Saturday, May 4, 2013

Feminism in Iran

         Iran is the only country where the Head of Government (President) does not also control the military. The Head of State (Supreme Leader) does. It is also different from most governments in that the constitution  expressly prohibits women from obtaining this office. With the Iranian Presidential Elections fast approaching, I thought it would be useful to share a bit about the feminist movement in Iran. Here is an excerpt from a paper I wrote which provides a background for feminism (secular and Islamic) in Iran: 

           Following the fall of the Shah in 1979, a theocratic state came to power in Iran. This state took its legitimacy from Ayatollah Khomeini's theology of Velayat-e Faqih, which reinterpreted Twelver Shi'a beliefs to include a justification for clerical involvement in both politics and the state apparatus. This was a relatively new concept and had come from a new understanding of older practices. The ideas of innovation and transformation drove the revolution, which itself was representative of the unhappiness of the general public with the corrupt, repressive and ineffective Shah.
            Having played a large role in the street protests and civil unrest aimed towards Reza Shah, many Iranian women expected reforms benefitting them to be enacted after the fall of the shah[i]. Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged women to take part in the revolution, and so, despite his earlier writings explicitly describing his religious and political views, members of the public assumed that the version of Islam that he preferred was progressive or at least accepting. Khomeini had been quoted saying that "Islam has never been against [women's] freedom. It is, to the contrary, opposed to the idea of woman-as-object and it gives her back her dignity"[ii]. Possibly because of statements like these, most of the Iranian public would have not imagined a strict theocracy taking over once the shah fell. The primary motivating factor leading to the revolution was the belief that the ruler was unjust, corrupt and did not treat the common people with enough respect. The rapid implementation of gender-biased laws in the public and private sectors made it clear the rights previously granted (or forced) upon women were not going to kept[iii]. The progressive trends under the Shah were halted and then reversed, as many of the social reforms during the reign of the Shah giving women more rights, were abolished after the revolution[iv]. The actions of the clerical establishment following their ascent to power resulted in considerable resentment, especially from those women who had been active in overthrowing the Shah. They felt as though they deserved credit for their actions, rather than restrictions on their lifestyle[v].
            At the time of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, new social justice movements took hold, in particular secular feminism, which was becoming increasingly powerful in the Western world. In Iran as well, feminism became relevant as women wanted to play a bigger role in society. These women came from all portions of society—wealthy, poor, religious and secular[vi]. This diversity indicates the general feeling of malcontent in Iran at the time. Despite social unhappiness, a military and political event distracted from this.
            The devastating war between Iran and Iraq from 1980-1988, which resulted in horrific loss of life on both sides among civilians and military forces[vii], heightened sentiments of nationalism among Iranians, as they were all personally affected by the war. A whole generation of Iranian men perished and many women were forced to work as a result[viii]. Society's reliance on women to provide them with materials for the war empowered women. The supporting efforts of Iranian women were even more important than their voluntary actions during the events leading the Islamic revolution.
            Perhaps due to the pressures of the near decade long war with Iraq, economic and social problems that had existed under the Shah were not solved by the religious rulers[ix]. These problems were then exacerbated by the baby boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The Ayatollahs, faced with enormous population growth, determined that a family planning campaign was necessary. This campaign gave women more access to contraception, another form of female empowerment[x].
            Another significant change for women in Iran is that increasing numbers have been afforded the opportunity to attend university. Today, nearly two-thirds of university students in Iran are female[xi]. Education typically leads to empowerment, but empowerment is difficult within a restrictive society. The conflict between the restrictions and the expectations of further freedoms can prove to be problematic, and often results in unhappiness amongst the female population. This is especially true when highly educated individuals are unable to find jobs, or the wages of the jobs available to them are significantly less lucrative than that of men's jobs, and are far less than that of their counterparts in Western, developed nations[xii]. Although many women who desire and then obtain baccalaureate degrees may be secular or upper-class and Westernized, the women involved in protests and efforts to attain social justice are not necessarily secular, Western-oriented women. Many Iranian women are unsatisfied with the status quo and the lack of opportunities for economic or social advancement.
            This dissatisfaction was expressed in 1997, when a reformist, Mohammad Khatami was elected president[xiii]. This shocked the conservative government because they did not expect a relatively liberal member of the political establishment to be elected to such an important and influential position. The fact that Khatami won with such an overwhelming majority proved to be a serious challenge for the conservative factions of the government[xiv]. While the Supreme Leader continues to have absolute veto power, the fact that the population could so heavily favor a reformist could have been damaging to the clerical establishment's monopoly on political power in the Islamic Republic. Prior to Khatami's election the feminist movement in Iran seemed to be gaining traction as influential writers and public figures were able to speak more freely than they had been in the past. Some of this was due to the woman's magazine Zanan (Persian for ‘women’) which operated from 1992 until its forced closure in 2008[xv]. While the magazine focused primarily on secular women's voices, it made a point of including religious feminists as well. Despite the election results and the positive hopes of feminists and liberals in Iran[xvi], the government of President Khatami proved ineffective and either unwilling or unable to stand up to the conservatives in the majlis (Persian for the Iranian parliament). During Khatami's rule, the legal marriage age for girls was raised from nine to thirteen, yet as this is a non-compulsory law, it is not always enforced[xvii]. While in theory this is an improvement for women’s rights activists, the fact that it is not mandatory has led to accusations of inefficiency and weakness by President Khatami. Despite the steps towards reformation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in 2000 at the height of the reform movement in Iran, a mere 5% of parliamentarians in Iran were women[xviii]. This is around one-third as many as an average "developing" country according to UN statistics[xix]. Even though Khatami had a popular mandate in the form of the overwhelming support he received during the presidential elections, he failed to create strong, lasting reforms. While Khatami is considered to have been inefficient president, he managed to stay in office for a second term.     
            In 2005, his replacement was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who while relatively unknown at the time, was a former mayor of the Iranian capital of Tehran. Ahmadinejad was allied with some parts of the conservative camp, as well as with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of which he had been a member. President Ahmadinejad and his allies restricted the feminist movement, reversing some of the limited reforms that President Khatami had enacted[xx]. In late 2006, President Ahmadinejad caused controversy when he stated that Iranian women should spend more time in the home raising their children[xxi]. Since his controversial re-election in June 2009 there have been mass protests of every variety, violently suppressed by the IRGC, its volunteer militias and the official state security forces.[xxii]

