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A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN'S MOVEMENTS IN IRAN
(1850 - 2000) .....(Continued)
By Massoume Price
 
The Islamic Women's Movement was formed with the support of the government. Monireh Gorjee a member of the Islamic Republic Party was the only woman at the Assembly of Experts when the new constitution was drafted. She did not oppose the new legislation concerning women. Shariat became the legal code. In the first Majlis Gohar Dastghayb and Maryam Behruzi were elected and represented the two prominent parties, Islamic Republic and Crusaders for Islam. Azam Taleghani represented the Women's Society of Islamic Revolution and send letters to Khomeini cautioning the authorities about compulsory veiling. Altogether 217 members were elected to the first Majlis, 3 were women. The birthday of Fatima, Prophets' daughter was announced National Women's Day. In 1980 Azam Taleghani completely wrapped in Islamic attire represented Iran in United Nations Conference on Women in Thailand.

Zahra Rahnavard, Prime Minister Mousavi's wife took over the popular magazine Etelaate-i Banouvan and the name was changed to Rah Zeynab. Fereshteh Hashemi Was appointed chief editor of Zan-i Ruz. In the early 1980s, Dr. Shahin Tabatabei chaired Iran at another United Nations' women's conference in Denmark Amongst independent participants was Laleh Bahktiar the well-known scholar of Islamic mystic literature and a psychologist residing in England. When asked about stoning women to death, she defended the action and commented that no crime is worst than adultery committed by women. At the same time the tomb of Sadigeh Dawlatabadi was destroyed. In her last will and testament she had said that she did not want any veiled woman to ever visit her grave!

In the summer of 1980, Rajai the Prime Minister introduced the Law of Compulsory Veiling to Majlis. Soon all political parties were banned members arrested and mass executions of the 1980s put an end to all independent political activities. Mojahedin Khalgh suffered most. Maryam Firouz an executive member of the Tudeh Party praised Imam Khomeini and called him the most important supporter of Women's rights in our history. Tudeh party was the next one to go.

A year later, Maryam Behruzi in Beijing condemned abortion, called day cares as centers for producing robots. She defended the Islamic Criminal code and regarded Ghesas as appropriate and Islamic. Outside Iran the National Council of Resistance and the National Union of Women were established. Rah Zeynab magazine was closed down. Muslim women began expressing concern over their situation in Iran. Armed male and female personnel began their function as the guardians of the Islamic code of conduct by arresting, imprisoning, flogging and imposing monetary penalties. In 1982, Freedom Movements' women's league in Tehran after a meeting with Zahra Rahnavard, Azam Taleghani, Ali Mojtaba Kermani, Ahmad Sadr Haj Sayyid Javadi and Naser Katousian, expressed concern over implementation of the Islamic Legal Code.

In 1984, the first theology school for females was established in Qom. The male teachers entered the fortress like building through an underground passage and never met any of the students. Presently the school has female tutors only and no males are allowed inside. Unlike male students of such schools, the women will not have a religious rank. So far they have stayed away from all debates in Qom and nationally. The only women journal published by the theology students; Payam-i Zan is published by males. After the war with Iraq and in the 1990s women's issues became front-page news. The magazine Zanan published in 1992 systematically criticized the legal code. They argued gender equality was Islamic but religious literature is misread and misappropriated by misogynist interest oriented males. Secular activists, Mehrangiz-i Kar, Shahla Lahiji and the Muslim Shahla Sherkat the editor of Zanan lead the debate on women's rights. Reforms were demanded by all, the leadership did not respond but for the first time they could not silence the movement.

Segregation of sexes legitimized the entry of millions of lower class girls from traditional families and rural areas into the public life and the education system.  The segregation required training of women to serve the female only policies. Thousands were employed in the security forces and morality corps and others to impose strict Islamic codes. For many this was the first time they had fully entered public life and received wages with pensions at the end. Khatami's presence in Ministry of Guidance paved the way for a less restricted press. Hundreds of books about feminist issues were and are published including radical feminist books and biographies. Faezeh Hashemi initiated Asian games for Muslim women in 1993. Later on the establishment attacked her for being outspoken, wearing blue jeans and riding bicycles. In a landslide victory she was elected in the 5th Majlis with the highest number of votes in Tehran. Muslim feminism had emerged in Iran.

In 1997, a prenuptial document to be signed at the time of marriage was approved. The object was to give women the rights they lacked in Shariat. The future husband forfeits his rights to polygamy and unconditional divorce. Women can initiate divorce, divide assets and have joint custody of children and child support. All the articles are conditioned. As pointed out by the critics this is only a voluntary contract, men do not have to sign and if they don't there are no legal consequences. The practice so far has failed and most men will not sign the contract. Few gains are made since then. Family courts are back again and divorce is referred to these courts, though the number of courts is very limited. Women can function as judges but do not have the title. Mahriyeh is indexed and linked to inflation. Women are given more grounds for initiating divorce. But so far no fundamental changes. By the late 1990s, the National Muslim Women's League, sponsored and financed by the government became a powerful umbrella organization providing support and networking for sixty registered women's organizations.  In 1998, 52% of the students entering universities were female and the worsening economic situation has forced millions of women to enter the workforce. The fifth Majlis has 13 female deputies out of 270. The changes and the oppression have released a massive political force never seen before. The result has been the formation of a dynamic grassroots movement lead by the so-called Muslim feminists who believe men have misinterpreted and manipulated the religious texts.

This re-interpretation movement is very new and is part of a larger global movement by small reformist groups who are questioning Shariat and its compatibility with the modern world. The Muslims have never criticized practices of Islam. Nor any Muslim country has provided a safe environment where such re-thinking can be experimented. Historically all such movements have either been crushed or resulted in new religions such as Ismaili and Bahai.

The struggles over the last two centuries have made one thing clear to women in Iran. The inability of Shariat and religious authorities to improve legal status of women and the centrality of women to the political process. What happened in Iran is a logical evolution of the women's movement since its' beginning in the 1800s. Ironically it started with religious reformists and ended up as a new religion, Bahai. The women of Iran are not about to start a new religion. But the realization is all too clear.  Change is not going to come from within the system. Shariat is God's words and constitution forbids any legislation contrary to Shariat.

Pahlavi rule cleared the path for women. Sooner or later they had to face the major obstacle, Shariat. The revolution provided the momentum. The secular women though extremely active especially in legal matters are not heard as well as the Muslims. The two have joined forces now. How far the secular and the Muslim feminists will go depends on the success of the larger movement in the Islamic world and the political situation in Iran. In 1997 presidential elections, eight women nominated themselves as candidates. The Council of Guardians rejected all. Khatami won the presidential election by promising women reform and equal opportunities; none has happened as yet. So far he has blamed the hard-liners; the new Majlis should show his  sincerity and how far he is willing to go.

By: Massoume Price

Massoume Price is a Social Anthropologist and Human Ecologist from London  University, Kings and University Colleges. She specializes in ancient  Mesopotamian Studies. She currently lives in Canada. Works with a number of  Women's organizations and is a free lance writer.

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