Portraits of Two Islamist Women: Escape from Freedom or from Tradition?1



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WLUML Dossier 25 October 2003

DOSSIER 25

October 2003




Portraits of Two Islamist Women: Escape from Freedom or from Tradition?1

Janet Afary


In the last two decades as the political landscape of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia increasingly has become identified with conservative Islamist discourses, a number of feminist historians have tried to probe the contradictions in an attempt to understand the underlying reasons for the growth of Islamism. Most of these studies, including writings by this author, have adopted a broad historical, political, or sociological lens through which gender relations and the concerns of women of the region have been analyzed. In this article on Islamist women of Iran, however, I wish to adopt a somewhat different perspective. I am not looking at rank-and-file women who, willingly or not, acquiesced to the Islamist movement after the 1979 Revolution. Rather, I am interested in a more intimate, almost personal, exploration of the lives of two women who assumed leadership roles in the Islamist movement before the Revolution.
My point is that religious fundamentalist movements often have women in prominent positions, and their role is to help develop and popularize the movement’s gender ideology. These women are hardly subordinate in the obvious sense. Many join the movement as a result of a complicated series of motivations, including a desire to end their own sense of loneliness and lack of power, a wish to appropriate certain aspects of modernity without alienating their traditional milieu, or to gain authority over others.
This type of study has been explored for other historical periods, and other countries, as will be seen below. However, it has not been easy for Iranian academic feminists to carry out because of political considerations inside Iran. Outside Iran, it has been emotionally wrenching due to the wide ideological, political (and geographical) gulf that has separated us for over twenty years. And yet the changes that have been going on in Iran since 1997, the emergence of a strong Reformist movement that includes many advocates of women’s rights who have ties to the Islamist movement, and the new discourse on Islamic feminism, all make it imperative to conduct precisely this type of study.
I also wish to draw on the particular insight I have gained from years of studying and teaching Erich Fromm and other theorists of the Frankfurt School. I believe that Fromm’s analysis of authoritarianism in the 1930s and 1940s, together with more recent studies on the religious right in the United States, can help shed new light on the complex phenomenon of Islamism in Iran and some reasons for its growth in the 1970s and 1980s.
At the same time, an exploration of Islamism in Iran, particularly with an emphasis on gender, can enrich theories of authoritarianism by pointing to sites of changes and resistance and by showing that the decision to join these movements stems from a desire to both “escape from tradition” and “escape from freedom.” Women who join right-wing Islamist movements gain a number of rights that the traditional patriarchal society does not offer them. These privileges, however, come at a heavy cost to others, especially secular advocates of women’s rights who have suffered immensely under the Islamic theocracy of Iran.

Modern Individualism and Rise of the Right

In his studies on fascist and totalitarian societies in the twentieth century, Fromm argued that the growth of individualism in modern Europe resulted in psychological trauma with significant political ramifications. Fromm held a doctorate in sociology, was a practicing psychoanalyst, and became a founding member of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, which forged a new synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche in its studies of the family and authoritarianism. Fromm wrote about the disruption of the traditional family in urban Western societies and the sense of insignificance and loneliness that the individual felt as a result. Modernity had freed human beings from the highly hierarchical mold of medieval life, with its rigid guild structure and well-known patterns of family obligations, and introduced the possibility of “freedom from” traditional society. But this more hierarchical medieval social order also had given human beings a relative sense of security since everyone’s place in society was predetermined. Thus, the modern notion of freedom became an unbearable burden for some, to whom freedom of choice meant insecurity and loss of identity.2 The loss of status of the father in the modern family was a contributing factor to the growth of fascism in several ways. First, it contributed to an anxiety over rapid downward mobility as well as anger toward those deemed responsible for this social and economic loss. Second, the loss of status of the traditional patriarch, due to a myriad of socio-economic factors, helped fascist movements because they could claim to be the defenders of traditional patriarchy. They symbolically took the place of the father by calling for a restoration of national “pride and dignity.”3


The basic human desire for identity and rootedness now manifested itself in extreme forms of nationalism and fascism. One type of response for individuals was “to become one with the world by submission to a person, to a group, to an institution, to God.”4 It was to transcend one’s loneliness and individual existence “by becoming part of some body or something bigger than” oneself.5 A second way was to express one’s desire for connectedness by moving in the opposite direction, toward domination over others. An individual could “try to unite himself with the world by having power over it, by making others a part of this constructed world and thus transcending a sense of individual existence through domination.”6 Through this symbiotic relation of submission/domination, a form of sadomasochism, the individual gained a sense of attachment, direction, and power, though not necessarily a sense of integrity.7
Andrea Dworkin and Elinor Burkett, who have studied right-wing women in the United States, suggest a similar pattern of uprootedness, loss of integrity, and ultimately symbiotic attachment to a conservative movement. The individual completely submits to a higher principal, while also dominating others. Dworkin argues that women who have been kept “ignorant of technology, economics, most of the practical skills to function autonomously” find themselves mystified in married life, especially in an abusive and lonely one. Women such as Marable Morgan and Anita Bryant, who later became stars in the religious right, regularly lectured on how they transformed their sense of helplessness by total submission to Jesus (the church). At the same time, their new responsibilities and their need to travel, preach, and “carry out the work of God” relieved them from many domestic chores, additional pregnancies, and even a confining marriage, but without experiencing divorce and its stigma.8
My focus in this article is the complex underlying patterns of submission/domination that compelled two Iranian women, Zahra Rahnavard and Marziyeh Dabbagh, to become followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and join the leadership of the religious right before the 1979 Revolution.9 I am not suggesting that every woman who became an Islamist leader fits the same pattern as these women; the phenomenon of the religious right is far too complex to fit any single model. I do think, however, that despite geographical, historical, and cultural differences between the phenomena studied by Fromm/Dworkin (European, American, and Christian) and the women in this article (Iranian and Muslim), a somewhat similar pattern can be detected. For example, some of the followers of the Islamist movement in the 1960s and 1970s were highly ambitious women who were caught in the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. They seemed to gain a new sense of purpose and identity as a result of submitting to the Islamist movement and its ethico-political structure. As they gradually became leading members of the Islamist movement, their relatives recognized their superior position, including their husbands and fathers. In this way they gained another benefit, respect and authority within the family and the community. Eventually they were also relieved of many of the burdens of a traditional life. Paradoxically, then, their allegiance to a conservative patriarchal movement that advocated women’s subordination actually allowed them to be more ambitious, to gain more power and exercise extensive leadership over others, and to live much more gratifying personal lives. After the 1979 Revolution, their highly conservative political activity resulted in severe restrictions on numerous other women who lost their positions either because they rejected the strict orthodoxy of the Islamist state or because they did not fit the patriarchal mold the new government was constructing. Others left the country and chose a lonely life in exile rather than live under the Islamic Republic.10

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