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Western vs Iranian Feminism

The definition of feminism is varied. Feminism can be related to advocating equal rights

between men and women. Others connote it with rebellious, radical women who revolt against

men. For the purpose of this paper, we will assume the first definition. When coming to a

consensus as to the definition of feminism, there is no correlation to one specific route to take

towards legal and social equality between men and women. Take for example Western versus

Iranian feminists. A Westerner’s perspective on feminism is different from an Iranian’s view.

Both fight for equality between men and women but how they go about doing so differs.

Although both differ, does it necessarily mean that one is better than the other? Does one

morally transcend the other? Through a Western perspective, Iranian women are limited through

their governmental requirements and restrictions; however who is to say that Westerners’

opinions on feminism and advances for women should be the judge for others? Because of

Iranian women’s limitations, Western thinkers argue that feminism does not exist in Iran.

Iranian women however, have found their own ways for fighting for equality between men and

women and just because their route for equality does not parallel the Western’s way, their ways

are nonetheless as valid as Westerners, differing because of their contingency upon their

religious and societal context such as cultural and political factors.

In the case of Iran there currently exists an Islamic theocracy. The government of Iran

abides by Islamic jurisdiction ever since the overthrow of the Pahlavi Dynasty through the 1979

Islamic Revolution. The Pahlavi Dynasty was a monarchy that pushed for Westernization in

Iran. They repressed religious groups and ordinary Muslims. A mass grass root

religious/socialist group develops in 1979 and overthrows the monocracy and establishes a

religiously based government. It uses the Qur’an as their source of guidelines for making laws
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and running a society. According to Khaled Abou El Fadl, the society is based on Shariah laws,

which is in essence God’s law, (i.e. the Qur’an). Shariah is then divine law but because God is

not present to dictate such matters there exists Fiqh defined as the human interpretation of

Sharia. Human interpretation, however, is problematic because of its subjectivity. How one

interprets a phrase may differ starkly from another depending on who you are and what your

status is. For example, a male Muslim may interpret differently froma woman Muslim. El Fadl

concludes that “Shariah is immutable, immaculate, and flawless – fiqh is not” (El Fadl, 18)

According to Western writers and their articles, they would find many objections to the

Islamic based government. Western feminists such as Susan Okin and Courtney Howland would

find it very suppressive to female rights. Both would argue against the legalized system that

takes away from women’s independence. To Okin, the reliance on religious text by the

government limits the individual’s rights (mostly women) in favor of community rights.. Henkin

would also argue against the legalized system because it is religious-based and he believes that

human rights and religion should not be basis for one another. With a theocracy, religion is the

focus and guideline for human rights.

Susan Okin, a Western feminist, argues against multiculturalism on the basis that it limits

female rights. She argues that minority groups in Western countries are given too much

freedom, or ‘special rights’ (Okin, 11) that favor the group rights as a whole but at the expense of

limiting individual rights. They are given these rights in order to provide them freedom to

practice their cultural traditions which allow whole fulfillment in their lives and because many

minority groups have an endangered culture. According to her, these reasons are “inconsistent

with the basic liberal value of individual freedom, which entails that group rights should not

trump the individual rights of its members” (Okin, 11). Okin writes that most cultures are filled
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with practices and ideologies concerning gender. To Okin these cultures aim at having men

control women and/or using women as scapegoats. She finds that there is inequality not only in

the public sphere of the culture, but the private spheres as well and that these private inequalities

affect their roles and duties in the public spheres. Such private spheres include the “distribution

of responsibilities and power at home” (Okin, 13), laws of marriage and divorce, and child

custody. “The more a culture requires or expects of women in the domestic sphere, the less

opportunity they have of achieving equality with men in either space” (Okin, 13).

Okin includes extreme cases of which women are discriminated upon by blaming them

for men’s sexual needs; she mentions clitoridectomy, polygamy, and arranged marriages. Okin

finds that culture is not the sole reason for this inequality between genders but that religion plays

an important part as well. She claims that the religiously based cultures that refer to historical

texts and traditions for guidelines about how to live in the modern world only limit women’s

freedom. Okin admits that most cultures, even Western ones, have patriarchal pasts, but believes

that Western liberal cultures have strayed away from patriarchy the most. According to Okin,

the West’s discrimination upon women is less severe because women are granted legalized rights

that grant them “many of the same freedoms and opportunities as men” (Okin, 16). It is also less

severe because the Western culture “[does] not communicate to their daughters that they are of

less value than boys” and that “their sexuality is of value only in marriage and in the service of

men” (Okin, 17). But she believes that it is not so in the case of minority cultures.

