Human Rights, Islamic Politics, and Women’s Rights for Equality



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Human Rights, Islamic Politics, and Women’s Rights for Equality
Shahra Razavi1

The demise of Cold War politics and the ascendance of liberalism during the decade of the nineties gave human rights agendas unprecedented impetus and legitimacy. In the light of subsequent events—the attacks of 9/11, increasing concerns about the revival of Islamic politics, and the threats of militarism and war—the prospects for human rights look much less promising. Cold war hostilities and the East/West divide seem to have given their place to a purported ‘clash of civilizations’ that posits a historical divide between Christian and Muslim cultures. The latter is construed as monolithic, fanatic, and despotic, hostile to human rights in general and highly oppressive of women in particular. The barbaric treatment of women by Islamic regimes, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, and terrorist acts by radical elements within and beyond European countries with sizeable migrant populations have reinforced suspicion among the general Western public towards the Muslim world, seeing it as uniformly hostile to ‘Western’ values such as human rights, democracy and gender equality.


The tendency in public and media discourses to see Islamic politics as homogeneous, often subsumed under the label of ‘fundamentalism’, in fact conceals a wide diversity of ideas and movements. The Iraqi sociologist, Sami Zubaida (2004) for example, has identified three broad political tendencies within political Islam, which are neither static nor homogeneous. They include what he calls ‘conservative Islam’, often associated with authoritarian states; radical and militant variants, typically pursued by students and militant youth (see also Roy 2004); and the more reformist and modernist orientations, which seek to Islamize government and society, but in the context of economic development, social reform and political democratization.
This paper focuses on the latter tendency, itself far from homogeneous as we shall see, as it has taken root and developed in the context of Iran’s Islamic Republic. Iran continues to provide interesting insights into the limits and contradictions of attempting to assert a conservative interpretation of Islam and its gender order onto a modern society, where the need for change and reform is being voiced not only by secular forces, but also by the ‘true believers’ from within the heart of the Islamic establishment. Reformist advocates have included male lay intellectuals, some notable clerical authorities, as well as a number of Islamic feminists. In the first part of this paper I argue that these disparate streams of reformist thinking constitute a genuinely local (which is not to say hermetically sealed or immune from global influences) effort to move Islamic politics out of the cul-de-sac of traditional (or historical) Islam, by endorsing modernist and universal values of human rights and democracy. Gender equality figures centrally only in some strands of this thinking, feminist Islamism of course, but also the ‘dynamic jurisprudence’ that is being propagated by some religious scholars. For these intellectuals and public figures whose roots go back to the heart of the Islamic establishment—the security forces, the seminaries, the state-controlled media—the turn to human rights, democracy and women’s rights constitutes nothing less than a metamorphosis.
In the second part of this paper I consider the political dynamics at play. While the reformist movement was always constrained as a political force (even when reformist elements dominated the Parliament and the Presidency), it is today all but gone from the centers of power and decision-making, as the traditionalists have tightened their grip over political power. While this represents a major regress for the realization of reformist demands for human rights, democracy and gender equality, it nevertheless challenges the reformist intellectuals and leaders to cultivate a broad social base, bringing into their fold the largely impoverished middle class, the women and the youth who constituted the ‘vote bank’ for President Khatami’s reform platform but whose voices remained muted in subsequent Iranian politics. To do so, the reformists will need to respond to popular grievances about joblessness, poor public services, spiraling inflation, corruption and social and urban decay, in addition to the human rights violations that they have amply exposed. This will mean a broadening of the reformist agenda and mindset beyond its currently liberal (if not neoliberal) frame. This is a tall order especially for a movement that continues to operate in the context of a highly authoritarian and repressive state.


The 1979 Revolution and the Assault on Human Rights

Despite the popular movement that led to the downfall of the Pahlavi monarchy in 1979, the Islamic regime that replaced it ushered in a period of horrific human rights abuses and executions and state sponsored assassinations of political dissidents abroad. Women who had been singled out by the opposition (both secular and Islamic) as symbols of decadence and crass consumerism under the modernist regime were to bear the brunt of subsequent social and gender restructuring or ‘purification’ (Paidar 2001). In a highly significant move, the Family Protection Act which was the ‘flagship’ of the state’s modernization programme in the 1960s and 1970s (Paidar 1995: Chapter 5) was scrapped in 1979 and replaced by shari’a laws that severely curtailed women’s rights in the domain of marriage and the family. Many regressive measures followed, such as the forced imposition of the veil, the expulsion of women from the judiciary, the forced segregation of schools and universities, and heightened violence against women, both domestic and public.


