Reflections on Women’s Security in Iran

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, Gozaar Forum on Human Rights and Democracy in Iran

The late Mhabub ul Haq, the founder of the UN Human Development Report, captured the essence of human security when he said, and I quote, “In the last analysis, human security means a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, an ethnic tension that did not explode, a dissident who was not silenced, a human spirit that was not crushed. The imperatives of this human security have become universal, indivisible, and truly global today.”

In the past, human security was defined mainly in terms of state security. A half-century of international dialogue on rights, development, and peace, however, has led us to broaden our understanding of the concept of human security by placing the individual person at its center. In this construction, human security is different from human rights writ large and more than the conditions arising from the interactions of states or of state and society. Nevertheless, it is closely connected with peace, rights and development. What distinguishes human security from these older concepts is the condition of the individual in society. Possibly, the quality that affects this condition most is empowerment—the curve that connects powerlessness and control. To what extent do I, as a woman, have control over my decisions, my movements, and my choices? To what extent am I a part of the decisions that determine the conditions which affect the processes which affect my prospects of moving from powerlessness to control? Just as important, where do I perceive myself to be on the curve from powerlessness to control? It is with this interpretation in mind that I would like to speak of women’s security in Iran.

To grasp the condition of women in contemporary Iran we must recall their history prior to the Islamic Republic; the decades of activism and organizing that began simply and innocently with a movement to educate girls. Those few girls who became educated, women who in Badr-ul-Muluk Bamdad’s reading traveled from darkness into light, took on the mantle of speaking for other women, and later, before and after WWII, their numbers increased, agitated in favor of women’s human rights. By the 1960s, women had received the right to vote and to be elected to the parliament. By the1970s, they became in many ways, though by no means in all ways, subjects of their own lives. It is not my purpose here to enumerate the rights they claimed or explicate the successes they achieved. The point I would like to suggest is that by the time the Islamic Republic came to power, Iranian women had experienced a whole history of social, cultural, political and individual transformation founded implicitly and explicitly in the idea that they had rights not because they were Muslims, Christians, or Jews, but because they were human beings. Almost all that they had achieved as right, control, and power, they had done so in spite of clerical objections and against the patriarchal structures that were reinforced and sustained by cultural and religious traditions that dictated a subservient position for women. The point I would also like to make is that what was particularly important in this transformation was the momentum that the process had achieved and the potentials it suggested for the future.

The Islamic Republic began by reversing the rights women had gained—in law, by the text and spirit of the Islamic constitution, by reverting to the supremacy of the shari`a, and by the force of positive law based on shari`a; and in practice, by the principle of “yâ rusari, yâ tusari, (“wear your hejab or be clubbed on the head”), applied to a whole spectrum of activities that curtailed women’s rights and vitiated women’s dignity, in fields ranging from studying in classrooms to traveling in buses.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic formulates the woman’s place in the family and society in traditional terms, but expresses it in modernist language. The law is camouflaged and unless unveiled deceptive. Article 20 states all citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria. Article 21, addresses women directly, making the government responsible for ensuring the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria. The government is directed to accomplish the following goals: 1. Create a favorable environment for the growth of woman’s personality and the restoration of her rights, both the material and intellectual. 2. Protect mothers, particularly during pregnancy and childbearing, and protect children without guardians. 3. Establish competent courts to protect and preserve the family. 4. Provide special insurance for widows, and aged women and women without support. 5. Award guardianship of children to worthy mothers in order to protect the interests of the children in the absence of a legal guardian.

The concern shown about women’s rights, welfare, and security is overwhelming. Nothing like it existed in the previous constitution, which did not address women at all. The trouble is that every one of the points highlighted, from the restoration of her rights, materially and intellectually to the guardianship of children to worthy mothers, to competent courts to protect and preserve the family, is designed to return the woman to the patriarchal framework from which she had gradually, painstakingly, and still partially, come out during the previous decades. The trick, of course, is the qualifying phrase “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

