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FOCUS June 1998 Volume 12

The Contending Discourses on Women in Iran

Farideh Farhi - Tehran, Iran

(Editor's Note: The following is the second part of the article begun in FOCUS March 1998 issue.)

The Third Stage: Gender and the IslamicDevelopmentalist State

If the second stage and the accompanying discourse of pragmatism can be identified as a period of coming face to face with the concrete realities in women's daily lives in the legal arena, the third stage is the period in which the economic role of women takes on significance and becomes reiterated. And this should not come as a surprise. In a situation of declining oil revenues and state income, growing poverty, and indebtedness from the huge expenditures of war with Iraq, the government was faced with the compelling need to change the course of social and economic development. This entailed new economic policies towards foreign investments and industrial exports and strategies to reduce the rate of population growth which by now had become one of the highest in the world (around 3.7%). And it is in this period that a new and clear discourse emerges and advocates of equality and efficiency alike began to call attention to women as "agents of development" and "invaluable human resources," urging an end to discriminatory practices and legislation in areas of education and employment.

The Islamic Republic's first five-year plan, which went into effect on March 21, 1990, in a vein similar to other structural adjustment programs throughout the world, called upon the government to adopt a policy of privatization, deregulation of economic activity and banking and financial services, activation, expansion and modernization of the Tehran stock exchange, and reintegration into the world economy.*[7] The plan also called for a shift from the earlier reliance on the agricultural sector to the expansion of manufacturing for export. An impediment to realization of this plan was seen as the scarcity of managerial and skilled resources; thus the government began actively to encourage expatriate entrepreneurs, technicians, and engineers to return to the country. Also seen as necessary were investments in skills upgrading, educational attainment, and productive employment for the underutilized female human resource base.

As pointed out by Valentine Moghadam, who has done one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date studies of women's employment issues in Iran, these major shifts at the macro level also had implications for women and the gender system.*[8] For instance, some restrictive barriers to women's achievements, such as limiting women's enrollment in a number of fields of study had to be removed. The state also had to alter its pro-natalist policy to a pro-family one. The ban on contraceptives at state hospitals and clinics was lifted and family benefits for the fourth child were suspended. Maternity leaves were also mandated to conform to the number of children, with the leave for the first and second child being three months, the third child only one month and none for the fourth and subsequent children. Family planning clinics began to distribute contraceptives and family planning advice free of charge throughout the country.*[9] The clear message throughout the bureaucracy began to be: Balanced economic growth and national development cannot take place in a situation of uncontrolled population growth and economic, social, and cultural marginalization of women.*[10]

Shifts in gender policy also began to occur in areas of women and law, and women and agriculture. After a decade of discouraging women from entering the law profession, the Iranian state reversed itself and deemed it advantageous to draw upon their experience and education. Slowly but surely all positions in the judicial system except that of the courtroom judge have become open to women and they now perform a host of roles including that of an investigative judge. Important changes in agricultural gender policy can also be mentioned as previous prohibitions in fields such as veterinary science, animal science, and agrarian affairs were lifted. Acknowledging the important role played by women in the agricultural sector (with some claiming that as high as 40 percent of the farm work was performed by women), calls were also made for arrangements to be made to train female farmers alongside men.

The list of policy shifts can go on but I think the point is sufficiently made that the shift from a war economy to an era of reconstruction guided by a developmentalist state brought forth major policy shifts in regards to women. Although women continued to be far from the commanding heights of politics and economics, an Iranian version of affirmative action policies began to take root, and policy shifts indicated a trend towards greater advocacy for women. Included in this trend were a women's bureau in the office of the president with the express purpose of examining and enhancing the status of women, and women's affairs offices in each ministry and government agency. In 1987 the High Council of the Cultural Revolution also set up the Women's Social and Cultural Council, charged with studying the legal, social, and economic problems of women. Although the 1992 directive of this council still emphasized the importance of family roles and rules out certain occupations and professions as religiously inappropriate, it also encouraged the integration of women in the labor force and brought attention to their interests and needs. Whether or not these changes of policy were necessitated by the exigencies of the shift to the developmentalist state is difficult to tell. What is important to note for our purposes is the rise of another set of discursive practices concerning gender issues along with other discourses identifying women as the defenders of Islamic values, culture, and purity, last bastions against imperialism, and so on. Indeed the rise of this parallel discourse on women as "human resources" has set the stage for a contested terrain within which both women and the state itself have to maneuver.

