The contending discourses on women in Iran

The story of Iranian women and their relationship to the Islamic state is very much intertwined with the story of the Iranian Revolution and its dynamics. In tracing the various stages of the Revolution and its interface with the women's struggle, Farideh Farhi also highlights the various obstacles that Iranian women face in their struggle for equality.

WRITING about the situation of Muslim women continues to be a hazardous task. Caught between an international discursive struggle, at times portrayed as a clash of civilisations and at other times as simply a matter of human rights, the Muslim woman's complete identification with the culture in which she is embedded and expected to represent, by both insiders and outsiders, has always been troublesome for her. In many ways, she stands dazed and even confused as she is called upon to either defend or reject with absolute certainty the terms of a contested terrain that she herself has had very little to do with in their creation. And once she speaks, no matter how hard she tries to voice the complexities, variety of experiences, and messiness of her life, hell breaks loose. Insiders will accuse her of treason, abandoning Islam, and ultimately her native soul, while outsiders see either collusion, compromise, and even ignorance or her rightful rejection of an oppressive traditionalist culture.

The problem is further complicated for an Iranian Muslim woman. Her arena of manoeuvre has become so politicised that even a small squeak on her behalf will be immediately interpreted, reinterpreted, and turned into a signpost for something much bigger and more severe than a simple desire to lead a decent life as a human being. A lock of hair showing is perceived by outsiders as a sign of rejection of the whole Islamic Republic while a simple bicycle ride (not forbidden by law) can easily turn into a full-fledged internal debate about cultural invasion. This is why words must be chosen carefully since the path crossed is a sensitive or even dangerous one.

Having begun with this caveat, it is also important to reiterate that the story of Iranian women and their relationship to the Islamic state is very much intertwined with the story of the revolution and understanding this dynamic will tell us much about the dynamics of the revolution itself, the stages it has gone through, and the development trajectory it has more or less settled upon. In this paper I will attempt to lay out these stages, pointing to the complex metamorphosis of the women question vis-a-vis the Islamic state. I will end the discussion by pointing to certain obstacles that Iranian women face in their struggle to find their proper place within and in relation to the Islamic state as well as unexpected spaces that have opened up for them to manoeuvre.

Women and revolutionary stages

Since the outset of the revolution, the state has maintained a Janus-faced relationship with women; on the one hand, seeking to mobilise and keep them, their faces, and bodies (if not their issues) at the centre stage of the revolution and, on the other hand, forcefully attempting to be the articulator of what it deems to be the 'proper' Muslim woman. The result of this somewhat contradictory approach has been, if I may be permitted to use this rather un-Islamic metaphor, a tango with many false steps, stumbles, and earnest tries of new steps. In this process, the relationship of women to the Islamic state in Iran has been influenced by the politics of revolution itself, cultural ambiguities about the role of gender in the public domain, exigencies of the developmental state, and women's increasing capacity to utilise the central role given to them by the revolutionary drama in surprisingly effective ways to maintain issues of real concern to them at the centre stage of Iranian politics.

Of course, any periodisation of the nature of state will do injustice to the complexity of issues and dynamics involved. Nonetheless, I think that at least four distinct stages can be identified in the post-revolutionary period, with each having its own particular characteristics. At the same time, it is important to note that the traces of each period have left their marks on Iranian politics and continue to be part of women's daily lives. In other words, although in what follows I will talk about stages and correlate these stages to a certain historical period, my point is that the forces that have powerfully shaped the lives of women in each period all continued to be present to this day, enabling discursive practices that at times work in tandem and other times in opposition to each other. In such a field of conflicting forces, Iranian women have been both cautious and opportunistic, staying aloof whenever necessary and seizing every possible opportunity whenever a space for manoeuvre is smelled.

The first stage: Gender and the politics of revolution

This is the immediate post-revolutionary period and the stage in which the central role of women in the unfolding of the revolutionary drama becomes clearly and forcefully inscribed. During this period of power contestation and reproduction, and state building, the representation of the proper Muslim woman assumes much significance as the veiled domesticated woman symbolises the search for authenticity and cultural revival. Accordingly, women's behaviour, appearance, and range of activities come to be defined and regulated by the political or cultural objectives of various political movements, the state, and leadership.1 It was in this period that compulsory veiling was legislated, co-education banned, segregation imposed in many public areas, a general assault on day-care instituted, and female judgeship not recognised.