Courtney Howland, another Western feminist, focuses on the conflict between religion

and sex. She argues that religious fundamentalism is detrimental for women’s rights because of

its differentiation between men and women; she criticizes their legalized system of

discrimination. In the balance between individual and community rights, she believes that both
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are entitled to their own same rights but at the same time are not allowed to take away from one

another. The law does not protect religiously motivated racial intolerance and neither should the

law protect gender intolerance. She believes international law should step in when legalized

religious laws limit women and their freedom.

It is not only women but male writers as well, such as Louis Henkin, that are concerned

with equal rights between both genders; he discuss universal human rights in general in relation

to religions. Henkin argues that human rights and religion are differing ideologies that cannot

have each other as its roots for existence. He argues this because of their differing derivations

and sets of beliefs. Human rights derive within human beings from their human dignity and its

set of beliefs is outlaid in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Religions on the other hand believe in divine law which transcends the human species, and their

sources are their sacred texts such as the Bible and the Qur’an. While he opts for cooperation

between the two, he nonetheless believes that human rights are beneficial for human beings

while religions pose limitations in such areas as gender and religious choice.

In the article Feminism in an Islamic Republic: “Years of Hardship and Years of

Growth” by Afsaneh Najmabadi, she at first provides justification for these writers. She

mentions the theocracy and the Shariah based codified system, which attempts to

constitutionalize God’s Law. She agrees that patriarchy is institutionalized and that there are

legalized restrictions such as mandatory veiling, the denial of women’s right to divorce, and

reserving the right to judge exclusive for men. Secular feminists were easy targets for repression

and thus limiting their ability to organize. Yet despite all of this, the title includes the words

growth and feminism. How can there be growth and feminism in Iran after knowing the

arguments of Okin, Howland, Henkin, and Donnelly? In actuality there is feminism in Iran
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despite the arguments of the four writers. In order to be able to see it though, one must see it

with the social context of Iran in mind. It is problematic to judge them with Western writings,

such as Okin, Howland, and Henkin, because it goes against cultural relativism. It would be

judging them from the eyes of a Westerner’s perspective and not from an Iranian’s standpoint; in

doing so, the Westerner’s point of view of feminism is privileged above an Iranian’s.

It is true that the Islamic Republic has enforced more restrictive laws that many Iranian

women feel are restrictive but according to Najmabadi, about two decades after the 1979 Islamic

Revolution it is seen that women “have an active presence in practically every filed of artistic

creation, professional achievement, educational and industrial institutions, and even in sports

activities” (Najmabadi, 59). What accounts for this under a so-called suppressive government

defined by the Westerners? Secularist feminists have attributed this to inevitability; women were

eventually going to rebel because of constant suppression; however, it is arguable that the

Islamic Republic has actually helped the opportunities for women. “Others have turned the

restrictions and limitations imposed by the government and by the dominant ideas about gender

roles and ethics into wedges to open up new arenas for their creative energies” (Najmabadi, 59).

Because of the new Islamic Republic, there is more religious freedom for Muslims. Prior

to that, secularist rule was intact and it made it illegal for women to veil. Because of this, many

women disappeared from the public life. Also because of mandatory veiling, women are taking

on more public roles because now it is considered safe for them to come out. More women in

the public sphere allows for women grouping together, be they secularists or Islamic, and

collaborating on common goals. Women journals are a product of this. Through stories and

articles shared by women, it has helped rethink the role of gender in Islam. One certain

prominent journal that outwardly labels themselves feminists is Zanan.

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Zanan has found innovative ways within the construct of the government to defend

women’s rights through the usage of reinterpreting Islamic sources, and logical reasoning.

Through this way, Zanan has put the power of interpretation into a woman’s hands. Because the

government is now a theocracy, life in Iran evolves around the Qur’an; like a good citizen in

America would abide by the constitution, a good Iranian citizen abides by the Qur’an. Opposing

to laws against the Qur’an poses opposition to God. Under Khomeini’s doctrine, which was put

into the Iranian constitution, it states “every citizen by virtue of rights of citizenship becomes

entitled to take charge of these texts and exercise power of interpretation”. This new constitution

calls for women to interpret the Qur’an and other religious texts for themselves rather than it

being reserved for religious scholars and males. This freedom proves advantageous for women

in their plight for equality by reevaluating laws, traditions, and assumptions that are suppressive

to women. Zanan authors uses this to advantage to “engage in direct interpretations in their own

right” (Najmabadi, 65) and “reading the Qur’an as a woman” (Najmabadi, 66).

