Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Editors: Elaheh Rostami-Povey and Tara Povey

Hardcover: 201 pages
Publisher: Ashgate Pub Co (August 30, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1409402045
ISBN-13: 978-1409402046

Book Description

This book examines the women's movement in Iran and its role in contesting gender relations since the 1979 revolution. Looking at examples from politics, law, employment, environment, media and religion and the struggle for democracy, this book demonstrates how material conditions have important social and political consequences for the lives of women in Iran and exposes the need to challenge the dominant theoretical perspectives on gender and Islam.

A truly fascinating insider's look at the experiences of Iranian women as academics, political and civil society activists, this book counters the often inaccurate and misleading stereotyping of Iranian women to present a vibrant and diverse picture of these women's lives. A welcome and unique addition to the vibrant and growing literature on women, Islam, development, democracy and feminism.

Editorial Reviews

Reviews: 'An original and necessary contribution, this volume taps into Iranian feminist voices rarely heard outside Iran, illuminates topics that have until now only been discussed fleetingly, and provides an urgent intervention into the debates about how women organise, mobilise and act in Iran. The volume's careful attention to various spheres of women's activity - from governance to journalism, employment, and the arts - is fascinating, provocative, and immensely useful.' Laleh Khalili, School of Oriental and African Studies, UK

'This is a powerful analysis of women's movement in Iran by some of the best known post-revolutionary activists who have been instrumental in propelling the women's movement forward in Iran in the past three decades. Their lived experiences add an illuminating dimension to their rigorous political and historic overview. This is a book that is well worth reading by all scholars and others who are interested in the subject.' Baroness Afshar, University of York, UK

'…The chapters are a serious insider's look by Iranian women researchers, and so embody the important argument that only Muslim women within their own contexts can "save" themselves by themselves.' Omaima Abou-Bakr, Cairo University, Egypt

'A fascinating insider’s look at the experiences of Iranian women as academics, political and civil society activists, this book counters the often inaccurate and misleading stereotyping of Iranian women to present a vibrant and diverse picture of these women’s lives… Iran and the West have had a frayed history, and contributing to this is a lack of engagement from Western academics with those writing from Iran. In this unique new book, the authors present a counter argument to many Western assumptions of issues concerning women in Iran. This is the first time a book has been written by Iranian women in English, and it skilfully uses a wide range of narratives to present the different experiences of women in Iran (p194)… This book is one full of rich examples of the dynamism of contemporary Iranian women’s activism and contributes fruitfully to debates on gender and Islam. The book’s strength is definitely its ability to be interdisciplinary and use a wide range of narratives.' LSE Review of Books

Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran, edited by Elaheh Rostami-Povey and Tara Povey, Ashgate, 2012
Book Review By: Shirin Shafaie

According to Masoumeh Ebtekar “Today, 33 years after the 1979 revolution, while there are still many reasons for appreciation and concern in this area, the image that has emerged of the Iranian women in the Islamic Republic of Iran is a far cry both from what critics feared and supporters hoped for.” (p. 153)

This is perhaps the core argument of the book: a balanced argument that highlights both successes and failures, challenges and opportunities, myths and realities, problems and solutions of women’s lives in contemporary Iran. The authors fully substantiate their arguments with real life examples, and fascinating details of the previously untapped realm of women lived-experiences of politics under the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the first time that such collection of writings has been presented in the English language (p. 193) offering an up-to-date and substantiated account of gender dynamics in contemporary Iranian politics without letting the debate degenerate into facile sensationalism or outright fiction.

Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran is a book written by real Iranian women about real and important women’s issues. Yet it is not a mere reaction to, or rejection of, the Orientalist view and sexual objectification of the Iranian women that is prevalent in the mainstream Western literature and media. Nor is it a journey to and from the exotic land of Persian Lolitas and their lipstick resistance against a supposedly misogynist and backward Islamic state. Thus this book is bound to come as a disappointment to any reader with a firm belief in the “inherently oppressive nature of Islam against women”, and to those who enjoy reading hyper-sexualised and commercial accounts of the exotic and the bizarre in post-revolutionary Iran.

The book complicates the image of the Iranian women under the Islamic Republic. The authors do not lump women of all ages and socio-economic background under the idea of a women whose only problem is “to veil or not to veil”. The authors masterfully show the complexity of gender dynamics in contemporary Iran and highlight the women’s role and agency in changing these dynamics to their advantage, sometimes with and sometimes without success. However, and as confessed by its authors, “this book does not claim to represent all Iranian women.”(p. 7) Rather, the authors are women who have in many cases spent their lives working in women’s activism in different fields and it is their social knowledge of the struggle of women’s rights and gender equality which represent many women’s voices in Iran. (P. 7)

The book as a whole goes beyond isolated events and examples; it weaves meaning and analysis in the fabric of each subjective narrative and provides practical solutions as much as a sober description of the problems and deeper contexts. Here, Iranian women appear strong, educated, powerful, determined and conscious of themselves and of the “other” – whether it be the Westernised neoliberal feminists or the conservative and patriarchal men of their society.