One of the first acts of the Islamic Republic in conformity with the rule of law based on Islamic criteria was to annul the family protection law—a piece of legislation that had resulted from decades of hard work by women in Iran and which, even to this day, remains a more advanced model than those available in the majority of Muslim countries. By nullifying this law women lost much of the control they had gained over their destiny. They lost the right to divorce, the right to the guardianship of their children, the right to marry, hold a job, travel, or bear witness. The new criminal law, that is the legislation of Islamic hudûd, qisâs, and ta`zir into positive law, now put women in danger of horrid and inhuman punishments, including sangsâr, that is, stoning to death. The regime also undid one of the most important achievements of the Iranian women: by 1978, Iranian women had convinced the cabinet to resolve that all governmental economic, social, and cultural decisions requiring cabinet approval had to be cleared for gender impact. Implicit in the decision was that the Iranian government agreed that all such issues were women’s issues, an idea that many years later became a staple of western feminist discourse. The Islamist regime picked up the idea and reversed it: indeed, all social, economic, and cultural decisions concerned women and needed to be revisited not in order to expand women’s rights, but to curtail them by reinterpreting them within the clerics’ reading of the shari`a. Women, of course, fought to restore their rights and over the years forced the Islamic Republic to restore a portion of their rights. This, however, was gained at the exorbitant price women have paid confronting the regime’s practical principle of “tusari or rusari.”
Some people tell us all we need to do is to reinterpret Islam. Women must, of course, try to reinterpret Islam and are doing so in Iran as well as in other Muslim majority countries. Any reinterpretation of Islam that benefits women, however, must begin from a set of concepts and values that are based on the universality of human worth, independent of race, creed, nationality, religion, or gender. Unfortunately, this is not achievable within the constitution of the Islamic Republic because the constitution is wholly geared to Islamic principles as defined by the clerical hierarchy and is rationally, coherently and consistently designed to perpetuate the power of the clerical rulers by bestowing on them, and denying to others, every factor of actual or potential power. Not only does the supreme leader possess a monopoly of control over the means of coercion but it also controls, directly or indirectly, the executive, judicial, administrative and legislative processes by determining who mans them (and I use the word advisedly) and by controlling their outcome. Faced with the vagaries of domestic and international politics, the regime has in the past alternately relaxed and hardened the enforcement of the laws regarding women, but this scarcely conduces to a feeling of security.

Women are and feel particularly insecure under the Islamist regime because they symbolize the success or failure of the Islamization process. Islamization, is in principle a total project that concerns every aspect of human life. In power, total concern has a natural tendency to totalitarianism; if it does not become totalitarian it is because countervailing powers do not let it. Iranian women are faced with the tension that results from the regime’s innate tendency to control every aspect of their lives, even the most ordinary aspects such as what they wear, eat, or drink, whom they meet or marry, where they go, or what employment they choose. If left unconstrained, it creates a system of gender apartheid where women are veiled, kept at home, or separated from men and usually relegated to lower levels or rear spaces if they are allowed in public places at all. The most egregious example of this was witnessed in Taliban’s Afghanistan. In Iran, women faced initially palpable moves in that direction though not as stringent because of the differences that exist between Wahabism and Shiism. But the real reason why such moves could not go beyond certain limits in Iran was because neither women nor men would countenance them. The regime attacked on all fronts but had to retreat in the face of earnest and serious resistance.

Why are women so vibrantly active in Iran even when faced with such oppressive circumstances? The answer is: a history of achievement and empowerment extending back over many decades propels them forward indomitably and in principle irresistibly. They have taken advantage of gaps and openings wherever they have found them. Each instance of advancing has taken them to a new position behind which they can no longer be pushed. But the Islamic regime is intrinsically a barrier that will inevitably stifle their progress. That is one reason why Iranian women have not been served well by social and political theories that confuse their sociology with Shii epistemology. After the revolution, studying Islamist text, structure, and behavior found new vogue. I use the term Islamist rather than Islamic advisedly. Islam was always an important part of Iranian culture; but even the Mujtahids who advocated a theocracy were few and far in between. What Islam said and what Muslims did were never the same in Iran; they are not the same now. That is why today we have such energetic confrontations not only between the regime and the society, but also within the regime. The demand for right is a sociological phenomenon expressed in cultural terms. Social transformation is effected by diverse and variegated factors born of history. When culture is defined mainly as religion and sociology is confused with history of clerical thought and behavior the effect is invariably a barrier to understanding. This is a subtle deception, as, for example, when Iranian reformists claim they want democracy and propose to achieve it within a constitution that is designed to negate democracy.

It may be that the existing conditions in Iran do not favor change other than that which can be gained within the existing system. The change gained within the system may even be far better than no change at all. There may be many reasons to opt for such change, but neither democracy, nor rights based on women’s humanity, and consequently nor women’s increased human security can be truly served by these changes. To have a real shot at women’s security in Iran we must insist that women have rights because they are human beings and that governments are deemed legitimate only when they avow in law and respect in practice the universality of human rights irrespective of color, creed, nationality, religion, or gender. This is no reflection on Islam or on any religion. It only means that if human beings, including Iranian women, are to be free, which is an essential prerequisite of their security, they must be in a position to choose freely what to think, what to say, what to do, and, of course, how to relate, or not to relate, to God. This cannot be had if government and religion are one.

Presented to the closing plenary of the International Society of Iranian Studies on May 30, 2004.