The Islamic Republic and the Question of Women
Within two weeks of coming to power, Ayatollah Khomeini in an attempt to reassert the clergy's success over the Pahlavi modernist ideology annulled the Family Protection Law. Temporary marriage, which had been outlawed although it continued to be practiced among more traditional social groups, was not only legally sanctioned but was openly encouraged. The most dramatic change, however, was lowering the legal age of maturity to 9 for girls and to 14 for boys, and enshrining this in the constitution. This was interpreted to mean that girls could be given in marriage at the age of nine, the legal age at which they are punishable as adults for any criminal offense (Kar and Hoodfar 1996).
Within a month of his return to Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini announced that women were barred from becoming judges in accordance with Islamic tradition. Three days after this announcement, Khomeini declared that women should wear the hijab at their place of work. Shortly after, the beaches were segregated. This was followed by the segregation of all sports events. This unexpected turn of events resulted in spontaneous demonstrations which continued for several weeks. Moreover these developments brought into focus a small gathering organized for March 8, International Women's Day, by a small group of women with leftist tendencies. This event, which normally would go unnoticed, grew into a protest rally, as thousands demonstrated against the undemocratic imposition of these codes. Women lawyers, backed by secular as well as some Islamist forces, organized several sit-ins in the ministry of justice (Tabari and Yeganeh 1982). Despite a boycott of protest rallies by the media, including the national radio and television, the demonstrations attracted public attention and support. They also attracted mobs of religious zealots and paramilitary forces, mostly men but also women, armed with knives, broken glass, bricks, and stones. The counter-protestors attacked and injured many women, while the Revolutionary Guard, then serving as the regime's police force, watched passively.
Surprised by the spontaneous protests, the government announced that the messages of Ayatollah Khomeini had been misunderstood, and that there were no plans to impose the hijab. They stated that while the government and the religious leaders were proponents of the veil, and hoped all Iranian women would adopt the hijab, they would not make it compulsory. Similarly, statements indicated that the Family Protection Law would remain in use until a new law was drafted. These announcements, which indicated that the government had responded to public pressure, encouraged some democrats (particularly socialists) to withhold their support for a protest rally planned for March 11. The democratic groups claimed that a rally at this stage of the revolution would be divisive, benefitting only imperialists who wished to see the revolution defeated (Yeganeh 1982, Sansarian 1982). In short, women were told they should sacrifice their democratic and equal rights for the success of a revolution that had chosen them as the first victims of an anti-democratic agenda. Nonetheless, the media estimated that 20,000 women participated in that protest rally, and many more joined the march which followed it (Paidar 1995).
Public resistance and protest rallies did not change the minds of the religious hardliners determined to build an Islamic society, which they believed would not be possible without an "Islamic" family and the imposition of the hijab on women. Rather, the protests indicated to the government that they would have to adopt a gradual policy, meanwhile establishing much tighter control over oppositional street demonstrations. Thus, by June 1980 - only 15 months after the regime's own statements to the contrary - Ayatollah Khomeini declared that women must wear the hijab at their workplaces and many women who resisted were promptly dismissed. By 1981, hijab had become compulsory not just for Iranian Muslim women but also for members of Iran's religious minorities and foreign female visitors in all public spaces. Despite resistance grounded in the criticism that the dress code trespasses women's basic human rights, the law continues to be harshly imposed.
In an attempt to send women back to their homes where many conservatives believed they belonged, workplace day-care facilities were closed. Compensation packages were introduced which encouraged women to retire after only fifteen years of work, or transfer their full salaries to their husband and resign or work part-time only. Ostensibly, these programs would ease women's lives and make it possible for them to attend to their domestic and motherhood responsibilities. Despite the recent relaxation in rapid Islamization policies which had aimed to reform society mostly at the cost of women, as recently as 1992 the government introduced a bill allowing women to retire after twenty years of work. The government has reasoned that the bill compensates women's double day of household and labour market work, which together mean that twenty years of work outside the home are equivalent to forty actual years of labour; early retirement would also enable women to attend to their domestic responsibilities. However, after twenty years in the labour force, most women are no longer in the family building cycle and their children are grown up. Changes such as unpaid leave and the right to work in locations close to their homes (both advantages enjoyed by Egyptian women), which would benefit young employed women experiencing the pressures of raising young children and managing a new household, have not been introduced. The underlying purpose of the policy is clear: to reduce male unemployment by removing women from the labour market and offering the vacant positions to men. Consequently, as women Islamist activists have noted critically, women's public sector employment is reduced by 2 percent each year.
