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FOCUS March 1998 Volume 11

The Contending Discourses on Women in Iran

Farideh Farhi - Tehran, Iran

Writing about the situation of Muslim women continues to be a hazardous task. Caught between an international discursive struggle, at times portrayed as a clash of civilizations and at other times as simply a matter of human rights, the Muslim woman's complete identification with the culture in which she is embedded and expected to represent, by both insiders and outsiders, has always been troublesome for her. In many ways, she stands dazed and even confused as she is called upon either to defend or reject with absolute certainty the terms of a contested terrain that she herself has had very little to do in their creation. And once she speaks, no matter how hard she tries to voice the complexities, variety of experiences, and messiness of her life, hell breaks loose. Insiders will accuse her of treason, abandoning Islam, and ultimately her native soul, while outsiders see either collusion, compromise, and even ignorance or her rightful rejection of an oppressive traditionalist culture.

The problem is further complicated for an Iranian Muslim woman. Her arena of maneuver has become so politicized that even a small squeak on her behalf will be immediately interpreted, reinterpreted, and turned into a sign post for something much bigger and more severe than a simple desire to lead a decent life as a human being. A lock of hair showing is perceived by outsiders as a sign of rejection of the whole Islamic Republic while a simple bicycle ride (not forbidden by law) can easily turn into a full-fledged internal debate about cultural invasion. This is why words must be chosen carefully since the path crossed is a sensitive or even dangerous one.

Having begun with this caveat, it is also important to reiterate that the story of Iranian women and their relationship to the Islamic state is very much intertwined with the story of the revolution and understanding this dynamic will tell us much about the dynamics of the revolution itself, the stages it has gone through, and the development trajectory is has more or less settled upon. In this paper I will attempt to lay out these stages, pointing to the complex metamorphosis of the women question vis-a-vis the Islamic state. I will end the discussion by pointing to certain obstacles that Iranian women face in their struggle to find their proper place within and in relation to the Islamic state as well as unexpected spaces that have opened up for them to maneuver.

Women and Revolutionary Stages

Since the outset of the revolution, the state has maintained a Janus-faced relationship with women; on the one hand, seeking to mobilize and keep them, their faces, and bodies (if not their issues) at the center stage of the revolution and, on the other hand, forcefully attempting to be the articulator of what it deems to be the "proper" Muslim woman. The result of this somewhat contradictory approach has been, if I may be permitted to use this rather un-Islamic metaphor, a tango with many false steps, stumbles, and earnest tries of new steps. In this process, the relationship of women to the Islamic state in Iran has been influenced by the politics of revolution itself, cultural ambiguities about the role of gender in the public domain, exigencies of the developmental state, and women's increasing capacity to utilize the central role given to them by the revolutionary drama in surprisingly effective ways to maintain issues of real concern to them at the center stage of Iranian politics. Of course, any periodization of the nature of state will do injustice to the complexity of issues and dynamics involved. Nonetheless, I think that at least four distinct stages can be identified in the post-revolutionary period, with each having its own particular characteristics. At the same time, it is important to note that the traces of each period have left their marks on Iranian politics and continue to be part of women's daily lives. In other words, although in what follows I will talk about stages and correlate these stages to a certain historical period, my point is that the forces that have powerfully shaped the lives of women in each period all continued to be present to this day, enabling discursive practices that at times work in tandem and other times in opposition to each other. In such a field of conflicting forces, Iranian women have been both cautious and opportunistic, staying aloof whenever necessary and seizing every possible opportunity whenever a space for maneuver is smelled.

