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International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 16, No. 4, Summer 2003 (C
II. The Problematics of Globalization
Islamic Fundamentalism and Women\u2019s
Economic Role: The Case of Iran
Roksana Bahramitash

It is commonly believed that Islamic fundamentalism is responsible for the low female employment rate in the Middle East and North Africa. I earlier presented evidence from Indonesia indicating that the deteriorating condi- tions of women\u2019s economic role in the 1990s was related to the economic cir- cumstances of the Asian Crisis, not to the rise of political Islam (Bahranitash, 2002). In fact, inIndonesia, increasing support for the Islamic movement was itself spurred by the Asian Crisis. As a contrasting case, I here examine Iran, a country where political Islam has been in power for over two decades. If commonly held views about the impact of the Islamic religion on female em- ployment were true, one would expect a steady or sharp decline of the female employment rate in postrevolutionary Iran. The empirical data show the re- verse. Women\u2019s formal employment rates increased in the 1990s and did so much faster than they had during the 1960s and 1970s, when a pro-Western secular regime was in power. This sharp increase in women\u2019s employment seriously challenges the view that religion explains women\u2019s economic status in Muslim countries. The evidence from Iran indicates that the situation of women\u2019s employment there has followed a common pattern of elsewhere in the South\u2014an overall increase in female employment. This fact then suggests that the forces of international political economy, rather than religion, ap- pear to be a determining factor in the state of women\u2019s economic role inIran.

KEY WORDS:fundamentalism; Islamization; political Islam; Iran; Iranian women\u2019s
employment; Islamic laws and women\u2019s rights; economic liberalization.

In two companion articles, I examine stereotypical views about the po- sition of women in the Muslim world. The \ufb01rst piece examined the case of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world (Bahramitash 2002).

Postdoctoral fellow at Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University, Annex MU 1455 de Maisonneuve West, MU 201-3, Montreal Quebec H3G 1M8, Canada. E-mail: rbahramitash@hotmail.com.

\ue0002003 Human Sciences Press, Inc.

This second part of the paper focuses on Iran, a country that overthrew a Western-style modernizer dictator and replaced himwith anIslamist regime. What makes Iran an important case is that it is located in the Middle East, at the core of the Muslimworld. This region has different political, economic, and social dynamics from Southeast Asia.

The Middle East and North Africa have exceptionally low female em- ployment, which lends support to the stereotypical views. In this region, the of\ufb01cial rate varies from 13 percent in the United Arab Emirates and Oman to 35 percent in Morocco. To provide the reader with a general picture at the world level, in industrialized countries the employment rate for women is around 40 to 46 percent; among the less-industrialized countries, the rates in Southeast Asia are around 30 percent, in Sub-Saharan Africa between 40 and 50 percent, and in Latin America (with some exceptions, such as Peru) above 30 percent (World Development Indicator 2001).

Muslim traditions can and, in many cases, do have a negative impact if they are translated into law and social practice in a conservative way. But that is true of virtually all religions. The dif\ufb01culty is that such explana- tions can be simplistic, shifting the main focus of analysis from the material to the ideological plane while reinforcing popular (usually very negative) stereotypes.

The Fall of \u201cModernization\u201d and the Rise of Political Islam

It is an established fact among scholars as well as policymakers that data on female employment is highly problematic and tends to undercount real participation rates. But even if the correctly measured participation rate is relatively low in theMiddleEast andNorthAfrica, the notion that this can be attributed exclusively or even largely to theology is misleading. Looking at the history of political economy of the past few decades provides evidence that the fall of modernization and, more recently, of neoliberal economic policy has played a huge role in the rise of political Islam. This point was discussed in the previous paper on Indonesia, but in the case of Iran there is an additional political factor involved related to the cold war.

After World War II, the United States led the West in a program of \u201cdevelopment\u201d in an effort to head off the appeal of communism in the South. The prevailing doctrine was \u201cmodernization\u201d\u2014meaning urbanization and industrialization at the expense of agriculture and rural self-suf\ufb01ciency. The promise was that the application of the modernization model would leadto prosperity, de\ufb01ned as access to western consumer goods and lifestyles. Throughout the 1950s and1960s, money and expertise \ufb02owed fromthe North to the South to modernize/westernize both the economy and the society. Also essential in many cases was the imposition of strong-arm regimes com- mitted to imposing the essential changes in political and economic culture

Islamic Fundamentalism and Women\u2019s Economic Role: The Case of Iran

and to building and defending the essential infrastructure through which a modernization-Westernization program could be built. By the late 1970s, it was clearly a failure (Warren 1973; Wallerstein 1979; Cardoso and Faletto 1979). Poverty and income disparity grew, while industrialization did not keep pace with urbanization and population growth. Policy makers in inter- national institutions such as the WorldBank andthe International Monetary Fund (IMF) blamed the failure on the role of the state in developing coun- tries (Bhagwati and Desai 1970; Lal 1983; Little 1982). As a result, in the 1980s, these institutions shifted to an emphasis on limiting the role of the state in economic life, cutting back public expenditure, particularly on social welfare, and shifting resources from the domestic sector to repay the foreign debts accumulated in the previous failed strategy (Elson 1995).

But there was a widespread backlash. There were efforts in many parts of the South to defend and revive cultural and religious traditions as an al- ternative to the failed modernization model and in an effort to alleviate the social and economic distress imposed by the new market fundamentalism. In some Muslim countries, this alternative has taken the form of a return to Islamic traditions in order to deal with the unsettling fruits of forced modernization-Westernization (Beinin and Stork 1997). Indeed, this should hardly have been a surprise to the West. In areas like Afghanistan (and, where possible, in Soviet Central Asia) a Green Belt of \u201cIslamic fundamen- talism\u201d was encouraged as a tool in the Cold War confrontation with the USSR.1

Since the end of the cold war, with mainstream economic policy\u2019s em- phasis on unregulated markets and limiting the role of the state, poverty and income disparity have been on the rise. Increasedpoverty has attracted many to Islam throughout the Muslimworld. Many women are extremely active at the grass-roots level. Rising income disparity and poverty have increased their total burden: women are often forced to scrape for monetary income while at the same time assuming a larger workload in caring for family and extended family in the absence of state support. It is not surprising to see that the number of women who joined Hezbollah in Lebanon grow as the state collapsed. Exchanging welfare assistance for their families for a return of conservative Muslim tradition seems a low price to pay. In fact, it may not be seen as a cost at all.2

But what exactly has Islamisation meant for women? This may be an- swered by looking at the more radical forms of Islam that developed in Iran, Pakistan, and, more recently, Afghanistan. Though all three cases have undergone Islamisation, the experiences of women have been far from ho- mogenous and have changed over time. In the case of Iran, feminist agitation has led to a gradual loosening of religious codes concerning women\u2019s em- ployment and their public role. In the case of Pakistan, a return to Shari\u2019a laws has had much less impact onwomen\u2019s entry into the labour market than

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