Women in Postrevolutionary Iran 1994 / Syracuse University Press and I.B. Tauris / Co-edited with Erika Friedl
As soon as the Islamic Republic was firmly established in Iran, the government began to rewrite laws relating to women’s behavior. attempts were made to force women out of the job market, and the veil and other Islamic tenets were enforced in the home, office, and streets. Yet women have constantly challenged the attempt to socialize them into fundamentalist norms and have re-asserted themselves in both the economy and the arts.
This detailed study–the first of its kind to be published in English–transcends the stereotypes and misinformation that often permeate discussions of the condition of Iranian women.
The contributions cover topics such as education, the labor market, temporary marriage, the commoditization of female sexuality, the image of women in literature and film, parliamentary debates on women’s issues, and the strategies used by women to maintain a modicum of control over their own affairs in a male-defined and male-dominated society.
Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran: A Feminist Perspective
By Mahnaz Afkhami Chapter 1 of In The Eye of The Storm: Women in Post-revolutionary Iran
The study of Iranian women has advanced rapidly during the last two decades, producing an extensive body of descriptive and analytic literature. Most of these studies are methodologically social science oriented and ideologically pro-feminist, even though, usually, the feminist aspect is overshadowed by the political ideology that governs the text. Until recently, the ideology was mostly liberal or leftist, if produced within the academe, and doctrinal if produced within or in response to a variant of Islamic discourse. More recently, critical theory, specifically textual critical theory, has been applied to the study of Iranian women, but the practical consequences of this approach remain unclear.
In this chapter I will discuss the issue of women in post-revolutionary Iran as a practical feminist problem within a particular historical context. My discussion is conditioned by two intellectual premises. The first is the utility of making a conscious distinction between society and polity in any Third World country. I take contemporary Iran society to be a product of years of unbalanced development that resulted in important cultural, social and economic contradictions, discontinuities and ruptures. Consequently, there has existed an inevitable duality between the Islamic Republic as a political-ideological system professing a self-consistent and unified vision of communal life and a multicultured Iranian society, composed of many social types, each exhibiting a different life-style, a variegated vision of the past, present and future, and a complex and often self-contradictory set of values, beliefs, and aesthetic preferences. The second premise is that women everywhere constitute a special case and a special set of problems. I take this last proposition to be self-evident and therefore will place the issue of women in post-revolutionary Iran in a ‘feminist’ context.1 In the course of the discussion, I will draw on my understanding of feminist philosophy, Shii Islam as practical culture rather than esoteric doctrine, history as basic to the production, preservation, and destruction of values and norms, and my own experiences as a secretary general of the former Women’s Organization of Iran.
The history of Iranian women is bound inextricably to the history of Shii Islam and to the myths that emotionally and intellectually sustain it. As a practical philosophy of life, contemporary Shii Islam is a product of a historical process and, like al historical processes, has gone through many changes. The ruling clerics, however, present it as timeless dogma. By presenting it ahistorically, they suggest that Islam is qualitatively different from other religions. Islam, they argue, defines all aspects of life and the Quran, as God’s Word, prescribes for all time the proper pattern of relationships within and among all social institutions. Furthermore, what Islam has prescribed as the word of God, they say, corresponds to the order of nature.2 This is particularly stressed in the case of women and their position relative to men in the household and in society. Major Islamic ‘myths’—the sunna or the custom of the Prophet and the hadith, the compiled sayings of the Prophet and Imams3–were designed to uphold this particular interpretation of ‘reality’ and in the course of time the interpretation itself, as content and process, was established as the center of historical reality. Consequently, Shiism is now what the Shii clerics who dispose of political and moral power say it is.
The ulema defined early and, over the year, precisely the proper place of woman in Iranian society. The late Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari (d. 1979), one of the more enlightened Iranian Shii clerics and probably the foremost authority on contemporary Shii jurisprudence regarding women, provides a modern example of the Shii formulation of woman’s proper place. He argues the naturalness of the differences between the sexes and the conformity of Islamic law with the purpose of divine (natural) creation.4 From the idea of purpose and order in the process of divine creation he deduces, among others, formally structure criteria of justice and beauty and concludes what amounts to the proposition that God, in His encompassing wisdom and justice, formally wills woman’s subordinate position in accordance with the requirements of nature.