Under these repressive conditions it became extremely difficult for women activists with a secular orientation (like their male counterparts) to be openly engaged in politics inside the country. Many went into exile and those who remained were silenced. Conditions were made more difficult in the context of the popular mobilization for the eight-year war with Iraq (1980-1988). As Paidar (2001) and others have observed, in the absence of an opposition, ‘women and young people found themselves carrying the mantel of the opposition’ (p.5), in day-to-day street battles with ‘morality police’ on the issue of head cover and male/female mixing in public spaces.
Yet the state-imposed gender segregation of public spaces also had less unsavory outcomes. The gender gaps in access to education, for example, began to narrow as traditional families showed greater willingness under the Islamic dispensation to send their daughters to school. At the same time, the Islamic state continued to rely on women’s mass mobilization, especially during the Iran-Iraq war when women were mobilized into a wide range of public roles (Najmabadi 1991). With the economy in deep recession and with the specter of mass impoverishment, increasing numbers of women were under pressure to look for paid work, even if much of this was badly remunerated and unprotected.
In brief, despite the draconian policies and legal edifice put in place by the regime, women were far from invisible in public life (Najmabadi 1999). Indeed, they seized the few openings that were available to them with great force and determination, evident in their intellectual and cultural productions (in literature, art, cinema and the like) as well as their achievements in professional and educational institutions, prompting the comment that ‘The Islamic Republic has not opened the gates. Women are jumping over the fences’ (Moghissi 1994:183).
The Reformist Movement and Islamic Feminists: The Turn to Human Rights
With the end of the war and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the monopoly that the ‘traditionalists’ (Mir-Hosseini 1999) held on politics began to erode. Traditionalist thinking, highly influential in the early years after the revolution when women were purged from the public sector and the judiciary, is associated with the conservative clerics who have had their tentacles extending deep into the key centers of power and decision-making, including the Council of Guardians, the Expediency Council, the judiciary and indeed the Spiritual Leader himself who holds vast veto powers. While the Constitution of the Islamic Republic allows for an elected president and parliament, ultimate authority is vested in the supreme Spiritual Leader and the institutions under his command.2
These men hold very rigid views of women’s roles and rights based on essentialized and biologically-determined gender attributes. It is a mode of thinking that is premised on gender difference, complementarity of gender roles, and a gender-based hierarchy of social responsibilities and rights. Women are seen as caring and nurturing, but also sexualized beings capable of inflicting chaos and confusion if not sufficiently controlled. The veil and segregation are deemed necessary to tame the dangers of female sexuality and to maintain social order and harmony. It is seen as imperative for women to maintain the ‘hearth and the home’ while the public world of politics and commerce is purified of their presence. Within marriage full wifely obedience is required, in return for male protection and provisioning. Much of this thinking, codified through shari’a law, was placed on the statute books in the early to mid-1980s.
The second perspective, more pragmatic and moderate in so far as it recognized social realities in Iran and women’s tenacious presence in public life, was that of the governments of Prime Minister Moussavi (198?-1989) and President Rafsanjani (1989-1997) along with the technocrats that have occupied high- and middle-level management positions within the state bureaucracy. Rafsanjani for example expressed fairly moderate views about the veil, and Moussavi saw segregation and veiling as necessary in order to facilitate women’s active presence in the public sphere—be it in the world of work, in schools and universities, or in collective mobilizations of various kinds.3 These were views that appealed to a younger generation of women, from low-income traditionalist backgrounds in particular, who had been active in street demonstrations during the revolution, and who aspired to go to the university and to take on paid work. It was this perspective that eventually became dominant, especially with the onset of the Iran-Iraq war (Najmabadi 1991). This is also the ideological tendency that could mobilize women’s labour, not for any emancipatory purposes in terms of changing gender relations of power, but in an instrumentalist fashion in order to make it available to the state.4
