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Islam And Feminism In Iran History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In the pro-democracy Western world, feminism is often seen as a significant factor in modernity. The year at which Universal Suffrage was obtained is a badge of honor for certain countries. Indeed, even in the United States, African Americans, a race that was previously subjugated and enslaved, gained the right to vote years before women were offered the vote. Additionally, feminism is still on the leading edge of modernity in the US. Full equality for women has yet to be achieved, and gender roles stubbornly still exist despite years of legal equality. As feminist movements in the West have become essential for full democratization, it makes sense to use the status of feminist movements in the Islamic world as a gauge of democratization and the building of a civil society that is supportive of democracy.

To do this, we will be looking at the most influential of all Islamic feminist movements: the women’s rights movement in Iran. This provides an interesting case study not only because Iran is a primarily Islamic nation, but also because women in Iran had significant rights that were lost following the 1979 Islamic revolution. Their struggle is therefore a struggle for the restoration of lost rights, which we will see gives the movement a significant advantage. Islam is all-pervasive in Iranian society. The only modern theocracy, the government is ultimately led by religious leadership. Therefore, any kind of Islamic feminism must work within the limits of the system, but before the 1979 revolution, women used a variety of secular methods to obtain equality. Modern women’s movements in Iran exist as a fusion of these secular and Islamic movements, which allows us to analyze how the process of secularization interacts with Islamic ideas and practices.

The religion of Islam is commonly criticized in the American media as being repressive towards women. In Europe, the Western feminism movement seems to be violently clashing with Islam, coming to a head in countries such as France with laws that make it illegal to wear a traditional Islamic head covering, even if the wearing is voluntary. Overall, the values of feminism, which support full equality for women, not only of legal rights but also of job opportunities, wages, and social power, are commonly drawn as being in conflict with the values of Islam. Islam, just like every other Abrahamic religion, is primarily patriarchal, and supports a patriarchal worldview. Because of the large spotlight being shone on fundamentalist Islamic movements by the Western media, without any actual research it is easy to assume that Islam pushes a hard-line patriarchal anti-feminist agenda. Making this assumption, however, is naive: it assumes that Islam exists purely in the Qur’an. Just as modern Catholics do not follow the strict guidelines placed on interactions with women in the Book of Leviticus, modern Muslims need not follow the strict restrictions placed on them by the Qur’an. As with all things, Islam must be taken in context. .

Before we delve into an analysis of Islam and feminism, however, it can be helpful to take a step back and think about the words we are using to define this issue and the effects that the words themselves have on the issue. For example, while there are many “women’s movements” in the Middle East and in other zones of Islam, there are very few “feminist” movements. In her paper, The national liberation struggle and Islamic feminisms in South Africa, Na’eem Jeenah explains this. “For many Muslim women…the label ‘feminist’ is often not worn comfortably. For many of them, ‘feminism’ carries a specifically Western meaning with particular historical and ideological baggage. Most Muslim activists prefer not having to be accountable for such baggage.” It can be seen that feminism, alongside democracy, freedom of speech, and other “Western” values, must have that Western historical context removed before it can be implemented within the Islamic world. Semantics aside, “women’s movements” and “feminism” share many of the same values: equality for women, the replacement of patriarchy with an equal opportunity system, and the elimination of oppression. There are some aspects of Western feminism, such as the destruction of gender roles and the rewriting of language to eliminate inherent sexisms, that are not taken up by Islamic women’s movements. The author, Homa Hoodfar, expands upon this when speaking of Iranian women’s movements:

Thus it is not surprising that a considerable sector of women’s activism in Iran employs not secular debates on women’s rights but female-centred interpretations of Islam and of the political concept of “Islamic justice”. Through this strategy, women not only derail the claim that feminism and issues of legal equity are Western paradigms which aim to undermine the authenticity of Iranian society, but they also break the male monopoly on interpreting Islamic texts… Iranian women activists have chosen to advance feminist Islamic theology and feminist Islamic jurisprudence, as it is these historically male-dominated institutions and their male-centered understanding of Islam, and not science per se, that hold women hostage. (Hoodfar, 1)

The unmodified word feminism, therefore, is probably an inaccurate word to use when describing the values pursued by women’s activists in Iran and other Muslim nations. As when discussing the transition of many general ideas that have a strong hold in the west into the Islamic world, we must forge a new phrase in order to separate feminist movements in Islamic countries from their Western sister movements. Therefore, Islamic feminism seems to be the best way to describe this unique brand of feminism.

