Logistical and strategic moves
Political change in Iran brought a fundamental change in the way women activists viewed reforms, and new strategies for achieving desired social and legal changes. After the revolution, seeing that the stroke of a pen abrogated many laws which benefited them, women became convinced that real change had to take place at the societal level, or at the very least in women's consciousness. Moreover, it was clear that the law-making bodies were dominated by conservative men for whom biology and shariah determined the fate of women; in their view, criticism of conventional Islamic practices was a heresy which stemmed from westernization. Clearly, lobbying influential leaders, a primary strategy for pushing reforms before the revolution, would not be effective in post-revolution Iran.
An overview of the discussion around gender issues and the position of women makes it clear that women activists have been bypassing the government and law-making bodies by taking their issues directly to the public through print media, women's religious gatherings, and sometimes via radio and television. They expose injustices suffered by women in the name of creating a "just" Islamic society, and invite the public to be the judge. The language used is often simple, marked by everyday religious concepts and metaphors, and usually in the context of real life stories. The discourse appears "personal" with no apparent political tendency or agenda, and thus escapes censorship. In this way women's complaints are introduced into public conversations, galvanizing support and sympathy, sometimes to the extent that religious/political leaders feel obliged to engage in the debates. Women activists, particularly those with influential connections, ensure that the views of sympathetic religious leaders and politicians also gain publicity. For instance, activists have invited more liberal religious leaders to grant interviews to women's magazines or other media, and urged them to discuss popular issues in their sermons. It is important to recognize that these efforts are not formally organized or centralized, but emerge from groups of individuals who are for the most part engaged in fragmentary activities.
For the sake of further clarification, I review a few examples. During the early 1980s, women's magazines, including those sponsored by the government, published many stories of poor young women who had been given in temporary marriage and became pregnant. After the expiration of their marriages, they were unable to find their infants' fathers, who disappeared in the huge cities. Magazines also documented the lives of women who were married very young, struggled against poverty, and through hard work and penny-pinching eventually improved their material condition until, middle aged, they were divorced without financial compensation or alimony because their husbands wanted to marry younger women. Many similar stories documented the unfair treatment of women. Magazines and newspapers printed open letters to the religious leaders asking if this was the way to achieve Islamic justice. "How can the religious leaders and our legal system leave the fate of women in the hands of men who are obviously not good and fair Muslims?", they asked. Religious leaders were asked to explain how the regime intended to restore the respect Islam and the Islamic Republic had promised women.
Another campaign targeted the custody of children after the death of their fathers, often as martyrs of the revolution or the Iran-Iraq war. According to the conventional practice based on sharia, the paternal grandfather or another close paternal male relative (and not the mother) receives custody and guardianship of children whose father has died. Thus many women who had lost their husbands in the war also lost their children to their in-laws, eager to gain custody of the children of martyrs, who receive government compensation. These widows, who were among the supporters of the regime and whose husbands had volunteered to go to the war, wrote and gave public talks about their experiences, as widows of the martyrs they had considerable legitimacy and leeway in expressing their opinions. They spoke about having given their beloved husbands to the revolution and for Islam, to be rewarded by having their children, their flesh and blood, torn from their bosoms in the name of Islam. "How can that be just and fair?" they asked. "How can a fair system justify that a woman be so tortured and punished for her wholehearted support of the revolution? Is this what we were promised by Islamic justice?" These stories received considerable sympathy from government supporters as well as critics, and forced the regime to react.
