a male judge.

Another issue launched by a Zanan article in 1992 was the competence of women to be clerical “sources of imitation” and make religious judgments binding on their followers, a practice already accepted by many. The same male using a female pseudonym launched this discussion (Zanan No. 8, September, 1992, pp. 2432). Clerics have tried, even if they recognize competent women’s judgments in family questions, to limit women’s binding judgments to the family sphere. Motahhari’s notes, published in Payam-e Zan, said that there was no basis for women’s exclusion from definitive rulings in other spheres, that “if a woman is more knowledgeable than men, we are not only authorized to follow her but have the duty to do so” (Payam-e Zan, no. 11, 1993, p. 11). Going further, the women’s journal Zan-e Ruz reported a statement by another cleric saying that the constitution’s use of the term “man” in describing the president of Iran was as a generic rather than a limitation to the male gender (Zan-e Ruz, no. 1440, 12/25/93, pp. 14-17). This opened another discussion as well as action by women to present themselves as candidates in the 1997 presidential elections, although their candidacies were disallowed.

The advancement of women’s causes, while primarily due to cooperation between secular and Islamic female activists, has required the growing involvement not only of secular men but also of reformist clerics of high status and education. They are a minority among the high clergy and often must choose their words and arguments carefully in order to operate in a clerical context still dominated by conservatism in the sphere of gender and the family (Mir-Hosseini, 1.999). All of these current allies have changed their immediate post-revolutionary positions in order to be able to work together. As stated in an interview by the prominent secularist lawyer Mehrangiz Kar in 1996:

We cannot speak of an agreement [between secularists and Islamists] but rather of a moderation of positions on both sides. Our meetings are in no way official or political; we discuss women’s problems. There are still many reservations on both sides, but underneath an apparent silence one may already see an adjustment of the different modes of thought and a cultural maturity beginning to emerge. It may be via women that this divided society will find its social and cultural cohesion again ... The revolution gave women confidence in themselves. With all the sacrifices they made, Iranian women know how much their current and future rulers owe them and that egalitarian rights are part of what is due to them. This demand is no longer that of a group of women; it is a nationwide one. The Islamic government cannot escape it without risking a brutal separation of the state and religion (Yavari-d’Hellencourt, 1998, p. 226).

These alliances have not taken place without major dissentions and disagreements both within the clergy and within the differing feminine camps over tactics and basic ideas (Mir-Hosseini, 1999; Moghissi, 1999). Among men it is not only reformist clerics who are involved in advocating equal rights, but also many laymen. The arguments of reformist clerics are, however, especially important in the continuing situation of predominantly Islamic discourse, in which the formulations mastered by trained clerics have a special prestige. The boldest among them is Hojjat ol-Islam. Mohsen Saïdzadeh, a regular co contributor to Zanan and the author of pseudonymous articles cited above. He was recently imprisoned for some of his words, and has been a leader in opening a new approach in Islamic law to the rights of women (Yavari d’Hellencourt, 1998, p. 227, and Mir-Hosseini, 1999).

A movement launched mainly to gain or regain rights for women in the Islamic Republic could have an ever-broader impact on the reinterpretation of Islamic texts not only in Iran but beyond its borders. Reformist interpretations of Islam are not new, but in the Middle East they have not hitherto used such theologically sophisticated arguments, or been adopted by so many traditionally-educated clerics or by so many women from a variety of social backgrounds. Some have suggested that Islam needs to be interpreted not only according to the needs of today, but that revisions should be made in light of contemporary thought and philosophy (Najmabadi, 1999, p. 66). Modem western philosophers are now taught in some seminaries and cited by Islamic reformers. Although hostility to western and non-Islamic thought, and to explicit feminism, is strong in some circles, it is far weaker overall than in the immediate revolutionary period. Encouraged by participation in U.N. conferences and organizations and by the greater freedom of expression from 1997 through at least part of 2000, the Iranian women’s movement has to its credit a record of important international interactions as well as the number of changes it has brought to Iran Tohidi, 2000).

