De-veiling and the European dress code as a vehicle of modernization
No major change occurred in the legal position of women during the rule of Reza Shah (1924-1941), but the new regime put considerable emphasis on education, including women's education, as a major vehicle for modernization. This boosted the number of schools for girls and also provided opportunities for educated women to be employed as teachers. An unfortunate related development was the linkage of the dress code and hijab to women's education. Modernists insisted that if women were to take part in education and nation building, the veil must be discarded; sometimes they went as far as insisting on the adoption of western clothing and fashion. It was as though women's head gear per se excluded women from intellectual activity: if women put on European styles of clothing, Iran would somehow miraculously transform itself and become European in its other characteristics. The combination of unveiling and education in one package derived at least partly from the elite's awareness that, in the West, the veil had come to symbolize the backwardness of their society (Hoodfar 1997). Not surprisingly, similar concerns also preoccupied other Middle Eastern reformers, particularly in Turkey (Bawd 1996, Tekeli 1995, Fandy 1998; Quataert 1997).
In addition to the fixation on European images of Muslim societies, other factors influenced the emergence of the conviction that the veil and education were an unlikely pair. In Iran as in many other Muslim societies (and particularly among urban elites), patriarchal elements often used the veil (and sometimes still do) as an excuse to curtail women's mobility and independence. They condemned women to seclusion and to the domestic domain; seclusion and public education were clearly incompatible. Therefore, the underlying criticisms of the reformists should have been directed at the seclusion of women in the name of the veil and not at the head gear as such.
Given that the veil and Islamic ethics have been closely intertwined in Muslim cultures, the combination of unveiling and formal education in one package by reformists and modernizers was a strategic mistake. Conservative forces, including the clergy, seized the opportunity to legitimize their opposition to the proposed changes in the name of religion and galvanized public resistance to education for women. However, the public's opposition was primarily to unveiling. In effect, de-veiling became a battleground on which the westernization forces fought the conservative religious forces with little real concern for Iranian women (Hoodfar 1993).
Finally, in 1936 following Ataturk's example, and as a show of force which indicated the clergy's exclusion from formal political power, Reza Shah's modernization program outlawed the chador, the traditional Iranian ankle-length cape which covers women's hair and body (though not the face). It was made illegal to publicly wear any head-gear apart from European hats! It is important to stress that the dress code decree also forced men to wear European clothing, particularly if they were government employees. However, police had strict orders to remove and destroy chadors and scarves of women, while male dress code was not so stringently enforced (Sansarian 1982; Hoodfar 1997). Until 1979, the anniversary of the introduction of this law was officially celebrated as Women's Liberation Day in Iran.
A small number of elite and intellectual women supported and benefited from the unveiling law, and welcomed the change, taking advantage of some of the educational and employment opportunities offered by the modern state. However, because the state had little presence in the countryside, and since most rural women dressed in their traditional clothing, the law had little immediate impact on their lives. On the other hand, for lower middle class and low-income urban women, who were socialized to see veiling, in the form of chador, as the only legitimate, acceptable way of dressing, the unveiling law was far from liberating (Hoodfar 1993, Bamdad 1977). Many felt obliged to stay home, and gave up their public activities, including shopping for the family, engaging in economic activity outside the home, visiting neighbours, and worst of all, going to the public baths - a cherished ritual that expanded women's social circles beyond their immediate family and neighbours. The de-veiling law and its harsh enforcement not only failed to liberate women of these classes, but sequestered them and forced them to rely on their husbands, sons, and male relatives for public tasks which they normally carried out themselves.
In the absence of the state's active intervention, low-income and traditional middle class social groups remained under the cultural influence of conservative religious leaders who considered modern schooling to be a source of corruption for girls. They advised parents against educating their daughters. This in part explains, despite decades of free and compulsory education, the low rates of female literacy even in the communities which had educational facilities. After the Second World War and the abdication of Reza Shah (1924- 1941) in favour of his son Mohammed Reza Shah, the veil remained illegal although the law's enforcement was relaxed. Gradually, women wearing scarves and chadors appeared side by side with those without head-gear.
Despite its draconian imposition, the de-veiling law and modernization increased educational and employment opportunities for many women and thus paved the way for the redefinition of women's role in society, even among traditional groups (Sansarian 1982; Paidar 1995). After the Second World War, traditionally-dressed women from religious backgrounds gradually began to continue their formal education, arguing that there was no contradiction between observing hijab and acquiring an education, and that religious and cultural beliefs did not exclude modernity. This ideological position enabled many women to participate in "modernity" while enjoying the support of their religious families and communities. However, as the veil remained illegal, they remained excluded from employment opportunities in the public and modern sectors of the economy (Hoodfar 1997). Equally, the veil continued to be depicted as a symbol of backwardness and ignorance even though it was widely worn by urban women. Hence, veiled women as a social group continued to feel alienated.
