The paradoxical modernisation of women’s attitudes, despite religious precepts and the predominant Islamist ideology that denies women individuality, autonomy and independence, has in turn led to their mounting resistance and opposition against gendered social relations. The existence of a women’s movement at the turn of the twentieth century, statutory changes under the Pahlavis (1925 – 79), and women’s participation in the 1979 revolution have largely contributed to the mobilisation of women against gender inequality.
Four periods of time can be distinguished with regard to the Islamic state’s policies on women and women’s mobilisation: the revolutionary period (which lasted until the end of the Iran – Iraq war in 1988), the period of reconstruction following the war (1989– 97), the period of political development during Khatami’s two terms as Iranian president (1997 – 2005), and the radical populist period from 2005 until the present day.
During the revolutionary period, traditional jurisprudence (feqh-e sonnati ) was predominant. The patriarchal state, with its positivist approach to nature, perceived Islamic laws and institutionalised gender inequality as natural facts originating from the divine will. State authorities attempted to confine women to domesticity and by marginalising women and excluding them from the public sphere they imposed a private patriarchy (see Walby, 1994), denying women autonomy and independence. Indeed, women were perceived exclusively as family members whose rights and obligations should be defined in relation to their male relatives, who the state construed as being leaders and protectors of women.
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Women were expected to show their commitment to Islam and to the Islamic Republic by accepting these highly gendered roles. Presumed to be main guardians of traditions, they were required to reinforce Islamic family ties, thereby maintaining social cohesion. In addition to traditional instruments of propaganda such as mosques and Friday prayers, the state’s ideology for women was perpetuated by school books and modern communication networks, especially by television and cinema. The plight of gender-sensitive women was also overshadowed by the predominant values of self-abnegation, devotion and sacrifice that were rooted in the Shi’a culture and internalised by the young volunteers (basijis), hundreds of thousands of whom served in the front. Moreover, the clerical and the political elite, who attributed all shortcomings and problems to the force of
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circumstances, used the war as a pretext to dismiss women’s social problems.
Because women were the first to bear the burden of the rule of political Islam, they were also the first to challenge its legitimacy. Paradoxically, the implementation of Sharia law created a common ground of protest for women, regardless of their social status and political stands. Women activists, both secular women and the disillusioned educated Islamists, challenged the dominant ideological discourse that considered the private sphere of the home the best and the most suitable place for women. They rejected their confinement at home and managed to occupy the public sphere through economic and social activities.
Women not only challenge institutionalised gender inequalities by ensuring their active participation in those economic, social, and political realms not forbidden to them by the religious and political elite’s reading of Sharia law, they also assert their authority in the religious and judicial realms where women have traditionally been denied power.
After the end of the war the period of reconstruction started under the presidency of Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The power elite, who were forced to concede to women’s professional skills due to the shortage of specialists, played a double role and maintained a double ideological discourse. On the one hand, they continued to perceive women primarily as biological reproducers and house workers; simultaneously, however, they responded to the demands of the female population in general, and the pressures of active, professional women in particular. The policies of women’s occupation adopted in 1992 by the High Council of Cultural Revolution chaired by the former president Hashemi-Rafsanjani reflected the contradictions of such double standards and discourses. The Office of Women’s Affairs (an offshoot of the presidential bureau) was created in 1992 with the aim of finding solutions to women’s problems and concerns. With the readopting by the government of family planning and birth control in 1989, the birth rate has diminished sharply. The results of the first national census of the population under the Islamic Republic (in 1986) revealed a total increase of 15 million in the population since 1976, the last national census of the population under the shah. The annual population growth rate at that time averaged 3.9 per cent, one of the highest in the world. The economic crisis, the lack of resources available to respond to the needs of the oversized young generation (in terms of education, health, employment, etc), forced the government to adopt projects to diminish this birth rate, despite clerical opposition and the pro-birth traditions in Islam.
The social, demographic and cultural changes occurring in post-revolutionary Iran among the female population have started to shake the traditional harmony that has been founded on male domination and the patriarchal power that state ideology and legislation tend to enforce.
The instrumentalisation of Islam, the masculinised construct of the Islamic state, essentialist discourses and gendered concepts of citizenship have been challenged by both Islamic and secular women activists. Through their social struggles they have attempted to introduce structural, institutional, or cultural change and have been involved in public debates and interacted with political processes and political institutions. Faced with those who use a conservative interpretation of Islam to justify sex discrimination and perpetuate patriarchal logic, many Iranian women activists are now presenting their own interpretations and readings of Islam in order to oppose gendered social relations.
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The women’s rights movement, however, still remains largely confined to the educated urban Persian middle classes living in big cities. These activists need to strengthen their ties with rural, lower class and ethnic women in mid-sized and small towns where the majority of the population live. Many of these ‘ordinary women’, some of whom are working to ameliorate women’s conditions in their villages or towns, are unaware of women’s rights campaigns. These campaigns, including the One Million Signature Campaign, several of whose activists have been arrested and imprisoned for defending women’s rights, are almost exclusively active in Tehran and large cities and are better known outside Iran than inside the country.
If women’s rights activists do not consider adopting popular mobilisations that are more relevant to traditional modes of social organisations in order to reach out to non-elite women, they will isolate themselves from the majority of Iranian women (and men). It is risky for them to construe themselves as being saviours of subaltern women, and to speak on their behalf instead of clearing space to allow them to speak. They risk endorsing a linear vision, seeing the experiences of ordinary women as a variation of their own meta-narrative, thereby implying their cultural, social and political superiority. (Spival, 1999; Chaterjee, 1993)
The results of my research suggest that the agency of change is located in an alliance between various categories of women, which will bring about the conditions for all women to step out from subalternity.