The Impact of Religious-Reformist Discourses on Women’s Activities
The period of reconstruction also coincided with Khomeini’s death in June 1989, provoking the crisis of consensus both at the societal level and among the religious and political elite on the leadership of a jurisconsult (vali-yi faqih). Indeed, Khaminehyi, the current leader, does not possess the necessary criteria to assert his claim to authority. This lack of consensus has
allowed the emergence or the enforcement of modernist interpretations of Islam by some religious intellectuals and clerics, including Abdulkarim Surush, a popular philosophy professor, surnamed the Luther of the Iranian Islam.68 Surush, who claims to be anti-ideological (and therefore against political Islam) affirms that ‘we should not give a superficial, official, rigid and final interpretation of religion because religion is not an ideology ... If religion becomes ideology, it will be reduced at best to jurisprudence’.69
Following the constitutionalist cleric Mirza Muhammad Husayn Naïni (1860-1936),70 these intellectuals and clerics attempt to reconcile Islam with democracy, and to separate religion from the state. Muhammad Mujtahid-Shabistari, a leading modernist cleric argues: A mujtahid [doctor in jurisprudence] can infer value principles from the Qu’ran and traditions. [But] political system, institutions, the functioning of the government, ... in short, everything which is relevant to the political sphere, should be dealt with through reason and human sciences. In this way boundaries are justifiably set.71
These religious intellectuals and modernist clerics also maintain that political power should acquire its legitimacy exclusively through founding its authority on the public will. They admit that concepts of Western political thought have entered Iran and have initiated significant change in the political culture of the post-revolutionary Iranians who now aspire to economic, social, political and cultural progress. In order to maintain this progress, they propose a synthesis of Islamic traditions and Western modernity.
Their intellectual endeavours have found tremendous support among educated Islamists, including gender-conscious women, who rely upon these modernist views to advocate change. The following statement by Shahla Shirkat, the editor in chief of Zanan, one of the leading women’s magazines, clearly reveals this influence: Radical legal changes are needed to solve women’s problems. Many articles of the civil code are based on the Shari’a, which must, therefore, be reinterpreted. Moreover, women should be involved in this undertaking. Our understanding of religion varies in each historical period, and religious interpretations should account for factors of time and space ...
Referring to Surush’s works, she affirms that ‘through their works, some religious intellectuals have posited the necessity of radical reforms in religious thought. If they succeed, these reforms will undoubtedly be expanded to women’s issues’.72
Women’s Press: A Forum for Protest Social Activity
New Islamist women’s magazines, especially Zanan and Farzaneh, to which secular women contribute, have begun to be published. Despite their divergent views, an unprecedented gender solidarity has emerged between secular and modernist-Islamist women, thus making their alliance possible.73 Mahbubeh Ummi, the editor of Farzaneh said the following: Although secular women do not share our convictions, we can collaborate because we all work to promote women’s status. We [Islamist women] no longer consider ourselves to be the sole heirs of the revolution. We have realized that our sectarian views of the first post-revolutionary years led to the isolation of many competent seculars, which was to the detriment of all women. We now hope to compensate our errors.74
This view is also shared by Shahla Shirkat, the editor of Zanan, who said that ‘We should tolerate and respect each others’ convictions. Even though we do not share the same philosophy, belief and thought, we can and should work together’.75 Mehrangiz Kar, a legal attorney, Shirin ‘Ibadi, a jurist, Nahid Musavi, a journalist, and Zhaleh Shaditalab, a sociology professor, are among secular women specialists who contribute to these magazines. Through their writings and interviews, secular lawyers, economists, sociologists, artists, historians, novelists, movie directors, etc. who are denied the right to publish their own magazines, have seized the opportunity to present their opinions and works and to raise demands for equal rights in the private and the public spheres.76
The aim of these magazines, which primarily attempt to reach both the educated women and the political and religious elite, is to promote women’s status through emphasizing legal, social and economic shortcomings, and to propose changes in civil and penal laws, the employment legislation and constitutional law.77 They manage to exert pressure on the elite through civil society, especially through active women who have both professional and family networks. Yet their editors unanimously maintain that the inequality between men and women is not initiated by the Qu’ran, but rather by the interpretations of religious authorities of the divine laws. They thus argue that radical change in Islamic laws is essential. The editor in chief of Zanan maintains that: The Qur’an has not banned women from becoming a judge.
This prohibition was initiated in the history of jurisprudence and in the opinions of the previous religious authorities, whose ideas on women were probably shaped by the examples of their own wives or female relatives whom they generalized to the entire female population.’78 In November-December 1992, shortly after its publication, Zanan published a series of articles in which the obstacles towards women’s authority in religious and judiciary institutions were examined. It was maintained that none of the main Islamic texts justify such prohibitions, that no consensus exists among religious authorities on the issue, and that in the past, several women in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world have reached the summit of religious authority. The author thus concludes that ‘a man has no natural privilege over a woman. If a man can become a judge so can a woman, and if a man can become a source of imitation, so can a woman’.79
Mahbubeh Ummi and Ma’sumeh Ibtikar, the editors of Farzaneh, hold the same position: We support the equality of rights between men and women and believe that according to the Qur’an, men and women are equal. We should make a distinction between Islam and patriarchal traditions. Our laws are largely founded on some unreliable hadith (remarks attributed to the prophet), narrated by religious authorities. Several articles of the civil code, including those concerning the right to divorce, guardianship of children after divorce and those prohibiting women’s access to judiciary are among them. Religious reformists examine the authenticity of these laws and purify the civil code from spurious articles’.80
Since its inauguration in Autumn 1993, Farzaneh has been printing articles to illustrate the prophet’s high esteem for some women as reflected in the Qur’an, and to highlight the political and religious roles that some women played during his lifetime. Based on such evidence, the magazine argues that an incompatibility exists between the Qur’an and existing religious interpretations.
