Women and personal law in Iran
Editorial: Asghar Ali Engineer
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.