Most significant was the 1979 abrogation of the Family Protection Law (legislated in 1967 and amended in 1974), effectively denying women the right to divorce and re-establishing men's unlimited right of divorce. 2 In addition, women's voices were banned from radio and female singers barred from television.

A campaign was waged to tie women to home and family. Women were restricted from certain professions, such as law, and women university students were not allowed into programmes such as agricultural engineering and veterinary sciences. The state assumed a pronatalist stance, banning abortion and distribution of contraceptives, extolling the Muslim family, and lowering the age of consent.

Women's responses to new gender codes varied by class and political/ideological orientation, and from enthusiastic support to acquiescence to outright hostility. The common ground upon which almost all women stood, however, was that of a bystander; most if not all of the changes were effectively promulgated irrespective of the multiplicity of the women voices present. Indeed, the model of Islamic womanhood the consolidating state sought to impose on the population was an integral part of the political-cultural project of Islamisation as the transformation of Iran was seen as incumbent upon the transformation of women, defined in singular and extremely homogeneous terms. As has been repeatedly noted, (re)definitions of gender are frequently central to political and cultural change and the Islamic state in Iran took this task very seriously.3

Despite the renunciation of many rights previously held by women, however, it is important to note that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, ratified during this period of intense political struggles, reaffirmed the basic and fundamental political right of women, 15 years or above, to elect their representatives. According to Article 62 of the Constitution, the deputies of the Majlis as well as the president are elected by the direct vote of the people, so are the representatives of councils of provinces, towns, cities, districts, villages, and productive and industrial units (Article 100). Women have also been vested with the constitutional right to get elected or appointed to the highest political and administrative offices of the land. The only exception to this rule involves the office of presidency which carries an interpretative clause (Article 115 of the Constitution), stipulating that the candidate for the office must be among the 'distinguished political and religious personalities' (so far interpreted to be men).4

The interpretive or fluid character of the Iranian Constitution is evident in many other areas. For instance, the Constitution provides for 'the rights of the people' and guarantees the rights of women, but 'in all areas according to Islamic standards.' This explicit qualification regarding the laws of Islam clearly locates women's rights along with many other rights in the category of interpretive rather than inalienable, hence assuring that debates concerning their interpretation will remain part of the struggles and conflicts within the political process. This is especially the case since the general and clear constitutional acknowledgment of equal political rights for women are often in contradiction with the situational civil restrictions and unequal social, economic, and criminal rights (some of which were mentioned above) that have been imposed on women.

The second stage: One step forward or two steps backwards?

As mentioned, the policy choices of the immediate post-revolutionary period, affecting the daily lives of women in fundamental ways, were made in haste and had more to do with the construction of a new national and Islamic identity than the concrete experiences and problems of women. As such, it was only after the new state builders came to experience all the dimensions of their roles as distributors and guarantors of justice that different aspects of their policy choices regarding women began to become slowly manifest (a process that continues to this day). During this stage, which can generally be identified with the eight-year war with Iraq, a variety of women not generally involved in the public domain became mobilised in a whole series of activities. For instance, they staffed the mass laundries and kitchens servicing the war front, served as nurses in the military hospitals, and were given more pronounced civilian profile in many government offices.

More importantly, however, many problems particularly regarding the families of those killed in the war came to the fore. This is not to say that these problems did not exist in regards to other families; rather it simply suggests that because of the devastating impact and heavy toll of the war as well as the important social basis the families of those serving in the war constituted for the Islamic state, the new leadership in Iran could not ignore the problems posed. For instance, one of the particularly difficult problems created by the war was the question of mother's guardianship of the children which was taken away in absolute terms by the new laws.5 The right to absolute guardianship given to the husband and the paternal family led to many abuses as many young children were, in some cases, forcefully taken away from the wives of those killed in the war as a way to collect the funds given to these children by the Foundation for the Martyred or other governmental agencies.

