Female Agency and Empowerment: Islamic Feminism in Iran Introduction

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The Revolution and the Creation of an Islamic State

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 included varying degrees of secular, liberal, and radical opposition which even the clergy were divided amongst. These diverse groups were united only in their opposition to the monarchial Pahlavi regime. As the regime began to deteriorate in the face of growing public dissatisfaction, the Islamists were shown to be the most coherent of opposition groups. Upon rising to power, they imposed their own vision and narrative over the revolutionary trajectory and marginalized the perspectives and experiences of other participants in the revolutionary struggle. In order to properly contextualize the ongoing development of Iranian women, a distinction must be made between the popular and largely pluralistic anti-shah uprisings and the religious revivalist movement that pursued an exclusivist ideological agenda. The Revolution was largely driven by “pluralist and populist ideals” that simultaneously coincided with the religious overtones of the collective national opposition since “Islam was gradually highlighted as the predominant element in the native cultural heritage.”14 The successful establishment of the exclusivist Islamic Republic of Iran in lieu of these ideals was partially due to the ability of Ayatollah Khomeini to galvanize massive Iranian participation during the uprising and the consolidation of the Republic’s ideology during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). The eight-year war not only consolidated the puritanical hierarchy of the new state power but also gave nationalist incentives to eliminate those who dissented. The economic and social conditions of the war did, however, provide many Iranian women with significant opportunities to participate in the public sphere as the traditional society’s resistance gradually declined. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would go on to be president of Iran but was then the Speaker of Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, even said, “When the war is over and the economy improves and expands, you will see that we will have a shortage of manpower, and then the need for women will be greater.”15 As the nation unified in the face of external aggression, the role of Iranian women during the eight-year war, similar to that of women during World Wars in Western societies, established a new sense of agency which paved the way for the increasing female activism in Iran.

The subsequent regime policies to cleanse any vestiges of Westernization have resulted in the development of multiple paradoxes in regards to the status of Iranian women. The establishment of Shar’ia law placed a cleric (rahbar) atop the Iranian government system to oversee the country’s political structure and ensure its adherence to an exclusivist Islamic ideology. Though institutions, such as parliament and presidency, are popularly elected, a religious hierarchy maintains control over the state. Neither the state nor the Islamic establishment, however, is by any means monolithic. The reality of Iranian society has exposed political, religious, and moral fault lines which have distorted popular notions of a homogenous and unified society.

The 1979 Revolution politicized the mass of Iranian women but the expectations of many women were not realized. Though women had the right to vote and run for parliament under the Khomeini decade, women were shuffled into traditionally female professions and the initial policies on social issues regarding women were harsh. Social controls gradually eased under the Rafsanjani presidency. The High Council of the Cultural Revolution, under President Rafsanjani in 1992, adopted a set of employment policies which, while reinforcing the importance of strict family and gender roles, encouraged the integration of more women into the labor force and implemented an aggressive campaign to spread awareness of the benefits of small families via free, government-provided seminars and contraceptive devices. These initiatives resulted in a drastic decrease in fertility rate as well as a change in marriage pattern, with the average female age at first marriage increasing from 19.7 in 1976 to 22.4 in 1996.16 A more formidable wave of pro-reform sentiment, however, came with Mohammad Khatami’s years as his surprise election victory “gave expression to a popular reformist movement that sought a shift from the theocratic to democratic elements of the Islamic Republic.”17 Under Khatami, 1997-2005, Iran had its first female vice president, first woman chancellor of an Iranian university, and 13 female parliamentary members. Women also won several legal victories regarding marriage age and divorce compensations. The Khatami years further held a surge in non-governmental organizations founded around women’s issues.

Upon the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hardliners attempted to curb the momentum of Iranian women as they continued to gain political clout. Although Ahmadinejad is considered a hardline president, he seemed to convey open-mindedness regarding women’s rights. In 2011, he ordered immediate cancellation to plans to segregate sexes at some Iranian universities.18 In his attempts to maintain the support of his popular constituency and his political allies, however, much of his policies regarding gender issues have more often than not been in accordance with the Islamic Republic’s patriarchal rhetoric. These efforts generally fared poorly for women on several fronts including strict dress code enforcements and the government closure of Zanan, the country’s leading feminist magazine. The widespread protests following Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election – which included tens of thousands of women from all social classes – was met with harsh government suppression. The recent election of reformist Hasan Rouhani has created an atmosphere of optimism for many Iranian women hoping to regain the momentum of a women’s movement once had under Khatami.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini argues that Islamic feminism is inevitable as the Islamic Republic continues to develop. As Islam shifts from an oppositional discourse in national politics to an official state ideology, those in power “have to deal with the contradiction between their political agenda and their rhetoric: they must both uphold the family, restoring women to their ‘true and high’ status in Islam, and at the same time retain the patriarchal mandates of shari’a legal rules.”19 While the establishment of an Islamic state may initially see stricter restrictions on women, given the patriarchal mandates of the current reigning authorities, the state adoption of Islamic ideology provides an unprecedented space for change. The ideological fundamentalists appear to be “losing their hold on power and their legitimacy” as more and more Iranians, many of whom are conservative in their faith, become empowered through both state policies and their own agency.20 At the same time, the regime has achieved notable success in the areas of rural development, health, family planning, and education. Many Iranian women then simultaneously embody and violate the social changes implemented by the Islamic Republic as they utilize their limited empowerment from the state to occupy spaces they were never initially meant to. The break from West that the Islamic Republic has promoted may ironically contribute to this more indigenous form of feminism which claims greater popular legitimacy and challenges female oppression from an Islamic point of view. The policies enacted by the Islamic Republic have inadvertently fostered a healthier, better educated, and more critical female population with increasing agency and claims of legitimacy within the Iranian context.
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