This overview of public discussions on the position of women indicates that, far from being marginal as orientalists continue to claim, it has been central to the debate surrounding the national goal of modernizing and building a strong independent nation in Iran. Defining the role and position of women has been an important arena where political interests have sought to gain support for their views and demonstrate their control of the state power. In this process women's views and consensus are rarely taken into account. While the modernist Pahlavi regime (1925-1978) once in power embarked on de-veiling women and encouraging their public participation, the Islamist regime (1979) sees the "Islamization" of women's roles and their veiling as an integral part of the government's stability and ideological success. However women in both cases through their resistance and subversion have managed, at least partially, to assert themselves and force the state to make major concessions and revise their gender ideology.
Although women, to varying degrees, have participated in the nationalist movements since the end of 19th century, it was their massive participation in the anti-Shah movement that ended their political invisibility. Women in their black veils became the symbol of revolution. However, with the establishment of the Islamic Republic, once again, their roles within and without the family - as well as their clothing - became part of the state's self-definition. This time, however, opposition to the oppressive measures supposedly sanctified by Islam comes from Islamists as well as secularists and is voiced by women themselves.
The new wave of Islamist feminists, with their unconventional and women-centred interpretations of Islam, is challenging and reforming Islamic doctrine from within, rather than imposing or advocating a Western model of gender relations. Using the language of the religious/political leaders, they demand that the state live up to its promise of Islamic equality of men and women and do away with oppressive measures that for centuries have held Muslim women hostage and prevented Muslim societies from flourishing. The success of the Islamic revolution, they assert, is dependent upon its ability to break away from patriarchal practices and implement purely Islamic measures.
In the past decade and a half, debates and discussions on the social and legal position of women have been coloured by the sharp contrast between patriarchal and women-centred interpretations of women's rights in Islam. The image of a pragmatic feminism in Islamic costume can perhaps best capture the gist of much of these debates. This irreversible shift has already changed women's consciousness and encouraged them to distinguish between patriarchal tradition and "Islam."
What deserves special note is that while Islamist women activists may appear to be diametrically opposed to secular feminists and derive part of their current political legitimacy from their critique of secular groups, in practical terms the two camps are close allies and their demands are generally analogous, as both groups strive to improve women's social and legal situation. However, their effectiveness in the political context of Iran depends on occupying opposing camps since as long as secular feminists make their voice heard, the Islamist women activists who articulate their demands within the "Islamic" perspective appear as an "authentic" movement and more acceptable to the political leaders of Islamic Republic.
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