Female Agency and Empowerment: Islamic Feminism in Iran Introduction



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Women’s Agency and Feminism in the Islamic Republic


In the years immediately following the formation of the Islamic Republic, the reigning rhetoric and policies saw to the restriction of Iranian women based on a notion of fundamental gender difference. The regressive policies of the Islamic Republic – which emphasized “women’s domesticity, [gender] difference, and [cultural] danger” – fostered a hostile social environment for all Iranian women, with the educated, Western-oriented, upper-middle class women bearing the brunt of the regime’s program.38 The response of Iranian women, ranging from support to outright hostility to these policies, varied by class and political ideology and exhibited a continued female participation in public life even during the more repressive years of the 1980s which indicates a sense of agency amongst Iranian women. These policies have negative implications for gender equality: an “increasing fertility and population growth; a decline in female labor force participation, particularly in the industrial sector; [a] lack of progress in literacy and educational attainment; and a sex ratio that favored males” and thus the gender relations of Iran had been characterized by a pronounced inequality.39 These new gender policies – with their social and domestic restrictions as well as the resulting lack of female representation in politics and the labor force – reflected an embracing of patriarchal interests and second-class citizenship for women.

Nonetheless, other policies pursued by the Islamic Republic have effectively undermined and reversed the Iranian strategy regarding women. As discussed in the previous section, international health and education indexes regarding gender have now reached near parity in Iran. While health and education began to reach a more diverse population of Iranian women, changes in the political and cultural atmosphere regarding gender relations did not occur until the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, who saw to a “program for economic liberalization and integration into the global economy,” and the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who addressed “the growth and vitality of Iranian civil society, a movement for political and cultural reform, and a movement for women’s rights.”40 The ambiguities in the Islamist discourses throughout the years since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, as well as the legitimacy afforded to women who abided by the Islamist policies, allowed better educated, healthier, and more socioeconomically diverse women to maneuver within the gender system of the Islamic State. In such a position, now with a more legitimate right to raise concerns in the eyes of the state, Iranian women were better equipped to voice criticisms of and objections to the barriers and restrictions that the regime imposes.

Many Iranian women have been deeply conscious of their social status within the Islamic Republic and have been exhibiting resilience and active resistance to the injustices they face. International indexes involving political participation in regards to gender inequality, however, fail to account for the non-electoral political process that many Iranian women participate in. To further the contrast between reality and media portrayal, Iranian women have exhibited agency in organized protests and rallies and active participation in the dominant political discourse via press and filmmaking. The creative ways in which Iranian women have asserted their agency within the limited avenues afforded by the regime are highlighted in Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s documentary, Divorce Iranian Style, in which several Iranian women file for divorce and navigate the Islamic framework of law in strategic and rational self-interest.41 Zahra Rahnavard – a renowned writer, university lecturer, author of a radical-populist Islamic perspective on social classes and inequality, and the wife of Hussein Mousavi, the former prime minister and reformist presidential candidate in 2009, – has told reporters, “Women have been active and present, at times larger numbers than men, in all our public demonstrations. But when it comes to political appointments, they are pushed aside.”42 Such statements speak on the failure of the Islamic Republic to truly elevate the legal, economic, and social status of women and thus predict the quiet revolution, manifested in the ways which Iranian women have creatively and strategically navigated the Islamic framework to pursue more rights, as well as the Islamic feminism, marked by the growing shift towards more reformist interpretations, that will emerge from Iranian women in the 1990s.

With the election of President Rafsanjani, liberalization, development planning, and gradual shifts in gender policy fostered a steady growth in the “visibility of Islamic feminists, legal strategies for women’s rights by state and independent feminists, and the proliferation of a dynamic feminist press.”43 The increasing visibility of women was a gradual but noticeable trend in Iran as the mid-1990s saw to the parliamentary election of several women to the Majlis. By 2000, the Iranian parliament included more women, some of which were reformed-minded advocates for more equitable gender relations. More generally, “[i]n 1997 with the election of Mohammad Khatami as President, the political atmosphere relaxed, and a vocal press and a vibrant, if fragile, civil society emerged.”44 Female parliamentarians began giving speeches attesting to the changing and more assertive attitudes regarding the promotion of women’s status in Iranian society while the formation of nongovernmental organizations dealing with women’s concerns increased dramatically. Iran enjoyed a particularly “lively women’s press” with books, magazines, and women’s studies journals – such as Zan, Zanan, Jens-e Dovvom, and Farzaneh – which took on the political, cultural, religious, and social issues most significant to Iranian women.45 Articles published in the women’s press criticized the subjugation of women in Iran, called for the modernization of family laws, and translated classic feminist essays as well as more recent Western feminist publications.

