Female Agency and Empowerment: Islamic Feminism in Iran Introduction



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Conclusions


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


1Gissou Nia, “Iran on U.N. women’s agency is a travesty,” CNN, last modified: Nov. 09, 2010 http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/11/09/nia.iran.womens.rights; “Women’s rights under Iran’s revolution,” BBC, last modified: Feb. 12, 2009 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7879797.stm.

2 Ali Gheissari, Contemporary Iran, Economy, Society, Politics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 77.

3 Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 128.

4 Ibid, 179.

5 Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 104, Iss. 3, Sept. 2002: 783-790, Print.

6 Ahmed, 183.

7 Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 6.

8 Samuli Schielke, “Second thoughts about the anthropology of Islam, or how to make sense of grand schemes in everyday life,” Zentrum Moderner Orient: Working Papers, No. 2, 2010.

Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran.



9 Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, 3.

10 Abu-Lughod, 785.

11 Charles Hirschkind, Saba Mahmood, “Feminism, the Taliban, and politics of counter-insurgency,” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 75, Iss. 2, Spring 2002: 339-354, Print.

12 Saba Mahmood, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 16, Iss. 2, 2001: 210.

13 Ibid.

14 Gheissari, 129Saïd Amir Arjomand, After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 76.

15 Valentine M. Moghadam, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003), 200-201.

16 Moghadam, 210-211.

17 Ziba Mir-Hosseini, (2007), “How the Door of Ijtihad Was Opened and Closed: A Comparative Analysis of Recent Family Law Reforms in Iran and Morocco,Washington & Lee Law Review, 64.4, 1504.

18 Sara Ghasemilee, “Ahmadinejad opposes plans to segregate the sexes in Iran’s universities, rightist alarmed,” Al Arabiya News, last modified: Thursday, 07 July 2011. http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/07/156572.html

19 Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, 7.

20 Gheissari, 130.

21 Ibid. 132.

22 Ibid,

23 Arjomand, 76.

24 Nicole R. Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of the Revolution, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 286.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid, 315.

28 Gheissari, 89.

29 Michael L. Ross (2008), “Oil, Islam, and Women,” American Political Science Review, 102, pp 107-123. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0003055408080040

30Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change around the World, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 10-18, 161.

31In 2013, Saudi Arabia was indicated to have made incredible gains in gender equality. This apparent progress, however, is misleading. The inflated score seems due to the increased ratio of female parliamentary representation that Saudi Arabia reported. The country, however, is an absolute monarchy with no popularly elected parliament. The consultative assembly in Saudi Arabia may have an increased ratio of female members but these appointees have no actualized political power. Instances such as these, in which the data does not represent the reality, speak to the need to reassess how such data is collected, how that shapes our conceptions of gender inequality in these countries, and how studies on gender inequality cannot blindly rely on indexes without a critical eye. This also further illustrates the complexities of studying gender relations in the Middle East and thus reiterates the need to reassess much of the generalizations surrounding Muslim women.

32 “Gender Inequality Index (GII),” United Nations Development Programme, last modified: Nov. 25, 2014 http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/gender-inequality-index-gii.

33 World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report, 2014.

34 Keddie, 290.

35 Ross.

36 United Nations Development Programme, “Gender Empowerment Measure,” Human Development Report 2007/2008, 2007.

37 Inglehart & Norris, 5.

38 Moghadam, 193.

39 Ibid 221.

40 Ibid, 221.

41 Twentieth Century Vixen (Producer), Kim Longinotto & Ziba Mir-Hosseini (Directors), Divorce Iranian Style, October 1998.

42 Ibid, 201.

43 Ibid, 210.

44 Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “How the Door of Ijtihad Was Opened and Closed: A Comparative Analysis of Recent Family Law Reforms in Iran and Morocco,” 1504.

45 Moghadam, 211.

46 Ibid, 222.

47 Ibid, 218.

48 Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, 278.

49 Sussan Tahmasebi, “The One Million Signatures Campaign: An Effort Born on the Streets,” Amnesty International: Middle East North Africa Regional Office E-Magazine, Iss. 20, Winter 2013.

50 "Shirin Ebadi - Biographical". Nobelprize.org, The Nobel Foundation, last modified: 2003. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2003/ebadi-bio.html.

51 Mehrdad Balali, “Iran re-arrests leading human rights lawyer Nasrin, Sotoudeh,” Reuters, last modified: Oct. 25, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/25/us-iran-rights-arrest-idUSKCN0IE0P420141025

52 Janet Afary, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 270.
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