Bargaining with Fundamentalism: Women and the Politics of Population Control in Iran


Bargaining with Fundamentalism:Women and the Politics of Population Control in Iran

Homa Hoodfar

An examination of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s policies on family planning, women’s education, labour market and personal status law demonstrates the regime’s flexibility and sophistication in co-opting competing ideologies and all that modernity can contribute to the regime’s survival. In the process, the religious-political leaders have revised many of their Islamic stances, particularly on the issue of family planning. This revisionist atmosphere has opened new avenues for women advocates, particularly Islamist women activists who, despite their support for the regime, have rejected its vision of Muslim women’s role and rights as ëpatriarchy in Islamic clothing’. Instead, they have developed and lobbied for their own visions of women’s role and rights within a women-centred interpretation of Islamic texts. These strategies have led them into an often uneasy, conflictual and compromising alliance with the regime, but they have managed to attain some reforms and are pushing for more. These processes have introduced a new form of pragmatic feminism into Iran’s political arena, which challenges fundamentalism from within.

Given that controlling women and their bodies and reclaiming the family as a site of male power and dominance is a common thread found in all brands of fundamentalism, it is not surprising that feminists tend to be keen observers of fundamentalism’s spread, their increasing ability to forge alliances with other right-wing forces, and even their ascendance to state power.1 In this context, the history of gender debates and the process of making and unmaking visions of womanhood carry special significance in the Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the first countries where fundamentalist movements have successfully ascended and monopolised state power in recent times.

Because the underlying assumption of much writing on gender and fundamentalism is that all forms of fundamentalism are visions dreamt by men and for men, the unprecedentedly large scale and almost continuous support of Iranian women for the regime is difficult to fathom. One reason, ironically, is that women, breaking with traditions that place women in the domestic domain, have been participating in public politics in support of the ëtraditional’ vision of male and female roles and the division of social and familial responsibilities. Furthermore, even now, more than a decade and a half after women’s support and political participation helped to establish the Islamic state as the vehicle of striving towards a just and fair Islamic society, neither women nor the state are quite willing to retire and relegate women to the domestic domain.

Having discovered the considerable untapped value of women as a political force, the government of the Islamic Republic has shrewdly encouraged women to remain in the political arena while simultaneously urging the model of ëIslamically’ domesticated wives and mothers on them.2 This is in marked contrast with the earlier position of many political leaders, who viewed politics as a male domain and domesticity and motherhood as the cornerstone of women’s lives. Indeed, although Ayatollah Khomeini himself objected strenuously when women were given the right to vote in 1963, the regime declared participation in formal politics a religious duty for all, including women. Nonetheless, during the first decade of its rule, the regime continued to introduce laws and practices justified by their particular version of Islamic legal tradition, which makes the family the absolute kingdom of men, and in which the wife (or wives) and children (especially daughters) become disenfranchised subjects. Thus, to a considerable extent, the Islamic regime in Iran displays the patterns characteristic of fundamentalist world visions: that is, the regime represents the divine power that rules over men, and men in turn rule over the women in their families.

A closer examination of political developments in Iran, however, belies if not totally destroys, this neat and simplistic picture. The Islamic Republic has promised a better society and social services to its constituencies, including women, and its legitimacy depends on fulfilling these promises. Socio-economic realities have forced the regime, which cannot depend on God’s blessing alone, to reconsider many positions, including pro-natalist policies.3 Contrary to secular groups’ expectations, Iran’s leaders have proved able and proactive in assessing their interests and the means of preserving political power.4

Through a review of the Islamic Republic’s policies on family planning, women’s education, labour market participation and personal status, and some of the findings from interviews with 340 women (both urban and rural) and 100 men (all urban) in Iran,5 I demonstrate the regime’s flexibility and sophistication in understanding and co-opting all that modernity can contribute to their survival. I also depict how, in this context, Islamist women activists have achieved some success in advancing women’s cause by popularising women-centred interpretations of scripture and the societal benefits of improving the legal and social position of women.5 Moreover, women’s advocates7 have tried with success to link their goals to the government’s development objectives, including women’s support for family planning and smaller families.