Accordingly, this book provides an account of the struggle of contemporary Iranian women on at least two fronts within the Iranian domestic politics: Once a struggle against the patriarchal power relations and derogatory perceptions of feminism as an ideology which is “anti-men” and in conflict with the teachings of Islam. Another front is the struggle against the stereotypical views of Iranian women (in the West) as passive and subservient to men, also against the idea that Islam is inherently a misogynist tradition. The authors in this book try to show that none of these conceptions are in accordance with the reality of women’s lived experiences in contemporary Iran. They argue that there are many forms of feminisms and that struggle for women’s rights (justice not crude equality) is not anti-Islamic; they also try to show that Islam is not inherently against socio-political activities of women. The authors univocally reject any sort of Western intervention in the internal affairs of Iran whether in the form of highly problematic and damaging allocation of budget by the US government to Iranian NGOs inside Iran, or in the more violent forms of threat of military intervention or economic sanctions, all of which are detrimental to the development of civil society movements, especially women’s movements in Iran.

The authors show a very sophisticated understanding of Iran’s recent history. In fact almost every chapter of the book is accompanied with a relevant historical background which usefully contextualises the topic of that chapter and substantiates the claims of the authors to the indispensable role and place of socio-political and cultural independence and self-determination for women’s development in Iran. Their analyses of women’s lived-experiences of politics under the Islamic republic defy “the idea that the Western world has a monopoly on concepts such as women’s rights and democracy, which in the post- 11 September 2001 era have been utilised in order to justify Western military interventions, invasions, and occupations of countries in the Middle East.” (P. 12, 169)

Khadijeh Aryan elaborates on the “boom in women’s education” in Chapter 3 and substantiates, with the help of data and analysis, the claim that “Iranian society, as an Islamic society, has promoted the right for both genders to pursue knowledge through education.” (p. 43)

Honarbin-Holliday takes the argument one step forward in Chapter 4 and explores the intersections of gender and education, and art and youth cultures.This chapter relates to artists of any age, gender or nationality. Given the difficulties in obtaining an Iranian visa for most Western nationals, this chapter is a rare luxury in providing a view to the art scene of Iran from a vibrant and colourful perspective. The chapter at once shows the hospitality of Iranian women to their guests, a strong sense of group identity among young female artists, a view of their artistic creativity and diligence, and their bravery, especially in terms of driving in the rather violent traffic of Tehran.

Zahra Nejadbahram focuses on women in management and decision-making positions in Chapter 5. The chapter is very usefully contextualised historically and enriched with the use of extensive field research by the author in Iran. From the historical perspective, Nejadbahram elaborates on the role of Ayatollah Khomeini in encouraging women to participate in politics as part of their religious duties and shows the importance of this factor for silencing those politicians who were against women’s participation. (p. 75) Nejadbahram’s discussion refutes the derogatory conception of “Khomeinisim” as a patriarchal misogynist movement, or the idea of the Islamic Revolution as a revolution by men against women.

Jamileh Kadivar asks in Chapter 7 why can’t women be judges in the Islamic Republic of Iran? What is the basis for the current legal restrictions? What is the future of women in high ranking judicial positions in Iran? In Chapter 8, Kadivar attends to the issue of Women and Executive Power and asks if a woman can become the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Kadivar’s academic and professional credentials as a political scientist, lecturer and journalist in Iran, MP, member of the Tehran City Council, and advisor to President Khatami on media and press affairs, adequately warrant her analysis of the issues that are tackled in this chapter.In response to the first set of questions Kadivar argues that “the Shariah, the Quran, the Hadith and other Islamic sources do not justify the argument that women cannot work as judges and cannot make judicial decisions independently of men. The only obstacle to women in Iran working in this profession is a particular interpretation of Fiqh on women’s issues. ... On women’s issues the dominant conservative male reading of this phenomenon [Shia Fiqh] has not allowed it to be interpreted according to time and place.” (p. 118) In her opinion, “this issue cannot be associated with Islam or any other religion. It is a conservative patriarchal theory and practice which can be changed.” (p. 119) In response to the second question Kadivar usefully outlines a range of obstacles to women occupying the position of the president of the Islamic Republic and argues that “the increasing level of women’s education, their knowledge and awareness about their rights and their determination to overcome these obstacles are a clear indication that in the near future we will witness real changes in the field of women’s participation in the institution of the executive in Iran.” (p. 134) In the last analysis, we learn from Kadivar’s experience and balanced analysis that conservative patriarchy is not an essential part of any culture or religion. Therefore change is possible and coming.

