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



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Payam-e Zan

Before examining the lives of Rahnavard and Dabbagh, it is useful to review the role of the magazine Payam-e Zan (Women’s Message), the primary organ of Islamist women in Iran. Payam-e Zan began publication in Farvardin 1371 [March/April 1992] in Qom under the auspices of the Bureau of Islamic Publicity (BIP), a branch of the Qom Theological Seminary, to which many leaders of the Islamic Republic are affiliated. Both publisher Mohammad Ja’far Gilani and editor Sayyid Ziya’ Mortazavi are men. An anonymous group of women, identified as “The Sisters Unit of the BIP,” work as staff members of the journal. Between 1992 and 2000, close to one hundred issues appeared. About half of the articles were written by women. Typical articles dealt with culture and religion, society and politics, family and childcare, literature and the arts, and finally, health, hygiene and homemaking. Most articles had a strong ideological bent, including those on child-rearing and the arts.


Payam-e Zan is not the only women’s journal of Iran, nor is it an enormously popular one. However, the journal does not have to rely on subscriptions or advertising to sustain itself, since the government amply funds it. But Payam-e Zan has to compete for readers with the more popular women’s journals such as Zan-e Ruz (Today’s Woman), which has a greater variety of articles, and especially with the more independent Zanan (Woman), which publishes writings by Western and Iranian feminists. In contrast to these latter journals, Payam-e Zan has adhered to two principles throughout its existence. First, it sees feminism as an expression of Western immorality because it recognizes a woman’s right to sexual pleasure and challenges a husband’s uncontested right to enjoy his wife’s body at will. Second, it claims Western imperialism has used feminism to invade and destroy Muslim societies. For example, a 1993 article, A Look at the Origins of Cultural Invasion, argues that: What colonialism and its lackeys have accomplished [in the Muslim world] is the unveiling of women, along with debauchery, inappropriate [gender relations], together with foolish freedoms of the modern woman. All of these are gifts of Europe. To accomplish these deeds and to fight ethics and virtue, colonialism has used the most dangerous weapon, women. The great Prophet of Islam is said to have predicted that, “after [my death] women will be the cause of great sedition [fetnah] among men.”11 A 1995 article, Feminism: A Repeat of Failed Experiences, states that:
Feminists argue that a distinction should be made between sex for pleasure and sex for procreation, which means that they now [claim] the right to sexual pleasure. [They also believe that] birth control and a woman’s right to abortion are necessary in order for women to gain sexual pleasure: The other issue ... they raise is women’s readiness and willingness [for sex]. They say a husband does not have the right to enjoy his wife whenever he pleases. His wife also should be willing. Based on this argument, feminists have demanded the abolition of marriage because marriage is an obstacle to [women’s] seeking pleasure.12
After the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, Payam-e Zan edged away from the above hard-line positions. The journal began to publish articles by leading Muslim jurists in defense of women’s greater participation in society, including the right to become judges.13 The journal also has published articles on gender discrimination around the world. And it has condemned (together with many others in the Islamic Republic) the policies of the Taliban regime, which have forced women out of public life in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Payam-e Zan remains quite conservative by contemporary standards, even within Iran.
In the late 1990s, a new generation of theologians, secular intellectuals, and feminists has called for a reform of the orthodox conservative interpretation of Shia Islam and its reconciliation with democratic principles. Human rights lawyers Mehrangiz Kar and Shirin Ebadi and feminist poet Simin Behbahani joined filmmakers Tahmineh Milani and Rakhshan Bani E’temad to challenge the numerous gender inequities in the Islamic Republic. Zanan, edited by Shahla Sherket, is part of this growing effort by women writers and journalists. This new generation of feminists is fighting for an end to polygny, for a woman’s right to sue for divorce, her rights to retain custody of minor children and share common marriage property upon divorce, and civil liberties for both women and men. Zanan is a literary and cultural magazine with an explicitly feminist agenda and has regular features on divorce, sexual violence, and child custody. Zanan also translates articles from journals such as Ms. Magazine in the United States.14
In contrast, while some of the writers of Payam-e Zan joined the camp of Muslim feminists after the election of Khatami in 1997, the editorial board has continued to defend the chief religious authority, or faqih, ‘Ali Khamenehi, who is believed to oppose such reforms. The journal has remained equally unrelenting in its denunciations of the United States, Israel, and Western cultural values as a whole.15 Nonetheless Payam-e Zan is a unique source for learning about women who are in the leadership of the Islamic Republic.
Between 1992 and 2000, Payam-e Zan conducted a series of interviews with nearly one hundred women, including parliamentary deputies, heads of various government agencies, journalists, and other professionals who work closely with the government of the Islamic Republic. Among others, these included: Majlis (Iranian Parliament) deputy Marziyeh Dabbagh; Director of the Women’s Mobilization [Basij] Organization Mohtaram Jamali; leaders of the Women’s Society of the Islamic Republic such as Zahra Rahnavard and Fereshteh Irani; BIP member Ozra Ansari; Director of the Women’s Bureau Shahla Habibi; Director of the Family Program for the Voice [Radio] of the Islamic Republic Simin Ahmadi; Director of the House of Zahra [an educational institute in Kashan] Fatemah Nahid; Director of the Foundation for the Martyrs of the Islamic Republic Fatemah Karubi; and various women theologians, women war veterans, mothers and sisters of veterans, village activists, teachers, and workers. Their ideological credentials are approved by the most conservative wing of the government, and annually many of them are awarded such titles as teacher or worker of the year.
The lengthy interviews sometimes appear in two to three instalments. They focus on the respondents’ personal lives (parents, level of education, marriage and family) and political accomplishments. In evaluating these interviews, one should consider the fact that those who are interviewed (as well as the journalists who conducted them and the editors who published them) are constructing narratives that fit the journal’s model of a proper Islamist woman. The stories often seem to embellish the women’s previous religiosity and political commitment and exaggerate their economic deprivation before the Revolution. However, at the same time the interviews seem accurately to portray many personal details of the women’s lives. Somewhat paradoxically, they present the respondents as active members of society, although most of whom hardly fit the image of docile and full-time mothers and housewives, the very image that the Islamic Republic has propagated during the last two decades.16
At least two distinct types of stories emerge from these interviews. They include younger respondents who, at the time of the Revolution, were in their twenties and tended to belong to urban lower middle class families. Many were the first in their families to attend colleges and universities. Members of this group joined the Islamist movement as a reaction against the modern and secular values they encountered at school and at work and hoped to maintain the traditional ethical values they had learned at home. The way in which they embraced conservative mores could be considered a form of “escape from freedom.” At the same time, they remained committed to an advanced education and to professional employment for women, even after the Revolution. When these students realized that the new government was unwilling or incapable of realizing their ideal notion of a just Muslim society for both men and women, some shifted their attention specifically to women’s issues. The second group is comprised of women who, at the time of the Revolution, were in their thirties and forties, and most were from more traditional or rural backgrounds. Several had entered an arranged marriage at a young age and moved to larger cities with their husband, where they were exposed to new gender relations and expectations. Joining the Islamist movement offered them social mobility, and for the truly committed, some freedom from the traditional roles of mother and housewife. These highly conservative women became political activists, lived outside their homes, and even traveled abroad without experiencing the conventional stigma of separation and divorce. Because they owed their newly found freedoms to Khomeini’s advocacy of an activist and militant Islam, many became his most ardent supporters.
However, their commitment to women’s rights always remained nominal at best. They were first and foremost committed to creating an Islamist state and were interested in recruiting women in order to attain their ideological goals. Ironically, members of both groups gained their initial standing in the Islamic Republic by telling other women that their loyalty first and foremost should be to their husbands, children, and Islamic family values, something they themselves have not practiced either before or after the Revolution. Nearly all the women interviewed by Payam-e Zan come across as astonishingly busy. They hold full-time jobs, are responsible for a variety of volunteer committees and organizations, and often attend graduate school.

