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:
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Iran, but also, more significantly, it has enabled activists
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
activist, further emboldened Iranian feminists inside Iran
cemented their relationships with Iranian feminist activists
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).
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two revolutions, Princeton, N.J. 1982.
J. Afary, The
Iranian constitutional revolution, 1906-11.
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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.
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and ideology in contemporary Iran
D. Kandiyoti (ed.), Women, Islam
and the state, Philadelphia 1991, 48-76.
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Boulder, Colo 1983.
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and the political process in Twentieth-Century Iran, Cambridge
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