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Feminist discourse
Books by Parvin Paidar & Margot Badran


December 20, 2005

The passing of Dr. Parvin Paidar is a grave loss for Iranians. She was one of the best feminist scholars and activists that we had. I express my deepest sympathies and condolences to her family and her long-time friend Dr. Afsaneh Najmabadi. I did not have the fortune to meet Dr. Paidar in person. In 1996, however, I was asked by the book review editor of American Political Science Association's flagship journal the American Political Science Review to write a review of two books, one of them Dr. Paidar's book. I had just finished my doctoral dissertation and was an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The following is the exact version of my review, which was published in the American Political Science Review, Vol. 90, No 4 (December 1996), pp. 929-931. I would like to thank the Cambridge University Press and Mr. Marc Anderson for their kind permission to reproduce this review here.

Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran
By Parvin Paidar
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995
401 p. $59.95
Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt
By Margot Badran
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995
352p. $35.00

From the eighteenth century until the 1960s, the study of Middle Eastern polities had been dominated by the Orientalist paradigm. According to this paradigm, Western social scientific concepts of class, nationalism, and gender are as irrelevant to an understanding of the Middle East as are Western ideals of equality, rule of law, democracy, liberalism, and socialism, wherever Islam determines the behaviors of rulers and ruled alike.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the modernization paradigm replaced the hitherto-unchallenged Orientalist paradigm. The persistence of authoritarian forms of governments was explained by a new breed of modernization scholars utilizing political culture explanations to argue that the lack of a civic culture -- caused primarily by Islam in the Middle East -- accounts for political backwardness despite obvious economic and social progress. Modernization theorists discarded all but two concepts from the Orientalist paradigm: an essentialist conception of Islam, in which Islam is viewed as a set of unchanging dogmas and principles, and the concept of national character.

In the early 1970s, neo-Marxist and dependency school scholars specializing in the Middle East employed concepts of class and imperialism in their analyses. According to these scholars, imperialism and colonialism were the causes of backwardness.

The emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s of Islamic fundamentalist movements and regimes -- that appeared to be atavistic and intent on proving true the worst stereotypes of Muslims and Islam -- gave rise to a new paradigm that has been called neo-Orientalism. The neo-Orientalists share with the Orientalists the same essentialist view of Islam. Moreover, this unchanging and ahistorical Islam is regarded as an independent variable determining behaviors -- political or otherwise -- in these polities.

The two books under review are among an emerging body of scholarship in Middle East studies that utilize Western social scientific concepts of gender, class and ideology to challenge the aforementioned paradigms. They criticize Orientalist, modernization, and neo-Orientalist scholars for their essentialist notions of Islam. Instead, they argue that there are numerous and conflicting Islamic groups and states, and therefore, that the view of Islam as coherent and homogeneous is false. They criticize the dependency and neo-Marxist scholarship for ignoring the saliency, if not the centrality, of gender and patriarchy in the analysis of Middle Eastern polities.

Paidar is explicit in her challenge to the above paradigms and discusses them in detail in the introductory and concluding chapters. Moreover, she situates her analytical framework within feminism and Middle East women's studies. Badran's work, which is thoroughly atheoretical, presents an implicit challenge. For Paidar and Badran, feminists, women, and issues of gender have been at the center of political change in Iran and Egypt, respectively; however, neither scholar tells us what criteria a polity should meet for making gender analysis analytically fruitful. Both define "feminism" and "feminist" so broadly -- as encompassing any idea, person, or movement that seeks to improve the status and situation of women -- that even Phyllis Schlafly would qualify as feminist.

Paidar utilizes the concept of "discourse" to analyze the ways in which "the state, political parties, social movements and civil society communicate, relate to each other, negotiate power and control, and take action" (p. 23). Although Paidar mentions classes, especially in earlier chapters, the various discourses are primarily analyzed as debates disembodied from social classes. Badran, on the contrary, is careful to mention the class backgrounds of the various actors as well as the socioeconomic context of the debates. Badran's work, however, neither draws on any theoretical guides not makes any theoretical conclusions.