A third perspective, itself far from monolithic and the most important for this paper, is that of reformism. It engages in a serious re-thinking of Islam with a view to reconciling it with the ‘universal’, ‘legitimate’ and ‘socially just’ discourse of human rights (Kadivar 2003). Its proponents argue for the need to shift the debate from traditional or historical Islam’s emphasis on duties to the modernist and universal notion of rights. As Hojjat ol-Eslam Mohsen Kadivar, an eloquent clerical proponent of human rights put it, ‘In traditional Islam, the human person is not the center of discussion, let alone her/his rights; rather it is God Almighty that forms the center of religion, and duties to God constitute the body of Shari’a’ (2003: 107). Kadivar’s highly critical perspective on traditional Islam, which he has carefully developed over the past decade through a series of published papers and public lectures, is strongly premised on human rights thinking. Like many of the other proponents of reform, his critical stance towards traditional Islam and the search for alternatives were directly triggered by political developments in Iran and his tensions with ‘the establishment’. Many of these proponents have faced inquisition-style trials and prosecutions, served prison sentences, banned from giving public lectures and ‘unfrocked’ (i.e. lost their clerical positions) (Kurzman 2001, Mir-Hosseini 2002).
The voices of reform: Discourses in-the-making
The proponents of the rights-based perspective include a group of lay intellectuals widely referred to as roshanfekrane dini, or religious intellectuals, among whom by far the most influential and popular has been Abdolkarim Soroush5; some clerical figures and seminary intellectuals who want to reconcile Islam with the discourse of human rights, democracy and gender equality through what is called ‘dynamic jurisprudence’; and finally, a diverse group of ‘Islamic feminists’ who gained increasing prominence throughout the 1980s and 1990s, both inside and outside the Parliament.
One of the novel features of Soroush’s thinking, compared to other Islamic modernists, comes from his insistence on the distinction between religion and religious knowledge. While he sees the core texts of Islam (the Koran, the hadiths and so on) as constituents of a divine and timeless ‘religion’, the interpretation of these texts, he argues, is thoroughly human and this worldly, and hence by necessity time and context bound. ‘That is why the medieval version of Islam has to be sharply different from the modern version, and that is why the modern versions have to be different from each other according to the context … and this is also why religious knowledge … not being divine by virtue of its subject matter, is open to (debate and) criticism’ (Paidar 2001:20). Kurzman (1999) refers to Soroush’s strand of liberal Islam as ‘interpreted Islam’ (the other two strands being what he calls ‘liberal shari’a’ and ‘silent shari’a’), seeing this trope as the one that enables pluralism and diversity, not just among religious communities but within Islam itself.
Soroush endorses both human rights and democracy as part of the dominant non-religious knowledge of our time, and hence as necessities of the modern age. Democracy is seen as the most legitimate form of governance and also one that is most likely to produce rational and just policies, because it allows pluralism of power and accountability of those in positions of power (to the people). More specifically on human rights, his view is that these are embedded in modernist understandings of justice, and ‘if they are sacrificed for ideology, the religious government will not be seen as just’ (Paidar 2001: 21).
Several observers have drawn attention to the way in which the lay religious intellectuals have side-stepped the ‘woman question’ in their work (Mir-Hosseini 1999: Ch. 7, Paidar 2001). Despite this ambivalence, there is little doubt that the revisionist approach to Islam that Soroush in particular has pursued provides strategic openings for feminist agendas of gender equality. In fact ‘his approach to sacred texts has not only enabled women in Zanan (an Islamic feminist monthly magazine published in Tehran) to frame their demands within an Islamic framework, but has also encouraged clerics for whom “gender” has become a problem to address it from within a feqh (Islamic jurisprudence) framework’ (Mir-Hosseini 1999: 215, my additions).
Both human rights and gender equality are central to the work of clerical proponents of ‘dynamic jurisprudence’. Some of these clerics have even collaborated with Islamic feminists; for example, Hojjat ol-Eslam Seyyed Mohsen Sa’idzadeh6, a mid-ranking cleric who is the most vocal proponent of gender equality, was a regular contributor to Zanan magazine where he tried to develop a coherent theory of women’s equal rights within Islamic jurisprudence. Hojjat ol-Eslam Mohsen Kadivar (2003), the ardent advocate of human rights referred to above, sees gender equality as one of the main pillars of a human rights regime and a democratic order. Gender equality and women’s autonomy have also been central to the work of other clerics in this group, most notably Ayatollah Abdullah Nuri (Minister of interior under President Khatami) who has taken a very strong stance on the issue of hejab (head cover)—a taboo subject for complicated historical reasons—arguing that it should be voluntary and not compulsory (Nuri 1999 cited in Mir-Hosseini 2002).
