WOMEN’S RIGHTS AND FEMINIST MOVEMENTS IN IRAN

Women’s status and rights in contemporary Iran, and thereby the trajectory of Iranian women’s activism and feminist movements, seem paradoxical and complicated.2 For instance, how could women under a conservative Islamist clerical state, which has pursued sex segregation and many extreme forms of legal and practical discrimination against women, show impressive educational attainment, even surpassing men in higher education? But why have women’s remarkable educational achievements not corresponded
with their employment opportunities, economic and occupational mobility, or with their representation in political decision-making? Why have Iranian women’s labor force participation rates and share of representation in the Parliament remained among the lowest in the world, even in comparison to other Middle Eastern countries?
Or how could Iran become exemplary in the world for its success in reducing fertility rates in a few decades by more than two-thirds, from 6.6 births per woman in the mid1970s to about 1.8 births per woman in 2010, and to 2.1 even in rural areas?!3How could this have happened while the Islamic government dismantled Iran’s national family planning soon after the 1979 revolution because it was viewed as a Western innovation? What factors changed the earlier pro-natalist policy of the conservative
state to a widespread support for family planning and birth control? And why in more recent years, has the state (or at least the more powerful and more conservative faction of it) shifted again to nasalism and yet is not really succeeding in its attempts to reverse the fertility to a much higher rate?
Many factors have shaped women’s contradictory status in present Iran, including the patriarchal and patrimonial patterns in Iranian history and culture, be it secular or religious (Islamic), the state policy and state ideology, the influential ideological or intellectual trends such as nationalism, anti-imperialism, socialism, Islamism, and more recently liberalism and a human rights framework. External and international factors, especially Western imperial meddling too have influenced state policies and
intellectual discourses pertaining to women’s rights and gender issues. Another set of factors, of increased influence in more recent years, has to do with increased processes of globalization and the international currency of the discourses of human/women’s rights spreading through the United Nations (U.N.) and transnational feminist activism and new communication technology such as the satellite television, the Internet and social media. Increased globalization has intensified a “glocal” dialectic, meaning the interplay of the local-national factors with the global-international factors. The glocal and transnational dynamism in Iranian society have become particularly intensified in the past four decades due to the impact of millions of forced or voluntary exiles and emigration, mostly settled in Western Europe and North America. This massive exodus of Iranians, mostly due to political reasons, has entailed a drastic brain drain for the country. Yet, it has also resulted in the formation of many diasporic communities of
Iranians that include thousands of highly educated and accomplished professionals, many of them still devoted to the cause of human rights and democracy for Iran. This has offered Iran’s civil rights and women’s rights movements with a resourceful and well-connected new potential. More specifically, the Iranian diasporic feminist activism has made up one of the significant components of transnational connections, cross pollination, and glocal process of socio-cultural changes in Iran of today.

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