Paidar's goals are twofold: to challenge the dominant studies of Iran that have marginalized women and, relatedly, to present an analysis that situates women at the center of Iranian politics. Paidar identifies three major discourses in twentieth-century Iran: modernity, revolution, and Islamization. In all these discourses women's role and status were at the center of debate.

Paidar argues that the discourse of modernity, which equated modernity with Western societies, was dominant from 1905 until the mid-1970s. In the period from 1905 to 1910, women's emancipation was regarded as necessary as well as signpost of modernization and progress. Iran could not achieve modernity, many believed, unless women were allowed to be educated, to be employed, and to become full citizens. In the 1920s to 1940s, women's dress and social activities came to be regarded as signs of socioeconomic modernity that the state was promoting.

In the early 1950s, women's issues, such as female enfranchisement, became salient and hotly debated in the Parliament. In the period between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s, the Shah imposed reforms that had long been feminists' demands, such as women's right to vote and be elected, as well as reform of the sensitive personal status code (e.g., minimum age of marriage, divorce, polygamy, custody of children, inheritance), which restricted male patriarchal privileges that the Shariah had granted men.

The period between 1977 and 1981, according to Paidar, encompasses the discourse of revolution. In the discourse of revolution, gender relations were revolutionized in Iran. Masses of women participated in rallies and strikes and were martyred during the revolutionary process. Afterwards, women participated in struggles both opposing and supporting Khomeini. The discourse of the revolution revolved around the debate over cultural authenticity versus imperialist culture. The role of women loomed large in the discussion of what constituted a true indigenous model versus imported alien models.

For Paidar, the discourse of Islamization started sometime after Khomeini's ascendancy and continues to this day. Khomeini suspended laws relating to personal status that had been promulgated by the Shah: the age of marriage for girls was returned to nine; men's absolute right to divorce was reinstated; custody of children was given automatically to the father or paternal grandfather; and restrictions on polygamy were lifted. However, the Islamic Republic did not rescind female franchise even though Khomeini had opposed it in 1962. Instead, the ruling elite mobilized its female supporters against secular women. In the early 1990s, however, the regime reversed itself and reinstituted many of the personal status laws that the Shah had promulgated.

Paidar both succeeds and fails in situating gender at the center of Iranian politics. Her evidence certainly indicates that gender was one of the most salient issues in twentieth-century Iranian politics. Her arguments, however, reinstate the saliency of Islam in determining the importance of gender, which was a basic tenet of the Orientalist, political culture, and neo-Orientalist paradigms. According to Paidar, "The rapid Islamisation of women's position pointed once again to the centrality of gender relations in the political ideology of Islam... Ayatollah Khomeini was adamant that without the Islamic family and women's hejab there could be no Islamic society" (p. 232). Orientalists, political culture scholars, and neo-Orientalists would concur wholeheartedly.

Although Paidar begins and ends her book by castigating those who hold an essentialist view of Islam and indeed reiterates this several times in her discussions, her analysis fails to distinguish between fundamentalist and nonfundamentalist clerics and groups. Patriarchy and Islam are treated as one and the same, and the policies of the fundamentalists are treated as though all Islamic groups share that interpretation of Islam. The term fundamentalist in not used even once in this lengthy book, nor is any other term used to connote a major difference between Khomeini and his supporters, on the one hand, and other Islamic groups, on the other.

Terms such as theocracy, theocratic state, clerical rule, the Islamic regime, and the Islamic state are used interchangeably to refer to the rule of Khomeini and his followers. In addition, terms such as the clergy, the hardline clergy, and the Islamic leadership are used to refer to Khomeini and his clerical supporters. Referring to Khomeini's policies, Paidar consistently uses the term Islamisation. For Paidar, it seems, only one Islam exists and the various Islamic groups only differ as to the pace and mode of enforcing the unambiguous Islamic rules.

