Gender, Islam, and Politics - Iran
By: Farhad Kazemi, 2000
I slam and gender is a controversial problem for scholars and analysts of the Middle East. Unfortunately, the debate on this issue has at times become highly acrimonious and not always placed in its proper historical or sociological contexts (see AbuKhalil, 1993). From one point of view, Islam is praised for its historically liberating role for women in Arabia and elsewhere. Yet another perspective holds either the religion or some of its practices and practitioners accountable for the lower stares and inferior legal rights of women in Islamic countries than other parts of the world. Still other views fall somewhere in the middle of these two positions.
Broadly speaking, two related gender issues exacerbate the problem: one is attitudinal and based on beliefs and values, the other relates to legal doctrines. The attitudinal component concerns the prevalence in much of the Middle East of certain patriarchal values, learned through the socialization experience, on women and gender roles. The legal dimension pertains to the essentially discriminatory nature of Islamic personal stares laws and the criminal code when applied to women. The combination of these two factors--patriarchal attitudes and legal strictures--places women in a highly disadvantageous position in the social order. Clearly, many Islamic countries do not apply either the full Islamic criminal code or the complete version of personal stares laws to their citizens. The intensity of patriarchal values also varies both within one country and from one Islamic society to another. Nonetheless, the two themes of patriarchy and legal discrimination continue to remain central to the debate on Islam and gender.
The problem is further complicated by strong positions that many Islamists have taken on gender segregation in public space and in favor of other non-egalitarian gender views. In their own particular way, the Islamist movements have centralized the women's issue both in their extensive discourse on the subject as well as in their behavior in public space. In many ways, and as Talhami points out, the issue of women is the
Achilles' heel of the Islamist movement, the one issue that could not be obscured by an excess of idealism and romanticization of the classic age of Islam or by an overemphasis on political-economic argumentation (1996, p.123).
The question of patriarchy and its persistence in the Middle East has received a great deal of attention in the scholarly literature (Ahmed, 1992; Barakat, 1993; Moghadam, 1993; Lindholm, 1996; Tohidi, 1996). Studies of the women's movement and early feminists have also focused on this problem in the Middle East (see, e.g., Nelson, 1996; Badran, 1995; Sanasarian, 1982). Patriarchal beliefs have been part and parcel of Middle East history, as they have been in much of the world. It is clear that patriarchal attitudes antecede the emergence of Islam in the area. Although these attitudes have sources beyond a specific religion, religious traditions and practices can sometimes reinforce their main thrust. This has indeed been the case with Islam regarding its patriarchal foundations and practices.
The Middle East, then, is not necessarily a lone exception to this pervasive phenomenon. Whether due to patriarchal views or other causes, full gender equality remains elusive everywhere in the world. A recent global study of women and politics concludes that "in no country do women have political status, access, or influence equal to men. The sweep of women's political subordination encompasses the great variety of cultures, economic arrangements, and regimes in which they live" (Chowdhury and Nelson, 1994, p. 3).
What perhaps distinguishes the Middle East is the slower rate of change in transformation of these views toward a more egalitarian gender perspective. The Middle East and North Africa, as Shafik (1996, p. 2) points out, exhibit
... the largest gender gap of any region in the world, despite the considerable evidence that gender equality is associated with higher economic growth and improved human development. Middle Eastern and North African women are consistently under represented in schools and labor force, they die relatively younger than their sisters in other parts of the world, and they give birth to a large number of closely-spaced children that jeopardizes their own and their children's health.
The gender gap in the Middle East has not been eliminated with either greater wealth and increased national income in the region, or other features associated with the modern nation-state. Sharabi (1988) argues that for the Arab world, at least, the confluence of patriarchy and efforts at achieving modernity has in fact created a distorted process of social change in the form of dependent capitalism and modernization. This process, led by petty bourgeoisie, has perpetuated key social features of the former underdeveloped society in the form of, what Sharabi calls, neopatriarchy--a new manifestation of the traditional patriarchal system.