It might also be helpful here to have a brief discussion of the conditions that the word Islamic gives to Islamic feminism. Despite its sexist aspects, when taken in context the Qur’an provides massive improvements in women’s rights. Marriage is explained under Islamic law as a contract rather than a status. German Iranologist Annemarie Schimmel explained by stating that “compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman had the right…to administer the wealth she brought into the family.” (Schimmel, 65) In Arabia in the time of Muhammad, women had no right to own property, and were themselves considered property, occasionally being buried alive with their deceased husbands. Thus, Islamic laws seen as sexist, such as women only receiving half the inheritance share given to men, are actually vastly supportive of women’s rights when taken in comparison with the tribal laws of the day. It is this fact; that Islam provided additional rights rather than restricting them, that is commonly used as an argument for Islamic feminism. As with modern Christianity, modern Islamic women argue that the verses of the Qur’an dealing with women should be read for their spirit rather than for their word. Other restrictions, such as the requirement that women gain the consent of their husbands before leaving their homes, and that they may not travel by themselves on journeys that take longer than three days, are ultimately derived from fears for safety of women in tribal Arabia.

It also needs to be clarified that woman’s suffrage is not forbidden by the Qur’an, and women in many majority Muslim countries gained the right to vote around the same time that the movement was growing in western nations. In fact, Azerbaijani women gained the right to vote two years before American women. Many other Muslim countries followed, and in the modern Muslim world only Saudi Arabia denies women the rights to vote.

Up until the 1979 Islamic revolution, women made great strides in Iran by using secular methods. In 1932, the Congress of Women of the East took place in Iran, and it led to a groundbreaking exchange of ideas and thoughts between women activists from Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, India, and Iraq. This led to significant increases in activism in Iran, and eventually, in 1936, the Shah (who was notorious for his dislike and unpleasant relationship with Islam), forced the mandatory unveiling of women. This was in line with a series of other reforms the Shah implemented that attempted to force the Westernization of Iran, including forcing men to wear European clothing and the banning of the veil and other traditional Islamic headgear. Despite the (seeming) liberation caused by these actions, the ultimate effects of the new laws were hardly supportive of women’s rights. Indeed, many lower middle class women considered traditional Islamic dress as the only acceptable clothing, and as a result many women started staying home rather than abandoning their religious beliefs about modesty and dress. Unable to engage in activity outside of the home, including going to public baths or engaging in economic activity outside of the home, any chances of an early Islamic feminist revolution coming from the lower classes or emerging as a result of increased female economic participation, as it did in the US and other Western countries, were eliminated. Women instead became even more dependent on men for public tasks that they historically had carried out themselves. Bath houses, which were traditionally an area of exchange of not just news and gossip but also of intellectual ideas, had provided a forum for women to discuss the liberation of women in other nations away from the gaze of their more traditional and patriarchal husbands. With these forums eliminated for many traditional Islamic women, the chances of an Islamic feminist movement starting in Iran were significantly reduced. The Shah, seeking to deal a blow to his clerical opposition and perhaps to liberate women to some extent, instead unwittingly inhibited this liberation from occurring.

It was Islam that began to reverse this trend of oppression. Islam has always supported and encouraged education, and by recognizing this, women were able to make their first significant gains in equality. In 1935, women were first admitted to Tehran University, and by 1944 Iran had compulsory education for women. Alongside this, in the post-war era, women began making the argument that observing the hijab and acquiring an education were not mutually exclusive, and that modernity and religion could coexist. However, the ban on the veil remained, and many women were therefore prevented from employment in public and modern economic sectors. The banning of the veil, an attempt by the Shah to discourage oppression of women by Islam, actually held women back. Islam here was on the side of women’s rights and modernity; a trend that, we will see, is actually quite common in the Iranian women’s rights movement.