After many complaints by the martyrs' wives, and quite a bit of discussion and debate in the parliament, a new law was passed in 1985 giving the right of fostership of a minor to the mother unless the courts reject her competence. This allowed her to collect governmental funds for their children even after she wedded another man. Although this practical legislative manoeuvre did not bring into question the legal and religious foundations of absolute paternal guardianship (since it only pertained to funds distributed by the government and not inherited property), nevertheless it can be seen as a progressive attempt to deal with a concrete problem articulated by women themselves.

Although a clearly articulated solution to the problem has yet to be found, the state and the judicial system went through a similar process as many problems became manifest in regards to women's inability to divorce and men's right to enter into several temporary and permanent marriages. Increasingly the courts have begun to show flexibility in regards to the women's right to divorce and to a certain amount of marital wealth after a man-initiated divorce, even if the question of women's economic well-being after a woman-initiated divorce has yet to be addressed in a satisfactory way.

Measures such as paying women for services rendered in the house in case of divorce or adjusting women's mehr to inflation again in case of a man-initiated divorce, although passed by the parliament in the years after the war, can also be put into the category of pragmatic steps dealing with women's immediate grievances. The common point for all these steps has been the reaction registered to the grievances of a particular base of support through attempts to reform the existing laws. Hence, it is clear that the legal arena has been identified as the main terrain of struggle. But these steps also reflect an unwillingness or at least hesitance to deal with the deeper and more fundamental inequalities that exist within the family arena regarding divorce and marital rights (e.g., Article 1133 of the Civil Code stating that a man can divorce his wife whenever he wants) as well as in other spheres of law (e.g., inheritance laws and laws regarding blood money). As such, those engaged in the reinterpretation of Islamic jurisprudence have been willing to manoeuvre within the existing categories but have so far not been able to question the categories themselves.6

The third stage: Gender and the Islamic developmentalist state

If the second stage and the accompanying discourse of pragmatism can be identified as a period of coming face to face with the concrete realities in women's daily lives in the legal arena, the third stage is the period in which the economic role of women takes on significance and becomes reiterated. And this should not come as a surprise. In a situation of declining oil revenues and state income, growing poverty, and indebtedness from the huge expenditures of war with Iraq, the government was faced with the compelling need to change the course of social and economic development. This entailed new economic policies towards foreign investments and industrial exports, and strategies to reduce the rate of population growth which by now had become one of the highest in the world (around 3.7%). And it is in this period that a new and clearly discourse emerges and advocates of equality and efficiency alike began to call attention to women as 'agents of development' and 'invaluable human resources', urging an end to discriminatory practices and legislation in areas of education and employment.

The Islamic Republic's first five-year plan, which went into effect on 21 March 1990, in a vein similar to other structural adjustment programmes throughout the world, called upon the government to adopt a policy of privatisation, deregulation of economic activity and banking and financial services, activation, expansion and modernisation of the Teheran stock exchange, and reintegration in the world economy.7 The plan also called for a shift from the earlier reliance on the agricultural sector to the expansion of manufacturing for export. An impediment to realisation of this plan was seen as the scarcity of managerial and skilled resources; thus the government began actively to encourage expatriate entrepreneurs, technicians, and engineers to return to the country. Also seen as necessary were investments in skills upgrading, educational attainment, and productive employment for the underutilised female human resource base.

As pointed out by Valentine Moghadam, who has done one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date studies of women's employment issues in Iran, these major shifts at the macro level also had implications for women and the gender system.8 For instance, some restrictive barriers to women's achievements, such as limiting women's enrolment in a number of fields of study, had to be removed. The state also had to alter its pronatalist policy to a pro-family one. The ban on contraceptives at state hospitals and clinics was lifted and family benefits for the fourth child were suspended. Maternity leaves were also mandated to conform to the number of children, with the leave for the first and second child being three months, the third child only one month and none for the fourth and subsequent children. Family planning clinics began to distribute contraceptives and family planning advice free of charge throughout the country.9 The clear message throughout the bureaucracy began to be: balanced economic growth and national development cannot take place in a situation of uncontrolled population growth and economic, social, and cultural marginalisation of women.10

