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

The Islamic Republic, Twenty Years Later

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The Islamic Republic, Twenty Years Later

Both Rahnavard and Dabbagh held important positions in Iran, and both headed women’s organizations. Despite their similarities, in many ways they represent a dichotomy that exists in the leadership of the Islamic Republic and has manifested itself more clearly since Mohammad Khatami was first elected president in 1997. Rahnavard and other highly educated Islamist women, for example, had hoped that their early devotion to the Revolution would assure them leadership roles in the post-revolutionary society. Soon after the Revolution, Rahnavard became a founder of the Women’s Society of the Islamic Republic (WSIR), along with Azam Taleqani (daughter of Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani), and also a founder of the Islamist Women’s Society. She was an editor of Rah-e Zaynab, a popular women’s journal that before the Revolution was called Ettela’at-e Banuan [Women’s News]. But when WSIR criticized the hard-liners within the government because of their policy of forced Islamization, including the mandatory observance of hijab by women and girls, the government clamped down on her and other Islamist advocates of women’s rights; Islamic Republican Party (IRP) supporters attacked chapters of the WSIR in Tehran and several other cities in May 1981.61

More orthodox members of the (IRP), such as Dabbagh, were given greater authority in women’s affairs. These were women whose primary dedication was directly to Khomeini. They mobilized women in his service and for the Islamist movement, rather than for women’s issues. It took over a decade before Rahnavard’s embrace of a few feminist concerns matched her political leadership in women’s organizations.
In the first decade after the Revolution, she used her considerable oratorical skills and talents as writer to propagate Islamist values in Iran and abroad. In one of her best-known publications, a travelogue she wrote during her state visit to India in 1986 (when her husband was prime minister), her polemics against Hinduism, Western feminism, and more liberal interpretations of Islam show her intolerance toward other competing ideologies and religious perspectives.62
Rahnavard is concerned with the plight of India’s Muslims and the abuses that the Hindu upper-caste population has visited on Muslims and lower caste Hindus. Rahnavard also speaks of the plight of Indian women. One finds scattered references to “dowry burnings,” when wives who have not brought enough dowry to their husband’s house “accidentally” catch fire in the kitchen and die. All of this could have made her a strong advocate of women’s rights. One could argue that by calling attention to the plight of Indian women, she also is implicitly criticizing the violence against women in Muslim societies. But one quickly realizes that she does not develop a parallel understanding between the abuses that women and Muslims face in Hindu India, and those that dissident Muslim women and non-Muslim minorities face in Iran. Rahnavard can see the prejudices of Hindus toward Muslims in India, but she cannot see the prejudices of Shia Muslims toward secular Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews, Armenians, and especially the intensely persecuted Baha’is of Iran. Instead, she unleashes a heap of contempt and scorn on the Baha’is, “the misguided faction.”63
Rahnavard’s compassion toward Hindu women of India is channelled into the injunction that “all Indian women should convert collectively to Islam” to save themselves from the sexism of the Hindu culture.64 Nor is there any compassion for dissident Iranian women (often Muslim) whom she meets in India, women who chose a difficult life in exile in order to receive a better education or to avoid segregation and social confinement in the Islamic Republic. By this date, i.e. 1986, Rahnavard expresses some anxiety about repression in the Islamic Republic, but she seems to be more appalled by the more moderate Muslims she visits in India, people who reject her militant appeals or politely ignore her.65
Rahnavard’s highly ideological position on women’s issues and the wide gulf that divides her from many Muslim Middle Eastern feminists can be seen in her reaction to the well-known case of Shahbanoo, a highly contentious divorce that made international headlines in 1980. Shahbanoo was a sixty-five year old Muslim woman in India whose husband, a wealthy lawyer, had repudiated her after forty years of marriage and left her only the three month and ten days maintenance (nafaqeh) that the Qur’an requires for divorced women. Shahbanoo took her case to the civil courts and in 1985 won a judgement against her husband. However, the decision of the court added fuel to the already existing animosity between Muslim and Hindu communities of India. Eventually Rajiv Ghandi, president of India, intervened; the decision was overturned, Shahbanoo retreated, and women’s rights were sacrificed to smooth over ethnic and nationalist hostilities.66 Rahnavard expresses some sympathy for Shahbanoo but she does not ask for a reform of Muslim family laws. Instead she argues that Shahbanoo’s request for life-time alimony from her wealthy husband was “against the explicit text of Islam and an affront to the holy laws of Islam that limit the period in which a woman can receive an alimony.”67 Her loyalty to the Islamic Republic and her absolute commitment to Islamic law prevented her from showing support for women who suffer from the limitations of the same laws, be they in Iran or abroad.
Over the past twenty years, and despite family responsibilities, Rahnavard has remained active in politics and has not limited her involvement to household duties. She founded the International Association of Muslim Women and was director of the Cultural and Social Association of Women, a branch of the Ministry of Science. She published several more books and held exhibits of her art works. Rahnavard admits that her husband, the former prime minister, helps with the housework, and that he is basically in charge of their daughters’ affairs, leaving her to pursue her intellectual and social interests.68 In 1999 her oldest daughter was in graduate school studying nuclear medicine, the second one was graduating with an MA in the arts, and the youngest one was in high school.69
