At a conference that considered the impact of the French philosopher Michel Foucault on Middle East studies, visiting historian Janet Afary explains that the story of Iranian women since the Revolution is not entirely one of repression.
Political Islam ... was also a way to cultivate the Shia Muslim style of modernism and freedom from the yoke of the authoritarian father.
Faced with "draconian" laws on marriage and divorce and high unemployment rates, women in today's Iran can end up as runaways, prostitutes, suicides and, in larger numbers, drug addicts. But there are, too, whole classes of women for whom the conditions of life have improved since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and some of the pain women experience in marriages has to do with justifiably "rising expectations" about an institution that is now directed more toward companionship than procreation, explained Janet Afary, a visiting historian at UCLA and Purdue University faculty member, at an April 28, 2009, conference sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. Afary will discuss her "Sexual Politics in Modern Iran" (Cambridge, 2009) at a public event on May 19.
Organized by UCLA history professor James Gelvin, the conference looked at recent cultural and political trends in the Middle East in the light of the work of French social scientist and philosopher Michel Foucault, who had a major impact on Middle East studies and was even briefly fascinated by the Iranian Revolution before his death in 1984. Speakers at the event included Gelvin and Michael Meranze of UCLA, Khaled Fahmy of New York University, Timothy Mitchell of Columbia University, and Afsaneh Najmabadeh of Harvard University (audio podcasts).
Foucault is famous for his work on social institutions like prisons and insane asylums, and for his multivolume history of sexuality. As Mitchell said in the conference's keynote address, Foucault's work sought "to understand in new ways how people are made subjects, and how people turn themselves into subjects." For instance, Foucault looked at the way in which governments train their citizens to perform exactly the tasks the governments need, a notion known as "governmentality."
Afary used ideas from Foucault and from the Frankfurt School of critical theory to offer a nuanced understanding of the life of women in post-revolutionary Iran. She said that the Iranian Revolution gave women a role in the political life of the country and in that way partly liberated them from a traditionally oppressive patriarchal system. In pre-revolutionary Iran, moreover, a father decided whom his daughter would marry and when. But once women became part of the revolution, they could fall in love and marry the men they met through their political activities.
These developments, Afary pointed out, correspond to Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse's notion that a strong state undermines the authoritarian father.
"Political Islam was more than a tool of resistance against Western modernity," she said. "It was also a way to cultivate the Shia Muslim style of modernism and freedom from the yoke of the authoritarian father."
Even though Ayatollah Khomeini was a strong proponent of traditional marriage law, the increased political role of women led to a general rethinking of marriage and relations between the sexes. Romantic love was newly valued. Women felt freer to seek higher education, birth rates dropped due to public health campaigns that promoted birth control, and many couples participated in sex classes before marriage. The classes include lessons on birth control and sexual pleasure.
At the same time, of course, the new political role for women contributed to the goals of the state. When Khomeini came to power, he encouraged women to join neighborhood revolutionary groups and wear the veil or hijab. Hijab was "no longer just a sign of decency but a symbol of jihad, a status marker," according to Afary. Women showed their dedication to the revolution by wearing hijab, which conferred prestige, and were co-opted into the official ideology and organizations.
This co-opting did have real benefits for Iranian women from the more rural and traditional sectors of society who had not benefited from industrialization under Pahlavi, the Shah, and who had never enjoyed Western styles of entertainment like dancing or going to the movies.
One group of Iranian women that benefitted was the Basiji sisters, female paramilitary troops who wear colorfully inscribed hijab and carry semiautomatic weapons in photos that Afary displayed at the conference. In addition to fighting alongside male soldiers, one of the duties of the Basiji is enforcing decency rules among secular, urban, and middle-class Iranian women. The Basiji receive extensive military training from a female officer corps and enjoy a relatively comfortable lifestyle. Many of them go on to university or graduate school.
The individual who might best represent the complex and uncertain situation of women in Iranian society is Zahra Rahnavard, a Ph.D. in political science who was the first woman to hold the position of university chancellor in post-revolutionary Iran. She left the job in 2006 after the hardline government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power. Married to former Iranian Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is considered a leftist Islamist and now a serious contender for the presidency, Rahnavard has been very successful her education and, even by Western standards, in her career.
Rahnavard proclaims the importance for women of submitting to the rules of the Islamic Republic, and she denounces Western sexual mores. However, Afary said that in recent interviews Rahnavard has shown herself to be "a strong advocate of women, women's rights, and artistic freedom." If her husband goes on to win the presidency this year, she will be in a strong position to advocate her views—some orthodox, some less so—more widely.
Scroll to the bottom of this page to download audio podcasts from the CNES conference.