Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000

Islam and Feminisms: An Iranian Case-Study

Haleh Afshar
Macmillan: Basingstoke
0333771206 (pb)
15.99 (pb)
xiv + 236

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This is an important book. Written with analytic precision and an impressive command of her subject matter, Haleh Afshar charts the complex and often paradoxical struggle of elite Iranian Islamic feminists not merely to gain rights for women, many of them lost in the revolution, but to do so through public argumentation which draws on the Koran and prophetic traditions. In the course of this debate, pious revolutionaries have become expert interpreters and the conservative, misogynist face of Shi'a Islam is being fundamentally and irrevocably challenged. Although there is still a long way to go, one discerns the emergent contours of a new Islamic modernism, far more radical and revolutionary than its earlier islamic counterparts. The important revisionist work of Muslim women scholars such as Fatima Mernissi or Leila Ahmed is obviously central to this project internationally, but Afshar shows how arguments about Islam and women's right are set in the political context of contemporary Iranian parliamentary, media and religious debates.

Hence, where the book scores is in the fascinating insight it affords us into Iran's post-revolutionary state, as well as into the complex alliance politics in which Islamist women parliamentarians and lawyers have engaged with consummate diplomacy and skill. Since the revolution a handful of women parliamentarians, supported by a women's press and liberal islamist men, have worked tirelessly to reverse draconian post-revolutionary Islamic laws which legalised domestic violence against women in the home, honour killings with impunity, divorce without compensation, polygamy without consultation, women child marriage, forced veiling and more generally, set out to deprive women of their right to work as judges, lawyers, doctors, university lecturers and other professionals. In its close examination of alliance politics between men and women and between islamist and secular women in Iran, the book goes well beyond feminist arguments that recognise that women's bodies have become icons of islamist nationalism, or recent studies of young women's veiling such as Nilofar Gole's excellent study of the 'new' veiling in Turkey.

Post-revolutionary Iran emerges as a state with an active parliament (the majlis) which regularly debates and passes laws, and which expects these laws to be enforced. In the absence of official political parties, women (who have the vote) can form an effective lobby alongside other reformers. Although there are islamist vigilante groups beyond the law (the 'moral police,' hizbullah) on the whole, it seems, parliament expects the state to implement the bills it passes. This means that legal achievements by the women's lobby are real achievements with an impact on the judiciary and the society in general. This is why parliamentary debates and resolutions in which islamist women, pious supporters of the revolution against the Shah, join with secular women and the more liberal religious male establishment, are so important. Although Afshar does not makes this point explcitly, the law actually seems to count in Iran, and its revision has major repercussions for the way Islam is conceived of, understood and interpreted in daily life.

Also fascinating is the unexpected importance which Iranian ayatollahs, politicians and parliamentarians attach to Iran's international standing as the defender of 'Islamic women's human rights.' If Afshar is right, the ayatollahs are all too conscious of world public opinion, and it is on this concern that islamist women rely in their struggle for women's rights. Officially, at least, the fundamental belief motivating the islamist position is that Islam gives women more and better rights and protection than does Western liberalism. Although they constantly resort to essentialising and highly degrading constructions of women as emotional, irrational and passive, and hence to be confined to home making, Iranian religious leaders nevertheless want the revolution to be a beacon to the whole Muslim world, and they recognise that the position of women in Iran is the litmus test of the achievements of the revolution. This, in a sense, is their Achilles heel, exploited by the reformers.

Afshar rightly concludes that despite their islamist credentials, what is striking about elite Iranian women islamists is the way they have ultimately embraced a much broader, international vision of women's equal rights, whether or not this vision assumes an Islamic rhetorical veneer; moreover, it is a vision for which Iranian women have struggled under different regimes over a hundred years. While we know almost nothing about her own positioning, Afshar is admirably consistent in her focus on these islamist women whom she clearly esteems for their enormous courage and political acumen. If I have any quibbles about the book, it is the virtual absence of any information on how the research was conducted. For example, Afshar draws very heavily throughout the book on citations from one women's journal, Zaneh Ruz, yet we are given only perfunctory information in passing about the journal. One can only assume that Afshar has translated the passages she cites herself. Nevertheless, this is an enormously original book, lucidly written in a highly balanced way. For anyone interested in Islam or the women's movement, it is essential reading, revealing the complexities of cultural religious politics in today's world.

Pnina Werbner
Keele University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000