Aalaap_team 2008-02-02 17:17:05
Lately it has become common to receive interesting feedback from many
a young Muslim women, educated in the west, that are sold on the
Islamic ‘mandate’ of Hijab. It can be a valid argument that a woman
ought to have the freedom to wear the headgear Hijab or any other
variation of Islamic veil, but their clich d argument that it is
‘better’ than women’s alleged ‘objectification’ in the West shows no
less ignorance of western feminism and cultures than, for comparison,
the present US government’s being heck-bent on pushing its unique
version of democracy as the standard for the rest of the world to
emulate, without considering any modifications to acknowledge their
present cultural and educational differences.
Over the internet I have met some of these neo-con(servative) Muslima
women who, in their ‘belief’ that Islamic laws regarding women are the
highest form of respect not only ever accorded to women but can ever
be in the future, have routinely made ill-informed and vanilla,
faith-based comments against Western feminism and secularism. It is
interesting they often forget that, had the West been a variation of
Islamic cultures where theocracy is enforced by the state, their
privilege to higher education, freedom of movement, and ability to get
the jobs they get trained to do might have been very different–and
for the negative. But that is when we consider reality rationally!
It has been rather sad to read hotly-argued emails from these
respectful ladies that explain the benefits women are entitled to in
Islam as far superior to what women are accorded in Western societies.
To the question why there is no single Islamic theocratic country
where such superiority is observable, their quick comment has been
that none of those countries conform to “true” Islam. That I find to
be quite irrational, more so coming from these secularly educated
In regards to the French ban on Hijab, France may have had motivations
beyond what it has admitted officially to implement the ban. However,
when Muslim men and women argue about women’s rights to wear it and
also that it is ‘mandated’ in Islam, they seem to ignore the reality
that only a small percentage of global Muslim women wear variations of
it. Is it because the majority Muslims once again got the ‘mandate’
wrong? Yes, according to these ladies. But why should their
privileged-social-status take of Islam be regarded as the ONLY correct
one when other takes seem equally possible, they seldom offer answers
beyond “It is so because I believe it to be so.” Where have I heard
that before in discussion pertaining to faith?
I bumped into the article below while researching a topic on women’s
oppression. Although composed in 1995 and specific about women in
Iran after 15 years of Islamic fundamentalism’s ascension to power, it
seems to have much convergence today to the reality of women’s issues
within Islam and its fundamentalist uprising around the world, which
puts a new spin on the old message using these Muslimas as
footsoldiers against its anti-secular position.
How does a likely identity crisis of these culturally cross-bred
younger Muslima conservatives play into the hands of Islamic male
fundamentalists, who are indeed NOT the vanguards of global Islamic
experience? The essay documents some interesting
Much of it seems not only relevant today in our understanding of the
French ban and global Muslim reaction to it, but also useful to
explain possible and similar identity crisis among some
western-educated young ladies from Bangladesh, those who have become
staunch defenders of rising Islamic fundamentalism while deploring
Western secular societies, their participation in the latter’s
economies while rejecting Islamic economies notwithstanding.
I do not intend to offend anyone’s sentiments. For I am confident the
educated readership of this eforum has the capability to evaluate
global issues at the level of humanity, open to debate and discussion
beyond the confines of faith that are closed to “debate” due to the
belief it was “ordained” and must be “open” only to the presumed
interpretive dexterity of apologists–(often) arrogant humans who
claim to know exactly what Allah wants from everyone. Beyond the
protection of faith such claim could very well be a lie. Knowledge
open to public discussion and debate, in contrast, is not.
S Munir I
Women and the politics of Fundamentalism in Iran
Journal no.6 1995. pp12-15.
A response to Haleh Afshar’s article in WAF journal no 5
Mandana Hendessi and Rouhi Shafii
FIFTEEN years of Islamic fundamentalist government have taken a
massive toll on women’s politics in Iran. Secularist feminism has been
suffocated within Iran’s boundaries; its survival should be mainly
attributed to the efforts of Iranian women’s groups outside Iran.