The First Stage: Gender and the Politics of Revolution

This is the immediate post-revolutionary period and the stage in which the central role of women in the unfolding of the revolutionary drama becomes clearly and forcefully inscribed. During this period of power contestation and reproduction, and state building, the representation of the proper Muslim woman assumes much significance as the veiled domesticated woman symbolizes the search for authenticity and cultural revival. Accordingly, women's behavior, appearance, and range of activities comes to be defined and regulated by the political or cultural objectives of various political movements, the state, and leadership. *[1] It was in this period that compulsory veiling was legislated, coeducation banned, segregation imposed in many public areas, a general assault on day-care instituted, and female judgeship not recognized. Most significant was the 1979 abrogation of the Family Protection Law (legislated in 1967 and amended in 1974), effectively denying women the right to divorce and re-establishing men's unlimited right of divorce. *[2] In addition, women's voices were banned from radio and female singers barred from television. A campaign was waged to tie women to home and family. Women were restricted from certain professions, such as law, and women university students were not allowed into programs such as agricultural engineering and veterinary sciences. The state assumed a pronatalist stance, banning abortion and distribution of contraceptives, extolling the Muslim family, and lowering the age of consent.

Women's responses to new gender codes varied by class and political/ideological orientation, and from enthusiastic support to acquiescence to outright hostility. The common ground upon which almost all women stood, however, was that of a bystander; most if not all of the changes were effectively promulgated irrespective of the multiplicity of the women voices present. Indeed, the model of Islamic womanhood the consolidating state sought to impose on the population was an integral part of the political-cultural project of Islamization as the transformation of Iran was seen as incumbent upon the transformation of women, defined in singular and extremely homogenous terms. As has been repeatedly noted, (re)definitions of gender are frequently central to political and cultural change and the Islamic state in Iran took this task very seriously. *[3]

Despite the renunciation of many rights previously held by women, however, it is important to note that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, ratified during this period of intense political struggles, reaffirmed the basic and fundamental political right of women, 15 years or above, to elect their representatives. According to Article 62 of the Constitution, the deputies of the Majlis as well as the president are elected by the direct vote of the people, so are the representatives of councils of provinces, towns, cities, districts, villages, and productive and industrial units (Article 100). Women have also been vested with the constitutional right to get elected or appointed to the highest political and administrative offices of the land. The only exception to this rule involves the office of presidency which carries an interpretative clause (Article 115 of the Constitution), stipulating that the candidate for the office must be among the "distinguished political and religious personalities" (so far interpreted to be men). *[4]

The interpretive or fluid character of the Iranian Constitution is evident in many other areas. For instance, the Constitution provides for "the rights of the people" and guarantees the rights of women, but "in all areas according to Islamic standards." This explicit qualification regarding the laws of Islam clearly locates women's rights along with many other rights in the category of interpretive rather than inalienable, hence assuring that debates concerning their interpretation will remain part of the struggles and conflicts within the political process. This is especially the case since the general and clear constitutional acknowledgment of equal political rights for women are often in contradiction with the situational civil restrictions and unequal social, economic, and criminal rights (some of which were mentioned above) that have been imposed on women.

The Second Stage: One Step Forward or Two Steps Backward?

As mentioned, the policy choices of the immediate post-revolutionary period, affecting the daily lives of women in fundamental ways, were made in haste and had more to do with the construction of a new national and Islamic identity than the concrete experiences and problems of women. As such, it was only after the new state builders came to experience all the dimensions of their roles as distributors and guarantors of justice that different aspects of their policy choices regarding women began to become slowly manifest (a process that continues to this day). During this stage, which can generally be identified with the eight-year war with Iraq, a variety of women not generally involved in the public domain became mobilized in a whole series of activities. For instance, they staffed the mass laundries and kitchens servicing the war front, served as nurses in the military hospitals, and given more pronounced civilian profile in many government offices.

