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Women in Revolution

February 24th, 2011

After reading one of my colleague’s posts about women in the Iranian revolution, I could not help but wonder how various political upheavals have benefitted or hurt women’s rights. Revolutions come at times of great political unrest, where the current regime has become so intolerable that people must forcibly remove it and replace it with something new. What sparks a revolution is an investigation for another time but the fundamental qualities are very much the same. Charismatic leaders tap into the populace’s feelings of oppression and pain under governments that impose upon their people for too long or prevent opportunities for equal political expression. After a while, there is usually a spark that ignites people’s passion and the revolution cascades from there. This is no more visible now than across the Middle East where a YouTube video of a man setting himself on fire sparked the political conflagration we can see today. Yet revolutions, especially violent ones, are chaotic and hard to control. Their outcomes are highly uncertain and promises leaders make to increase participation can be revoked once the new regime is in place. It is irrefutable that women play important roles in these types of movements but their interests are not always represented once the feverishness has subsided. For the rest of this piece I will examine the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Cultural Revolution in China, comparing their outcomes for women’s rights and attempt to divine how these lessons might relate the current revolutionary action in the Middle East.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran was heavily supported by women. While under the Shah’s regime, women had several restrictions on their personal agency, like having to ask a husband’s permission before leaving the house. They were inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary message and were active participants in the overthrow, even receiving praise from the cleric for their efforts.[1] However, this period of good will quickly ended and the new government, from Khomeini’s direction, rolled back women’s personal rights even further. Ironically the political rights were not restricted in the same way. Now Iranian women have fewer rights than they did under the Shah.

During the Cultural Revolution, which was disruptive both violently and socially, Chinese women made significant gains. In fact, Mao once famously said, “Women hold up half the sky,” and he made them valuable and important members of the revolutionary movement.[2] Forced marriage and foot binding were made illegal, and women were allowed to enter the labor force in a formal way. Women even made gains in reproductive rights through governmental birth control programs that encouraged delaying marriage and pregnancy and gave much of the population access to free or low cost contraceptives. While China still has a work to do on improving women’s rights, it seems this revolution brought about change for the good.

Recognizing that these examples are anecdotal rather than empirical, we can still draw the conclusion that revolutions, even when heavily supported by women, can produce different results.  Turning to the Middle East, many experts are pointing to the promotion of women’s rights as a causal factor in the new push for political reform. The Tunisian leader, Ben Ali, cited his good work in this area as proof of his good governance. Realistically, this strategy may have induced the societal awareness that was necessary to proliferate a revolution. Tunisian women have the highest rate of literacy in North Africa and have risen in social status significantly. As in Iran before, even the Islamists are speaking out for women.[3] Whether this will later be rhetoric used to gain support in the short-term is unclear. In Egypt, women are beginning to break away from the Muslim Brotherhood, which until the overthrow of Mubarak was the only political alternative to the dominant political party. Even still, the Brotherhood is claiming a commitment to promoting women’s rights.[4] Without a doubt, in times of revolution women are clearly courted for their support. Leaders recognize in that time their value, but depending on the eventual ideology that dominates the new political system, this agenda could easily fall away or be revoked entirely. My hope is that these women will learn from the Iranian example to be judicious and careful to guard against those looking to exploit their support for political expediency.


[1] Marshall, Tayana. “Iranian Revolution Turned Against Women Who Supported It.” The Peak. Vol 90: 5. June 5, 1995. www.peak.sfu.ca

[2] Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in China and its Legacy for the Future. MLM Revolutionary Study Group. March 2007. http://www.mlmrsg.com/attachments/049_049_CRpaper-Final.pdf

[3] Bennhold, Katrin. “Women’s Rights a Strong Point in Tunisia.” The New York Times. www.nytimes.com. Feb. 22, 2011.

[4] Londono, Ernesto and Leila Fadel. “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faces prospect of democracy amid internal discord.” The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com Feb. 21, 2011.