This ‘natural’ position for women has been asserted by all patriarchal religions throughout history. Indeed, the process of the subjugation of women appears remarkably similar in all cultures. The originary myth usually treats man and woman more equitably, but once the historical process begins, woman is reduced to a vehicle of procreation—the axis around which women’s history as myth or religion is organized.5
The theology of procreation emphasizes the family. Within the family, woman achieves value primarily as mother, and secondarily as wife, daughter, or sister. The more society grows, differentiates, and becomes structured, the more the originary concepts yield to systems of mores and regulations that define woman’s subordinate place in increasing detail. In time, her contact with the larger society is totally mediated by man.
In the originary Zoroastrian sources, for example, the Gatha, the Yashts and other early religious texts as well as in parts of the Matikan-e Hazar Datastan (The Digest of a Thousand Points of Law), a later text compiled during the Sasanian period, woman is treated with respect, if not quite as an equal to man.6 Women in Iranian epics—Sindokht, Rudabeh, Tahmineh, Gordafarid, Manijeh, and a host of others whose names are perpetuated in the Shahnameh–are invariably brave, aggressive, and full of initiative.7 y the middle of the Sasanian period, however, under a dominant Zoroastrian clergy, women had lost many of their rights and privileges.8
Abrahamic religions also accord woman an important position in originary sources. Genesis, in fact, seems to treat Eve as the more resourceful of the first pair, man and woman, created in God’s image. If human history is said to have begun with the fall of Adam, then Eve, in the act of leading Adam to the forbidden fruit, may be said to have taken upon herself the burden of a civilizing mission. In the Talmudic tradition, however, the laws apply only to men because in the course of time the Israelite woman was relegated to ‘a dependent existence derived from that of her father or her husband.’9 In the Gospels, the very ‘idea’ of Christ suggests a leveling of inequities that to be meaningful must have included women. After Paul, however, Christianity steadily moved toward the affirmation of patriarchy and by the second Christian century the patriarchal interpretation had become, for all practical purposes, established dogma. 10
This pattern is repeated in Islam. In few religions have women played so significant a role for or against prophetic pronouncements as in early Islam. Two of Mohammad’s wives, Khadija and Ayesha, were as important actors in giving shape to the Muslim community as any of Mohammad’s male followers.11 Hind, Abu Sufiyan’s aristocratic wife, was one of the most effective opponents the Prophets confronted.12 Zaynab, the Prophet’s granddaughter, bravely confronted Yazid, the powerful Umayyad caliph under whose order the house of Hosayn had been martyred in Karbala, in order to save the life of Hosayn’s son Ali Zayn al-Abedin. The first part of the revealed text, the Meccan verses, spoke for equality. Knowledge was to be gained by both man and woman. Women attended the mosque and participated in the debate and fought on the battlefield alongside the men. In time, however, a combination of authoritative statements by the Prophet and his successors, economic and political inequities, and law and custom supporting a patriarchal hierarchy within the family increasingly separated women from the business of society. Woman’s insulation was legitimated by an effective socialization process that inculcated in her the idea that she was created to serve God and Man by being an obedient wife and a good mother. Thus, over the centuries, women were effectively reconciled to their lot by an ethics of womanhood, derived from the presumed pronouncements of the Prophet and Imams and codified within an impenetrable discourse, created by an elite of male clerics and guarded by a system of exclusive rules.
