From a paper by Janet Afary titled "Steering between Scylla and Charybdis: Shifting gender roles in 20th century Iran" published in the Spring 1996 issue of NWSA Journal, a publication of the National Women's Studies Association in the United States. Afary teaches history at Purdue University and is the author of "The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911: Grassroots democracy, social democracy, and the origins of feminism" (1996, Columbia University Press).
The speed with which the government of the Islamic Republic was institutionalized in 1979 stunned many of the young activist women who had demonstrated in the streets and worn the veil as a symbol of protest but now opposed the proposed theocratic state. Only a few weeks after [Ayatollah] Khomeini's return to Iran, he declared the Family Protection Law "un-Islamic" and therefore void.
A year and a half after the revolution, Iranian women faced a number of restrictions on, and violations of, their rights. These included: (1) compulsory hijab ("proper" Islamic dress for women that covers the whole body except the face and hands) for Muslim as well as non-Muslim women in public -- failure to adopt the hijab became punishable by public flogging and or imprisonment; (2) the segregation of women in public institutions, schools, and universities as well as buses; (3) a lowering of the marriage age for girls to thirteen; (4) the reinstitution of easy divorce and polygamy for men; (5) pressure on young educated urban women and men to accept the Shiite Islamic tradition of Mut'ah, or temporary marriage; (6) limited custody rights for mothers and a reversal of the Family Protection Law which gave mothers guardianship over their children after the father's death; (7) a reinstitution of male guardianship in all major decisions of life, such as permission for employment or travel; (8) significant restrictions on women's employment; (9) the closing of day care centers to discourage women's employment; and (10) a broad definition of adultery that included the prohibition of sex between unmarried but consenting adults. These laws and others effectively reduced women to the status of second-class citizens who were treated with little dignity and respect inside or outside their homes.
This drastic reversal of women's rights in all areas except suffrage and women's right to education was made possible because of several ideological changes in the century-old antiroyalist movement. First, the antimodernist Khomeini, unlike his ideological predecessor in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, Sheikh Fazlullah Nuri, had embraced the technological and scientific aspects of modernity, though not its social and cultural dimensions.
Khomeini had learned a great deal from the radical [lay] Muslim theologian Ali Shariati, as well as from left-wing organizations, about ways of developing a politicized concept of Islam. Essentially Western Marxist terms such as "colonialism," "imperialism," "exploitation," and "social revolution" abounded in the speeches and lectures of Khomeini and his followers in 1978-79 and continued to be issued after the revolution.
Second, there had developed a nearly total ideological rupture between feminists and leftists and between women who supported the concept of revolutionary Islam and those who advanced women's liberation. The vast majority of the Iranian left, whether the Stalinist Tudeh Party, the Maoist Paykar, or the various branches of the Fada'iyan, maintained a highly dogmatic view of Marxism, one that adhered to an Egelsian-Stalinist interpretation of base-superstructure. It was the old argument that women's oppression under capitalism was a result of class contradictions and "cultural imperialism."
Independent women's organizations were unnecessary under either capitalism or socialism. Under capitalism they might divert attention from the "main goal" of the movement and under socialism there would be no need for them. But also, insofar as women's rights were concerned, the left had reverted to a "technocratic modernist" position that denied the reality of patriarchal relations among all classes of society and refused to address issues such as sexuality, gender inequalities, and the need for a reform of family laws.
The writings of Shariati, an amalgam of crude Marxism and liberation theology, and the lectures of Khomeini, which advocated a politicized "anti-imperialist" concept of Islam, were not so far from the left's view that they were outright "tools" of the imperialist powers. Imperialist countries "advocated" a feminist agenda through which they undermined the indigenous culture and resistance of Third World countries and eventually colonized them.
