Social Change, the Women’s Rights Movement, and the Role of Islam

The implementation of Shari’a reinforced the patriarchal order and institutionalized gender inequality in post-revolutionary Iran.  Nevertheless, the modernization of society has led to profound changes in the lives of Iranian women and in their attitudes regarding men’s authority.  The modernization of women’s attitudes1 has in turn led to their mounting resistance or opposition against gendered social relations.

The emerging Iranian civil society is marked by the vitality of debate on the social, civil, and political dimensions of women’s citizenship.  The arrest of dozens of women’s rights activists,2 the closure of several women’s magazines3 and women’s NGOs4 — the number of which has increased from 54 in 1995 to over 600 today — and many other attempts by the government to intimidate women’s rights activists attest to the increasing political importance of women’s issues.  Although state authorities qualify feminism as a sign of Western cultural invasion, it has become commonplace in the discourse of women’s rights activists, and self-identification with feminism is no longer a taboo.  Among women’s rights activists, some present a new and dynamic reading of Islam to demand citizenship rights for women while others exclusively refer to universal human rights and other international charters.  Despite limitations set by the current government on the freedom of expression and action, women’s rights advocates attempt to express their views in women’s press, internet sites and weblogs,5 books, novels, paintings, theater, cinema, and through ongoing campaigns (e.g., the One Million Signature Campaign to change the discriminatory laws, the Campaign Against Stoning and All Forms of Violence against Women, and the White Scarves Campaign against sex segregation in stadiums).

Our Times
(Dir. Rakhshan Bani Etemad, 2002)

The Hidden Half
(Dir. Tahmineh Milani, 2001)

The Day I Became a Woman
(Dir. Marziyeh Meshkini, 2000)

The number of women writers, novelists, journalists, publishers, and movie directors has grown sharply.  Women use the camera to unveil the mechanisms of patriarchal control and to demonstrate women’s struggles against gender disparities.  They highlight women’s legal and social problems and portray women as active and courageous people with strong personalities.  The important success of these movies shows that the urban population is interested in modern interpretations of gender questions.  Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Tahmineh Milani, Pouran Derakhshandeh, Manijeh Hekmat, Marziyeh Meshkini, Samira Makhmalbaf, and Nikki Karimi are among the most well known of these movie directors.  But women’s active presence is undoubtedly the strongest in the realm of literature.  Some of these writers, such as Simin Daneshvar, Goli Taraqi, and Shahrnoush Parsipour, had started publishing prior to the revolution.  Yet others, such as Qazaleh Alizadeh (who died in 1996), Monirou Ravanipour, Fariba Vafi, Zoya Pirzad, Lili  Farhadpour, Sepideh Shamlou, and Mahsa Moheb-Ali are among the many women novelists who started writing from the 1990s onward.  The aim of these novelists is to occupy the public space through written expression and to give greater visibility to women, their problems, and their struggles.  In their literary works women also deal with the issues of sexuality and the body that are usually considered to be taboo subjects and are prohibited in the movies.

Women also became very active in journalism.  Some women’s magazines published in the 1990s by Islamic advocates of women’s rights (especially Zanân, Farzâneh, and Zan) served as a forum for discussion between female activists who criticized civil and penal codes, work legislation and the Constitutional Law, and the state authorities.  Women’s press also played a crucial role in establishing a dialogue between Islamic and secular advocates of women’s rights.  Despite their political and ideological differences, gender and class solidarity emerged among these women, who overwhelmingly belong to urban middle classes.  Following President Muhammad Khatami’s election, secular feminists finally obtained the authorization to publish a magazine in 1998 called Second Sex [Jens-i Dovvom], edited by Nouchine Ahmadi-Khorasani.

Women’s increasing access to education, revenue earning activities, and social participation, and their disaffection with official Islam, combined with their inferior positions within the social and economic hierarchy, have had an important impact on the structuring of their political behavior.  Under president Khatami, some advocates of women’s rights tried to ameliorate women’s legal status through interactions and negotiations with the political or religious elites.  Some who attempted to modify laws through Ijtihad promoted discussions with reformist clergy.  Although some reformist female members of the sixth Majlis (2000-2004) attempted to change the discriminatory laws, the Guardian Council overruled them, declaring that the proposed changes to the law were incompatible with Islam.  The lack of change in the legal status of women during Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005) led to the disillusionment and political demobilization of educated middle class women.  Their lack of participation in legislative and presidential elections, especially from 2004 onward, has contributed to the failure of more moderate candidates in large towns, where the bulk of these women live.

