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opinion article
July 28, 2011

Women and Representation in Iran’s Democracy Movement


Nayereh Tohidi
[h2 In my short presentation at this panel, I will focus on only one main issue concerning women’s citizenship and representation in the case of Iran: women’s right to vote. Before specific reference to that, however, I would like to propose a few theoretical suppositions that I have reached through my scholarship and activism.

In modern Iran, as in many other countries, the trajectory of gender politics and the quest for women’s rights have been negotiated within a complex patriarchal power game mediated by the Islamic tradition and other structural socio-economic factors. Any organized religion, including Islam, is as much about politics and power as it is about faith. Islam, like other world religions, has been used as much (if not more) for the purpose of community building, identity politics, and control over individuals and regulation of society as for the sake of spirituality and the quest for meaning. Sexuality, including male-female relationship, has been among the domains most sensitively regulated and monitored by organized religions in almost all traditional societies.

Women’s quest for suffrage and equal rights has been among the byproducts of modernity and democracy. Thanks to the emergence of feminist discourse and the women’s movements, the initially male-centered conception of modernity, democracy, and citizenship gradually gained a more egalitarian orientation encompassing also the female half and other social groups considered as minorities. This process has followed a rather similar trajectory in all societies influenced by Semitic religions, that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.[1]

The present deficit in many Muslim-majority countries in human rights in general and women’s rights in particular, is therefore connected to the democracy deficit, that is, the lag in political, socio-economic, and cultural development, including the lag in religious reformation. Women’s rights advocates cannot reduce the barriers against women’s rights to the cultural factors, nor can they explain away the problem by the notions such as “Islamic exceptionalism” or “Islamic determinism.” Nevertheless, on a daily basis, they are confronted with the persistent patrimonial and patriarchal gender relations, male-biased sexual mores and attitudes, and old laws which are sanctioned or sanctified by the conservative religious authorities. This has become exacerbated in more recent years by the growing violent Islamism (fundamentalism).

Women’s rights advocates, therefore, are compelled to address the patriarchal barriers they face in the name and cover of Islam. To strategize their fight for full citizenship, democracy, and equal rights, they need to find effective tactics and workable methods in dealing with religion. Religion is too influential and powerful to dismiss. Thus, many women’s rights advocates have felt compelled to engage with the religious discourses and challenge the religious authorities and Sharia law by re-interpreting and re-constructing Islamic texts and rituals from a woman-friendly and egalitarian perspective, hence “Islamic feminism.” Somewhat similar to Christian and Jewish feminisms, Islamic feminism has emerged as a strategy used by some women’s rights advocates to negotiate modernity and secularity within a faith-based framework. Many Muslim feminists see a progressive Islamic reformation as a requisite for the process of modernity, secularization, and democratization in the context of their transitional societies.[2]

Beyond Islamic Feminism:

But women’s agency and activism toward equal rights have not been limited to Islamic feminism nor can Islamic feminism work in isolation from other strategies and broader changes in the larger society. As the title of this conference suggests, we are to move beyond (and not away from) Islamic feminism for the following reasons. Historical and sociological studies on women’s rights show that feminist theology or feminist exegesis attempting to improve women’s rights through reforming religion and religious institutions can become effective only when they take place along with or in addition to broader societal changes outside religious framework. One such necessary vehicle for bringing about equal rights is civil rights movements, especially grassroots women’s movement that push for elimination of gender-based discrimination and democracy.

Though important, Islamic feminism can work only as a component of a larger social movement for equality. As the current struggles of women in the context of the Green Movement in Iran indicate, coordination between various forms of feminist interventions (secular as well as religious) and coalition building among different women’s groups is necessary for success in a diverse society such as Iran. Furthermore, forging associative links between the women’s movement and other civil rights movements (the labor, teachers, students, environmentalists, ethnic and religious minorities, and the like) is crucial for an effective strategy. Moreover, the women’s rights advocates (using secular or religious framework) also need to forge alliance with the reform-oriented and supportive members of the elites within the ruling circles and religious authorities as well as within the opposition groups that seek democracy.