Third, the near total identification for fifty years of feminist issues with the Pahlavi regime had created such a complete cultural rupture in Iranian society that the new government of the Islamic Republic had little difficulty securing support of large contingents of women: hence women's suffrage was maintained. these women, who came mostly from traditional bazaar middle-class or lower-middle-class families and thus were affected strongly by the shifting gender roles in the second half of the twentieth century, were further encouraged by a series of rather sophisticated editorials that appeared in the popular journal Zan-i Ruz [Today's Woman] during 1978-79 that promised them a "third way" against the evils of both capitalism and communism. An ideal Islamic society could be formed if everyone joined the revolutionary movement and condemned the "infidel" and "imperialist" feminists (Zan-i Ruz, 1978-1979).
The 1990's: A new generation
Sixteen years after the revolution, it is difficult to find this type of enthusiasm for the Islamic Republic among Iranian women. Women's journals affiliated with the government, such as Nida, Hajar, Payam-i Zan continuously complain about the "lack of political and ideological dedication" of Iranian women who take off the mandatory scarf at the first opportunity and resist Islamist dictates by wearing plenty of makeup. Even strong supporters of the Islamic Republic such as three-term member of parliament, Marziyeh Dabbagh, who was a devotee of Khomeini for decades, has complained about extreme difficulty with which she and a few other women have passed a handful of laws favorable to women in the parliament.
The government of the Islamic Republic has had to compromise in some areas. Women were readmitted to the fields of engineering and agriculture at the universities. A law similar to parts of the old Family Protection Law was ratified in 1992 requiring couples to obtain a certificate of nonreconciliation from the courts before applying for divorce. The government has also encouraged prenuptial agreements which women can demand a future right to joint property, or reserve the right to seek divorce if their husbands remarry.
Many women waive these rights at the time of marriage in return for the right to continue their education or to seek professional employment. Women can now request "remuneration" in exchange for the years of service they performed at their husbands' house if the husband initiates divorce on "unreasonable" grounds. But what deserves remuneration (cooking? Cleaning? Taking care of the children? Or only sex?) and what constitutes "unreasonable conduct" by men remain vague issues. Women judges can now act as assistants to male judges in family courts. The legal marriage age was raised from thirteen to fifteen for women, and abortion is now permitted under certain conditions. The husband's permission is not required for an abortion, but the court must give permission. This change in abortion law came in response to a skyrocketing birth rate (3.9 percent) in 1983, now reduced to 2.3 percent.
Judging from the novels, short stories, and women's journals published in Iran, important changes are taking place on a much deeper cultural level and a new awareness of women's rights is taking root. Shahrnush Parsipur's and Moniru Ravanipur's feminist novels have become subject of tremendous interest as well as of rave reviews in exile journals. A feminist journal recently began publication. Zanan (Women) has published provocative interviews with jailed women, working women, and teachers. The journal, in open solidarity with feminist issues, writes of women's oppression and the vileness of the patriarchal culture. Zanan also publishes essays by Western feminists, such as Susan Faludi, who criticize the patriarchal structure of Europe and the United States. There is an impressive network of exile feminist organizations and publications in the United States and Europe that functions as "consciousness raising" groups and regularly hold cultural and artistic events. Women writers and poets from Iran are frequently invited to these gatherings.
These new expressions of feminism are supported by a fairly large number of expatriate Iranian men in Europe and the United States. Many former activists, both men and women, lament their earlier ignorance of feminist issues, and it is almost certain that a future democratic movement in Iran would include new feminist dimensions.
Nevertheless, in many Middle Eastern and North American countries today, independent secular feminist movements are steering a highly dangerous course between Scylla and Charybdis. On the one side is the antifeminist religious opposition offering women a degree of security and protection if they adhere to the strict code of conduct of the Muslim patriarchal culture but denying them their individual rights. On the other side are secular and authoritarian governments giving women a degree of economic and social equality yet denying everyone, including women, autonomous political and civil rights. This was the quagmire Iranian women found themselves in the late 1970s.
Today, yet another political discourse is taking shape inside and outside Iran, one that includes the voices of secular oppositional intellectuals and advocates of women's rights. Until the full implications of women's emancipation and the drastic changes in gender roles it implies are understood, however, something that has yet to happen, the fate of feminism and by definition the very concept of human rights in Iran remains unclear.