As clericalism and women’s emancipation versus traditional roles

As one of the major turning points in the twentieth century, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 encapsulated significant cultural and political structural shifts for Iranian women. As the Revolution shifted into an Islamic Republic (contrary to the intentions of those involved in the revolution), this transition brought about doubts as to whether life under Islamic law would be better than life under the Pahlavi reign. Ultimately, the themes of secularism versus clericalism and women’s emancipation versus traditional roles all played out as key junctures during this transition. Through the analysis of policy changes under the Pahlavi monarchy, the transition to traditional penal codes under Khomeini’s rule, and the revolution’s paradoxical phenomenon, reforms during the Revolution served as visual responses to the reaction of the West rather than responses to the demands of women. Women’s fundamental role changes also reflected the underlying utopian visions and trajectories of the Pahlavi monarchy and of Ruhollah Khomeini. In order to better contextualize the motives of Khomeini’s fundamentalist stance and its effect on Iranian women, it is paramount to understand the implemented policies during the Pahlavi reign. Reza Shah, who was the first ruler of Iran after World War I, was determined to reshape the view of Iran as a modern, economically robust, and forward-thinking entity. In many ways, women were instruments, or in more crude terms “puppets,” for the Pahlavi Monarchy to advance its agenda. The “improvements” included westernizing education in ways such as allowing women to attend university and allowing more social mobility in professional status. Moreover, one of the most prominent policy changes was the banning of the veil in public spaces. This visual transformation was described by Shirin Ebadi as a “cultural invasion,” as women had to abandon their indigenous culture. It is also important to note that the Shah’s promotion of women’s rights was not without personal benefits. After all, education was an outlet for the Shah to spread his vision, morals, and programs. Thus, the Shah’s concern and motives for the reforms were not so much for the freedom of women but how Iran was viewed by the West. In essence, improvement of economic and social conditions for Iranian women were merely steps taken to seem more westernized in the international arena. More importantly, these specific reforms were cosmetic, superficial, and fairly ineffective, as they did not include the most important demands of women’s suffrage. Essentially, the reforms were aimed to enhance the regime’s image; women’s needs were secondary concerns in the revolution’s agenda. Indeed, the number of women who received education during the Pahlavi Dynasty increased, but the effects were not uniform among the Iranian female population. Women from traditional families or poor communities did not benefit from westernized education, as the notion of attending school with men was not consistent with conservative families. Thus, cities and villages outside of Tehran most likely did not feel as much of a push for reformation, as most Iranian women were poor, lived in slums, and raised in patriarchal families. Moreover, women with low socioeconomic status likely rebelled against the Shah’s reforms, as these women were casted aside from the westernized urban women with a united sense of alienation and disillusionment. On the other hand, these westernized urban women who were of middle and upper class families were more affected and even tolerant to the secular changes in their communities. Thus, the treatment and benefits under the Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah’s rule were not uniform among the Iranian women population and just illusions of westernization without truly improving women’s lives.In the same way that the Pahlavi Monarchy enveloped women’s rights into modernization and secularization, Khomeini equated women’s reforms to piety and inherent morality. Similar to the Pahlavi leaders, Khomeini targeted women and implemented reforms accordingly to advance his vision of what an Iranian government should look like. Notably, the resurrection of the veil, similar to the push for western clothing under the Pahlavi monarchy, was a visual representation of the shift from secular to religious rule. More importantly, the veil represented backwardness and oppression because for the upper class women under the Shah’s rule, including Ebadi, the emergence of the veil amounted to a shift back towards the domestic sphere. Overall, the veil played an important role as Khomeini wanted to present an image of exoticism to the West; he wanted to prove that the western morality of the Shah was sinful and was not in line with his interpretation of Islam. The attention and efforts that were used to fully mandate the dressing of the veil further perpetuates the notion that Iranian women were also aesthetic symbols of the Islamic Republic to the West. Furthermore, Khomeini installed a cultural and economical context that adhered to a fixed and strict interpretation of Islam. This is supported by Ebadi’s statement, “Enough time had passed that it was clear the system was not going to change in any substantive way. Its ideology was fixed, and for the time being, so was its tolerance threshold for women in government.” Under this strict interpretation, women of high social standings were demoted from their professional