Gender inequality is a widespread problem. All around the world, we see women starting to fight back for their rights. Feminism is pushing to solve problems everywhere from reproductive rights to equal wages. Islamic feminism, on the other hand, is fighting on a whole other platform, especially in Iran. Iranian women live under the rule of a theocratic government, meaning that the country is ruled by the law of the Sharia, or the “law of God” in Islamic tradition. It might seem that women’s rights could not be possible in a patriarchal country like Iran, but it can.
Before the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran made huge advancements towards women’s rights. When the revolution did come women found themselves regarded as second class citizens, struggling to prove their value in society. The new government used the teachings of the Quran to hold women back. This caused Islamic feminists to take a closer look at the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad. Their strong sense of faith caused a new kind of gender revolution. A new generation of Islamic women living in Iran under the rule of a theocratic government is implementing ideas of Islamic Feminism and gender equality.
Many women question their own faith as a result of the misinterpretation of the Sharia, but still feel the only possible chance for change is through the framework of Islam. The decline of women’s rights can be traced back to the Islamic revolution of 1979, which established the Islamic state of Iran, and put Ruhollah Khomeini in power. Prior to this, the country was under the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who made women’s rights a priority in his pursuit to “modernize, Iranian society” (Kunkler 376).
Among the most important laws, the Shah introduced the Family Protection Law in 1967, and in 1975, it was further changed in better favor of women. First, this law puts restriction on polygamy and made the grounds of getting a divorce similar for men and women (Kunkler 376). Before this man could declare divorce, abandoning their families, and leaving women to support their families on their own. Also, previous to this law, women who were stuck in abusive marriages had no support or resources available for them. This law made it so now women could ask for a divorce without fear of getting penalized.
Secondly, this law implemented new restrictions on child custody. Prior to this husbands were usually awarded custody of children (Kunkler 376). This law made it so that women who were asking for a divorce could trust that custody of their children wouldn’t just be given to their husbands. Instead custody would be given to whichever parent was better suited to care for them. Lastly, the Family Protection Law was “written into every marriage contract as a way to render the marriage ‘Islamically legitimate” (Kunkler 376).
Every marriage had to follow these rules, ensuring the rights of both partners and their children within a family. Most Islamic women in Iran supported the revolution in 1979. They believed it would bring them a stronger connection with their faith and an even better standard of living. They believed that “justice and equality are intrinsic values and cardinal principles in Iran and the Sharia” (Mir-Hosseini 629). By implementing the Islamic law, it would fundamentally make the country better as a whole.
The women of Iran didn’t expect what would happen. The new Islamic State of Iran and its “prevailing interpretations of the Sharia [did] not reflect the values and principles” that Muslims believe to be the core of Islam (Mir-Hosseini 629). Instead, the Islamic state believed that “public activism of women was … ‘un-Islamic” (Kunkler 375). Once in power, they interpreted the Islamic law in a very patriarchal way. The Family Protection Law was annulled and women were stripped of their rights and put second to men.
The separation between men and women was established in ways such as, segregating schools and integrated a dress code for women, only allowing them to expose their face and hands (Kunkler 375). Psychologically, this was very unhealthy for both genders. By making children go to segregated schools this would eliminate any chance to try and bridge together friendships through different social capital, making it hard for peace between both sexes. By forcing women to conform to a dress code, and reintroducing the veil they created a “barrier separating women physically from men” (Ahmadi 34).
Women stuck out in public and were made to look different and strange from other people, which furthered the divide between men and women. When Khomeini took power, he “ordered the dismissal of all women judges” (Mojab 132). Without being in these positions of power, women lost the little influence they had that could have brought some sort of change. The state believed that because of women’s “special physical and psychological state, they are not able to be rational, cautious and neutral” (Mojab 134). This sort of discrimination forced dependency on men to support women.