Thousands of hadith, whose authenticity is determined by a set of arcane rules on most of which there is no solid agreement, are adduced to keep women in their place. Examples of such sayings are legion. A prototypical prophetic hadith states that ‘A woman does not have one-hundredth of the rights that a husband has over his wife.’ And, according to another, the Prophet declares, ‘If I could order any person to prostrate [sujdeh] before anyone except God, I would command that women prostrate before their husbands.’13
Major challenges to the Shii institution in Iran originated outside the Islamic tradition in response to secular trends that began and grew in the West and in time confronted not only Christianity, but also other religions in other societies. Secularism was closely bound to the idea of social contract, an important function of which is to present society not as a natural or divinely ordained phenomenon, but rather as an artifact of human will. By emphasizing the individual and challenging the notion of a religion-based community, secularism weakened the legal and ethical web that bound women to the patriarchal norms. The Enlightenment’s ethos encouraged male and female equality, despite the prevailing socioeconomic conditions and cultural and religious tradition that opposed it. In time, its central political ideas—the ‘consent of the governed,’ which was derived from the notion of social contract, and the ‘inalienable human rights,’ on which stood the individual’s legal, moral, and philosophical right to participate in the social contract—were claimed for women as well.14 From Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to John Stuart Mill’s The Subjucation of Women to suffragette movements in England, the United States and on the continent, the idea of women’s rights gained ground—in retrospect, inevitably.15
During the nineteenth century western ideas entered Iran as a feature of the colonial process. Equality, freedom, human rights, economic development, social change, and other such positive concomitants of modernization mingled with the other feature of colonialism—the harsh reality of material and moral exploitation—to produce a schizophrenic response to the West and the values it stood for. Initially, western power stimulated in the Iranian elite a sense of admiration and a desire for emulation. Tajaddod, or modernity, defined in terms of politics, education, law, custom, and culture, and including some leeway for women to participate in the society, gained favor with some of the upper and middle classes as well as with most of the intellectuals.16 Since the Shii clerical establishment controlled the fundamental aspects of culture (facts, values, norms, aesthetics, rules of rational discourse, etc), there evolved inevitably a dialectical tension between religion and modernism. At the center of this dialectic was the structure of social relations, with woman as mother and wife as its strongest symbol.17 Despite these influences and tensions, however, traditional Iranian society placed little emphasis on women’s rights during the turmoil of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-6, although women had participated significantly in the struggle.18
The first quarter of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a number of women leaders in Iran who demanded the most elemental social rigts in a society that supporessed them at every level of the hierarchical social order. 19 This hierarchy was primarily, though not exclusively, supported by the clerical establishment and a formal structure of religious traditions on which the clerical pronouncements were based. Thus, the politics of women’s liberation was closely allied with the politics of secularization, which gained momentum during and immediately after the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-6. To achieve a modicum of freedom and equality, women leaders found it axiomatic that religion be separated from government, as the small sphere of activity they had so laboriously carved out for themselves could be safeguarded only by government protection. There were, however, traditional ‘ethical’ boundaries to gender relations beyond which neither the women activists nor the government were willing to venture. Throughout the Reza Shah period, for example, government would not move beyond removing the veil and encouraging young girls to received a modern education. But even these preliminary moves were strongly opposed by clerical leaders, who considered the unveiling a sacrilege and modern education for women a path to prostitution. Reza Shah’s forceful presence kept the clergy at bay; it also imposed a certain behavioral etiquette on the small social sphere within which women could participate. To accommodate the patriarchal culture, for example, women were said to receive education in order to become better mothers in order to train better men in order that the country might progress. The physical veil was to be substituted by an impregnable internal veil of moral virtue. In places where new school had been established and where parents allowed their daughters to attend, boys and girls studied in separate schools or classes. In matters of gender, as in many other matters, customary moral and ethical discipline was strictly enforced.
After Reza Shah’s forced abdication in 1941, the discipline imposed by the government broke down. Social forces began to compete for control as the chaos of the war years encouraged many social and political tendencies to develop and a variety of opinions to be expressed. Some women, having been forced to unveil by the previous regime, reverted to the veil. Others, free from the discipline of the past period, adopted exaggerated versions of western dress and behavior, sometimes looking almost foreign to their own people. The women who opted for a middle ground, mostly teachers and other professionals, formed the main axis around which a new set of demands for women’s participation in the society took shape. By this time, also, some members of the political elite had come to support certain issues of women’s rights. As a rule, however, support was not forthcoming unless demands were couched in a language acceptable to traditional sensibilities. It was imperative to take traditional sensibilities into account so as to nurture this support to grow strong enough to withstand clerical opposition, for without it women might not have reached the next stage in their progress, namely, to be recognized as citizens in their own right, rather than merely as trained mothers whose job is to raise competent men for the society.
