To write briefly about women in Iran since 1979 (and say something different from what is in my recent books Modern Iran and Women in the Middle East and my article on women in the December 2008 issue of Current History) is a challenge. Here I will stress the importance of the “two cultures” of 20th century urban Iran, the popular-bazaar culture and the educated elite culture, regarding women, and also the reasons for the unfortunate, but not unique, association of governmental reforms regarding women with autocratic rulers seen as tools of the United States. As in most countries, early and even later proponents of women’s rights in Iran came overwhelmingly from among the elite and educated, and saw popular class women more as students for their practical and academic classes than as colleagues. Unveiling, like other women’s rights, was primarily advocated by a few elite women until it was decreed by Reza Shah in 1936, and was traumatic for many.
The modernization of women’s rights and government activities about women began under the Pahlavi shahs (r. 1925-1979). This comprised the opening of education at all levels and of some professions to women, and, most dramatically, under Muhammad Reza Shah with pressure from women’s groups, votes for women and major legal reforms in the 1967/75 Family Protection Law (FPL).
The association of such measures with autocratic shahs and elites and with unquestioning imitation of the West provided fertile ground for a counter-movement based in part (like much of US conservatism) on literalist religion, which claimed that an unequal status and rights for women was based both in nature and in religious texts. In order to express solidarity with the popular class and religious opponents of the Shah, secularists and leftists joined the opposition in large numbers, and many donned chadors. They thought Khomeini would not exercise real power and that more secular leaders would win out. However, once Khomeini took power in 1979 many of the recently achieved rights for women were reversed. The legal situation was more complex than the simple pronouncement that the FPL was abrogated and the Shari‘a restored would suggest, but still was destructive of women’s recently won rights.
Many popular class women had not benefited from the Pahlavi reforms and some resented the forced changes in behavior that they involved. Before and right after the 1979 revolution, Western feminists were prominent in attempts to protest Khomeini’s attempts at reveiling and limiting women’s legal rights, but these women did not know enough about Iran to accommodate the views of those women who did not advocate wholesale Westernization. Regarding women’s status as on other matters, the deep class division in religio-political outlook remained strong. To some degree it still does, though more women have become urbanized and educated and want more freedoms.
The very efforts of the government to involve women in defense during the Iran-Iraq war, to educate girls at all levels, and, after 1989, to promote family planning and reduce births helped awaken many girls and women to new ideas. Women also increasingly resisted reversals in women’s rights. What were formerly only elite ideas about gender and women’s rights spread to the popular classes, sometimes in the form of what has been called “Islamic feminism.” Several women began to give gender egalitarian interpretations of the Qur’an and Islamic traditions in place of the dominant conservative interpretations.
In broad terms, the decade before Khomeini’s death in 1989 was a period of strengthening Khomeinism, while 1990-2000 was a period of pragmatism and some reform under presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, with partial agreement and partial resistance from Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamene’i. Restrictions on girls’ and women’s public behavior and dress and on the press, including a renewed women’s press, were gradually loosened, especially in the better-off neighborhoods of big cities. A recrudescence of conservatism, especially enforced in the streets by popular class men and their organizations, has come since about 2001, and increased after the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005, who represents a new generation of Neo-conservatives with deep ties to the veterans of the Iran-Iraq War and the Revolutionary Guards. Many young elite women turned to personal and sexual means of defiance. However, there also was a spread of ideas of women’s rights beyond the elite, especially in the innovative campaign for a million signatures for women’s legal equality which brought educated women into the homes of popular class women to discuss their problems. The government has recently arrested several of the women prominent in this campaign, and has, notoriously, invaded the offices of Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize winning activist for women’s, children’s, and human rights.
Scholars of Iranian women’s history found that even before any Western impact was important, many women were far more politically active behind the scenes than outsiders realized. This is noted in several books, including the comprehensive books by Parvin Paidar, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth Century Iran, Janet Afary’s Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (2009), and in the three books on Middle Eastern women I wrote or co-edited. Some elite women made the mistake of not taking advantage of Iranian traditions and thinking the West had to be imitated in everything from dress to drinking. Currently many young women think they are imitating the West (which they know only from the media) and defying Iran’s rulers by being, in private, sexually promiscuous, partaking in drugs and drinks popular in the West, and provoking the conservatives. Politically active women doubt that these behaviors can bring positive changes for women, particularly as they provoke not only the government and right-wing enforcers, but also many women who disapprove of such behaviors.
The current economic crisis in Iran, which is based both in governmental mismanagement and the fall in oil prices, exacerbated by international sanctions, has increased popular resistance. If change is to come to Iran, economic discontent, which undermines popular support for Ahmadinejad, will be a major reason. It seems important not to encourage extreme behaviors that, as Pardis Mahdavi’s Passionate Uprisings shows, do not even bring happiness to those who indulge in them and alienate many others. Instead, women and men of all classes who want change should unite around a candidate for the presidential elections who promises to reverse the crackdowns on women, young people, strikers, and reform publications that have characterized recent years; and both women and men need to promote programs that meet the needs of ordinary people.