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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development, Governance

Gender of Democracy: The Encounter between Feminism and Reformism in Contemporary Iran



This paper is a critical analysis of the encounter between feminist and reformist political thought during the first reformist presidency in the Islamic Republic of Iran (May 1997 to June 2001). It places feminism and reformism in their historical context, discusses the complex forces that have facilitated their development, and analyses the interface between these two movements. The paper is presented in three parts.

The first part, “The genesis of the gender debate”, describes the contemporary context since the revolution of 1979 and its development dynamics: the political direction of the post-revolutionary society, the gender impact of the Islamization policies of the new state, the trajectory of women’s citizenship role from “revolution” to “civil society”, the emergence of secularism and Islamism as markers within the women’s movement, and the development of the Islamist democratization and feminist movements. In this part, the author concludes that women played a key role in keeping alive the spirit of resistance against the suppression of democracy and human rights during the politically harsh decade of the 1980s. In the 1990s, they continued to play an important citizenship role in bringing about the first elected Islamist reformist government in Iran. Since then, women have faced the challenge of creating a feminist space within a democratization movement that tends to marginalize gender issues and the women’s movement.

The second part of the paper, “The gender boundaries of reformism”, focuses on the conceptual development of the reformist movement and its gender implications. It presents and analyses the views of the key Islamist reformist strands: “dynamic jurisprudence”, “religious intellectuals” and the “coalition for political development”. The potential of these reformist views for the development of the gender debate is discussed, and their limitations identified. Here, the author concludes that these reformist strands have made an important conceptual contribution by opening up the political space for Islamist gender theory in a way that had not been possible before. At the same time, Islamist reformism has displayed serious political weaknesses on gender issues. According to the author, Islamist feminism has begun to challenge these weaknesses effectively. Although yet to be recognized by reformists, Islamist feminists have transformed reformist theories by taking forward their gender potential and bridging the gaps within and between them. Feminist intervention has taken many forms, the most substantial ones being the bridging the gap between jurisprudence and theology, and engendering democracy.

Part three, “The dawn of feminism”, focuses on the characteristics and internal debates of the feminist movement itself. The positions of the two broad categories of secularist feminism and Islamist feminism are presented, and the emergence of a third category—pragmatic feminism—discussed. The historical rift between the Islamist and secularist women’s movements, rooted in the lack of trust and solidarity between the two movements since the Revolution, has manifested itself in passionate political debates over the compatibility of Islam and feminism, and the universality of women’s rights. These debates have proved both testing and healing for contemporary Iranian feminism. Testing, because they have brought into the open the underlying culture of lack of tolerance of difference, and resulted in peer pressure against collaborative feminist politics. Healing, because they have made both Islamist and secularist feminists face difficult issues and seek firm grounds upon which to base future collaboration.

Although the goal of feminist solidarity has so far eluded the Iranian feminist movement, like many other feminist movements around the world, one can point to a new beginning in the form of women taking collective action under particular sets of conditions and circumstances, and over specific rallying issues. In her conclusion, Paidar argues that these examples are important in the context of Iran, where a particularly vicious attack has been waged on almost all aspects of women’s lives for the past two decades, and where the only tangible internal opposition is Islamist based. In today’s Iran the political choices open to both secularist and Islamist feminists are limited and unsatisfactory. Nonetheless, feminists of both persuasions must make a choice between withdrawal and engagement. If engagement is the answer, then collaborative efforts between Islamists and secularists over specific issues are inevitable.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 2001
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8186
    From: UNRISD