Iran's Gender Conundrum
The peace prize most likely will open a new chapter in Iran's upcoming political drama. As noted earlier, Iran's hard-line conservatives feel threatened and shunted by the lasting echoes of this recognition. For two decades, they have mobilized women as a necessary part of strengthening the Islamic state, albeit with strict religious and ideological criteria for higher education, employment, and political participation. Their immediate reaction to this prize as interference in Iran's internal affairs was emblematic of the fear of losing ground in the February 2004 parliamentary elections. That fear has been substantially reduced since the conservatives won the most manipulated and meaningless parliamentary elections since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1980. In the long run, however, they are concerned about mounting challenges to their rule. This prize has several implications for the Iranian political dynamics, but none more important than its prompting a gender upheaval of a sort.
Iranian society is a shifting one with many uncertain and paradoxical features. Amid this confusing picture, however, what appears predictable is that the country is fast approaching a gender conundrum. The dramatic growth of the educational and professional capacities of Iranian women has become a social issue in a country torn by a festering conflict between traditional and modern structures. Iranian human rights NGOs, including the Organization for Defending the Victims of Violence (ODVV), have argued that there is an inevitable link between the rights of women and children on one hand and such concepts as peace and security on the other. ODVV director Alireza Taheri regards Ebadi's prize as an encouraging sign, pointing out that moving toward legal reforms and modifying cultural structures are key to eradicating the traditional cliche regarding the role and the status of women. Such reforms have become essential goals of Iranian civil society.
Tension also persists over the government's lack of capacity to generate a balance between women's expectations and the state's capabilities. If not properly managed, this imbalance is likely to lead to a major social crisis in a society in which females constitute 64 percent of university graduates and the nationwide female literacy rate for ages 15-24 has risen to 97 percent. It has become more difficult for educated women to find suitable husbands because of a custom for women to marry at their status or higher. No woman holds any key position in President Khatami's cabinet. A woman's testimony counts for half that of a man, and women cannot travel on their own without the permission of their husbands. Under Iran's blood money law (diyah), a woman's life is worth half that of a man. Men continue to have a unilateral right to divorce. With no social institutions to translate women's frustrations into an organized resistance, the likelihood of social upheaval is weak in the short run, but discontent is growing and is bound to be a source of tension in the years to come.
Worse yet, experts remind us, the unemployment rate among youth ages 15-29 is 28.4 percent. The country's overall unemployment rate is estimated to exceed 16 percent, as more than four million young Iranians remain unemployed. A report by Tehran University's Center for Women's Studies at the end of 2002 noted that the unemployment rate among female university graduates has risen from 4.7 to 22 percent in the past five years. As of mid-summer 2003, 43.2 percent of women ages 15-20 were jobless. According to an Iranian feminist organization in the United Kingdom, the reason that nine out of every ten women are drawn into prostitution in Iran is poverty. The second most commonly cited reason is unemployment.
Some Iranians, such as Hamid Jalaeepour, a sociologist at Tehran University, argue that in Iran there is no such thing as a "women's movement" in the classic sense of the term, largely because women have not created a movement capable of generating a political conflict with the Iranian government. There is no active institution that pursues gender equality or fights discrimination against women. Jalaeepour sees a phenomenon called "feminism" but nothing like a "women's movement" capable of fighting the state. There clearly is, he points out, a "women problem" in our society, in that there is discrimination against women and it is widely felt by them.
Others such as Mahboobeh Abassgholizadeh, who directs an NGO training center in Tehran, argue that the main objective of the women's movement in Iran is not to acquire a share of political power but to create social changes that would benefit women. Without coordinating the movement's internal rules with those of its shareholders, the women's movement risks being manipulated for purely instrumental reasons, as well as becoming a pawn in politicians' political game. Women in the transitional society of Iran constitute an active social strata with an unwritten consensus on achieving common goals, such as obtaining equal opportunity with men and winning legal freedoms in matters relating to marriage, divorce, child support, and diyah.