UPDATE: Iran is not the only country where the head of government does not also function as the head of state, but it is the only country where the head of government does NOT control the military. In every other country the ELECTED (or selected or appointed) head of government has control of the armed forces.

[i] Moghadam, Val. "Revolution, the State, Islam, and Women: Gender Politics in Iran and Afghanistan." Social Text 22.Spring (1989): 43. Print.
[ii] Sansarian, Eliz via Sameh, Catherine. "Discourses of Equality, Rights and Islam in the One Million Signatures Campaign in Iran." International Feminist Journal of Politics 12 (2010): 446. Print.
[iii] Mojab, Shahrzad. "Theorizing the Politics of 'Islamic Feminism'" Feminist Review 69.Winter (2001): 131. Print. , Moghadam, 1989: 45., Tohidi, Nayereh. "The Global-Local Intersection of Feminism in Muslim Societies: The Cases of Iran and Azerbaijan." Social Research 69.3 (2002): 858. Print.
[iv] Ibid, p. 858
[v] Ibid, p. 858
[vi] Moghadam 1989, 43
[vii] Estimates vary although some believe up to 1 million died in the first five years alone Alnasrawi, Abbas. "Economic Consequences of the IraqIran War." Third World Quarterly 8.3 (1986): 869. Print.
[viii] Sameh, Catherine. 2010: 446.
[ix] An early estimate put the economic cost of the war at nearly half a billion dollars See. Alnasrawi, 1986, p. 869
[x] Moghadam, Valentine via Sameh 2010: 446
[xi] Ebadi, Shirin via Barlow, Rebecca., and Shahram. Akbarzadeh. "Prospects for Feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran." Human Rights Quarterly 30.1 (2008): 24. Print. And Esfandiari, Golnaz. "Number Of Female University Students Rising Dramatically in Iran." Payvand, Iran News, Directory and Bazar. 21 Nov. 2003. Web. 26 Sept. 2011. <>. And Mernissi, Fatima. "Muslim Women and Fundamentalism." Middle East Report 153.Jul-Aug (1988): 8-11+50. Print.
[xii] Barlow, Akbarzadeh 2008: 24
[xiii] Ibid, p. 26
[xiv] "Online NewsHour: Iranian Elections -- May 26, 1997." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. 26 May 1997. Web. 26 Sept. 2011. <> .
[xv] "Shutting Down Zanan." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 7 Feb. 2008. Web. 26 Sept. 2011. <>.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 26
[xvii] Ibid, p. 28. The legal age had been lowered from 18 following the rise of the clergy see Moghadam, Valentine, Revolution, the State, Islam and Women. 1989, 46
[xviii] Ibid, p. 30
[xix] Ibid, p. 30
[xx] Sameh 2010, 448
[xxi] Barlow, Akbarzadeh 2008, 22
[xxii] The literature and news reporting on the Green Movement is extensive and can be found archived on every major news network as well as many forms of electronic social communications.

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