Badran's aim is to tell the story of the Egyptian women who created the modern Egyptian polity. Her work spans the time period between the late nineteenth century and the mid-1950s. Relying on memoirs, women's journals established by women, and extensive personal interviews she conducted, Badran weaves together a lucid and coherent account of how a handful of upper-class and middle-class women influenced modern Egypt. The book reads like an encyclopedia of biographies of female firsts. The struggles and the family backgrounds of the first female graduates of elementary, primary, middle, and high schools are described. The stories of the first women admitted to various disciplines at universities are beautifully told. The readers are made to appreciate the struggles of the first female social worker, teacher, journalist, lawyer, pilot, and actress and those who publicly played tennis.

There are four leitmotifs in Badran's story. First, Egyptian feminist women were central in the making of modern Egypt. Second, feminism in Egypt was indigenous and not imported from the West. Third, Egyptian feminists were at the forefront of nationalist struggles against the British colonialists. Fourth, Egyptian feminists advocated reforms that were in accord with Islamic modernist readings of Islam.

Constant exhortations notwithstanding, Badran's own evidence seems to refute her first and second claims and only support the third and fourth claims. Although Egyptian feminists participated in all the important struggles of twentieth-century Egypt, none of their demands was implemented, with the exception of raising the minimum age of marriage for females. Moreover, since the mid-1970s, an increasingly large number of Egyptian women have embraced fundamentalism, which is the most reactionary and patriarchal form of Islam. These two observations seem to indicate that the feminist movement in Egypt has had neither a major influence on the laws of the land nor a major impact on its women, therefore casting doubt on Badran's first claim. On the second claim, Badran's own extensive quotations of Egyptian feminists indicate that they constantly and explicitly used the position of women in Western countries as models and examples to be followed (pp. 182, 188, 240).

In her eagerness to provide a non-essentialist view of Islam, Badran presents the Egyptian feminists' modernist reading of Islam to be just as valid as the traditional and fundamentalist views. The Egyptian feminists, for example, have argued that raising the minimum age of marriage to 16 for females is "an enlightened interpretation of the Islamic shar'iah" (p. 242). The fact of the matter is that on this issue the fundamentalist and traditionalist position, which regards nine as the minimum age of marriage for females, is the only interpretation of the Shariah, enlightened or otherwise. The Prophet Mohammad consummated his marriage to Ayeshah when she was nine years old. To raise the age of marriage to anything above nine would locate the Prophet's marriage outside Islamic law and therefore make it a sin.

The fact that fundamentalists do not demand the reinstitution of slavery, despite being allowed by the Shariah and the fact that the Prophet himself owned both slaves and concubines, indicates that even the fundamentalists do not call for the complete implementation of the Shariah. To oppose Orientalists' essentialist conception of Islam is to recognize the differences among the various Islamist groups who have used Islam to justify slavery, precapitalist mercantile bazaar economy, capitalism, socialism, antifeminism, and feminism: however, one cannot extrapolate from this that any reading of Islam is historically accurate. In other words, the analytically significant point is to recognize that the principles of Islam do not determine the behaviors of Islamist groups, but rather that various Islamic groups pick and choose, as well as interpret Islam to justify their own material interests, which might be related to class, gender, or ethnicity.

In addition, there are two minor errors in Badran's book. On page 286, note 49, Badran asserts: "In Shi'i Islamic jurisprudence women and men inherit equally"; this is simply not true. On page 312, note 45, the U.S. president is rendered "Theodore Roosevelt"; in 1938, the U.S. president was Franklin Roosevelt.

These two books will not generate much scholarly debate because neither offers a novel analysis demanding either challenges or defenses. However, both books will be cited by scholars in the field because each presents the most comprehensive historical description of women's and feminist movements in each respective country. This alone is a major achievement.

Reproduced with the permission of Cambridge University Press. This permission requires that all requests from third parties to reproduce this material must be forwarded to Cambridge University Press. This permission is restricted to the indicated format [Internet website of] and excludes reproduction in any other media.

Masoud Kazemzadeh is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He is the author of Islamic Fundamentalism, Feminism, and Gender Inequality in Iran Under Khomeini (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002).

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