The women's movement, Abassgholizadeh continues, is democratic and led by several ideological strains and currents. It is spearheaded not by one particular leader or a special group of leaders but by multiple leaders bent on pursuing many goals and perspectives. This represents a salubrious feature of the movement. Women's movements in England and Egypt have displayed similar traits. The women's movement in Iran, however, as Abassgholizadeh reminds us, suffers from the lack of a goal-oriented direction. Further exacerbating this difficulty is the country's prevailing political factionalization.
Still others note that Iranian society is far more developed than the Iranian state. The gap between the two renders a gender crisis inescapable. Some parliament deputies, such as Elahe Koolaee, predict that a gender crisis is inescapable. Mostapha Tajzadeh, a journalist and former adviser to President Mohammad Khatami, echoes the same view, arguing that Iranian leaders have adopted the wrong approach to women's social demands in the past, intensifying and radicalizing the feminist problem. A more progressive attitude, Tajzadeh noted, could have had a moderating influence on feminism in Iran. It is unclear whether the state will be able to deal effectively with this issue or whether this problem will reach a crisis beyond its control.
During the first decade of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the women's struggle was spearheaded by "revolutionary women," says Mahboobeh Abassgholizadeh, the editor-in-chief of Farzaneh: Journal of Women's Studies and Research. These feminists were primarily concerned with the communitarian viewpoint and the traditionalist question of identity, Who am I? In the late 1980s, the second generation of feminists, who were communitarian in one sense but pragmatic in others, came to be known as "religious reformists." They were deeply concerned with addressing the question, What is my duty? By the 1990s, the third generation of feminists, who combined aspects of cosmopolitanism with pragmatism, came to be known as "Islamic feminists." They emphasized rationality over sacred texts and dynamic jurisprudence and were largely concerned with the question, What are my rights?
As a lawyer with a solid record of defending the rights of children and women while fighting the Islamic penal code and other archaic laws, Ebadi epitomizes a secular feminist who shares certain views of third generation Muslim feminists. Islamic feminists generally support international human rights covenants and conventions, especially the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Ebadi empowers her to further expose the inherent contradictions of Iran's conservative ideology. This development has predictably renewed the debate on the intersection of globalization and Islamic feminism in many circles.
To the extent that globalization is equated with Western cultural domination, its underlying rationale is bound to come under assault in the Muslim world. Islamic regimes, however, have yet to provide an attractive alternative to the pervasive social, cultural, and secular trends, as well as to the dominant global institutions. It has become increasingly difficult, for instance, for the ruling clerical regime in Iran to harness the broadening popular appeal of the human rights discourse. Iranian women assert that an enlightened interpretation of Shari'a is one of the best ways to uphold their rights. This view has fostered Islamic feminism, which increasingly is seen and recognized as one brand of feminism among many and as part of the diversified spectrum of the global women's movement.
The term "Islamic feminism" has invited controversy both within the country and abroad. Politically, the antifeminist Islamic patriarchy sees it as a sign of Western cultural imperialism, noting that Islamic feminism glosses over the complexities of the socioeconomic and political transformations of Muslim countries. Quite the contrary, some Iranian feminists abroad, such as Nayereh Tohidi, view Islamic feminism as one component of more holistic social change in Iran. This phenomenon, Tohidi maintains, should be seen as a faith-based response of certain strata of Muslim women in their attempt to negotiate with state elites while recognizing the egalitarian ethics of Islam. The true testament of Islamic feminism and its limits for women's empowerment, Tohidi continues, must be accounted for in its deeds more than in its theological or theoretical inconsistencies.
Others such as Afsaneh Najmabadi describe Islamic feminism as a reform movement that paves the way for a dialogue between religious and secular feminists. This reconfiguration of the political and cultural space in which feminists of all outlooks can have a common stake to campaign against gender inequality and social injustice is a positive development. The best example of such cooperation came in 1999 when Shirin Ebadi (a Muslim feminist with secular leanings) and Azam Taleqani (an Islamic feminist) joined in a legal campagin spearheaded by Iran's female deputies in the National Assembly (Mujlis) to protest the ban on women practicing as judges.
Still other secular Iranian feminists abroad, such as Valentine Moghadam, have argued that Islamic feminists are playing an important role in broadening the discursive universe while expanding legal literacy and gender consciousness. Islamic feminism as such is "a legitimate--and historically necessary--strategy to improve the status of women and to modernize religious thought." The detractors of Islamic feminism, as Moghadam rightly states, deny women's agency and dismiss the reform movement as irrelevant. They essentially define feminism as Anglo American radical- and liberal-feminism. The broader notion of a global feminism has no place in their critique.