Now, to illustrate such theoretical suppositions, let me briefly review how women in the case of Iran have fought for the right to vote as one of their basic civil rights. Iranian people’s collective quest for democracy has a history of over hundred years going back to the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 that aimed at ending despotism and colonial interventions by establishing the rule of law, parliamentary elections and modern political culture and secular public education. The seeds for women’s movement were planted during those revolutionary years when small yet influential groups of Iranian women began to enter into politics and articulate gender-specific demands.

Despite their participation in that revolution, however, women were not granted any new rights in the years immediately following the Revolution. In 1906 for the first time, a group of women assembled in front of the first Majles (parliament) and demanded the Supplementary Fundamental Law that included women’s suffrage. Uproar was created when inside the all male Majles a deputy (Vakil ol-Roaya) raised the issue of suffrage for women and their right to form women’s associations. Though fiercely led by the conservative anti-constitutionalist clerics (such as Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri), the opposition to women’s emancipation came from social conservatives on all sides, be it religious or secular and pro or anti constitution. Moderate clerics such as Behbahani and Tabatabai who were constitutionalist did not dismiss the whole idea of women’s emancipation, but fearing loss of ‘male honor,’ they only agreed with women’s access to literacy and education not the right to vote.

Realizing that they have a long way to go, women activists focused on a vigorous campaign for women’s literacy and education. Once again in 1911, women’s enfranchisement became the subject of debate in the second Majles. Vakil ol-Roaya tried again to argue that “women too have souls and should be granted civil rights.” A clergy (Modarressi) made a passionate counter-argument stating that “in our religion, Islam, they [women] are under supervision, and men are in charge of women…they will have absolutely no right to elect, others [men] should protect the rights of women.”[3]

The era of new nation-state building under Reza Shah (1925-1941) too did not result in women’s suffrage. In 1941, because of worries over his collaboration with Nazi Germany, Reza Shah was forced by the Allies to abdicate his throne in favor of his son Mohammad Reza. This was followed by a 12-year period of parliamentary democracy in Iran during which political and party activism, including new independent women’s organizations flourished. Several women’s groups such as the Association of Women of Iran (Jamiyat Zanan Iran), and women’s magazines such as Today’s Woman (Zan-e Emrooz) and Women’s Rights (Hoqouq-e Zanan), emerged under the leadership of prominent women activists such as Badr ol-Moluk Bamdad and Nayereh Saeedi. In their magazine, Women of Iran (Zanan-e Iran), the Women’s Party (Hezb-e Zanan) led by Safiyeh Firouz and Fatemeh Sayyah (1942), emphasized the demand for women’s suffrage among other issues.

Ahmad Qavam, a constitutionalist who had been exiled by Reza Shah, founded a moderate Democrat Party in 1943 that had included women’s suffrage in its reform program. His premiership, however, was cut very short because both the clerics and the Shah opposed him. This was due to his support for women’s suffrage to the extent of banning a religious paper (Flag of Islam) that had instigated demonstrations against non-veiled women and also due to his willingness to make alliance with the left.

Another attempt toward women suffrage was led by the Tudeh Party (Communist Party) in 1944 when its fraction in the Majles introduced a bill to extend the vote to women. This bill too without having a chance for a full debate was rejected after being attacked by a deputy as “anti Islam and anti Quran.”

At this time, Mohamad Mossadegh, the first Iranian ever earning a doctorate in law (in Europe) was playing a leading role in the parliamentary politics. He had just established the National Front, a coalition consisting of a diverse spectrum of secular liberal, socialist and conservative secular and religious nationalists to lead a movement toward electoral reform and nationalization of the oil industry in Iran in defiance to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (a part of today’s BP). In 1949 he attempted to draft an electoral bill and proposed to include women’s enfranchisement. Women’s associations such as the Women’s Party continued their push for suffrage and lobbied sympathetic deputies in the Majles. But the religious section of the National Front objected the bill by claiming again that Islam did not allow women to elect. Several clerics, including Ayatollah Kashani, then a member of the National Front, wrote critical articles and organized demonstrations against the bill. In Qom at least one person was killed and several injured when seminary students demonstrated against women’s enfranchisement.