These clerical proponents contend that the rules of shari’a with respect to gender concerns are time and place sensitive—hence the label ‘dynamic jurisprudence’ (feqh pouya as opposed to feqh sonati or traditional jurisprudence). Moreover, they argue that in determinations of the dictates of Islam, the general principles of humanity and morality must take precedence over ‘specific provisions found in various sources of Islamic jurisprudence—provisions which they generally content were intended for or are a product of a different time, place and social context’ (Mokhtari 2004:474).
As Sa’idzadeh puts it, ‘a substantial number of hadith and feqh theories obstruct the way to establishing equality between the sexes. A majority of jurists and all hadith specialists have sacrificed the Principle of equality in Islam to endorse a set of theories resting on assumptions that are no longer valid but still remain part of feqh … equality is such an unequivocal Principle that we cannot set it aside for the sake of a set of feqh theories’ (interview with Sa’idzadeh in Mir-Hosseini 1999: 252). As Mir-Hosseini concludes, ‘Sa’idzadeh has set himself the task of demolishing these theories, arguing that it should be done from within feqh itself and using its own language and mode of argumentation’ (Mir-Hosseini 1999: 250). He has argued, for example, that the assumptions about each gender’s nature that underline the traditional assignment of roles (women as nurturers, males as breadwinners) and the discriminatory provisions in orthodox jurisprudence that follow (women’s share of inheritance and remedies in case of murder or assault being half the amount due to men) are all social constructs. He then uses the traditional methods and reasoning of Islamic jurisprudence to argue that gender equality is in fact rooted in the dictates of Islam.7
Similar in style and argumentation are the writings of Hojat ol-Eslam Mohsen Kadivar on human rights and women’s rights—one of the most thorough and extensive analyses of traditional Islamic thinking from the perspective of human rights. In an interview with the magazine Aftab (2003) entitled, ‘Human Rights and Religious Intellectualism’ he provides an astonishingly forthright and harsh critique of traditional Islam from the perspective of human rights. He begins by setting out the reasons why historical (or traditional) Islam is in conflict with human rights thinking, with detailed references to the existing body of human rights instruments and conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The six grounds on which he sees major conflicts between historical Islam and human rights thinking are: denial of legal equality between Muslims and non-Muslims (the non-Muslim category includes atheists); denial of legal equality between women and men; denial of legal equality between slaves and free individuals; denial of legal equality in public affairs between common people and religious men; the denial of freedom of thought and religion; and the endorsement of harsh punishments and torture.
On gender equality more specifically he draws attention to the irrationality and injustice (in traditional Islam) of allowing physiological differences to determine legal differences in rights; ‘if racial differences and differences in the colour of skin cannot form the basis of differences in rights, why should gender become the basis for such differences? … Gender discrimination in rights is contrary to fairness, justice, and rationality’ (p.109).
His response to the question as to whether traditional Islam has the capacity to overcome its fundamental contradictions with human rights is unequivocally negative. What is needed, he argues, are innovative interpretations of divine principles in the light of new realities of which human rights thinking is a key component, rather than searching in vain for answers in old hadiths and even in the Koran itself which includes some verses that are contrary to human rights (p.111, my emphasis). Human rights thinking must therefore take precedence and inform today’s Islam. Finally, he sees the international efforts by Islamic countries to come to terms with human rights thinking (the most recent being the 1990 Cairo Declaration of the Organization of Islamic Conference) as meek, confusing, and largely unsuccessful: while the 1990 Cairo Declaration took a positive stance on the issue of slavery, it failed to address the other five areas of tension outlined above, including the area of gender discrimination where the Cairo Declaration effectively endorsed ‘women’s shari’a rights as in conformity with their duties’ (p.111).
It must also be noted that Kadivar, like many of the other reformists, rejects the argument that human rights thinking is a Western construct suited to Western lifestyles. He sees human rights thinking as a global phenomenon whose value lies in its rationality, justice, and fairness, ‘and thus to submit to human rights thinking is not to submit to the West, but to submit to rationality and justice’ (p.112).