While this strategy has successfully given women room in which to negotiate many of their demands with the state, whether for more jobs or better marriage laws, conservative forces often claim that these demands infringe on men’s rights. Hence the process of negotiation takes on a triangular form, in which women must continuously generate appropriate initiatives in the political arena, and in the process new forms of feminism emerge. Whether we call them Islamist feminists, fundamentalist feminists, or gender activists, in practice if not always in their words, at this juncture they tend to be close allies of secular feminists in Iran. What remains to be seen, however, is the extent to which these trends will fix the interests and needs of women at the centre of political and development policy, or lead to fleeting strategic compromise.

The history of family planning

In 1979, to the world’s astonishment, Iran experienced one of the largest revolutions in modern history. The Shah’s semi-secular government was replaced by a self-proclaimed Islamic regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini, a conservative religious leader and long-standing opponent of the Shah and his westernisation programmes. The extensive use of religious symbols and slogans marked the revolution as Islamic fundamentalist, an assumption reinforced by the regime’s obsession with controlling female sexuality and shaping gender relations. Its prescriptive gender model was pronounced ëIslamic’, based on divine rules, and hence non-negotiable. The regime saw domesticity and motherhood as women’s paramount roles. Compulsory veiling and policies encouraging early retirement and part-time work were introduced to reduce women’s participation in the labour market. Women judges were discharged, since the new religious-political leadership claimed women were banned from this profession by divine law. Simultaneously the age of marriage was lowered8 and temporary and polygamous marriages reinstated, while marriage was promoted as a solution to society’s problems. However, women were periodically invited to show support for the regime; and despite its apparent ambivalence toward women, large numbers of women did demonstrate in favour of the Islamic Republic.

Given the leadership’s pro-natalist ideology, Iran’s family planning programme (introduced in 1967) was destined to be dismantled.9 Most religious leaders had disapproved of the programme, calling it an imperialist tool for reducing the number of Muslims and subjugating oppressed nations. Although contraceptives were not banned, supplies became erratic and prices skyrocketed. Consequently, the 1986 census revealed that the population had reached 50 million — some 14 million more people than had been expected.

The high birth rate and depressed economy had a sobering effect on political leaders, who were aware that the staggering rate of population increase hindered their ability to deliver — as the self-proclaimed government of the mustazafin (oppressed and powerless) — a just Islamic society in which all would enjoy basic health care, education, and equal opportunity. The rapid rate of urbanisation and the high level of politicisation among the urban public, who historically have had considerable influence on national politics, increased the sense of urgency. The question of over-population and its dangers at the national and international levels, particularly in relation to Muslim countries, found its way into newspaper articles, television and radio programmes, and political speeches by religious leaders. Experts encouraged the government to introduce a working policy on population in co-ordination with other social and economic policies, while religious leaders were invited to set ethical guidelines for family planning. Finally Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme religious-political leader and one-time opponent of the family planning programme, ratified the bill before his death in 1989. This turn-about meant that the government faced not only the challenge of re-establishing the family planning programme and gaining public support for it, after having discredited population control while in opposition, but also the obligation to explain why. In collaboration with religious leaders, the regime employed two major strategies. First, they launched a national consensus-building campaign on population control. Religious leaders and experts used accessible language to show the importance of self-sufficiency for an independent nation, so that it would not become a slave to the whims of imperialist powers.10 They stressed the consequences of unchecked population increase in Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and India, which are populous and impoverished nations, frequently dependent on imperialist aid to feed their people. Religious leaders asked: ëShould Iran follow in their path? The obvious answer is no.’ To point out the urgency of the situation, they emphasised that unless population growth is controlled in this generation, the nation will confront a dilemma: enforce a Chinese-style, one-child policy or face starvation. Through a commitment to curbing population growth, however, they said that Iranians could build a strong Islamic society, able to assert itself as an independent nation. For these reasons, they said, the Prophet allowed Muslims to practise contraception during times of economic hardship.

Secondly, they defined an encompassing family planning network incorporated into the larger national health programme, and lent the programme the political will of the government. This has brought an unanticipated degree of acceptance to Iran’s family planning programme, making it among the most successful in the world. Most prominent is its acknowledgement of women’s central role as active agents and decision-makers regarding their fertility, despite the ideological challenges that such an approach poses for the regime.3 This in turn has opened up new possibilities for pragmatic (and particularly Islamist) women activists to raise demands for women’s rights as citizens, and also in relation to economic development.