Summarizing the major political role of the women’s press, Azadeh Kian-Thiébaut notes the growing role of Islamic modernism and reformism, and adds:

Women’s magazines ... are playing a critical role in this transformation. The aim of these magazines, which attempt to reach both educated women and the political and religious elite, is to promote women’s aims by pointing out the regime’s legal, social and economic shortcomings while advocating changes in civil, penal and constitutional laws. The editors of these publications unanimously maintain that the inequality between men and women springs not from the Qur’an, but from religious authorities’ misinterpretation of divine laws. These magazines, which play a crucial role in disseminating intellectual debates on women’s issues and concerns, enhance women’s social and political awareness and create contexts for women’s political interaction with the ruling elite. They also highlight contributions by reformist clerics, who are increasingly attentive to women’s claims that Islamic laws must be adapted to the realities of contemporary Iranian society, in which women’s social, economic, political and cultural activities have become integral. Political and religious authorities, aware of the significant social impact of these magazines, often respond to the critical articles they publish (Kian-Thiébaut 1999, p. 15).

Kian-Thiébaut goes on to note the unprecedented gender solidarity among Islamic and secular activists, listing as prominent examples Mehrangiz Kar, the jurist Shirin Ebadi, the professor Zhahleh Shaditalab, and the film director Tahmineh Milani as regular contributors to women’s magazines. All these magazines have, in theory, an Islamic orientation, but many include such secular contributors. In a revealing interview, the editor of the Islamist woman’s magazine, Farzaneh, spoke to Kian of the need to change from the early Islamist policy of excluding secular women, which hurt all women. Magazines like Zanan and the new Jens-e Dovvom (The Second Sex) have recently published articles by Iranian women and men who have long lived abroad, which has sometimes caused trouble for these publications.

The reformist role of women not in the press should not be minimized. Women in politics, including unnamed ones involved in varying forms of group pressure, or women showing their capability in a variety of jobs, have played a significant role in effecting reform. The women’s press, like the press in general, has been key to organizing pressure for reform and change, and it evolved amazingly once limitations on press freedom were relaxed. This was true until April 2000 despite the periodic suspensions or shutdowns of newspapers, which often reappeared under new names, although the closing of the newspaper Zan was longer-lasting and more harmful to women’s causes. The wholesale shutdown of the reformist press in April 2000 between two rounds of reformist electoral victories was a new phenomenon.

Conservatives who say that Islam decrees different rights for women and men continue to play important roles in government and clerical institutions, and despite major advances for women much remains to be done regarding women’s legal rights. Recent events combining press and politics highlight more negative aspects of the struggle for women’s rights, including some backlash against women and the continued power of conservatism, even among Majles women deputies. In 1999 two bills were proposed in the conservative-dominated Majles, one prohibiting the “exploitation” of women’s images in publications, which passed, and the other mandating gender segregation in medicine, with only women doctors to treat women. Though the latter lost for reasons of its impracticality, only two of the fourteen women’s deputies opposed these measures. Before the February Majles elections, Zanan held a public meeting for Majles women deputies, attended mostly by secularists, which only three of the fourteen women deputies attended. These deputies complained that the media, especially since the closing of Zan, devoted almost no attention to their activities for women, or to women’s questions (Bad jens, March 13, 2000). While this may be an exaggeration, it seems true that reforms favoring women were less emphasized In the press and parliament after Khatami’s reformist presidential victory in 1997 than before, probably because of a desire for unity around a universal program of human rights and political freedoms, which many activists thought would lead to new gender reforms. Some activists believe it is now wrong to work with the clerical structure for reform, and if reactionary governmental trends grow or other major political changes ensue, more women and men may abandon the gradualist program and be less concerned with using Islamic arguments.

