Shifting Gender Roles in Twentieth Century Iran

By the turn of the century three distinct political discourses on gender relations had become prominent in Iran:

  1. A radical modernist discourse that called for the social, political, and cultural modernization of Iran and that considered certain changes in gender roles to be desirable factors of modernization and westernization;
  2. an antimodernist religious discourse that saw the emerging modernity and political democracy as threats to its very existence and that especially resented any changes in gender roles; and
  3. a technocratic modernist discourse that accepted the new technological aspects of modernity in the areas of health, hygiene, and educational reform and that encouraged the construction of more modern women's bodies without wanting to alter traditional gender roles in any substantial way.

As women gained new rights in the first half of the twentieth century through education, employment, and unveiling differences between "radical modernist" and "technocratic modernist" were gradually minimized. Such a convergence could take place because, in fact, neither group was concerned with women's individual rights, including sexual emancipation; nor could they come to terms with the extensive shift in gender relations that a feminist agenda implied. In the second half of the twentieth century, radical intellectuals who had been committed to modernist ideologies, including greater social, economic, and political rights for women, became disillusioned with western democracy and feminism. At the same time the "antimodernist" religious discourse came to embrace technological and industrial modernization as well as a leftist anti-imperialist rhetoric. Ultimately, the convergence of these multiple discourses on the problematic of modernity in a nationalist coalition made the 1979 revolution possible--with hostility toward feminism forming one of the main pillars of the new alliance.

Janet Afary
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