"Islamic Feminism" and the Women’s Movement in Iran

The discriminatory laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran have, from the outset, been faced with women’s resistance. Women, both believers and non-believers, have offered "new" interpretations of Islamic law and gender relationships. Working from a cultural relativist perspective, some scholars, especially in European and North American universities have supported "Islamic feminism" as an indigenous Iranian women’s response to patriarchy.

This article presents and overview of "Islamic feminism" in an attempt to assess the promises and pitfalls of this trend. I analyze "Islamic feminists"’ reinterpretations of Islamic laws and their definitions of such key concepts as patriarchy, gender, sexuality, and individual-collective relationship. I argue that "Islamic feminists’" commitment to Islam limits the scope of their analyses (for example, regarding hijab and individual rights) and their struggle for laws recognizing women’s rights. Furthermore, in their discourse patriarchy is reduced to a "cultural mistake." Sex is assumed to have a predefined nature, and men and women are assigned certain "natural" roles. Gender is defined as social and cultural encroachments upon what "nature" assigns to each sex. Sexuality is defined in the limited sense of heterosexual relationship within marriage.

The belief that individuals are created male and female, nevertheless, re-institutes a patriarchal order within the family. Though "Islamic feminists" demand legitimization of women’s public role, they also insist that public presence must not interfere with a woman’s primary duties as wife and mother. The roles of each partner in the "new" family remain similar to those in its "traditional" counterpart, but there is more emphasis, in the "Islamic feminist" family, on women’s roles as mothers and wives. According to "Islamic feminists"--whose constituency is limited to middle and upper-class, heterosexual Muslim women-- an authentic indigenous Iranian women’s movement must consider women’s natural attributes, lest it sacrifices the good of the collective for the benefit of the individual.

Thus, continued legitimacy of the Shari’ah’s discourse on women and family denies the separation of religion from state, subjugates not only non-Muslims, but also non-believers, to Islam. As a reformist movement that responds to problems arising from a dysfunctional patriarchal system in post-revolutionary Iran, "Islamic feminism" aims to shift the locus of control over women from the private rule of individual men to the public domain. But it fails to offer solutions to the deeper gender conflict in Iran.

Hammed Shahidian
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