These gains in rights, however, did not grant women in Iran immediate legal equality. Indeed, legally women made no advances until 1963, when they gained the right to vote. Here, Islam was placed as a firm block in the way of democratization. Universal suffrage was presented three times between 1944 and 1952, and every time the Islamic clergy successfully defeated the measure. They used Islam, and traditional Islamic ethics and values, in order to not only defeat the woman’s suffrage movement but also increase the overall oppression of women in general. In 1948, five high-ranking clerics issued a fatwa forbidding unveiled women to shop in markets. The 1953 American-led coup, which replaced the democratic socialist-leaning government with the return of monarchy and the Shah, forced many religious and political groups underground. It also brought Western ideals of modernity to Iran.

The Shah, having been restored to power by America and the west, was quick to return the favor. American investors and technical experts flocked to Iran. Modernization and Westernization soon followed. In 1963, the Shah created a reform program called the White Revolution. This name was chosen specifically to represent the Western ideals the reforms embodied, separate from Communism (represented by the color red) and that of the Islamic clergy (associated with the color black.) Amongst the major reforms of the White Revolution was the extension of voting rights to women. However, the biggest impact on women’s rights in Iran in this period came not from the legal reforms, but from the economic changes that occurred in the country. Increasing opportunities for women, including education and employment, began to have a significant impact. As in the west, the feminist movement gained support from the increasing numbers of economically active women.

The rights of women in this time period were greatly expanded. Family laws were rewritten to allow women to seek divorces. Men now needed to seek the permission of their first wife in order to take on a second marriage. As polygamy was not just allowed but also actively practiced in Islamic circles at the time, there was a great outcry against these increasing rights for women. Ayatollah Khomeni called these family protection laws “anti-Islamic.” He said that those who supported the laws were “condemned by Islam; women who utilize those laws and divorce are not legally divorced and if they remarry, they are adulterous.” (Sedghi, 128) The Shah disagreed, arguing that these reforms supported the traditional Islamic values of justice and equality.

As economic difficulties led to increased protests in Iran, the Shah began to use harsher and harsher methods; eventually the country rebelled. The Shah, desperately clinging to what little power he had left, tried to vilify the protestors, claiming that the demonstrators were incited by agitators and communists. The people sought to prove their true nationality and adopted religious symbols, including the veil. Many middle class women, who normally did not wear the veil, began wearing the traditional black chador in protests to symbolize their solidarity with each other and Iran. The demonstrations did not have a gender-specific purpose, as “the Shah’s regime had been inextricably linked to women’s rights. Therefore, raising gender issues appeared to contradict the very aim of the anti-Shah movement.” (Hoodfar, 15) Activists warned that an Islamic republic could undermine the women’s rights so bitterly fought for during the last half century. Despite this, the Islamic regime claimed that it would restore “dignity and real social worth” to women. Ayatollah Khomeni claimed that Islam was not in opposition to women’s freedom. Within weeks and with a significant amount of support from middle and working class women, the Shah had abdicated the throne, and the first modern Islamic revolution had successfully taken place.

Despite these assurances, however, Khomeni was quick to prove that the new regime rejected Western modernity and within two weeks of coming to power, eliminated the laws giving women semi-equal rights in marriage. Within another two weeks, he banned women from being judges. Three days after this, he declared that Muslim women must wear the hijab while at work. Beaches and sports events were segregated by gender. Perhaps one of the most egregious and repressive laws were new ages of consent. Women could now be legally married at age 9, and men could now marry at age 14. Within only two months of the revolution that they had supported and pushed for, women had lost most of the rights they had gained over the last half century. Women were not blind to this and quickly began protesting. These protests soon turned violent as groups of Islamic fundamentalists, containing mostly men, attacked the protesters. The newly-formed Revolutionary Guard did nothing to prevent the bloodshed, and the protests were quickly stifled. By 1981, all women in Iran were required to wear the hijab in public, and the Islamic theocracy began shutting down workplace daycare facilities in an attempt to force women to return to their homes and force them out of the workplace. From 1981 to 1999, women’s employment in the public sector decreased by 2% per year. In the name of Islam and Islamic ethics, the theocracy forced women to return to their traditional roles: housewives and stay-at-home mothers. Women did, however, maintain some rights, and despite Komeini’s disagreement with female participation in the political system, he did not question those rights. Women were important members of the parliament before the revolution, and even after the revolution women kept their seats, maintaining a continual female presence in parliament from 1979, with participation spiking in the last decade or so.

