No friends of women

Yassamine Mather continues her discussion of political islam by examining the women's movement in Iran, its achievements and contradictions

The women’s movement in Iran has become the subject of many claims and counter-claims over the last few years. Bush and the pro-war lobby tell us that Iranian women deserve a better regime and, of course, by that they mean the kind of ‘regime change’ we have seen in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Despite the abysmal failure of secularism from above (like that imposed by an authoritarian regime during the Pahlavi era), sections of Iranian opposition, even amongst those opposed to war, maintain illusions about the ability of bourgeois alternatives to deliver women’s equality. On the other hand, apologists for the islamic regime in the anti-war movement point to the achievements of Iranian women and compare them to the plight of Saudi women in order to justify support for the religious state in Iran.


Over the last two decades hard-line fundamentalism has faced a severe cultural crisis in Iran. The majority of the youth openly reject the interference of religion in personal and public life and women are even more adamant in expressing their opposition. Ironically this generation brought up under islamic rule is one of the most secular sections of Middle Eastern society, demanding the separation of religion from the state.

In this atmosphere and in opposition to the rule of the clerics, political and academic campaigning among Iranian women has increased. The women’s movement is independent of the islamic state, independent of factional fighting within the regime and independent of islamic ideology. It is also an anti-war movement, in opposition to the kind of ‘women’s emancipation’ witnessed in occupied Iraq and ‘liberated’ Afghanistan.

However, its leadership is often preoccupied with reform of existing legislation, oblivious to the plight of women workers, women in shanty towns and women in the countryside - ie, those who remain the worst victims of the current situation. The class base and orientation of the activists of the women’s movement, together with the historic failure of the Iranian left to consistently champion women’s demands, have produced a situation where radical demands are absent from many activities.

As important as it is to defend the right of women to choose their clothes, their make-up, their head cover (or lack of it), in a country where women were the first victims of draconian new labour practices, where women are the most exploited section of the labour force - working from home for unscrupulous managers, while remaining responsible for housework and childcare - where abject poverty has forced many into prostitution, one often despairs at the lack of attention given to the situation of women in poorer sections of society. Most Iranian women (with the exception of a minority from the middle and upper classes) have traditionally suffered from patriarchal laws and practices both in the family and at work.

The problem with the current ‘one million signatures’ campaign to change islamic legislation is not just the political affiliation of some of its leadership (associated with reformist factions) and the false hopes they foster for change within the regime, but the fact that the majority of Iranian women are unlikely to benefit from such legislative changes. The poor remain beyond the sphere of influence of such legal niceties. One wonders if issues such as the headscarf or right to wear make-up are high amongst the priorities of women who work 14 hours a day for slave wages in a sweatshop or for the millions of Iranian women who work from home.

Amongst the younger generation of left students some have become conscious of how class is a crucial factor in fighting women’s oppression. However, they remain a minority.

After 30 years of islamic government, the constant struggle by Iranian women against dictatorship, against religious interference in their private and public life has had some effect. Most who have taken an active part in this struggle do not consider themselves islamist - quite the contrary. Some, mainly amongst younger students, are also dismissive of claims of women’s equality in the west and the sham promises of bourgeois secular forces, supported by constant imperialist propaganda.

Past struggles

The history of women’s struggles in Iran goes back to the 1880s and in the early years of last century, Iranian women participated in the ‘constitutional revolution’. They were also active in the nationalist movement of the 1950s and throughout the shah’s repression, when women made up a large part of the leftwing underground organisations. Hundreds of thousands of women participated in the demonstrations against the shah’s dictatorship; although economic factors, the role of women in production and the development of productive forces have also played their part.

The imperialist-sponsored ‘secularism’ imposed from above by the shah’s father and the forceful removal of women’s veils in 1938 did allow the participation of urban women, especially those from the middle and upper classes, in many aspects of the country’s social, political and economic affairs.

However, that kind of ‘secularism’ also played a crucial role in separating peasant and working class women (most of whom remained untouched by this forced ‘liberation’) from unveiled women, creating resentment and envy, while increasing the influence of clerics and fundamentalists amongst the poor. As in Turkey, this kind of secularism only played into the hands of the clerics and today’s defenders of political islam.