Women in Iran can raise their issues only by using the framework set
by the fundamentalists – they can exercise no real control over the
agenda. Naturally, given this imposition, those who have some
influence are women who are trusted by the regime as ‘true believers’
Haleh Afshar’s position on fundamentalist women should be placed in
the context of a deepening identity crisis which many Iranian
secularist women living in the West face. It is part of a trend which
is developing amongst some academic Iranian feminists in an attempt to
respond to this crisis of identity. It was in 1985 in Nairobi, Kenya,
in the women’s decade conference held by the UN, that the power and
appeal of fundamentalist Iranian women really sunk into our minds. it
became clearly apparent there that larger numbers of Muslim
third-world women were considering Islamic fundamentalism as a viable
political option to combat western imperialism.
A cross-section of third-world women, from Bolivia right across the
globe to the Philippines, tended to find the ‘anti-imperialist’
message of fundamentalism more attractive – more tangible. They also
considered the struggle against imperialism as a priority overriding
the importance of achieving gender equality. Haleh Afshar is therefore
quite right to claim the third-world popularity of the fundamentalist
This meant that we, as secularist feminist participants, had to spend
time discussing with third-world women our differences with
fundamentalist women, convincing them that we were also
‘anti-imperialists’ rather than raising their awareness about our
principal reason for being there – defending the rights of Iranian
women. On the other hand, we felt a distance between ourselves and
feminists representing Western countries who were less enthusiastic to
commit themselves to issues around imperialism and racism which we
The Nairobi conference is just an example to demonstrate the gulf
between us and the two dominant camps: the ‘anti-imperialist’ and
Western feminists (the ‘anti-imperialist’ camp at that time also
included women from the Soviet-supported countries and ‘liberation
movements’, e.g. Cuban and Palestinian women), our isolation, the
struggle to be understood by both and the enormous difference between
our resources and theirs. And it is this isolation which, in our view,
has given rise to a crisis of identity amongst many secularist Iranian
Where do we belong? A question we repeatedly ask ourselves. In
resolving this, some women have found the pull towards a full or
partial reconciliation with Iranian-style fundamentalism stronger. A
trend is now developing amongst some Iranian feminists, notably
academics like Haleh Afshar, to ‘stand back and consider’ Islamic
fundamentalism as opposed to stand up and fight against it.
If we examine what Haleh Afshar as a key participant in this tendency
was saying in the early 1980’s, shortly after the fundamentalist
triumph in Iran, and what she is advocating now (though it is not
always possible to see clearly where she stands), we can see the
changes which have occurred since then in her views on fundamentalism.
Haleh Afshar contributed to a well-researched book called In the
Shadow of Islam: 7-be Women’s Movement in Iran, published in 1982. In
her essay entitled “Khomeini’s Teachings and Their Implications for
Iranian Women”, she argued that women in Iran faced the dual problem
of the Qur’anic text and the clergy’s interpretations of it. The text,
she argued, ‘relegates women to the sphere of domesticity and gives
them a status below men’ and the second obstacle is the text’s
clerical interpretations which further reinforces women’s
She then compared the populist appeal of fundamentalism amongst
Iranian women to that of fascism for Italian and German women in the
Like fascism, Shi’ism has been using a pre-exis-tent ideology ‘which
was ‘already deeply inscribed in the unconscious’ to transform and
recombine pre- existent patriarchal values and reimpose its yoke on
women. Further, the substance of Khomeini’s statements concerning
women are strikingly similar to those of the Nazis. Both ideologies
uphold the legal provision of the patriarchal society, place the
family at the centre of society, with women as guardians, protectors
and servants of this unit.
On the basis of support for Khomeini, which she compared with those of
Hitler and Mussolini, she wrote:
just as Mussolini drew the Italian women out into the streets, so
Khomeini draws out his black-veiled demonstrators, cheering, mourning
or chanting slogans supporting the revival of morality and the old
Is this crowd of black-veiled demonstrators, chanting slogans
supporting the revival of a fascist-like morality, the same women to
whom Haleh in her WAF article attributes to ‘have consistently and
convincingly argued that Islam as a religion has always had to
accommodate women’s specific needs’? Yes, they are.
