Chapter Two: Islam’s Appeal to Women; The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism
The role of Islamic Fundamentalism would have a very important one over the next decade, especially for women. With the rise of the Islamic Republic, women's roles developed in several areas including socially, politically and economically. Women played a large role in the revolution itself and their participation would have far reaching implications in their future lives as Iranian women. In this chapter I will be examining women's different roles in the Iranian revolution and why women would chose to support a revolution that was opposing a seemingly feminist government.
Demonstration of Iranian women against Ayatollah Khomeini's statement regarding the veil, 1979
By the late 1970's it was apparent that the citizens of Iran were unhappy with the way their government was being run. Mohammed Reza Shah had lost all credibility and corruption was running rampant. There were several main reasons leading to the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism, most a direct result of the inept rule of the Pahlavi regime. For one, Iranians were tired of the widespread fraudulence characterizing the Pahlavi regime. Additionally, the Shah's iron control of the state didn't allow for any freedom or independent action. But what hurt the Shah the most was his blatant disrespect for the traditional values of the society, the values upon which much of which Iran's beliefs were based. The Shah expected to throw out the entire ideological foundation and to suppress any of the people's discontent. The revolution appealed to many as a return to authenticity, an assertion of the Iranian identity.
One of the major grievances the ulama had was that their power had been slowly whittled away over time. In an attempt to repair some of the damage, the Shah made several concessions, prohibiting liquor sales, reducing the age of marriage for girls and closing down cafés. The main source of unrest stemmed from the ulama, but the bazaar was the main proponent of the Islamic movement. Poor urban and village people were isolated from the majority of occurrences surrounding the revolution, and their status had remained unchanged for the most part of pre-revolutionary Iran. The lower class relied upon the middle class for most of their information about the revolution, serving as a sort of informant.
The disgruntled atmosphere aided Ayatollah Khomeini in his plan to retake Iran. Khomeini had started to garner support as far back as the 1960's and his popularity began to grow in earnest with his opposition to the White Revolution and gender equality. On his initiative, nine of the top clergymen issued communiqués denouncing women's enfranchisement in 1963. Khomeini claimed that the idea (of gender equality) was a Western plot and he constantly referred to the corrupting influence of the West in his speeches. Due to his obsessive concern with foreign influence in Iran, Khomeini challenged the Pahlavi regime to pass a law conferring diplomatic immunity on American military and technical assistance personnel, which was passed. Khomeini, however, was banished in 1964, first going to Turkey, and finally settling down in Iraq in 1965.
In the face of growing public dissatisfaction, the Shah demoted Prime Minister Hoveyda in July 1977 to the minister of court and appointed a new prime minister, Jamshid Amuzegar. Amuzegar had a much stronger economic background, and was placed there in the hopes of solving some of Iran's economic problems. Later that year students in Tehran began to call for the return of Khomeini, who had been campaigning from Iraq. He distributed cassettes urging Iran to put pressure on the government. As time progressed Khomeini grew more defiant towards both the Shah and the United States.
The Shah made a gross miscalculation in January of 1978, and his mistakes fed the public's contempt for the Pahlavi regime. The Shah published an article in Iran's leading semi-official newspaper, Ettela'at, attacking and slandering Khomeini. Iran erupted in outrage and the following day theological students staged a protest in Qom. The protest turned into a violent confrontation when security attempted to break up the crowd, leaving at least seventy dead. The ulama and bazaar leadership, sensing their growing power, began to stage more demonstrations, including memorial demonstrations for those who had died at Qom.
In July of 1978 large crowds demonstrated in Isfahan, also ending with many deaths and the imposition of martial law. At this same time, in a desperate move to save the regime, the Shah allowed several new freedoms into the lives of the Iranian people, in an attempt to counter balance the growing power of Islamic Fundamentalism. The press, for one, was given the freedom to print what they wished and people could speak freely in public. The parties of Iran were also promised free elections for the following year. After twenty-five years of thirsting for some sort of liberty, to remove so many restrictions at once proved to be destructive.
Through the 1977-1978 period the people of Iran grew more restless with their existing leaders. Even though now exiled in Paris, Khomeini stilled made broadcasts to the people, extolling Islamic ideals. In response to the new rising force of Islam the Shah began to run propaganda campaigns claiming that Khomeini was against women's rights. Khomeini pointed the finger in the opposite direction, accusing the Pahlavi regime of having an anti-feminist agenda.
