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Women and personal law in Iran

Editorial: Asghar Ali Engineer
The Hindu
October 19, 2000

WOMEN HAD played a very active role in Iran's Islamic revolution from the beginning. The Shah had imposed modern secular reforms and had abolished the veil and western dress was encouraged. However, these reforms were quite superficial as women had no freedom to participate in political activities. It was more an imitation of western culture than true freedom for women. Women too, therefore, joined the Islamic revolution. They freely chose, without any compulsion whatsoever, to give up their mini-skirts and took to the chador. One more reason why women voluntarily took to the chador was that since the Shah accused the revolutionaries of being communist agents, they wanted to prove their authentic Islamic character. Ayatollah Khomeini had also assured them of full political, cultural and social freedom after the revolution.

However, Khomeini did not fulfil his promise and women were to some extent disappointed as more restrictions were sought to be placed on them after the revolution. But they did not give up fighting for their rights. Afsaneh Najmabadi, a women's activist, described the post- revolutionary years in Iran as "years of hardship, years of growth". Women's issues have always been sensitive in the third world in general, and Muslim societies in particular. As a weekly women's journal Zan- I-Ruz (Today's Woman) pointed out in its editorial, "Colonialism was fully aware of the sensitive and vital role of woman in the formation of the individual and of human society. They considered her the best tool for subjugation of the nations... women serve as the unconscious accomplices of the powers-to-be in the destruction of indigenous culture to the benefit of imperialists". The editorial went on to conclude that "for the glory and depth of Iran's Islamic revolution to occur, woman must be transformed". The centrality of gender to the construction of an Islamic political discourse thus changed that which had been marginal, secondary, postponed, illegitimate, and discredited into that which was central, primary, immediate and authentic. However, what is authentic remains highly controversial. Does it mean women's role should be restricted as against what is prevalent in the west?

In countries such as Afghanistan there could possibly not be any contesting voice as women in that primarily tribal society had not played any role in bringing about an Islamic revolution. However, in Iran, the active role played in the revolution by women opened new vistas and possibilities for the growth of all kinds of feminisms - including secular. New configurations of Islam, revolution, and feminism, are now emerging. It is very difficult for the conservative clergy in Iran to ignore women's demands. Not that there are no attempts to suppress women's movements. Like the reform movement in Iran, women's movements also face the ire of the conservative clergy. But it is beyond the clergy's might to do away with them. Initially, some in Iran did feel betrayed by the clergy but did not lose courage and continued their struggle - and with good result.

The acts of defiance and resistance by women, as pointed out by Afsaneh Najmabadi, were instantly termed counter-revolutionary, a label that not only made these women easy targets of repression but also cut off any possibility of building alliances with Islamic women activists of the revolution, many of whom were shocked into silence, frozen in disbelief at this unforeseen turn of events. Islamic women activists had been political supporters and active organisers of the mass movement that overthrew the old regime. Many of them had been inspired by the Islamic womanhood as expounded, for example, in the writings of Ali Shari'ati who played a very vital role in building up the Islamic consciousness, especially among the university students, both male and female; these students, in turn, played a great role in bringing about the Islamic revolution in Iran.

However, the post-revolutionary regime took measures promoting some of the most misogynous policies. Mihrangiz Kar, a noted feminist activist, says: "Iranian women have gone through a difficult test. During the past decade, they have experienced difficulties and dangers that were unprecedented in their individual and social lives... Women have come out of these testing times, without owing any debt to anyone's propaganda machinery, registering themselves from the margins to the centre of social text... Now women, who have fulfilled their obligation, demand, not beg, their rights"..

It can be said without fear of any contradiction that despite all these problems Iranian women today are in a far better position than in many Arab countries, through the sheer grit of their struggle. In Kuwait, women are struggling even for voting rights. In Iran, on the other hand, they not only have voting rights but can be and are elected to Parliament and to high elective offices such as that of Vice-President.

Not only this, women in Iran have won many concessions for themselves as far as personal laws are concerned. Today in Iran, if a divorce takes place for no fault of the woman, she can claim half the property acquired during the years of the marriage, or its equivalent. Such a provision does not exist in any other Muslim country. In Egypt, a law was passed during Anwar Sadat's time, due to the efforts of his wife, Jahan Sadat, that a man had to provide his wife a house in her name at the time of their marriage. However, after Sadat's assassination, this law was reversed, under pressure from the conservative ulema.

Another important right which the Iranian women have won is of divorce on the following counts: 1) if the husband does not pay maintenance for more than six months and if there is no possibility that he will pay and similarly his inability to fulfil the obligations of married life and ensuring the rights of his wife for that period; 2) misbehaviour and mistreating the wife and if she is unable to bear this, she can claim divorce; 3) if the husband suffers from addiction to alcohol or drugs; 4) if the husband neglects wife or family life without any reasonable ground for more than six months continuous; 5) and if the husband takes another wife without the permission of the first wife or unjust behaviour towards her.

These are far reaching concessions as far as conventional personal law is concerned. Not only this, an Iranian woman can also now claim compensation for all the house-keeping she did during the years of marriage if it is proved that she is not to blame for divorce. This is quite a revolutionary provision. These provisions considerably restrict the privileges of man available to him in other Muslim societies. This is the demand by women's organisations in many countries including the west. This has been possible in Iran because the whole society is in the throes of change and people are engaged in continuous struggle and this creates sharp consciousness of one's rights.

In Iran, the women's press is also quite strong. A number of magazines and journals are published by various women's organisations and it is very difficult for the regime to suppress them. This has been possible as the female literacy rate in Iran is quite high. In the post- revolutionary period, there has been special attention on female literacy. Women's participation in the Iranian revolution played very vital role in this respect. Still, Iranian women have a long way to go to achieve equal status with men. But eventually they will given the consciousness of Iranian women and the continuous struggle on their part.


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