positions, while traditional women were instead championed under Islamic rule. Ebadi, who was an accomplished female lawyer, realized the paradoxical nature of the Revolution and asserted “…it took scarcely a month for me Ebadi to realize that, in fact, I had willingly and enthusiastically participated in my own demise. I was a woman, and this revolution’s victory demanded my defeat.” Her demise, as she expressed, can be exemplified in her bus dilemma in Iran Awakening: “‘Khanum, you Ebadi need your parents’ permission to sleep out overnight,’ replied the commanding officer with a shrug.” Even as a grown woman with two children, she was treated more as a child and less than that of her male counterparts. In fact, Ebadi herself states “the value of a woman’s life was half that of a man… the drafters of the penal code had apparently consulted the seventh century for legal advice.” Gender discrimination was also evident when she was called in front of two male judges, one of whom was her subordinate; not only was she dismissed from her position, but she was also insulted on the spot. This is supported by the statement “…and then the unthinkable occurred. They began speaking about women judges as though I were not in the room. ‘They’re disorganized!’ ‘Distracted constantly,’ another murmured. ‘They’re so unmotivated.'” The contradiction posed during the revolution was that the very leader and regime that these women were supporting and protesting for in the streets of 1979 were also the same entities that stripped these women of rank and freedom. On the other hand, the lives of traditional women were improved under Khomeini’s rule. The implementation of traditional penal codes represented an advance for poor women, as they had lived conservative and traditional lifestyles. As a result, they were more comfortable stepping beyond the domestic sphere to fully benefit from new job and education opportunities. However, as Ebadi stated, they were only given “crude tools to advance them.” For example, under Khomeini’s rule, “girls went to class in hijabs and sat in separate classrooms… they slowly found themselves in classrooms, and away from their parents in dormitories in Tehran.” While these women were subjected to single-sex learning environments, the implementation of Islamic rule encouraged schooling among the traditional families, who may have been hesitant to permit their daughters to go to school under the Pahlavi monarchy. After all, Ebadi stated “it became fashionable for the daughters of traditional families to attend college.” The proposed dilemma, however, is that this population of illiterate, uneducated women realized that they perhaps deserved a role in society, yet the way of governance under Khomeini’s Islamic laws restricted their progress to make any significant gains for Iranian women as a whole. Specifically, Ebadi proclaims that allowing women to vote was a channel for these previously oppressed women to have their voices heard; it gave them a surge of unprecedented self-confidence. This is supported in Iran Awakening, “for women who were either illiterate or the first generation to see the inside of a classroom, however, the very act of voting remained powerfully symbolic.” However, their equal access to education did not translate into equal job and career opportunities. According to Ebadi, “the rate of women’s unemployment was three times higher.” Thus, even if the lives of traditional women had improved, the leadership and interests of Khomeini were a greater focus. It was this sense of nationalism that promoted and justified the regime’s rules for Khomeini’s perception of an ideal Islamic woman. As previously stated, the aftermath of the Iranian revolution presented a contradiction with the proposed agenda during the Shah’s rule and reality during Khomeini’s rule. In order words, each critical era in women’s liberation and activism in Iran was followed by disappointment. This is because both rulers failed to treat women’s equality and rights as a separate issue from the political sphere. Women were representations of progress to measure how much of the Shah’s or Khomeini’s vision had been achieved. Thus, the main beneficiary of these reforms was the state rather than women. However, the united sense of struggle and oppression elicited a realization among Iranian women, as the successes and failures of the 1979 Revolution were not apparent until much later. As Ebadi stated, “all these educated women emerging from Iranian universities were no longer content to slip back into their traditional roles.” Iranian women who became more active along with the Revolution experienced a new facet of traditional motherhood under Khomeini’s traditional codes. Not only did they attend university and work in a variety of careers, but they also started to question their roles, as their place in society may have been manipulated by the Pahlavi Dynasty and Khomeini as facades of progressiveness. In order words, women wore veils but also had a presence and voice in the public sphere after the revolution. However, in times of greater danger like the Iran-Iraq War, nationalism and advancing Khomeini’s agenda took away time and planning for a unified women’s movement. To this day, Iranian women are still tools of the government, rarely having the chance to assert their independence and power. Indeed, it is unclear when to appropriately foster a women’s movement, as there was a lack of progression in women’s activism during the 1979 Revolution, Iran-Iraq war, or even during times of peace.