To the credit of the Islamic Republic, the population policy demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the complex social, economic, and political variables that influence fertility behaviour in any society. The programme also carefully avoids the appearance of interfering with the independence and wishes of the family, if not of women. The family planning mission is defined in such a way that its most important function is to empower families/parents to create the kind of family they wish to have. The backbone of this policy is to prevent unwanted pregnancies and genetic abnormalities, and enable parents to space their children, as well as prevent the negative impact on women’s health of too frequent pregnancies, treat infertility, and improve the general health of society by promoting the psychological and physical development of children and families.11 Other documents emphasise the improvement of women’s socio-economic position within the family and society as a factor in the programme’s success. While this falls short of an ideal feminist family planning programme whose paramount goal is women’s reproductive rights, it nonetheless represents a considerable improvement over Iran’s policies under the Shah and similar programmes in other countries.

The result has been the broad acceptance of the family planning programme. Several large nationally-representative surveys indicate a high rate of approval of family planning. Similarly, less than five per cent of the 340 women we interviewed disagreed or were not sure that family planning was good for women. The success of Iranian family planning in such a short period has taken Iranian officials by surprise. In the programme’s first five years, the decrease in the rate of population growth surpassed even the most optimistic expectations (see table below), encouraging planners to set far more ambitious goals.

Annual Rate of Population Growth in Iran

Year Population Annual rate of growth1966 25.7 million 3.1%1976 33.7 million 2.7%1986 50 million 3.4 %*1992 58 million 2.7%1995 63 million 1.8%

* This figure excludes a net influx of approximately 2 million refugees from Afghanistan; the overall rate of population growth for this year was 3.8 percent. Sources: United Nations Demographics Yearbooks. United Nations, New York (for 1966-86). Iranian Family Planning Board (for 1992-95).

There is no doubt that the government has worked not just to convince people to use contraception, but also to show why it is good for families and the country as a whole. Most interesting, however, is their recognition that the success of the programme depends on linking the interests of individuals, children, parents — and especially women — to the goals of the programme. While empowering women by providing information, facilities and culturally appropriate channels of distribution so that they and their families can fulfill their choices, women have found sufficient leverage to raise other demands for reform. Iran’s government and field experts are aware that fertility behaviour is not just a biological or psychological phenomenon but an integral part of peoples’ life experience, influenced and shaped by economic, social and ideological factors. Hence, although an intellectual or theoretical appreciation of the importance of population growth is important, it is rarely the most significant factor in women’s and men’s decisions.

Despite the extraordinary success of the programme, the government and family planning policymakers see that they cannot take the public’s (and especially women’s) continued cooperation for granted. After all, pre-revolution Iran had once before experienced a substantial but temporary drop in the rate of population growth, which was reversed partly because the programme was dismantled but also because policies which negatively affected women’s legal and economic position were introduced. Ensuring women’s cooperation is seen as essential; 53 per cent of the population of 60 million are under the age of 20 and have yet to enter their reproductive years. To the government, neither draconian measures similar to China’s one-child policy nor rapid population growth are acceptable alternatives.

Debates on the status of women

In addition to general development, raising the standard of living, and improving public services, particularly health services, improving women’s socio-economic position has been identified as an important guarantor of the population policy’s continued success. However, although this principle is generally acceptable to the government, there is not always agreement on how to improve women’s socio-economic position. While raising some of the conventional indicators of women’s social and economic status, such as literacy, correspond with the social and gender vision of the government, others (eg. labour market participation) present challenges. Ideologically, the Islamic Republic still urges domesticity and motherhood as the most appropriate roles for women. Furthermore, given the existing state of high unemployment, the government cannot afford to encourage women’s presence in the labour market. The Islamic regime, despite its pragmatist tendencies, faces a major dilemma. In this context, women activists and religious-political ideologues play major roles in addressing these concerns and suggesting solutions within an ëIslamic’ framework.

