Female Agency and Empowerment: Islamic Feminism in Iran Introduction



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Gender Related Laws, Policies, and Social Changes


In this section, I will analyze both the policies and social changes under the Islamic Republic in order to provide empirical data on the lived experiences of Iranian women. The Family Protection Law of 1967/1975 (FPL), under the Pahlavi regime, made fewer distinctions between the rights of men and women than the laws it replaced. Women were guaranteed the right to education, equal pay for equal work, and maternity leave. In practice, however, many women, especially those in the rural regions of Iran, were unaware of these rights and thus their lived experience was not affected by the law or its repeal after the revolution. The abolition of the FPL and the establishment of Shar’ia family law after 1979 were, however, specifically aimed at rolling back the modest gains women had before the Revolution. The concerns regarding westernization under the shah manifested in anti-imperialist reforms that targeted such policies. Both religious scholars and secular lawyers under the Islamic Republic looked into different sources and interpretations of Shari’a law in order to propose a distinct alternative to the FPL.21 The ways in which Shar’ia law was initially implemented in Iran was an intentional strategy to serve patriarchal and anti-imperialist interests. These efforts were made in an attempt to cleanse the country of any westernization that occurred under the shah’s rule and conveniently coincided with the patriarchal interests that became ascendant with the revolution. Many Iranian women, however, became very insistent upon their rights “given the high level of participation by women in political demonstrations before, during and after the Revolution.”22 The rise of Islamic feminism and the movement for the reform of Islam has thus been, as Saïd Arjomand states, “very much a product of the children of the Islamic revolution” and can be considered one the of the unintended consequences of the Islamic Republic.23

In this regard, an important initiative of the new regime that would improve the conditions of women was The Reconstruction Jihad that began as a volunteer movement to help with the 1979 harvest but soon took on a broader and more official role with a new government emphasis on improving the rural conditions. These development programs carried out “road building, piped water, electrification, clinics, schools, and irrigation canals.”24 Though many peasants still remained marginalized without proper land reform, rural life in many other ways improved. These developments – especially the building of schools and clinics – were essential to the increase in education and public health that has served to empower Iranian women who were not otherwise accessible.

The gains in education and public health in Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic are impressive. In the field of education, schools receive significant government funding, which makes the construction of schools in villages and poor neighborhoods possible, and thus there has been an increase in accessibility. The “enforcement of single-sex primary and secondary schools (which have been dominant even before) and religious leaders’ endorsement of girls’ education” have further facilitated the accessibility of education to girls in the rural, impoverished, and more conservative areas of the country.25 Under the Rafsanjani presidency, the 2002-2003 women’s tertiary enrollment exceeded those of men for the first time since the establishment of universities in Iran. With the new regime, not only has literacy approached universality among young males and females but the percentage of women among university admissions has continually risen, reaching “about 66 percent by 2003.”26

In regards to public health, a major issue which particularly affected women and children during the Revolution, successive governments have channeled a great deal of resources into health programs and the creation of a grassroots health care network that has transformed access to health care in many areas, including the most remote and deprived. The government also strongly encouraged population growth and encouraged families to have more children in the first decade following the Revolution. Alongside the impressive advancements in overall public health, this rise in birth rates resulted in “a population explosion of those now aged thirteen to twenty-three,” the age group now most disillusioned with the regime.27 Islamist rulers have thus undertaken a number of policies that have, inadvertently, encouraged the development of a larger, healthier, better-educated, and more critical population of Iranian women throughout the country in spite of their enforced second-class citizenship.


Current Trends in Gender Inequality in Iran


Some have attributed the broad decline in female labor force participation and employment in the direct aftermath of the 1979 Revolution to the impact of Islamization. While many middle-class and elite women in the more urban areas of Iran were either forced or pressured to leave their jobs, the disruptions in Iranian trade industries, which many women before the Revolution occupied, may have held a greater impact than Islamist policies. The much larger and broader decline in female employment in rural areas, in which Islamization was not an issue, is indicative of this impact. It is important to note, however, that the expansion of education played a significant role in reducing female labor participation. While Islamization facilitated that process, it has aided in only postponing the now more realized entry of women in the labor force. The improvements since the Revolution have positively affected women’s employment as professional and technical jobs become more accessible to a healthier and more-educated female population.

According to an analysis of Iranian census data, there has been a shift of female employment away from agricultural and manufacturing sectors to the service sector, particularly education, health, and social services.28 In 1966, female employment in the manufacturing sector reached its peak at just over 55 percent with the service sector nearly reaching 20 percent. By 1986, the manufacturing sector dropped to just over 20 percent while the service sector rose to almost 45 percent. Female employment in the service sector reaches nearly 50 percent by 2006 while the manufacturing sector remains under 25 percent. The structural transformation of the Iranian economy and women’s increasing education and expanded job preferences under the policies implemented by the Islamic Republic provide an explanation for this trend.

