The Women's Movement in Iran:
Women at the Crossroads of Secularization and Islamization
By: Homa Hoodfar, Winter 1999
Since the success of the revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, images of Iranian women have come to epitomize the worst kind of retrogressive oppression, symbolized by compulsory veiling, polygyny, and the exclusion of women from public life. Rendering the situation especially alarming is that these measures are supposedly prescribed by God and "Islam", and are thus not negotiable. With the spread of Islamist movements and their unprecedented attention to women's roles and position, these images have been sobering for women activists and others who concern themselves with women's issues in many societies.
However, developments in Iran have been far more complex than the frequently simple, often orientalist analyses suggest. Despite a series of legal setbacks for women, close examination of empirical evidence belies much of the grim picture painted of the situation of women in Iran. Although women are today barely present in upper management level in Iran, issues concerning women (and the family) have become some of Iran's most politicized topics since the revolution. Thanks to the relentless work of both secularist and Islamist women activists, and the continuous participation of thousands of women in street and parliamentary politics, politicians -whether traditionalist, conservative or revisionist - acknowledge that they cannot afford to overlook women as a significant political constituency. Never in Iran's patriarchal history have male politicians been so watchful of or attentive to women's political behaviour and views, which currently appear to threaten the historical, patriarchal Iranian world view. The intriguing question thus emerges as to what social and political conditions have given rise to this unprecedented situation.
Political and social context determines the strategies activists adopt in order to bring about desired legal and social changes. During the process of establishing Iran's first constitution in 1906, the conservative patriarchal elements frequently made political use of "Islam" to erect obstacles to women's demands for equity and full legal and social person-hood, and this tendency persisted with renewed force during the constitution of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Thus it is not surprising that a considerable sector of women's activism in Iran employs not secular debates on women's rights but female-centred interpretations of Islam and of the political concept of "Islamic justice". Through this strategy, women not only derail the claim that feminism and issues of legal equity are Western paradigms which aim to undermine the authenticity of Iranian society, but they also break the male monopoly on interpreting Islamic texts.
In Europe and North America, feminists have been engaged in reformulating conceptual frames of reference in the areas of science and secular philosophy so that they apply to women as well as men (Pateman 1988, Weitzman 1981, Mouffe 1991, Phillips 1993). Through research and "rational" debate they have successfully challenged misconceptions about women's "natural" ability and social place. While their experience and achievements are valuable to women in Iran and in the Muslim world generally, to improve their lot, Iranian women activists have chosen to advance feminist Islamic theology and feminist Islamic jurisprudence, as it is these historically male-dominated institutions and their male-centred understanding of Islam, and not science per se, that hold women hostage. Thus, while the intent of this paper is to provide a brief overview of women's movement(s) in Iran, the particular attention has been paid to the strategies women activists have adopted at different historical periods to promote gender debates both among the politicians and activists, and also society at large. The paper thus outlines the social and political conditions that have led not only to the development of secular feminist perspectives in Iran, but to the emergence of woman-centred Islamists and their strategies which aim, thus far with considerable success, to fundamentally challenge conventional gender visions often presented as "Islamic." This analysis of the gender debates in Iran, and by extension elsewhere in the Muslim world, reiterates that
Islam, particularly as a political ideology, is far from static and unchanging; it is a dynamic and evolving ideological force that is being constructed and reconstructed in the hands of diverse political clergy, and more recently by Islamist feminists and the wider society.
The Historical Overview
By the late nineteenth century, debate around women's issues and women's socio-economic situation in Iran had become widespread among intellectuals, modernists, nationalists, and anti-colonial forces (Sansarian 1982, Paidar 1995). However, in Iran, these debates lacked the intensity that accompanied them in such countries as Egypt and Turkey (Abdel-Kader 1988, Badran 1995, Ilkaracan 1996, Tekeli 1995, Jayawardena 1986). This may in part be attributable to Iran's linguistic isolation relative to the rest of the Arab world, and to the fact that shi'i was never a part of the Ottoman world. Iran also had lesser contact with the European world, for despite great rivalry over Iran among English, French, and Russian imperial powers for influence and control, Iran was never formally colonized. Nor did Iran, a much smaller entity, experience a decline in international power vis-à-vis Europe as did the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century. More importantly perhaps was that Iran experienced relatively small-scale economic and social structural changes compared with its Turkish and Egyptian counterparts. In fact, many modernist and reformist ideas were transmitted to Iran via considerable contact between Iranian intellectuals and their counterparts in Istanbul and Cairo.