Opposition by the clergy was not the only culprit behind the failure of Mossadegh’s attempt. Many secular nationalists too opposed women’s suffrage on the ground of biological and psychological inferiority of the female sex. Hassan Nazih, for example, a secular nationalist member of the National Front, who played an important oppositional role against the Islamic Republic three decades later, argued that:

“Women do not have any psychological capacity for holding political status….Woman more than man is the slave of fanciful wishes. …If she is allowed to participate in elections an incredible chaos will be created…You will get even schoolgirls dreaming of becoming Majles deputies. The natural duties of women, such as motherhood and other family tasks, will be either totally ignored or seen as insignificant.” [4]

Despite his popularity and strong legitimacy as the reform leader, Mossadeq decided to sacrifice women’s suffrage. Fighting in several fronts, he did not want to add to the forces that opposed him. Women could wait for their rights, he must have reasoned, as the priority for him was his nationalist agenda concerning “nationalization of oil” that required national unity behind him. As a political reality, women’s disappointment was not a big political loss for Mossadegh since women in those days could not produce a strong constituency. However, for reasons beyond this paper’s scope such as the CIA-supported 1953 coup, Mossadegh’s premiership too did not last long despite his compromise against women’s rights.

Ironically, it was finally under a less popular and less legitimate leader, Mohamad Reza Shah that women were finally granted the right to vote in 1963. But it should not be forgotten what processes led to this turn in the Shah’s policy and approach. It was mainly due to the persistence of women’s groups who kept pushing for suffrage both during the years prior to the downfall of Mossadegh and after. The increasing trend of urbanization and the formation of a growing educated and professional modern middle class women with their visible presence in the public arena had provided the material ground for women’s political constituency, hence a more influential push toward their enfranchisement.

Another factor facilitating the change was the international pressure on the Shah for reform, especially from the Kennedy administration. During a relative political liberalization under the premiership of Ali Amini (1960-1963), a pro-American secular moderate, women’s right to vote became once again a point of contention between the state and the opposition while women’s groups such as the Federation of Iranian Women’s Organizations (a coalition made of 14 women NGOs), were pushing forward the demands for women’s rights, reform in the family law, and especially the right to vote.

But once again women’s rights became a hostage in the power game between the Shah and the Prime Minister given their tense relationship among the two on the one hand and the influence of the conservative religious opponents of the women’s rights on the other. Amini was not personally against women’s suffrage but gave in to a yet another patriarchal concession. Most independent women’s groups, including the FOIWO were dissolved in 1961and brought under the control of a single organization called The High Council of Women’s Organizations of Iran under the presidency of the Shah’s twin sister, Ashraf Pahlavi. In 1963, after the Shah removed Amini and also consolidated his control over the women’s constituency decided to take up the leadership of the reform that seemed inevitable by then. Under the rubric of the White Revolution, the Shah launched a six-point program of reforms that included extension of the vote to women.

Again, along the same line of argument used by Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri, Modarressi, Kashani and others against any attempts to grant equal rights to women, several clerics under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini opposed the Shah’s reforms and called women’s participation in election and politics contrary to Islam. First in his private letters to the Shah and telegrams to the Prime Minister Asadollah Alam and later in a joint open statement issued with eight other prominent clerics (March 1963), Khomeini declared: “granting women the right to intervene in elections or other rights…bring about nothing other than misery, corruption and prostitution.”[5] During his Noruz (New Year) sermon of that year, he called for “national mourning” instead of celebration to show outrage against the state’s “affront to the sacred Quran.”

But when he took power and established an Islamic state in 1979, the same Khomeini not only did not abrogate women’s right to vote, but encouraged women to be actively involved in politics and social affairs of the country. Why? Not that his heart and mind or understanding of Islam had suddenly changed. It was actually the reality of a strong female constituency manifested in the number and the strength of women’s presence in the 1978-79 revolution that compelled Khomeini to shift his political and religious approach and submit to at least part of the already accomplished emancipation of women.