Not all ideologues are formally part of the government, but are active in various capacities as writers, journalists, students and teachers in higher education, including theological schools. They generally believe that Iran’s social, legal and cultural problems need to be addressed within an Islamic framework, but they do not necessarily agree with one another. While some groups are prepared to look beyond the traditional fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), others are determined to defend the conventional definitions, particularly as these relate to gender issues. Recognising the unlikelihood of improving women’s employment opportunities in the short term, they have directed their efforts towards improving women’s position within the family. As the family is the cornerstone of the regime’s Islamic ideology, these issues have received much public attention.12

Our interviewees, regardless of their socio-economic position, frequently identified the improvement of women’s legal, emotional and economic rights within marriage as the key to improving women’s status in the family and society. Yet women’s position within marriage has been addressed only indirectly in documents published by family planning clinics or in speeches by ulama (religious leaders). Public speeches aimed at building a national consensus on family planning have recognised the importance of family stability to fertility. For instance, some religious leaders have warned women that having too many children will age them prematurely and may disappoint their husbands. Others warn that men need a peaceful home and that too much economic pressure will drive men away. Women’s insecurity in marriage is emphasised by religious leaders as an incentive to use contraception.

In contrast, activists seek to draw the government’s attention to the positive connections between women’s demands (particularly for greater security in marriage and the family), the government’s goals of limited population and a higher level of development. The government is cautious, however, as attempts to improve women’s rights in marriage would bring them into direct confrontation with those who advocate men’s divine rights within the family.

To foster an appreciation of the nuances and complexity of debates on the issues of women’s socio-economic position, I briefly review here the current debates and the government’s predicament, and describe the development of ingenious alternative approaches to improving women’s status, which remain true both to the spirit of Islam (at least conceptually) and notions of women’s social, legal and cultural rights.

Women’s education

Proponents of family planning have demonstrated that there is an inverse correlation between women’s educational level and the number of their children. Given the conservative views of many religious-political leaders of the Islamic Republic, during the early 1980s observers anticipated that women’s education would suffer and the already abysmally low female literacy rate would plunge even lower. However, although there have been obstacles and interruptions for women who wish to further their education in some fields, general education has not suffered and women’s literacy has increased more rapidly than men’s. The rate of success, particularly in adult literacy for women in both rural and urban areas, stems in part from the fact that education has given the Islamic government a clear field in which to refute their opponents. By proclaiming that education is the Islamic duty of every Muslim and using sayings of the Prophet to support that claim, religious leaders have weakened the resistance to educating girls, which existed particularly in rural areas. Under the Shah, the regime had outlawed the veil and introduced a modern education system which destroyed the ulama’s historic monopoly over educational institutions. Hence, the #ulama discouraged parents from sending their daughters to school, which they stressed was a source of corruption and immorality. The Islamic Republic has reintroduced segregation and veiling and increased the religious content of the curriculum, emphasising traditional culture. Thus, while cultivating their own vision of society and ideology, the regime has also made educational institutions more acceptable to the traditional classes. Moreover, as many literacy groups meet in local mosques (particularly in the rural areas where the mosques may be the only communal buildings), the link between religion and education has been strengthened.13 Ideologically, the regime has benefited from promoting this form of education and indeed, many conservatives considered the introduction of Islamic education the frontline against cultural imperialism and Westernisation. Therefore, promotion of female literacy served the regime’s purposes and helped them to refute the claim that the ulama were against women’s education.

There are other, though perhaps unintended, consequences of the spread of education with an Islamic edge. Increased literacy has contributed to women’s confidence, and has increased women’s perceptions that they have options in many aspects of their lives, particularly women in rural areas who have been much more constrained by traditional social norms. For instance, many of the rural women we interviewed wanted their daughters (and sometimes themselves) to become the village teacher or nurse. A few women said they would like to become members of parliament, religious leaders, or ëlike those women who are interviewed on television’ (referring to the frequent TV interviews with women officials on issues concerning women and family). Now that many religious women wear the traditional veil or chador and use religious idioms to express themselves, these roles are more acceptable and also more attainable for rural women. Increased confidence and the search for alternative roles in themselves have been empowering for women.

For its part, the government is planning to prepare adult literacy information kits, while information about population issues and family planning has already been added to the curriculum of girls’ middle schools. Thus far, education, particularly at the basic levels, has served the purposes of the government and of women at the same time.

Women in the labour market

Conventional approaches advocated by family planning experts, which encourage women’s entry into the labour market as a means of reducing their fertility, are problematic for the regime on two fronts. In line with their emphasis on domesticity and motherhood for women, the government has introduced several policies to reduce the number of women in the labour market, ostensibly to help women to resolve the contradiction between their domestic duties and the demands of employment. These include early retirement and the option of transferring their salaries to their husbands if they choose to leave their jobs.14 The extent of success of these policies, however, is disputable.15

Nonetheless, while many women did leave the job market or the country altogether, mostly highly educated women who tend to be secular, other women from the more traditional classes have replaced them. While it is quite possible that the Iran-Iraq war helped to keep women in the labour market, women are now much less visible in higher level jobs, particularly in the public sector. This has been the subject of numerous complaints from women officials and Islamic activists.