They are women who have been either staunchly religious all their
lives, mainly from middle-class backgrounds, or those who resolved
their crisis of identity in the Pahlavi era, where they were torn
between a modernist state and religious values, through joining the
ranks of Islamic fundamentalism as a revolutionary force.
The first group, mainly older women, were attracted to the
fundamentalist movement because they had always desired an Islamic
state. The second group, however, had more complex need They were
generally younger and deeply frustrated with a crisis of identity
brought about by a conflict between the values of their religious
families and those of a secular state.
They were predominantly brought up in families ranging from lower to
upper middle-class back-grounds. Their upbringing required an
adherence to religious values which were increasingly undermined by
the demands of a modernist state. They were young women who took off
their veils outside the high-school or university gates and put them
back on at the front door of their homes.
They lived two lives, separating their family life from their outdoor
activities and interests, nurturing secrets about both. Those outdoor
acquaintances and friends who were the off springs of secular families
tended to put down religious values, calling them ‘backward and
regressive’. On the other hand, their families were punitive and
hostile to secular values, and to women unveiled and mixing with men.
These young women were drawn in great numbers to revolutionary Islam
which started gaining momentum rapidly in the mid-1970s. They took
shelter within its confines and gained strength through its supportive
and fraternal networks. It was bliss, an alternative to the combined
pressures they were under – those exerted simultaneously by
traditional Islam and the secular state.
It was an attractive option as it drew a distinction between its
vision for future development, and both traditional Islam and the
modernist Pahlavi state. The former was proclaimed as stifling
progress and the latter as promoting Iran’s domination by the West.
The revolutionary Islamic leadership condoned traditional family
values, whilst encouraging these young women to retain an active
interest in a political movement which was preparing for power.
It is not they who have changed, but Haleh Afshar’s views of them.
Whereas before she saw them as a black-veiled crowd, she is now
adopting a more understanding stance towards them. They are
enlightened ‘Islamist’ women.
Is the Qur’anic text embodying ‘women’s specific needs’ different from
that which ‘relegated’ women to the sphere of domesticity in the years
immediately following the revolution? Hardly. We are dealing with the
same text, written 1400 years ago, and the same fundamentalism, though
after the death of Khomeini we have become more aware of the different
tendencies within it. All of them unite on the oppression of women.
This is not to deny that fundamentalist women have made some important
gains in reforming laws in favour of raising women’s status in the
family, and that many of them are becoming more conscious of the stark
oppression women face in Iran. But, do we have to go as far as
sympathising with them and their oppressive philosophy?
It is like Christian women winning the battle on women’s ordination.
True, we were happy for them and cheered them. But, we did not join
them. We also made no effort to stand back and sympathise with their
In her WAF article, Halch Afshar claims that the ‘Islamist’ women’s
return to the ‘source’ is the desire to return to the ‘golden age’ of
Islam. That is when Islam was a new religion. This ‘golden age’
embraced the period where Islam respected the economic inde-pendence
of women such as, according to Haleh Afshar, Khadija, the wealthy wife
Islam in the first two decades of its emergence, like any new order,
made certain concessions. it had to because it was a new movement and
the prevailing social relations had been robustly in place for
centuries previously. The pre-Islamic social relations which provided
women with a relative economic and social freedom had to be at least
partially accommodated (Mernissi,1993; Ahmed,1992). Women, in the
pre-Islamic Arabia could remain within their own tribes as opposed to
moving to those of their hus-bands, as advocated by Islam. They could
choose to reject their husbands’ sexual demands without fearing
When Islam consolidated its global grip, achieving a comfortable
leadership position, its tolerance of these freedoms was lowered
substantially (Mernissi, 1993; Ahmed, 1992). It then started reversing
the position of women through using force. The ‘golden age’ was indeed
At the time of the Iranian revolution many women, those reared by
religious and veiled mothers, re-veiled themselves, discarding their
‘Western’ clothes. However, we have now had fifteen years of Islamic
fundamentalism in Iran. Can we now say that during these years, where
women have faced a strong denial of their rights as citizens in every
sphere of choosing their clothing, employment, education, travel, etc,
they are still ‘choosing’ the veil as a liberating symbol?
