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Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic

Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic

by Lois Beck (Editor), Guity Nashat (Editor)

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University of Illinois Press
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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic


Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-02937-2


Guity Nashat

THE REVOLUTION in 1978-79 was a watershed in the history of Iranian women. Hundreds of thousands of women participated daily in demonstrations against the regime of Muhammad Reza Shah and played a role in toppling one of the seemingly most stable states in the Middle East. The sight of many demonstrators wearing concealing black cloaks (chadurs) mesmerized many Western onlookers and Westernized Iranians who had assumed that veiled and secluded women would be fearful, apathetic, and ignorant of the outside world.

Women's roles in the revolution and subsequent gender-related policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran stimulated indigenous, scholarly, and journalistic interest in "the woman question." Until that time, few publications considered women within the context of larger developments in Iran in the twentieth century. By the early twenty-first century, we have become better informed about women's contributions to the revolution than about women's roles in any other period of Iranian history.

Studies after 1979 fall within a number of categories, only three of which are discussed briefly here. The first consists of writings influenced by Western secular feminism. The second comes from apologists for Islam. The third, emerging in Iran in the 1990s, demonstrates that Islamic teachings need not be opposed to women's rights and equality.

The underlying assumption in the first group is that Islamic teachings reinforced a patriarchal system subjecting women to inequities. While some authors concede that women's conditions were somewhat improved during the shah's regime, many assert that the Islamic Republic's policies reinforced former inequalities. Their underlying ideological approach draws them to discuss women in the twentieth century when feminist consciousness began to emerge among some Iranian women after they were exposed to modern ideas such as socialism, adopted European-style education, and witnessed the weakening of religious forces. Women's participation in the constitutional revolution of 1905-11, the revolutionary struggles of oppositional groups, and the roles of leftists in the early years of the Islamic Republic are some topics discussed in this literature. These studies pay insufficient attention to women before the twentieth century perhaps because their authors assume that seclusion and the veil rendered most women powerless, inert, and voiceless. While these works contribute to our knowledge, they contain some drawbacks, including a reliance on Marxist theory and on methodologies developed for the study of women in the West, and their examples tend to draw on conditions prevailing there, which were often different from those in Iran and other Muslim areas.

Many of these studies reduce the problems that women have encountered for millennia to Islam. Blaming the teachings of Islam for difficulties that women have experienced historically, many writers reveal inadequate knowledge of Islamic history. They seem uninformed that Islamic law (shari'a) has not been monolithic or static; divergent views among the various schools of law are found on many issues, including those regarding women; and Islamic teachings adjusted to local conditions wherever they were adopted. Many practices that writers associate with Islam were fully developed before the rise of Islam and originated in the Irano-Mesopotamian values and socioeconomic conditions of pre-Islamic Iranian culture rather than in the Arabian phase of Islam. Undue emphasis on seclusion and the teachings of Islam as major causes of the inequities women experienced in the past and present prevents some scholars from discovering more fundamental causes of women's problems, in particular the underlying socioeconomic circumstances that deprive women of education, proper healthcare, and employment opportunities. Their focus reinforces the misconceptions of Westerners about women's roles in the Muslim world and about Islam's teachings on women.

Women in the Middle East have undergone a variety of inequities, as have women elsewhere in the world, although the degree of this inequity differs from place to place in the Middle East and between Middle Eastern countries and the industrialized West. The root causes of women's inequality need to be examined, rather than its symbols, which many wrongly associate with religion in the Muslim world. By using more accurate historical evidence and analyses, we could better understand women living in societies where traditional attitudes toward gender have not much changed and where opportunities that could speed up those changes are not fully available.