Attempts to rebuild independent women's organizations
Within weeks of the revolution's success, many secular women realized the price of not having their own independent organizations and scrambled to organize themselves. Hundreds of small organizations were formed to better equip women to deal with the political crisis and put forward their long term demands. As well, women tried to organize themselves around their professional associations. Some of the organizations, supported by experienced and educated members, became vocal critics of the provisional government. Others attempted to reach grassroots women and build awareness, initiating training and literacy classes. Meanwhile, attempts in 1979 and 1980 to form the Women's Solidarity Committee, a coalition of women's organizations intended to co-ordinate women's responses on gender issues, were unfruitful. One reason for the failure to establish the coalition was that most of the participants were also active in other political organizations with divergent views, preventing them from appearing publicly on the same political platform even if the issues were gender related.
This burst of organized feminist activity, however, was short-lived. The Islamic government used the Iran-Iraq war and threats of infiltration by pro-Shah forces as opportunities to crush organized political groups. Women's organizations were high on their agenda, and many of their active members were arrested and jailed. Others, faced with this repressive situation, went into exile where many continued to write and be active on the question of women. Many women activists who remained in the country re-emerged by the mid and late 1980s, forming small, informal consciousness-raising or training groups, while others continued to write. However, to this day it has not been possible for secular women to organize public forums and express their views on gender issues.
The birth of the Islamist women's movement
Nineteen seventy-nine also witnessed the birth of an Islamist feminist movement in Iran incorporating several groups and individuals. The most influential of these groups, the Women's Society of the Islamic Revolution (WSIR), formed very shortly after the revolution. The objectives of this organization were to develop culturally appropriate ways of building a society that would end women's oppression. WSIR incorporated highly educated women, including many PhD graduates of American and European universities, as well as others whose political activism, opposition to the Shah, and religious tendencies gave them considerable legitimacy. The presence of prominent women (such as Azam Talaghani) who had been political activists and were well versed in religious education, and who had family links to the religious/political leaders, initially facilitated their access to media. In the views of WSIR and other similar women's circles, the West had turned women into sexual objects. The Socialist East, by focusing only on the economic integration of women and overlooking women's considerable contribution to society through their reproductive roles, also failed to truly liberate women and make them equal counterparts of men (Hashemi 1982).
Islamist women were also critical of women's treatment by historical and modern Islamic societies. In their views, through distortion and manipulation, and by exaggerating some aspects of Qur'anic verses and downplaying others, Muslim societies have oppressed women for centuries and denied them their genuine Islamic rights and dignity. Far from romanticizing a "glorious past," the Islamist women advocates targeted many unfair aspects of traditional and conventional religious beliefs and practices, demolishing the popular conception of a long-ago just Islamic society, which was being promoted as a model for Islamic Iran. The pages of Zan-e Ruz and other women's magazines contained many criticisms, but also fresh glimpses of the role and status of women in the "ideal Islamic society" which is yet to be created. Islamist feminists established branches in provincial towns and engaged themselves in consciousness-raising and the promotion of their own Islamic visions on gender.
Islamist women expected not only that the new government would work with them, providing financial support and making it possible for them to continue with their mission, but also that they would be invited by the government to participate in policy making and consult on gender issues. However to their disillusionment, none of these expectations materialized. Despite their own approval of hijab they criticized government moves to make hijab compulsory. They issued an open letter, warning the government of the consequences of reducing Islamic society to hijab and placing undue importance on it. They stated that in an Islamic society, both men and women should dress modestly and avoid seduction, and thus the dress code should address both genders and not just women (Hashemi 1982; Talaghani, Tabatabai et al 1982). Islamist women also criticized the cancellation of the Family Protection Law and the return to laws which were even more unjust and un-Islamic.
Open criticisms such as these, even though always combined with reiterations of support for the revolution and for Ayatollah Khomeini, put Islamist women activists in disfavour with the hardline conservatives (firmly consolidated in the Islamic Republican Party), who saw women's place as in the home not the public arena, and certainly not in the position of deciding what Islamic society should be like. Thus, with the tacit support of Islamic Republic Party leaders, Women's Society of the Islamic Republic meetings and property became targets of attacks by Hezbollah (the mob supporter of the Islamic Republican Party primarily under the leadership of Ghafary, a dogmatic religious hardliner). With a considerable degree of success, the Islamic Republican Party also managed to replace outspoken Islamist women on the Zan-e Ruz editorial board with their own supporters. Another popular radical Islamist women's magazine, Rah-e Zeinab (which like Zan-Ruz existed before the revolution but was renamed), was forced to fold. While the hardliners who pushed for rapid Islamization continued to organize women's demonstrations in support of their policies, they found the idea of an independent Islamic women's organization not palatable at all.