Women and Work

Books and articles often try to derive trends in women in work since the revolution from statistics, especially census figures. While such derivations are of use, they contain so many problems that they must be used with great caution, as many who work with them note. It is not surprising that different authors working with statistics have come up with very different conclusions (Moghadam, 1988; Moghissi, 1999). For one thing, the census was run in 1976 and 1986, so it is difficult to tell what trends were due to the revolution of 1979. More important, the census, like many in the global South, seriously undercounts women’s work, even when it produces income. The low figures for women’s work in the countryside, including among nomads, are essentially meaningless as indicators of women’s contribution to the economy and to household income. Anyone who has observed rural and tribal women can see how much work they do, often much more than the men. This includes caring for animals and plants, working in the harvest, gathering food, and doing all the weaving of carpets and flat weave items, many of which are sold and contribute significantly to family income. These rural and tribal women are usually not counted as in the labor force. When, in the 1970’s, I asked an Iranian involved in planning the census about this, he said that because they figured that the total work done by a family was equal to the full-time work of one man, given seasonal underemployment, the best thing was to count most families as one man! My observations of the countryside would support Tohidi’s view, supported by a detailed local study, that rural women’s labor contribution may be greater than men’s Tohidi, 1994, p. 117).

The situation is best described by Maryam Poya, who uses extensive observation and interviews in addition to official figures. She writes:

... my interviews show that official statistics do not include categories of women workers who effectively contribute to their families’ and to the national and international economy. These are unpaid agricultural workers and carpet weavers, petty commodity producers, and a large number of women workers who are employed by many medium or small private enterprises, whose employers do not declare them as their workforce, in order to evade paying tax and insurance (Poya, 1999, p. 19).

In interviewing rural women Poya found:

Those whom I interviewed said that they had never been asked by officials whether they work or not: the officials who visit villages ask men ... about members’ economic activities. Interviewees also said that women’s contribution is considered (by men and women) as natural and part of domestic life rather than belonging to a particular category such as agricultural work or carpet-weaving. Many women workers, therefore, do not appear in the official statistics (Poya, 1999, pp. 19-20).

Poya’s experience observing and interviewing Iranian women over several years leads her to doubt not only the official figures regarding women workers, but also the implication of these figures that more women work in the public than in the private sphere; Poya asserts the opposite. She says that many women are small commodity- producers and traders, including some making a living by buying cheaply from the rationing system and selling on the black market.

Many of my interviewees who worked for medium or small private enterprises told me that none of them was registered as a worker. This was confirmed by my observation in 1992, when I counted 150 shops in one street in northern Tehran selling female clothes ... on average, each shop employed three women at different times of the day, and none of them was registered as a worker.

Thus, the oral evidence and my observation led me to find out, first, that despite the official statistics which show that a large number of women work for the state, a much larger number of women work for small private enterprises (Poya, 1999, p. 20).

Poya’s work does, however, support Moghadam’s view that since the revolution few working-class women work in large industries or in the other better-paid sectors (Moghadam, 1994). Poya shows that even women receiving money for their work are seriously undercounted.

Aside from the large number of working-class women in a now predominantly urban Iran, women have made their mark in a great variety of middle class professions. Women who lost jobs or were shut out after the revolution were more resourceful in carving out new working lives than similar men, often relatives, in similar situations (Esfandiari, 1997). These women set up small businesses and went in unprecedented numbers into professions like medicine and law as well as writing and the arts, including a significant presence in all aspects of filmmaking. I will not try to guess at what proportion of women are now working, except to say that even if only women who are remunerated are counted, the figure must be significantly higher than the figures in or below the low teens that are often cited. A successful women endorsed measure to allow part-time work without loss of benefits has encouraged this trend.

The status of working women, however, varies greatly by class, and particularly by whether they are paid at all and whether, if paid, they control their own income. Many popular-class women have no such control, and some of them (reasonably, in view of current realities) still feel that outside work is demeaning, rather than status-enhancing. Such women may embrace the government’s stress on women’s true roles as wives and mothers (Friedl, 1994). As family size has been rapidly falling with the government’s birth control program and girls’ education is rising at the same time as economic crisis forces more women to work despite widespread unemployment, the overall trend, however, is toward increasing public validation of women’s work, especially work that utilizes education.

Other Spheres - Education, Birth Control, and Sports

Writing about women in Iran often stresses women’s activism and government restrictions, but women have also gained from several government-initiated programs. From the first the government stressed programs for the “dispossessed,” including education and public health, and, in addition, from 1988 it has developed one of the world’s most effective birth control programs. All of these have a positive impact on women, particularly popular-class women.

