At the time of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, Iran was a society organized on precepts that for centuries has defined the subordinate position of women as the natural order of things. The nascent civil society faced the issue of women mostly as a problem between traditionalism and modernism. But as the moderns grew in size and influence, women received more support. The frame of reference for this support, however, remained largely traditional. Women were allowed to get an education, but essentially in order to become better mothers and wives, producing and training more capable men for the “betterment” of society. The process nevertheless brought the genders together, allowing women to gain experience in the mechanisms of their own society, including the operations of the Iranian government and the market.
These changes, of course, had produced palpable social tension. In mid-twentieth century Iran, women’s groups and organizations sought to bring about increased women’s participation in decision-making, diversify the areas in which they could be active, and transform the ideas that gave shape to social life. The result of these struggles was a civil society that had gained a degree of complexity and sophistication regarding gender. The new discourse included the idea that if women were to be empowered to become equal partners in deciding options for society, then gender responsibilities at home would have to accommodate women’s emerging responsibilities at work.
By the time I become Secretary General of Women’s Organization of Iran (WOI), in 1970, women had gained the right to vote and to be elected to parliament. They had also passed a seminal family protection law that altered the position of women at home and in their communities. Women’s expectation of social order had dramatically changed. But they still did not participate significantly in high-level decision-making. They had also not yet articulated their desire to move beyond being man’s complement to being a complete person with full rights as a human being and citizen. By the end of the decade, just shy of the January 1979 revolution, women leaders had made that claim, and government had tacitly accepted it: They began implementing a plan aimed at integrating women into the decision-making process.
The Islamists who came to power after the 1979 revolution, of course, reversed all of this. They politicized religion, reinforced patriarchal concepts, and disparaged women’s participation in social affairs. To do so, they launched a strong, multifaceted campaign to socialize everyone in the ideology of gender complementarity rather than gender equality as the cultural context for social behavior.
Women, by then supported by a significant portion of civil society, opposed these moves. Their determined struggle agains the dictates of the Islamic Republic eventually forced the ruling elite to modify its positions. What had begun as a policy resembling gender apartheid was gradually altered as the government was forced to adopt language and policy more palatable to women. Gradually the areas of study and the fields of work that had been closed to women were modified. But tension and cultural schizphrenia in Iran persisted. They still do.
Today, the majority of the students that pass the horrendous entrance exam for the universities are women, but prominent leaders publicly discuss the danger this will pose for the society because it shakes up the balance between genders. A law is passed typing women’s marriage portion to inflation, but a deputy formally states in the parliament, “Money depreciates, but so do women as they grow old.” Women are not allowed to shake hands with or look directly at a man who is not next of kin, yet women film directors and actors maneuver across these boundaries to make prize-winning films. The contradictions are myriad, and undulating tensions force women in and out of jail daily. Nonetheless, women also persist.
What is true of Iran is more or less true of other Muslim-majority countries. In some, women have a truly arduous task ahead. But nowhere is the future as bleak as it appears through the Islamist prism. A major reason for this is the rise of religious fundamentalism.
Whereas democracy is predicated on the human as the measure of political authority and legitimacy, religion–and specifically fundamentalism–derives authority from the supernatural. A theocracy like the Islamic Republic of Iran may organize regular elections and may even be relatively open, but it cannot be democratic; the will of the people is made subordinate to a higher supernatural power whose will only a group of experts may interpret and implement. This not democracy subverted, as when a demagogic leader misuses an otherwise democratic system in ways inimical to the constitution and the laws. For such a system to become democratic it will have to abandon the fundamentals in which its legitimacy resides. It will have to yield to a system that limits religion’s intrusion into political decisions.
Yes contrary to what we now hear about Islam as being inherently different from other religions and therefore inimical to democracy, Islam has been defined and interpreted in different ways not only in different countries, but also in the same country in different locations and times. The contemporary vogue of political Islam has caused many pundits and policy makers to overly conflate, if not confuse, Islamic epistemology with the sociology of Muslim peoples. This is an intellectually trap that has already taken us to illogical, undesirable, and unsought consequences.
Culture, too, across the vast diversity of Muslim societies in neither homogeneous nor coequal with religion. Nor is it simply dualistic, where a layer of modernity is superimposed upon a mass of tradition. Rather, modernization has brought together a host of foreign and domestic values, floating, as it were, in the air. Individuals and groups, depending on their socio-economic and geographical position, mix indigenous and non-indigenous values–the more modern, the more the non-indigenous in the mix. So, despite the contemporary resurgence of fundamentalist Islam, it is not Islam that holds women back; it is the particular path of patriarchy that Muslim-majority societies have willfully taken.
Freedom, gender equality, and democracy do not happen overnight; they are functions of historical change. If women in the Global South are in a relatively inferior political, social and economic position, it is not only because the framework of their social existence has been historically crafted by men–a fact they share with women in all societies–but also because they began fighting for their rights later. When New Zealand first gave the franchise to women at the end of the nineteenth century, nowhere in the world could women vote or stand for office. By the latter half of the twentieth century, though still excluded from political leadership, a majority of women in the world had attained the right to vote.
Today, approximate gender parity exists in certain northern European countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, where women constitute more than 41 percent of the membership in national parliaments, are equal in number to men in secondary school enrollment and also employment in non-agricultural paid activity. In most other parts of the world, political participation gauged by the number of women in national parliaments is between 9.6 and 21.8 percent. Ten years ago women’s share of seats in national parliaments in Muslim societies was below 5 percent; in the Middle East it was 3.6 percent. Today in the Arab states, women’s share in parliaments is 9.6 percent–still the lowest in the world but a palpable improvement compared to a decade ago.
But the good news is that in almost all Muslim societies women are now far more educated and socially and politically aware–in some countries more than men–than they were just a few years ago. There are more women in the universities than ever before, many of them studying subjects historically considered masculine. Most surveys taken in Muslim-majority societies indicate that a vast majority of respondents, sometimes above 90 percent, favor democracy and human rights–a higher percentage than in other parts of the world, including, ironically, among advanced democracies.
The majority of the Muslim world’s population is below the age of 25. They are open to new ideas, less entrenched in traditional modes of interaction, and more receptive to modern communication. Women in Muslim-majority societies now have the knowledge, resources, and organizational potential to lead. And from Morocco to Iran to Nigeria, they are forming partnerships to do so. Increasingly, they are attuning their societies to the indispensibility of information not only for learning about the world, but also for remaking it.
Muslim women, to be sure, are on their way to empowerment. Many of them are already in power and are doing much good. But the key question facing us will be if being empowered inside the current patriarchal and hierarchical structures will make new women leaders indistinguishable from the leaders we have always know.
A better alternative would be to have women succeed in adopting a leadership model that not only optimizes their chances of becoming participants in decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their families, communities, and countries, but that also enhances the values they respect as women. The leadership they exercise will have to be gender-inclusive, communicative, participatory, and egalitarian. This is important for achieving not only democracy, but the values we seek to promote in a democracy: equity, justice and peace.
(Photo by Mitch Epstein)