Men took over the jobs that women lost, as government officials and judges, meaning they could sway laws to be even more in favor or men. Laws in regard to getting a divorce were made easier for men and harder for women, and the age of marriage for women was lowered to nine years old (Kunkler 377). Men could now leave their wives for reasons such as, they were getting too old to bear children, and then would marry child brides. Older women were left with no way of supporting themselves and had to turn to illegal ways of making money, such as prostitution.
In regards to child custody, rules between guardianship and fostering were distinguished. Guardianship was the right of the father and if for some reason he was absent, then the paternal grandfather takes his place; the guardian could make decisions regarding aspects of the child’s life, like marriage or finance (Mojab 133). The fostering role was the “natural, though not automatic, right of the mother for up to two years for sons and seven years for daughter’s” (Mojab 133). This became a huge problem during the Iran-Iraq war.
They abandoned any sort of birth control and the “population grew by 70% to 60 million during the 1980s, with half of the population being under the age of 20” (Kunkler 377). With such a huge increase in population, the state needed to maintain the resources for all these people. This caused a problem in providing “adequate educational and social infrastructure” (Kunkler 377). Without proper education and unable to find a job (and also partly because it was mandatory), many men enlisted in the army.
Many of the men died fighting in the war, leaving women without a husband to support them and were forced to give up their children to the child’s natural “guardians”. These children were usually abandoned, as the families they were given to “were not willing or able to afford” taking care of them (Kunkler 377). This caused poverty and crime rates to go up in Iran, as now abandoned children as well as women, had to turn to illegal ways of making money (Kunkler 377). These extreme circumstances made it very apparent that changes needed to be made to the law regarding women, or the country would suffer big consequences.
The “need for more volunteers to go to the war front was a source of pressure on the religious leaders to” solve the problem (Majob 134). In 1988, a ‘single article’ was passed by the Islamic Assembly that stated that if a man died in the war, then the fostering of the child is left with the mother, and expenses are paid by either the legal guardian, the government, or the Martyrs Foundation (Majob 134). This did not mean that the mother was the guardian of the child, it just meant that they were responsible for caring for them.
The true guardian still had control over the child’s life and prevented the mother from really being able to parent her children. These growing acts of discrimination against women by government and religious leaders greatly angered both liberal men and women. Secular feminist viewed Iran’s women as oppressed and forced to follow Islam. They encouraged women to fight for the separation of state and religion. What secular feminist failed to acknowledge was the “Iranian women’s grassroots” (Ahmadi 35). The west was trying to bully and force the Islamic state into conforming to a more westernized structure of gender rights.
Instead of conforming, it caused them to place an even tighter hold on Islamic practice because they saw this as an insult to their religion (Mir-Hosseini 631). It is true that when Islamists in Iran started introducing Sharia law, with its strict policies, many women and men started to question their faith (Mir-Hosseini 631). But they didn’t turn their backs on Islam, instead, feminists built a clear distinction in realizing the difference between “faith (and its values and principles) and organized religion (institutions, laws, and practices)” (MirHosseini 632).
Even though the values and principle of religion are true and the word of God is pure, organizations were corrupted. Organizations manipulated or misinterpreted the meaning of what a “good Muslim women” was, in order to implement a highly patriarchal society. In understanding this, woman not only stuck to the values of their faith but it brought them even closer to it. Even though the Islamic state had done so much to diminish women’s rights in the name of the Sharia, Iranian women still supported Islam. They understood that the only way to bring change would be through the frameworks of Islam.
They quickly came to the realization that there would be no justice for the Muslim women, “as long as the patriarchy is justified and upheld in the name of Islam (Mir-Hosseini 629). By the late 1980s, the Islamic feminist movement started to take place. Their main tactic for change came from educating people. They did this through independently investigating religious sources and doing their own interpretations (Ahmadi 36). While educating themselves, they found that the policies of the Sharia were outdated and did not match with modern people’s sense of justice or women’s aspirations (Mir-Hosseini 634).