Demonstrations became more frequent and people became increasingly fearless and enthusiastic in the face of death. The demonstrations began to take on more socioeconomic tones. Strikes were staged at various companies, including a Tehran oil refinery and a petrochemical complex at Bandar Shahpur. Demonstrations also spread to the government and oil industry, so that by October 1978 production level had fallen to an average of 1.5 million barrels a day, a mere 28 percent of its former level. On December 11, 1978 mass non-violent demonstrations took place in several major cities in Iran. More than one million people in Tehran alone gathered to mark the death of Imam Housain. During these demonstrations a resolution was passed calling for the overthrow of the Shah and for Khomeini to lead Iran.
The Pahlavi regime could no longer deny that it was facing demise. The resolutions passed at the demonstration made it obvious that the situation was deteriorating at an uncontrollable rate. Premier Bakhtiar began negotiations for the Shah's "temporary" departure on January 16, and ordered the release of all political prisoners and the dismantling of SAVAK. Khomeini's followers were demanding his return from France, and on February 1, 1979 the Ayatollah returned to a massive welcome. The revolution was a success and Khomeini officially took power four days later, beginning a new era for Iran.
For many, the Islamic Republic was an alternative to the Pahlavi regime (which can also be seen as an alternative to Western modernization). A noted Iranian scholar and revolutionary leader, Mrs. Zahra Rahnavard said of the revolution,
Our revolution introduced a totally new thing into the world - not Marxist, not nationalistic, but religious. We could do nothing without Islam. I was not always religious, but now I see it's the only way we can make the changes. I say this as a scientist and as a sociologist.
There were four main issues that the revolution was looking to correct under the Islamic Republic. They were moral decay, the previous government's policy of secularization, the loss of national independence and the social and economic injustices that hade developed (mainly between the ruling class and the lower classes). Many Iranians felt that their values were slipping, especially sexually, due to the increasing exposure to Western films and magazines pornography was becoming more common.
Women's Roles In the Revolution
The rise of the Islamic Republic brings many questions with it, mainly why these women would chose to participate in a movement against a regime that was improving women's rights. What surprised the West most was women's large participation in the movement. In order to understand the seeming paradox between the revolution and women's roles in it we need to further explore the relationship between women and the Islamic fundamentalist movement.
Women were instrumental in the success of the Islamic Revolution and they participated in the movement for a variety of reasons. The first, as I discussed in Chapter 1, was that Iranian women were not receiving nearly as much freedom and equality as the Pahlavi regime was depicting. Despite the slight gains in literacy, domestic attitudes towards women changed very little. Education failed to change women's traditional roles, as local socialization was still a huge influence, the educational system reinforced many of the traditional attitudes, and no serious effort was made to raise consciousness on women's rights. Studies were conducted that showed little or no improvement in women's domestic attitudes. Shahrzad Siassi investigated the attitudes of educated, urban middle class women (who were the main targets of the Shah's modernization) on issues such as marriage, motherhood and employment. Her study found no significant change under the Pahlavi regime. Women still believed that marriage was their primary goal in life, and job dissatisfaction was prevalent for all women. John and Margaret Gulick also conducted a study on domestic social environments in Isfahan during 1970 and 1971 and found that there was no link between increased education and women's domestic attitudes. Neither primary nor secondary education prevented a woman from marrying at a young age and following a domestic pattern of life, although a secondary education did delay it slightly and increase a women's chance at a non-domestic occupation. Another empirical study was done evaluating men and women's attitudes towards equal rights for women. Although the majority of women admitted that they were discriminated against, they did not favor the women's liberation movement. The investigations to show that despite the rise in education and literacy, women's traditional values did not undergo a major change.
The second reason that some women backed the revolution was because of the conflicting messages they were receiving. They were living under a government that had no respect for the traditional values that many of them had been taught to respect. These women didn't want to be molded into a Western woman; they wanted to create their own images. They felt the Pahlavi regime was trying to interpret them and that the regime was trying to make them into mindless western dolls, to keep their minds off more important issues, like politics. These women believed that an Islamic government would give them the respect they deserved and in response there was an upsurge in women's religious activities. Many saw their concentration on religion as an alternative lifestyle to the behavior advocated by the Shah. Women took an active role in discussing the issues surrounding them, including what constituted proper attire. Forms of dress were increasingly becoming a matter of choice.
