Ajam Reads: Understanding Gender Politics in Modern Iran
By Alex Shams
Ajam Reads is a series presented by Ajam Media Collective that offers the reader essential reading and book summaries on topics of interest. This article, introducing nine important books for understanding gender politics in modern Iran, is the first in that series.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution dramatically changed how Iranians thought about their lives and country in every single way. Never before in modern history had a popular revolution led to the establishment of an Islamic Republic, and for the most part neither Iranians nor foreigners had any idea what to expect as the self-proclaimed Islamic order came to power.
Nowhere were the dramatic transformations brought by the revolution more pronounced than in the realm of gender relations. The secular Pahlavi regime had represented itself as the harbinger of Western modernity in Iran, while the Islamic Revolution declared its struggle to be the end of Westernization and the formulation of a distinct Islamic modernity. Just as they had been under the Pahlavi regime, Iranian women’s bodies were hyper-visible symbols of the success or failure of the Iranian state’s projects after 1979. Gender relations more broadly remained a critical part of how the state sought to remake Iranian society.
The Pahlavi regime emphatically projected an image of the family and society that neatly mirrored the European bourgeois ideal: a heterosexual nuclear family consisting of a husband in business attire, an unveiled and devoted wife, and two neatly dressed children living in a stand-alone house with an American-made car. This image of gender relations not only structured the family, but also provided a blueprint for society more broadly.
To this end, the Pahlavi regime stressed fashion’s importance for defining Iranian modernity. Women were widely discouraged from wearing hijab, for example, through a mixture of coercive means like its outright ban in the 1930s to more subtle means, such as compulsory school uniforms of short skirts. Men, meanwhile, were expected to wear a tie and trim their facial hair.
Many of these transformations, however, were focused on the aesthetic, and their ramifications were felt primarily in the more secular middle and upper classes. The working and lower-class realities of most Iranians, meanwhile, had little or nothing to do with the Pahlavi image. In the early 1970s, most Iranians lived in rural areas and had between 6 or 7 kids. The isolated nuclear family of Pahlavi lore was for most a myth, as men and women tended to socialize separately and spent most of their time with relatives or neighbors, while the extended family network was an active part of daily life.
The Iranian Revolution sought to subvert and reverse the narrative of the westernized nuclear family propagated by the Pahlavis, and resulted in an entirely new and modern gender politics that appears little like either of the two social models outlined above. Today, most Iranians live in urban areas and the average woman has between one and two children in her lifetime. More than 65% of college students are women and around 2.5 million women attend university today, up from around 25,000 before the revolution. 87% of Iranian women were literate in 2005, compared to 29% in 1976, and by the late 2000s, over 30% of women were wage-earners, according to the International Labor Organization, a dramatic increase over an estimated 12% before the revolution (more information on these figures below).
The state, meanwhile, promotes homosociality in the public sphere, meaning that men and women are encouraged to interact among their own genders, and bands of morality police wander the streets to regulate public displays of heterosexuality. Some form of hijab is compulsory for women in public as well as the covering of arms and legs, while men are for the most part expected to wear shirts and pants (shorts are banned for both genders). As family sizes decreased dramatically in the last two decades due to a highly successful state-run family planning campaign, the importance of the extended family in daily life has lessened and, ironically, Iranian family sizes are increasingly approximating the Pahlavi nuclear ideal.
The gender politics of the Islamic Republic, in short, look nothing like those of the Pahlavi regime, and they look nothing like what most outside observers or Iranians would have predicted back in 1979.
How did all this happen? How much of this transformation was the result of state policy and planning, and how much of the transformation occurred by chance or through the concerted actions of individuals and civil society?
Below is a list of key books to help answer those questions, tackling the issue of gender politics in the Islamic Republic from a variety of angles that get at the questions of gender, sex, and sexuality so central to understanding modern Iran. For a broad overview of the topics and themes covered in the books below, read my earlier article, Misreading Feminism & Women’s Rights in Tehran: Beyond Chadors, Ninjabis, & Secular Fantasies.
Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, Ziba Mir-Hosseini
Islam and Gender emerges as an insider exploration of the debates surrounding Islamic and Islamist feminisms as they are understood in contemporary Iran. An Iranian-born legal anthropologist and the director of the groundbreaking film,Divorce, Iranian Style, Mir-Hosseini takes us through a series of thought-provoking interviews with clerics and activists across Iran as they outline their conceptions of gender in the Islamic Republic, focusing strongly on religious interpretation and theory.
Mir-Hosseini argues that certain aspects of secular feminist writings and works of religious clergy have begun to converge since the Iranian revolution, as the emergence of an Islamic Republic has opened up space for different kinds of debates about the meaning of gender and feminism in an Islamic society. This has happened primarily as a result of the displacement of secular feminism from its hegemonic position with feminist discourse.
Islamist and Islamic feminists have formulated responses to secular feminist arguments from within a religious idiom that carries weight in many sectors of Iranian society. On the other hand, secular feminists have refined and indigenized feminist theories in response as they have been forced to reckon with newly hegemonic Islamist feminisms. As a result, the 1979 revolution forced both sides to engage with the other in order to formulate meaningful positions within a public sphere defined by Islam.
Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, Minoo Moallem
Minoo Moallem’s book is an in-depth investigation of the gender and sexuality politics of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. She argues that prior to the revolution, Westernization did not challenge patriarchy but merely modernized it; this process generally left patriarchal control over women’s bodies in families intact while subjecting women to an ideal of secular patriarchy in the public sphere. The hijab ban of the 1930s, when headscarves were ripped off women’s heads in public and thousands emigrated, is a clear example of this.
While laws were introduced guaranteeing various rights for women in the 1960s and 1970s, these were for the most part rarely applied outside of the middle and upper classes. As a result, most women did not experience these changes, restricted as they were to the private sphere. After 1979, however, this all changed.
Revolution created the conditions of Iranian women’s entrance into the public sphere under the model of oppositional Islamic femininity. Because of the popular nature of the revolution and the Islamic nature of the State that followed, traditional cultural and social barriers to women’s participation were rapidly dismantled and their presence became both legitimate and normal. The interpretations of Islam championed by the revolution gave religious legitimization to women’s active involvement in politics, education, work, and the public sphere more broadly. As a result, traditional patriarchal opposition to women’s involvement in public life, previously expressed through an Islamic idiom in opposition to the secular government, became more difficult to justify following the revolution. In other words, if Imam Khomeini says that young women have a divine right to go to university, who are her parents to forbid it?
Families, meanwhile, could not quite oppose these activities, given their religious sanction. But this entrance, of course, destabilized the clear-cut lines of who participates and for what purpose, and women’s active participation in the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War led to a wider transformation of their roles in society.
Veiled Employment: Islamism and the Political Economy of Women’s Employment in Iran, edited by Roksana Bahramitash and Hadi Salehi Esfahani
Veiled Employment examines the gendered effects of economic development in Iran since 1979. The book works from within an analytical framework that does not merely focus on Islamism as a political ideology but instead examines structural economic shifts more broadly.
One of the book’s most fascinating contributions is breaking down the stereotype that the percentage of Iranian women employed before the revolution was higher than it was after the revolution. One contributor points out that pre-revolution figures counted child carpet-weavers in statistics, for example, and so early declines in female labor rates after the revolution actually reflected to some extent increased availability of schooling for Iranian girls.
The authors assert that in fact statistically few women who stayed in Iran experienced a foreclosure of economic opportunity as a direct result of the revolution, but instead experienced increasing opportunities for education amidst a widespread, general economic crisis followed by stagnation that affected all. The war period of 1980-88, however, led to a major increase in the rate of volunteerism among women, encouraging many women who had never previously worked to contribute to the national cause and creating new norms of women’s involvement in society that persisted even after the war had ended.
