By Nina Ansary
06 June, 2015
The following is adapted from a chapter in Nina Ansary’s new book Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran due out later this month.
The historical narrative of the “woman question” in Iran is an intricate labyrinth, not a story that can be accurately recounted by portraying women as either “oppressed” or “liberated” during a particular historical period. In fact, that audacious history winds through unexpected twists and turns, gains and losses, triumphs and defeats. Yet the complexity of this story is often lost amid misperceptions. The popular version of events goes something like this:
During the Pahlavi Monarchy, women were on an upward trajectory. In a nation on the cusp of modernity, women actively participated. They were given the right to vote and freed to appear in public without veils; they wore miniskirts on university campuses. Then came the Islamic Revolution in 1979. With Ayatollah Khomeini at the helm, the burgeoning freedoms for women were extinguished. The veil was required and institutions were segregated by gender. The Islamic Republic had thus achieved its goal of resurrecting the image of the quintessential Muslim woman.
The problem with popular narratives of historical events is that despite their superficial half-truths, the real story is usually much more nuanced, and less tidy. The dramatic and surprising story of the women’s movement in Iran certainly is.
As a historian born in Iran, I was surprised to come upon certain essential facts about women’s history in my native country that starkly contradicted my previous assumptions. Everything in my background had led me to adhere to the commonly understood view of women in Iran: they were emancipated under Reza-Shah Pahlavi and his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; then their rights were revoked with the dawn of the Islamic Revolution. But when I first began to conduct my research on the history of the women’s movement in Iran, I learned that a majority of traditional, religious women, and even some educated women who had benefitted from changes under the Shah, supported Ayatollah Khomeini and were a contributing factor in the 1979 collapse of the Pahlavi monarchy.
As I discovered in the course of my research, the list of popular misconceptions about the country’s women is a long one:
Misconception 1: Before the Pahlavi monarchy, Persian women were always suppressed by the religious and political establishment.
Persian women are depicted as unceasingly under the power of male authority. Because this narrative leaves out the dramatic roles played by female leaders, as well as the fact that women were perceived to be equal to men centuries ago, in ancient Persia, many assume that prior to the Pahlavi monarchy women were confined solely to the domestic sphere. If they figured in public life at all, they were merely in the shadows.
But some aspects of early Iranian civilization would be deemed progressive even by twenty-first-century standards. This can certainly be said of the Zoroastrian culture of ancient Persia. Zoroastrian ideology reflected the equality of men and women to the extent that women often occupied the same professions as men and received equal payment for their work. Female leaders ruled in a number of Persian cities and states in the sixth century BC, and female commanders controlled the armies. The authority and independence of women were part of the accepted social system.
Similarly, the nomadic cultural traditions of the Turko-Mongol tribes in medieval Persia endowed women with rights and privileges that extended beyond the confines of the home. Thus, in some ways these thirteenth- and fourteenth-century women had more freedom than women who lived hundreds of years later.
Acknowledging these and other early instances of female empowerment in Persia widens the cultural perspective of women’s status in society and serves as inspiration for the current ongoing struggle in Iran.
Misconception 2: Iranian women didn’t advocate for their freedom until recently.
There is a tendency to believe that meaningful progress occurs only in the present tense, that efforts to improve society are stronger now than in our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ era. Again, our sense of historical precedent is not always as sharp as it could be.
Securing women’s rights is not a cause born recently; it has been ongoing for hundreds of years. Persian trailblazers include Qurrat al‘Ayn, also known as Tahirah (1817–1852), an activist, intellectual, poet, and advocate for women’s equality in Iran, referred to as the “the first suffrage martyr”; and Bibi Khanum Astarabadi (1858–1921), who produced “The Vices of Men,” (Ma’ayeb al Rejal) in 1895, considered to be the first declaration of women’s rights in the history of modern Iran.
How many are aware of the professional, political, academic, and artistic contributions made by Iranian women in the early nineteenth century? Is it commonly known that during the era of the Constitutional Revolution (1906–1911), a nascent women’s movement was emerging in Iran that included women’s secret societies? Amidst an austere environment in which the reigning presence of Islam continued to dictate the seclusion and subservience of the female population, a handful of progressive women courageously began to challenge the principles of a patriarchal order, founding schools for girls as well as women’s periodicals advocating greater female participation in society.