These laws were created in a different time, where women needed to care for domestic issues while men needed to support the family. This did not reflect common day Iran, where it had already been proven that women were also capable of supporting the family. In further investigating the Sharia, they came to the realization that this law was commonly being confused with Fiqh, which is the understanding or interpretation of the Quran (Mir-Hosseini 632). The law based on Fiqh came from “men’s experiences, male-centered questions, and an overall patriarchal society” (Ahmadi 36).
Since these laws were created at a time when society was extremely dependent on men, it is easy to see how such interpretations could be mistaken for the true way of the Sharia. In discovering this, Islamic feminist now could educate others of the desperate need to modernize the interpretations of the Quran to reflect the importance of women in their society. This is a hard task to take on in a country that has always been dominated by man. Still Islamic feminist didn’t lose hope, they knew “that Islam allowed for change in the face of time, and space, and experience” (Mir-Hosseini 637).
They came up with new strategies to evolve the law into the new era. A strategy that has been used in favour of women, has actually been through the Islamic states constitution, which “specified that all Iranian, men and women were equal under the law” (Kunkler 377). This strategy allowed for a way to open up a conversation about equal treatment, and a way for women to be able to challenge the state. If men a woman were charged equal for committing crimes such a murder or kidnapping, then why were they not treated equally when it came to laws about marriage and child custody.
The source for “Sharia-based legislation in Iran was the Quran, the Hadith, analogy and reason” (Kuncker 381). The analogy was taken from the Quran or the Hadith while the reasoning is more of an interpretation that suggests “all that is reasonable is legitimate” (Kuncker 381). Although the word of God is true and sacred, the message loses meaning when it is read, and interpretation can’t really be deemed as the one true meaning. This allowed a loophole for women to be able to argue their rights. Not only did it help in proving that the interpretation could be wrong, but also allowed women to interpret the readings in their own way.
For example, one can cite a “traditional attribution to the Prophet Muhammad, which stated … ‘Stupid, ignorant women should not be in charge of nursing their children” (Kashani-Sabet 32). This could open talks regarding education for women. A feminist could argue that being educated is a vital aspect of having a strong, healthy nation of children, which in turn would build a stronger, healthier nation of Iran. In terms of reinterpreting the religious text, women faced a difficulty. This problem arises when taking into consideration that “women are excluded from higher training in Islamic jurisprudence” (Kunkler 381).
It prevented political and religious leaders from taking them seriously, even with all the evidence they had. Obstacles like this highlight how essential the role of men is in the fight for equality. Many men agreed and supported the women’s movement. They understood the importance of equality, which didn’t just benefit women, but themselves as well. By having women in high position jobs, like law or politics, it brought a different kind of perspective. Also by having women support themselves and their children it took the pressure away from men to support them.
In the past, it has been proven that by educating women on cleanliness and birth control, it would combat “infant mortality and the prevalence of epidemic in Iran” (Kashani-Sabet 32). These situations caused many men to support and stand up for gender equality and women’s rights. Having a country with educated, strong independent women is an important factor to any country. Patriarchal methods that are being used now in common day Iran don’t reflect the needs of the country. If women were given the same rights as men, crime rates would drop.
Men, women and children wouldn’t need to turn to illegal activities in order to support themselves or their families. Women and children wouldn’t be abandoned and poverty rates would drop. Pressure would be taken off men from being the sole supporter of their families. Islamic women have a strong sense of faith and refuse to believe that their religion promotes the mistreatment of women. They are educating society about the misinterpretation of the Sharia and illustrating the problems of using a law that only reflects the experience and attitudes of men.
Although the Quran and the Hadith are sacred and cannot be argue the Fiqh can. Islamic feminist fight for the reinterpretation of Fiqh to reflect the attitudes of the modern world, and continue to prove that Islam supports women’s rights and equality for all. With the help of feminist men, Muslim women demonstrate the importance and value of women in religion as well as Iranian society. In a theocratic country like Iran, these women have proven that change has to come from the frameworks of Islam.