During the 1940s and 1950s a number of women’s groups and associations were established, among them Iran Women’s Council, founded by Safieh Firuz in 1944, and the New Path Society, founded by Mehrangiz Dowlatshahi in 1946. In the 1950s 17 women’s groups were active, wishing to coordinate and consolidate their activities, these groups formed a federation called the High Council of the Women’s Organizations of Iran and asked Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, the powerful twin sister of the Shah, to act as honorary chair of the council. In the late 1950s, the right to vote stood at the apex of the demands of the women leaders.
Symbolically, the right to vote, achieved in 1963 as part of a reform packaged called the White Revolution, removed Iranian women from the category of minors, felons and the insane—a category formally denied the right to participate in the political process by virtue of some important biological, psychological, or moral impediment. Suffrage was a prologue to the acquisition of other rights as women began to exercise political power, meager though it was, in the major patriarchal institutions: the family, society, and state. It was the beginning of a serious struggle for women to reach beyond the traditional spheres to become involved in higher liberal and technical education, in the production and managerial job market, in law, in defining the ethics of family relations, and in the struggle to raise women’s consciousness.
During the 1960s and 1970s women organized themselves in earnest.20 They took advantage of the government’s modernization programs to define women’s issues and to promulgate them through appropriate legislation, budget allocation, and the provision of legal access to fields hitherto reserved exclusively for men. For the first time in their history, Iranian women found their way into the parliament, the cabinet, the armed forces, the legal profession, and a variety of fields in science and high technology.21 They lobbied men and women in Iran and in other countries to bring about an international atmosphere supportive of women’s rights everywhere. Through the provisions of the Family Protection Law, the Iranian woman finally achieved the right to participate significantly in her own marriage, divorce, and decisions about her children, particularly the custody of her children in case of her husband’s death.22 Women worked hard to educate male policy-makers in the basic feminist principles of freedom and equality of sexes and consciously sought to learn and use the method and the language that would make it possible for the government to pass the necessary legislation.23 In short, the right to vote for Iranian women signified far more than the actual importance of voting as a vehicle of political influence; it initiated women into a process of politics that was specifically Iranian, and which they used efficiently to promote their right to participate in all spheres of society.
This process was reversed in the Islamic Republic. The Islamic leadership proposed to undo what women had accomplished by replacing the secular vision, from which women had drawn the moral and political force of their arguments, with the Islamic model, which rendered the feminist position irrelevant.24 The Islamic model had its own definitions of value, which coopted the vocabulary that was central to the feminist argument: equality, freedom, respect for the human person, participation in the affairs of the society, denunciation of treating women as objects, etc. The Ayatollah Khomeini and others used these terms in profusion and, consciously or not, succeeded in confusing most of their liberal audience.
Once the Islamic Republic was firmly established, the government began to rewrite the laws and rules relating to women’s recently acquired rights. The new regime tried to force women out of the job market in a variety of ways, including early retirement of government women employees, closing of childcare centers, segregating women and enforcing full Islamic cover (hejab-e islami) in offices and in public places, and closing nearly 140 university fields of study to women.25 But the problems arising from the enforcement of the veil and other Islamic tenets in the streets and homes showed clearly that there were limits in Iran to what a fundamentalist regime could do. Women fought seriously for their rights, making the strict enforcement of governmental intent costly. The regime succeeded in putting women back in the veil in public places, but not in resocializing them into fundamentalist norms. As the economy suffered after the revolution, women worked in villages and cities, often harder than men, to make ends meet. As the revolutionary elan subsided, women reasserted themselves in other domains: in the arts, in literature, in education and in politics,26 creating an atmosphere of tension and contradiction that has propelled the issue of women’s status to the center of the debate on the creation of an Islamic society in Iran. Needless to say, loss of governmental support has cost Iranian women dearly. In addition to the economic, social and cultural problems shared by all, women also lost significant ground in the struggled for gender equality.
