Islamic Feminisms: Rights and Interpretations Across Generations in Iran

  • Book Title:
 Islamic Feminisms
  • Book Author:
Roja Fazaeli
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Contemporary feminism in Iran


 On my return to Iran in 2003 and 2004 I found it helpful to devise a rubric of feminist types as a way of ordering and making sense of the women’s movement in Iran at that time. The types I identified were Islamic state feminists, Islamic non-state feminists, Muslim feminists and secular feminists. 1

This section expands and builds upon those early arguments and observations about categories of feminism, and supplements them with interviews conducted with Iranian women’s rights activists. 2

In the interviews some of the interviewees happily identified themselves as either Islamic or secular feminists; others disagreed with such categorizations, stating that these were labels primarily used by academics which have now become politicized. 3 Some of the interviewees offered other self-labels such as radical, socialist, liberal, modern thinker ( no andish ) or pragmatist ( amalgara ) 4 feminists.

Although I realize the categories offered here are only four of many other possible groupings, I contend they remain important as tools to address the multiple power dynamics and dependencies at work in contemporary Iran. 5

 The struggle to define “Islamic feminism”

 In Muslim-majority countries, the term “feminism” often has a negative con-notation and is at times regarded as a Western concept. In Iran some of the confusion arises from the fact that the term “feminism” does not have a Farsi equivalent and is widely used “as a Western import into Farsi.” 6 Much of the literature on Islamic feminism portrays it as newly invented.

However, I argue that its underlying notions have existed for centuries and it is simply the term “Islamic feminism” that is a recent coinage. 7

 Since it found currency in the 1990s 8 the term “Islamic feminism” has been defined diversely according to context. I contend that no homogenous definition of the term exists and that it is not desirable to attempt to apply a single definition to all contexts. As Ziba Mir-Hosseini notes, “The problem lies both in the explicit issue of how the term is defined and in the implicit meanings it has acquired in its usage.” 9 Margot Badran defines Islamic feminism as “a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm . . . which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and jus-tice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.” 10

According to Badran, Islamic feminist discourse is “grounded in the Qur’an and other religious texts”. 11 Badran’s definition of Islamic feminism is predicated on the engagement of the scholar with a sacred text. 12 This is the common understanding of the term “Islamic feminism” conveyed in the literature produced in the past ten years. 13

However, I argue that the Iranian version of Islamic feminism differs from Badran’s definition. Although the discourse of Islamic feminism in Iran is certainly articulated within the framework of Islam, it is grounded more in political Islam than in any attempt to exegete the Qur’anic text through an egalitarian lens. If we take Badran’s definition of Islamic feminism, then Islamic feminism in Iran would not be a significant category.

Although historically there have been a number of female mujtahidas in Iran, their works remain largely unknown and their exegetical works (i.e., works that carry out a detailed analysis of sacred texts within a faith framework) do not always represent an egalitarian or a feminist interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunna . 14

 Further-more, observing the women’s rights movement in Iran, it is clear that women activists and lobbyists, when needed, depend more on male religious authori-ties’ views of women’s issues than that of the women mujtahidas . 15

The Iranian feminist journal Zanan 16 has been credited by some as the platform where Islamic feminism in Iran was born. This is where Islamic feminists “offered Islamic readings of gender equality and justice”. 17 My study of the archives of Zanan ’s articles from 1992 until its closure in 2008 reveals that the main authors who offered egalitarian readings of Islamic texts were men.

 One male clergyperson in particular played an important role in giving Zanan an Islamic feminist brand. Hujjat ul-Islam Sayed Mohsen Saidzadeh, a hawza- educated religious scholar, 18 began writing for Zanan under his wife’s name: Mina Yadegar Azadi. He also wrote under his own name, as well as under a pseudonym: Zinat ul-Sadat Kermanshahi.

Saidzadeh was arrested and defrocked in 1998 after publishing an article in the daily paper Jameh in 1998 that was critical of “the religious sayings and traditions that rationalize discrimination against women”. 19

Since his release from prison, Saidzadeh has withdrawn from intellectual public life and no longer writes.

 Another journal, Farzaneh Quarterly, was established a year after Zanan in 1993. Farzaneh’s scope of readership did not reach that of the Zanan ’s. Zanan , as previously described, enjoyed a wide readership both inside and outside of Iran. 21

However, Farzaneh did draw a number of prominent authors. These included women such as Monir Gorji, an interpreter of the Qur’an and the sole female member of the Assembly of Experts for the Constitution, 22 and Massoumeh Ebtekar, 23 an academic and the former vice president ( moavenat riyasat ) of Iran. Gorji, in particular, was identified by others throughout my interviews as an example of an Islamic feminist in Iran, though it is not clear whether she herself identifies as such.

After having spoken with her, attended her lectures and read her writings, it is not clear whether Gorji’s views favour gender equality in all aspects, or rather if she believes in the complementarity of gender roles. Gorji works within a traditional Islamic framework. However, her disillusionment with the political power structure in Iran has led her to change her views considerably since the 1979 revolution.

 Such changes are not uncommon. Another woman whose views have shifted for various reasons is Mahboubeh Abbasgholizasdeh. I met Abbasgholiza-deh in 2003 at a course I attended on women’s studies in Tehran. She gave an introductory lecture on Islamic and Muslim feminisms.

She explained to us how immediately after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 she had affiliated with Islamic feminism. The identity, she told us, had been closely linked with her utter devotion to Ayatollah Khomeini at the time. Yet her identity began to shift as her understanding of women’s rights in the context of Islam changed. By 2003 Abbas gholizasdeh self-identified as a Muslim feminist who attempted to reinterpret Islamic law through the use of dynamic ijtihad. 24

We met again in 2006 and she told me that in the interim she had become a secular feminist. When I interviewed Mahboubeh in 2010 25 I asked her to elaborate on the shifts in her feminist identity over the past thirty-one years. Mahboubeh told me that when she looked back, she realized that the labels she had used were no more than academic terms employed to describe the changes which religious and non-religious women went through during the revolution and in the years following in the Islamic Republic.

In her narrative it is clear that Abbasgholizasdeh’s feminist identity formation was intertwined with the Islamic Revolution and influenced by revolutionary Islam as articulated by the ideologue Ali Shari’ati and by Ayatollah Khomeini. According to Mahboubeh, it was Shari’ati’s book, Fatima is Fatima (Fatemeh Fatemeh Ast ) that anchored a strong identity for her.

Wearing the hejab , Mahboubeh elaborates, gave her a feeling of belonging, a sense of having entered into the domain of power. Women like Abbasgholizasdeh took part in the revolution to be part of the masses, not to address gender discrimination. They believed once the monarchy was abolished the rest would work itself out. However, soon after the inception of the Islamic Revolution they began to sense a different sort of change and became disillusioned. Abbasgholizasdeh talked about this change in her interview:

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