Since 1997, Rahnavard has adopted a more progressive stance on certain women’s issues, even if she continues to insist that the West commodifies women, while “true Islam” does not. In one of her latest interviews with the feminist journal Zanan, she complained that Iranian women are treated as the “second sex,” presumably a reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s book by the same title. She now asks for laws to punish sexual abuse, rape, and murder of women by male relatives. She speaks out against wife battery, demands that women be given custody of their children after divorce, and celebrates the fact that in 1998 a majority of those who were admitted to the universities (52.1 percent) were women.70 Seemingly, her views have undergone a significant change. Dabbagh had a more prominent career after the Revolution. She took over the Queen Mother’s Volvo, thus symbolically anointing herself Mother of the Revolution, and immediately became involved in repression of the opponents of the new theocracy. She joined the Pasdaran paramilitary group and took an active role in destroying all rival organizations, from the Kurdish Komeleh and Democrat parties to the secret cells of the leftist People’s Feda’iyan and the left Islamist People’s Mojahedin organizations.71 She was a founder of the Women’s Auxiliary branch of the Basij (Mobilization), a volunteer militia of mostly young men and boys who are recruited to defend the values of the Revolution against external and internal enemies. Dabbagh’s women’s organization helped recruit these youth and provided them with food and other basic necessities.
Dabbagh also is proud that through her efforts scores of Islamist mothers and sisters betrayed their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, who had joined rival political organizations, such as the People’s Mojahedin and the People’s Feda’iyan.72 On this activity, she said:
We were able to gather these women from various communities and set up classes for religious discussions for them in the Mosque. In this way we turned them into loyal informants. I asked them to report to us immediately when men in their family held meetings or invited [strangers] to the home. I remember one night that six group homes [of presumably the Feda’iyan or Mojahedin dissidents] were revealed to us by the mothers and sisters of the [activists] themselves. Our troops circled the houses and destroyed them. It was a very successful experience that later was repeated in other provinces.73
In addition to serving as Majlis deputy for four terms, Dabbagh headed the conservative Islamist Women’s Society of the Islamic Republic, the same organization that Rahnavard and the younger generation of women originally had founded. In the parliament and as leader of this association, Dabbagh proposed several laws related to women such as legal child custody rights for wives of martyrs (a right that under Islamic law is allocated to the paternal grandfather), and certain benefits for part-time female employees.74 But her main concern has remained the defense of Khomeini’s legacy and the Islamic Republic to the outside world. In 1995, after the British Parliament published a human rights report on Iran that emphasized the status of Iranian women as second-class citizens, Dabbagh claimed that as a military officer and active participant in the Revolution she had “never felt that women were behind men in achieving social positions;” she scoffed at reports of extensive domestic violence in Iran and argued that “unlike Western women, Iranian women are at the center of activity and decision making in the family.” Nor, like their Western sisters, she added, are they “obligated to work for a living like men do.”75 Two years earlier, however, she had complained publicly about the lack of respect toward her and other women in the Majlis and expressed her frustration that for many deputies, women’s issues were limited to “cooking, washing clothes, and sweeping.76
Dabbagh’s commitment to the ideological legacy of Khomeini is also evident in her private life. In the years before the Revolution, she pulled her daughters out of high school because Khomeini had recommended against male teachers in girls’ high schools: “Several of my daughters received their diploma after the Revolution... since Imam [Khomeini] had issued a fatwa [that warned us] about the sanctity of education when the teachers were male. Based on that fatwa I did not allow [my daughters] to continue their education”77 after ninth grade. Only after the revolution did she allow her younger daughters to finish high school.
Recent reports from Iran suggest that Dabbagh, who was not elected to the reformist Sixth Majlis, has gone into “retirement.” She has made few public appearances. Evidently, she has not made the transition that Rahnavard has made by becoming more supportive of feminist concerns, and backing the reform movement.78
The differences between Rahnavard and Dabbagh help us to gain a more intimate view of the current conflicts within the leadership of the Islamic Republic and the complicated question of who is an advocate of women’s rights. By joining the Islamist movement, Dabbagh was able to break through numerous obstacles that bind women in traditional marriages in Iran. Her absolute submission to Khomeini allowed her to exercise absolute power over many others. She owes her very existence as a political leader to the Islamist ideology of Khomeini (rather than to her education, creative accomplishments, political affiliations, or class background) and is committed to preserving it at all cost. However, Dabbagh actually prides herself on being a defender of women’s greater role in society. She opposed gender segregation during the war, supported unsuccessful bills in the Majlis that would have limited the husbands uncontested right to divorce and custody of the children.79 Dabbagh speaks well of her husband, who encouraged her political activities and is very angry with other men who prevent their wives, including highly educated ones, from holding socially responsible jobs.80 Dabbagh even refers to many examples of sexism in the Majlis, such as the time when, despite her considerable expertise in military matters, she was excluded from the Defense Commission only because she was a woman, while men who had no military experience were selected.81
None of these pronouncements or actions, however, makes her a feminist or an individual with compassion for human rights, because the only reason Dabbagh wants women out of the house and involved in society and politics is for them to contribute to her version of a militant Islamist society. She remains a sworn enemy of any woman – feminist, leftist, or secular – who suggests that a woman’s education and employment should bring about her emancipation, give her the choice to decide what to do with her life. In her view women are to be liberated from traditional life styles only to become soldiers and martyrs for the cause of Islamization. Those who argue against this position and demand choice, including the right to live under a more secular state, deserve nothing but death.