What then is to be understood from this brief history?
First, traditional patriarchal societies suppress women everywhere, regardless of social, cultural, or religious particularities. This point is important for the cause of Iranian women because it delegitimizes the clerical-patriarchal argument in favor of women’s separate-but-equal position by introducing a sociohistorical and comparative dimension to confront and challenge the validity of the prophetic-eschatological discourse. The arguments adduced against women’s rights in Islamic societies have been raised in the past in other religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.27
Second, Iranian women achieved the rights they possessed at the beginning of the Islamic revolution through their own hard and persistent effort. It took them almost a century to move from total public invisibility to a position of visible political, social, and economic presence. The rights they achieved during the Pahlavi regime were not a political ruse, as the Left has maintained in the past, nor were they offered to them on a silver platter, as pre-revolutionary state propaganda seemed to suggest. Both points are relevant to this discussion and need to be addressed.
In their struggle for equality and freedom, Iranian women received little help from the leftist movements. The Tudeh Party had helped raise women’s consciousness during the 1940s; but from the 1950s on, and particularly after the initiation of women’s suffrage, leftist organizations and groups subordinated women’s interests to other demands of their ideology. Consequently, achievements in women’s rights were routinely denigrated as superficial embellishments of an otherwise oppressive capitalist system.28 The fact is that a ‘modernizing’ state in a traditional society is usually an ally of the women’s movement against a majority in the society. The government’s policy in pre-revolutionary Iran was to modernize the country. Women used this policy to promote their own cause. Government needed literate, skilled workers to expand industry, disseminate preventive care information, promote better nutrition standards, administer population control programs, and undertake a myriad of other policies that were open to the argument that women constitute half of the population and that without their participation there was no hope for the successful implementation of these policies. This was a chance for women to achieve, in a concerted effort, the right and the actual opportunity to participate in the policy planning process in order to establish and promote the foundations in law, economics, and politics necessary to the empowerment of women. Leftist critics subverted this chance with their refusal to participate on ideological grounds. Some supporters of the regime undermined the effort by disengaging from the process, putting their trust in the Pahlavi government’s benevolence to set everything ‘right’ without their effort and weakened the movement by devaluing women’s efforts in the process of achieving fuller participation in society.
Third, without the support of the modernizing state and its political organs, which were controlled by men, women’s rights are unattainable in an Islamic society. The law as the expression of the will of the state was indispensable to the securing of women’s rights in Iran. Governments and leaders, as we have seen, can make decisions in favor of women’s rights as part of a general ideological or policy outlook that may entail no specific emotional, moral, or ideological commitment to the cause of women. Reza Shah ordered the unveiling of Iranian women, but, according to his daughter Princess Ashraf, he felt wretched the day his wife and daughters appeared in public unveiled.29 Mohammad Reza Shah took pains to emphasize, whenever he had an opportunity, that he did not believe in women’s equality with men.30 Paradoxically, a government of men who would shrink at the slightest intimation of equality between the sexes became a lever of women’s liberation. The women’s movement was helped because the problem of women was not primarily the government, which would be coopted through effective use of its own arguments for progress and modernization, but rather the male-dominated society. By the end of the Pahlavi era, there remained, of course, a huge gap between the promise and the delivery, but it was the beginning of a political commitment formally made by the state to promote the rights of women in Iran.
Fourth, women achieved these rights outside the sphere of traditional Shii Islam and against the will of the Shii religious leaders. I have already mentioned the religious constraints under which Iranian women leaders worked. On the one hand, they needed to transcend the Shii discourse, which meant they had to internalize and implement values that were essentially exogenous to their culture. On the other hand, they had to reconcile these values with Islamic prescriptions, if they were to communicate successfully with the masses of women in villages and small towns and to enlist the support of at least a part of the political leadership. This problem was tackled, through not always successfully, by a two-pronged strategy: women took care to gild their demands with a veneer of Islamic probity; most religious leaders, for their part, chose to pretend, perhaps as a matter of taqiyeh,31 that they accepted the proposition in good faith. There was no practical alternative to this mode of interaction then and, in all likelihood, there will be none in the future, even if Iran achieves a political system based on a formal separation of church and state.