The system of values concerning women in Iran has further indicated a shift towards gender equality. Mansoor Moaddel’s 1999 survey of value orientations in Egypt, Iran, and Jordan found that, of the three, Iranians placed least emphasis on religion and most on nationalism while also being least concerned about ‘Western cultural invasion.’ The same study found that Iranians had relatively more progressive values concerning working mothers, familial relations, and polygamy. Moaddel concludes that these responses are the result of “the experience of having lived for more than two decades under an Islamic fundamentalist regime.”46 With the break from the West that the Islamic Republic has tried to implement, Muslim women have retaken center stage in the conversations regarding gender relations in Iran. Working within such a framework has allowed a larger number of Muslim women to challenge the gender rules of their societies.

A coalition of secular and Islamic feminists from the press, film, and academia– including Faezeh Hashemi, Shahla Sherkat, Tahmineh Milani, and Jaleh Shaditalab – have begun to work with reformist male parliamentarians to “contest the codified and institutionalized privileges of men over women.”47 The female agency rooted in the mobilization of women during the Iranian Revolution and the unintended widespread empowerment of women through policies of Islamization have been integral components to the increasing political participation of women in Iran. The popular Western notions which label Muslim women – and Iranian women especially since Islam if the official state ideology – as submissive, veiled, and voiceless entities are subverted by the growing women’s movement in Iran. The irony is in the fact that “many women today owe their education, their jobs, their economic autonomy, and their public persona, to compulsory hejab” mandated by the Islamic Republic in order to restrict women.48 The issue of veiling undoubtedly restricts some, but it is pertinent to acknowledge its emancipatory effects within a society which, like all others in their own ways, still struggling with patriarchy. The public sphere remains a male domain and veiling legitimizes the female presence in that domain. Iranian women have then utilized compulsory veiling as a key instrument in taking for themselves a means of subversion whether by exploiting subtle fashion statements with the hijab or by the mere occupation of spaces never intended for them. The 2006 ‘One Million Signatures’ campaign, for instance, has been called “an effort born on the streets” and has been designed by Iranian women to petition the Iranian parliament to reform laws discriminating against women and asks that they be brought up to international human rights standards.49 While the goal of one million signatures was not achieved, the women involved actively shaped the discourse on women’s rights by relying on face-to-face interactions in public spaces and facing public arrests to raise awareness amongst the general Iranian public. The agency of Iranian women is then undeniable in spite of the limited empowerment that the Islamic Republic affords them.



Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi, for example, was a lawyer prior to the 1979 Revolution, was dismissed and given clerical duties following the revolution, and in 1992 finally succeeded in re-obtaining a lawyer’s license in order to establish her own practice. She used her time of unemployment to write several books and articles regarding Iranian law and, upon receiving her lawyer’s license, accepted to defend national, press-related, and social cases.50 Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who in 2010 was sentenced to six years in jail, has become renowned in her representation of Iranian opposition activists. Her case garnered the attention of the United States as well as international non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International. In 2013, international pressures resulted in her release from prison. After her release, she began protesting with human and woman’s rights activists outside the Iranian Bar Association to demand the reversal of a three-year ban on her lawyer’s license.51 The continued participation of Iranian women in the public sphere, especially when regarding laws and government policies, undermines the theocratic, male-dominated society of Iran. Such participation subverts the notion of clearly delineated gender roles that is used to justify the rigid, gender-based social divisions of labor within Iranian society. The increasing healthcare access, educational attainment, and employment opportunities of Iranian women provides further space to challenge the patriarchal models and authoritarian structures which perpetuate the marginalization of women. Islamic feminism in Iran has become a formidable force and symbolizes increasing agency of women seeking better opportunities and greater rights within an Islamic framework.
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