Toward A More Modern Islam
Having initially squandered the good will and the constructive role of women to rebuild the country after the demise of the shah's regime, the clerical regime turned to women for political support. To enjoy popular support and broader legitimacy, the ruling clerics in Iran had no choice but to allow women to participate in the public sector, making a virtue out of necessity. Consequently, as Ziba Mir-Hosseini poignantly notes, "a door from within was opened that could no longer be closed." Since then, women increasingly have established their presence in public while raising objections to the imposition of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in every aspect of social life.
The debate over women's place in society and their civil rights in the late 1990s led to the questioning of the policy of enforcing hijab (Islamic dress). Ebadi made a statement about her choice by going bare-headed before the newsmedia, an act not permissible under Islamic Republic law. She said that she respected Islamic law and wore a head scarf only when she was in the country. Some Iranian feminists see the mandatory enforcement of hijab as being without historical roots. Shadi Sadr, for example, argues that there are no historical, religious, or jurisprudential bases in Shi'ism for legally enforcing hijab. Its enforcement since 1979 by the Islamic Republic has been chiefly a function of the ruling elites' decisions. Modesty in dress has been a socially constructed and agreed upon community norm.
As noted earlier, some elements of Islamic feminists and secular feminists have come together to reform laws regarding divorce, marriage, puberty age, child custody, inheritance, and alimony. Emphasizing the individualization of women in post-revolutionary Iran, Azadeh Kian-Thiebaut argues that the rule of political Islam has contradicted the realities of modern Iranian society. It has led Islamic and secular women to join hands in their struggle to redefine gender boundaries, re-appropriate modernity, and challenge institutionalized gender inequality. This level of self-consciousness and a desire to act as an independent agent have created a new social reality: many Iranian women today perceive themselves as women and as individuals rather than exclusively as wives and mothers. Today, increasing fragmentation in women's religious circles and gatherings (jalasa) exists among women preachers and their followers regarding the separation of religion and state.
The secular nonconformist women who stayed in Iran after the revolution have engaged in both informal and formal activities aimed at enhancing agendas as diverse as protecting children's rights, supporting family planning, preserving the environment, and promoting human rights. They have participated in elections, been active as legal staff in the Islamic courts, and published scientific articles and social commentaries criticizing Iran's conservative position vis-a-vis women in magazines such as Zanan (Women).
The globalization of communication (that is, the Internet) has led to the creation of a global feminist community in space. Iranian women have become a social force capable of combating inequality and servitude. In this fundamental sense, they have joined the "community in space." Ebadi herself has pointed to the contentious nature of the debate:
If Islamic feminism means that a Muslim woman can also be a feminist and feminism and Islam do not have to be incompatible, I would agree with it. But if it means that feminism in Muslim societies is somehow peculiar and totally different from feminism in other societies so that it has to be always Islamic, I do not agree with such a concept.
Ebadi's prize will expand the global feminist space. It most likely will lead to further convergence between certain elements of Muslim feminists and secular feminists. Many Iranian women feel vindicated and emboldened, even as the risks to them for staking their claims have not been dramatically reduced. The ensuing sense of pride and optimism among Iranian women and men alike is likely to expand the ranks of opposition. Upon her return to Iran, Ebadi witnessed tremendous enthusiasm and renewal of hope among many Iranian women. Fatimeh Haqiqatjoo, a parliament deputy, and Zahra Eshraqi, President Khatami's sister-in-law and the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, warmly greeted her at the airport. Also among those who came to the airport to welcome her were two male government representatives, Iranian government spokesperson Abdullah Ramezanzadah and Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. This gender-blind support for Shirin Ebadi is indicative of broader societal support for internationally recognized human rights.
Views differ on the impact of the Nobel Peace Prize on Iran's internal political dynamics. Some observers reject the argument that the Islamic Republic faces serious gender problems and that drastic action must be taken to avoid a gender crisis. Others retort that the reality is that Iranian society faces grave gender concerns that will adversely affect its public policy if not addressed properly.
