Female Agency and Empowerment: Islamic Feminism in Iran Introduction

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Female Agency and Empowerment:

Islamic Feminism in Iran

Love Jordan

Loyola University Chicago

Female Agency and Empowerment: Islamic Feminism in Iran


The subject of gender relations in Iran has long been a contentious social and political issue and has since become more controversial with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Popular news outlets such as CNN and BBC have reported that the subsequent “Islamization” pursued by the Islamic Republic has resulted in the reversal of women’s rights in Iran.1 Some scholars, however, argue that the policies implemented by the Islamic Republic have in fact “facilitated education, mobilization, and participation” for many women within the cultural context of the country and region.2 While the early years following the Revolution served to restrict many women in certain regards, the policies enacted by the Islamic Republic have provided avenues of empowerment for some of the most marginalized women in Iran. Such empowerment, though limited, has been an unintentional consequence of the Islamic Republic’s efforts. Women who were mobilized during the Iranian revolutionary process have used these policies to seek greater rights within the context of an Islamic society. The increasing women’s movement in Iran then seems to stem from two important developments: 1) the female agency rooted in the mobilization of women during the Iranian Revolution and 2) the unintended widespread empowerment of women through policies of Islamization. In this historical context, the birth and rise of Islamic feminism challenges arguments which claim gender inequality as being essential to Islam.

While canonical texts may favor certain normative interpretations over others, gender equality interpretations of Islam are a definite, though uphill, development. At the same time, the break from Western influence in the Islamic Republic and the increasing women’s movement in the country indicates the existence of a dissent against patriarchal interests and a female agency amongst Muslim women within both the Iranian culture and the Islamic faith. The recognition of both the gains and the losses, in regards to the status of women under the Islamic Republic, is essential to a more nuanced and informed understanding of gender issues and women’s pursuit of greater rights in Iran. This paper aims to reveal the complexities of the lived experiences of Muslim women in spite of the largely generalized image given by both the state and the international community. The notable gains in the education and health of Iranian women as well as the country’s growing wave of female activism in the post-revolutionary period indicate increased levels of empowerment while the continued economic and political exclusion of women and strict domestic attitudes simultaneously point to sustained marginalization. The complexity of the role of Islamization in both the marginalization and the empowerment of Iranian women – especially as more data and long-term trends become available to study – speaks to the need to reassess many of the generalizations surrounding Iranian women and the greater population of Muslim women around the world.

I will first briefly summarize the broader debate between Islam and feminism before discussing the impacts of the creation of the Islamic Republic on Iranian women. I will analyze both the policies and social changes under the Islamic Republic as well as the data trends regarding Iran provided by international organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I will then go into a more detailed discussion on women’s agency and feminism specifically in Iran. The research suggests that the policies implemented by the Islamic Republic have inadvertently fostered a healthier, better educated, and politically more active and assertive female population and sheds light on the legitimacy of a rapidly growing and evolving form of feminism that is within the Islamic context.

Islam and Feminism Debate

The debate surrounding Islam and feminism can be traced back to the complex legacy of the political and cultural encroachment of European colonialism in the Middle East. Following the colonization of what are now considered Middle Eastern countries, “a new discourse on women emerged, overlaying rather than displacing the old classical and religious formulations on gender and often linking issues concerning women, national and national advancement, and cultural change.”3 The dominant discourse about women, which was then governed by elite male Muslim intellectuals, advocated for the improvement of women’s status via the abandonment of the native culture in favor of the Western culture. Ahmed cites what she calls “the colonization of consciousness” – the internalization of colonial notions that assert the innate superiority of the European over the native – to have complicated feminism in Islam.4 The Western interest in Muslim women gained traction with the rise of imperialism and the issue of women’s rights was soon co-opted to primarily emphasize the superiority of Western culture. In a sense, the improvement of women became a central issue only with the rise of Western power and the declining fortunes of the Muslim societies under colonization. Feminism in Western societies may have been a critique of white male dominance but outside the borders of the Western world, feminism became a tool with which to assert moral superiority over ‘inferior’ cultures. It is in this particular context that the links between women, nationalism, and culture were forged and the languages of Westernization and feminism were fused. It is due to this context that some contemporary Muslim women, whose actions and beliefs may reflect those of feminism, do not identify as feminists. A comprehensive discussion regarding Islam and feminism then must not only include a history of the experiences of Muslim women but also a history of Western political and economic encroachment over Muslim societies and the struggles against it.

In contemporary times, pervasive stereotypes which inherently link gender inequality and Islam continue to be central to Western discourse regarding feminism in Islamic societies. Lila Abu-Lughod, in her article “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?”, wrote on how the Muslim woman has been used as an instrument to obscure historical and political dynamics and how the resulting “obsession with the plight of Muslim women” has cemented a particular understanding of Islam that claims its women need liberating.5 This reification of cultural difference has served to silence Muslim women in conversations regarding their own experiences and has essentially defined Islam and feminism in binary opposition. These discussions have further delineated feminism into a black-and-white issue that undermines any critical understanding regarding the empowerment of Muslim women as well as all women throughout the world. While feminism is at times conceived to be a Western construct by some in the Muslim world, many Muslim women outside of the West have been active in modern forms of feminist activism in reaction to European colonial efforts. They have actively challenged patriarchal forms and practices using an Islamic discourse. Throughout the 20th century writers such as Malak Nassef, Mai Ziyada, Huda Sha’arawi, Doria Shafik, Nawal El-Saadawi, and Alifa Rifaat have all played significant roles in articulating the discourses of female subjectivity within Islamic societies.6 Their writings, much of which predate the second-wave of modern feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, destabilize the essentialist notions that pit feminism and Islam in opposition to each other.