But what about Rahnavard? She was a budding intellectual and an artist who gave up the life of a modern woman to join the Islamist Revolution, hoping to improve the lives of poor women by abandoning the cultural imperialism of the West. Since the Revolution, Rahnavard has witnessed many new restrictions affecting the lives of her three daughters. Despite her continuing avowals of support for Khomeini, her recent interviews suggest that she is re-examining some of her earlier perspectives. However, she is still quite uncomfortable with the Western model of gender relations, ostensibly because it includes women’s bodily and sexual freedoms, and not just social and political ones. Her young educated daughters are expected to observe strict hijab and this very act seems to convince her that the younger generation has not completely sold out to the West.82 But how far would she go today? Would she allow, for example, young women, including her young daughters, the freedom to challenge and reject her Islamist principles? Can they choose not to wear the veil? Can they advocate secular marriage and divorce laws? Would Rahnavard be able to overcome her own intense religious prejudices and allow, for example, the Baha’is to practice their religion, or secular Muslims not to do so? These are not hypothetical questions, since a new generation of Iranian feminists, including many children of the Revolution, is asking precisely such questions.
The intellectual accomplishments of the new generation of feminists in Iran cannot be underestimated even though it has yet to result in any significant political transformations due to the hostility of the conservative wing of the government to the reformers. Supporters of women’s rights have criticized the lack of civil liberties under the Islamic Republic and have demanded a rewriting of the constitution. In the year 2000, they helped prevent the re-election of many conservative deputies to the Sixth Majlis, and in June 2001 they re-elected Khatami, giving him 76 percent of the total vote. The liberal religious thinkers such as Mujtahid Shabastari have condemned the narrow legalistic reading of Islamic texts and called for a more tolerant interpretation of Shia Islam. Despite numerous obstacles, the educational and artistic accomplishments of Iranian women have been outstanding in the last decade. The field of women’s studies gradually has found its way into the universities and into woman’s magazines and newspapers. In a steady stream of articles, writers, historians, and major political figures of the twentieth century are being questioned for their lack of concern or limited perspectives on gender issues. There is even a heated debate on cultural particularism and universalism, and an attempt to adopt the best arguments from both sides.83
In 1979, Rahnavard and Dabbagh became guardians of the Islamic Republic and upholders of its conservative morality by denouncing the moderate gains that urban middle class and upper class women had made during the royalist Pahlavi era. Both Dabbagh and Rahnavard also helped to silence a generation of secular and left-wing activist women who had participated in the revolution yet faced a dramatic setback in women’s rights once the Islamic Republic was instituted. By becoming leaders of the conservative Islamist movement, Rahnavard, Dabbagh, and other Islamist women gained a remarkable degree of political and even personal freedom in their own lives. Ironically, the very success of the Islamic Republic in forcing a repressive traditional society upon a new generation of youth has also robbed the government of its most important source of support. The fact is that the highly alienated, anti-modernist generation of 1979 cannot be recreated under the Islamist theocracy. Dabbagh is a great deal more conservative than Rahnavard, who has sided with the reformist government of Khatami. Neither, however, is open toward some of the new discourses we find in the new generation. The new feminists, who write for journals such as Zanan (Women), Hoquq-i Zan (Woman’s Rights) and Jens-e Dovvom (The Second Sex), regard themselves as part of the global feminist movement. They belong to a wide political spectrum and no longer speak of organizing women for the purposes of their respective (male) political parties.
Their focus has shifted to a woman’s right to choose her own life style (including the right not to wear the veil). The new feminists, with their insistence on a more secular government and opposition to the Islamist structure, tacitly recognize the rights of less religious, non-religious, and non-Muslim minorities as equal citizens of the state. Finally, the student activists, and other advocates of civil liberties, also are making more of an effort to link issues of human rights and civil rights to feminist concerns. Dabbagh openly is opposed to political liberty and equality and Rahnavard has yet to speak out, or show any inclination, in this direction. Both women are representative of a paradox: How the Islamist movement in Iran, which espoused the subordination of women to men, nonetheless developed strong women leaders who experienced real power inside the Islamic Republic. Women like them are classic examples of what Fromm and the Frankfurt School called authoritarian personalities. These are individuals, who, fearing the insecurities that the freedoms of modernity bring, seek to escape from their anxiety by joining authoritarian movements. They gain a sense of security from these movements in two ways: 1) as followers conforming to a structure that makes their decisions for them, and 2) as leaders who gain security from exercising power over others.
I have tentatively explored these theories of authoritarianism in a more dialectical manner, pointing to sites of change and resistance. We see that after twenty years of the Islamic Republic, the authoritarian solution has become unworkable as the government confronts the emergence of mass discontent among a new generation of youth and women, a generation that is coming of age long after the Revolution and has suffered the injustices of the theocracy. The future of Iran’s reform movement is now in the hands of this new generation, but it remains to be seen if it can create a new national consensus over such issues as new civil liberties that clearly demarcate the boundaries between religion, state, and the individual; a more inclusive concept of citizenship; a more egalitarian concept of gender relations; and a new relationship to the outside world and the complex phenomenon of modernity.
Janet Afary teaches in the Department of History, Purdue University, Indiana.

