In the language of the Islamic sacred texts: the tripartite struggle for advocating women's rights in the Iran of the 1990s

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DOI: 10.1080/1360200042000296726
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The article focuses on the campaign for women's rights in the Iran of the 1990s on the basis of the reinterpretation of Islamic sacred texts. Reflecting on the discursive limits on legal discourse imposed by the current theocratic regime, secular and religious women in Iran have joined to frame arguments in favor of women's rights in Islamic terms rather than with reference to liberal human rights discourses. As women are excluded from reaching clerical positions that would endow them with the authority to engage in theologically recognized reinterpretation of the Islamic sacred texts, this encounter has hinged, it will be argued, on a collaboration with male reform‐minded clerics, whose arguments the women's movement has learned to appropriate and advance for its own purposes and interests. The campaign for women's rights in Iran has thus necessitated a rare symbiosis not only between secular and religious women, but also between women and male reformist clerics—a symbiosis which has largely been neglected by scholarly accounts of the women's rights movement and whose implications for the greater reformist project in Iran have yet to be examined more carefully.
Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 2, October 2004
In the Language of the Islamic Sacred Texts: The
Tripartite Struggle for Advocating Women’s Rights in
the Iran of the 1990s
The article focuses on the campaign for women’s rights in the Iran of the 1990s on the basis
of the reinterpretation of Islamic sacred texts. Reflecting on the discursive limits on legal
discourse imposed by the current theocratic regime, secular and religious women in Iran have
joined to frame arguments in favor of women’s rights in Islamic terms rather than with
reference to liberal human rights discourses. As women are excluded from reaching clerical
positions that would endow them with the authority to engage in theologically recognized
reinterpretation of the Islamic sacred texts, this encounter has hinged, it will be argued, on a
collaboration with male reform-minded clerics, whose arguments the women’s movement has
learned to appropriate and advance for its own purposes and interests. The campaign for
women’s rights in Iran has thus necessitated a rare symbiosis not only between secular and
religious women, but also between women and male reformist clerics—a symbiosis which has
largely been neglected by scholarly accounts of the women’s rights movement and whose
implications for the greater reformist project in Iran have yet to be examined more carefully.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, established in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution,
dramatically reversed significant advances towards women’s rights gained in the last
years of the Shah regime. In the republic’s early days, public activism of women was
branded ‘un-Islamic’ and their role in public matters largely eliminated through
paralyzing provisions that removed them from public offices, enforced a restrictive
public dress code and curtailed privileges and enforced protective clauses for women in
the private sphere.
However, despite the attempted restriction on women’s public appearances and the
generally unfavorable laws concerning forms of association and expression, women
have mobilized again since the earlier part of the 1990s and have continued their
emancipative struggle originally launched during the grand years of social mobilization
in Iran, the late 1960s and 1970s.1This development was an effect, not the least, of the
urgency of women’s issues that emerged during the Iran–Iraq war. The apparent
‘incapability’ of shariah-based Islamic law, as applied in Iran, in tackling the social
problems of Iran’s society has constantly motivated women to initiate debate on the
appropriate application and the legitimacy of official interpretations of Islamic core
texts by the Shi’i clergy.2Perhaps learning the lessons of contention in a theocratic
regime, women activists have pursued a recourse to theological reasoning since the
early 1990s, attempting to use and advance reinterpretations of Islam in order to plead
for more egalitarian provisions in both the civil and criminal code and the institutional
ISSN 1360-2004 print/ISSN 1469-9591 online/04/020375-18 ©2004 Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs
DOI: 10.1080/1360200042000296726
376 Mirjam Ku¨nkler
Since women are excluded from reaching clerical positions that would endow them
with the authority to engage in recognized reinterpretation of the sacred texts, this
encounter has to a great extent been dependent upon male reformist clerics, whose
arguments the movement has learned to use for its purposes and interests. The
predominant medium in this endeavor has been the women’s press, providing the
forum for the publication, distribution and advocacy of such arguments.
In the context of integrating specific reformist approaches into its body of claims and
demands, the women’s movement has hence made use of the wider reformist religious
discourse and specific gender-related arguments comprised therein to advance the
improvement of the woman’s status in the Islamic republic. The women’s press, so I
argue, has contributed considerably in bringing the debate of Islamic reinterpretation
into the open, thus eliciting it of its secluded academic and clerical environment into
the wider public sphere.
