Amnesty International has repeatedly denounced Iran’s mandatory headscarf laws, which have violated women’s rights for decades, including their rights to freedom of thought, religion, and expression, and their rights not to be discriminated against and not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention or to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Needless to say, the Iranian revolution is a key event in the history of Iran. In 1979, the regime established since 1941 by Mohammed Reda Pahlavi died out. On 11 February 1979, the Islamic Republic was proclaimed in Tehran. The propaganda, led by Ayatollah Khomeini from abroad where he has been living in exile for the past fifteen years, is receiving an increasingly favorable echo in Iranian society. In 1978, strikes paralyzed the country, the street forced the Shah to renounce power and go into exile on 16 January 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and was Triumphantly welcomed in Tehran, he established a nationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist Islamic republic, whose legislation was inspired by the Shariah (Islamic law).
In Iran, social structural changes and contradictions caused the Revolution. The aim of this revolution was to bring about political and social changes. Revolutionary change and the reorganization of state power rearticulated gender rules and gender. A “social revolution” can be defined as the one that transforms existing social structures and power relations. It is not clear that such sweeping change has occurred in Iran. Although political, cultural, and ideological changes have been limited. The Iranian Revolution is, in fact, an example of how a “social revolution” is no guarantee for rights of citizens (or even participants in the revolutionary collectivity), and of how a nationalist or populist discourse devoid of a specific program for women, minorities, workers, the press, can obfuscate important issues that are subsequently violently fought out. The situation in Iran offers an interesting contrast of the strategic role of women’s rights in revolutionary situations and in political contests.
In Iran, women’s legal status was affected by the Revolution and the reorganization of state power in very different ways. The new state encountered difficulties in implementing the respective programs vis-à-vis women. In the 1979-1980 period, the women’s movement was quite dynamic but became bifurcated.
Islamic canon law regulating personal and family life are inimical to women’s emancipation and autonomy. Political groups that are keen to bring about liberatory social change but are otherwise silent about women’s personal rights are merely engaged in a masquerade.
Women in Iran are suffering from the effects of Islamization: the compulsory veil; the segregation of women in public institutions; lowering of the marriage age from eighteen to thirteen; the reinstitution of polygamy and temporary marriage; the reinstatement of divorce and child custody as unilateral rights of men; the reintroduction of male guardianship, especially for travel; the restriction of female employment (including the requirement of the male guardian’s written permission before employment is sought or obtained); the illegalization of abortion; the closing of daycare centers; according to Islamic Law of Retribution (Qesas), a woman’s value is deemed half as that of a man; women’s inheritance is also 50% ; sexual offenses such as adultery are punishable by death; acts of homosexuality are also punishable by death if the « offense » is repeated; women are abused sexually; female political prisoners who have not had prior sexual relations have been raped (actually forced into temporary marriage by prison authorities) before execution because in Islam a virgin will go to heaven if she dies: women relentlessly victimized by the war, particularly in terms of the increasing number of widows, displaced, and refugee women.
Some authors have argued that the revolutionary discourse was explicitly anti-female, that the growing number of educated and employed women “terrified” men who came to regard the modern woman as the manifestation of Westernization and imperialist culture. Islamist porters argue that to promote anything other than an Islamic order, or to raise questions about male-female relations, is to be arrogantly Eurocentric. In addition to that, uneducated non-Islamist women encountered the new sexual politics when they devoted International Women’s Day (March 8) to a denunciation of calls for the imposition of the hijab (all-encompassing Islamic dress for women). They were physically attacked by men who called them whores, bourgeois, un-Islamic, uncultured. But the legal imposition of the hijab was not about protecting women, and it was certainly not part of any struggle against male sexism: it was about negating female sexuality and therefore protecting men.
In fine, women in Iran are fighting every day for their freedom and their rights, despite facing major consequences and punishments. Social media have also contributed to making these movements successful. These movements have helped women gaining status and a minimum of rights. If these women continue to stand up for themselves, protest their oppression, and fight for their rights, as they have been recently, then change is sure to come.
- Val Moghadam, Revolution, the State, Islam, and Women: Gender Politics in Iran and Afghanistan, Social Text, Spring, 1989, No. 22 (Spring, 1989).
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About the author:
Moroccan political science student at Mohamed 6 polytechnic university. Rim Affaathe is highly interested in gender studies, postcolonial feminism, and diplomacy. She aspires to be a women’s rights advocate.