The rapid expansion of female education, the demographic transition from the population explosion, and large Iranian oil revenues have all factored into the economic growth of Iran, which has been contrary to the trends in many developing countries whose economic growth has been attributed to the channeling of cheap female labor into manufacturing for exports. In line with resource curse theories, the rise of the oil industry in Iran has in fact “[reduced] the number of women in the labor force, which in turn reduces their political influence.”29 According to the modernization theory as articulated by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, industrialization facilitates women’s entrance into the paid workforce, initiates a cultural shift which values gender equality and, through underpinning structural reforms and women’s rights, gives rise to political demands in women’s interests. Cultural legacies and religious traditions, however, set the pace of such change and Inglehart and Norris argue that an Islamic religious heritage is one off the most powerful barriers to gender equality.30 In spite of this argument, Iran has made several strides towards gender equality.

[Figure 1 about here]

According to the UNDP, as seen in Figure 1, the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of Iran had been steadily improving from 2000 to 2005. Though there was an increase in gender inequality following the 2005 presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the 2013 data indicates an all-time low for inequality since the development of the index.31 This data, as well as the 2013 presidential election of reformist Hassan Rouhani, shed light on a shift in Iranian politics towards more open-minded dialogue regarding the status of Iranian women. The GII is measured in three dimensions: the labor market, reproductive health, measured by the maternal mortality ratio and the adolescent fertility rate, and empowerment, measured by parliamentary representation and secondary and higher education attainment levels.32 The increasing levels of equality for Iranian women according to the GII from 2000 to 2005 can be attributed to the improvement in health and education fields under the policies of the Islamic Republic during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami. Turkey, with its secular and more democratic government, was in fact very similar to Iran in regards to GII in 2005. The women’s rights movement in Iran, however, lost momentum after 2005 with the election of Islamist hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Presidency. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap reaffirms how little advancement Iranian women had under his presidency, with little progress in economic participation, education, and political empowerment. The health sub-index even regressed during the Ahmadinejad administration.33 This suggests that gender inequality, as understood by international indexes, is not necessarily inherent to Iran’s Islamic culture but rather a result of concrete government policies shaped by opposing ideological visions. These improvements, though gradual and not without their limitations, towards gender equality in Iran does indicate a growing climate within the Islamic framework that is sympathetic towards achieving gains for women. More gender progressive government policy initiatives, even if ahead of public opinion, can consolidate and reinforce the still growing social and cultural shift that many Iranian women have been advocating for.

[Figure 2 about here]

In spite of the increased accessibility to education and health care for women, however, actual entry into the labor force and attainment of political leadership still remains very limited. With a private sector too weak to create job opportunities, the Iranian government has failed to pick up the slack in creating a coherent and effective means to take advantage of the potential labor force in Iranian women.34 The dependence of the Iranian economy on the country’s oil revenues seems to have led to a decline in female employment which has in turn contributed to a lack of female political representation. The result is that, as Michael Ross states, “oil-producing states are left with atypically strong patriarchal norms, laws, and political institutions.”35 There doesn't seem to be a significant trend, however, in the relationship between oil rents and aggregate gender inequality as seen in Figure 2. While Iran has both high oil rents and high gender inequality, the data from countries such as Egypt, who has significantly fewer oils rents but maintains a higher GII, and Jordan, who has zero oil rents and is doing only slightly better in gender equality, dispute Ross’s claims.

Figure 2 also indicates that countries with higher Muslim population do not necessarily have higher levels of gender inequality. Economic development, however, seems to be significantly correlated with gender equality. The Middle East follows a similar trend to that of the larger international community: the higher the GDP per capita, the lower the levels of gender inequality and vice versa. In spite of Iran’s higher GII score than Turkey, the UNDP’s Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) from 2007 to 2008 indicated that Iran was doing better than Turkey in terms of female professional and technical workers and female leadership and managerial positions. Though Turkey’s GDP per capita is significantly greater than that of Iran, the GEM also indicated that Iran was doing better than Turkey in terms of the ratio of estimated female to male earned income.36 While increasing affluence does tend to generate the expansion of literacy and educational attainment and growth of accessible healthcare, higher levels of GDP per capita do not necessarily translate into de facto women’s rights. It has become apparent that issues of gender equality are “more complex and intractable than the early developmental theorists assumed.”37 These trends reveal the complex nature of gender relations in Iran and speak to the need to reassess many of the generalizations regarding Iranian women as well as the larger global population of Muslim women.

The continued marginalization of Iranian women then seems to be largely due to governmental policies reflecting the patriarchal interests of those in positions of power. The fact that women have done better under the Islamic Republic than under the secular Turkey in certain respects suggest that the Islamic versus secular dichotomy is not very useful to make sense of the multidimensional nature of women’s empowerment in Muslim societies. The rise of a powerful reformist movements led by those such as Khatami and newly elected president Rouhani is an important example of the multivocalism within Islamic circles which characterize the question of gender equality.

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