The pessimists insist that this award will have minimal impact. It is only natural, they argue, that the leaders of the sinking reform movement have, after several bleak years, turned to women's struggle for restoring their legitimacy and ending the stalemate in which the nation finds itself. More than one hundred newspapers and journals have been closed since President Khatami's first term began in 1997, and many journalists are still in jail. Moreover, pessimists see a disconnect between the agenda of Islamic feminists in Majlis--who try to institutionalize the legal protection of certain women's rights--and the aspirations of a younger generation that is eager to enjoy more social rights and basic freedoms. Despite the persistence of perfunctory signs of Islamist dominance, such as buses segregated by sex and the wearing of veils, Iran's younger generation has become virtually "de-Islamized." Born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, this generation sees the "Revolution supported by their parents mainly as having failed to provide them with meaningful freedom and economic security."
Unlike the pessimist view, I suggest that Iranian women's support for the international norms and regimes, as well as their desire to change archaic Islamic laws, will nudge the country along the path of globalization more so than ever before. There are reasons to believe that women's struggles in Iran potentially could revitalize Iranian society, even as they face a monumental task in their attempts to reduce democratic deficits and enhance social equity. The real question remains, Will this dynamic pose serious challenges to the control of the theological state, a dysfunctional state held together by coercive means and sheer intimidation?
The concerns about Iran's growing gender problems seem logical, but the prognostication that such problems will have a debilitating impact on the longevity of the theocratic state is overstated. Regime change from within is possible, but it requires the existence of a solid opposition movement. Women's struggles have yet to reach that level of opposition. There can be no doubt that the legitimacy of internal change is even further emboldened if the ruling clerical regime has no excuse to hide behind the threat of a U.S. military intervention. This is not a far-fetched view given the rising discontent of youth and women--once among the major supporters of President Khatami--who have become disillusioned with reformists' pledges and continue to question openly the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. They represent a human capital absolutely crucial to the struggle for democratic reform in Iran and one on which the Western world could count.
Finally, I consider untenable the argument that as the struggle for women's rights takes on a new, more challenging turn, the conservatives' project fades into history. Perhaps, under these circumstances, generating gender-sensitive governance is the best that can be desired. Regardless of who wins future parliamentary and presidential elections, Iran is likely to join CEDAW, albeit with certain reservations, partly because of Iranian women's struggle and partly in response to the global consensus and mounting international pressure on Iran. Many Iranian women see opportunities for playing a greater role in global civil society. They regard global institutions and conventions such as CEDAW as major avenues to protect and promote their rights. Under the right conditions, globalization offers Iranian women an effective tool with which to enhance their rights. In this basic sense, globalization is more than a desirable process; it indeed is an essential route to achieve women's rights.
Valentine M. Moghadam, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, 2d ed. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003), 176.
Alireza Taheri, "Human Rights, Women's Rights, and Peace," Organization for Defending Victims of Violence (ODVV), Tehran, Iran, http://www. odvv.org. This essay was sent to me via e-mail on October 30, 2003.
"Shorn of Dignity and Equality," 23.
"Iran Official: Unemployment Rampant among Youth and Women," Payvand's Iran News, http:// www.payvand.com/news/03/jul/1001.html (accessed October 23, 2003).
"Massive Growth in Jobless Rate for Iranian Women Graduates," Agence France Presse, December 29, 2002, http://www.iranexpent.com/2002/ womenjobs29December.htm (accessed October 23, 2003).
"Iran Official: Unemployment Rampant among Youth and Women."
"Memorandum from the Association of Iranian Woman in the UK," Association of Iranian Women in the UK, http://www.parliament.the-stationeryoffice.co.uk.pa/ cm200203/cmselect/cmfaff/405/405 we15.htm (accessed October 23, 2003).
Hamid Jalaeepour, interview with the author, July 21, 2003.
Mahboobeh Abassgholizadeh, "Iranian Women's Movement is Without Head," Zanan, no. 102, September 2003, http://www.zanan.co.ir/ culture/000153.html (accessed November 11, 2003).
Elaheh Koolaee (parliament deputy, Islamic Republic of Iran), interview with the author, July 19, 2003.