While high-profile male public figures, like Mohsen Kadivar and the popular Abdollah Nuri have contested traditional Islam’s endorsement of gender discrimination and tried to push modernist understandings of Islam in the direction of global human rights thinking with its emphasis on gender equality, the hard work of redressing some of the most harmful Islamic laws put on the statute books in the early years after the Revolution was carried out through the lobbying efforts of a group of women parliamentarians in the late 1980s and early 1990s (in the Fourth and Fifth Parliament that were still controlled by the conservatives) (Afshar 1998, Mir-Hosseini 2002). For example in 1986 the restrictions on the subjects that women could study were removed; in 1992 divorce laws were amended to curtail men’s right to divorce their wives at will and to provide adequate financial compensation in the case of divorce; and in the same year women were also appointed as ‘advisory judges’ (Mir-Hosseini 2002). In February 2000 three newly elected female parliamentarians raised questions about the dress code, when they declared their determination not to wear the full cover (chador).
These efforts were in turn being fed by the work of women activists and lawyers who were using women’s publications as a forum to air women’s concerns about shari’a laws and to discuss religious rulings from a gender perspective. The activism that these women were engaging in has been widely referred to as ‘Islamic feminism’, even though it has included the work of some secular feminists, in particular the eminent feminist lawyer, Mehrangiz Kar. While it would be difficult to offer any precise definition of Islamic feminism or categorization of the diverse positions held on the question of gender justice and gender equality, Mir-Hosseini (2004) usefully describes it as ‘a new consciousness, a new way of thinking, a gender discourse that is “feminist” in its aspirations and demands, yet is “Islamic” in its language and sources of legitimacy’ (p.3).
In Iran the Islamic feminists emerged from the heart of the establishment. Many of them were connected through kinship and marriage networks to elite politics (for example, Azam Taleqani, Zahra Rahnavard, Fa’ezeh Hashemi, Jamileh Kadivar). In other words, they were the insiders who gradually came to adopt critical positions in response to some of the doctrinaire measures adopted by the new state. A wide range of views and positions are represented by the advocates of women’s rights who operate within an Islamic discourse, with some simply acting as ‘cheer leaders’ of the Islamic Republic asserting a highly conservative interpretation of women’s rights,8 while others have candidly criticized the state for failing to meet its obligations to grant women their Koranic rights (Afshar 1998: Ch. 2). Only four years after the Revolution one of these advocates who had been imprisoned for her political activities by the previous regime and whose son was ‘martyred’ during the war went so far as to say that ‘…at the moment I do not see any room for the development of women in the public sphere … Unfortunately after the revolution women have not been allowed to play a real part in Iranian politics. They are needed to shout and participate in demonstrations. The most they do is to go to Friday prayers or help out behind the front lines of the war’ (Maryam Behruzi, cited in Afshar 1998:41).
Many of these women have complained through women’s journals and other media that women’s ‘voices are not heard’, that they are being ‘pushed aside’ when it comes to public appointments, that women are being used ‘as extras to build up the crowd to give legitimacy to the demonstrations’, and have repeatedly drawn attention to women’s absence and marginalization in the centers of decision-making (Afshar 1998:42-3) even under the Presidency of Khatami. They have advocated for divorce laws that are based on women’s autonomy, choice and economic security, and custody laws that are based on the best interest of the child and the mother. They defend women’s public presence, and have focused their efforts on highlighting the rights that Islam accorded to women, both in their domestic roles as mothers and wives, as well as in the public sphere as workers, political actors and as law-abiding and faithful citizens. Their aim is to ultimately revoke the woman-friendly aspects of Islam, which they claim have been overlooked over the centuries by masculinist readings of the holy texts.
An important forum for Islamic women’s rights advocacy has been the already mentioned monthly magazine, Zanan (Women). Zanan, like other reformist voices, has an interesting trajectory. Its publisher and managing director, Shahla Sherkat, began her post-revolutionary career as the director of the government controlled women’s weekly magazine, Zane-e Rouz which essentially promoted the ‘post-revolutionary ideal woman … a Muslim woman, wearing a chador and carrying a gun’ (Eftekhari 2003: 16). Dissatisfied with the old clichés, and keen to attract a more diverse readership, once she was ousted from the editorial group in 1992, as part of a purge intended to calm dissident voices in the early 1990s, she set up Zanan (ibid).