The book makes clear that even while employment can be important and meaningful for many women, high labor force participation of women does not necessarily reflect a romanticized notion of women’s equality, as often this work can be exploitative or a result of economic necessity and is thus not experienced as emancipatory. Additionally, meaningful changes come from social transformations, like high rates of volunteerism, that don’t show up in labor statistics.
Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran, Edited by Tara Povey and Elaheh Rostami-Povey
This book is a collection of articles by prominent Iranian academics and activists delving into issues of women’s participation in the Iranian public sphere. Among the contributors are Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s first female vice-president, and Jamileh Kadivar, a former member of Parliament.
As Editor Tara Povey argues early on, women’s active involvement in the public sphere during and following the Revolution led to a process of rethinking and critique as the limits of the new found freedoms became increasingly clear. By the late 1980s, young religious women initially empowered by the Revolution were beginning to see the patriarchal and autocratic tendencies of the new system and began struggling to reform the system they had helped bring about. Once secular feminism was no longer hegemonic and Islamism was no longer oppositional, Islamic feminists were able to re-evaluate each.
The book’s articles go on to outline women’s roles in various fields in Iranian public life, including their work in journalism, education, Parliament, the judiciary, and the executive branch. Many of the articles presented are insider accounts, written by women active in the fields they discuss.
Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran, by Nima Naghibi
Naghibi’s book focuses on the largely-neglected study of Western women’s involvement in Iran in the 19th and 20th centuries. She begins by examining turn of the century discussions of the “abject” state of Iranian women and the need for Western colonialism to “save brown women from brown men” (to use Gayatri Spivak’s astute expression), exploring how feminist concerns were used to justify foreign intervention in Persia. She then moves onto the hijab ban, exploring how Iranian women had to accept the unenviable position of “acquiescing to the rhetoric of emancipation, or of being cast as an archaic figure responsible for retarding the modernizing impulses of the nation.” As she argues, patriarchal nationalist discourse and secular feminist discourses merged in their desires to control women’s identities.
Naghibi goes on to explore Pahlavi state feminism in the second half of the 20th century, looking at how state-funded feminist organizations applauded the government’s economic policies even as they had disastrous implications for poor women. At the same time, these groups petitioned for increased legal rights whose effects were largely limited to the urban middle and upper classes. As a result, feminism became increasingly identified by large swathes of the Iranian population as a bourgeois social project that prioritized legal change while ignoring the socioeconomic realities of most women.
Finally, Naghibi discusses the involvement of Western feminists in supporting feminist movements in Iran during the 1979 revolution, explaining how in many cases these efforts backfired terribly for Iranian women. As she argues, “the predicament of anti-imperialist feminists in 1979 arose out of the historical associations of feminism with ‘Westernization’ as exemplified by the state-controlled Women’s Organization of Iran, as well as the association of the Pahlavi regime with Westernization.”
Women with Moustaches Men without Beards, by Afsaneh Najmabadi
Afsaneh Najmabadi’s book offers an analysis of sex and sexuality politics in Iran of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which demonstrates how notions of sexuality (and gender identity more broadly) transformed dramatically amidst the increasing influence of European powers in Iran. This book is the only text on this list that does not actually engage with the post-1979 period, but it’s an extremely important book because it reminds us that the assumption of heterosexuality and nuclear family structures as the norm, the way we understand them today, is an extraordinarily modern phenomenon.
Najmabadi investigates how ideals of beauty transformed during this period, as young men – previously idealized in art and literature – were increasingly sidelined in favor of women, according to contemporary European norms which insisted upon strict rules of same generational heterosexuality. Importantly, she also examines the consequences that interactions with Europeans had on Persian society more broadly. While traditionally men and women had tended to occupy separate spheres (a phenomenon known as homosociality), in European society this social arrangement – and the widespread permissibility of homosexual desire that accompanied it – was condemned as backwards and immoral.