The Fourth Stage: A Contested Terrain

A combination of pragmatic steps, developmentalist politics, and cultural/Islamic identity politics marks this contested stage in which Iranian women's issues and lives are now firmly located. Added to this combination are signs that women, or at least a section of them, are finally beginning to come to their own politically and articulate certain needs for women's presence in all public arenas and decision-making positions. Also articulated is the need for higher rates of female participation in the political process and overcoming barriers to paid labor and high rates of female unemployment, reproductive support and public daycare, reform of rape, abuse, marriage, and family laws or at least acknowledgment of their deficiencies and creation of institutions such as safe houses to give support to victims.

The first signs of a visible shift in women's political assertiveness came in the fifth parliamentary election held in 1996. A female candidate who was solidly identified with a host of women's issues received the second highest number of votes in Tehran (by far the most important contested district) and was one of the two candidates elected to the parliament in Tehran in the first round of elections.*[11] Several other female candidates who had committed themselves to women's issues were also elected from Tehran and other cities and those who were not elected certainly made an impact. In two other cities, where the election of women candidates was nullified by the Council of Guardians, people reelected the same female candidates with a higher percentage of votes in substitute elections held later. Even though the number of female deputies is still comparatively small (now there are 14 up from the previous 9, from among 276 deputies), there is a general agreement that a space has been opened up for the newly elected women to become more influential within the Majlis as well as the society in general. What made the last parliamentary election more interesting was that the favorable showing of women was noted in print by political pundits, creating an environment in which much discussion was generated regarding the reasons for such a showing at least in the first round of elections.*[12]

Indeed if there were any doubts about women's emerging political clout, they were all swept away in the May 1997 presidential election in which a candidate clearly banking on the women's vote won in a stunning manner, garnering close to 80 percent across the political and social spectrum. In the same election, several women's groups as well as an influential women's journal, Zanan, actively took part in the election, promoting the candidacy of one presidential candidate.*[13] Furthermore, nine women apparently attempted to become presidential candidates and although their candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council (along with the candidacy of a couple of hundred other candidates), a debate ensued on whether this ruling was because they were women or not "distinguished political and religious personalities." Clearly the end of this debate is nowhere near and, given the trends, it will also end in favor of women participation.

Finally, the outcome of the election has also brought some good news for women. For the first time, a woman was appointed as the vice-president for environmental affairs and several other women have been appointed as deputy ministers (previously there was only one in the Health Ministry).

All these do not mean that the path for women's progress has been paved and no obstacles stand in the way. As mentioned before, the Islamic state, throughout its post-revolutionary evolution, has incorporated developmentalist and culturalist postures via-a-vis women. These two postures have by no means been in opposition to each other all the time. For instance, the strict application of the Islamic dress code has been used as a mechanism to break cultural barriers against women's presence in the public domain, a license, so to speak, women have so far used very effectively to enter the public space as wage-earners or in any other capacity. At the same time, the requirements of a development-oriented liberalization policy invariably come into conflict with interests that justifiably worry about cultural liberalization as an unintended consequence of economic liberalization. Having become an outward symbol of Islamic identity and cultural purity, Iranian Muslim women get caught in a web of conflicting forces as their looks, activities, and behavior become closely monitored as the first manifestations of cultural penetration and invasion. They suffer when they become pawns in a political struggle among different contending groups. Of course, the enhanced organizational capacity of women will increasingly allow them to prevent the appropriation of the terms of the debate by various political groups jockeying for power. Nevertheless, the ambiguity inherent in the Islamic state's two-edged policy has provided opportunities for women on the one hand, and created an insecure space on the other, that is, a space that can be pulled from under their feet, but is nonetheless a space that has been assertively claimed. But, like in other countries in the world, this space can only become secure with the enhanced grassroots organizational capacity of women.