Fifth, once rights have been achieved, they settle in the society’s collective psyche creating a new set of historical conditions and thereafter cannot be easily dislodged. The obverse of this statement is that lasting social change involves hard infrastructural transformation, resulting from persistent and diverse economic, social, and intellectual stimuli and support. The post-revolutionary experience in Iran clearly indicates that cultural change is not obtained by an exercise of will alone. Thus, the women’s rights dilemma in Iran will not be solved merely by changing the rules of discourse. The discourse, however, is important because, as both the pre- and post-revolutionary experiences in Iran demonstrate, it defines the modality of politics, which is to say, the discourse is directly relevant to the achievement or loss of political power. Unless there exists significant political power in favor of secular human rights, the Shii clerical hierarchy is unlikely to condone women’s rights as internationally understood.
In the final analysis, therefore, achieving women’s rights in Iran depends on achieving and dispensing political power. On the other hand, Shiism lies at the core of Iranians’ value system and no matter how fragmented or self-contradictory it may be rendered by history, it will nevertheless constitute an important aspect of Iranian popular culture. Thus, inevitably, the emotional attachment to Shiism and the recognition that it is unlikely for women to achieve meaningful human rights within its compass make for intellectual schizophrenia. How is it then possible for women to engage the religious dialogue without forgoing their human rights?
The universality of the feminine condition at present suggests the possibility of empathy among women on a global scale—a humanizing process that to succeed must be empowered to travel over time and space, as all successful discourses have historically done. Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam moved over many countries across many centuries, nourishing and receiving nourishment from the cultures they encountered. Saint Augustine was a Manichaean at first; Thomas Aquinas received Aristotle’s teachings through the intermediary of Muslim scholars. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as we have seen, secular ideas derived from the European Enlightenment traveled east and south. Each transmission produced contradiction, agony, and despair as well as hope. New and unfamiliar ideas broke into established systems and clashed with tradition, merging with indigenous thought, energizing it to overcome intellectual inertia and to produce new form and content that challenged and often changed the established norms and values.
Waging their struggled in the colonial environment, Third World feminist thinkers have achieved a multicultural ethical and intellectual formation and plethora of experience relevant to the development of an internationally valid and effective discourse addressing women’s condition on a global scale. The question is whether this foundation can become a springboard for a global discourse. By definition, such a discourse must transcend the boundaries of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, socialist, capitalist, or any other particular culture. It will be feminist rather than patriarchal, humane rather than ideological, balanced rather than extremist, critical as well as exhortatory.32 The global feminist discourse recognizes that the problem of women constitutes an issue in its own right, not as a subsidiary of other ideologies, no matter how structurally comprehensive or textually promising they might seem to be. It insists in relating concepts to the historical contexts in which they are embedded.33 Since ‘traditional ‘concepts are by definition founded in patriarchal discourse, global feminism must be skeptical of propositions that present them as liberating. This feminism is not anti-man; rather, it sees the world in humane terms, that is, it seeks a redefinition of social, economic, and political principles of societal organization on the basis of non-paternalistic models. Realizing that such a feat cannot be accomplished without or against men’s participation, it does not hesitate to engage men politically in favor of the feminist cause. On the other hand, given the present effects of the historical process, feminism will be critically aware of and fight against patriarchal structures and institutions.34
The global feminist discourse rejects the notion that ‘East’ and ‘West’ constitute mutually exclusive paradigms; rather, it looks at life as evolving for all and believes that certain humane and morally defensible principles can and should be applied in the West and in the East equally. The point is not that Iranian women should forget the problems that are obviously ‘Iranian’ and intensely present. It is, rather, that unless Iranian feminists think globally, they will neither be able to mobilize the world opinion for their cause, nor succeed in breaking out of the boundaries of patriarchal discourse on their own, and, therefore, they will likely fail to address their problems in a way that will lead to their solution.35
At present, of course, reality belies the potential. The disparity in physical and material power between the developed and less-developed countries forces Third World women to withdraw to reactive positions, formulating their discourse in response to the West and its challenge. Consequently, they fail to think globally, that is, to move beyond the indigenous culture they have objectively outgrown. Their discourse remains nationalistic, parochial, fearful, tradition-bound, and rooted in the soil of patriarchy. The world, however, is undergoing a qualitative change, an important aspect of which may be the tumbling of nation-states qua culture boundaries. In the process, women may gain a chance to promote on a world scale the kinds of ideas that are applicable to women everywhere. If they do, Third World women will be able to critique women’s condition in the West from a vantage point that transcends the cultures of Abraham, Buddha, and Confucius and thus will help the women of all ‘worlds of development’, including Iran.