A third reason was that although some women were supporting the Islamic revolution, they were not support the Islamic Republic. Rather they were supporting an anti-shah movement. They were tired of the corruption and incompetency of the government and were horrified by the violent way that the regime dealt with peaceful demonstrations These women were not supporting a new ideology that was trying to take away their freedom but a revolution to oust the existing one. Iranian women, through their support of the Islamic revolution were looking for an alternative to the Shah and the one presented itself was Islamic Fundamentalism. So they seized it, and proceeded to make the movements theirs, shaping it to fit their needs.
So, now that we know why women were supporting the revolution, the next question that needs to be answered is who were these women? By 1976, despite some gains, almost sixty percent of Iran was still illiterate, and the majority of that number was comprised of women. This usually leads to the assumption that uneducated women were behind the revolution due to the outwardly feminist facade of the Pahlavi regime. This is only partially true, however. The movement was made up of a large variety of women from all segments of society, including both literate and illiterate, urban and rural women. There isn't one specific group of women that can be pinpointed as the main participants; it was women from every sector of life.
The peaceful nature of the revolution made it highly accessible to women. Only in its very last stages did the revolution turn violent. Women's participation was non-violent for the most part, which was regarded as appropriate for them, although some women did become famous for their participation in guerilla warfare. Women participated on many different levels, caring for the wounded, opening their homes when needed, and female doctors provided medical assistance.
Through their participation in the Islamic Revolution, many of these women felt that they were casting off their passivity. They hadn't feel liberated by the Pahlavi regime. In fact, the regime inspired the opposite feelings in many women, feelings of repression, a lack of originality, and a general lack of control. They were forging their own identities through their opposition of the Shah and were standing up for their political beliefs. But most of all, the revolution shows us that these women were not a passive part of society. They took a direct interest and action in shaping the history of Iran. The main opposition to the revolution came from those who had a vested interest in the Pahlavi regime, namely the wives of high officials and older Iranian women who were more pessimistic due to the many uprisings they witnessed in the past.
There are two women that Islam puts forth as models that women should emulate. Just as men have role models, like the imams, who they look to for guidance, so do women. The religious establishment encouraged women in this outlook; these figures provided examples for both during and after the revolution. The warrior sister was the prevalent image throughout the revolution. Zainab, the sister of Imam Husain, was put forth as the role model to inspire political action. Zainab is remembered for her supporting role at the Battle of Karbala and, upon the death of her brother, she spoke openly and effectively against his enemies. The Islamic Republic realized that women constituted a large faction of their support and they took advantage of this. Throughout the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini used inclusive language and referred to women in terms of this warrior sister image, encouraging women's participation. "Khomeini sent a message from France saying, "Any nation that has women like the Iranian women will surely be victorious" and went on to explain that this comment served to encourage women to be proud of themselves at to be martyrs." Women felt that they were important to and involved in the revolution, that they were equals in the revolution.
In more peaceful times Zainab's mother, Fatimeh, was set forth as the woman to emulate. Fatimeh serves as a model for the ideal daughter, wife and mother. She was self-sacrificing and devoted to raising her children. These two roles are not contradictory, as Nesta Ramazani argues. She says, in one of her articles, "Paradoxically, at the same time that the revolutionary leaders were trying to domesticate women, they were also mobilizing them on a massive scale for political and military participation." However, the paradox is contrived. It results in the ingrained Western ideologies about domesticity and politics. The West believes that the two are mutually exclusive, whereas Islam is able to integrate the two. It is acceptable for a Muslim woman to participate in politics when necessary and to assume the role of mother at other times. The role changes depending on what is needed most at the time.
The Politics of the Chadur
Throughout the history of modern Iran veiling has played a significant role in the lives of men, women and the religious world of Islam. The question of veiling seems to be at the very heart of politics, religion and women's identities. With all of the emphasis placed on the chadur, conflict over it becomes very intense and meaningful. The chadur has meant many different things to many different people. Its significance often depends on who is looking at it, and during what period of time. For two main factions in Iran, it certainly had opposing meanings and for the women of Iran, its significance was constantly changing.
Under the Pahlavi regime the chadur represented backwardness and subjugation. Both the Shahs used the chadur as an example of the progressive attitudes of Iran. The chadur became the regime's example of modernization, and the rest of the world jumped upon it as a sign of Iran's progress. Although the chadur officially represented backwardness, this didn't hold true for everyone in Iran. The chadur was never a large issue for rural Iranian women for several reasons. Rural Iran was not greatly influenced by the political battles occurring in the more urban regions. Due to their relative isolation the legalities and fights over the chadur never really reached them and when it did it had little effect. Additionally, the chadur was not a practical item for many of these women to wear. It often got in the way of their work and it did not carry the same political significance.