Shifts in gender policy also began to occur in areas of women and law and women and agriculture. After a decade of discouraging women from entering the law profession, the Iranian state reversed itself and deemed it advantageous to draw upon their experience and education. Slowly but surely all positions in the judicial system except that of the courtroom judge have become open to women and they now perform a host of roles including that of an investigative judge. Important changes in agricultural gender policy can also be mentioned as previous prohibitions in fields such as veterinary science, animal science, and agrarian affairs were lifted. Acknowledging the important role played by women in the agricultural sector (with some claiming that as high as 40% of the farm work was performed by women), calls were also made for arrangements to be made to train female farmers alongside men.

The list of policy shifts can go on but I think the point is sufficiently made that the shift from a war economy to an era of reconstruction guided by a developmentalist state brought forth major policy shifts in regards to women. Although women continued to be far from the commanding heights of politics and economy, an Iranian version of affirmative action policies began to take root, and policy shifts indicated a trend towards greater advocacy for women. Included in this trend were a women's bureau in the office of the president with the express purpose of examining and enhancing the status of women, and women's affairs offices in each ministry and government agency. In 1987 the High Council of the Cultural Revolution also set up the Women's Social and Cultural Council, charged with studying the legal, social, and economic problems of women. Although the 1992 directive of this council still emphasised the importance of family roles and rules out certain occupations and professions as religiously inappropriate, it also encouraged the integration of women in the labour force and attention to their interests and needs. Whether or not these changes of policy were necessitated by the exigencies of the shift to the developmentalist state is difficult to tell. What is important to note for our purposes is the rise of another set of discursive practices concerning gender issues along with other discourses identifying women as the defenders of Islamic values, culture, and purity, last bastions against imperialism, and so on. Indeed the rise of this parallel discourse on women as 'human resources' has set the stage for a contested terrain within which both women and the state itself have to manoeuvre.

The fourth stage: A contested terrain

A combination of pragmatic steps, developmentalist politics, and cultural/Islamic identity politics marks this contested stage in which Iranian women's issues and lives are now firmly located. Added to this combination are signs that women, or at least a section of them, are finally beginning to come to their own politically and articulate certain needs for women's presence in all public arenas and decision-making positions. Also articulated is the need for higher rates of female participation in the political process and overcoming barriers to paid labour and high rates of female unemployment, reproductive support and public daycare, reform of rape, abuse, marriage, and family laws or at least acknowledgment of their deficiencies and creation of institutions such as safe houses to give support to victims.

The first signs of a visible shift in women's political assertiveness came in the fifth parliamentary election held in 1996. A female candidate who was solidly identified with a host of women's issues received the second highest number of votes in Tehran (by far the most important contested district) and was one of the two candidates that were elected to the parliament in Tehran in the first round of elections.11 Several other female candidates who had committed themselves to women's issues were also elected from Tehran and other cities and those who were not elected certainly made an impact. In two other cities, where the election of women candidates was nullified by the Council of Guardians, people re-elected the same female candidates with a higher percentage of votes in substitute elections held later. Even though the number of female deputies is still comparatively small( now there are 14, up from the previous 9, from among 276 deputies), there is a general agreement that a space has been opened up for the newly elected women to become more influential within the Majlis as well as the society in general.

What made the last parliamentary election more interesting was that the favourable showing of women was noted in print by political pundits, creating an environment in which much discussion was generated regarding the reasons for such a showing at least in the first round of elections.12 Indeed if there were any doubts about women's emerging political clout, they were all swept away in the May 1977 presidential election in which a candidate clearly banking on the women's votes won in a stunning manner, garnering close to 80% across the political and social spectrum. In the same election, several women's groups as well as an influential women's journal, Zanan, actively took part in the election, promoting the candidacy of one presidential candidate.13 Furthermore, nine women apparently attempted to become presidential candidates and although their candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council(along with the candidacy of a couple of hundred other candidates), a debate ensued on whether this ruling was because they were women or not 'distinguished political and religious personalities'. Clearly the end of this debate is no- where near and, given the trends, it will also end in favour of women's participation.