Uneven economic development, the gap between the rich and the poor, as well as between town and countryside, all played a role in creating further divisions between women of different classes. While the women’s organisations set up by the shah’s regime discussed the number of women ministers and managers, the overwhelming majority of Iranian women had not escaped patriarchal subordination and domination by religious or tribal dogma.

Nevertheless, it is true to say that since the establishment of the islamic republic in 1979, the plight of Iranian women has worsened and the rigid imposition of the hijab has reinforced discrimination and prejudice against women. During the 1980s the new islamic state did all in its power to discourage women from working. For many years girls were prevented by the state from studying or working in fields and activities considered ‘masculine’, such as engineering, mining and the judiciary. It is in opposition to the religious state that many women pursued such studies.

There is discrimination against women in sport, where their participation is discouraged, and recreation, where most public facilities are rigidly segregated and often unavailable to women. Public health and education up to and at times including university level are segregated. Many have rightly called this a system of apartheid against women. However, one should add that this apartheid is clearly class-based. The upper classes have never used public services (whether in health, education or sport) and now, thanks to islamic rule, the middle classes are also opting for private services. The worst victims of sexual apartheid are women in the poorer sections of society.

Discriminatory islamic laws govern the private and public life of women: they have to follow a very specific and restrictive set of dress codes - a full veil or complete headscarf with long overcoat are the only accepted forms of dress. Yet once again these restrictions are much more relaxed in the affluent suburbs of Iranian cities. The rich pay bribes to keep their district free of regular search by the islamic guards and bassij. If caught the rich can afford to pay fines imposed for ‘unislamic’ dress, whereas the poor are likely to suffer medieval punishments such as flogging.

The law also discriminates against women in inheritance, giving them at most half of the share of their male counterparts. According to the laws of hodud and qessas (talion and punishment), the life of a woman is worth half that of a man, with the implication that a man killing a woman and sentenced to death may only be executed if the victim’s family pay the murderer half of his death dues. Article 6 of this law states that the bereaved family has to pay the murderer’s family to get “islamic justice” (life for a life). Article 33 of the law of hodud and qessas states that women’s testimony is not valid in homicide cases unless it is supported by at least one male witness.

Of course, in other religions equally anti-women rules and regulations are to be found. What differentiates Iran or US-occupied Iraq from other islamic states, however, is that the Qu’ran dictates civil and judicial law. In other words, the basic democratic demand of separation of state and religion is completely contradicted.

Unequal marriage

Islamic marriage laws as applied in Iran are amongst the most repressive in the world in terms of discrimination against women. In many rural and tribal areas, girls can be given away in legal marriage without their knowledge or consent while still in their childhood. The legal age of marriage for girls is nine.

While men are allowed to marry up to four wives at a time in permanent marriage and an unlimited number of women in what is known as ‘temporary’ marriage (siqeh), women who do not adhere to strict monogamy are considered criminal and may be brutally and savagely punished by being publicly stoned to death. This is the legal/islamic punishment for extra-marital affairs which is carried out regularly in Iran. Abortion is illegal, while the rising number of abortions is testimony to its use as a form of ‘contraception’.

Men control the life of their wife/wives, their daughters and their unmarried sisters. Women need a male guardian throughout their lives, to give them legal permission to travel, to study, to marry. As no consent is required for sexual relations inside marriage, wife-rape is common and even wife-beating is tolerated in the process (with a Qu’ranic verse that legitimises it in the case of “disobedient women”).

Until 1996, men had almost a free hand to divorce their wives, while women had limited recourse to the legal system. Even after reform of the laws regulating separation, a woman can only file for divorce in unusual circumstances. The extent of this discrimination was best exemplified by reports recorded by the Iran Human Rights Working Group: an Iranian court took 14 years to approve a divorce request from a woman who complained she was tortured by her husband. She was reporting new incidents of abuse every year. She had agreed to drop all financial demands against her husband, and was only granted her divorce after she contacted Iran’s prosecutor-general (who reported that she “shivered violently” whenever her husband was mentioned). In another case, the process took eight years.

