The Iraq-Iran War (1980-88), which for eight years mobilized the country’s resources, was an impediment to the advancement of debate on the condition of women. Despite the active participation of Islamist women in war efforts and their recruitment by the pasdaran and the basij (volunteers), the image of the true Muslim woman during the war years was strictly limited to that of the mother and wife who sacrifices her sons and husband for the Islamic cause. Both television and cinema played an important role in perpetuating state ideology on women.15 The plight of Islamist women social activists was also overshadowed by the predominant values of selfdenial, devotion and sacrifice, rooted in the Shi’a culture and internalised by the young volunteers. Indeed, their attempts to highlight the sufferings of women caused by the overwhelming privileges granted to men by the Shari’a, were afforded scant attention by the state-controlled media.
Moreover, the clerical and political elite, who attributed all shortcomings and problems to the force of circumstances, used the war as a pretext to dismiss women’s social problems, as the following quotation demonstrates: During the war, the conditions for women were alarming. Not only were they losing their rights but they were also faced with immense social problems. Prostitution was increasing among the widows and orphans who had lost the heads of their households in the war. But each time we wanted to emphasize these social problems, the power elite restrained us under the pretext that the country was at war.16
Indeed, during the war, the government was devoid of specific economic, social, and cultural policies on women, to the extent that ‘women had no place in the First Plan, implemented during the war’.17 The dominant state ideology was also largely shared by male parliamentarians of the first, second and third Majlis (parliament), convened respectively in 1979, 1983 and 1987. Women parliamentarians, on the other hand, who occupied 1.5% of the seats in all three Majlis and defended ‘women’s Islamic needs and rights’, were at a distinct disadvantage. Marziyyeh Dabbagh, who held responsibilities during the war as the head of women volunteers (basij) and the commander of the Pasdaran in Western Iran, affirms: in the second and third Majlis, each time we [women] wished to present motions [concerning the condition of women], we had to first talk to and persuade every single male member, then we had to take the motion to the commissions to convince the members of its validity before presenting it to the general assembly. But even those who had already agreed with our propositions in a given commission would, as a rule, vehemently oppose it once in the general assembly. For example, I, Mrs Rajayi and Dastghiyb worked diligently to prepare a motion relevant to women who had lost their heads of households.
We asked our brothers [male members] what they wanted to do with these women. We argued that we could not abandon them, and that the government should provide them with both material and moral assistance. But our male colleagues responded to our request by saying that each woman had a brother, a father or a son who should pay her alimony. We negotiated with them for several months to no avail. Eventually the same motion was passed by the fourth Majlis which was credited with its initiation.18
The majority of women parliamentarians of the first to third Majlis came from established religious families.19 Gohar-al Shari’a Dasteghayb and ‘Atiqih Rajayi (members of the first to third Majlis), Marziyyeh Dabbagh (member of the second, third, and fifth Majlis), and Maryam Behruzi (member of the first to fourth Majlis) were candidates of the Islamic Republic Party and the traditionalist/conservative Tehran Society of the Combatant Clergy. Maryam Behruzi, who was a preacher prior to her election, leads the Ziynab Association, a politically influential religious group for women, and an offshoot of the Tehran Society of the Combatant Clergy. As fervent advocates of the rule of a jurisconsult (vilayat-i faqih), they participate in the traditionalist/conservative religious networks, and, with the exception of Dasteghayb who holds an MA in literature, they all have an elementary and religious education.20
Despite their divergent views, they shared some traits with their male counterparts. For instance, they all concurred that ‘following the teachings of Islam, the Islamic Republic has been attentive to women’s rights’.21 Moreover, although they were not opposed to women’s outside activities, they viewed women primarily as houseworkers, child-bearers and childrearers. During this period, most of their efforts were focused on preparing motions to defend more adequately women’s Islamic rights in the private sphere of the family.22 The divorce law thus became one of the controversial issues of the first Majlis.23 However, the plight of employed women was largely overlooked until the foundation of the Social-Cultural Council of Women and the Office of Women’s Affairs. The shortage of day nurseries, kindergartens, and other child care facilities is one of the main problems facing employed women, especially those with young children.
Some of them lobbied unsuccessfully to have additional nurseries created. Women parliamentarians, however, were not mobilized to defend their cause. Maryam Behruzi even told the press that nurseries were not suitable places for children, and that children needed the presence of their mothers more than anything else.24
Azam Taliqani, who was elected to the first Majlis, differed from other omen parliamentarians. Contrary to the latter, who mainly addressed omen’s issues, Taliqani was more preoccupied with general political discussions, as she shows here: The first Majlis was unique in the Islamic Republic because different ideologies and viewpoints were represented and confronted. While I actively participated in heated debates along with my political allies, I had a rather individual activity with regard to women’s issues.25
Daughter of the radical cleric, Ayatollah Taliqani, she is a well-educated political activist who was a political prisoner under the Shah. Although she was more concerned with the promotion of her radical political stands than with women’s status, her quest for social justice brought her into contact with the plight of women.26 She thus combined her gender sensitivity and political ambitions to found a political group called Women’s Society, a research group called the Iranian Islamic Women’s Institute, and to start publishing a magazine called Payam-i Hâjar in 1979. The following is a brief account of her involvement in all this:
The idea of founding an Islamist women’s organization goes back to when I was in prison. Back then I realized that leftist women were better organized and could thus attract the Islamist youth to their ideology. I was persuaded of our need for an organization to serve women who had both legal and economic problems... After the revolution, many women came to see us complaining about their condition. Their grievances made us realize that our women had specific problems under the new circumstances.27
It is worth pointing out that the majority of these problems facing women had been initiated by the abrogation of the Family Protection Law of 1967, and the implementation of a new civil code based on the Islamic law in which overwhelming privileges had been granted to men, particularly in matters of marriage, divorce and parental authority. Therefore, Payam-I Hâjar addressed mainly family issues, and was the first Islamist magazine to raise the question of the necessity for the reinterpretation of Islamic laws.
For this purpose, Ayatollah Taliqani’s teachings, popular among the Islamist left, were largely used. Azam Taliqani is one of the rare vocal activists who continues to advocate social justice by severely criticizing the consumerism of the elite, and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in postwar Iran. She believes that ‘wealth is concentrated in the hands of a minority, including big merchants, while the majority, that is the middle classes, have been impoverished. This is against the very notion of Islamic justice’.28 Likewise, in a response to a question about women’s achievements in post-revolutionary Iran, she bitterly told the press that ‘poverty and polygamy are the only things that poor women have obtained from the revolution’.29