Overall, however, women had been politically defeated by hard-line religious leaders. It was at this time that women realized that if they were to defeat a theocracy, they needed to use religion as a tool. Shortly after the revolution, a number of Islamic feminist movements began. The most influential of these was the Women’s Society of the Islamic Revolution (WSIR). Containing many highly educated women, this and other Islamic feminist groups sought to encourage women’s rights by criticizing modern and historic treatment of women by Islamic societies. They argued that it was patriarchy, not Islam, which oppressed women. They pointed to early Islamic scholars’ decrees that women were not required to maintain traditional gender roles. They began to have significant success in mobilizing women across Iran and expected the new theocracy to welcome them as active participants in the new government. However, their open criticisms of the new oppressive laws and the repeal of laws which sought to provide equal family rights quickly gained the disfavor of the theocracy, and the government looked the other way as religious paramilitary groups, mainly Hezbollah, began attacking meetings of the WSIR and other Islamic feminist movements. The theocracy also managed to gain control of radical Islamic feminist magazines, eventually shutting them down or effectively neutralizing the threat they posed to the Islamic regime.

The Islamic feminists were not defeated, however, and in the 1990s began to find other means to push their agendas that would not attract the ire of the hardline religious leadership. They transformed their magazines, removing the editorialized aspects and instead focusing on the facts of stories, which nevertheless revealed increasing levels of inequality and subjugation of women. For example, the magazine Khanevadeh, which translates to Family, focuses on stories of legal problems concerning marriage, custody, and domestic violence. Because it bills itself as a family magazine, it has wide readership across both men and women, despite focusing on the factual retelling of stories that are predominantly supportive of feminism.

Other Islamic feminist activists continued to focus on the Islamic aspect of Islamic feminism. By using new interpretations of Islam, these activists were able to bring the messages of feminism into the homes of even extremely conservative women. Islamic Feminists have been surprisingly effective at establishing Islamic versions of many marital rights that exist by other methods in the Western world. By using Islam as a tool and by directly quoting scripture that forbids exploitation and demands that individuals gain the fruits of their labor, Islamic Feminists were able to pass a law in 1992 that demands that a man divorcing his wife pay her wages for past housework. As with alimony laws in the United States and elsewhere, the man can petition to not have to pay these wages if he can prove wrongdoing on the part of the woman. The hardline religious leaders were adamantly against these laws, but they were unable to prove that they were fundamentally not in line with Islam. By taking advantage of Islam’s ethical foundations; justice and equality, Islamic feminists were able to ensure that their reforms could not be overruled by the hardline religious leadership.

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Secular feminist forces did not disappear, even after the installation of a strong theocracy as the governing body in Iran. Indeed, the use of Islam as a tool of repression by the state angered these activists even more. They refused to accept “Islamic justice”, as it always favored men over women and it forced women into a gender role that was unacceptable to these women, many of whom were well-educated and capable of outthinking the majority of men in the country. Being told that their only lot in life was to raise children and be faithful wives was repulsive to these groups, and activism within secular communities in Iran increased significantly. Islam once again became an enabler of the evolution of civil society and modernity, although for these secular groups it was opposition to the traditional “ethics” of Islam that was uniting, rather than the solidarity Islamic feminists found in the ethical core of Islam. It was clear to secular feminist groups that gathering signatures and petitioning influential leaders, a strategy that had worked well with the secular government of Iran before the 1979 revolution, was not going to be effective with the new regime. Instead, they decided to go directly to the people. By not interacting with the religious government, the secular feminist movement was able to stay alive in a highly anti-secular environment.