The first manifestation of the success of the campaign was indicated by Ayatollah Khomeini's introduction of a new Family Law. Although this law did not go as far as many Muslim women activists had hoped and leaves much to be desired, it was nevertheless in many respects, one of the more advanced marriage laws in the Middle East (outside Turkey and Tunisia), yet it did not deviate from conventional assumptions of "Islamic" law. Under this new law an official marriage contract stipulates conditions which put women in a stronger legal position within marriage. As Muslim marriage is a contractual relationship, Muslim women and men have always had the opportunity to insert conditions in the marriage agreement, although people rarely did. This standard contract removes much of the burden on individual brides (and their families) trying to secure a fairer marriage deal for themselves without appearing that they doubt the good faith of the suiters. Instead, the burden is shifted to the groom who must negotiate to remove the clauses he disagrees with, giving the bride's party leverage to request additional conditions of their own. This official format also provides some protection for those given in marriage too young to be able to effectively negotiate more equitable marriage conditions for themselves. Notwithstanding, the nature of partnership between husbands and wives remains fundamentally unequal.
This success was followed by a decree from Ayatollah Khomeini granting martyrs' widows custody of their children even after remarriage. While this law does not extend to all women, its significance stems from breaking with the Shi'i belief that custody laws are Qur'anic and not subject to challenge. Thus it opens the door for further change, especially since the stature of Ayatollah Khomeini prevents accusations that the law conflicts with Islamic jurisprudence. Similarly, in the area of divorce rights, several amendments have improved women's legal rights (Kar and Hoodfar 1996, Mir-Hosseini 1996).
Women continue to agitate for more fundamental changes by asserting that Islamic texts and traditions may be reinterpreted and then enacted into law. For instance, Iranian women campaigned for the ojrat ol-mesal (wages for housework) law which was passed in December 1991. Islamist women activists argued that women, like all other Muslims, are entitled to the fruit of their labour on the grounds that Islam is against exploitation, but that for centuries women have been denied this basic right. They pointed out that in Islamic tradition wives have no duties to their husbands beyond being faithful, and are not required to work in their husbands' homes, to the extent that women are not even obliged to breastfeed their children without payment from their husbands. Therefore, since all women do in fact work in their husbands' homes, they are entitled to the fruit of their labour. The argument, though novel and unconventional, was based on Islamic texts supported by Qur'anic verses. The bill was initially resisted by the Islamic parliament and conservative religious leaders because it was an unconventional interpretation of "Islamic law." However, as the conservatives could not prove that it was un-Islamic, it gathered considerable popular support, and the law was eventually passed in December 1992. Presently, a man who intends to divorce his wife without proving fault on her part must first pay housework wages for the duration of the marriage. Many women feel that, despite its problematic application, this law has provided a better bargaining position than ever before (Mir-Hosseini 1996, Kar and Hoodfar 1996). Nonetheless to most women, it is the symbolic and ideological value of this law that is significant. It stresses to society and to women themselves that their labour should not be taken for granted. More importantly, it demonstrates that there are many possible and unconventional interpretations of Islamic texts that have not yet been explored.
A further aspect of legal gender discrimination which has been subject to strong criticism by both secular and Islamist gender activists and by the international community has been the prevention of women from becoming judges. At one end of the spectrum the secularists claim that this state of affairs is glaring indication that "Islam" and Muslim laws are discriminatory towards women. At the other end the Islamists claim that this is the result of centuries of misreading and of patriarchal interpretation of the spirit of Islam. This situation, together with the unfair treatment of women in the justice system, particularly in the family court, brought enough pressure on the government and the structurally independent judiciary that a system was introduced whereby women could act as counsel to male judges in family court. While this compromise was welcomed, it did not satisfy critics who continued to lobby for the removal of those obstacles which prevented women from becoming judges. Finally, in 1997 after much debate and discussion it was announced that women could be employed as judges. While this was nationally and internationally celebrated as yet further achievement for women in Iran, Iranian activists are concerned that women still cannot become full-fledged judges with the power to issue final judgments (Kar 1998). While activists view the change as a victory, they continue their struggles to rectify the law and remove all legal and social obstacles for women to become full-fledged judges.
