The Squandered Emancipation of Iranian Women

Women's liberation is not a one-way street. Iran's women once before were freed from theocratic repression.

When Iran was returned in 1979 to its
longstanding status as a Shi'ite theocracy, (i.e., from 1502 to 1925; interrupted by a period of Afghan invasion and internecine struggle, from 1722-1795), following its relatively brief flirtation with Westernization and secularization under Pahlavi rule from 1925 to 1979, one notable commemoration, Women's Emancipation Day, was abolished. The holiday's original date, January 7, commemorated the anniversary of the day in 1937 on which Reza Shah announced at a Girls' High School prize-giving that Iranian women would be forbidden to wear the chador, or veil. Later, the date was moved to February 27th, the anniversary of Muhammad Reza Shah's 1963 speech to the Iranian Senate, proclaiming that women's traditional Shi'ite Islamic legal disabilities would be removed, and most notably, that women would receive the right to vote.

Nearly 20 years before Rezah Shah's 1937 announcement, in 1919, Sadiqeh Dolatabadi (d. 1962) published the first women's periodical in Isfahan called Zaban-e Zanan (The Women's Voice) which (unsurprisingly!) faced opposition from the local Mullahs. After ending the publication of Zaban-e Zanan in Isfahan, she went to Tehran and once again started publishing the periodical as a monthly magazine. Dolatabadi completed her education in Europe, receiving her B.A. from the Sorbonne University. In the spring of 1926 she represented the Iranian women in the International Alliance for Women's Suffrage.Returning to Iran in 1927, Dolatabadi started her cultural activities, and refused to wear a veil -- even as a government appointed supervisor within the Ministry of Education, before the enactment of the 1937 law.

The impact of Dolatabadi's efforts were apparent by 1941. Despite the expected opposition of the irredentist Shia clergy, Sir Clarmont Skrine would record in his World War in Iran (London, 1962, p. 109), that  the announcement of Reza Shah's abdication,

...was received with gloom by the governing class and the younger generation who feared a return to the medieval, mulla-ridden Persia they thought they had left behind for good and all. This fear received some confirmation from the fact that very soon, for the first time in years, women appeared in the streets of Meshed in the chador enjoined by religion but forbidden by the late Shah.

Reza Shah's abdication was marked by a revival of Shiite Iranian clerical influence which reached its apogee during the premiership of Muhammad Mosaddeq (1951-1953). Allied to the clerics, who were also against external "domination," Mossadeq's regime, was punctuated, as F.R.C. Bagley notes, by

...sermons broadcast from loudspeakers in mosque-minarets [which] not infrequently denounced foreign manners, and many well-educated Iranian ladies resumed the veil..."

Bagley goes on to summarize three primary reasons why most clerics view with "hostility...any sort of women's emancipation":

  • It is regarded as contrary to Islamic Law, the Sharia
  • It represents a move toward "Westernization" of manners
  • It was preached by non-Muslim infidels in Iran, notably the Bahai. and Christian missionaries, and advocated by Iranian freethinkers, such as the poet Iraj Mirza (d. 1926)

Following the restoration of Iran's own constitutional rule -- suspended by Muhammad Mossadeq -- Muhammad Reza Shah returned to his throne, and Mossadeq was replaced as Prime Minister. The Shah's subsequent "White Revolution," which emphasized women's suffrage, was in turn denounced by the Shi'ite clerical hierarchy who felt women's suffrage was "un-Islamic."

And the retrograde 1979 Khomeini "revolution" has marked a brutal re-imposition of Islamic Law even worse than what the Iranian women of 1941 had feared, and characterized then as "a return to the medieval, mulla-ridden Persia they thought they had left behind for good and all."

Despite the overwrought hyperbole of some "analysts", a very staid assessment by A. Savyon, Director MEMRI's Iranian Media Project, notes that the current protest movement's leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohammad Khatami, "...are not interested in a change of regime in Iran, and have never called to topple Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei." Furthermore, Savyon reports that Khatami and Rafsanjani, who have operated behind the scenes of the protests, "...have not managed to recruit the support of any senior ayatollah against Khamenei." He adds that Hashemi Rafsanjani, the second most powerful figure in the regime who heads two of its most important bodies (the Experts Assembly and Expediency Council),

...has never purported to lead a movement presenting an alternative to the regime. Despite his blatant disagreements with the Supreme Leader, he hasn't openly challenged the latter's decision to accept the election results, though, according to reports, he has sought to recruit senior ayatollahs to join his camp within the regime.

Savyon concludes, "...the protest movement leaders never advocated a regime change in Iran; their campaign is part of a struggle between two streams within the regime."

University of Connecticut Professor Kazem Kazerounian's expose on the faux "populist" leader and butcher of political prisoners (including students) former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, includes this revealing observation about his wife, Zahra Rahnavard (the author of the  "Beauty of Concealment and Concealment of Beauty"),

...was key in enforcing the strict Islamic dress code (Hejab) on women. She had a major role in forming "Gasht-e Khaharan-e Zeinab", the female street police units that harass women to enforce "Islamic behavior."

Diana West found an online English translation of Mrs. Mousavi's "opus" which extols women's oppression under the guise of treacly Islamic piety, while expressing virulent anti-Western xenophobia. Rahnavard opines the following:

...Today most of the young women and girls, who have adopted hejab in toto and have been completely enamored by it, have reached the truth that concealment in entirety is beautiful."

...At one time they raise the question of inequality of man and woman in Islam, and at another they harp on the issue of hejab, and so on.

...In fact, however, (under the illuminating and guiding leadership of Imam Khomeini), millions of common womenfolk have returned to their divine nature, to the dignity of their own Self, and under the loving patronage and protection of the Islamic Republic of Iran we are advancing towards preparing the ground for new legislation, so that on the basis of the Islamic laws and precepts suitable laws may be framed for this period of time for the rights and true worth of the womenfolk in order that all the oppressed women of the world may come to realize that the only way of their deliverance is the path of Islam and not the Capitalist, humanist or Communist ideologies, and that the only guarantee for materializing this objective is the Islamic revolution."

...I have understood Islam. I have upheld hejab, You, bloodsucking Oppressors have lost an anti-people stronghold, namely, the woman of the type you had yourself forged, you had yourself trained, you had yourself taught the ideals, the way of walking, talking, laughing, wishing and longing. Of course you had yourself taught all these things to her."

...You have now lost such a woman, such a stronghold. How sensitive a stronghold! Hence by the Grace of God and our efforts, this stronghold shall never fall into your hands. Myself and my people, women who form half of the population, and. men who form the other half of the population, have got hold of a stronghold against you and for crushing you. My hejab which is by itself now an Islam personified says that it will crush you. It tells you that it is an avowed enemy of you, the ruling regimes, you the corrupt politicians, you the chosen of the strong, you Pharoahs, Croesuses, imperialists, and (their) stooges. It [my hejab] warns you that in this world you shall be punished by the weak masses and on the Day of Judgement shall be subjected to eternal torture of Hell."

...With my Islam, my hejab, and my struggle every day I bring closer the death of you, of your class and of your system...

These illuminating extracts make plain that Mrs. Mousavi's "vision"-like her husband's-will continue to deprive Iranian women of their liberation from Islam's oppressive, misogynistic strictures-which they had already attained under Pahlavi rule, beginning back on January 7, 1937, thanks to the courageous efforts of true reformers like Sadiqeh Dolatabadi.

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