The irony was that Khomeini submitted to at least part of the very rights that women had gained under the Pahlavi era’s process of development and modernization. This did not prevent him from calling for abrogation of the progressive Family Protection Law of 1967. However, his government found it practically inevitable to gradually go back and rely on that same or similar family law in the absence of anything else acceptable to women.

These examples illustrate that “Islam” or “Sharia” is far from being monolithic or static rules set on the stone. It can be used and actually has been used instrumentally as a tool for power game. At one point during his reign (1979-1989) Khomeini even declared that all the Islamic injunctions (ahkam) can be temporarily revoked for the sake of the “system’s expediency” in order to preserve the Islamic state.

The line of demarcation for a feminist agenda therefore, is not drawn on a simplistic binary between secular versus religious. Feminists have a great stake in realizing what kind of interventions and what factors can press the religious authorities to concede to women’s demands for reform and equal rights. But feminist exegesis and Islamic feminism is only one component of the ingredients needed for an effective recipe for social change and equal rights in the Muslim majority countries. Women’s empowerment through education, employment, reproductive health, elimination of violence against women; in other words, a holistic gender-sensitive strategy for socio-economic development are all needed to bring about profound improvement in women’s status. In order for the elite to adopt such a holistic and egalitarian approach to socio-economic development, strong civil society organizations, especially a grassroots women’s rights movement are among crucial necessities. In short, human/women’s rights in particular and civil rights in general can be achieved through all-sided processes of democratization and secularization of the law along with Islamic reformation.

Sourse : rooz online]
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*This paper was presented at the conference on “Islamic Feminism and Beyond: The New Frontier” in June 2010 and was later published in Occasional Papers by the Woodrow Wilson Center, Fall, 2010. 18:23:

http://pomed.org/blog/2010/11/islamic-feminism-and-beyond.html/

http://wilsoncenter.smugmug.com/keyword/photo%20by%20david%20hawxhurstislamic%20feminism%20and%20beyond/1/902515224_7asyW#902514165_pEmz2

[1] For extensive comparative analysis on this point, see for instance:

Bayes, Jane and Tohidi, Nayereh (Eds.) Globalization, Gender, and Religion: The Politics of Women’s Rights in Catholic and Muslim Contexts (New York: Palgrave, 2001), especially chapter one and chapter two, 1-60: http://www.nayerehtohidi.com/publications/



[2] For definitions and analyses on Islamic feminism, see scholars such as Margot Badran, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and Parvin Paidar. I have defined and analyzed Islamic feminism elsewhere. See for instance the three following articles:

a) Tohidi, Nayereh. “Muslim Feminism and Islamic Reformation” in Feminist Theologies: Legacy and Prospect, edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 93-116+161-164. http://books.google.com/books?id=lOFBColkprkC&pg=PA93&lpg=PA93&dq=nayereh+tohidi&source=web&ots=LdsPnqvFJ0&sig=hRclHvAqGPJr26igFXnwqlZ7qsw

b) Tohidi, Nayereh. “‘Islamic Feminism’: Women Negotiating Modernity and Patriarchy in Iran” in The Blackwell Companion of Contemporary Islamic Thought, edited by Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 624-643.

c) Tohidi, Nayereh. “Islamic Feminism: Perils and Promises” in the Middle East Women’s Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 3&4 (Fall 2001/Winter 2002): 13-15 & 27: http://www.nodo50.org/feminismos/spip.php?article118&lang=es



[3] Paidar, Parvin. Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, P. 66.



[4] Ibid, Paidar, 1995: 133.



[5] Ganji, Akbar. “Halal kardan-e haramha va haram kardan-e halalha, 2” [Making the forbidden permissible and the permissible forbidden, part 2] cited from the Sahifeh-ye Imam (Khomeini’s Collection), Volume I, accessed in June 2010 at: http://www.mihan.net/news1/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2861:2010-07-08-16-00-13&catid=8:announcementt:

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