Guity Nashat, ed., Women and Revolution in Iran (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983).

Farah Azari, ed., Women of Iran: The Conflict with Fundamentalist Islam (London: Ithaca Press, 1983).

Azar Tabari and Nahid Yeganeh, eds., In the Shadow of Islam: The Women’s Movement in Iran (London: Zed Books, 1982).

A unique aspect of the Iranian Revolution was the dramatic presence of women. Masses of Iranian women participated in national level politics. Ironically, most women were emboldened in this new political role by the teachings of Shi‘i thinkers and leaders, those same religious figures who supposedly believe the Muslim woman’s place is at home with her children.

The role and status of Iranian women throughout the changes of the last few decades, as well as their participation in the revolution, deserves much attention and careful research. The three books under review are a beginning in that direction.

Guity Nashat’s volume centers on “the role of women in the revolution, the reasons for their participation, and their subsequent fate.” Her historical overview relies on material written by men and emphasizes the lives of elite women. Missing are women’s views of themselves and their lives, as well as material gleaned from actual cases of ordinary women’s lives and their contributions to society. The chapters on women in Islamic written traditions, although useful, imply that clerical interpretations of Qur’anic statements about the position of women are responsible for the present situation of Iranian women.

The section on women and revolution deals with social and economic change affecting the role of women, Fatimah as a role model, Feda’i and Mojahedin positions on women, and the work of the writer Saffar-Zadeh. In her article on veiling, Betteridge suggests why women opposed the Shah’s regime in spite of some policies benefiting women. Most women had not lived long enough to favorably compare conditions under the Pahlavis with earlier conditions. Those women who received opportunities for education and employment were thereby exposed to the same dissatisfactions experienced by men. They joined the anti-Shah movement for the same reasons as men did.

Friedl’s article on "State Ideology and Village Women" is a striking discussion of the effectiveness of "state propagated ideology" in influencing the philosophies and lifestyles of ordinary people. Friedl found that village women rejected the state's ideology although they felt compelled into outward compliance.

A major contribution of the Nashat volume is the presentation of the views and lives of ordinary women. Six chapters, based on work in Iran during the revolutionary period, concentrate on women in a specific setting — village women, migrant women in an urban setting, middle-class women in one city, women who have practiced mut‘a (temporary marriage) and female political prisoners.

The volume edited by Farah Azari is the product of expatriate Iranian socialist feminists who visited Iran, formed connections with the women’s groups there, and carried on further research and discussion in an Iranian feminist group in London. Azari’s chapter on “Islam’s Appeal to Women in Iran: Illusions and Reality,” is a thoughtful discussion of the reasons for the success of religious forces in Iran, including the views of Ayatollah Motahhari and Ali Shariati on women, the political and socioeconomic conditions leading to the revolution, and the significance of the veil. Azari helps us understand Islam’s appeal for women, and women’s participation in the revolution by describing its cultural, religious and political context.

Soraya Afshar argues that the revival of Islam in Iran is related to the increased prosperity of the merchant class, in turn brought about by the improved buying power of the population due to the oil boom. The Islamic culture dominant in Iran today is not the Islam of the peasant class, nor the tribal or ethnic groups, nor of the professional middle class, but of the bazaar-clergy alliance. Islam, at least in this form, is a religion for and in the interest of traders. The seclusion of women and restrictions on their activities are now enforced on a wider scale as part of the “mercantile ideology that is dominating Iran.”

The Tabari and Yeganeh volume, also produced by progressive Iranian feminists, is a resource for understanding the struggles and the fate of the Iranian women’s movement in post-revolutionary Iran. It also examines the platforms for action held by different Iranian feminists. Included are a chronology of events concerning women’s issues, a section on the various women’s organizations formed just after the revolution and translations of many documents.

Of great interest is the clash of attitudes among the three progressive feminist authors. Azar Tabari sees “a common basic unified core to Islam,” and disagrees with those who would divide Islam into reactionary and progressive forms. She believes Islam to be unequivocally opposed to women’s emancipation. Feminists, therefore, should struggle against it. Nahid Yeganeh suggests that there is not just one women’s movement in Iran, but three. In contrast to Tabari, she believes Iranian feminism to be different from Western feminism in emphasis and aim. Western feminism is autonomous of political parties, emphasizes political rights and activity and aims to create a feminist culture. Because of Iranian history, Iranian feminism cannot be separated from the larger political struggle, anti-imperialism and anti-Pahlavi efforts. For Yeganeh, Islamic feminism deals with issues of personal relations, reproduction and the family, concerns slighted by Marxism. Yeganeh urges feminists to promote the better alternatives within Islam and preferable policies in government rather than waiting for the success of a Marxist revolution. She advocates “the construction of a movement which is independent in thought and spirit while being within the mainstream of larger political struggles.”

Haleh Afshar compares Khomeini’s emphasis on domesticity in present Iran to that under fascism. She sees Iranian women joining the political resistance in ever larger numbers and at younger ages.

Much of the literature on Iranian women, including some articles in these three volumes, focuses on educated women in the work world. Women not obviously involved in the public world dominated and valued by men receive little attention and less than careful analysis. Women prior to the revolution are considered active or passive, depending on whether they were educated, professional women or “traditional” (i.e., ignorant and passive) housewives. If such women supported the revolution, supposedly it was not as thoughtful citizens who opposed the Shah’s policies, but because of blind obedience to religious figures. Because I found women’s contributions to pre-revolutionary political life in one Iranian village to be highly significant, I wonder if women were so passive elsewhere. Have Iranian women really become passive and acquiescent “again” since the revolution? According to several Iranians who have lived in or visited rural areas, some women are not much touched by the new “Islamic” expectations. Others revolt internally against the official religious ideology, as Friedl’s article demonstrates. Many women previously confined to their homes now have a much richer out-of-home life. They participate in demonstrations and marches, and attend Friday prayers, lectures, Qur’an classes and other religious gatherings. They vote and attend classes on first aid and weapons handling. Women adopt and care for war orphans and join gatherings for the preparation of packages of clothing and food to be sent to the war front. Women serve as teachers in religious education.

If religious activity is considered a legitimate reason for traditional women to leave the home, it is not surprising that the proliferation of opportunities for women to participate in gatherings for a “religious” purpose has resulted in more extensive public life for such women. Women are taking advantage of these new opportunities while gaining respect through involvement in valued activities. Many Iranian women are even more active outside of the home than previously, but their activity is not in the modern male work world.

These three volumes seem to indicate that revolutionary activity affects the attitudes of women. Revolutionary involvement does encourage ongoing participation in public life by changing the self-concept of women and raising their expectations about a further role. Whether such attitudinal changes result in actual increased involvement in public life seems to depend on two factors — the framework which is used in viewing the revolutionary participation, and subsequent conditions for women.

Some women participated with the self-concept of emancipated women, acting in a way similar to the men, fully expecting to continue their involvement in the public world. Many were prepared for more of a political role in post-revolutionary Iran. When conditions did not allow this, bitterness resulted. Many more women participated without challenging commonly-held expectations of the role of proper Muslim women. Subsequently, many of these women have continued in public activity as women, in activities organized for women.

Much of women’s activity in post-revolutionary Iran is carried on in segregation or in arenas outside of the modern male public world. It is thus all the more important for researchers to concentrate on women’s networks, informal and formal associations and separate activities. This would help us understand how women operate within “Islamic” and other limitations to arrange things more to their own liking and pursue their own goals, and how their activities contribute to society.

How to cite this article:

Mary Hegland "Books on Women in Iran," Middle East Report 142 (September/October 1986).

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