The paper thus outlines the social and political conditions that have
led not only to the development of secular feminist perspectives in Iran, but to
the emergence of woman-centred Islamists and their strategies which aim, thus
far with considerable success, to fundamentally challenge conventional gender
visions often presented as "Islamic." This analysis of the gender debates in
Iran, and by extension elsewhere in the Muslim world, reiterates that Islam,
particularly as a political ideology, is far from static and unchanging; it is a
dynamic and evolving ideological force that
This essay draws on several talks and
conversations: Brandeis University, 17 March 1998; Harvard University, 19
November 1998; and American Association of Religion, 23 November 1999. 1 would
like to thank the organizers of each event for giving me the opportunity to
present these ideas, and other panel participants and the audience for critical
comments. Special thanks to Camron Amin, Janet Jakobsen, Irena Klepfisz, and Ann
Pellegrini for many thoughtful conversations.
Although all countries are unique,
Iran may have claim to more surprising political changes in the past century
than any other country existing continuously during that period. Among these
changes have been notable alterations in women’s roles and status. The birth of
urban mass politics during the constitutional revolution of 1906-11 saw women’s
first political activism, which continued after World War 1, though that
independence was eventually much diminished under the new Pahlavi dynasty of
Reza Shah (1921-41) (Afary, 1996; Bayat, 1978; Paidar, 1995; Sanasarian, 1982).
Following independence in
1991, the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan has been undergoing sweeping
social, political and economic changes, all deeply affecting the country's
women. However, women's problems continue to be ignored, while the role of women
has become a battleground between the various forces, including fundamentalism,
which seek to fill the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Soviet power.
The implementation of the Shari’a
and the institutionalization of gender inequality in the aftermath of the
revolution led to the disillusionment of the gender-sensitive Islamist women and
triggered their discontent. Through their involvement in politics they attempted
to present a different reading of Islam and Islamic laws which would be more
attentive to the condition of women.
Violence against women is
one of the sharp indicators of the subordinate position of women in the society.
Violence exists in different forms, different levels from personal to physical
violence to structural violence, justified by religion, culture and laws. Most
of the steps taken from the protection of women against violence tend in
addressing the women rather than men. These steps don’t enforce laws or take
action against men.
The women issues are
political issues. The social paradigms don’t recognize this.
Women migrants in Europe or North America have long started to
denounce the dangerous softness with which oppressive laws, customs and
practices against women, imported from our countries and cultures, are tolerated
or encouraged in the host countries, - in the name of tolerance, of respect of
the Other, of the right to difference, of putting at par different cultures or
own governments, governments of the countries of immigration are prepared to
sell out the well being, the human rights and the civil right
We are a group of Afghan women and their supporters who live in Pakistan and
Afghanistan. In a country where over 90% of the women and girls are illiterate,
we are a group of women who were encouraged by their families to become
educated. Many of us have university degrees. Many of us previously worked in
Afghanistan as lawyers, engineers, professors and doctors. Now we are working
with NGOs (non governmental organizations), UN agencies and schools. Some of us
are widows. Many of us are the sole support of our families.
The seizure of power by the Taliban has reduced the Afghan capital to a ghost city. Half of the men are out of work,
the women find themselves forbidden from the work place. To top it all, winter
is particularly trying.