Although some female intellectuals continued to write on women's questions, the initial zeal and support from their male counterparts rapidly diminished after the de-veiling movement. For reasons that yet need to be studied, independent women's organizations never quite evolved to become a major political force as they did in Egypt or the Philippines. At least in part because so many operated in secrecy for so long, they never developed the organization and mobilization structures. Even during the more liberal period under Reza Shah, independent political groups were not tolerated, including women's organizations, despite the fact that these groups were small and their demands did not conflict with the Shah's views on modernization. Thus, as Reza Shah's government became stronger, many women's groups and organizations fell into disarray, and were either officially dismantled or lost their membership due to strict censorship regarding what they could say or publish. Simultaneously, the state successfully incorporated many vocal and capable women into its structure, making it difficult for women's organizations to maintain their independence.
Isolation from other regional and international women's movements facing similar social and political situations made it difficult for women to learn from the experiences of other women's movements and protect their independence. The most important recorded effort to establish ties with women of the region came from the well organized Patriotic Women's League, which at its height hosted the Oriental Women's Congress in Tehran in 1932. Women from Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, and India participated in the congress and debated issues such as women's education and the abolition of polygamy, a concern they all shared (Sansarian 1982:67-68). Yet, as women's organizations dwindled and Eurocentrism came to dominate women activists' visions in Iran and in many other countries, these regional contacts were not sustained.
The Second World War weakened the ruling regime as the result of Anglo-Russian occupation that forced Reza Shah out of power leaving the state without much power or authority. The precariousness of the state resulted in the relaxation of censorship and attempts to rebuild political parties and women's organizations. Some of the women's journals and publications, notably Zaban Zanan (The Women's Language) which had ceased publication, reappeared, along with several new ones. The Women's Centre, the Women's League, and a few smaller organizations appeared on the political scene. Some organizations concentrated on training women in various professions while others had explicit political goals. In 1942 Badrulmoluk Bamdad founded 'Jamiyat Zanan Iran' and started the publication Zan Imruze. The other major new organization was a women's party established through the initiative of Safiyeh Firuz, a long standing committed women activist. The expressed goal of this organization was to promote women's legal and social status and actively participate in consciousness raising on the issues of women. Fatemeh Sayyah, a prominent intellectual and writer on women's concerns became the party's secretary. The party and Dr. Sayyah were vocal on the issues of suffrage and lobbied parliament to raise the issue in the Majlis (Golbon 1975). Democratization of family and marriage and divorce laws, which the party viewed as the foundation, remained the major issue around which much of the writing, lobbying and consciousness raising activities was focused. The party was later transformed into a council to allow women with different views to collaborate on common causes (Paidar 1995: 126- 128, Woodsmall 1960: 80-83).
Many other political organizations had a women's wing. The most radical of these being the women's organization of the Tudeh, the Iranian Communist Party; the women's section worked under the leadership of the party, despite this lack of autonomy however, their writings and gender demands had a considerable impact on other women's organizations. In 1944, the Tudeh Party prepared a resolution asking for the enfranchisement of women, but it was defeated in the Majlis.
As the state gradually gained more control, particularly after the defeat in 1952 of the nationalist prime minister - who insisted on respecting the constitutional democracy - in addition to censorship and pressure tactics the regime began to co-opt and control the various women's organizations. The Shah's sister Princess Ashraf and a few of her allies initiated the High Council of Iranian Women's Organizations and, with the complete support of the state, they attempted to bring all women's organizations under their umbrella. Within a few years, they had effectively completed the task; this meant the loss of independence for the movement and a tacit agreement that the only demands put forward would be those the state was willing to grant.
Despite these organizational developments, no major legal or social changes took place between 1936 (the year of de-veiling) and 1963 when Iranian women's enfranchisement was approved in a national referendum along with land reform and several other major policies as part of the White Revolution. Enfranchisement occurred almost 30 years after the recognition of Turkish women's right to vote and participate in parliamentary politics, yet it met with considerable opposition from the Iranian clergy, including Ayatollah Khomeini himself, who viewed this as the complete corruption of Muslim mores. The opposition of the clergy, the bazaar merchants, and some landlords to the reform package led to a brief and unsuccessful uprising which resulted in the exile of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iraq.
The enfranchisement of women gave the necessary boost to the High Council of Iranian Women which renamed itself the Women's Organization of Iran; adopting an elaborate constitution, it attempted to establish branches in all provinces. This not only officially indicated the end of independent women's organizations but also set in motion the depoliticization of women's issues. Other democratic forces dropped women's questions from their lists of concerns. As the regime lost legitimacy with the public, all institutions and issues closely tied to the state (and in particular to members of the Shah's family) lost credibility regardless of their political intent.
However, the depoliticization of women's issues did not mean inactivity. The Women's Organization of Iran initiated programs and services aimed at women, such as family welfare centres, literacy classes, legal counselling, and professional training. Their greatest contribution however was their effective and successful lobbying for the Family Protection Law. This law, passed in 1967 and amended in 1975, sought to restrain men's right to polygamous marriage by requiring either the court's permission or the first wife's consent.