Finally, the outcome of the election has also brought some good news for women. For the first time, a woman was appointed as the vice-president for environmental affairs and several other women have been appointed as deputy ministers (previously there was only one in the Health Ministry). All this does not mean that the path for women's progress has been paved and no obstacles stand on the way. As mentioned before, the Islamic state, throughout its post-revolutionary evolution, has incorporated developmen-talist and culturalist postures via-a-vis women. These two postures have by no means been in opposition to each other all the time. For instance, the strict application of the Islamic dress code has been used as a mechanism to break cultural barriers against women's presence in the public domain; a licence, so to speak, women have so far used very effectively to enter the public space as wage-earners or in any other capacity. At the same time, the requirements of a development-oriented liberalisation policy invariably come into conflict with interests that justifiably worry about cultural liberalisation as an unintended consequence of economic liberalisation.

Having become an outward symbol of Islamic identity and cultural purity, Iranian Muslim women get caught in a web of conflicting forces as their looks, activities, and behaviour become closely monitored as the first manifestations of cultural penetration and invasion. They suffer when they become pawns in a political struggle among different contending groups. Of course, the enhanced organisational capacity of women will increasingly allow them to prevent the appropriation of the terms of the debate by various political groups jockeying for power. Nevertheless, the ambiguity inherent in the Islamic state's two-edged policy has provided opportunities for women on the one hand, and created an insecure space on the other; that is, a space that can be pulled from under their feet, but is nonetheless a space that has been assertively claimed. But, as in other countries in the world, this space can only become secure with the enhanced grassroots organisational capacity of women.

This is particularly the case in the light of the restructuring policy the Islamic state has embarked upon. As is quite well-known, such an economic restructuring imposes heavy economic burdens on lower-income families with its 'trickle-up' strategy, squeezes middle-income families forcing them to become two-income families, and opens up further avenues for income and wealth generation as well as conspicuous consumption for upper-income families. In other words, while great opportunities are created for a limited number of upper-income women to pursue a variety of business ventures, middle-income professional and salaried women become increasingly stressed out in terms of their inability to negotiate family and work obligations, and lower-income women are left in the cold unless proper employment and social support policies are instituted. The state, as the manager of the means of daily, has to negotiate among various interests, understandably responding to the most powerful. As such, women's organisational capacity will not only impact the quality of life for women per se but also the quality of life of lower- and middle-income families in general.


The relationship of women to the Islamic state in Iran is undergoing change and, if the arguments of this paper are to be taken seriously, a tumultuous and by no means predetermined stage has already begun. Having embarked upon an economic restructuring programme, the Islamic state itself is caught in a web of intricate relationships in which gender issues are at times used as a site for constructing a national identity and at other times as a set of problems that must be properly dealt with as a means of enhancing state legitimacy and economic development. Since the outset of the revolution, the Islamic state, as the manager of the means of daily life, has had to negotiate between these two orientations, sometimes successfully to buttress its political stock and at other time in order to minimise its liability. Women themselves have also been caught in the web of contending discursive practices, trying to gain as much as possible in the interplay of forces not fully controlled by them.

This paper has argued that the trend has been toward more advocacy on women's issues. If the recent past is any indication, newly created governmental advocacy agencies as well as the parliament will probably take advantage of the economic imperatives to push for further legislative changes in favour of women's rights and investments in women's human resource development. At the same time, due to the exigencies of the economic restructuring programme and the cultural contest that by nature involves women and their issues, these legislative changes will remain both insecure and not necessarily conducive to the betterment of quality of life for women unless a more vibrant grassroots organisational network of women is created that can both better articulate the diverse needs and interests of various women as well as guard against possible attacks on those needs and interests. In this sense, the struggle for improving women's status in the society at this point is part and parcel of the broader societal struggle to loosen state's hold over the society, provide space for all kinds of social organising, create a guaranteed legal framework within which organised groups feel safe to pursue their particular interests, and breathe autonomy into the activity of organised groups. (Third World Resurgence No. 94, June 1998)

[c] The above article is reproduced from Focus (Vol. 12 & 13) the newsletter of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (Hurights-Osaka).