The focus of this article will be placed on the increasing trend in the women’s
movement to advance more egalitarian notions on the basis of Islamic reinterpretation
in the women’s press, drawing on clerical discussions that usually take place in specific
clerical media largely unnoticed by the general public. In bringing together religious
women, secular activists and reformist clerics, the journals have brokered previously
unconnected actors. Moreover, the staging of the reformist debate in the women’s press
has enabled women of both secular and religious background to engage in it from their
individual professional backgrounds, thereby enriching it with arguments emanating
from approaches other than Islamic theology.
First I will look at the women’s situation before and after the revolution and briefly
describe how the social developments in the 1980s and 1990s have exposed the
inadequacy of applied shariah law. I will then discuss the development of women’s
mobilization despite disciplining policies and the increasing cooperation between secu-
lar and religious activists. Later I will expose the major arguments tackled in the
women’s press, review the sources of Islamic law and discuss how their legitimacy is
partly contested in the debate. Finally, I will look at the role of the women’s press as
a vehicle for change in the recent context of reform in the country.
The Curtailment of Women’s Rights
Women’s rights had become part of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s explicit project
of the ‘modernization’ of Iranian society.3While the veil had been outlawed in the
period of 1936–1941 under Shah Reza Pahlavi, his son Mohammad pursued a less
disruptive but more thorough policy towards the realization of women’s rights as part
of his ‘White revolution’, including the institution of suffrage for women in 1962 and
of the family protection law in 1967, which was modified in favor of women in 1975.4
Under this law strict limits were put on polygamy, husbands could no longer divorce
through only a thrice-repeated statement, and the grounds for divorce were made
similar for women and men. Child custody, which under Shi’i law usually goes to the
husband, was now awarded to either parent. Most important, the main provisions of
the Family Protection Law were now written into every marriage contract as a way to
render the marriage ‘Islamically legitimate’.5
While legal reform before the 1979 Islamic revolution had thus strengthened
women’s rights in marriage, divorce and child custody, the rise of political Islam in the
1970s, moreover, helped to create an arena in which Muslim women could reconcile
their faith with their new gender awareness. The grand participation of women in the
Women’s Rights and Islamic Sacred Texts 377
revolution endowed them with a sense of power and political weight.6But although
women had been a major force during the revolution, women’s rights were dramatically
curtailed in the early 1980s.7Thus, women were discouraged from high government
posts in the early Islamic republic and female judges were removed, educational
institutions segregated, divorce was eased for men, while made more difficult for
women and the theoretical minimum marriage age for girls lowered from 18 to nine
years.8Now women needed their husband’s permission if they wanted to pursue a
profession.9Coeducation was outlawed. The Family Protection Law was annulled, an
unreformed Islamic law instated; temporary marriage and polygamy were encouraged
during the Iran–Iraq war and an Islamic dress code for women enforced in public that
was to cover everything except for the face and the hands, and made it very difficult for
women to engage in all kinds of physical activities.10
But the 1979 constitution of the Islamic Republic also specified that all Iranians, men
and women, were equal under the law.11 In the course of growing mobilization against
the unreformed application of Islamic law, women learned to use this as an opening,
which allowed them in the later 1980s to contest unequal treatment. Until today,
women have thus slowly succeeded in regaining some of the rights and privileges
granted under the Shah regime, although they have arguably not been able to target
beyond those.12
Early feminist writing that would challenge the women’s role in the Islamic Republic
articulated itself predominantly in secularist terms and was produced by women who
had left Iran after the revolution and who wrote from outside the country. Within Iran
the feminist movement, grown through the 1960s and 1970s, was largely paralyzed (like
other social movements which had been instrumental in the success of the revolution)
and left in shock and disbelief over its own marginalization from public politics in the
post-revolutionary period.13 Women’s assertive activism became branded as un-Islamic.
Those women who were left in influential public positions (mostly parliamentarians
and municipal politicians) were largely regime-conforming.
Only toward the end of the 1980s would male and female lawyers, professors, artists
and journalists venture into a public space where they would allow themselves to openly
question the regime’s policy towards social and family issues. This was pressing the
more the regime’s inadequate social policies during the Iran–Iraq war became apparent.