As Najmabadi (1999) has meticulously shown, Zanan’s interpretive work on women’s rights has been novel, with many of the contributing authors engaging in direct interpretations of canonical texts from the perspective of individual women’s lived experiences, demands and desires.9Zanan’s discussion of justice, oppression, and disobedience in marriage shifts the ground of these concepts from the marriage contract’s definitions of what constitutes justice according to sacred revelation, to what constitutes justice in a woman’s lived experience’ (ibid: p.68). For example, in a move that is similar to and informed by the feminist debates on the social construction of gender difference, Zanan argues that women’s and men’s positions in God’s sight are unrelated to their differences-in-creation, and their respective social responsibilities and rights are unrelated to these differences. It thus becomes possible to embrace the notion of equality of rights for women and men and to condemn discrimination on any basis as counter to this concept of equality (Najmabadi 1999). This approach as we have seen, is very similar to what the clerical proponents of dynamic jurisprudence have been engaged in (and as was noted earlier, Sa’idzadeh has extensively contributed to Zanan’s work on women’s legal rights within Islam).
The other move, boldly pioneered by Zanan, has been to affiliate itself explicitly with global and Western feminism and to cite and quote from non-Iranian feminists as well as from secular Iranian feminists inside or outside the country. This is a practice that has continued up to the present time, with extensive interviews with secular Iranian feminists appearing as a regular feature.10 Zanan has thus become a forum for women’s rights advocates of different persuasions, both secular and religious, to engage in debate and writing—reversing the important ‘historical trend within which the West and the East, modernism and Islam, feminism and cultural authenticity, have been constructed as exclusionary categories, forcing Iranian women to choose between claims to a cultural self and a feminist self’ (Najmabadi 1999:75).
Pluralism in print media was catalyzed in the more liberal era of Khatami’s Presidency, when the conservatives lost their absolute control of government and when the liberal Ata’ollah Mohajerani presided as the Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance (1997-2000), facilitating the publication of diverse newspapers and weeklies, as well as freedom of expression in the arts, especially cinema. In this period a number of other women’s publications followed Zanan’s lead, especially Huqug-e Zanan, Jens-e Dovvom and Zan (the latter a daily paper, run by Fa’eze Hashemi, which took a daring stance on several issues, including solidarity with Western feminists and their achievements before being shut down in late 1999).
Mohajerani was forced to resign in December 2000 and the reformist press has been under constant pressure and censorship. As we noted above, from a historical/local perspective, Zanan’s stance has been in many ways radical and transformative, reversing the divide between cultural authenticity/Islam and modernity/feminism, trying to build bridges between different strands of the women’s movement over common issues and concerns relating to gender inequality, and connecting with global feminism. But this has not been easy: the magazine has faced constant criticism from conservative quarters and been under pressure and threat from various sides. As one of the contributing authors explains:
As the discussions expanded, fundamentalists became more sensitive. First they complained that these discussions belong only to Islamic jurists, and even more restrictively only to certain Islamic jurists. Slowly, pressures increased. On the one hand, Sherkat was being called to court to explain an article that had appeared in Zanan, or to explain her cooperation with a particular writer. On the other hand, a number of writers for the magazine had to endure all sorts of personal and social pressures, ranging from being pushed out of their jobs to inflammatory articles about them in conservative-controlled newspapers and journals. (Eftekhari 2003: 18).
While the global human rights and women’s rights conventions (including CEDAW) are implicit in Zanan’s legal work, its interpretive venture has been about providing new interpretations of canonical texts by women and in tune with women’s ‘lived experiences’, thereby breaking the monopoly of the clergy. As such, the task of pushing for CEDAW fell to the reformist elements within the government. Some observers noted the visible change in the attitude of government officials towards the international human rights order, with some parts of the government increasingly engaging with and taking the international human rights debate more seriously (Mokhtari 2004). In the area of women’s rights, a discernible shift was seen in the perspective of government bureaucrats, whereby the official focus was shifted from promoting and exporting revolutionary values to uncovering how international and global human rights trends are relevant to Iran’s circumstances’ (Tohidi 2002).11 For example, since early 2002 the Parliament was seriously debating the ratification of CEDAW. The ‘woman’s machinery’ (Center for Women’s Participation as it is called in Iran) was arguing that CEDAW be ratified without reservation—a move that was frozen in September 2003 when the conservative Council of Guardians raised strong objections to CEDAW and harshly criticized the Parliamentarians promoting its ratification.