During the beginning and the duration of the Islamic Revolution, the chadur took on new and added meaning in the eyes of urban women. Many women chose to reveil themselves for their own personal reasons. For some women it was a religious statement, for others it was a political one, and for a some it was a chance to return to the traditional way of life.
Many women were able to express their support of the Islamic Republic and their new identities through Islamic dress. A large number of urban middle class women chose to wear the chadur as an assertion of their own identity. The chadur had a dual role in the revolution, serving as both a tool of resistance and it also had a symbolic role. As a tool of resistance it allowed women to hide from being easily identified by SAVAK during demonstrations. It concealed their identities and allowed them to protest publicly with less fear of repercussions.
The other role of the chadur had a more symbolic quality, whether it was for political or religious reasons. Many women donned the chadur to show their political support for the Islamic Republic and it had little to do with force or oppression. They actively chose to wear the chadur for their own purposes and the chadur was a sign of their support for the Islamic Republic. The wearing of the chadur symbolized a certain moral stance. Rather than have the chadur defined for them, either by Mohammed Reza Shah, or Khomeini, they choose to define the chadur for themselves.
For some women chadur became symbolic of these women's resistance to the Pahlavi regime. These women's decisions to reveil were independent of religion. Women who had previously gone unveiled were choosing to reveil themselves. Women made a political decision to show their support against the Pahlavi regime through their veils. Guity Nashat offered the example of a woman physician she knew, who, in 1979 chose to wear the chadur again for major demonstrations. Later that year, she objected to pressures to reveal on a more permanent basis and took a leave of absence from work. The chadur, to them, did not represent their subjugation, in fact it was a symbol of their liberation, of their growing political identities. The chadur gave them the knowledge that they were actively helping to shape their futures.
After the revolution, the chadur developed further, taking on yet other connotations. The first order for Khomeini in February of 1979 was to firmly re-establish the chadur. The fastest way for the Islamic Republic to assert itself was to reveil the women of Iran. Due to the huge political implications of the chadur, reveiling was also a political move. It was meant to show the world that Islam had reasserted itself in Iran and that the ideologies of the West were not welcome. It was symbolic both of Iran's turn to traditionalism and away from Westernism, women's role in the society and it helped the Islamic Republic establish their control over Iran. "With the mullahs unquestionably in the seat of power, the only real program that the authorities seem to have is for the total covering of women's heads. Indeed, the covering of women has become almost a national obsession."
Some urban middle class women were feeling betrayed by Khomeini's actions. He had promised them equality during the revolution and they felt that he wasn't living up to his promises. They had actively participated in the revolution and were expecting to continue their participation into the existing regime. Due to this sense of betrayal, many women choose to flaunt the rules of veiling. Rather than donning the old chadur, they instead choose to wear light, colorful veils and some even went as far as to put flowers in their hair. Some women, rather than directly protesting the chadur, attacked the lax dress codes of men. They argued that men too, should have some form of cover, although most admitted that a head-to-toe cover might not be possible. Male officials were forced to admit that men must observe modest dress codes and behaviors.
Unfortunately a large gap appeared in women's interpretation of the chadur, as opposed to the Islamic Republic's interpretation. Women who chose not to veil were labeled supporters of Westernism. The chadur had come to represent decency and honor, and women without them were officially seen as supporters of Western values. By wearing the chadur during the revolution women were accomplishing multiple, individually defined goals. They were mourning the martyrs of their regime, expressing their discontent with the Pahlavi government and expressing their support of the Islamic Republic, among other things. Many of these women that were veiling were not doing so on a daily basis, only on occasions were their public support was needed.
Khomeini's Views of Women
Through both interviews and excerpts of his book, one can piece together the views that the Khomeini held on women's suffrage. The first time the world was exposed to Khomeini's views was during an interview he did with Oriana Fallaci in September of 1979. Ironically, this woman also interviewed the Shah, and had a magnificent way of getting to the heart of matters with both these leaders, and exposing much of their ideologies that neither were necessarily willing to publicize. For example, there was one incident where the Shah made a comment on women and Khomeini responded to it at a later date. During this interview the Shah said of women,
In a man's life, women count only if they are beautiful and graceful and know how to stay feminine... and this Women's Lib business, for instance. What do these feminists want? Equality, you say? Indeed! I don't want to seem rude, but... You may be equal in the eyes of he law, but not, I beg your pardon for saying so, in ability.