I am not suggesting therefore that the West be taken as the standard for the evaluation of women’s conditions in Iran. On the contrary, it seems to me that there are significant issues of commission and omission in the western discourse that can be addressed profitably only from the global feminist position. The virtue of the global position is that it partakes of the wisdom of all cultures and that it accommodates differences in the levels of economic and social development without succumbing to either the normlessness of cultural relativism or the self-righteous parochialism of any particular culture.
The heightened awareness of female human rights that exists today throughout the world makes possible a more unified and effective approach to the global feminist movement. Western feminists can help this process but only to an extent, because they are burdened by two severe handicaps. First, they carry the onus of historical western hegemony, even though they themselves are the victims of a taxing patriarchal order.36 Second, their problems as women are often of a different order than the problems of women in Third World countries. Consequently, they appear alternatively as self-righteous promoters of their own western culture, when they advocate principles and rights that differ with the tenets of Third World societies, or as self-deprecating defenders of atrociously anti-feminist conditions, when they explain away oppressive behavior in the developing world on the grounds of cultural relativism.
Non-western feminists can be instrumental in the developmental of a viable global feminism despite their historical handicap. As the world moves from a disjointed society of nation-states to an increasingly interconnected economic and technological system, and as the symmetry of the enclaves of poverty and backwardness in the developed and developing countries is increasingly apparent, it becomes easier for Third World feminists to develop a sense of empathy with their sisters in other parts of the globe. Indeed, unless such empathy is effected and expanded, patriarchal norms, for all practical purposes, will not be transcended and feminism, global or otherwise, will not full succeed.
It is from this vantage point that the originary myth in the Shii lore may be successfully engaged. Here is a chance for Iranian women to transcend the parochial discourse. By showing at once the similarity in the historical treatment of women in all societies and the need for women to deny the legitimacy of the patriarchal order in all cultures, Iranian women can challenge the claim that there is something unique in Islam that separates it from other human experiences. The goal is to contest the right and legitimacy of Iran’s patriarchal clerical order to be the sole interpreters of the values, norms, and aesthetic standards of Shii Islam—a religion that lies at the core of Iranian culture. The truth is that there is nothing sacred about a limited and highly protected discourse, developed over centuries by a society of zealous men in order to produce and maintain a regime of control, a major function of which is to keep women in bondage—for ever.
The Independent / Book Review by Shusha Guppy
In the Eye of the Storm – Ed. M Afkhami & E Friedl: I B Tauris,
During the upheavals that led to the 1979 revolution in Iran, women’s support is supposed to have been the decisive factor in the overthrow of the Shah and the seizure of power by Ayatollah Khomeini. Every day in the news we saw images of women wrapped in black chador shaking their fists and shrieking slogans, like birds of bad omen in a horror movie. This was all the more astonishing as Iranian women were among the most emancipated in the Islamic world.
The Veil which had kept them down for centuries had been abolished in 1936, and within a couple of decades Persian women had flourished in education, medicine and the Civil Service, often on a par with their male peers. In 1963 they achieved the right to vote, and in the following 15 years further reforms enabled them to enter the Parliament and the Cabinet, the Armed Forces and the Law. Finally the Family Protection Law gave them equal rights in marriage and the guardianship of their children. It seemed Iranian women had ‘arrived’.
But, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, all modern revolutions use women to gain power, promising them freedom and equality in the new order, and then clamping down on them. Iranian women who had fallen for Khomeini’s vague rhetoric about ‘women’s honour’ and donned the chador as a ‘symbolic gesture’ were forced to wear it as soon as the Islamic Republic was established. Again they poured out into the streets clamouring ‘at the dawn of freedom, where is our freedom?’ – but it was too late.
The new regime proceeded to undo 50 years of gain, repealing all laws related to women’s rights. Women were ‘encouraged’ to leave the workforce, through early ‘retirement’ or hopeless conditions, while school texts were re-written to emphasise women’s domestic role, and 140 subjects of study were closed to them.
Yet as the revolutionary fervour subsided, it became clear that the country could not do without women’s work: small concessions were made, and soon women began to reassert themselves, like a body that mobilises its immune system to fight a pernicious virus.
It seems that Iranian women stemmed the reactionary tide with an abundance of creativity – in the arts, literature and politics. In The Eye of The Storm surveys their changing conditions, struggle and achievements. It is based on the proceedings of a conference held in Washington in 1991, to which further contributions have been added. Well-edited and free from jargon, it tells a fascinating, edifying, and often very funny tale – notably concerning sexual mores. It is also sometimes sad.
The editor of the book, Mahnaz Afkhami, was Secretary General of the Women’s Organisation before the revolution and one of the two women Cabinet Ministers in the Shah’s government – the other was arrested and shot early during the revolution. Driven into exile, Afkhami set up and runs the Institute for Iranian Studies in Washington.
Afkhami’s own paper tells the story of the women’s movement in Persia, from its early tremors in the 1920s to 1979, in the context of the country’s long history – there is a straight line of continuity between the strong, brave, independent heroines of ancient Persian mythology and the gallant women of today, who defy censorship and risk imprisonment to make themselves heard in books, films and political debate. Equally interesting is Haleh Esfandiari’s account of the Majlis (Parliament). The Assembly of Experts set up by Ayatollah Khomeini to produce Iran’s new constitution had a single chador-clad woman.
In ‘The Commoditisation of Sexuality’ Fatima Moghadam shows that the treatment of women as ‘quasi-commodity, quasi-human’ has little to do with Islam, while Shahla Haeri discusses the practice of ‘Temporary Marriage’, according to which people can ‘marry’ for as short a time as one hour. The custom had disappeared, but was re-introduced by the Mullahs, to the outrage of women’s groups who called it ‘legal prostitution’.
But in 1991 Prime Minister Rafsanjani justified it in his Friday sermon from the country’s highest pulpit, astounding his massive audience. He invoked first God ‘who has given us the sexual instinct . . . which should not be denied’, then modern science which proves that ‘deprivation is bad’ – surely the first time Allah and Freud were simultaneously called to clinch an argument. Thus Rafsanjani ‘proved’ the ‘superiority’ of sexual relationship in temporary marriage over its ‘chaotic’ and ‘decadent’ Western counterpart.
In poetry, novels, and above all films Persian women have been active. ‘More women feature-film directors have emerged in the single decade since the revolution than in all the decades of film-making preceding it,’ writes Hamid Nafisi in his survey of the industry. Just as a veiled woman has only her eyes to communicate her feelings, through ‘the gaze’ of the camera women film directors have defied crippling restrictions and depicted the reality of their lives, winning international recognition.
In The Eye of the Storm is a valuable book, for as Robin Morgan points out in her introduction, Iranian women have born the brunt of fundamentalism at a time when ‘all kinds – Christian, Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalism has been rising alarmingly’. And because Muslim women are victims of ‘invidious stereotyping of Westerners . . . even Western feminists’. This book restores the reader’s faith in the regenerative power of the human spirit, and tells a heart-warming story of courage, resilience, and creative energy.
Book Endorsement & Praise
“This book restores the reader’s faith in the regenerative power of the human spirit, and tells a heart-warming story of courage, resilience, and creative energy.” – Shusha Guppy, The Independent