'Islamic feminism' and women's emancipation

Yassamine Mather examines the reality of the continuing struggle against the regime's oppression

On March 8, for the second time in a week, demonstrators gathered in the streets of Tehran and other major cities in Iran to protest against the regime - despite its attempts at suppression, its armed security forces, its tear gas and its arrests.

Thirty-two years ago, on March 8 1979, tens of thousands of Iranian women took part in the first major demonstration against the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran, following the forced imposition of the hijab. The women’s slogans were: “I say it every moment, I say it under torture: either death or freedom!” “Freedom is neither eastern nor western: it is universal!” “Death to censorship!” “In the dawn of freedom, the place of women is empty: revolution is meaningless without women’s freedom - we do not want the hijab!”

Since that day and for over 30 years hard-line fundamentalists have tried to impose their rules on Iranian women and youth. However, even these clerics agree that they face a cultural crisis. The majority of the youth and the women’s movement openly reject fundamentalist Islam, and the generation born after the Islamic regime came to power is amongst the most secular sections of Middle Eastern society, campaigning for the separation of religion from the state.

A lot has been written on the unprecedented increase in the political and academic activities of Iranian women over the last two decades, but it should be emphasised that the overwhelming majority of these activities have taken place despite the clerical regime, and often against it. The women’s movement is independent of the factional fighting inside the Islamic Republic and independent of the Islamic ideology which is the basis of the state. This movement has also been an anti-war movement, adamant in its opposition to US-style ‘women’s emancipation’, as witnessed in occupied Iraq and ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Most of the women who have taken an active part in this struggle do not consider themselves Islamist; quite the contrary.

Second class

There is no doubt that, with the exception of a minority of the middle and upper classes, Iranian women have traditionally suffered from patriarchal laws and practices both within the family and at work.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, however, the plight of Iranian women has worsened, the rigid imposition of the veil (hijab) has reinforced discrimination and prejudice against women. Many families refuse to send their daughters to high school. In higher education girls are discouraged or prevented by the state from studying or working in fields and activities considered ‘masculine’, such as engineering, mining, the judiciary ... It is in opposition to the state that many women pursue such studies.

There is discrimination against women in sport and recreation. Participation in some sports is discouraged, and in recreation most facilities are rigidly segregated and rarely available to women. Many have called this a system of apartheid against women. The ministry of education in the Iranian government recently reported that 94% of schoolgirls were unfit, as they did not participate in sport or physical education.

The combination of enforced hijab wearing and segregation is used to limit women’s access to state education, sports and other facilities. In other words, the system is geared to institutionalise women’s confinement to the home. These policies facilitate the objective of turning women into second-class citizens.

As they become teenagers, girls are driven more and more into a world dominated and manipulated by their male relatives. They 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.

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 and long overcoat are the only accepted forms of dress. The law 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[1] 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 pays 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” (a life for a life). Article 33 of the Hodud and Qessas states that women’s testimony is not valid in homicide cases unless it is supported by at least one male witness. According to Iran’s Islamic laws, women are considered generally unfit to be witnesses; their power of observation is considered half that of a man. And women have officially been considered too emotional and irrational to be judges.

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 Qur’an dictates civil and judicial law. In other words the basic democratic demand of separation of state and religion does not apply - quite the opposite.

Unequal marriage

Islamic marriage laws as applied in Iran are amongst the most repressive in the world in terms of discrimination against women. While men are allowed to marry up to four wives at a time in permanent marriage, plus 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 stoned to death in public. This legal Islamic punishment for extra-marital affairs is carried out regularly in Iran.

Men control the lives of their wives, their daughters and their unmarried sisters. In Islamic societies women need a male guardian throughout their lives, to give them legal permission to travel, to study, to marry, etc ... 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 Qur’anic verse that legitimises wife-beating in the case of “disobedient women”). Abortion is illegal, but the rising number of terminations is testimony to its use as a form of contraception.