This is particularly the case in light of the restructuring policy the Islamic state has embarked upon. As is quite well-known, such an economic restructuring program imposes heavy economic burdens on lower income families with its "trickle-up" strategy, squeezes middle income families forcing them to become two-income families, and opens up further avenues for income and wealth generation as well as conspicuous consumption for upper-income families. In other words, while great opportunities are created for a limited number of upper-income women to pursue a variety of business ventures, middle-income professional and salaried women become increasingly stressed out in terms of their inability to negotiate family and work obligations, and lower-income women are left in the cold unless proper employment and social support policies are instituted. The state, as the manager of the means of daily life, has to negotiate among various interests, understandably responding to the most powerful. As such, women's organizational capacity will not only impact the quality of life for women per se but also the quality of life of lower and middle income families in general.


The relationship of women to the Islamic state in Iran is undergoing change and, if the arguments of this paper are to be taken seriously, a tumultuous and by no means predetermined stage has already begun. Having embarked upon an economic restructuring program, the Islamic state itself is caught in a web of intricate relationships in which gender issues are at times used as a site for constructing a national identity and at other times as a set of problems that must be properly dealt with as a means of enhancing state legitimacy and economic development. Since the outset of the revolution, the Islamic state, as the manager of the means of daily life, has had to negotiate between these two orientations, sometimes successfully to buttress its political stock and at other times in order to minimize its liability. Women themselves have also been caught in the web of contending discursive practices, trying to gain as much as possible in the interplay of forces not fully controlled by them.

This paper has argued that the trend has been toward more advocacy of women's issues. If the recent past is any indication, newly created governmental advocacy agencies as well as the parliament will probably take advantage of the economic imperatives to push for further legislative changes in favor of women's rights and investments in women's human resource development. At the same time, due to the exigencies of the economic restructuring program and the cultural contest that by nature involves women and their issues, these legislative changes will remain both insecure and not necessarily conducive to the betterment of quality of life for women unless a more vibrant grassroots organizational network of women is created that can both better articulate the diverse needs and interests of various women as well as guard against possible attacks on those needs and interests. In this sense, the struggle for improving women's status in the society at this point is part and parcel of the broader societal struggle to loosen state's hold over the society, provide space for all kinds of social organizing, create a guaranteed legal framework within which organized groups feel safe to pursue their particular interests, and breathe autonomy into the activity of organized groups.


  1. For a detailed analysis of the first five-year plan see Anoushiravan Ehteshami, After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic. London: Routeledge, 1995, ch.5.
  2. Valentine M. Moghadam, "Women's Employment Issues in Contemporary Iran: Problems and Prospects in the 1990s." Iranian Studies 28, 3-4 (Summer/Fall 1995), 186-189. Moghadam and others have pointed out that the restrictive policies of the immediate post-revolutionary period had a noticeable impact on the share of the women in the labor force. Also see Zahara Afshari, "Mosharekat-e zanan dar tose'e eqtesadi-e iran" (Women's Participation in the Economic Development of Iran), Sisat-e Khareji 9, 2 (Summer 1375/1998), 649-665.
  3. The family planning program in Iran, which mostly targets women and not men, has apparently been a major success with the population growth rate becoming lower than the targeted goal of 2.3%. Iran's success has even been acknowledged by the UNFPA.
  4. See comments by Dr. Alireza Marandi, Minister of Health, to the seminar on "Population and Development" on July 11, 1996.
  5. To be sure, the fact that this female candidate was the daughter of the president gave her candidacy a boost, but most political commentators agreed that the president's son would not have garnered as much support and the women's vote for her was quite decisive.
  6. See for instance the editorial by Abbas Abdi in Salaam (May 5, 1996).
  7. Zanan did not explicitly endorse the candidacy of Khatami but its position clearly hinted it. See also Afsaneh Najmabadi, "Feminism in the Islam Republic: Years of Hardship, Years of Growth," in Islam, Gender, and Social Change edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Exposito (Oxford University Press, 1998), 59-84.