The movement used the media, from print publications to radio and television to show examples of the injustices that have been endured by women in order to create an Islamic society as envisioned by hardline religious patriarchs In her article about Iranian women’s movements, Homa Hoodfar discusses a few examples of this. One example provided revolves around many stories published in the 1980s of impoverished young women who had been given in temporary marriages and became pregnant. After the expiration of their marriages, they searched for the fathers of the children in vain, who disappeared and never returned. The magazines asked “How can the religious and our legal system leave the fate of women in the hands of men who are obviously not good and fair Muslims?” By not claiming that Islam itself was the problem, but rather that the issue lied within the application of Islamic laws to men who were not behaving as proper Muslims, they were able to change the dialog. Now women across Iran began questioning the legal codification of Islamic law. Changes began to occur rapidly as these stories, alongside many others, gained sympathy not only from the citizens of Iran but from the religious leadership itself. Stories about the plight of divorcees, whose husbands would divorce them for younger women and leave them with nothing, undoubtedly contributed to the widespread support of the wages for housework laws.

These two movements worked together in a number of ways. The Islamic feminist movement encouraged women to question typical interpretations of Islam, which gave rise to new feminist interpretations which provided for gender equality within the context of Islam. Alongside of this, the secular feminist movement asked Iranian women to question the transfer of Islamic law into civil society, pointing out that many of the men who benefitted from these laws were not true Muslims, and therefore should not have the advantages afforded them in the Qur’an.

The movement made significant gains. Ayatollah Khomeni introduced a new family law after years of refusing to make progress on the issue. While still extremely sexist when compared with the family laws that existed in pre-revolutionary Iran, the law was at the time one of the most advanced marriage laws in the Middle East. Islamic feminists were able to use traditional aspects of Islam in order to push positive reforms in the new family law. The new law codified the Islamic view that marriage is a contract. This was transformed by the theocracy into a standard physical contract, which gave much more power to the bride and her family. Under the new law, the groom had to negotiate to remove clauses he disagreed with, which allowed the bride and her family additional leverage to request additional conditions of their own. Additionally, the law seeks to resolve issues with the young age at which many women were married by providing protection for women too young to effectively negotiate their marriage contract.

Another major issue which was resolved by Islamic feminists was the custody of martyrs’ children. Under traditional Islamic law, this custody is given to the nearest male relative of the child, ostensibly to protect the child from poverty. However, in revolutionary Iran, the state gave out cash payments to the children of martyrs, and with widows of martyrs losing custody of their children, they also lost all of their rights to those payments by the state. The children would be well-taken care of, but if the male relative who inherited the child did not wish to support the widow as well, women tended to end up in extreme poverty. After years of challenges of this law by Islamic feminists, Khomeini issued a decree that granted martyrs’ widows custody of their children, even after remarriage. While this admittedly affected few women, it represented a bigger change. It overruled Qur’anic custody laws, which had for years been accepted as unbreakable. Because Ayatollah Khomeini enjoyed an unchallengeable authority over the interpretation of Islam, this action opened the door for more changes in laws, specifically regarding divorce laws, that violated traditional Islamic law. Khomeini showed that reinterpretations of the Qur’an to favor women were possible without deviating from strong Islamic dogma.

The two feminist movements did not always see eye to eye, and commonly disagree, despite having very similar end goals. An example of disagreement on means while agreeing on the overall solution comes from the efforts of feminists in Iran to allow women to become judges. The patriarchy had always been opposed to this, and cited Islam and Muslim laws as justifications for not responding to women’s desires in these areas. “At one end of the spectrum the secularists claim that this state of affairs is glaring indication that “Islam” and Muslim laws are discriminatory towards women. At the other end the Islamists claim that this is the result of centuries of misreading and of patriarchal interpretation of the spirit of Islam.” (Hoodfar, 24) However, this disagreement did not lead to an impass, and indeed may have provided two separate pressure points on the theocracy, which eventually allowed women to serve as counsel to male judges in family courts. Feminists were not appeased, and continued to push for full equality. Finally, in 1997, women were given the right to become judges. However, full equality still doesn’t exist, and women do not have the power to issue final judgments. These rights, however, were essential victories for the Islamic feminist movement. Now that women could serve as Islamic judges, they had an opportunity to create real equality in real situations.

