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Iran » Women's Courage

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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.

Women's Rights in Iran

February 18th, 2011

Araceli Y. Flores

Over the course of this blog, I hope to shed light on the gap between the rights “guaranteed” by legal institutions and the very disparate reality that women face in accessing and attaining these rights on the ground. Bangladesh, as presented in my previous posts, fits this mold perfectly: Over the years, its constitution, constitutional amendments, and legal frameworks have worked to promote a progressively more liberal view of women’s rights and freedoms. While there are an infinite number of offenses to these rights, a commitment exists, at the very least, in written form.

This week, I would like to address a completing different, grimmer set of circumstances in which the government itself perpetrates abuses of women’s rights and justifies these abuses through the nation’s legal code. Iran presents a unique case in the study of women’s rights. Since the end of the twentieth century, the world has seen the advent of globalization and a general trend toward increased democratization and economic liberalization. With these two forces working hand in hand, societies are often pushed toward increased openness and challenged to protect the rights of their citizens. Instead of progress, however, Iran has seen a reversal of the rights provided to women: On February 11, 1979 the pro-Western Iranian constitutional monarchy was overthrown and the nation became the Islamic Republic of Iran. The new, theocratic leadership rolled back much of the progress made by the women’s movement under the Iranian monarchy. Ironically, many women initially supported the Iranian Revolution because they believed its promises of greater “Independence and Freedom” would help advance equity for all citizens. [1]

Sadly, the women’s rights gained under the Shah regime were systematically removed and denied under the new government. Even before the Revolutionary Council had indoctrinated a constitution for the “new” Iran, they passed a series of laws directed toward effacing women’s basic marital and family rights: The revolutionary regime passed laws allowing men to take multiple wives and granting men full custody of children in all divorce situations [2]. Just last year, a new bill was passed allowing men to marry new wives without consent of their current wife. The bill also places greater restrictions on women’s access to alimony post-divorce, and places taxes on alimony that is received. [3]

Interestingly, women in Iran have greater access to basic political freedoms, such as the right to vote, run for Parliament, and travel freely than they do to social freedoms and bodily protections: Women are subject to police beatings and torture for violating perceived social norms, such as immodest dress in public. Moreover, women’s protections within the private space, the home, are even more tenuous—many women are silent suffers of domestic violence. [4]

A recent petition to revoke Iran’s status as member of the UN Women’s Commission captures the social status of women perfectly: “Women lack the ability to choose their husbands, have no independent right to education after marriage, no right to divorce, no right to child custody, have no protection from violent treatment in public spaces, are restricted by quotas for women’s admission at universities, and are arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for peacefully seeking change of such laws.” [5]

These realities paint a grim picture of the status of women’s rights in Iran. Next week, I hope to explore the ways in which different women’s movements within civil society are challenging the social norms and restrictions placed on them by their government.

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Citations

[1] “Women’s rights under Iran’s revolution” BBC NEWS (2009): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7879797.stm

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Iranians Protest Bill on Rights of Women” New York Times (2010) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/18/world/middleeast/18iran.html

[4] “EXCLUSIVE: U.N. Elects Iran to Commission on Women’s Rights” FoxNew.com (2010): http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/04/29/elects-iran-commission-womens-rights/#ixzz1EHxP6llC

[5] Ibid.