The ideology of segregation of the sexes, the regime’s most important ideological icon, has been the most significant factor in undercutting the reduction in women’s participation in the labour market. In fact some ideologues, as well as Islamist women activists, have inverted the conservatives’ arguments to support women’s labour market participation. For example, Ayatollah Sane’i said that if women were not to be seen or touched by men who were not kin, then Iran needed women doctors, teachers and so on.16 Hence, many Islamist advocates are able to argue that sex segregation does not exclude women from the labour market, but rather increases their opportunities. In effect, it would serve to exclude men.

The development of this alternative perspective has been very significant, as women working outside the home and their supporters can no longer be accused of advocating Western perspectives and undermining Islamic culture. Thus, Islamist activists have ingeniously resolved the apparent contradiction between the regime’s gender ideology and the need to increase female labour market participation. While the next stage is to pressure the government to provide employment opportunities for women, and many continue to do that,17 more than two million Iranians are presently unemployed, and as young people join the labour market, the number increases daily. Given that the shortage of jobs is a principal reason why government has supported an anti-natalist population policy, most women and policymakers believe that Iran currently cannot provide full employment.

Since men are held legally, religiously and socially responsible for the financial support of their wives and families, women’s advocates are conscious that it is unrealistic to expect the government to promote women’s labour market participation. Large-scale integration of women into the labour market is, at best, a long-term plan. In this context, and also recognising most women’s lack of marketable skills, activists have tended to emphasise the importance of women’s economic and emotional security within marriage and the family.

Women and personal status law

Although women’s security within marriage has only indirectly been the subject of the family planning debates, our findings indicate that women and women’s advocates view, not employment, but rather a fair and secure marriage as the most important factor in improving women’s position. Our findings also indicate a strong relationship between women’s fertility behaviour and the way in which they assess their rights and responsibilities within the marriage, specifically in relation to divorce and custody of children, and financial rights during marriage as well as widowhood. Women are highly aware that since the revolution, the institution of marriage has become less stable to women’s cost, due to the abrogation of the Family Protection Act (1967), which had curbed men’s unilateral right to divorce and banned polygyny without the permission of the first wife or a court. According to conservative ulama (including Ayatollah Khomeini), the Family Protection Act impinged on the divine rights of men; thus, after the revolution men regained the right to divorce at will and to take up to four permanent wives and an unlimited number of temporary wives freely.18 The consequences have been disastrous for women. Such factors have influenced women’s decisions about their fertility and family size, and help to explain why women are so overwhelmingly in favour of family planning. Similarly, our interviews found that women were aware of the consequences of population increase for the country and for the government, as well as the need for the physical and psychological well-being of women and children. Out of 190 women respondents, 82 thought the ideal number of children was three, 93 thought that two children was the best number, and 17 thought one child was ideal.

However, when they talked more specifically about their own situations, a completely different picture emerged. The majority of those who put the ideal at one or two and sometimes even three children, explained why in their situation they had had more children or planned to have more in the future.19 Many women, particularly those from low income groups with little education, emphasised that they needed at least two sons to take care of them in their old age, because their husbands were casual workers and would not be able to find work when they were older, so the family would have to rely on the sons.

This preference for sons did not stem from lack of love and affection for their daughters. When we asked whether sons or daughters were more caring and attached, 80 per cent of respondents (78 men and 140 women) thought that daughters were more caring toward their parents. Rather it is daughters’ expected gender role and marriage partnership which would prevent them from helping their parents financially. Furthermore, some women emphasised that women need brothers to make sure their husbands do not treat them badly.

‘In our country a woman without brothers is a woman without support and her husband will abuse her without fear of reprisal.’