Contrary to the assertion of some modern apologists (the second group of writers discussed here), Islamic teachings do not place women on an equal or higher plane than men. In fact, the Qur'an places women a degree below men, an attitude that reflects Arabian views of women prevailing during the rise of Islam. It is not productive to try to mollify women by arguing that women have an equal or higher status in Islamic teachings. Where women's status decreases is in the interpretation of Qur'anic passages and in attributing practices and sayings to the Prophet Muhammad, which occurred at a later stage when many non-Arabians converted to Islam. An example is the practice of all-enveloping veiling, which became de rigueur in certain urban areas of the Islamic Middle East during the second Islamic century. The Qur'an recommends modesty to women and men but does not recommend the veil. That all-concealing attire was not intended by Qur'anic reference is suggested by the fact that during the pilgrimage (hajj) ceremony in Arabia, women do not cover their faces. Yet as non-Arabians converted to Islam, they began to impose what they deemed proper behavior, which included seclusion and the veil.

Another notion raised by some apologists is that Western women are treated as sexual commodities. What these authors fail to mention is that Western women have the freedom to choose any type of behavior they deem suitable for themselves and are not coerced to do so by law or fiat. Ironically, this view of women as mere sexual objects was how many Westerners described women in Iran and other Muslim areas in the nineteenth century.

In an effort to defend customary attitudes or the Islamic Republic's policies, some authors justify behavior that has little basis in the Qur'an (such as stoning women who are accused of adultery), yet they shy away from addressing more common issues (such as child marriage), and few emphasize that some early Muslim women worked outside the home, controlled their property, and participated in public life.

A more recent trend in the study of gender in Iran (the third group mentioned here) began after the death of the Ayatullah Khomeini in 1989 and flourished after the election of President Muhammad Khatami in 1997. These new writings attempt to show that Islamic teachings are not necessarily opposed to women's rights and equality. Their authors, both women and men, are committed Muslims who argue that inequities applied in the treatment of Muslim women are an aberration of Islam, and they seek to enlighten readers about Islam's teachings. Many of them use the Qur'an and the prophet's traditions (hadith) to argue that abuses are alien to early Islamic notions and practices. Their ultimate aim is to demonstrate that modern feminism and Islam are not contradictory.

Despite the light that recent scholarship sheds on some aspects of women's roles, the ideological prism through which authors approach gender-related issues often prevents them from focusing on crucial developments affecting women. Neither detractors nor defenders seem to examine the underlying contradictions in their arguments to account for the seemingly quietist attitude of women across the centuries. How could those who had been subordinated by men and treated as inferior by their religion suddenly find the courage to demonstrate on urban streets? If the teachings of Islam had made most women submissive, what prompted these same women to mount vigorous opposition to the shah's regime? If seclusion was so onerous, why did women not oppose it before? Why did they accept constraints imposed on them by an Islamic patriarchal system under which they had lived for so many centuries? If women became informed only after they encountered the teachings of Western feminism and its Iranian advocates, why did many of them favor a regime that aimed to undo laws that had benefited them? So far, few studies have raised these and similar questions or have answered them adequately.

The scholars who contribute to this and the companion volume, Women in Iran from the Rise of Islam to 1800, aim to provide historical and analytical perspectives to help us understand these and related issues. The first volume examines women's roles in different epochs of Iranian history and focuses on topics such as the origins of women's seclusion, impact of the Islamic conquest, consequences for women of different kinds of dynasties and ruling regimes, and attitudes toward women in chronicles, literature, and art. The present volume focuses on women since the beginning of the Qajar period in 1794 and examines factors affecting women to the present. Our aim is to consider women's actual lives (rather than idealized or critical versions of how they lived in the past) and the situations and problems they encountered. Because women's roles in the Qajar period and attitudes toward gender then have not been adequately studied, most of the discussion below is devoted to that period. We hope to bring clarity to complex questions in the chapters of this and the preceding volume.