Divorces, except with mutual consent, had to be referred to the court. Child custody was also to be decided by the court on the principle of the child's best interest, which generally improved women's chances of retaining custody or at least visiting rights. However, despite the fact many other Muslim countries had adopted similar reforms, these modest reforms created another wave of opposition among the conservative clergy. Ayatollah Khomeini, then in exile in Iraq, announced that women whose divorces had been decreed by the court against their husbands' will would be committing adultery if they remarried (Mir-Hosseini 1996). Such hostility may have been engendered more by the exclusion of clergy from the political and legal power structure than by the content of the law.
In effect the Shah's regime, which thanks to oil money had become increasingly independent from the nation, was not interested in allowing even a minimal share of power or independent initiatives. For instance the appointed Senator Manochehrian, who was among the more vocal women since the 1950's, criticized the passport law which required women to obtain their husband's permission for each trip abroad and demanded that this discriminatory law be revised. Her request was turned down without any justification. As a consequence of the heated debates over this issue in the senate, she resigned (Paider 1995). The only reason appeared to be that her initiative had not come through the acceptable channels, namely the Shah's family.
Some six years later the passport law was slightly revised whereby the husband's permission was only required at the time of issue and not for each trip.
In practice these reforms primarily benefitted only women who had access to information as well as the social and economic support necessary to take advantage of the legal system. Yet, it would be a mistake to belittle the considerable ideological, symbolic, social and psychological significance of these reforms, which indicated to women and to society at large that women deserved more rights than tradition had accorded them. This had a substantial impact on women's self-perception. As will be discussed in the following sections, the hasty cancellation of these reforms by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 has come to represent a major liability for the regime and over the years, step by step, the Islamic Republic has had to reinstate these reforms (Kar and Hoodfar 1996; Paidar 1995).
Other significant changes that affected the self-perception of women and the definition of women's role resulted from their integration in the labour market. Although initially the ministry of education was the primary employer of women as teachers, gradually and especially after 1963 the government followed a policy of integrating women into the public sector. This was facilitated by the increasing number of women graduating from high school and university. The increased presence of women in the public sector also led to the formation of women's professional associations, many of which, particularly the associations of lawyers and teachers, have remained very active despite political vagaries. At least theoretically, the labour law guaranteed equal treatment for men and women, and entitled women to paid maternity leave. During the 1970s, large companies and ministries were required to provide day-care centres in order to facilitate women's employment. Nonetheless, according to official statistics (which by definition exclude women engaged in the informal economy), by 1978 women comprised only 8 percent of the total paid labour force (Moghadam 1993).
Women and the Revolution
The oil revenue which fuelled the economy and financed state projects made the government independent of its constituency and facilitated the erosion of the already limited political democracy in Iran. Thus while Iran had one of the world's fastest growing economies, large segments of the nation, including the middle classes which had experienced substantial economic improvement, grew increasingly alienated from the dictatorial regime which had officially installed a one-party system (Halliday 1978, Abrahamiam 1984). This process culminated in the most massive revolution in modern history.
In a spontaneous alliance, hundreds of thousands of Iranians of all social strata poured into the streets in every major city and demanded democracy. As more and more demonstrators were killed by the security forces, the Shah himself lost legitimacy, and the population began to demand that he step down. He responded with charges that the demonstrations were incited by foreign agitators and immoral communists. To refute these claims, demonstrators adopted religious symbols, including the veil, which simultaneously refuted any western or communist influence. This move facilitated the ascendance of the religious leaders, long enemies of the Shah, to the leadership of the anti-Shah movements. In effect, the Shi'i clergy, who had ready access to autonomous funding and an effective communication network through thousands of mosques, were the only organized opposition left in Iran with the ability and the legitimacy to galvanize the public. Finally, in early 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini emerged from exile as Iran's supreme religious and political leader.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Iranian revolution was the massive participation of women in the daily demonstrations. To many women who belonged to the non-veiled middle classes, the adoption of the veil was a temporary action that symbolized their rejection of the state's (read the Shah's) gender ideology (Yeganeh 1982, Betteridge 1983). As religious slogans, and especially the veil, were adopted by the movement, more and more women (particularly from more traditional segments of society) joined the demonstrations. This unconventional presence of women in political demonstrations, wearing traditional black chador, became the symbol of the popular revolution. However women's demands generally echoed those of the movement and were not specific gender demands.
Women's issues were not raised in the demonstrations because the Shah's regime had been inextricably linked to women's rights. Therefore, raising gender issues appeared to contradict the very aim of the anti-Shah movement. Women political activists refused to mobilize and organize on the question of women's rights. When many who were ambivalent about the revolution cautioned women that religious leaders (including Ayatollah Khomeini) had historically been against women's equity and rights, others accused them of being divisive and trying to damage the unity of the political oppositional forces. Responding to these sentiments, Ayatollah Khomeini issued statements that the Islamic regime would restore dignity and real social worth to women. He emphasized that Islam has never been against women's freedom (Nobari 1978). Shrewdly these statements were cast in general terms, and women were left to interpret them according to their own understandings.