While Ottoman religious and state institutions were ceremonially separate, both were ultimately under the authority of the sultan. In contrast, prior to the revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the shi'i clergy in Iran was financially independent and received its legitimacy from public support. Invariably, religious leaders sided with the public to protect them against the excesses of the ruling dynasties - monarchs with absolute power - who depended on religious leaders for their legitimacy (Keddie 1981). However their relationship with those modernists and intellectuals with democratic tendencies were more complex. While on occasion, they joined forces to resist the state despite the ideological gulf between them, at other times they would join forces with the absolutist state to eliminate forward looking politicians and educators. Their hostility to Amir Kabeer, the modernist first minister of the Shah (1801-1848) and Roshdieh (1846-1947), the tireless educationalist, are good examples. In effect the clergy as a strata were more concerned with protecting their own interest and power including their monopoly over public education and the judiciary system from the encroachment of the state and the increasingly more vocal public. Initially, aside from issues concerning women and gender relations, religious leaders did not see a contradiction between modernity or the adoption of a parliamentary political system which allowed for public participation, and their religious perspective, as long as these did not interfere with their authority.
Given the limited ability of reformists to mobilize the public, and the reformist's need to preserve their alliance with the religious leaders against the absolute monarch, even those modernists who advocated the improvement of women's position tended to adopt a more compromising attitude than their counterparts in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.
The public debate around political reforms and women's social and legal position remained primarily a male one. Although women did participate in considerable numbers in early nationalist movements, history has largely overlooked their contributions until recently, when more detailed accounts are gradually emerging (Afary 1996, Bamdad 1977, Shuster 1912, Bayat-Phillipp 1978). During the Tobacco Movement, when a coalition of nationalists, merchants, and religious leaders mobilized the public and demanded the cancellation of concessions made by Nasruddin Shah (1848-1896) to the British, women participated in oppositional meetings and street demonstrations and marched at the front of the protesters who walked to the palace (Keddie 1966, Sansarian 1982, Paidar 1995). By all accounts, such participation was an unprecedented and unconventional act for women who were normally expected to remain in the domestic domain (Keddie 1966, Paidar 1995).
Considerable numbers of women, many of whom were closely related by marriage or blood to progressive and politically active men, actively supported the constitutional movement that sought to limit the absolute power of the Shah and establish a parliamentary system. Women formed many secret and semi-secret associations that supported the nationalist and constitutionalist movement (Paidar 1995, Afary 1996). They helped to organize strikes and boycotts, to spread news, and to encourage the public to protest against the influence of foreigners and the despotic rule of the Shah (Afary 1996, Bamdad 1977, Bayat-Philip 1978, Paidar 1995, Shuster 1912). In 1905, women formed a human shield for the ulama who had taken sanctuary in a shrine near Tehran.
However when the movement was finally successful and the first constitution of Iran was written, women's participation was overlooked and they were denied voting rights. Worse yet, none of the gender issues were discussed in the formation of this constitution (Hoodfar 1999). The denial of women's political rights and prevention of their participation in parliamentary political processes was justified on the grounds that it was against the text of the Qur'an (Afaray 1996, Sansarian 1982). Thus while the political leaders were concerned with transforming men from subjects of the Shah into citizens of Iran, a totally unprecedented and untraditional event, it was not deemed necessary for women to become citizens. Rather, women were viewed as subjects of their fathers and husbands, and their political participation was supposed to be in support of their male kin. While in the west, exclusion of women from political processes was rationalized by philosophers like Hobbes, Kant and Lock, Iranian religious/political leaders merely put a new twist on Quranic interpretation, despite the lack of a single reference to elections in the contemporary sense in the Quran. Ayatolah Mudress, the representative of the grand Mufti (the highest religious authority) in the Majlis, claimed that God had not given women the capacity to engage in politics. God, he claimed, had said in the Quran that women are in the custody of men and may not have the right to vote. Supported by other clerics, he claimed it was the responsibility of male relatives to ensure that women's rights were not overlooked.
Thus, the use of religion became the foundation for conservatives and those violently against changes in women's roles. In this manner the wheel of exclusion which ensured the legal and political alienation of women from formal processes was already set turning in 1906.
Since the exclusion was alleged to be the order of God and not men, challenging such a view for those lacking theological knowledge was both risky and difficult. Thus it is not surprising that apart from some debate over education, there was little discussion about improving women's legal position. When in 1911 Haji Vakil el-Roaya, an enlightened deputy from Hamedan, made an impassioned speech presenting the idea of legal equity between men and women and demanding that women receive universal franchise, there was an uproar in parliament. The speech was considered so offensive to public mores that it was excluded from the parliamentary record (Afary 1996, Sansarian 1982:23). It met with fierce opposition from conservatives, notably religious leaders. Although debates continued among secular and nationalist forces for the next two decades, little tangible advance was made.
Women's disappointment with the outcome of the constitution motivated activists to focus on women's issues. They formed semi-secret associations to discuss women's concerns and tried to change the situation, primarily through opening schools for girls but also by writing and publishing. Until then, the political mobilization of women had occurred not around gender issues but rather around national matters, which remained a preoccupation. As women's voices and demands found support among more moderate groups and intellectuals, the clergy began to target women's associations (anjomans), claiming that they were against sharia. More liberal minded members of parliament pointed out that Muslim women had always had their gatherings. Not only was there no religious obstacle to these gatherings, they argued, but there was no reason women should not get together and learn from each other (Afary 1996 and Paidar 1995). For their part women demanded that the women's associations should be legally recognized along with other associations. The legality and legitimacy of women's associations continued to be hotly debated for some time. While many conservatives remained in opposition to the associations, the Grand Ayatollah came short of calling them against sharia. The parliament finally recognized their legal status but provided them with no financial support.
