Women, Rights, and Security in Iran

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, Der Tagesspiegel  

Women in Iran must be free to choose what to think, what to say, what to do, and, of course, how to relate, or not to relate, to God

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. It is with this interpretation in mind that I would like to address the issue of women’s security in Iran.

To grasp the condition of women in contemporary Iran we must recall their history in the decades prior to the Islamic Republic that was declared in 1979. These were decades of activism and organizing, beginning with a movement to educate girls. The educated girls soon took on the mantle of speaking for other women, even though they were few in number. As their numbers increased before and after the Second World War, they increasingly 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. Ten years later they had become subjects of their own lives in many ways, though by no means in all ways.

Thus, Iranian women had behind them a whole history of social, cultural, political, and individual transformation when the Islamic Republic came to power in 1979. Immediately after the declaration of the Islamic Republic, the new leaders began 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 redrafting of positive law based on shari`a: in practice, by applying the principle of “yâ rusari, yâ tusari,” (wear your hejab or be clubbed on the head) 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 new constitution formulated the woman’s place in the family and society in traditional terms, but expressed it in modernist language. The law is camouflaged and, unless unveiled, deceptive. Article 20, for example, states that all citizens, 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 then addresses women directly by making the government responsible for ensuring the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria.

The government is directed specifically to create a favorable environment for the growth of woman’s personality and the restoration of her rights, both the material and intellectual; to protect mothers, particularly during pregnancy and childbearing, and to protect children without guardians; to establish competent courts to protect and preserve the family; to provide special insurance for widows and aged women and women without support; and to 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 for 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 single one of the points highlighted above is designed to return the woman to the patriarchal framework from which she had gradually 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 of 1967 as amended in 1975, which had resulted from decades of hard work by women in Iran. As it included the woman’s right to marry, to divorce, to hold a job, to travel, or to bear witness, and the right to the guardianship of her children, the family protection law offered a more advanced model than those available in the majority of Muslim countries today. As a result of its nullifying, women lost much of the control they had gained over their destiny. The new criminal law now put women in danger of horrid and inhuman punishments, including death by stoning.

The regime also undid one of the most important achievements of Iranian women. In 1978, after several years of lobbying, women had convinced the cabinet to resolve that all governmental decisions requiring cabinet approval had to be cleared for gender impact. The new Islamist regime picked up the idea and reversed it. Now 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. But Iranian women continued fighting to restore their rights, and over the years forced the Islamic Republic to restore some of them. This, however, was gained at the exorbitant price women have paid confronting the regime’s practical principle of “tusari or rusari.”

Clearly, much in Islam that is defined by the clerics must be reinterpreted to accomondate the needs and demands of contemporary women. 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, class, or gender. Unfortunately, this is not achievable within the constitution of the Islamic Republic. The constitution is wholly geared to Islamic principles as defined by the clerical hierarchy and is therefore 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 Ali Khamenei possess a monopoly of control over the means of coercion, he also controls the executive, judicial, administrative, and legislative processes. 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.

Under the Islamist regime, women are and feel particularly insecure 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, that is because countervailing powers do not let it.) Iranian women therefore 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 choose to meet or marry, where they go, or their employment. If left unconstrained, the regime creates a system of gender apartheid where women are veiled, kept at home, or separated from men and often relegated to lower levels or rear spaces, if allowed in public places at all.

But why are women so vibrantly active in Iran even when faced with such oppressive circumstances? The answer is that 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 on the other side 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, the studying of 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; and they are not the same today. That explains the energetic confrontations not only between the regime and the society, but also within the regime occurring in modern-day Iran.

It may be that the existing conditions in Iran do not favor change, other than that which can be gained within the existing system. There may be many reasons to opt for such kind of change, for it may even be far better than no change at all. But it has to be kept in mind that 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. Governments have to be deemed legitimate only when they avow in law and respect in practice the universality of human rights irrespective of color, creed, nationality, religion, class, 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 – and being free 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.

The author is Founder and President, Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace

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