Her book thus creates an extremely important backdrop for understanding how and why the modernizing Pahlavi regime insisted upon the heterosexual nuclear family as the only proper arrangement. Additionally, the text helps us understand the Islamic Republic’s insistence upon homosociality in the public sphere and its condemnation of public displays of heterosexuality in a historical context.
Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution, by Haleh Esfandiari
Esfandiari’s book describes the lives of a number of women who were educated professionals before the revolution. She focuses on the impact the political changes had on their lives. She analyzes the very negative repercussions the revolution and the following period had on their lives and some of the positives, as recalled in interviews. She then proceeds to discuss how these women have “reconstructed” their lives since this period, and how they changed and in some ways improved their lives under the new regime.
The book is useful for understanding how one of the classes of people most targeted negatively by the revolution – secular upper and middle class women – understood these changes. Interviewing women who remained in Iran after the revolution as well as those who left, Esfandiari successfully chronicles the experiences of women who managed to advance and create professional lives under the Pahlavi regime.
Voices from Iran: the Changing Lives of Iranian Women, by Mahnaz Kousha
This book follows the experiences of 15 women from various walks of life in the 1990s, focusing on their relationships with mothers, fathers, as well as husband and children, where applicable. Interestingly, even as Kousha’s work reveals the speed with which cultural norms shifted (even within families between the older and younger children), her interviews reveal that these shifts occurred extremely unevenly.
The book is rare for works on Iranian women as it is narrated in such a way that it is not always clear what the political context was for the transformations discussed, and instead women’s lives appear as narratives apart from chronological political history. The book thus offers an in depth analysis of familial relationships and how women’s domestic lives changed dramatically as the state’s conception of social relationships more broadly changed.
Islam, Gender, and Development: Rural-Urban Migration of Women in Iran, by Masoumeh Velayati
This book focuses on experiences of poor, rural migrant women in Tabriz. Because of the economic dynamics of internal migration, female migrants tend to be more-often employed than the general population. Because of a tendency towards circular migration patterns, these women also transmit urban values into the rural areas they originally come from and encourage shifts in norms and values among women in their villages.
Velayati suggests that the enforcement of hijab and gender segregation by universities and the police has brought the public sphere more closely in line with the values of migrants, so that second-generation migrant women as well as rural women who commute from villages are increasingly facing less stiff challenges to their educational aspirations. One rural migrant to Tabriz explained she was “ashamed” when her male and female children taunted her for sending them to carpet weaving instead of school, and that she feels she didn’t do her “motherly obligation” because she cut their education short due to financial needs.
These kinds of intimate anecdotes offer a refreshingly original, and yet oft forgotten look into the lives of Iranian rural migrant women, which constituted a huge segment of the Iranian population due to the mass urbanization of the last three decades.
The books above are by no means an exhaustive study of modern gender politics in Iran. They do, however, offer a sense of how varied and diverse gendered experiences have been in the country both before and after the 1979 revolution.
There is a tendency to reduce women’s experiences, in particular, of the last 35 years to their relationship to the Iranian government and its laws. This tendency, however, flattens women’s experiences, obscuring the complex lived realities that Iranians experience on a daily basis. The nine books presented above counter these simplistic, reductionist narratives of the oppressed Iranian woman and instead base their stories in the complex lived realities of Iranian women over the last few decades.
In order to understand gender politics in modern Iran, it is crucial to pay attention to positionality and to recognize that Iranians’ experiences have been structured not only by their gender, but also by their class, religiosity, ethnic background, and a multitude of other factors. As the books make clear, religion, religiosity, and spirituality have had wildly varying effects on the lives and experiences of Iranians.
These books show that there is no single Iranian experience, and enrich our understandings of gender in Iran.
"Understanding Gender Politics in Modern Iran" was originally published on Ajam Media Collective.