The divorce law is designed to reduce women to destitution, leading them to resort to unusual tactics in order to obtain minimum maintenance for their children. In most cases women have to forfeit financial claims in order to obtain divorce, even if the proceeding were initiated by the man. Iranian law states that a male child above the age of two and a female child over the age of seven must live with their father. Even the father’s father is given priority over the mother in custody matters.

In marriage, discrimination against women goes still further. A virgin woman (whatever her age) has no right to marriage without her father’s consent (or her father’s father, in the absence of the former). A muslim woman has no right to marry a non-muslim (although a muslim man may marry a non-muslim with some restrictions). And a divorced woman has to wait for a set period before remarriage (no waiting period for a divorced male). It goes without saying that all this has resulted in an environment where there is widespread abuse committed against women.

Most do not report incidents of rape outside marriage because the victim has more to lose. First, she will be accused of bringing dishonour to her own family and might even be killed by them. Second, she fears prosecution under morality laws - the punishment for ‘unislamic behaviour’ is a flogging or stoning to death, if a women is judged by the court to have been a willing partner.

While the laws of hodud and qessas prescribe “equal” punishments for men and women, it is the women who suffers most from these barbaric measures. A married man having an affair with an unmarried women can always claim that the couple were “temporarily married”. But a woman in a similar position would have no such defence.

The discriminatory laws regarding women’s rights cover a wide range of areas in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, as well as anti-women labour laws and social policies. These have had devastating results, causing economic deprivation and social isolation of women and their children. Iranian women have been fighting hard against these injustices, but have had very limited success in the face of the overwhelming power of the religious state and its many institutions.

Secular resistance

In Iran women have never forgotten that in the 1960s one of Khomeini’s main objections to the shah’s regime concerned the voting rights given to Iranian women. Although it is true that during that dictatorship the right to vote was meaningless, Khomeini objected in principle to a women’s right to be elected or to elect.

One of the first demonstrations against the islamic regime was that of March 8 1979 against Khomeini’s decree that women should cover their hair. Women of all classes and backgrounds rallied against it. Since then women have constantly opposed attempts to erode their social and political rights.

In response the islamic clergy and government have consistently enforced the hijab and imposed medieval ‘morality’ laws to suppress Iranian women. Especially in urban areas, women have fought back in a persistent struggle that is only now beginning to bear fruit, very often despite opposition from the array of islamic women’s magazines and islamic women’s organisations. Inevitably some of these publications and institutions have tried to catch up with the movement, but they end up at best tailing it and offering too little, too late. The newspaper Zan, which dared question the stoning of women to death, has faced many closures and bans.

In the early years of the regime, women fought against exclusions and enforced redundancies, and they refused to adhere to the strict islamic hijab. The fact that it took over 18 years for the more enlightened members of the regime to realise that it would be impossible to turn the clock back shows the limitations of the islamic movement. It is an insult to the courage and perseverance of Iranian women to label gains won by this long and complex struggle as having been gifted to them by the islamist regime.

Whatever interpretation of islam we take, the Qu’ran is quite specific that women who disobey their husbands may be beaten by them. Should we accept this out of respect for islamic values, or for fear of appeasing racists? (One has to point out that combating racism has nothing to do with accepting double standards - women’s rights for white/western women; islamic ‘rights’ for muslim/eastern women.)

Such an attitude would also ignore the plight of non-muslim women or those who choose not to obey the rules. In Tehran teenagers who do not comply with the full islamic dress code (perhaps showing a fringe under their headscarves) are regularly arrested, sometimes flogged and made to sign a statement saying they agree to stop behaving as prostitutes.

‘Islamist feminism’

In shia islam the most revered woman is the daughter of Mohammed, who died at the age of 18, having already given birth to three sons. Her short life symbolises the ideal woman. Islamists claim that the veil, far from restricting women’s social activities, is actually liberating, in that it protects a woman’s ‘purity’.