More recently, the rise of political Islam in the 1970s in particular offered an opportunity, often ignored in much of the dominant discourse, for many Muslim women to “reconcile their faith with their new gender awareness.”7 Such reconciliation manifested in three ways: textual interpretations, political ideology, and personal experience. The interpretations and re-interpretations of sacred texts, which have been invoked as sources of political authority and legitimacy, have become important in reshaping gender relations in Muslim societies. It is in this context that the term ‘Islamic feminism’ emerged, as feminist reinterpretations of Shar’ia law accompanied the rise of political Islam. The term ‘Islamic feminism’ arose to distinguish between Muslim women who work specifically within Islamic frameworks to address the gender disparities regarding opportunities, power, control of resources and of self, employment, and education and other women who are less interested in Islamic reformation and advocate for gender equality within a secular network. Researchers like Samuli Schielke, who has written on the need for the anthropology of Islam to address the ambivalence of everyday religious and moral practices, and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who has analyzed the interplay between contemporary religious discourses and the actual experiences of Muslim women, point to a necessary shift in the research literature regarding Islam.8 The essentialist notion that Islam and feminism are inherently incompatible makes existing female agency invisible, discredits the efforts that women in Islamic societies have made, and reinforces an ethnocentric view informed by the continuing legacies of Western colonialism and imperialism. An increased focus on the lived experiences of individuals and local communities, which Schielke and Mir-Hosseini advocate for, would shed light on the agency of Muslim women that would have otherwise been invisibilized.

In spite of the budding shift, research literature regarding women in Islam has predominantly been “ideologically charged, and has become an arena for polemics masquerading as scholarly debate.”9 For instance, the notion of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ – seen in the political narratives of British-ruled Egypt under Lord Cromer, of French nationals in Algeria in the 1950s, and of Laura Bush following the start of the ‘War on Terror’ which claim to be liberating Muslim women – has drowned out any productive conversation on female empowerment cognizant of cultural differences.10 The polemics of the debates regarding Muslim women have replaced the actual Muslim women as the center of the conversation involving gender relations in Islamic societies. The question of whether Islam and feminism are compatible has then ironically contributed to the silencing of the women it aims serve.

“By the time the [War on Terror] started, feminists like [Eleanor] Smeal could be found cozily chatting with the generals about their shared enthusiasm for Operation Enduring Freedom and the possibility of women pilots commandeering F-16s.”11 Narratives from Afghan women as well as the role of the U.S. in creating their inhumane conditions were lost in these conversations. Organized actions such as the Feminist Majority’s ‘Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan’ campaign and nationwide rallies against the Taliban have effectively shifted focus away from the actual experiences of women to cultural essentialisms that assume Islam’s female oppression. The irony is hard to miss here. Female pilots who would subject an unlimited amount of violence onto both Afghan men and women alike appear as symbols of women’s empowerment in these narratives. Cultural essentialisms further contribute to the silencing of Muslim women and their experiences. Their portrayal of Islam and feminism in essential opposition, reinforced by the aforementioned narratives, perpetuates stereotypes which attempt to neatly reify an incredibly heterogeneous, diverse population of women.

Regardless of the widespread views about the plight of Muslim women,’ Muslim women exhibit a sense of localized agency in spite of the limited empowerment their respective governments afford them. Dominant feminist scholarship has framed conservative Muslim women in terms of internalized patriarchal interests and has thus understood agency as active resistance to subordination. Saba Mahmood, however, argues for a re-conceptualization of agency, not as resistance, but as “a capacity for action that specific relations of subordination create and enable.”12 Her ethnography on Egyptian women squarely focuses on self-fashioned conceptions of moral agency and discipline that conservative Muslim women have illustrated. The women within the study veil as an externalization of self-control; worn not for its symbolic significance but in a desire to embody piety. While the compulsion to veil has been founded on structural gender inequality, the role of female agency in the matter proves a crucial aspect to a discipline which for many is largely voluntary. These women have displayed a sense of agency, though docile, in spite of and, simultaneously, because of the patriarchal norms which surround them. Mahmood draws on what Judith Butler has called the paradox of subjectivation – in which “the very processes and conditions that secure a subject’s subordination are also the means by which she becomes a self-conscious identity and agent” – to explain the docile agency found in conservative Muslim women.13 Mahmood’s study is a testament to the localized, individual female agency that does in fact exist within Islamic societies in spite of the generalizations of the greater discourse. A focus at the lived experiences of Muslim women – their opportunities, power, control of resources and of self, employment, and education– is then a more effective means of acknowledging the agency of Muslim women and addressing the debate regarding gender equality in the Muslim societies.

From this perspective, a reconsideration and deconstruction of the concepts of both Islam and feminism would be the right approach to reconcile the two. The idea that Islam and feminism are incompatible must be both theoretically and empirically challenged in order for Muslim women to benefit from global feminist politics as well as influence its agenda in their own interests. The global feminist movement – which strives to work with an intersectional lens to better reflect the multi-layered experiences that women of all backgrounds face – would benefit from the inclusivity that would result from such reconciliation. The incorporation of marginalized groups is necessary to maintain a cohesive enough collective to avoid stagnation and remain effective. The critique of persistent binaries – East versus West, secular versus religious, and traditional versus modern – would result in a more constructive dialogue within the global feminist movement which transcends cultural boundaries.

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