Farideh Farhi is a social thinker and writer from Teheran.


1. For an analysis of gender and post-revolutionary state-making see Farideh Farhi, 'Sexuality and the Politics of Revolution in Iran,' in Women and Revolution in Africa, Asia, and the New World edited by Mary Ann Tetreault. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.

2. The Family Protection Law was intended to reverse some of the unlimited rights given to husbands in relation to divorce. Accordingly, a) it gave men and women, under specific circumstances, the right to divorce; b) it obligated both men and women to offer their supporting evidence for divorce to the Family Protection Court; c) it specified circumstances which allowed the husband to seek divorce, hence limiting his unlimited right of divorce.

3. For the best collection of how these redefinitions have worked themselves out in the Islamic world, see Deniz Kandiyoti, ed. Women, Islam and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

4. For a succinct delineation of women's political rights after the revolution see Mehranguiz Kar 'Women's Political Rights in Iran after the Revolution.' The Iranian Journal of International Affairs 8, 3 (Fall 1995), 659-675. I will deal with the question of whether women can be president in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the debates generated around this question later in this paper.

5. Mehranguiz Kar, 'Madaran che mikhahand?' (What Do Mothers Want?). Zanan 4, 26 (Mehr/Aban 1374/1995), 38-44.

6. A recent example of the swift reaction on the part of Islamic juridical tradition to the questioning of juridical categories came in the words of Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, who responded with vehemence to an apparent attempt by the women in the Parliament to initiate a debate on blood money, which for a killed woman is half of the amount given for a killed man. As has been usually the case, those attempting for reform were reacting to a particular case which had received much publicity in the press. Lankarani's riposte was merciless: 'Who are you and I to meddle in Islamic jurisprudence?' He then went on to blast those who without any knowledge are attempting to understand matters 'those of us who have spent years studying do not understand.'

7. For a detailed analysis of the first five-year plan, see Anoushiravan Ehteshami, After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic. London: Routledge, 1995, ch.5.

8. Valentine M Moghadam, 'Women's Employment Issues in Contemporary Iran: Problems and Prospects in the 1990s.' Iranian Studies 28, 3-4 (Summer/Fall 1995): 186-9. Moghadam and others have pointed out the restrictive policies of the immediate post-revolutionary period had a noticeable impact on the share of women in the labour force. Based on the 1986 census, women's share in the labour force dropped from a high of 20.2% in 1976 to only 8.9% in 1986.

Moghadam, however, suggests that part of this drop could perhaps be explained by the inadequate account of cottage industries in the 1986 figures in comparison to the 1976 ones. But the emergence of the Islamic discourse on women and family certainly contributed and the emergence of the developmentalist discourse has probably affected the figures since 1986. Also see Zahra Afshari, 'Mosharekat-e zanan dar tose'e eqtesadi-e iran' (Women's Participation in the Economic Development of Iran) Siasat-e Khareji 9, 2 (Summer 1375/1998), 649-665.

9. The family planning programme in Iran, which mostly targets women and not men, has apparently been a major success with the population growth rate becoming lower than the targeted goal of 2.3%. Iran's success has even been acknowledged by the UNFPA. See interview with Dr Nafis Sadik in Kayhan International, 23 September 1993, 5.

10. See comments by Dr Alireza Marandi, Minister of Health, to the seminar on 'Population and Development' on 11 July 1996. Salaam (13 July 1993).

11. To be sure, the fact that this female candidate was the daughter of the president gave her candidacy a boost, but most political commentators agreed that the president's son would not have garnered as much support and women's vote for her was quite decisive.

12. See for instance the editorial by Abbas Abdi in Salaam (5 May 1996).

13. Zanan did not explicitly endorse the candidacy of Khatami but its position clearly hinted it. For an analysis of feminist positions advocated by Zanan and other women advocates, see Afsaneh Najmabadi, 'Feminism in the Islamic Republic: Years of Hardship, Years of Growth,' in Islam, Gender, and Social Change edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L Exposito (Oxford University Press, 1998), pages 59-84.