Zan-i Ruz, the only women’s magazine which existed prior to the revolution and which continued publication through changes in owner, board of editors and journalists, has recently joined the general trend.
Although published by the traditionalist/conservative Keyhan press company, Zan-i Ruz, which is popular among less educated women for its cooking recipes, fashion, sewing and health care instructions, is being transformed into a vocal magazine. Contrary to Zanan and Farzaneh, which primarily communicate with the intelligentsia and the political elite, Zan-I Ruz, whose readers are ‘middle level women in terms of their education, social and economic status’, reaches a wider public including men.
Tayyibeh Iskandari, the new editor, is ‘determined to pose fundamental questions concerning the condition of women’. She believes that ‘if we really intend to solve women’s problems we should also reach men.’81 Since the overwhelming majority of the decision makers are men, she, in common with editors of other women’s magazines, includes increasing contributions from modernist clerics and religious intellectuals, including Ayatollahs Yusif Sani’i and Bujnurdi, Hujat al Islams Muhsin Sa’id Zadeh and Muhaqiq-Damad, and Husayn Mihrpur and Ahmad Akuchakian. As specialists of Islamic law and jurisprudence, they attempt to reinterpret the Shari’a with a view to implementing change in the existing laws. It is interesting to note that political and religious authorities, who are aware of the significant social impact of these magazines, often respond to critical articles they publish. The office of Ayatollah Yazdi, the head of the judiciary, for example, has, on several occasions, reacted to articles published in Zanan and Zan-i Ruz which analyzed and criticized legal shortcomings.
The extent and multitude of queries by the female population has even led the Qum religious seminary to publish a women’s magazine called Payam-i Zan to address these issues. Yet contrary to other women’s magazines edited by women, the editorial board of Payam-i Zan is
composed exclusively of men. These debates, initiated by women’s magazines, have also had an important impact on women political activists, including Faizeh Rafsanjani, who maintains that ‘it is not Islam but the clergy’s interpretations of its precepts which initiated the prohibition of women’s access to the judiciary’.82
Although women’s magazines have managed to interact with the more moderate power elite, they are also increasingly the subject of verbal attacks by the traditionalist press, including Keyhan and Subh, and physical attacks by the Hizbullah mobs, backed by the traditionalist clergy. The traditionalists protest against the gender-conscious women whom they call ‘Westernized feminists’. The defence of women’s rights is considered to be ‘an attempt to annihilate Islam and the revolution through accommodating Western cultural invasion’.83
What triggers the anger of the traditionalists is that in addition to the demands for legal changes, these magazines also publish views for and against the tchador (traditional Islamic veil), reports on women’s maltreatment by their husbands, the dramatic stories of women who have been divorced without their consent, those who could not obtain the guardianship of their children after divorce, and salary and status disparities among men and women at work, for example. These reports increase women’s awareness, and encourage them to be less tolerant of the claim of superiority by their husbands or male family members. They thus encourage women’s resistance against patriarchal traditions, which consequently provokes conflict within the family institution. At the same time, these magazines reach out to men and attempt to influence their attitudes towards women. As Tayyibeh Iskandari argues, ‘although it is women who buy these magazines, they take them home and their husbands read them too. A lot of men contact us to criticize us for the articles we publish, but it also happens that some make suggestions on how to improve the condition of women’.84
The mobilization of vocal women who are social and political activists on the one hand, and the demands uttered by the female population on the other, have led some traditionalist women to join the general trend, thus contributing to the polarization of the power elite into traditionalists and reformers. Munireh Nawbakht, who, though a traditionalist, seems to be receptive to recent transformations affirms that: the increasing social activity of women ... necessitates radical reforms in the existing laws to determine women’s rights and their social responsibilities... These issues should be discussed by the majority of the deputies and this will only be possible if women are members of different commissions ...’.85
Yet, some others rebuke the modernist aspirations of their fellow Islamist women. For instance, Maryam Behruzi severely criticized Faizeh Rafsanjani in public for having promoted women’s outdoor cycling and horse riding, which she maintains will assist the Western cultural invasion. Khaz’ali, member of the Social-Cultural Council of Women, reprimands the editors of Farzaneh for their feminist stands as illustrated in their articles published in a special issue of the magazine on the United Nations’ Beijing Conference on Women in September 1995.86 Likewise, Zanan is increasingly a subject of traditionalist disapproval. The latter urges the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to retract its authorization to publish. Recently, a petition was launched by Suraya Maknun, the chair of the women’s department in the Institute of Cultural Studies and Humanities, who did not appreciate Zanan publishing her life story along with those of forty other renowned women (most of them secular), in a special issue entitled “Women Talk About Men’s Impact on Their Lives”.87