Disappointed with the outcome of the constitution, women began to raise funds and establish schools for girls, since the government failed to support their demands for girl's schooling. As these schools became popular among a certain segment of urban households - notably the middle classes, - at the incitement of the conservative clergy, female teachers and students were frequently harassed, physically and verbally (Bamdad 1977). Ayatollah Sheikh Fazlullah Nuri issued a fatwa (a religious decree) saying that girls' schools were against sharia (Bayat-Philipp 1978:300). This was despite the fact that the girls schools had only female teachers and everyone involved conformed to the accepted Islamic dress code. Ayatollah Shushtari organized protests (which included women from the least privileged classes) against women's education and distributed a leaflet entitled "Shame on a country in which girls' schools are founded" (Paidar 1995:70).
Women had hoped to avoid hostility from the conservative clergy and to pre-empt the use of Islam as an obstacle to their progress by pointing out the extent to which women's education in Iran lagged behind other Muslim countries in the region, as well as Japan, which, for Iranians did and still does represent an example of development without westernization. In a sense, Iranian women were disadvantaged since the Iranian intellectual debates in 1906 around gender issues, particularly from Islamic points of view, were rudimentary in comparison with those in Egypt and Turkey. For instance, One Leg Crossed Over the Other, a book in support of women's education by Ahmed Fares Shidyak, was published in Egypt in 1855; Sheik Mohamed Abdouh (1849-1905), who had been influenced by Sayyed Jamal al-Din al-Afghani's teachings, wrote a pioneering book arguing for a flexible interpretation of the Quran in light of modern thoughts and initiated a debate on religion and women's rights.
Qasim Amin, in 1899, published his book, The Emancipation of Women, on the basis of religious texts, which created a heated discussion among conservative sheikhs in Egypt. In response to his critics, he wrote another book, The New Woman (Jayawardena 1986:48). These debates, which were influenced by and influenced other Arab countries, and which advanced reformist ideas among the Islamists as well as some clergy, were largely absent from Iranian intellectual discussion despite the considerable influence of Sayyed Jamal al-din al-Afghani (1839-97), the Iranian social reformer and pan-Islamist.
The political motives for the exclusion of women from political power and modern education (as opposed to a genuine concern to avoid deviating from Islamic doctrine) becomes more obvious when we consider that one of the main goals of the contemporary Islamic Republic of Iran, where the state is under the complete influence of Islamic clergy, is to improve literacy and educational attainment among women. A commonly heard development slogan is "In a truly Islamic society, there would not be even one illiterate person." In the same light, whether in mosques or other buildings, rooms where adult education classes are held are decorated with the Islamic saying that a Muslim should go as far as China (then the furthest known civilization) in search of knowledge. The primary constituency of these classes is women (Mehran 1991). The obvious question then is, why has the early opposition to women's education justified in the name of Quran and Islam?
Also conspicuously absent in Iran was debate around personal status law, which consumed much energy of politicians, political activists, and intellectuals in Egypt and Turkey (Abdel-Kader 1988, Badran 1995). The conventional shariah remained the basis of laws which allowed men to contract polygamous marriages, gain automatic custody of children, and dissolve their marriages unilaterally through divorce. It was not until decades later that a minimum marriage age of 15 was set for girls and the registration of marriage was required.
Despite lack of interest in women's concerns on the part of parliament, women did remain involved in national politics, particularly opposing the intervention of both British and Russian forces who had joined the Shah in trying to close the parliament. They also continued raising funds to set up the first Iranian National Bank in order to free Iran's economy and government from the stranglehold of British influence. Though rarely noted, a review of published newspapers and magazines of the time strongly indicates that the presence of women and their large meetings and occasional public speeches were a major force in maintaining the momentum of the struggle (Afary 1996: 203-205, Shuster 1912, Paidar 1995: 70-76). These public activities provided women with political and organizational experience and helped women develop a political language. The clergy and conservative's opposition to women's demands, particularly to their educational demands, also brought about gender consciousness and encouraged the development of women's political discourse. Women held meetings for the sole purpose of discussing women's issues, and produced polemical writings on women's demands.
The success of the constitutional movement and demands for the democratization of society and expanded development led to the fall of the Quajar dynasty. Despite considerable support for republicanism on the part of many modernists, ultimately the constitution was revised only slightly and the new Pahlavi dynasty, committed to the ideology of modernization, if not democratization, was established. This political change facilitated the spread of the modernist view that to a significant degree women's exclusion from public life and particularly from education was responsible for Iran's loss of economic and political power. A recurrent theme in the debates was that society had made women so feeble that they were unable to participate in building the national economy; moreover they were also unfit to raise able children, especially capable sons who could build Iran to its deserved glory (Paidar 1995, Najmabadi 1998). Thus they advocated educating and rehabilitating women to be modern wives and mothers.