The Islamic feminist movement, alongside the secular feminist movement, obtained real results in Iran. When it is considered that Iran remains a relatively regressive nation, with limits on freedom of speech and with a leadership in absolute control, the fact that feminism, an import from the West which is so incredibly despised by the leadership of Iran, was able to not only take hold but flourish and bring about tangible change is quite remarkable. The fact that Islam dually served as the theocracy’s tool of oppression and the feminists’ tool of liberation is also enlightening

Iran, however, is not the sole location of Islamic feminism. Indeed, feminism has been spreading rapidly to all corners of the Islamic world. In some areas like Iran, it has emerged slowly and forcefully, fighting against deeply entrenched gender roles and a patriarchy that refuses to give ground. However, Iran had significant advantages. It possessed a modern economy. There were high levels of educated women due to compulsory education laws, even as gender inequality remained forcefully in effect in many areas of society. Islamic feminism has made fantastic advances in Iran, but it is likely due to Iran’s already modern institutions. In regressive countries, Islamic feminism might not be capable of the great gains it was able to make in Iran. To prove or disprove this idea, that the institutions of a modern civil society and modernity itself is a crucial aspect for increasing equality for women, we take a trip across the border to Iran’s ugly stepsister, pre-invasion Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and Iran share a few things in common. They both benefitted from the removal of an oppressive autocracy by an Islamic revolution. While Iran’s revolution was about removing foreign influence from the country, Afghanistan’s was about physically removing foreign invaders from her soil. Following the successful defeat of the Soviet Union by Afghanistan martyrs funded and supplied by America, Egypt, and Israel, hopes were high for true equality for women. As in the case of 1979 Iran, in 1989 Kabul was filled with optimism and uncertainty for the future. Author Valentine M Moghadam recounts meeting a girl at a government-sponsored rally in the Afghanistan capital as the last Soviet troops were leaving the country enthusiastically saying to her “This revolution was made for women!” (Moghadam) Initially, this viewpoint seemed to be completely accurate. The author goes on to recount women working in many different professions in early 1989; as technicians, radio and television announcers, in a printing press, in the police force, and as teachers. There was no gender segregation and women enjoyed equality in many different areas of society.

Afghanistan was never able to form a cohesive secular state in the wake of the revolution, however, and eventually Islamic radicals took control of the country. In 1990, the leadership issued a fatwa stating that women couldn’t wear perfume or Western clothes. They must cover their bodies at all times, they could not walk in the middle of the street or swing their hips. Women were no longer allowed to talk, laugh, or joke with strangers or foreigners. Within three years of the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the liberal government installed after their departure had fallen, and with it any chances of equality for women. Shortly after, Afghanistan became the patchwork of warring warlords and tribes that it is today, but there was one thing that these men agreed on: women’s rights were not something that were to be encouraged. Eventually, the Taliban took control of the country, and their unique blend of radical Islam made any chances of even fleeting rights for women completely out of the question. The Taliban kicked women and girls out of schools, and made it impossible for women to work outside of their homes except in hospitals and clinics. Additionally, the government made it illegal for men to treat women in hospitals, and since there were very few female health workers, most women went completely without medical assistance. In October of 1996, only one female doctor was running a practice in Kabul, and most of her patients were unable to pay her.

Afghanistan is mainly rural, and the institutions of modernity that Iranian Islamic feminism relied upon didn’t exist in Afghanistan. Unlike Iran, Afghanistan did not benefit from years of compulsory education for women. When the Taliban instituted reforms that mirrored the effects of forced unveiling laws in Iran, such as barring women from public baths, they did so in a city where very few homes had running water, and those that did lacked proper sanitation.

Afghanistan presents as an interesting comparison to Iran for these reasons. While post revolutionary Iran started as a religious regime that worked to eliminate rights for women, post revolutionary Afghanistan started as a secular regime that attempted to expand rights for women. However, modern Iranian women experience much greater levels of equality and many more rights than women living in Afghanistan before the US invasion in 2001. There are multiple potential reasons for this, and an Islamic government takeover is one of them. However, a direct comparison is

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