This was said by an older widow whose two daughters were periodically beaten by their husbands and threatened with divorce. Others pointed out that given the present law, a married daughter is subject to her husband’s authority and cannot even visit her parents or leave her house without her husband’s permission, lest she be divorced without compensation as nashezeh (disobedient). Although traditionally women are supposed to obey their husbands as the head of the household, it is only recently that disobedience is cause for divorce. This tactic was rare until a few years ago and indeed, until recently, most women were unfamiliar with the term. Today, it is a dreaded weapon used by many men to deprive their wives of the few rights the law gives them.20 Social and economic gender inequality and imbalances affect middle-class women as well, though they may assess their options and verbalise their choices somewhat differently. With a few exceptions, all our women interviewees, including several gynaecologists, had the impression that middle-class couples tended to have larger families in the 1980s and 1990s than they used to have in the 1970s. Some told how many women who had decided two children were enough prior to the revolution, had had a ësecond set of children’ after the revolution (their words). Most women thought middle-class women were having more children than their ideal because of their insecurity in marriage. Women identified husbands’ virtual freedom to divorce without economic compensation and their absolute rights to custody of children and to polygamous marriage as the principal reasons for women’s insecurity.

Many women (and some men) thought that as soon as men’s financial responsibilities eased, they began contemplating second marriages. Having a larger family was thus intended to reduce the likelihood of their husbands taking on additional financial responsibilities. Moreover, while men may easily divorce their wives and take away their children when there are one or two, this is harder to do when there are more children. As one 40-year-old woman and mother of four said: ëMany women might accept looking after one or two children who are not their own, but few would want to look after four….’ This clearly sums up the sentiments of many of the women in our sample.

In this manner, women hoped that even if they did lose their husbands, at least they would not be robbed of their children. Although women have obtained the right to divorce should their husbands remarry, few exercise this right since options for a second marriage are limited for women and they do not want to risk losing their children as well. Many decide to stay in their marriages and bear the humiliation of being co-wives.

Interestingly, male respondents consistently wanted fewer children than women did, and there was little or no gap for them between the ideal number of children and what they envisaged or wanted for themselves. They justified their preference for small families in terms of the financial costs of raising children. Though most wanted to have children of both sexes, only 12 per cent said that they would try for a son if they had only daughters.

Many women were aware that their husbands preferred fewer children and rarely did they disagree with them openly; rather when they were ready for another pregnancy, some claimed that they had developed side effects and had to stop using contraceptives. More commonly, women said they had accidentally became pregnant while using contraceptives. This was more than possible, since despite a tradition of coitus interruptus among Iranians, increasingly fewer men are willing to accept responsibility for the couple’s birth control and neither vasectomy nor condoms are popular among Iranian men. In fact, a recent study in Markazi province estimated that about half of all pregnancies were unwanted and 86-89 percent of these had occurred while women claimed to be using contraceptives.21 While the authors of this study and other government reports attribute the high rate of contraceptive failure to lack of information, even among educated women, our in-depth interviews indicated that many ëunwanted’ pregnancies were neither unwanted nor accidental. While women approved of the government’s family planning agenda, they set their own fertility goals to safeguard their interests. Despite a theoretical commitment to improving women’s socio-economic position, the government has been ambivalent about reforming personal status law. Hence, fully aware of the implications of this ambivalence and disappointed with the legal channels open to them, including the parliament, women activists, including Islamist activists who tend to support the regime, took their case directly to thepublic. By the mid-1980s, women’s magazines, especially the government-sponsored Zan-e-Ruz, newspapers, and even radio, the official voice of the Islamic Republic, carried reports about men’s abuses of the law as regards the unilateral right to divorce and the guardianship of the children. Many questioned how these injustices could be attributed to Islam and why Islamic law was failing to protect women.

Gradually, under heavy public pressure, the government has introduced moderate reforms to the divorce law, a standard marriage contract stipulating conditions of divorce and other conditions such as the right to work, place of residence and most controversially, wages for housework (ojrat-olÂ¥masel) to be paid to women in the event of divorce (passed in December 1992). This unprecedented development, argued entirely within an Islamic framework, was significant because it indicated the possibilities of ëreforming’ shari’a within Islamic jurisprudence.

It has also created an atmosphere of utopianism among Islamist activists, who are now pushing for further reforms in personal status law. These reflect concerns about employment and educational opportunities, as well as personal status law. One strategy has been to flood the media with stories of injustices done to women by their husbands, in the name of shari’a, pointing out the consequences, not just for the individual woman but also for society as a whole. Others have initiated work on women-centred understandings of shari’a and the spirit of Islamic texts and traditions. Islamist women’s advocates have engaged respected and high-ranking theologians, government members and elected representatives in raising these issues at official levels by articulating the positive implications of the government policies they are seeking. Being pragmatists, many realise that their actions will be effective only as a pressure tactic to gain more concessions in the areas in which the government can introduce reforms.