In a country, where the moods of the ruling regime and the extent of
its factional divisions is measured through the tightness of women’s
veils, what is the ‘choice’ for women? Naturally to survive, women
have to adhere to Islamic clothing.
Looking closely at government policies on education and employment of
women, the element of ‘choice’, to which Haleh repeatedly refers,
becomes a mere myth. The basic goal of educating women in Iran is to
produce Islamic women (Higgins, Shoar- Ghaffari, 1994). Purification
and commitment take precedence over knowledge and skills. The belief
underlying both the content and the form of women’s education in Iran
is that women’s primary role in life is to be good wives and mothers.
The suitability of other activities is judged by the degree to which
they interfere with or draw women away from their family
Women are virtually excluded from agricultural and technical fields
(Higgins, Shoar-Ghaffari, 1994). Whereas Haleh Afshar proudly rejoices
in the triumphs of young Iranian women in achieving top grades in
university entrance exams because they had male math teachers, we
would ask: what is the point of celebrating this when they are
ultimately barred from further education and employment in
agricultural and technical areas? What is so remarkable here when they
are discouraged to become math teachers themselves? Instead, should we
not demand women as math and science teachers?
In respect of other Muslim countries, the concept of choice for women
to re-veil is again blurred when one considers the existing political
vacuum. Fundamentalism is gaining momentum because there is no other
political alternative to the prevailing stagnant ruling regimes. The
demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent retreat of socialism as
a state ideology have left a large gap which is now, sadly, being
filled by Islamic fundamentalism in countries like Sudan, Egypt and
Fundamentalist women have always based their negation of ‘Western’
feminism on a widely-accepted myth. This myth is born out of a
profound ignorance of feminist history and what feminism stands for.
The myth says that feminism in the West has reduced women to ‘s**
objects’. it has degraded them to the level of ‘marketing their
sexuality as an advertising toot to benefit patriarchal capitalism’.
The myth also says that Western patriarchy has ‘offered’ women these
kinds of degrading freedoms.
Women in the West have worked hard to establish major rights and
freedom of choice for women, stemming from the dominant liberal
ideologies. They have wholeheartedly opposed the objectification of
women through redefining sexuality, offering a strong negation of its
macho manifestations in p********** and advertising. There is no
doctrine in feminism, as there is in Islam, on how women should or
should not behave, which makes the claims of fundamentalist women
Women’s rights to personal autonomy in the West have been achieved
through consistent struggles, though we still have a long way to go.
They were not offered on a plate. For instance, nowadays we take for
granted a woman’s right to live in a women’s refuge when leaving a
violent relationship. This was a struggle in which the women’s
movement in Europe and America fought hard to win, starting in the
Western women have no exclusive ownership of feminism. Iran has not
been without its own feminists through its many different periods of
development. Going back to 2500 years ago, to the ancient Iran, women
ruled as queens.
We have many examples of women leaders – Queen Esther, Pourandokht and
Azarmidokht, to name a few. Even the then patriar-chal poet, Ferdowsi,
could not fail to ignore the power of women as depicted in his
fictional characters of Roudabeh, Tahmineh and Gordafarid.
In the nineteenth century, Iranian women led the struggle for
educational rights and political freedom. Later, women like Parvin
E’tesami and Forough Farrokhzad used their poetic imagination to
cam-paign against women’s exploitation continuing the path of the
The failure of liberal democracy in Iran in the early and middle
twentieth century led to the isolation of feminism. Liberal state
ideologies which flourished during the Constitutional Revolution
0905-1911) and later re-emerged in the mid-1950’s failed to rally
support for two major reasons.