Criticism of government performance from women activists also resulted in the establishment of the Bureau of Women's Affairs (BWA), which reports directly to the president. This office co-ordinates the development of government policies and programs and is charged with improving the status of women. Thus the Bureau has established offices in many of the critical ministries such as justice and labour, in order to examine women's issues. The Women's Social and Cultural Council, established in 1988 and closely affiliated with the Higher Council of Cultural Revolution, has also assumed much more prominence. Although members of these governmental organizations are appointed by the government, they have emerged nonetheless as forums for women's complaints as well as successful lobbying groups. In the past, the Council has used its visibility to draw attention to women's concerns and gender discrimination.
While Ayatollah Khomeini disagreed with women's formal political participation in 1963, once in power he did not question women's enfranchisement. The massive participation of women in the revolution demonstrated the potential political force of women to religious leaders. While the previous regime and other political groups had for the most part overlooked women, the Islamic regime and the political clergy successfully incorporated massive numbers of ordinary women as their primary constituency. Thus, in practical terms, the Council of Guardians, which oversees elections and the Parliament, would have to accept the nomination of at least some women candidates. While the number of women members of parliament has declined substantially since the revolution (see table 1), women have been elected to all four parliaments.
Given recent political developments and the election of a more liberal president in May 1997, it is generally expected that in the next parliamentary election the number of women MPs will sharply increase, as is indicated by the by-elections which sent more women members to parliament. Although many women members have declared that they represented men as well as women, the lack of interest from male members in women's concerns and the attention from women electors who write to and approach them with their problems have encouraged women members of parliament to devote more attention to women's issues.
The Council of Guardians, composed of six of the most conservative religious leaders and six hand-picked legal experts, oversees elections and the Parliament, and consequently secular and even more radical Islamist women have no chance of gaining approval for their nominations. Thus candidates tend to have similar ideological tendencies. As Mehranguiz Kar (1997) has pointed out, just as under the Shah the regime affirmed only one type of woman - pro-monarchy and Eurocentric, now only pro-regime (and not even Islamist women of other tendencies) are allowed into the parliament.
Nonetheless, as gender issues and the participation of women in public life have acquired a national profile, more women have pronounced their candidacy and more have been elected. In the last parliamentary election (March and April 1996), 179 women were announced as final candidates for some 84 districts, many of them in small and normally conservative towns. In several areas women had overwhelming support and were elected in the first round of voting, indicating they had more than fifty percent of the vote. However, in several cases where women had the greatest number of votes in their district (such as Mallayer and Isfehan), the Council of Guardians used flimsy excuses to annul the election results and prevented the women from taking their seats in the parliament.
Nonetheless women were elected, including for instance Faizah Rafsanjani, the daughter of the outgoing president and a staunch supporter of women's right to participate in sport, who was elected in the first round with close to one million votes. Separated by a very small margin, she is the most popular member after the speaker of parliament. Moreover since then, through several by-elections more women have been elected to the parliament and by 1998 their numbers had increased to fourteen. Nonetheless, while women continue to participate in the male-dominated and conservative parliament, their lack of representation in ministerial and higher government echelons indicates that the regime's fundamental conservative gender vision has not changed, but rather that it has been forced to make some compromises.
Clearly, despite the limited possibility of women formally organizing for change, they have reached a considerable level of political maturity and are using those channels open to them in an attempt to improve their social and legal status. The most significant indicator of such a political coming of age is their massive participation in the last presidential election in May 1997. Given that some 88% of total eligible voters participated in the election, even by most conservative estimates clearly some 40% of those who cast their vote were women. This level of women's political participation is a major achievement for any society but particularly for Iran where women's literacy rates, though improved, leave much to be desired (Mahran 1991; Higgins & Shoar-Ghaffari 1994). Iranian women played a decisive role in electing president Khatami, the most liberal candidate, and the least favoured by the clergy establishment. He had expressed more receptive views on freedom of political expression and on gender issues and women's concerns. Although it was highly anticipated and expected that the president would name at least one woman minister, thus far this has not happened. He has appointed a woman as vice-president of the environment, the highest governmental position a woman has occupied since the revolution.