It would be difficult to deny the relevance of patriarchy to the Middle East, even though patriarchy is a problematic concept for analysis. As Kandioyti (1991a, p. 27) maintains, a better way to examine systems of male dominance is perhaps "through analyses of women's strategies of dealing with them." She proposes the investigation of different forms of "patriarchal bargains" that take place between women and established male authority structure. Through such analysis of women's strategies and their "variations according to class, caste, and ethnicity" the nature of gender ideology can be better tapped. Her own examples drawn from the subsaharan Africa and the Middle East provide useful illustrations of the problem.
Related to this discussion are the multiple strategies that segments of Iranian women have used to contain or limit the impact of patriarchal controls imposed upon them soon after the Islamic revolution. As explained by Friedl (1994), Iranian women have adopted various strategies to resist the dominant and prevailing male power. Some of these strategies (patriarchal bargains) take advantage of the resources available to women in their workplace or at home. Others take the government officials and the state to task demanding that they deliver on their lofty promises of gender equality and social justice (see Ramazani, 1993).
These women have challenged authority in an operative environment that severely constrains their role and imposes enormous restrictions on their daily behavior. In spite of these limitations, the Iranian women have been able to make some gains and improve incrementally their collective lot. Such gains have by no means been due solely to the patriarchal bargain, especially since these bargains tend to be individualistic rather than collective. There have been a number of other critical factors (the impact of the Iran-Iraq war, the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, and women's organized activism) that help explain the process. However, given the limitation on their power base in an androcentric society,
women can be expected to intensify their use of the `weapons of the weak,' that is, manipulation of resources and resistance to restrictive rule to exert control over issues important to them (Friedl, 1994, p. 166).
Patriarchy, then, is an issue of some importance in the Middle East that goes beyond the confines of religious dogma. Islamic doctrine and its emphasis on a structure of authority and command, however, have also helped reinforce the patriarchal norm in the Middle East. The real question is not so much the notion of patriarchy's presence in the Middle East but rather the best way to study this problem and assess its independent impact. Unless such a step is taken, the enormously deleterious impact of patriarchalism on gender equality cannot be easily eradicated.
Legal Strictures: Personal Status and Criminal Code
It is quite clear that in their basic and pure form Islamic personal status laws discriminate against women in the areas of inheritance, divorce, marriage, and child custody rights. A woman's inheritance from her parents is half that of a male sibling. Despite certain restrictions, a man can divorce a spouse rather freely while a woman's right to do so is substantially more restrictive. Men can engage in polygamy, women cannot. In twelver Shi'i Islam, the majority Muslim sect in Iran, marriage based on a temporary contract (muta'a) for a specified time is allowed. Although women also partake of temporary marriage, restrictions on them are more stringent (see Haeri, 1989). Women's rights to child custody in cases of divorce are restricted to the first two years after the child's birth. Other related discriminatory clauses abound in Islamic family law.
The central problem with reform of personal status laws, and hence the general status of women, has a lot to do with the intimate connection between these laws and their sources in the Quran, the Traditions, or the legislation that is derived from them. Therefore, and as Beck and Keddie (1978, p. 25) point out,
innovators in this, as in many other matters, have to deal not merely with some customary belief that may be relatively easily replaced by another, once the newer one becomes more functional, but with the heart of religion, which is the holy law or sharia.
Two additional aspects of the family law further complicate the situation. First, the law is highly differentiated along gender lines with clear and pronounced sets of obligations and duties that are specific to one gender or another. One is hard pressed to find other Islamic laws that are so dramatically delineated along gender lines.
Second, many of the central features of family law remain in force in the Muslim world even as other Islamic laws, unrelated to personal status, have gone through significant changes and modifications (see Imam, 1996, p. 2). As Ahmed indicates,
family law is the cornerstone of the system of male privilege set up by establishment Islam. That it is still preserved almost intact signals the existence of enormously powerful forces within Middle Eastern societies determined to uphold male privilege and control over women (1992, p. 242).