Reformism on Trial

Even if we agree that these emerging feminist voices in Islam—the Islamic feminists and their male clerical allies—represent a paradigm shift in Islamic law and thinking, bringing it into harmony with contemporary human rights thinking, the question of its political consequences is what we have to then confront. While it is important not to belittle the importance of ideas as a motor for change—and hence the contribution of these public intellectuals—it is important to place these discursive moves within their political context.


It is no secret that the short-term political liberalization associated with the Khatami Presidency was only skin-deep, given the extent to which conservative forces (especially the ‘Spiritual Leader’) maintained their hold over numerous institutions that yielded enormous power. For example many of the clerical figures referred to in this paper, including both Sa’idzadeh and Kadivar, were prosecuted, imprisoned and de-frocked by the Judiciary and the special court set up for this purpose (Special Clergy Court) within the life span of Khatami’s government.12 Most of Khatami’s legislative reforms, as was noted above with respect to CEDAW, were blocked by the conservatives, most notably the Council of Guardians that takes its clue from the Spiritual Leader.
While the reformists were able to maintain their hold over the Parliament for some time, their power has receded further in recent years. In the last parliamentary elections (March 2003) they lost their parliamentary dominance to the conservatives as their candidates were weeded out through the tightly controlled selection process for candidates. The new parliament includes a handful of women, many of them outspoken in support of the project of asserting a conservative interpretation of women’s rights. Reverting back to the early 1980s model of ‘Islamic womanhood’, they have condemned all international human rights conventions, including the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was selectively reproduced in school textbooks (add reference). They are harshly opposed to CEDAW, which one parliamentarian blamed for causing the break-up of the family and promiscuity (add reference). To combat prostitution and moral decay they have voiced the need for the imposition of a strict dress code, the further segregation of all public spaces, and the meting out of hard punishments (execution) for sex workers. In a recent meeting with women employees of the Public Media Service (Seda va Seema), one female parliamentarian emphasized the need for early retirement and extended maternity leaves so that women could better attend to their familial duties.
In June 2005 in what became a controversial blow for the reformists, they lost the Presidency, thereby bringing all the organs of power under the sway of traditional Islam associated with Ali Khamenei (the Spiritual Leader) and the like-minded clerical figures sitting in the Council of Guardians.
The reform movement itself had many weaknesses: ‘too divided to establish its own political authority, too naïve about the tenacity of the authoritarian elite around Khamenei the Spiritual Leader and too inflexible to circumvent the ban on political parties by creating and sustaining alternative forms of mobilization’ (Halliday 2005). Most critical was the element of distrust between the visible leadership of the reform movement and the diverse social forces (including many women’s rights advocates) that ‘opportunistically’ supported the movement in order to weaken the hold of the Islamist hard-liners and bring about political change. This is one of the main reasons why the leadership of the movement was not able to create alternative forms of mobilization, through social movements for example, fearing that a movement of some sort would develop its own agenda rather than allow the existing leadership to represent its demands and interests.
While no one predicted the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the 2005 successful presidential candidate) and while there were numerous accusations of fraud, ‘irregularities’, of ‘money passing hands’ and so forth, one thing that is clear is that popular resentment towards Ahmadinejad’s opponent in the runoff, Hashemi Rafsanjani, played into the hands of the conservative candidate. Rafsanjani’s previous tenure was associated with an agenda of economic liberalization that ended in ‘hyperinflation, cronyism, and a series of horrific political murders that remain unresolved’ (de Bellagaigue 2005). His seemingly moderate and pragmatic stance on numerous issues both international (nuclear capacity of Iran, relations with the US) and domestic (cultural issues like veiling, segregation and so on) was tainted by the fact that his brand of ‘liberalism’—neo-liberal on economic policies, strongly opposed to political democratization, and only mildly liberal on cultural issues—is widely discredited for its association with increasing inequality and economic polarization.
An underlying reason for the gradual erosion of popular support for the reformists and their eventual defeat in the 2005 presidential elections was their failure to present a credible agenda for combating economic and social deprivation that could respond to popular concerns and anxieties about increasing inequality and insecurity. The more conservative elements in the regime were able to exploit these anxieties with their populist revolutionary rhetoric. Ahmadinejad was widely praised for his humble background (compared to Rafsanjani and his family who have amassed huge wealth) and his concerns for the common people. Social freedoms and the kind of rights-based agenda that the reformists stood for, it is argued, do not meet the urgent needs of low-income households, those who have recently migrated from villages and who struggle hard to make a living on the fringes of urban existence. Inflation is currently running well above the official rate of 15 percent and Ahmadinejad’s economic adviser laments that a third of Iranians in their twenties are unemployment (de Bellaigue 2005: 21). There is a dire need for jobs, for properly running public services and for basic urban infrastructure.
It would be dangerous however to buy into the argument that the average woman or man on the street does not need the kind of ‘liberal’ rights agenda that the reform movement, especially the women’s rights advocates, have been pushing for—a kind of argument reminiscent of leftist contempt for ‘bourgeois rights’. Women’s rights within marriage and the family for example that Zanan has championed are likely to affect low-income women even more than the well-to-do who are more likely to have the means to reach satisfactory settlements (in the case of divorce, child custody, inheritance rights and so on) outside the court system. It is a well-known fact that parents with economic means tend to bail out their daughters and sons from the clutches of the morality police, while it is to the offspring of the less well-to-do that Islamic punishments are meted out (for infringing the dress code, the rules of segregation, and so on).