After the interview conducted with Fallaci, it became apparent that the Shah was not a believer in women's suffrage nor in the reforms he was making for women. Khomeini responded to the Shah by saying,
In an interview with an Italian journalist, the Shah declared that women should only be objects of sexual attraction. It is this concept which leads women to prostitution and reduces them to the status of sexual objects. Religion is opposed to this view of women, and not to their liberty and emancipation. The fact that women from all levels of society took part in the recent demonstrations, which we are calling the "referendum of the streets" shows the falsity of these allegations. Women fought side by side with men in the struggle for their independence and their liberty.
During Khomeini's interview with Fallaci he further elaborated on the subject of women's participation, saying,
The women who contributed to the revolution were, and are, women in Islamic dress, not elegant women all made up like you, who go around all uncovered, dragging behind them a tail of men. The coquettes who put on makeup and go into the street showing off their necks, their hair, their shapes did not fight against the Shah. They never did anything good, not those. They do not know how to be useful, neither socially, nor politically, nor professionally.
This quote is an example of how Iran defines its priorities for women. Unlike the West, Iran emphasizes strong women and strong mothers. Attractiveness is not something that women strive for, nor is it considered a women's most important trait.
For Khomeini, all answers lie in Islam. He follows a traditional interpretation of the Koran, which portrays women as symbols of disorder and of evil. Women, because of this, need to keep themselves covered and be governed by the strict rules of Islam. One of the biggest accomplishments of the revolution, for Khomeini, was the return of the chadur. The chadur reinforced women's role in society and Islam. A women needs to be covered both for the sake of men, and for her own protection and virtue.
In Khomeini's view, the Pahlavi regime lowered the status of women. Khomeini viewed women as mothers and educators and he was against the Westernized women whose ideology indoctrinated them to, "Discard their primary responsibilities to their families and cast off their children in unsuitable places where all deprived offspring were gathered to grow up into irresponsible, corrupt people."
One of the few things that the ulama agreed upon was the legal status of women. As far back as 1959 the ulama disagreed with the government on its liberal stance on women, and giving them the right to vote. In 1963, with the introduction of the White Revolution the ulama once again was dissatisfied with the Shah's approach to the "woman question" in Iran, of which it was in decided opposition.
Women's New Roles Under the Islamic Republic
So what did the Islamic Republic mean for women's roles? How did their power change, and what were their new roles under the Islamic regime? Despite all the legal changes to these women's lives, they did not become the passive objects that much of the literature, articles and books out there claim to be the case. In many ways, women's role stayed the same under the new regime. In fact, the Islamic Republic has forced women to face their political identities and develop them in their own way. The Pahlavi regime allowed no independent thinking, and women didn't have a chance to develop their own identities.
Haideh Moghissi, Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women’s Struggle in a Male-Define Revolutionary Movement (Great Britain: The Macmillan Press LTC, 1994) 61.
Martin Riesebrod, Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United State and Iran (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1993) 119.
Nikki R. Keddie, Roots of Revolution An Interpretive History of Modern Iran (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981) 251.
Nikki R. Keddie, Roots of Revolution An Interpretive History of Modern Iran (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981) 252.
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Martin Riesebrod, Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United State and Iran (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1993) 126.
Eliz Sanasarian, The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran: Mutiny, Appeasement and Repression form 1900 to Khomeini (USA: Praeger Publishers, 1982) 108.
Eliz Sanasarian, The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran: Mutiny, Appeasement and Repression form 1900 to Khomeini (USA: Praeger Publishers, 1982) 108.
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Eliz Sanasarian, The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran: Mutiny, Appeasement and Repression form 1900 to Khomeini (USA: Praeger Publishers, 1982) 118.
Nesta Ramazani, “Women in Iran: The Revolutionary Ebb and Flow.” Middle East Journal 47 (1993): 411.
Guity Nashat, Women and Revolution in Iran (Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, Inc., 1983) 123.
John Kifner, “Amid Terror and Deprivation, Islamic Fervor Still grips Iran,” The New York Times, April 22, 1982. A10.
Eliz Sanasarian, “The Politics of Gender and Development in the Islamic Republic of Iran” Journal of Developing Societies 8 (1992): 65.
Guity Nashat, Women and Revolution in Iran (Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, Inc., 1983) 115.
Guity Nashat, Women and Revolution in Iran (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983) 115.
Guity Nashat, Women and Revolution in Iran (Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, Inc., 1983) 116.
Guity Nashat, Women and Revolution in Iran (Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, Inc., 1983) 122.
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