In this political climate, the first wave of organized feminist Islamist activities diminished. Azam Talaghani was the only member of this group who continued to hold a prominent political position for the first few years, since she had been elected to the first parliament. After her term in office, she continued to run the Women's Islamic Institute as a semi-charitable organization as well as a women's training centre, and has produced frequent publications. The institution has managed to continue operating and still releases occasional publications, despite periodic harassment from the hardliners and more recently from liberal forces within the government. Nonetheless, she has succeeded in safeguarding the independence of the institute, the first independent women's NGO to participate in regional and international women's issues events.
Working from within
Faced with the unpleasant reality of government reluctance to support its own program of promoting justice for women, Islamist women activists had to find alternative channels. They adopted more surreptitious and individualistic strategies, arousing less suspicion from hardliners. Many of the ideologues continued to write for women's magazines in a milder and more acceptable tone, nonetheless revealing the contradiction of trying to build a just Islamic society primarily through exposing women to unjust hardship, both within the family and society in the name of Islam. Thus they continued to raise awareness. This strategy has been so successful that a new magazine, Khanevadeh(Family), has been launched primarily to feature family problems. As the magazine has never claimed to be a woman's magazine, it is read by both men and women, it has become primarily a forum for women to gain support for complaints and legal problems concerning marriage, divorce, custody of their children, and more recently, domestic violence which is often justified in the name of Islam. Most stories are printed with little or no commentary, making it difficult for opponents to brand the magazine as "political." This magazine, now in its fourth year, has proved to be very popular, even among those normally less sympathetic to women's cause. Its current topics are frequently the subject of women's discussions and even local religious leaders feel obliged to address some of the issues or specific cases in their sermons.
Other Islamist women, many of whom were well versed in religious matters, continued to present a new gender vision based on a woman-centred interpretation of Islamic text. They pointed out that much of what is being presented to women as Islamic and "authentic Islamic ways" is nothing but "patriarchy in Islamic costume." These efforts have proved very effective. Within a few years, as Islamization affected more and more women, critical voices issued from all segments of society, including conservative women. Many conservative women, now in positions of influence and access to prominent women's magazines, began to search for an acceptable Islamic vision that would provide answers to women's demands. Thus many feminist Islamist views and woman-centred interpretations of Islamic texts found their way into conservative circles, facilitating legal change, as I will examine later.
Simultaneously, other processes encouraged conservatives to be more hospitable toward more radical Islamic gender visions. As earlier secular and feminist writers had forewarned, many of the women's complaints and hardships were caused by the introduction of new gender-discriminatory laws in the process of society's Islamization. This reality has given the secular forces renewed legitimacy in the eyes of the public, who increasingly grow leery of what is meant by "Islamic justice," at least for women. The revolution, with promises of justice for women hitherto the most oppressed segment of Iranian society, and the invitations from Islamic leaders to ordinary women to participate in street demonstrations and show support for the regime and its policies, politicized women (and continues to do so), giving them a new confidence. While they were willing to be patient with the new regime's claims that fundamental change demands time, as women's situation deteriorated year after year, they started to ask questions, sending flurries of protest letters to the leaders, national newspapers, and women's magazines. Given the abysmal performance of the economy and the burdens imposed on the population by long years of the Iran-Iraq war, the government was wary of public criticism and further alienation of their constituencies. In this atmosphere, the shrewd religious and political leaders grew more amenable to compromise on gender issues.
Pressure to adopt a more reconciliatory tone on gender issues also came from the international community. Iranian oppositional forces and feminists in exile have seen their role as exposing the extent to which women's basic human rights are negated each day in Iran. They make full use of their access to international media and take advantage of the apprehension of European and North American societies toward the Iranian regime. The official promotion of a gender-apartheid society by a movement that has claimed to represent the oppressed, especially with compulsory veiling, and stories of stoning of women and the like, offer tempting headlines to the European and North American media. Concurrently, the Iranian regime has grown more astute and experienced, recently realizing the political and economic value of international acceptance. Pressure from its critics on human rights issues made it hard for the regime to reintegrate itself internationally. Thus, slowly the regime became engaged in improving its tarnished image abroad, and gender issues became high on the new agenda. For feminist activists -and particularly Islamist women - this created fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of legal reform.