Elaheh Koolaee (Reformist MP, 2000-2004) discusses the subject of Women in Parliament (Majles), focusing on the 6th Parliament which was dominated by the Reformists and the 7th and the 8th Parliaments which were dominated by the Conservatives. Her discussion is particularly interesting because she provides a more detailed analysis of the dynamics among women in politics. She tells us that at times the approach of female Reformist MPs “was criticised by a number of women’s rights activists from within the Iranian women’s movement for being slow. We were also criticised and called anti-men and were labelled ‘feminists’ in a derogatory way by our conservative colleagues in the parliament.” (p. 141) Thus, the female Reformist MPs “had to convince those women’s rights activists who were critical of us that we could not win if we were too radical. To explain to conservative MPs that there are many different forms of feminism and not all of them are anti-men and contradictory to Islamic norms and values.” (p. 141) As a result, Koolaee came to the conclusion that their problem was not just about changing the laws and regulations but changing patriarchal attitudes and conservative readings of Islamic laws. She concludes that if women MPs succeed in changing the conservative male-centred readings of Islamic laws, they cannot only change laws and regulations but also sustain them and continue to change laws and regulations in favour of women (p. 143).

In one of the most fascinating chapters of the book, Massoumeh Ebtekar discusses her experience as the first Vice President of Iran under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. She advances the argument made by other authors in previous chapters that most of the shortcomings and limitations for advancement of women in economic, social and political fields is rooted in the conservative (Principalist) readings of Islam and Shariah and not inherent in the teachings of the Quran and Prophet of Islam. Ebtekar’s accounts of her lived-experiences as a female official of the Islamic Republic in international arenas is very revealing. She particularly highlights her “role as a Muslim woman in chador, who does not shake hands with men or drink alcohol but who nonetheless can play a leading role in making strong ties and forging cooperation on environmental issues at regional and international levels.” (p. 166) Again, this refutes the idea of veiled Muslim women as oppressed creatures without freedom of choice or movement. Given Ebtekar’s engagement with the revolutionary forces of Iran in 1979, many readers would be very interested in her account of the gender dynamics among Students Following the Line of Imam (SFLI), who took control of the American Embassy and its diplomatic personnel in Tehran in 1979. However, Ebtekar’s discussion in this book is limited to her “politico-environmental” experience.

Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran offers an exclusive insider view of how women see themselves as agents and citizens not just subjects and victims of the Islamic Republic. The authors successfully refute the myth that Iranian women form a monolithic oppressed and disfranchised social group under the Islamic Republic. The book thus provides rare and exclusive access to some of the voices of Iranian women coming from Iran which are hardly ever invited to speak in the mainstream Western media.

However, the focus of the book seems to be on the socio-political and cultural struggle of a specific group of women activists, academics and politicians in the Reformist camp and during the presidency of the Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). This means that a number of other very important aspects and arenas of women’s lived-experiences in the Islamic Republic are not discussed in a similar depth; for example the role and place of women in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the impact of the war on women’s lives (1989-present). There are passing references to this event in various chapters but the book could have benefited from an independent chapter on women and war in contemporary Iran. Secondly there is a gap in our understanding of the perception of the Conservative women activists (whether MPs or members of the Basij, especially the moral police force) and their side of the debate. The book analyses the boundaries between male and female politics in a range of public places in contemporary Iran, for example in Parliament, art, university; however the comparison is generally made between the traditional policies of the conservative factions of contemporary Iranian politics vis-à-vis the “progressive” and reformist factions; as a result there is no in depth discussion of the internal differences between Iranian women on political ideological, socio-cultural and economic level, although the existence of these differences is acknowledged (for example by Koolaee in Chapter 9).

In the last analysis, Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran is a most welcome addition to the scholarly and analytical literature on women and politics in the Middle East region. It provides an exclusive view of the modern nation-state-building processes in Iran from the perspective of Iranian women and demonstrates that modernisation and democratisation do not have to mean Westernisation. There is also a lot to be read between the lines about anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-interventionism in Iran and the region more generally.The book rearticulates the terms of the debate on women, power and politics in Iran and thus helpsus to critically rethink our presumptions of women’s lives under the Islamic Republic or in Muslim societies more generally. It leaves the reader wanting more which is proof for the success of the book in maintaining and developing both the curiosity and the knowledge of the reader.


Glossary; Introduction, Elaheh Rostami-Povey; The women's movement in its historical context, Elaheh Rostami-Povey; The boom in women's education, Khadijeh Aryan; Autonomous minds and bodies in theory and practice: women constructing cultural identities and becoming visible through art, Mehri Honarbin-Holliday; Women and employment, Zahra Nejadbahram; Women, gender roles, media and journalism, Lily Farhadpour; Women working as judges and making judicial decisions, Jamileh Kadivar; Women and executive power, Jamileh Kadivar; Women in the Parliament, Elaheh Koolaee; Women and the environment: a politico-environmental experience, Massoumeh Ebtekar; The Iranian women's movement in its regional and international context, Tara Povey; Conclusion: women's movements and democracy movements in Iran, Tara Povey; Index.

About the Editors

Tara Povey is at the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia and Elaheh Rostami-Povey is at the London Middle East Institute, Centre for Iranian Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK

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