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Home page > Iranian Women in the Media > Iran’s vibrant feminist movement

Iran’s vibrant feminist movement

Fatemeh Aman

Thursday 21 May 2009

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Despite divergent opinions on how to improve the condition of women in Iran, a burgeoning women’s movement has arisen in recent years to challenge the ruling conservative orthodoxy. Fatemeh Aman looks at the competing strands of opinion in Iranian feminist thinking.

Key Points

• The role of women in Iranian society has been transformed since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

• Social trends, such as a rise in the rate of female participation in education, are fostering women’s activism.

• Women activists do not share a united aim nor approach to change in a political system that remains intransigent to the issue of gender rights.

The far right Islamist faction (’Osoolgarayan’ or principlists), who are in the ascendency since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, considers Iran’s burgeoning women’s groups a threat to the political status quo.

In literature and statements published by the faction, women are often portrayed as vulnerable, if not receptive, to Western cultural influence and the Iranian opposition in exile that seeks to channel social dissatisfaction among women to undermine the Islamic Republic. Gholam-hossein Mohseni Ejei, Minister of Intelligence, said in December 2007 that the activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), many of which are run by women, "are exploited by the [foreign] enemies". The then minister of interior, Ali Kordan, warned social movements, such as feminists, were a security threat to the Islamic Republic.

These concerns raised by the dominant conservative element in Iranian politics attest to the strength and effectiveness of the young but maturing women’s movement as a social pressure group in Iran.

Reaching higher

One of the social trends that has paved the way for a feminist movement in Iran is the rise of women in higher education. Since 1979, the percentage of women entering universities has risen by 37.2 per cent, reaching 58 per cent of all students in Iran in 2008. Still, this post-revolution increase has not meant qualitative equality. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, many professional women were forced out of jobs or forced to seek employment in fields that were deemed appropriate. Women cannot occupy the presidency, or sit in the Guardian Council, or become members of political/religious institutions such as the Assembly of Experts.

Between 1979 and 1986, some 25 per cent of the female workforce left the job market. One prominent example is Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize, who was forced to resign her position as Iran’s first female judge immediately after the revolution. The regime justified it by declaring that female judges base decisions on their emotions. The ’Cultural Revolution’ [Enqelab Farhangi] of the 1980s saw many students and professors forced to leave universities in an attempt by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution to purge academia of Western and non-Islamic influence.

Female students were particularly badly hit as they were banned from entering more than 40 educational fields, such as engineering, mining and aerospace.

The situation of women improved somewhat during the presidency of Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005). Khatami’s landslide victory in May 1997 was due to widespread support for reform, especially among women voting for him. In his campaign, he called for greater freedom for women, less strict interpretation of Islam and more political freedom. In the 2003 local elections, female candidates increased by 60 per cent. Khatami appointed Masumeh Ebtekar as vice-president for environmental protection and appointed Zahra Shojaei as women’s affairs adviser. Furthermore, a number of deputy minister positions were filled by women during his presidency.

Still, legislative attempts by the reformist-dominated parliament (Majlis), elected in 2000, to lessen gender discrimination were vetoed by the Guardian Council, Iran’s top political vetting agency, which is dominated by religious conservatives.

So, when parliament legislated in 2001 to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls from 9 to 15 and voted to join the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAWA) in 2003, both moves were rejected by Guardian Council. Accordingly, girls aged nine can be legally married and women still lack equal rights in divorce, inheritance or child custody.

Meanwhile, the number of NGOs increase exponentially at this time. Frustrated by the lack of tangible legal reform, many female activists abandoned reformist politics and focused instead on promoting human and gender rights.

Feminist splits

While the women’s movement is presently a compelling social force, it is non-homogeneous, lacks the necessary co-ordination and does not have many defined goals beside the aim of gender equality. This is because the movement is a blend of different religious and secular backgrounds. In the beginning, activists were largely intellectuals, but now they hail from diverse social backgrounds and nor is this social trend limited to Tehran.

The ’Muslim feminists’ maintain that Islam does not oppose gender equality and call for revision of the civil law. This is the view of activists such as Farideh Mashini, chairwoman of the Women’s Committee in the Participation Front (Jebhe Mosharekat), a reformist pressure group; or Shahla Habibi, adviser on Women’s Affairs to former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Zahra Shojaei.

The other main branch of feminists are activists who, while considering themselves as Muslims, insist that religious views do not influence their agenda. Notable voices from this branch include Shirin Ebadi, Shahla Sherkat, Fariba Davoudi-Mohajer and Maryam Hosseinkhah.

The ’religious nationalists’ such as Marzieh Mortazi Langaroudi and Fatemeh Gavaraee distance themselves from street actions such as demonstrations and emphasise theoretical defences to set a women’s rights agenda.

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani and Parvin Ardalan, who are secularists and founders of the ongoing One Million Signatures Campaign, set a goal in 2006 to collect a million signatures to pressure the government to change discriminatory laws against women, such as the legal requirement that the testimony of two women is considered equal to the testimony of one man. At its launch, on 12 June 2006, 70 people were arrested and some activists were sentenced to prison. Secularists also have internal differences primarily when it comes to the organisational aspects of the movement.

Noushin Ahmadi believes in a decentralised model in which local affiliates can work independently. Others, such as 37-year-old Parvin Ardalan, editor of Change for Equality , a website advocating women’s rights, prefer a centralised model for a well-orchestrated and disciplined movement. Beside such tactical differences, there is a philosophical gap between religious and secular feminists. However, the One Million Signatures Campaign could be an example that dialogue between religious and secular feminists is indeed possible.

The majority of activists maintain, at least publicly, that gender rights can be pursued within the political and religious framework of the Islamic Republic. They point to the December 2008 decision by the Judicial Commission of parliament to approve a bill to increase inheritance for women, or the March 2009 announcement by the Minister of Justice, Gholam-hossein Elham that Iranian law would value a woman’s life on equal financial terms as that of a man’s. So, in death penalty cases, a murder victim’s family would get the same financial compensation or "blood money" regardless of the sex of the victim, if they agreed to blood money instead of pursuing a death penalty. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a meeting with a group of women on 4 July 2007 that some Islamic jurisprudence [fiqh] regarding women should not be considered as absolute and should be subject to more interpretation by the ulema (Islamic scholars).

Still, while the right is evidently pressed by social trends, they continue to regard female access to the labour market or the education system as a threat.

Markaz-e Pajouhesh hay-e Majlis, parliament’s influential research centre, recently recommended the government stop the "alarming" trend of growing female enrolment at universities. The February 2008 report Developments in the field of women and female education in the last decade stated that this "alarming trend" could lead to "social disparity and economic and cultural imbalances between men and women". As a catalyst for social debate and mobilisation, gender rights will remain a subject to watch in Iranian civil society.

Source: Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst

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Sign the petition of one million signatures to end discriminatory laws against women.

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