The growth in education for girls and women at all levels has been dramatic, although in large part it continued the growth that began under Reza Shah, which started when there were no government schools and few private schools for girls. Although some parents have been encouraged by the government’s policies of no coeducation below university level (there was very little coeducation even before) and by modest dress requirements to send their daughters to school, on the whole educational advance has continued previous trends. What has been more novel is the great extension of adult literacy classes, many of which enrol mostly women. Textbooks have changed since the revolution; they now depict gender-distinct roles for boys and girls and present few professional female role models (Mehran, 1991, 2000). Boys and girls, however, mostly follow the same curricula, and some claim that girls flourish in single-sex environments, though others note that some high school specialties are not universally available to girls. Girls do well in school, and the majority of university students are now women. Of those who passed the most recent university entrance exams, 57.2% were women (Zanan, Feb. 2000). In 1989, owing to women’s pressure, the quotas for women were removed from many university disciplines (Moghadam, 1994, p. 402). On the other hand, most girls as yet get only a primary education, which does not prepare them for many jobs. While the government tries to use schools and literacy classes to inculcate its ideology, the overwhelming reformist vote since 1997, especially among women and youth, shows that it has not been successful in this, owing to discontent with bad economic conditions and harsh limits on personal freedoms.

After several years of denouncing birth control as an imperialist plot, during which population doubled, the government reversed itself in 1988 and soon launched what appears to be one of the world’s most effective birth control programs. The government subsidizes free contraceptives and sponsors widespread birth control education, involving volunteer female community health workers and sessions for newlyweds. If official figures are to be trusted, birth rates have gone down by over half between 1986 and 1996, although they are still well above replacement rates (Hoodfar 1998). With the continued rapid growth of female education and urbanization, two factors that correlate dramatically with falling birth rates worldwide, birth rates can be expected to fall further, which will ease many burdens on women and bring more women into the labor force. For now, however, the large number of children and youths, along with dramatic economic decline since the revolution, creates a number of problems for women.

Some government-initiated programs have also inadvertently encouraged women’s activism, as in the case of volunteer health workers studied by Homa Hoodfar. Approximately 30,000 working-class volunteers have been trained to bring basic health and birth control information to women of their communities, a task in which they have succeeded, overall. Some have gone on to organize their communities to bargain for public services and improvements, and the women involved, as well as many of their husbands, have become more aware of their potential for public action (Hoodfar, 1998).

The story of women in sports is a dramatic area of advance, now involving far more women and girls than in the pre-revolutionary period. There is not space to detail it here, but it should be stressed that this is a major area of successful women’s and political struggles. The sport scene has been transformed from one where the government discouraged women’s sports to one where a large number of team and individual sports are pursued by ever growing numbers of girls and women. Sports are Islamically legitimized by permitting sports that involve showing the body to be played where only other women are present. Women are also increasingly participating in sports where they are seen by men, including skiing, water-skiing, and bicycling, however encumbering the clothing they still must wear. Bodily conditioning is one aspect of women’s growing empowerment (Sciolino, 1997).

Evaluating the Present and Future

Women’s rights, like other issues, are today in a context where very different forces hold significant power. The presidential elections of 1997 gave an overwhelming victory to the reformist president Khatami, based largely on the votes of women and young people. This created a situation of divided power, where the “leader” Khamenei and the conservative forces held more power than the president, but nonetheless permitted some reforms, notably greater freedom of the press and the appointment of reformists to high positions, including one female vice-president. While women’s roles in employment, sports, the arts and the press have continued to advance, there has also been some backlash. The two 1999 bills regarding medicine and the depiction of women in the press were examples of conservatism and backlash, as were acts of terrorism against reformers. The victory for reformers in the 2000 parliamentary elections was a gain for reformist women, though, in view of conservative actions against the reformists, it is too soon to say what impact the elections will have on women’s rights. As this is written the reformists have won the second round of parliamentary elections while the conservatives have shut down the reformist press and arrested several prominent reformists, including two women, Mehrangiz Kar and Shahla Lahiji, the publisher of a women’s studies press.