A further complication in reform of personal status law is the special role and place that Islamic practices have assigned to the family. The Islamic tradition has always emphasized the role of the family and its critical importance as the backbone of a moral and ethical society. Women are praised as the carriers of virtue and the key agents of socialization for children. Family values, and the women's essential role in their propagation, are recognized and given special praise in the extensive discourse on the subject. This purist view of the family has probably also harnessed some of the attempts to modify the ideal type.
The difficulties of reforming the family law in much of the Middle East have been immense. In parts of the Middle East region, especially in some of the Gulf states, revisions of family law have been essentially non-existent (see Tetreault and al-Mughni, 1995; Mir-Hosseini, 1993). In Iran, the progressive Pahlavi reforms of the personal status law in 1967 (Bagley, 1971) and 1974 were repealed by the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Khomeini. In place of the newly-acquired legal protection that women had gained in marriage and divorce, the Islamic regime instituted a set of highly restrictive traditional sharia laws and practices, including encouragement of temporary marriage. Even in Turkey, where family law reforms have been extensive and have remained basically stable, popular practices do not always correspond to the law. Although bold for its time, the Ataturk 1926 Civil Code which revised family law now "seems outdated to many Turkish feminists" (Mayer, 1995, p. 444). Implicit acceptance of domestic violence and the fate of battered women by some Turkish courts have prompted protest and action by the feminists. The creation of the Purple Roof Women's Shelter Foundation in 1990 in Istanbul was the feminists' collective effort to combat abusive family situations (Arat, 1998, pp. 120-123).
In Jordan, where women's progress is approvingly noted by many observers, personal status laws remain discriminatory and sexist. This has led Brand to call the law "the most explicitly sexist" in Jordan. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that "what few protections are included in the law are not realized in practice" (Brand, 1998, p. 107). Similar to the Turkish case, women feel that full implementation of the law (even with its discriminatory features) will help alleviate some of the most blatant gender abuses. In Lebanon, as Shehedah points out,
while the Lebanese constitution and civil law treat single women as equal to men in most matters, women are relegated to second-class status in civil law once they are married and become wards of their husbands (1998, p. 502).
In other words, a single woman is in effect penalized upon marriage.
The ebbs and flows of these reforms have taken their toll in Egypt, with progressive laws being replaced by more restricted versions. A relevant case in point is the 1985 repeal of Law 44 by Egypt's High Constitutional Court. This law had been based on Sadat's 1979 presidential decree and the approved People's Assembly version of 1985. The new legislation revised some of the features of the 1929 personal status law by giving more freedom to women in cases involving the husband's second marriage and divorce (Brown, 1997, pp. 195-198; Talhami, 1996, pp. 102-122; see also Rugh, 1984). The debates and controversies surrounding the process of its repeal were vivid reminders of how deeply rooted the traditional family law provisions are among the populace. In a small step toward a more progressive legal status for women, the February 2000 reform in Egyptian marriage laws gave women limited divorce rights.
These experiences have prompted some Egyptian feminists to use available legal norms to circumvent the restrictions of family law. Since in Islamic law, marriage is an agreed contract between two parties, some Egyptian couples have drafted their own agreement that gives equal rights to both partners. The blueprint for such contracts, Vasiqah `Aqd Zawaj (Document of Marriage Contract), was prepared by Egyptian feminists and included all the legal and religious rationales and justifications as well as the appropriate reference to the Quran (surah al-Rum, Aya 20). The document is accompanied by a tightly argued five-page circular that justifies the legality of the new marriage contract (Zulfaqar, 1995). Although no court of law has formally approved this new marriage contract, it nevertheless remains an important bold attempt within the system to voluntarily improve the formal status of women and provide them with greater legal protection.
