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Ups and (mostly) downs
Women and freedom in Iran

January 17, 2005

I thank the editors at Brill Academic Publishers for granting permission to re-publish this article that has just been published under the title "Freedom of Expression: Iran" in Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, Vol. II (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005).

The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11 was a turning point in the lives of Iranian women. Women participated in huge numbers and gained important sites for expressing their views, including journals, schools, and associations that flourished in the following period (1911-24) (Afary 1996).

The defeat of the constitutionalists (1921-5) and the consolidation of power by the highly dictatorial Reza Shah (1925-41) had two contradictory impacts. Independent women's journals and groups were destroyed, while the state implemented social reforms such as mass education and paid employment for women. Reza Shah also banned wearing the Islamic hijab.

Under Reza Shah's rule, women, like other sectors of the society, lost the right to express themselves and dissent was repressed. Reza Shah brutally repressed non-Persian ethnic minorities (Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs), nomadic tribal groups (Bakhtiaris, Qashqais), dissident Shi'ite clerics, and Sunnis. Compliant Shi'ite clerics were granted funds to develop seminaries in the city of Qom.

From the 1850s, non-Muslims constituted between 1 and 4 percent of the population, Sunnis between 8 and 10 percent, and Shi'ites between 89 and 94 percent (Abrahamian 1982, 12, Limbert 1987, 30). Under Reza Shah Armenians were viewed with suspicion following their massive participation in the Constitutional Revolution and their general sympathy with progressive forces.

Other non-Muslim religious minorities (Zoroastrian, Jewish, and to a lesser extent Assyrian) were allowed social freedom as long as they did not engage in politics. However, during the period 1934-41, religious minorities (Bahai, Armenian, and Assyrian) were targeted for discrimination, and their schools were closed (Abrahamian 1982, 163).

The period after Reza Shah's abdication in 1941 until the 1953 coup was the freest period in Iran's contemporary history. Various political groups mobilized workers, women, and ethnic groups. The August 1953 coup brought to an end a period marked by extensive civil liberties where all groups -- including women's, religious, and ethnically-based groups -- were free to publish their political and ideological perspectives and organize to demand their rights.

The period 1953 to late 1978 witnessed the return of Pahlavi authoritarianism, which combined repressive measures with reforms financed by oil revenues. The massive oil income in the 1960s and 1970s allowed mass education, including higher education for women at unprecedented levels, with a huge increase in women entering into salaried professions and blue-collar employment.

Despite participation of women in higher education and employment in substantial numbers, they (along with the rest of the society) were not allowed freedom of expression, or the right to establish independent journals or groups. Many young university women were attracted to left-wing groups, but in the early 1970s women's rights were not prominent as such; they were subsumed under other guises, either the anti-imperialist struggle or class demands (Kazemzadeh 2002).

The Islamist groups, by and large, opposed the Shah's programs as wholesale importation of Westernized norms alien to Islamic values and identity. Secular liberal democratic groups emphasized the repression of individual and political rights by the Shah's regime.

The anti-Shah movement from early 1977 to February 1979 included diverse groups. After coming to power, however, Khomeini and his fundamentalist allies instituted gender policies that were resisted by large numbers of women. These struggles revolved around the compulsory hijab, dismissal of female judges, dismissal of employed women, limiting women's access to higher education, and reinstitution of Sharia laws.

Feminist, liberal democratic, and leftist forces publically criticized and resisted the fundamentalist policies until June 1981, when a violent reign of terror succeeded in silencing all voices. Mass executions, in the tens of thousands, crushed all non-fundamentalist forces.

Religious minorities (Sunni, Bahai, Armenian, Assyrian, Jewish) lack many civil and political rights in Iran today. Many religious minorities, particularly the non-Muslims, left the country after the 1979 revolution in order to escape persecution and discrimination.

The deteriorating economic conditions, suffocating cultural environment, and harsh discrimination against women gave rise to a widespread passive resistance throughout the 1980s, which eventually forced the regime to renege on many of its earlier policies in the 1990s.

In May 1997, a large number of women participated in the elections and overwhelmingly voted for Hojatolislam Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric who had promised reduction of repression and toleration of civil society institutions. His election opened a period when dissidents could voice their ideas, with many becoming increasingly bolder in their demands and in their criticisms.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the fundamentalist regime has lost its ideological hegemony and political legitimacy but not its ability to coerce and subdue. The proliferation of satellite television, foreign-based radio broadcasts, and the Internet have progressively undermined the regime's ability to restrict political ideas.

The Internet has enabled the exchange of information via undetectable email: opponents of the regime can easily publish articles and photos on the Internet under pseudonyms. Iranian youth, particularly young women, have found it safe to write their views on personal weblogs in Persian.

Use of these new media have allowed increased and undetected communication and contact between the opponents of the regime residing abroad with people living in Iran, but also, more significantly, it has enabled activists in Iran to meet fellow activists. Numerous feminist Internet sites based abroad as well as inside Iran provide a plethora of information, feminist literature, and solidarity.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights and feminist activist, further emboldened Iranian feminists inside Iran and cemented their relationships with Iranian feminist activists abroad.

Masoud Kazemzadeh, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Utah Valley State College [homepage]. He is the author of Islamic Fundamentalism, Feminism, and Gender Inequality in Iran Under Khomeini (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002).

E. Abrahamian, Iran between two revolutions, Princeton, N.J. 1982.

J. Afary, The Iranian constitutional revolution, 1906-11. Grassroots democracy, social democracy, and the origins of feminism, New York 1996.

F. Azari (ed.), Women of Iran. The conflict with fundamentalist Islam, London 1983.

M. Kazemzadeh, Islamic fundamentalism, feminism, and gender inequality in Iran under Khomeini, Lanham, Md. 2002.

J. W. Limbert, Iran: At war with history, Boulder, Colo. 1987.

A. Najmabadi, Hazards of modernity and morality. Women, state, and ideology in contemporary Iran

D. Kandiyoti (ed.), Women, Islam and the state, Philadelphia 1991, 48-76.

G. Nashat (ed.), Women and revolution in Iran, Boulder, Colo 1983.

P. Paidar, Women and the political process in Twentieth-Century Iran, Cambridge 1995.

E. Sanasarian, The Women's Rights Movement in Iran : Mutiny, Appeasement, and Repression from 1900 to Khomeini, New York 1981.

A. Tabari and N. Yeganeh (eds.), In the Shadow of Islam: The Women's Movement in Iran, London 1982.

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