Can women act as agents of a democratization of theocracy in Iran?

This is an archived article

By Homa Hoodfar and Shadi Sadr

By Homa Hoodfar and Shadi Sadr

October 2009

The 1979 Iranian revolution resulted in the establishment of an Islamic Republic under the leadership of religious leaders. The complete amalgamation of state and religion has had considerable implications for women’s legal and social equality. The question of women’s rights and women’s public life had been one of the central themes in the opposition of Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers to the fallen modernist regime. Indeed, the role of women had formed an axis around which religious leaders and diverse conservative forces had woven solidarity bonds. To reward these alliances, the new regime moved immediately to cancel the family law reforms and reintroduced men’s right to polygamy and compulsory veiling for women. The new regime’s ideologues envisioned an Islamic society based on nearly complete gender apartheid in which men and women intermingled only in the realm of the family and not in public.

The large-scale participation of women in the revolution, and the fact that their black veils had become an icon of the revolution, presented a new complexity for the leaders who hitherto had only viewed women as an object of politics and not as political citizens. Women did not readily accept the Islamic state’s gender vision. The state tried to use women to boost its legitimacy. Secular women, who were completely excluded from power structures, continued to document injustice. For their part, religious women tried to re-read Islamic texts to call into question the regime’s exclusion of women from public life and full citizenship. Islamist women launched a widespread public campaign focusing on “Islamic justice for all and not just for men” and managed to re-instate many of their cancelled rights gradually. Women, also, occupied the few public spaces that remained open to them, such as in education and social volunteering. Furthermore, women used their votes and contributed enormously to the election of liberal and reformist religious and political leaders. These developments encouraged an optimistic vision of the democratization of Shia Islam and the reformation of women’s place within it.

Reforms alarmed many conservatives including, powerful, non-elected life-long officials in control of the state apparatus. They viewed women’s reforms as evidence of creeping secularism and western feminism. Thus, using the resources at their disposal they launched a counter strategy. Notably, conservatives invested heavily in women’s religious schools where thousands of women religious leaders were trained, immersed in the most conservative interpretation of women’s role in Islam. By 2005, conservatives had recaptured both the parliament and the government which meant that Islamist and reformist women’s room to manoeuvre in the political sphere was substantially reduced. Through various case studies, this article demonstrates that the way religion has been re-introduced into formal politics in Iran, and the manner in which it has been appropriated and re-appropriated by different social and political forces reveals how religion, like secularism, can lend itself to a variety of interpretations, with variable impact on women. It is clear that reformist forces have not been able to democratize their institutions and to respond to women’s needs, nor have they been able to organize women at the popular level with the same degree of success as have conservative forces. It now appears unlikely, given the present state structure and the triumph of the religious right in government, that women will be able to make inroads unless the state structures become more democratized.




  • Homa Hoodfar
    Homa Hoodfar is Professor of Anthropology, Concordia University Montreal, Canada. Her research interests are social (including religious) movements, gender and social change, family law, reproductive rights, and militarization and refugee questions. She has carried out field research in Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Montreal. Among her publications are: “The Muslim Veil in North America: issues and debates” with Sajida Alvi and Sheila McDonough. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press; “Between Marriage and the Market: Intimate Politics and Survival in Cairo”. Berkeley: University of California Press; “Development, Change, and Gender in Cairo: A View from the Household” with Diane Singerman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Shadi Sadr
    Shadi Sadr is a lawyer, women's rights activist and journalist. She is an expert on women's legal rights in Iran and founded the website “Women in Iran” to inform about women's rights efforts in the country. As a practising lawyer, she has successfully defended several women activists and journalists who had been sentenced to execution. As a member of the women’s rights group “Women's Field”, she has advocated the eradication of the practice of capital punishment by stoning, particularly of women, by means of the campaign “End Stoning Forever”. She has been subject to severe repression by the Iranian regime. She has received several human rights awards for her outstanding commitment, such as the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism, or just recently the Lech Waleza Price and the Human Rights Defender Tulip Award for her promotion of human rights in Iran. 

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