Gradually, they have managed to have reforms in personal status law introduced, often through uneasy alliances with government forces and in the face of heated debates and criticism from the more conservative and traditional sectors of society, the legislature and the Council of Guardians, the religious body which oversees parliament.

Encouraged by these limited reforms and by the government’s pragmatism and readiness to fundamentally revise its approach, as was shown with the development of family planning policy, Islamist activist women are trying to forge new alliances with the regime, influence its gender vision and further improve women’s lot. Although implicit and informal, that alliance is nonetheless not unlike the pragmatic alliances between women’s health and human rights advocates and the international consortiums whose primary concern is curbing world population growth.22 And just as the effectiveness of the ICPD Programme of Action remains to be seen, so does the extent to which Islamist women activists can advance women’s demands.


The primary data presented here are based on a research project carried out under the auspices of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, an international network of women from Muslim communities established to promote debate and research for social change in the Muslim world, for their support for the project from which this paper derives. I would also like to thank Patricia L Kelly for her patience and editorial skills.


Homa Hoodfar, Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University, 1455 Boulevard de Maisonneuve West, Montreal, Quebec H3G 1M8, Canada.

References and Notes

  1. Although ëfundamentalism’ is a problematic analytical concept, I use the term here to refer to those kinds of movements that tend to legitimise their position by reference to scripture and share an emphatic gender ideology based on the control of women. See Imam A, 1993. Women and fundamentalism. Dossier (WLUML). 11/12/13; Marty ME and Appleby RS, 1991. Fundamentalisms Observed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago; Hawley JS, 1994. Fundamentalism and Gender. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  2. Paidar P, 1995. Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Tabari A and Yeganeh N, 1982. In the Shadow of Islam: The Women’s Movement in Iran. Zed Books, London; Sanasarian E, 1982. The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran. Praeger,New York.
  3. ? Hoodfar H, 1995. Population policy and gender equity in post-revolutionary Iran. In Obermeyer CM (ed). Family, Gender and Population in the Middle East. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo.
  4. ? Omid H, 1994. Islam and the Post-Revolutionary State in Iran. St Martin’s Press, New York.
  5. ? The primary data presented here derive from a larger research project on the effects on women of the codification of Islamic law in Iran. This sub-sample includes 140 rural women in 9 villages and 200 urban women (primarily from Tehran and Markazi provinces) and 100 urban men.
  6. ? They claim that to attain the true, just Islamic society, one has to separate the divine text from 1400 years of patriarchal interpretation. See Hoodfar [3] above; Ramazani N, 1993. Women in Iran: the revolutionary ebb and flow. Middle East Journal. 47:409-28.
  7. ? I am referring to the many Islamist women activists, progressive religious leaders, secular women, and other intellectuals and experts in the field of family planning.
  8. ? The minimum age for marriage was initially reduced from 16 to 9; later reforms raised it back to 13, which is the culturally recognised age of puberty.
  9. ? The programme was fairly successful and within ten years had managed to covered 11 per cent of women of reproductive age. Aghajanian A, 1991. Population change in Iran 1966-88: a stalled demographic transition. Population and Development Review. 17:703-15.
  10. Hoodfar H, 1994. Devices and desires: population policy and gender roles in the Islamic Republic. Middle East Report. Sept-Oct.
  11. The issue of abortion is not discussed under family planning but rather in the context of women’s health. The government’s position is that abortion as a method of family planning is not ethically acceptable. There are a variety of religious opinions on the matter. However, in Iran abortion has remained illegal except when the mother’s health is physically or psychologically endangered as certified by two doctors. See Hoodfar [3] above.
  12. See Paidar [2] above and Mir-Hosseini Z, 1996. Women and politics in post-Khomeini Iran: divorce, veiling, and emerging feminist voices. Women and Politics in the Third World. Afshar H (ed). Routledge, London.
  13. Mehran G, 1991. The creation of the new Muslim woman: female education in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Convergence. 23:42-52.
  14. See Paidar [2] above, Omid [4] above, and Moghadam VM, 1993. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. Lynne Reinner, Boulder.
  15. While some scholars believe that the government has not fully succeeded (Moghadam [14] above), others argue that they have. See Moghadam F, 1994. Commoditization of sexuality and female labour participation in Islam: implications for Iran, 1960-1990. Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran. Afkhami M and Friedl E (eds). IB Tauris, New York.
  16. Ayatollah Sane’i, 1996. Payam-e-Zan, nos. 50 and 51.
  17. For instance there are steady streams of articles in diverse women’s magazines drawing attention to the inadequacy of government attempts to create and promote women’s employment. Women deputies in their various capacities also raise these questions frequently.
  18. For a detailed discussion of the changes in the personal status law and its consequences see: Mir-Hosseini Z, 1993. Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law. IB Tauris, London. For a more detailed account of temporary marriages, see Haeri S, 1987. Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi’i Iran. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.
  19. See also Asefzadeh S and Nokiyani FA, 1996. Unwanted pregnancies among rural women of Ghazvine. Family Health. 1. Their studies of unwanted pregnancies showed that while women with three children thought two children were enough, women with two children thought three children were enough.
  20. Kar M and Hoodfar H, 1996. Personal status law as defined by the Islamic Republic of Iran: an appraisal. Special Dossier (WLUML). 1:7-35.
  21. It is important to note that Afzali estimates that 30 per cent of pregnancies for urban women and 25 per cent for rural women are unwanted. Afzali HM, 1996. Evaluation of family planning programmes in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Family Health. 1:3-18. In Asefzadeh and Nokiyani [19] above.
  22. Hodgson D and Watkins SC 1996. Population controllers and feminists: strange bedmates at Cairo? Paper presented at annual meeting, Population Association of America, May.


