The Women’s Movement, Islamism and Democracy in Iran: a glocal (Global/Local) Perspective

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The Women’s Movement, Islamism and Democracy in Iran:

A Glocal (Global/Local) Perspective

Nayereh Tohidi

1. Description and Objectives of the Project:

This research project is about the women’s movement under the Islamist regime in Iran and its role in the process of democratization and secularization of the Iranian society. The strategies and tactics of women’s activism in present Iran will be analyzed within the historical and geopolitical context of today’s Iran. The socio-political significance of feminism, especially its contribution to and interactions with the broader political culture toward building civil society and democracy will be demonstrated.

Due to certain demographic, socio-political and economic dynamics within the Iranian society and the interplay between these internal/local dynamisms and the external/global factors connected to the processes of globalization, Iran is going through a bottom-up process of socio-cultural transformation toward secularization and democratization. In line with Max Weber’s notion of “ironic secularization,” Iran is passing away from its surge of Islamic fundamentalism into a post-Islamist stage of socio-political development. The Iranian youth and the new educated middle class women have come to constitute the most active elements of the civil society in Iran, hence the primary agents of change toward democracy and secularity (not to be misunderstood as anti-religious, but as believing in separation of state and religion).

The role and impact of the global factors to be examined include: the United Nations development agencies’ dealing with gender issues such as UNICEF, UNDP, and UNIFEM; the international donor organizations; global feminism; transnational women NGOs; transnational human/women rights networks (such as the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch); the role of activism in the digital age; and international political pressures such as the US sanctions against Iran.

Since the 1979 Revolution there has been gradual, but consistent, changes in sexual politics and gender dynamics as well as overall political culture in Iran. These changes are due to a rapid rural-urban migration in the past 5 decades; a youth bulge in the population growth (70 percent of Iran’s population is below age 30); a drastic drop, unprecedented in world history, in the total fertility rate from 7.0 children per woman in 1986 to 2.0 in 2005; a considerable improvement in community development projects; a wide expansion of primary heath care networks; an overall increase in life expectancy;, an increase in women’s literacy rate from 36 percent in 1976 to 80 percent by 2005 ( by 2005 a remarkable 63 percent of university enrolment was female); and an over 50 percent decrease in child mortality rates (hence a lower motivation for giving birth to more children). These changes have been associated with an increase in average age at first marriage for women in both rural and urban areas (rising from age 20 in 1986 to 24 in 2005). To explore the preceding factors, special attention will be paid to the gender dimension of state policies, state ideology and the law; the Islamist discourse and the role of Islamic law (sharia), especially in the family law and in certain sexist and discriminatory practices such as mandatory veiling and sex segregation. The role and impact of the new Islamic reformers, including Muslim feminists; and the role of secular modern intellectuals, especially secular feminists in the ongoing struggle toward change, will be analyzed.

Widening income gaps, poverty, and high unemployment rates (especially among educated women), rising global pressure for consumerism despite the soaring prices, high cost of housing, and the high cost of wedding ceremonies have made marriage and family raising a daunting endeavor. Changes in the younger generations’ attitudes toward and expectations from love, marriage, and sexuality have contributed to the “crisis of marriage” that has caused considerable apprehension among the conservatives and Islamist governmental authorities. The state policies in response to these issues, the local/global dimensions of these patterns, and the direct and indirect relations to a more profound “gender crisis” in present Iran as in many other parts of the greater Middle East will be analyzed.

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