The Qajar Period, 1794-1925

The study of women in the Qajar period presents challenges, but it also offers unique opportunities for better understanding the lives of women in the past. The Qajar dynasty stemmed from Turkic tribal groups that entered the Iranian plateau after the eleventh century. The Qajar tribe achieved historical visibility during the Safavid period (1501-1722) as part of the Qizilbash confederacy that brought the Safavids to power. Two of its branches, the Qavanlu and Davallu, emerged as contenders for the throne after the downfall of the Safavids and the assassination of Nadir Shah Afshar in 1747. Almost half a century later, in 1794, Agha Muhammad Khan, from the Qavanlu branch, became the territory's unchallenged ruler, having defeated his diverse Davallu, Afshar, and Zand rivals. He chose the town of Tehran, close to the ancestral home of the Qajar tribe in Gorgan, as his capital.

Many salient features of the kingdom that Agha Muhammad Khan came to rule were similar to those of previous Turkic kingdoms. The military was composed almost entirely of a Turkish-speaking tribal elite and its followers. Turkish was the unofficial spoken language of the dynasty's members until the end of the nineteenth century. The written language of both court and government was Persian, and civilian officials below the rank of governor were drawn mainly from Tajik- or Persian-speaking urban populations. The Irano-Islamic cultural tradition had survived in urban areas despite nearly seventy years of civil war in the eighteenth century. One factor contributing to the preservation of this culture was the imposition of Shi'i Islam on the Iranian highlands by Shah Isma'il, founder of the Safavid dynasty in 1501. The Iranian plateau was home to many people whose indigenous languages were Turkish, Arabic, and Kurdish, among others, and some were Sunni Muslims. Persian, the main medium of culture among even some non-Persian-speakers, together with Shi'i Islam, gave many people a sense of identity that differed from that of the majority of Sunni Ottomans. Among certain groups, such as the Shi'i ulama (religious scholars) and Shi'i immigrants who lived in the shrine cities of Iraq, identity was fluid and depended on a person's profession and membership in the Muslim community (umma). With the rise of nationalism by the end of the nineteenth century, educated Iranians and members of the Qajar dynasty identified themselves more distinctly as Iranian.

In one fundamental way, the country over which Agha Muhammad Khan ruled briefly and passed on to his nephew Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) differed from previous Turkic kingdoms that came to power in the Iranian highlands. Whereas, until the eighteenth century, Muslim states of the Middle East were on a par with their Western rivals, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europeans occupied positions of preeminence that could not be effectively challenged. From that point on, the balance of power was decidedly with the Europeans.

The shift in the balance of power was a result of a new world historical process empowering Europeans beyond anything the world had experienced before. This process ushered in the modern industrial age. According to Marshall Hodgson, whose account is cogent for developments in Iran and other Middle Eastern areas, this process-which he terms the Western Transmutation -was a new stage in world development comparable in significance to two earlier revolutions in world history (the inventions of agriculture and writing). It resulted from the convergence of intellectual, scientific, economic, and social developments in northwestern Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and radiated from that area to other parts within the European cultural sphere. The Western Transmutation gave rise to a complex configuration that was for more than a century synonymous with the West.

Although some components stimulating the Western Transmutation had originated in other parts of the oikoumene (the inhabited world), including the Nile-to-Oxus region, Europeans may not have been aware of when or how they arrived at that point, but once they became conscious of their political and social power and the wealth they were now able to accumulate, they viewed themselves, as individuals and as a group, as superior to other peoples around the globe. They believed in the preeminence of their ways of life, institutions, religion, and morality, and they measured the success or failure of other societies by how closely they approximated European standards.

Europeans who visited the Middle East came as representatives of their governments or religious institutions and as adventurers seeking lucrative concessions or pursuing romance. What most of these travelers had in common was their fascination with, sometimes combined with their condemnation of, Islam. Many viewed the way women appeared to be treated as proof of Islam's falsehood, backwardness, and moral decadence. Whereas women's freedom became the stated aim of colonial officials, rescuing women from chattel-like status and saving their souls was the stated object of missionaries.


Excerpted from Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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