Iran is a particularly interesting case to explore the complexities and nuances characterizing gender equality in Muslim societies. The participation of women in revolutionary politics awakened the consciousness of popular-class Iranian women to their political potential while middle-class women, also mobilized during the revolutionary process, began actively promoting women’s rights in Iran. After the revolution, however, “the regime established its control not only through brute force but also through a coherent cultural discourse that demonized feminist accomplishments and linked women’s rights both to notions of ritual impurity and to Western Imperialist designs on the nation.”52 These restrictions on women have, ironically, given rise to more significant and dynamic female activism within Iran and the Islamic Republic’s break with the West has undermined notions which label this Iranian women’s movement as a form of Western imperialism. 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 activism of women in Iran. This distinctly Islamic feminism exhibits a formidable sense of agency in Muslim women which challenges the patriarchal views that associate gender inequality with Islam.
The Islamization of Iran has thus ironically resulted in both the marginalization and the empowerment of Iranian women. On the one hand, the Islamic Republic pursued policies contributing to the second-class citizenship of women. On the other hand, –the creation of the Islamic Republic has effectively born a new gender consciousness within its population while simultaneously fostering an environment in which that consciousness is demanded voice. Islamist policies have inadvertently empowered a healthier, better-educated, and more diverse population of Iranian women whose agency was widely mobilized at the very conception of the Islamic Republic, developments which are also central to feminist notions of empowerment. While the religious legacies, historical traditions, and institutional structures within Iran can obstruct gender equality, Iranian women have begun to more actively and assertively voice egalitarian attitudes and are now striving to pursue greater gender equality within the Islamic framework. This Islamic feminism, though complex, appears to be a formidable force within Iran. The generalizations which deem Iranian women submissive, voiceless, and homogenous thus prove to require a greater and more nuanced analysis of the Islamic Republic of Iran and of the Muslim world as a whole.
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Figure 1. Gender Inequality in Iran and its Middle Eastern Neighbors
Figure 2. Gender Inequality, Development, Oil Dependency, and Muslim Population