Until 1996, as far as divorce was concerned, the man had almost a free hand to divorce his wife, while the woman had only a limited recourse to the legal system. Even after reform of the laws regulating separation, a woman can only file for divorce in exceptional circumstances. The extent of this discrimination was best exemplified by reports recorded by the Iran Human Rights Working Group[2]: a court had taken 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 finally had to contact Iran’s prosecutor-general directly (who reported that she “shivered violently” whenever her husband was mentioned) to get her divorce. In another case, the process took eight years.

The divorce law is also designed to punish recalcitrant women, bringing them poverty and destitution, and 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 proceedings 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 marry without her father’s consent (or her paternal grandfather’s, in the absence of the former). A Muslim woman has no right to marry a non-Muslim (a right her male counterparts have - with some limitations). And a divorced woman has to wait for a set period before remarriage (but there is no waiting period for a divorced male). These Islamic practices and laws have created a suitable environment for widespread abuses and atrocities against women.

Most women 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 in some cases might even be killed by family members. Second, she fears prosecution under the morality laws: the punishment for “unIslamic” behaviour is to be flogged or stoned to death, especially if a woman is judged by the court as being a willing partner.

While the laws of Hodud and Qessas prescribe “equal” punishments for men and women, it is women who suffer from these barbaric measures. A married man having an affair with an unmarried women can always claim they were “temporarily married”. But a woman in a parallel position has no such defence and would face the horror of death by stoning.

The discriminatory laws regarding women’s rights cover a wide range of areas in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, in addition to the anti-women labour laws and social policies. These have had devastating results, causing economic deprivation and the 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.

Whatever interpretation of Islam we take, the Qur’an is quite specific that women who disobey their men may be beaten. Should we accept this on the pretext of respecting Islamic values, and in order to combat racism? To do so would be to ignore what has been done to secular women in Islamic societies - to women who choose not to obey the rules. In Tehran teenagers who do not abide by the full Islamic dress code (showing a fringe under their headscarf, for example) are regularly arrested, flogged and made to sign a statement saying they will cease to “behave as a prostitute”.

Secular resistance

Women have never forgotten that in the 1960s one of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s main objections to the shah’s regime was that voting rights were given to women. While it is true that during that dictatorship the right to vote was meaningless, Khomeini objected in principle to a woman’s right to be elected or to elect.

One of the first demonstrations against the Islamic regime was the women’s demonstration of March 8 1979. Khomeini’s decree that women should cover their hair rallied women of many classes and backgrounds in a major show of opposition against the new regime. Since then women have constantly opposed the erosion of their social and political rights.

In return the Islamic clergy and its government have consistently used medieval morality laws to suppress women. Especially in urban areas, women have fought back in an ongoing struggle that is only now beginning to bear fruit, very often despite the array of Islamic women’s magazines and organisations. Inevitably some of the tolerated women’s journals, publications and institutions have tried to catch up with this movement. However, they are at best tailing it, doing too little, too late.

The history of women’s struggles in Iran goes back to the early years of the 20th century. Iranian women participated in the constitutional revolution (1906-11), they were active in the nationalist movement of the 1950s and throughout the shah’s repression, when they formed a large part of leftwing underground organisations, as well as the Mujahedin-e Khalgh resistance. Hundreds of thousands of women participated in the demonstrations against the shah’s dictatorship and no-one could have forced them back into the middle ages. Economic factors, the role of women in production and the development of productive forces have all played a part.

In the early years of the Islamic regime, Iranian women fought expulsion from the workplace through enforced redundancy, and they refused to adhere to the strict Islamic dress code. It took over 18 years for the more enlightened members of the regime to realise that it was impossible to keep the clock turned back. It is an insult to the courage and perseverance of Iranian women to label this long and complex struggle an Islamist movement, as the officially tolerated women’s magazines do.


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. As a result, in Iran secular, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i and Zoroastrian women are all forced to wear the veil against their will. Their basic right to dress as they please is taken away because some Muslim men find it insulting to see non-veiled women.

Islamists claim that the veil, far from restricting women’s social activities plays a liberating role, as it maintains a woman’s ‘purity’. But most women know that the primary role of the hijab is to subjugate them, segregate them and classify non-veiled women as evil temptresses whose sole role on earth is to corrupt men. It is also argued that the veil, like a uniform, hides class differences. Anyone who has seen the elaborate veils in the affluent suburbs of Iranian cities, as opposed to the hijabs worn by working class women, can see how absurd such statements are.

