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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 6: Gender of Democracy: The Encounter between Feminism and Reformism in Contemporary Iran

14 Jan 2002

  • Author(s): Parvin Paidar


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 (1997-2001). It places feminism and reformism in their historical context, discusses complex forces that facilitated their development, and analyses the interface between these two movements. The paper has three parts.

The first part, "The genesis of the gender debate", describes the context since 1979 and its development dynamics: politics in the post-revolutionary society, the gender impact of Islamization, women's citizenship role, the emergence of secularism and Islamism in the women's movement, and the development of Islamist democratization and feminist movements. The paper shows how women played a key role in resisting suppression of democracy and human rights and helped bring about an elected Islamist reformist government. It describes women's struggle for feminism within the pro-democracy movement.

The second part, "The gender boundaries of reformism", focuses on the conceptual development of the reformist movement and its gender implications. It presents three key Islamist reformist strands - "dynamic jurisprudence", "religious intellectuals" and the "coalition for political development" - in relation to the gender debate. It shows that, although these strands have greatly contributed to opening up political space for Islamist gender theory, Islamist reformism has displayed serious political weaknesses on gender issues. The paper argues that Islamist feminism has begun to challenge these weaknesses effectively. Feminist intervention has taken many forms, the most substantial ones being bridging the gap between jurisprudence and theology, and engendering democracy.

Part three, "The dawn of feminism", focuses on 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, manifested itself in debates over the compatibility of Islam and feminism, and the universality of women's rights. The paper shows that these debates proved both testing and healing for Iranian feminism and led the two movements to seek firm grounds for future collaboration.

Although the goal of feminist solidarity has so far eluded the Iranian feminist movement, like many other others around the world, women are starting to take collective action over specific rallying issues. This is important in Iran, where vicious attacks have been waged on almost all aspects of women's lives, and where the only tangible internal opposition has been Islamist based. The paper notes that feminists of both persuasions must now make a choice between withdrawal and engagement. If engagement prevails, then collaborative efforts between Islamists and secularists are inevitable.

Parvin Paidar is the Programme Director for Central Asia at Save the Children (United Kingdom). Her research interests include gender and social development issues in developing countries, and she has written on Iran and Islam from a gender perspective.

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