WLUML Dossier 21 September 1998
Women and Politics in Post-Islamist Iran: the Gender Conscious Drive to Change
The implementation of the Shari’a and the institutionalization of gender inequality in the aftermath of the revolution led to the disillusionment of the gender-sensitive Islamist women and triggered their discontent. Through their involvement in politics they attempted to present a different reading of Islam and Islamic laws which would be more attentive to the condition of women. These endeavours failed, however, because on the one hand they were still largely based on traditionalist interpretations, and on the other hand, the condition of women did not constitute a priority for the political and religious elite during the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88). The end of the war and the implementation of ‘Reconstruction Policies’ provided an opportunity for a new generation of gender-conscious Islamist women to seek allies among secular women, to present a modern reading of Islam, and make radical demands for change in women’s status by using politics as a potent agent. This article, which is largely based on personal interviews with some of these vocal women, traces their aspirations and endeavours, their identity formation, and the outcomes of their mobilization.
What is the difference between the presidency of the Republic and the management of a government service? None. Both positions involve responsibilities in the executive branch. Therefore, why should a woman not lead the country when she can legitimately be at the head of a government service?1 Faizeh Rafsanjani, the President of the Islamic Countries’ Sports Solidarity Council, and the younger daughter of the President of the Islamic Republic, gained the second highest number of Tehrani votes in the March-April 1996 legislative elections. She is part of a new generation of modernist-Islamist women who, though not feminist in the Western sense, are gender-conscious and have discovered politics as an agent for radical change in women’s status. As controversial by-products of the Islamic Republic, they are open to the outside world, and share a modern reading of Islam which accounts for the wholesale societal change marking the post-Islamist Iran. These women attempt to adapt Islam to the realities of a society in which women’s social, economic and political activities have become an integral part.
Islamist women’s collective political involvement dates back to the revolutionary upheavals of 1978-79. Their participation forced Khomeini to retract his previous stand and to endorse women’s political rights as a religious duty. Evidence of this may be seen in the following: Women have the right to intervene in politics. It is their duty... Islam is a political religion. In Islam, everything, even prayer, is political.2 This shift marks a significant change in Khomeini’s perception on women’s roles in comparison with his position a decade and a half earlier, when the Shah’s decision to grant voting rights to women in 1963 created scandal in Qum among the leading clergy. Khomeini, the most vocal among them, had at that time criticized women’s involvement in politics as an anti-Islamic measure: By granting voting rights to women, the government has disregarded Islam and has caused anxiety among the Ulama and other Muslims.3
It was indeed unimaginable for the Ulama, who perceived women primarily as biological reproducers and houseworkers, to conceive of them also as politicians. To make their point, they referred to both the Islamic and the Constitutional Law of 1906: Women’s entrance in the two Majlis (chamber of representatives and the senate), the municipal and local councils, is against Islamic law... The granting of voting rights to women and their election... is against the second article of the amendment to the constitutional law... and abrogates the conditions Islam has set on voters and the elect.4
The Revolutionary Period (1979-86) and the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88)
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the Family Protection Law of 1967 was abrogated and the Islamic law implemented.5 Thus, a series of regressions were imposed on women’s rights in both the public and the private realms: Islamic dress code was applied and the Islamic veil became compulsory, initially for active women and then more generally among the female population; important limitations were set for women in matters of divorce and child custody; the minimum age of marriage for girls was lowered to nine years; and women’s access to judiciary occupations was prohibited. At the same time, a nation-wide campaign aimed at ‘purifying’ the public and private sectors of secular women, or what Ayatollah Khomeini called ‘corrupt manifestations of the monarchical regime and the West’,6 was orchestrated.7
In the words of one scholar concerned with women’s affairs: Following the revolution, everything which remained from the pre-revolutionary time was rejected... Under the pretext that the West and its model is evil, women were dismissed from the administrative system, and the home was considered the best and the most suitable place for them ...8 Yet, secular women were not the sole targets of the traditionalist religious and political elite. Some Islamist women activists soon realized that these regressions concerned all women, regardless of their convictions. They thus engaged in social struggle against the type of gender segregational policies outlined here: A series of regressions were imposed on women’s rights, and even revolutionary [Islamist] women were thrust aside. The authorities only needed us to demonstrate in the streets but when the revolution triumphed they wanted to send us back to domestic work. I then realized that revolutionary social activity was meaningless when women were losing their rights, and started to defend women’s rights’.9
Contrary to the traditionalist clergy, Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged Islamist women’s activities in the public sphere and criticized the opposition of the traditionalists. He said that ‘God is satisfied with women’s great service, It is a sin to sabotage this [women’s activity in the public sphere].10 By endorsing women’s political rights, however, and reiterating their political significance, Khomeini intended to obtain their unconditional allegiance to the Islamic regime. On the occasion of the referendum for the Islamic Republic he thus affirmed that ‘all of you [women] should vote.
Vote for the Islamic Republic. Not a word less, not a word more... You have priority over men’.11 Indeed, he was persuaded that women’s loyalty would inevitably draw the support of their male family members for the regime. He added that ‘women have done more for the movement than men, for their participation doubles the power of men. Men can’t remain indifferent when women take part in the movement...12 Thus, although the application of the Shari’a entailed women losing their civil rights,13 they maintained their political rights. While the civil code and the penal laws promote gender inequality, men and women have equal political rights. For example, a woman’s legal evidence is not accepted unless it is corroborated by that of a man, whereas her vote is equal to a man’s vote. The Islamic Constitution reflects this contradiction by attributing religious and judicial leadership exclusively to men (articles 5, 107, 163), while remaining ambiguous on the issue of political leadership (article 115). Indeed, the word rajul, which is used in the latter article to define the prerequisite condition for assuming the post of the President of the Republic, denotes both a man and a well-known personality (which by definition can also be a woman).14 As we shall see later, this ambiguity has allowed modernist-Islamist women to argue that the Constitutional Law authorizes women to run for presidential elections.