Email: afary@purdu.edu

Published in Sociological Abstracts, Critique, No. 19, Fall 2001, pp 47-77.
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1 This article is a revised version of papers presented in August 2001 at the Bellagio Conference on Women and Gender in the Middle East: A Multidisciplinary Assessment of the State of Theory & Research, the April 1999 Annual Research Conference of the Joint Center for International Studies (Milwaukee-Madison), and the August 2000 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (Washington, D. C.). Special thanks to Mark Tessler, Michael Chamberlain, Lauren Langman, Azar Nafisi, Akbar Mahdi, Barmak Sameian, Sherifa Zuhur, Amanda Neridge, Suad Joseph, and Kevin Anderson for their helpful comments, to Hirmand Hassas, who provided me with valuable information from Iran on Zahra Rahnavard, and to Saeed Damadi for copies of Payam-e Zan and other Persian periodicals. The literature on gender relations is simply too broad to list here and includes writings in English and Persian by numerous Iranian feminists, including among others Shahla Haeri, Val Moghadam, Haideh Moghissi, Afsaneh Najmabadi, and Nayereh Tohidi. For a more recent discussion of gender and the religious right in the Middle East and the point of view of several historians, see the special issue of Journal of Women’s History: Women and 20th Century Religious Politics: Beyond Fundamentalism, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 1999). In particular see the articles by Nikki R. Keddie, The New Religious Politics and Women Worldwide: A Comparative Study,” pp. 11-34; and Valentine M. Moghadam, “Revolution, Religion, and Gender Politics: Iran and Afghanistan Compared, pp. 172-95.

2 Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Henry Holt Press, 1994 ed.), p. 35; idem, The Sane Society (Greenwich: Fawcett, 1955), p. 61.

3 Lauren Langman, I Hate, Therefore I Am, Social Thought and Research, vol. 21, nos. 1-2 (1998): 169.

4 Fromm, Escape from Freedom, p. 154.

5 Ibid.

6 Fromm, The Sane Society, p. 36.

7 Ibid. For a discussion of this for contemporary society, see Lynn S. Chancer, Fromm, Sadomasochism, and Contemporary American Crime, pp. 31-42, and John Wozniak, Alienation and Crime: Lessons from Erich Fromm, pp. 43-58, in Kevin Anderson and Richard Quinney, eds., Erich Fromm and Critical Criminology: Beyond the Punitive Society (Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2000).

8 Andrea Dworkin, Right-Wing Women (New York: Wide View Press, 1983), p. 29; and Elinor Burkett, The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).

9 Elsewhere I have looked at the historical, as well as social and political reasons for the rise of Islamism in Iran and the Middle East in the last two decades. More recently I have written on the new feminist movement that gradually is blossoming in Iran, especially since 1997. See Afary, Steering Between Scylla and Charybdis: Shifting Gender Roles in Twentieth Century Iran, NWSA Journal 8: 1 (Spring 1996): 28-49; idem, The War Against Feminism in the Name of the Almighty: Making Sense of Gender and Muslim Fundamentalism, New Left Review no. 224 (July-August 1997): 89-110; and idem, Bar amadan az zulmat Bonyad-i Pazuheshay-i ZannanJ (July 2001): 194-219

10 For a discussion of these restrictions, see Nayereh Tohidi,

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