Hammed Shahidian asserts: “Defenders of ‘Islamic feminism’ in the west have founded their arguments in cultural relativism - a dangerous precedent both for feminists and human rights activists.”[3] Indeed it is claimed that any attack on the veil is a form of western racism. 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.

The main problem for Islamist women and Islamist moderates is that the reinterpretation of Islamic ideas regarding women to show them in a progressive light is impossible within the framework of the Islamic state. Mohammed is the final prophet in the long line of prophets, his book is the most complete message from god. The Qur’an’s clear and explicit anti-women message cannot be changed. The current bitter struggle between the moderate and the conservative Islamists in Iran can either lead to the overthrow of the Islamic state or to a compromise with the conservatives at the expense of any ‘moderation’.

Islamists, however, have by no means a monopoly on Iranian culture. Twentieth century Iran was dominated by a strong secular/progressive, non-Islamic culture. Iranian women’s limited achievements against Islamic law, both under the rule of this regime and in the past, has its roots in this tradition. Yet defenders of ‘Islamic feminism’ write extensively on the relative freedom and status of women in Iran compared to women in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, as part of their defence of moderate, progressive Islam.

Here it is important to remind ourselves that in Iran’s contemporary history the level of development of the productive forces has played a far more significant role than ‘moderate’ Islam. Traditions of secular politics have also had a far more significant role to play. Islamist women in Iran, as part of the ‘reformist’ faction of a brutal dictatorship, will try to give some women better opportunities in education and government. They will try to improve family legislation, but within the limits of sharia law in all its anti-women facets.

Iran’s so-called ‘Islamic feminists’ are middle and upper class professional women in stable, traditional, family relationships. Many are immediate relatives of the highest-ranking clerics. They have no intention of challenging the religious state. As long as the basic demand for the separation of state and religion remains unfulfilled, as long as non-Muslim, Sunni and non-religious Iranians are considered second-class citizens, there can be no improvement in the plight of the majority of Iranian women.

Over the last few years, a minority of these Islamist women have taken up in a limited way some of the issues concerning women’s rights. Many have advocated minor reforms - too little, too late. These women are identified as political supporters of one of the factions of the Islamic regime (that of ex-presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani). They do not represent an independent women’s movement, but, on the contrary, form part of the ruling establishment and are considerably annoyed when western academics refer to them as feminists. The ‘reformist’ faction they belong to has not even challenged the medieval laws of Hodud and Qessas or the supreme rule of the religious guardian of the nation, the velaayat-e faghih. By contrast, the newspaper Zan, which dared to question the stoning to death of women, has faced enforced closure and bans. In other words, 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.

Of course, arguments within Islam on issues regarding women’s rights are not new. For decades reformist Islamists have tried to present more moderate interpretations of Islamic laws and teaching. And, although 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, any improvement in their plight is due mainly to their perseverance and courage, and the tradition of struggle against dictatorship - despite the majority of Islamic clerics.

The defenders of so-called ‘Islamic feminism’ occasionally challenge us to define what we mean by progress, if we say it has not taken place in Iran thanks to their efforts. How about an end to the stoning of women for adultery, to the flogging of teenage girls for daring to show a fringe, to the Hezbollah’s practice of throwing paint at women who wear colourful scarves, to the segregation in hospitals, buses, schools and universities?

It is ironic that political correctness has discouraged many western liberals from challenging ‘Islamic feminism’. Iranian women, who are amongst the worst victims of Islamic fundamentalism, have no intention of following this trend and indeed over the last couple of years have stepped up the fight against the forced wearing of the hijab, for freedom and equality.

March 8 2011 saw a new generation taking up the same slogans.


  1. Talion: law that criminals should receive as punishment precisely those injuries and damages they had inflicted upon their victims.
  2. www.ihrwg.org
  3. H Shahidian Islamic feminism and feminist politics in Iran Springfield 2009.