Whether the reform movement, and the feminist currents within it, will be able to recuperate from this defeat and present a programmatic alternative to the old and vacuous revolutionary slogans of social justice that are premised on a deeply patriarchal gender order remains to be seen.



20 September 2005

Bibliography

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1 The author is Research Coordinator at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Geneva. This is a draft version: please do note quote without the permission of the author.

2 The Iranian journalist, Akbar Ganji, who since his arrest in April 2000 served a five-year prison sentence, condemns this system as a form of ‘sultanism’ (see Bakhash 2005).

3 The fact that Moussavi was married to Zahra Rahnavard, an educated woman who has published widely on women’s issues and held high-level public positions (including as Chancellor of Al-Zahra University, the only all-woman university in Iran), added further credibility to his more enlightened views on women.

4 Rafsanjani is a known supporter of the ‘Chinese path’ to reform: meaning, economic liberalization without political liberalization (whether Iran’s ailing economy can ever produce Chinese style growth rates is the big question). Recruiting women as the ‘cheap’ work force to fuel economic growth would fit this vision.

5 Soroush was one of the key ideologues of the Islamic Republic in its formative years, and participated actively in the re-organization of the universities during the ‘cultural revolution’ that involved the dismissal of many secular professors. He was gradually disillusioned and then distanced himself from the establishment, before becoming an open and ardent critic. His public lectures have been banned in Iran and he now spends most of his time outside the country (for samples of his work in English see http://www.drsoroush.com/English).

6 The most extensive analysis of Sa’idzadeh’s thinking and writing is provided by Ziba Mir-Hosseini (1999), on whose work I rely here.

7 While clerics like Sa’idzadeh would not quote or cite Soroush (since he is regarded as an intellectual lightweight in the seminaries) the influence of his thinking on theirs is very clear.


8 The women’s journal Nida’ (The Call) which is the organ of a quasi-governmental organization headed by Khomeini’s daugher, Zahra Mostafavi, is a good representative of this group. The women representatives in the current Parliament (2003-) have taken even more traditionalist (and misogynist) positions, including the endorsement of harsh punishments (including execution) for sex workers, the imposition of strict dress codes on women, and the further segregation of all public spaces.

9 The dominant method of reformist interpretations of women’s issues has been to use the more woman-friendly sources from an already existing set of texts.

10 For example an extensive interview with the Iranian feminist sociologist, Parvin Paidar, appeared in a recent issue (Azar 1383).

11 Tohidi (2002) does explain however that despite ‘some movement toward moderation, a disturbing continuity was reflected in the … opposition to certain egalitarian aspects of the Beijing Platform for Action, placing Iran among the leading conservative Muslim states in alliance with conservative Catholic states led by the Holy See’ (p.213).

12 Sa’idzadeh compared Iran’s conservatives to the Taliban in Afhganistan.





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