L’examen des politiques adoptées par la République islamique d’Iran en matière de planification familiale, d’éducation des femmes, de marché du travail et de loi sur le statut personnel montre avec quelle souplesse et quelle sophistication les dirigeants cooptent des idéologies rivales et tout ce que la modernité peut apporter pour soutenir la survie du régime. Dans ce processus, les leaders politico-religieux ont dû réviser nombre de leurs positions islamiques, notamment sur la planification familiale qui avait été précédemment déclarée contraire à la religion musulmane. Cette atmosphère révisionniste a ouvert de nouvelles perspectives aux avocats de la cause des femmes, en particulier aux femmes activistes de l’Islam qui, bien qu’accordant leur appui au régime, en ont rejeté la vision du rôle et des droits de la femme musulmane comme un ‘patriarcat en vêtements islamiques’. Elles ont par contre développé leur propre vision de rôle et des droits des femmes dans le cadre d’une interprétation des textes islamiques centrée sur la femme. Par ces stratégies, les femmes activistes islamiques ont noué – sur le compromis – une alliance difficile et conflictuelle avec le régime, mais ont réussi à susciter certaines réformes, et s’efforcent d’en amener d’autres. Dans le même temps, ces processus ont introduit dans l’arène politique iranienne une nouvelle forme de féminisme pragmatique qui remet en question, de l’intérieur, le fondamentalisme.


Un examen de la política de la República Islámica de Irán en relación a la planificación familiar, educación de la mujer, mercado de trabajo y legislación sobre estatus individual demuestra la flexibilidad y sofisticación de ese régimen para acoger ideologías opuestas y todo concepto moderno que lo ayude a sobrevivir. A lo largo de este proceso, los dirigentes político-religiosos han tenido que reexaminar muchos de sus puntos de vista islámicos, particularmente en cuanto a planificación familiar, declarados previamente como incompatibles con la doctrina musulmana. Esa atmósfera revisionista ha allanado nuevos caminos para las mujeres que abogan por sus derechos, en particular las activistas islámicas que, a pesar de apoyar al régimen, rechazan la visión de éste del papel y derechos de la mujer musulmana, considerándolo ‘un patriarcado disfrazado de islamismo’. Como respuesta, ellas han desarrollado sus propias visiones del papel y derechos femeninos en el marco de una interpretación de los textos islámicos centrada en la mujer. Por medio de esas estrategias, las activistas islámicas han formado una alianza precaria, conflictiva y acomodaticia con el régimen, pero han logrado también inducir algunas reformas, y están luchando por otras. Simultáneamente, esos procesos han llevado a la arena política del Irán una nueva forma de feminismo pragmático, que cuestiona al fundamentalismo desde adentro.

K. KersplebedebK. KersplebedebK. Kersplebedeb

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