First, Iran’s global position as a country under imperialist
domination undermined the growth of a state ideology based upon
parliamentary democracy and individual liberties. Secondly, Iran with
a large peasant population, dispersed over a wide and large-ly
inaccessible geographical area, a small though growing industrial
working-class.1 and a long history of autocratic kingdoms, found
liberalism an alien concept irreconcilable with its communal and
feudal cultures. Indeed Eastern-style socialism (particularly Maoism)
had more appeal, (still insignificant compared with Islamic
fundamentalism) to Iranian mass-es because of its closeness to
autocracy and dictatorship.
To argue that fundamentalism or ‘revivalism’ has been a God-sent gift
to Iranian women (p17, WAF 5) reflects the naive romanticism of those
who can choose to live outside it and be unaffected by it. True,
Iranian women have demonstrated resilience against fundamentalist
encroachments, and some fundamentalist women have shown how the law
can be reformed in favour of women as a whole. But not all Iranian
women have gained specific benefits from the fundamentalist regime.
Only for some women fundamentalism has been a god-send, through which
they have gained respectability and a high social status. These are
mainly women in the top echelons of the Islamic state hierarchy, who
are distinguished and accredited for being related to and supported by
powerful men, and their female cronies who run the regime’s charitable
institutions with no wage expectations.
They have just managed to, in fact can only, touch the surface. The
roots are rotten to the core. And that is because Islamic
fundamentalism is essentially an ideology which reinforces male
domination and women’s oppression. The evidence of this is starkly
visible in Iran and in the other parts of the world where
fundamentalism controls the state. Even in places, like Turkey, where
it is an oppositional force, we can clearly see the subordination and
marginalisation of women within its ranks. It is a system through
which women can only exist and be spoken about through their relations
with a man – they have no identity of their own. A close look at Haleh
Afshar’s article illustrates this.
Throughout the article, when referring to the key Islamic women,
whether those in the past or present, they are introduced as wives,
sisters or daughters of a notable male figure. Khadija and Aiesha were
Mohammed’s wives (two of the hundreds of wives and concubines lie
happened to possess), Fatima is known as Mohammed’s daughter and Imam
Ali’s wife, Azam Taleghani as the daughter of the late Ayatollah
Taleghani, and Zahra Rahnavard the wife of the previous prime minister
The oppression of women within fundamentalism is a well-documented
fact, not least in In The Shadow of Islam, of which Haleh Afshar was a
co-author in 1982. As a state ideology, it cannot be reformed to
include women as equal partners with men in social and political life,
neither can it be reformed to ensure women’s equality in the family.
Women will continue to be marginalised under fundamentalism because by
definition it is a return to an archaic set of gender relations based
upon domesticity and the Subjugation of women.
Mandana Hendessi is a research/training consultant specialising on
women’s issues in social policv. Rouhi Shafii is a sociologist
researcher on women ‘s issues.
–Azar Tabari and Nahid Yeganeh (ed) In the Shadow of Islam, Zed
–Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy, Virago Press Ltd 1993
–Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, Yale University Press, I992
–Patricia J Higgins and Pirouz Shoar-Ghaffari, Women’s Education in
the Islamic Republic of Iran in The Eve of the Storm, Mahnaz Afkhami
and Erika Friedl (ed), IB Tauris, 1994
Rooman 2008-08-01 04:53:15
Women in Iran to Boycott Elections, Seek Options:
With Iran’s reformists barred from standing in parliamentary elections today, female leaders are taking stock and looking for options beyond electoral politics to carry on their cause for equality.
Two women in Tehran walk past campaign poster
(WOMENSENEWS)–Female voters have played a decisive role in shaping Iran’s politics in the past seven years. But today, many will be staying away from an election they consider a sham.
With more than 2,000 mostly moderate candidates banned last month from standing in the parliamentary election, the theocratic leadership has been accused of trying to rig the outcome in advance. The ban was imposed by the unelected clerics and Islamic lawyers who sit on the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets all legislation. Over a third of parliament has resigned in protest, and the reformists have promised to boycott the election.
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