Even more dramatic is the case of the Cairo University professor, Nasr Abu Zeid, where Islamists brought a lawsuit against him to force an involuntary divorce from his wife (al-Sayyid, 1994, pp. 277-280; Weaver, 1998, pp. 38-48). Abu Zeid's guilt was his scholarly writings, which, in the eyes of some zealots, had questioned fundamental Islamic precepts. Accordingly, Abu Zeid was declared an apostate and, hence in accordance with Islamic law, he could not remain married to a Muslim woman.
The long and tortuous legal battles that have taken place since 1993 did not always go in Abu Zeid's favor. Although the government attempted to prevent such cases by approving legislation banning hisba (accountability) law suits by individuals unrelated to the couple, the effort did not bring an end to this bizarre episode. The failure of the final court of appeal to declare a judgment in favor of Abu Zeid resulted in the involuntary exile of the married couple from Egypt to Europe. This case dramatizes, yet once again, the resiliency of attitudes on matters related to the legal status of the family and the potential for abuse inherent in the current family law.
Islamic criminal code is also discriminatory to women. Based on the Biblical concept of talion, the code restricts the role of the state in criminal matters making it essentially an adjudicator rather than a principal party to the dispute. Conviction is, hence, heavily dependent on witnesses' testimonies. The testimony of a woman is viewed as half as valuable as of a man's. Additionally, testimonies of women alone, irrespective of their numbers and validity, are not sufficient to convict a murderer. In all cases, a male witness is required for validation.
In countries where these codes are rigidly applied, their collective impact is particularly detrimental to women. In effect, these sets of laws and regulations codify and legalize women's status as second class citizens. Variants of these laws are present in Islamic countries as diverse as Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the Sudan, and elsewhere. It is interesting to note that even the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam which posits equality of woman and man in "human dignity," does not find the sexes equal in "rights" (Mayer, 1994, p. 330).
Corollary to legal restrictions, there are also attempts in some Islamic countries to segregate men and women in public spaces (see Milani, 1992). The moral imperative that dictates such a view may be hard to fathom, but it is advanced by the Islamists as a justification for enforced separateness. The arenas for these divisions are vast and include public transportation, all levels of education, even parts of the work place. Many of these forced regulations are openly resisted by women. No less common is clandestine or surreptitious resistance in the classic mode of the "weapons of the weak." Numerous examples of these types of behavior abound in revolutionary Iran and in other countries.
This separateness is further reinforced through application of female veiling and the imposition of penalties for its non-observance. An important distinction needs to be made between voluntary veiling and veiling imposed by the state. For example, Cairene lower middle-class women don the hejab (veil) for economic and social class reasons and as a way to accommodate traditional family values while, at the same time, being able to enter and remain in the male-dominated work place (MacLeod, 1991).
Voluntary veiling has also been used as a symbolic act of protest against authoritarian regimes and their policies in both Egypt and pre-revolutionary Iran. The recent cases of voluntary veiling in Turkey's university campuses and among the Islamists can also be viewed both as an act of protest and an affirmation of Islamic identity. Gole's designation of such behavior as "symbolic capital" is apt as it publicly identifies "the emergence of a new figure, the female Islamist intellectual" (Gole, 1996, p. 5). As she points out, this type of veiling is not a case of gradual and smooth outgrowing of tradition.
On the contrary, it is the outcome of a new interpretation of Islamic religion by the recently urbanized and educated social groups who have broken away from traditional popular interpretations and practices and politicized religion as an assertion of their collective identity against modernity (Gole, 1996, pp. 5, 83-130).
As valid as the various explanations for veiling may be, the really critical issue is the direct role of the state in the process. When the state forces women to veil or unveil (as in the case of Iran in 1936 and 1980, respectively), then there exists a serious problem. Similarly, it can be argued that pressures brought upon women by the Islamists to veil is yet another example of forced imposition. Although there may be some merit to the argument, the central concern rests with the state's coercive power in forcing compliance with veiling regulations.