More importantly, however, many problems particularly regarding the families of those killed in the war came to the fore. This is not to say that these problems did not exist in regards to other families; rather it simply suggests that because of the devastating impact and heavy toll of the war as well as the important social basis the families of those serving in the war constituted for the Islamic state, the new leadership in Iran could not ignore the problems posed. For instance, one of the particularly difficult problems created by the war was the question of mother's guardianship of the children which was taken away in absolute terms by the new laws. *[5]

The right to absolute guardianship given to the husband and the paternal family led to many abuses as many young children were, in some cases, forcefully taken away from the wives of those killed in the war as a way to collect the funds given to these children by the Foundation for the Martyred or other governmental agencies. After much complaints by the martyrs' wives, and quite a bit of discussion and debate in the parliament, a new law was passed in 1985 giving the right of fostership of a minor to the mother unless the courts reject her competence. This allowed her to collect governmental funds for their children even after she wedded another man. Although this practical legislative maneuver did not bring into question the legal and religious foundations of absolute paternal guardianship (since it only pertained to funds distributed by the government and not inherited property), nevertheless it can be seen as progressive attempt to deal with a concrete problem articulated by women themselves.

Although no clearly articulated solution to the problem has yet to be found, the state and the judicial system went through a similar process as many problems became manifest in regards to women's inability to divorce and men's right to enter into several temporary and permanent marriages. Increasingly the courts have begun to show flexibility in regards to the women's right to divorce and to certain amount of marital wealth after a man-initiated divorce, even if the question of women's economic well-being after a woman-initiated divorce has yet to be addressed in a satisfactory way.

Measures such as paying women for services rendered in the house in case of divorce or adjusting women's mehr to inflation again in case of a man-initiated divorce, although passed by the parliament in the years after the war, can also be put into the category of pragmatic steps dealing with women's immediate grievances. The common point for all these steps has been the reaction registered to the grievances of a particular base of support through attempts to reform the existing laws. Hence, it is clear that the legal arena has been identified as the main terrain of struggle. But these steps also reflect an unwillingness or at least hesitance to deal with the deeper and more fundamental inequalities that exist within the family arena regarding divorce and marital rights (e.g., Article 1133 of the Civil Code stating that a man can divorce his wife whenever he wants) as well as in other spheres of law (e.g., inheritance laws and laws regarding blood money). As such, those engaged in the reinterpretation of Islamic jurisprudence have been willing to maneuver within the existing categories but have so far not been able to question the categories themselves. *[6]


  1. For an analysis of gender and post-revolutionary state-making see Farideh Farhi, "Sexuality and the Politics of Revolution in Iran," in Women and Revolution in Africa, Asia, and the New World edited by Mary Ann Tetreault. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.

  2. The Family Protection Law was intended to reverse some of the unlimited rights given to husbands in relation to divorce. Accordingly,
    1. it gave men and women, under specific circumstances, the right to divorce;
    2. it obligated both men and women to offer their supporting evidence for divorce to the Family Protection Court;
    3. it specified circumstances which allowed the husband to seek divorce, hence limiting his unlimited right of divorce.
  3. For the best collection of how these redefinitions have worked themselves out in the Islamic world see Deniz Kandiyoti, ed. Women, Islam and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

  4. For a succinct delineation of women's political rights after the revolution see Mehranguiz Kar "Women's Political Rights in Iran after the Revolution." The Iranian Journal of International Affairs 8, 3 (Fall 1995), 659-675. I will deal with the question of whether women can be president in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the debates generated around this question later in this paper.

  5. Mehranguiz Kar, "Madaran che mikhahand?" (What Do Mothers Want?). Zanan 4, 26 (Mehr/Aban 1374/1995), 38-44.

  6. A recent example of the swift reaction on the part of Islamic juridical tradition to the questioning of juridical categories came in the words of Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani who responded with vehemence to an apparent attempt by the women in the Parliament to initiate a debate on blood money, which for a killed woman is half of the amount given for a killed man. As has been usually the case, those attempting for reform were reacting to a particular case which had received much publicity in the press. Lankarani's riposte was merciless: "Who are you and I to meddle in Islamic jurisprudence?" He then went on to blast those who without any knowledge are attempting to understand matters "those of us who have spend years studying do not understand."

(To be continued)