In the third decade of the Islamic Republic, Iran is going through a transition as significant as that which brought about the 1979 Revolution. The radical discourse of the 1980s is giving way to a more pluralistic one that is trying to reconcile Islam with democracy and human rights. The turning point in this transition was the 1997 presidential election that brought the moderate government of Mohammad Khatami to power. It gave birth to a reformist movement which, against intense and sometimes violent opposition, is paving the way for “democracy Iranian style”.
The most visible outcome of this movement is the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ in which different notions of Islam, modernity and citizenship are openly debated. I use ‘the public sphere’ in Habermas’s sense: “a theatre in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk. It is the space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs, hence an institutionalized arena of discursive interaction.” For almost three years between June 1997, when Khatami was elected, and June 2000, when the Sixth Majles opened, the press was the main site of such discourses in Iran. Assuming the role of absent political parties, the press also became the sole platform through which the reformists could promote their agenda and their vision for a democratic system of governance. In so doing, the press injected notions such as transparency, accountability, the rule of law and respect for the civil rights of individuals into the political culture of the Islamic Republic. All this was done under the rubric of ‘Civil Society’ (jame'eh madani).
In this paper, I examine the ways in which women have been able to use the emergent public sphere to debate and negotiate constructions of gender rights in law and in society. I shall do this through a discussion of women’s magazines, which, as we shall see, are the main site of production of discourses on gender rights. I ask two central questions:
To what extent is the emergence of this ‘public sphere’ in Iran linked to women’s participation in the political process, and their agitation for more rights?
What do these magazines and the positions they adopt tell us about the potential of the reform movement for creating a democratic society in the context of an Islamic Republic?
The paper is based on my field research in Tehran during Spring, 2000. At the time, there were ten publications that could be defined as women’s magazines. All but two were aligned with the reform movement, though belonging to different political factions and tendencies in the Islamic Republic, and adhering to different gender perspectives. I discuss them in chronological order, locating them within the wider context of the reform movement. Rather than focusing on their content as ‘texts’, I focus on who produces them, whose voice and what gender perspective they represent. I shall do this by recounting my debates with their editors, with some of whom I had already established a dialogue in the early 1990s.
Our journey into the swirl of ideas and experiences around the concept of civil society continues today as we grapple with the challenge of applying slippery abstractions like ‘secularism,’ ‘the rule of law,’ and ‘pluralism’ to the realities of daily life in transitional Muslim states.
We will do so this afternoon with regard to emerging civic cultures in the Maghreb, Indonesia and Malaysia. But first, we set off this morning for post-revolutionary Iran, which has just had an election. Let me start by sketching the broader context in which our focus on gender can be located.
Last year saw the publication of an acclaimed book by the American journalist Robin Wright, who has been covering Iran for three decades. She titled it The Last Great Revolution (Alfred Knopf, 2000) which may seem like an exaggeration, but is ably defended by her on three grounds:
First, the events of 1979 introduced a whole new activist idiom that was ‘Islamic’ in inspiration with which to promote the claims of liberty, equality and solidarity. At a US State Department Conference in 1984, the director of the University of Chicago’s Middle East Institute, Marvin Zonis, remarked that we were witnessing “the single most impressive political ideology in the twentieth century” since the Russian Revolution, which was itself a remnant of the 19th century. So, Professor Zonis concluded, we only have “one good one in the 20th,” the Iranian.
Second, the Revolution impacted the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world – a swath of humanity that spans 50 countries and one in five inhabitants of the earth – a swath that seemed to have been bypassed altogether in the resurgence of democratic culture of the late 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Third, and most important for our purposes, the Revolution fuelled a search for alternatives to failed state institutions, from schools and medical clinics to farm co-operatives and social welfare agencies. In other words, Muslim groups struggled to create afresh a civil society – the network of associations and clubs for workers, teachers, engineers, women, youth and other segments of society that became a way of tackling problems that government ignored.
It comes as no surprise that Abdolkarim Soroush – the key Iranian intellectual voice on civil society – calls on his compatriots to “cling to freedom among God’s favorite creations,” and to “tolerate the thorns for the sake of the beauty of the flower.” But even Iran's President, Mohammed Khatami, told the United Nations in 1998 that, “much too often, will and freedom of thought have been frustrated and liberty suffocated in the name of salvation.”
And how did theocratic politics sit with this pursuit of freedom? Soroush, himself a man of deep faith, pulls no punches, “Secularism has nothing to do with hostility to religion,” he insists.
If there is one group of citizens who would thrive in a more secular culture outside the confines of the private sphere, that group would surely be women.
Of course there are Iranian women who thrive in theocratic culture, as our guest speaker has observed in her writings. Yet the fact remains that inasmuch as civil society is about the public sphere rather than the private, the capacity of civic institutions to allow the individual to engage in effective citizenship arguably requires generous space between Mosque and State – certainly a lot more than is possible when the two are fused.
The result – in an Iran still transforming radically from what its early revolutionaries had envisioned for their society – is that when it comes to gender relations, there is more than the usual “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” syndrome that we hear about in the West. Rather, as Robin Wright puts it, “men are from Tehran, women are from Isfahan.” You only need a modicum of Persian cultural geography to appreciate that this is no compliment to Iranian men.