According to Okin, Iran’s usage of an old text looks to the past to pertain to living in the

contemporary world; this allows for further discrimination against women. Zanan has found a

way around this by reinterpretation of Quranic verses such as verse Sura 4:34 Nisa’1 which has

been commonly used to justify men’s superiority and beating of their wives. What Zanan does is

dissect and analyze the “linguistic constructions of the Arabic language” (Najmabadi, 66) to

argue against that assumption. Due to the lack of vowels in the Arabic language, the usages of

words are very flexible. One word may have several different meanings; for example, take the

Arabic word d-r-b which is in the verse. It is interpreted as ‘beat them’ but its other meanings
Men are the managers of the affairs of women that God has preferred in bounty one of them
over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore
obedient, guiarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious,
admonish; banish them to their couches and beat them. (Najmabadi, 66)
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include “turn one’s face away, to move to put an end to, to go along with, to stay at home, to

change , to have intercourse with” (Najmabadi, 67). Thus because the meaning ‘beat them’ can

be interchangeable with those other meanings, the interpretation of the verse is subjective. The

assumption that men are allowed to beat their wives when they are rebellious could be wrong and

really the interpretation should be that men stay at home with their wives. This reinterpretation

proves a counter to Howland’s claim about legalized discrimination. While there is mandatory

veiling, it has allowed women to come out of the house more; while the country’s rules are

derived from the Quran, women are encouraged to reinterpret it on their own and to their benefit.

Zanan addresses the creational differences between genders and renders them

unnecessary in shaping different ideologies and social responsibilities/rights between genders.

The Quranic verse “the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most god-fearing of you”

does not specify gender as the importance for God but rather a person’s religious piety.

Therefore there should be no legal inequalities between men and women and men are not

superior to women. “Difference does not mean superiority. It just means difference”

(Najmabadi, 67), thereby concluding that physical difference is merely physical difference and

should not correlate to differences within social responsibilities/rights between sexes. This

disproves Henkin who believes that religion limits human rights.

Another thing Zanan authors do is take into consideration the well being of a woman as

an individual. Under legal marriage contract women are expected to be obedient to their

husbands in exchange for their provisions. Women are subjected to “special obedience”, “that a

wife should submit sexually to her husband whenever and wherever he desires” (Najmabadi, 68).

Zanan authors argue, however that despite these legal and religious grounds, “what a woman

feels at the time” (Najmabadi, 68) should be taken into consideration. Because a relationship is
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dependent on the well being of the two partners, if the women feels she is not physically or

emotional prepared for intercourse, refusal does not constitute disobedience but rather they are

just not ready. This kind of example was not portrayed in Okin’s article, Is Multiculturalism

Bad for Women. Rather, she does the extreme and exposes only the radical

Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi, provides an inside look into the lives of several

different Iranian woman and their plights. The stories illustrate situations such as arranged

marriage and sex. There were those that consented to arranged marriage for prosperity and there

was one in which she ran away from her arranged husband because he was much older. Two of

the females had gotten plastic surgery to enhance their looks. It is very surprising how within the

confines of a living room, how open and blunt the women are with one another. The contrast she

makes within the book is striking. In the beginning, Satrapi portrays the women and men dining

together, showing the politeness of her Grandmother to her Grandfather. Alone, the women

gather and open up, sharing stories of their own or others. In the end, the Grandfather attempts

to join in the conversation only to be politely, but sternly, kicked out. This shows a role reversal

and exemplifies a way of women speaking out. In the beginning of the graphic novel it seemed

as if the men were in control but when the women were together, they were stronger. In a way,

the situation in Iran is similar to this book. Seemingly and on the cover, it seems as if the women

are constricted within the confines of their country but on the inside, the women have benefited

by banding together and finding ways through the system to achieve their liberation.

Because of the differing way of life between the West and Iran, both places have their

individual ways of handling problems. Because of the emphasis of individualism and a

democratic government, a Western’s point of view will differ from a country in which

community is valued over the individual and a theocracy rules. One does not validate over the
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other. Despite the clash between the three Western writers, Okin, Howland, and Henkin, and the

situation in Iran, women are still able to find freedom and a voice within their country. While

each author made good points, they over generalized the countries, cultures, and religion as

whole. According to them, feminism would not exist in Iran because of many reasons, mostly

because that the government is religiously derived. Despite this, Iranian women have still made

advances as well as stands to men. It need not be identical to the Western way. Western females

have found their own way of fighting for equality and so have Iranian females through

collaboration. Both females though strive for the same thing, which is equality between men and

women. Acknowledging and accepting their differences could prove more beneficial than

harmful, and could help advance their stride for equality by learning from one another.