The terrain of women’s rights in Iran remains one of cooperation among disparate groups on the one hand and severe ideological struggles on the other. Despite the unprecedented electoral victories of reformists, not only are conservatives still in control of the major ruling institutions but there are disagreements among reformers inside and outside Iran. A minority of secular reformers have criticized other secularists cooperation with Islamic reformists (Moghissi, 1999). These criticisms cannot here be discussed at length, but they may be treated briefly under several categories.

Argument 1: Most of Iran’s inegalitarian legal provisions related to the sharia are still in force, including legal marriage at age 9 for girls, the need for a father’s permission for a first marriage, polygamy, temporary marriage, and almost free divorce for men and not for women. The achievements of reform should not be exaggerated, and getting an egalitarian interpretation of the sharia enacted at best will take decades and may prove impossible. Others may respond that pressing for reform within an Islamic framework has achieved important changes, and that this may be the only way to progress in Iran today. This limitation to an Islamic framework may change, however, and some activists have been alert to this possibility and have continued to test the envelope for more secular arguments.

Argument 2: Secularists perpetuate a false view of early Islam and encourage a reactionary world outlook if they express agreement with Islamists that the Qur’an and early Islam were gender-egalitarian and that what is needed is to return to the true meaning of the Qur’an and get rid of later, male-supremacist interpretations. This argument involves questions of strategy and tactics that are faced by reformers in many Muslim countries. Some Iranian secularists have avoided endorsing the view of early Islam as gender-egalitarian; rather, they have simply not countered it. Others, who at least used to be secularists, have endorsed the egalitarian view of the Qur’an. Endorsing ideas one does not believe in raises problems, but the impossibility of being entirely frank in today’s Iran should be noted. Fortunately, some have managed not to say things they do not believe and have still been able to cooperate with believers.

Argument 3: Some secularists and reformers now accept post-modern, relativist views that do not see one cultural, intellectual, or religious tradition as better for women than another (Moghissi, 1999). This question is sometimes mixed up with argument 2 on collaboration, but it should be separate. One can be a secularist with a universal view of women’s rights and still cooperate with persons holding different views. In Iran this can involve refraining from expressing some -views. A distinct point is that some secularists outside Iran now voice post-modem relativist views, especially regarding non-Western cultures, and refrain from criticizing practices in other cultures that they would denounce in their own. This is tied to complex questions regarding insults to women of the global South arising from past and present imperialism and Eurocentrism. It should, however, be possible to distinguish between words and actions demeaning or insulting to a reasonable person and empathetic criticism of practices in other cultures, as in one’s own, that bring suffering to many women. In the Middle East this can mean following the lead of local women in working for change, as is now happening in the case of honor killings publicized first by women in Jordan and Pakistan. It should not mean objecting to such customs’ being criticized.

This is more difficult in practice than in theory, but many experiences of Iranian reformers of varying views and both genders may provide a guide for what might be accomplished in Iran and elsewhere. Possibly, as critics say, no regime that styles itself as Islamic and bases its law on the sharia will ever become gender egalitarian. But this is not certain since, e.g., even restrictive Puritanism, which President Khatami takes as an exemplar, evolved to become far more tolerant and democratic Presbyterianism. The possible evolution to something parallel to Christian democracy (hopefully, without the corruption), a largely secular and democratic form of rule, should not be ruled out. This is what is suggested by the reformist thinker Abdolkarim Soroush. On the other hand, if the ruling clergy will not democratize, Islamic ideas may lose their appeal for many.

It is possible that traditionalists will not give up their governmental powers, and also possible that the whole system will eventually crumble and something else take its place. In this case there may be no more need for secularists to speak in Islamic terms, but this does not mean that today’s cooperation is mistaken. While reformers should not necessarily limit their tactics to those favored in recent years, it is not clear that alternatives to cooperation among different trends promise more than does continuing cooperation, perhaps in new forms. A positive feature of this cooperation has been the narrowing of major cultural and political gaps between women and men; between educated/westernized classes and popular classes; between democratic emigrants and local activists, and between Western scholars and Iranians.


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