Tales of Subversion (Part II)
Women Challenging Fundamentalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran
by: Dr. Azar Nafici

With many thanks to Dr. Nafici

Part One



II. The Challenge Of The Past


The first challenge to the Islamic Republic is the challenge of the past.  The Islamic regime took power in the Islamic Revolution in 1979 in the name of the past, putting forward the story that modern Iran was an aberration, a fabrication imposed on the country by the Imperialists and their domestic agents.  It claimed that there never had been any genuine move to change the society and to bring it into the modern world.  The new rulers attacked the West's "cultural invasion," which they alleged had led to the destruction of traditional Islamic culture.  They branded all moves to create new space for women from the time of Tahereh to the present as part of foreign plots to dominate and subjugate Iran.  The Babies' and Bahais' persecution and destruction was and is, justified because they were declared to be not only heretics but also spies and agents of imperial powers.  Yet there are other accounts that belie and contradict this version of history.

Unlike many intellectuals who created the idea and ideal of a modern Iran, Tahereh had no contact with the West, and was not influenced by Western thought.  She was a religious woman, not an ardent feminist.  She is important because she articulated an urge centered in the very religion that she negated.  She questioned the religious fundamentalism of her times that blended so well with despotic rule.  To question that fundamentalism meant questioning the fundaments of the society. 

If it were only Tahereh who challenged the existing system, we would mainly remember her as an exceptional and colorful legend.  But in the decades following her death, many more Iranians questioned the basic tenets that ruled the country.  Most of these Iranians felt instinctively that central to change in society was the fate of its women.  Their adversaries also felt this.  From the very start, the concept of change and the idea of modernization was bound to the demand for more spaces, more rights for women and minorities.  In this way, women became gauges with which we have been measuring where Iranian society is going and where it has been.

Iran's modern history abounds in images of women who fought for their freedom of choice.  They were not as dramatic or messianic as Tahereh.  Yet many were the women who participated in the long struggle  for Iran's modernization culminating in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, women from different strata of society took part in almost all the major events that helped change the course of Iranian society.

The Constitutional Revolution heralded the dawn of a new Iran, but it did not grant rights to the women who had so ardently fought for it.  It did, however, provide spaces within which women could fight and achieve some rights.  And fight they did  - with the support of some progressive men.  They created health clinics and public schools for women, organized the first women's organizations, and published the first women's publications.  Long before Reza Shah made the removal of the veil mandatory, many women under the pain of infamy, banishment, and at times exile, refused to wear the veil.  In 1906, some women marched in the streets of Tehran, taking off their veils and demanding the full recognition of their rights, and aroused such public outrage as to force even the constitutionalists to call the march a "plot" by the reactionaries who had hired these "prostitutes" to discredit the Revolution.  By February 1907, 150 women had created an organization to fight "ancient traditions that are harmful and contrary to progress."

The struggle against foreign domination and the resulting Constitutional Revolution did not prevent Iranian men and women from desiring to become part of the modern world.  They saw themselves as part of an international community and were not shy of acknowledging their kinship to Western ideas and ideals.  Iranian women were also aware of women's movements in other parts of the world.  Nor were progressive Westerners afraid of acknowledging their solidarity with the modernizing efforts by the women of the East.  As an American, Morgan Shuster, remarked, "[t]he Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world.  That this statement upsets the ideas of centuries makes no difference.  It is the fact.

It was not surprising that the reactionaries both in the conservative clerical and royal ranks who had opposed the struggle for Iran's modernization should manifest this opposition most virulently in relation to women's struggle for their rights.  Certain conservative clerics felt that the most poisonous aspects of the West were cultural, especially in relation to the rights of women and minorities.  The most outspoken of the clerics issued a fatwa (religious edict) against women's education.  The clerics' attacks on progressive women, and on girls' public schools, further encouraged the opponents of women's rights who attacked young female students and their teachers on the streets, spat on them, and called their behavior "unchaste" and "immoral."

From those earlier times right through to the present, women had to fight for their space in Iranian society:  Despite contemporary fundamentalists' claims to the contrary, this was true during the Pahalvi era as well.  Every right seemingly granted to women during the Pahlavi era was the result of efforts and struggles of women who fought for these changes against fundamentalist factions and patriarchal attitudes.  For example, in 1963, when women finally won the right to enfranchisement, Ayatollah Khomeini (little known then) opposed women's enfranchisement and organized riots in various cities.  He later opposed the passage of the Family Protection Law (which gave women the right to divorce and generally strengthened women's rights in child custody, marriage, and divorce) and the appointment of women as judges.  He warned that in granting these rights to women the government was obeying foreigners and not Islamic laws.

When in 1979 the fundamentalists tried to regain the power they had lost at the beginning of the century, they revived the old slogans and resurrected the images of their old enemies.  Their pretense that they were, and are, returning to the past - a past unencumbered by imperialism or struggle for women's rights - is an obvious lie since it is clear that Iranian women have been struggling  for their rights for over a century and a half, not as domestic agents of imperialists, but for themselves and for their country.  Women's rights as the site of struggle in Iran since the advent of the Islamic revolution is the continuation - not a repetition - of a struggle that goes back over a century and a half.  The very "past" that fundamentalists rely on for their legitimacy challenges the truth of their claim.


Continued on the next issue....................