Misconception 3: During the Pahlavi era, all women were liberated.
The Pahlavi era undoubtedly ushered in progressive change in Iranian society, including policies that brought about modern dress, education for girls, women’s increased participation in society, more freedom of the press (including women’s magazines), and the enfranchisement of women.
However, the rapid transition toward a westernized way of life was largely unfamiliar to many women, as was a more secular culture after centuries of religious customs. Most of the Pahlavi era changes affecting women were not embraced or accepted by the majority of females from traditional backgrounds. Their families were vehemently opposed to the new standards, finding them offensive and in conflict with cultural mores. Thus, wives, sisters, and daughters were prohibited from partaking of the new freedoms.
It is the contention of some analysts and historians that the cultural shift during this time was too precipitous and excessively focused on westernizing the society rather than giving more consideration to the cultural context into which the Pahlavi policies were incorporated. In other words, these changes were considered by some to represent a cultural violation.
The Pahlavi years brought welcome liberation for a small sector of female society, but many others were unable to adapt to such a sudden and dramatic cultural transition.
Misconception 4: During the Khomeini era, women were totally oppressed
The partial truth is that women were limited or restrained by patriarchal laws and standards. They were forced to wear the veil, prevented from attending elementary and secondary schools with male students because coeducational facilities were converted into same-sex institutions, and subject to many additional exclusionary policies. The whole truth, however, includes this critical fact: many of the seemingly discriminatory policies, such as the imposition of the veil and eradication of coed schools were initially a welcome alternative for the majority of traditional families. Why? Because wearing the veil was what their families had been accustomed to for centuries, and same-sex education meant that girls could comfortably attend classes and thus gain an education. Previously, during the Pahlavi era, most traditional families would not allow their daughters to be in the same classroom with the opposite sex or to leave home without the proper head covering.
Misconception 5: There is a lack of common ground between secular and religious women in Iran.
Throughout the world there seems to be a widening divide between religious and nonreligious perspectives, each resorting to labels such as fanatic, infidel—or worse. There is also a more encouraging phenomenon: progressive religious groups are bridging the gap between religious and nonreligious thinkers by forming coalitions to combat injustice, poverty, and violence against women. Women in Iran are building such bridges based on their common belief in women’s rights. While some may not use the word feminist, they agree that women deserve equal rights and freedom from oppressive yet sanctioned practices.
Some Westerners may assume that Iranian women who were forced to conform to Islamic practices after the revolution and those who essentially approved of those practices would have absolutely nothing in common. In fact, the truth belies that assumption. While it is indeed counterintuitive, the fact is that religious and secular women in Iran are working together to advocate for women’s rights. The traditional female population in Iran is now better educated, worldlier and more open-minded, more eager for equal opportunities, and more outspoken about being held back by discriminatory practices.
Misconception 6: There is not much of a women’s movement in modern-day Iran.
In Western countries, you can Google “women’s movement in Iran” and a number of credible articles, websites, organizations, and references appear. They reveal recent developments relevant to the struggle faced by women in Iran, written by journalists, academics, and feminist advocates. But are these materials available to women in Middle Eastern countries, or in Iran itself? And even in the West, how extensive is the coverage by mainstream media of women’s advocacy and achievements in Iran?
The reason that some might think there is not much of a women’s movement in Iran may be that there is insufficient coverage of women’s activism there. The fact remains, however, that the women’s movement in Iran is thriving. During the repressive administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which eliminated many reformist organizations and resulted in drastic setbacks for activists, women’s resolve remained intact. It was in 2006 that countless female activists staged the one Million Signatures Campaign, a grassroots movement aimed at ending legalized discrimination against women in Iran. The feminist magazine Zanan (Women), which flourished in the years prior to Ahmadinejad’s tenure (1992–2008), was shut down during his administration, and reinstated in May of 2014.
Countless artists, journalists, academics, filmmakers, bloggers, students, and professionals—women from all walks of life in Iran— are engaging in the struggle for women’s rights. They are up against formidable challenges, but they persist in their efforts.