Immediately the question is raised: Who is taking care of their husbands and children while these women dedicate themselves to propagating the foundational ideology of the Islamic Republic that a woman’s first responsibility is to her husband and family? The fact is that none of them, whether single, married, or divorced is a traditional mother or housewife.17 Fereshteh Erabi, editor of the conservative women’s journal Neda says that she is an active member of the Central Council of the Women’s Association of the Islamic Republic. Previously, she held the position of public relations officer in the organization, and is now editor of several other publications as well. Erabi is married with three school-aged children.18 Simin Ahmadi graduated with a degree in sociology, works at Radio Voice of the Islamic Republic, and runs its family programs. She plans to continue her education and receive an advanced degree in sociology. She is also the mother of three children.19 Tayebeh Sultani heads the House of Zahra Publicity Association. This organization offers a variety of classes in arts and Islamic education for women. Tayebeh is partly disabled. She has two children and is preparing herself to take the very difficult university entrance examinations.20 Despite their hectic lives, all repeat the slogan of the hard-liners that women must not spend much of their time away from home and abandon their children to the care of others.


If the respondents are married, the magazine asked them fairly detailed questions about their daily lives and how they juggle their responsibilities to husband and family with their political commitments and organizational obligations. If the respondents are widows, and especially if the husbands are considered martyrs (either because they were killed in the Iran-Iraq War or were targets of a terrorist bombing), there is detailed discussion of their married lives before the tragedy and a close examination of the difficulties that they face raising their children alone. However, in a fair number of cases, the reporters never asked the standard questions about husband, children, and household duties. This omission suggests that the respondents very likely may be single or divorced. Yet readers never learn how these highly prominent women, who are often over thirty, negotiate their daily lives or with whom they live. Did they get a divorce, and if so, why? And why have they chosen to remain single after a divorce or even after the death of their husband? In such cases no personal questions are asked. In fact some of the women who are in leadership positions are single, divorced, or widowed. Their commitment is almost entirely to the ideological goals of the Islamic Republic, rather than to husbands and family members, but Payam-e Zan does not openly acknowledge this fact. Among those who did share their personal stories, the narratives of Zahra Rahnavard and Marziyeh Dabbagh, two women prominent during the most conservative period of the Islamic Republic and members of two different generations, are particularly informative. The remainder of this paper will focus on their stories, which suggest that between rebellion against traditional patriarchal values and adherence to modern feminist ones lay many alternatives.

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