Most Iranian women, however, would argue that the primary role of the veil is to subjugate women, segregate them and classify non-veiled women as evil temptresses whose sole role on earth is to corrupt men. In Iran atheist, christian, Jewish, Bahai and Zoroastrian women are all forced to wear the veil against their will. Their basic democratic right to dress as they like is taken away, because some muslim men find it insulting to see non-veiled women.

It is also argued that the veil, like a uniform, hides class differences. Anyone who has seen the elaborate but approved dress of Iranian women in the affluent suburbs of Iranian cities, as opposed to the plain covering worn by working class women, can see how absurd such statements are. But, as Hammed Shahidian asserts, defenders of ‘islamist feminism’ in the west have “founded their arguments in cultural relativism, a dangerous precedence both for feminists and human rights activists” (www.pwoiran.com/gender_and_islamic_fundamentalis.htm).

The main problem for islamist women and moderates is that the reinterpretation of ideas regarding women in a progressive light is impossible within the framework of the existing islamic state. Mohammed is the final in the long line of prophets and his book is the most complete message from god. The Qu’ran’s clear and explicit anti-women message cannot be changed. The current bitter struggle between the moderate and the conservative islamists in Iran can be resolved either by the overthrow of the islamic state or by a conservative victory at the expense of any ‘moderation’.

Defenders of ‘islamist feminism’ write extensively on the relative freedom and status of women in Iran compared to women in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, and in defence of a moderate, progressive islam. Yet 20th century Iran was dominated by a strong secular/progressive, non-islamic culture and the limited achievements of Iranian women against islamic law, both under the rule of this regime and in the past, have their roots in this tradition. Secular democracy has played a far more significant role than ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’ islam. Islamist women who are part of the reformist faction of a brutal dictatorship try to give some women better opportunities in education and government. They try to improve family law, but they are doing so within the limits of sharia law and all its anti-women facets.

In Iran the defenders of ‘islamist feminism’ are middle class, professional, heterosexual muslim women in stable, traditional family relations. Many are immediate relatives of the highest ranking clerics. They have no intention of challenging the religious state and, as long as the basic demand for the separation of state and religion remains unfulfilled, as long as secular, non-muslim Iranians, sunni Iranians and non-believers remain second-class citizens, there can be no meaningful reform, no improvement in the plight of the majority of Iranian women.

Of course, arguments within islam on issues regarding women’s rights are not new and for decades reformist islamists have tried to present more moderate interpretation of islamic teaching on this and other issues.

Over the last few years, a minority of islamist women have taken up some of them - although many would argue they are advocating minor reforms, too little, too late. These women are identified as political supporters of one of the factions of the Iranian regime (that of ex-presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani). They do not consider themselves feminist and, far from representing an independent women’s movement, form part of the ruling establishment - in fact many are known to become very annoyed when western academics refer to them as feminists.

Such women do not even challenge the medieval laws of hodud and qessas or the supreme rule of the religious ‘guardian of the nation’, Valiy-e Faghih. In other words, as far Iran is concerned, islamist women are not feminist and feminist women are not islamist. The term ‘islamist feminist’, created by western academics, remains an abstract idea as far as Iran is concerned.

It is true that over the last few years urban Iranian women have succeeded in asserting themselves and influencing aspects of their lives and the country’s politics. However, any improvement in the plight of Iranian women is almost entirely due to their perseverance, traditions of struggle against dictatorships, their courage and in opposition to the majority of clerics.

The defenders of ‘islamist feminism’ occasionally challenge us to define what we mean by ‘progress’. One would argue that ending the stoning of women for adultery, no more flogging of teenage girls who have dared to show a fringe, stopping Hezbollah from throwing acid at women whose dress they disapprove of, an end to the segregation of hospitals, buses, schools and universities might be signs of progress in any culture.

It is ironic that political correctness has discouraged many western feminists from challenging ‘islamist feminism’. Iranian women, who are amongst the worst victims of fundamentalism, have no intention of following this trend and indeed over the last few years many of them have written extensively against the defenders of ‘islamist feminism’.

If women’s liberation means freedom from economic, social, political and cultural constraints, then the women’s movement in Iran cannot find any solution in islamic discourse - any more than they can find it in the kind of bourgeois secularism proposed by defenders of regime change.


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