Mostafa Tajzadeh (ex-deputy to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami), interview with the author, July 23, 2003.
Mahboobeh Abbasgholizadeh, "The Experience of Islamic Feminism in Iran," Farzaneh 15, no. 10 (Winter 2000): 7-14.
Third generation feminists include Shahla Sherkat, Maryam Behrouzi, Monireh Gorji, Zahra Rahnavard, Mahboobeh Abassgholizadeh, Faezeh Hashemi, Fatimeh Haqiqatjoo, Zahra Eshraqi, and Jamileh Kadivar.
Mahmood Monshipouri, "Islam and Human Rights in the Age of Globalization," in Islam Encountering Globalization, ed. Ali Mohammadi, 91-110 (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), 106.
Charles Kurzman, "The Globalization of Rights in Islamic Discourse," in Islam Encountering Globalization, ed. Ali Mohammadi, 131-55 (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), 133.
Valentine Moghadam, "Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents: Towards a Resolution of the Debate," Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27, no. 4 (Summer 2002): 1135-71.
Nayereh Tohidi, "Islamic Feminism: Perils and Promises," Middle East Women's Studies Review 16, nos. 3-4 (Winter 2002), http://www.amews.org/ review/reviewarticles/tohidi.htm accessed October 25, 2003).
Afsaneh Najmabadi, "Feminism in an Islamic Republic: Years of Hardship, Years of Growth," in Islam, Gender, and Social Change, ed. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito, 59-84 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 77.
Katajun Amirpur, "Islamic Feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Orient 40 (1999), trans. Christina White, http://www.gantar.de/webcom/ show_article.php/_nr-9/_p-4/i.html (accessed October 25, 2003).
Moghadam, "Islamic Feminism."
Ziba Mir-Hosseini, "Islam, Women and Civil Rights: The Religious Debate in the Iran of the 1990s," in Women, Religion and Culture in Iran, ed. Sara Ansari and Vanessa Martin, 169-88 (London: Curzon Press, 2002), 186-87.
Shadi Sadr, "Is the Government Responsible for Enforcing Hijab?" Zanan no. 103 (October 2003), http://www.zanan.co.ir/social/000159.html (accessed November 10, 2003).
Azadeh Kian-Thiebant, "From Islamization to the Individualization of Women in Post-revolutionary Iran," in Women, Religion and Culture in Iran, ed. Sara Ansari and Vanessa Martin, 127-42 (London: Curzon Press, 2002), 141.
Azam Torab, "The Politicization of Women's Religious Circles in Post-revolutionary Iran," in Women, Religion and Culture in Iran, ed. Sara Ansari and Vanessa Martin, 143-68 (London: Curzon Press, 2002), 164.
Mehranguiz Kar, "Women's Strategies in Iran from the 1979 Revolution to 1999,'" in Globalization, Gender, and Religion: The Politics of Women's Rights in Catholic and Muslim Contexts, ed. Jane H. Bayes and Nayereh Tohidi, 177-201 (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 199.
For a stimulating perspective on this issue, see Asghar Fathi, "Communities in Place and Communities in Space: Globalization and Feminism in Iran," in Women, Religion and Culture in Iran. ed. Sara Ansari and Vanessa Martin, 215-24 (London: Curzon Press, 2002).
Quoted in an interview with Nayereh Tohidi, "Islamic Feminism: Perils and Promises," Middle East Women's Studies Review 16, nos. 3-4 (Winter 2002), http://www.amews.org/review/reviewarticles/ tohidi.htm (accessed October 25, 2003).
Nazila Fathi, "Peace Prize Renews Hope of Changes for Iranians," New York Times, October 19, 2003, 4.
I am grateful to Minoo Aghaee, a PhD student at Tehran University who is completing her doctoral dissertation on global human rights, for sharing her thoughts with me on this subject.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, "The Deadlock in Iran: Pressures From Below," in Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, ed. Larry Diamond, Marc F. Platter, and Daniel Brumberg, 151-56 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 153.
Shirin Ebadi made this point abundantly clear in a meeting that Alireza Taheri, the director of the Organization for Defending the Victims of Violence, a Tehran-based NGO, and I had with her in early January 2004 in Tehran, Iran.