Since the election of the radical populist President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and the intensification of repressive measures against women’s rights and human rights activists, the gap has widened between the political elite and women’s rights advocates, leading to their further autonomization and radicalization.  In 2006, some secular feminists (e.g., Nouchine Ahmadi-Khorâsâni, Parvin Ardalân, and Mansoureh Shoja’i of the Women’s Cultural Center) declared that they did not identify with the political and religious elite, refused to recognize the latter’s legitimacy, and challenged the police and the judiciary by opting for street demonstrations.  Their declared aim was to reach out to ordinary women, whose mobilization, they argued, would force the elite in power to change laws.  More moderate activists (including Shahla Sherkat, the editor of the influential Zanân, and a number of Islamic and secular activists) disapproved of street demonstrations, arguing that the costs of such acts would be too high for the women’s movement and that they would alienate ordinary women instead of bringing them into the movement.6  Their moderate stand provoked the anger of radical secular feminists, who have tremendous support in the Iranian Diaspora and who accused “reformist women” of having close ties with the ruling elites and of being content with implementing change in laws through lobbying.

Despite these controversies, some “reformist” and “radical” women activists launched the One Million Signature Campaign together; however, their persistent differences contributed to further divisions, leading to the predominance of the secular feminists in the campaign.  While the activists were preoccupied with their internal debates, the government prepared a new Family Protection Bill in 2007 that marks further regression of women’s rights.7  The government also increased its repressive policies against all women’s movement activists.

Faced with this adverse development, some advocates of women’s rights opted for gender solidarity.  In September 2008, over 50 of these secular and Muslim women who had decided to prevent the bill’s ratification demanded to meet the concerned members of Parliament (MPs), presented proposals to change the controversial provisions, and ultimately succeeded in convincing the Parliament to postpone ratification pending further investigation.  Their action also provoked debates among the more moderate MPs who do not support the government of President Ahmadinejad and who agreed to modify the bill on the one hand, and pro-government hardliners who support the bill, on the other.

Despite sporadic success, the Iranian women’s rights movement still remains largely confined to the educated urban middle class women (many of whom are Persian) in large towns.  It needs to strengthen ties with lower class, rural, and ethnic minority women and women in mid-sized and small towns (where the majority of the population live) who are barely represented within the movement, although their younger generation shares the egalitarian demands of women’s rights activists.  Despite the lack of organic relations between these ordinary women and the activists, the women’s movement overwhelmingly reflects the demands of an increasing number of women.  Thanks to their better education and their increasing social and economic participation, women have become aware that the current laws and institutions tend to strengthen the patriarchal order, and that the struggle for women’s citizenship rights and democracy are intertwined.


1  For a discussion based on statistical data see, Azadeh Kian-Thiébaut, “From Motherhood to Equal Rights Advocates: The Weakening of Patriarchal Order,” in Homa Katouzian and Hossein Shahidi, eds., Iran in the 21st Century: Politics, Economics and Conflict (London, UK: Routledge, 2008), pp. 86-106.

2  Including the recent trial of Parvin Ardalan, Mansoureh Shoja’i, Khadidjeh Moghaddam, Jelveh Javaheri, Nahid Keshavarz, Maryam Hosseinkhah, and Zhila Bani-Yaghoub, to name but a few.

3  Including the closure of the influential Zanan in January 2008, which has been edited since 1992 by Shahla Sherkat.

4  Including the Training Center for Women NGOs led by Mahboubeh Abbasqolizadeh and the Raahi Center led by Shadi Sadr, in 2007.

5  According to official statistics, the number of internet users had increased from 250 in 1994 to 4 million in 2006 and the number of weblogs from just one in 2001 to over 65,000 today).

6  These controversial discussions were published in Zanân, No. 133 (June 2006) and No. 134 (July 2006).

7  For some of the most controversial provisions of the proposed bill, see the Women’s Learning Partnership website at

Azadeh Kian-Thiébaut is Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Center for Gender and Feminist Studies at the Université Paris 7 – Denis Diderot and a researcher at the Mondes iranien et indien, CNRS.  “Social Change, the Women’s Rights Movement, and the Role of Islam” was first published as a chapter in The Iranian Revolution at 30 (The Middle East Institute, Washington, DC); it is reproduced here for educational purposes.