Women, Islam & Equality

The National Council of Resistance of Iran Foreign Affairs Committee

A publication of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Correspondence address: B.P. 18, 95430 Auvers-sur-Oise, France


Much has been written about Iran's contemporary history and the Iranian people's struggle for freedom and social justice over the last 100 years. Historians, Iranian and non-Iranian alike, have addressed this period in great detail, from the reign of the first Qajar king to the Constitutional Movement in 1906, to the rise to power of the Pahlavi monarchs (1920-1952, 1953 to 1979) and finally, the Iranian Revolution that ended the monarchy in Iran.

In these portrayals of Iran's history, however, the role of Iranian women in the century-long struggle for freedom and democracy has been virtually ignored. While the active and conspicuous participation of women in the anti-shah movement is still fresh in the minds of Iranians and students of Iranian affairs, what women did before the revolution and what they are doing now are stories left untold. Regrettably, there has been little, if any, attempt to systematically examine the role and situation of women during the Pahlavi regime and the theocracy that followed, or within the resistance movement that has now entered its 14th year.

Historians have also failed to address in a meaningful way another issue of paramount significance: The role and rights which Islam, as the religion of the overwhelming majority of Iranians, ascribes to women. It was widely accepted in the nineteenth century that Islam viewed women as subordinate to men. The 50-year Pahlavi dictatorship of Reza Khan and his son, the last shah of Iran, offered no genuine progress in Iranian women's rights, despite advances elsewhere in the world on women's issues and recognition by the international community of many aspects of their equality. The Pahlavi tyrants simply imposed certain aspects of western culture on Iran's women which served the interests of their despotic reign. Compulsory unveiling and hollow reforms are examples. In their confrontation with the genuine cultures of Iran and Islam, specifically their approach to women, the shahs' primary objective was to keep women and men away from social and political struggle against their regime.

The successors to the monarchy, Khomeini and his retinue, came to power with the promise of restoring Islam and the shari'a. Their actions since the 1979 revolution, however, have been more harmful to Islam than their predecessors, as they perpetrated and tried to justify their flagrant crimes under the cloak of religion. It is not without reason that the Resistance movement that defied Khomeini and is striving for a secular form of government has, at its core, a Muslim, Shiite movement which in theory and practice has achieved unparalleled success in realizing women's equality with men.

This book addresses some of these issues. It must, however, be said at the outset that it was impossible to deal, in so few pages, with a profound topic of such importance in a manner that would have done the subject justice. Nevertheless, the pages that follow reflect an attempt to at least raise an issue that affects not only the lives of 30 million Iranian women, but perhaps the lives as well of hundreds of millions of Muslim women worldwide.

The first chapter offers a brief recounting of the history of the Iranian women's movement from 1895, with the beginning of the Tobacco Movement. It then charts the course of women's activities during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, when the first women's associations and societies took shape. A brief account of the role of women during the 20-year reign of Reza Khan, beginning in 1920, is followed by a summary of women's situation after the rise to power of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran from 1941 until 1952 and then again from 1953 to 1979.

The second chapter covers post-monarchic Iran. It deals with the reign of Khomeini and his heirs, highlighting their treatment of Iranian women, the darkest aspect of their rule. Contrasts are drawn between internationally recognized norms and standards on women's rights, and the laws of the clerical state.

Chapter three offers perhaps one of the few readings of Islam's approach to women and their individual and social rights. Relying on the holy book, the Quran, and the actual practices of the Prophet of Islam with respect to women, this chapter tries to demonstrate that pristine Islam, contrary to what the Iranian mullahs propound, or conventional wisdom might have us believe, views women as equal with men in every respect, in their private, social, political and economic lives. For reasons of space and time, this chapter is naturally not as complete as its subject matter deserves. Nevertheless, it is a beginning, addressing both the liberating message of Islam and the codes of conduct contained in the Quran vis-à-vis the issue of women's rights at the time of the Prophet, some 1,400 years ago.

Chapter four deals with the history of women's role in the Resistance movement against the current regime. Going back to the first days of the Revolution, when the new order had assumed power, it tries to inform the reader of the difficulties of the struggle for women's rights by a Muslim organization faced with a regime that considered itself the "guardian of Islam" and whose leader claimed to be the vice-regent of God on earth.

Chapter five introduces the architect of the Iranian women's remarkable advancement within the ranks of the Resistance. Maryam Rajavi, with 25 years of struggle against two dictatorships, provides a vivid example of belief in freedom and equality. Her emergence as the focal point of hope for all Iranians, especially women, offers an antithesis to the fundamentalist, misogynious mullahs of Iran.

August 1995

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