While the Pahlavi regime had advocated the two-children family, the Islamic republic
abandoned any kind of birth control and—in light of the war—encouraged childbirth.
Iran’s population grew by 70% to 60 million during the 1980s, with half of the
population being under 20 years of age. This presented immense challenges to the state
in providing adequate educational and social infrastructure. At the same time, the
restrictive laws on women’s professions did not allow many women widowed during the
Iraq–Iran war to support themselves, and many were forced to turn to prostitution or
other illegal sources of income. While official shariah-based law demanded that child
custody return to the husband’s family in the case of his passing, many families were
not willing or able to afford the custody of those children, and not infrequently some
were abandoned. Overall, both the social disruptions caused by the war and social
policies that tended to exacerbate the situation rather than alleviate it resulted in rising
crime rates, growing drug abuse, illegal abortions, and a dramatic deterioration of the
health situation.
The more the regime’s failure in social policy became apparent, the harder it was to
repress openly articulated challenges to shariah-based legislation. Religious scholars had
to concern themselves more intensively with the woman’s role in a changing society and
378 Mirjam Ku¨nkler
make adjustments to the implementation of the shariah in gender and family-related
realms. The process of modification and the debates accompanying it have increased in
the 1990s not least as a result of the death of Khomeini in 1989.14
When the regime was forced in the 1990s to change its laws towards more non-
shariah-based legislation it cleverly did so under the rubric of ‘protecting women’. Birth
control became mandatory and regulations on child custody were slightly modified.
Scholars writing on behalf of the women’s movement admit today that despite the
government’s portrayal of its more egalitarian measures as an accommodation of
women’s demands, these advances mostly resulted from a dramatically deteriorating
social situation rather than a moderation of the government’s take on women’s issues
caused by gender-egalitarian advocacy.15
Women’s Mobilization
What contributed to the paralysis of the women’s movement in the 1980s was an
internal division over the self-perception of its constituents. Many women, shocked by
the government’s dogmatic implementation of what it considered Islamic law, felt
compelled to adopt secular positions if they wanted to uphold the demand for gender
equality. Others, to whom the pre-revolutionary rise of political Islam had revealed the
possibility of a reconciliation of their faith with the assertion of gender equality,16 felt
that Islamic feminism, i.e. the struggle for women’s rights within an Islamic framework,
was the only legitimate approach.
Thus during the 1980s, secularist discourse and discourse of activists who engaged
in the women’s question from within the system occurred very much in isolation from
one another. A reform of the Islamic framework from within was an impossible
enterprise, so advocates of the secular strand argued, and ‘Islamic feminism’ a contra-
diction in terms.17 Those arguing from an Islamic perspective were often accused of
rendering legitimacy to an oppressive regime and paying only lip service to the ‘true
women’s cause’.18
Since the early 1990s however, there has been a rapprochement between secular and
Islamic feminists,19 in that writers who used to develop secular arguments now increas-
ingly include Islamic conceptions in their analyses.20 This change in behavior and
language may be due not least to the fact that approaches towards gender equality not
embedded in Islamic reasoning may not be recognized by the regime, or, if translated
into policies, are reversible on the grounds that they contradict Islamic principles.
Those policies drawing on Islamic reinterpretation, by contrast, cannot easily be
curtailed without stirring a new theological debate. Islamic feminists in the meantime
largely acknowledge that a reconsideration of how the woman’s role is discussed in
religious sources is a valid (if not necessary) undertaking.21
The question whether ‘Islamic feminism’ is a legitimate project or not seems to be off
of the agenda of the women’s movement today. As Mir-Hosseini contends:
Islam and feminism are not incompatible. Feminist readings of the sharia are
not only possible today but even inevitable when Islam is no longer an
oppositional discourse in national politics but the official ideology. This is so
because once the custodians of the sharia are in power and able to legislate,
they have to deal with the contradiction between their political agenda and
their rhetoric: they must both uphold the family, restoring women to their
‘true and high’ status in Islam, and at the same time retain the patriarchal
Women’s Rights and Islamic Sacred Texts 379
mandates of sharia legal rules. This tension has always been inherent in the
practice of the sharia, but when the sharia becomes part of the apparatus of a
modern nation state, its custodians may have to accommodate, even seek,
novel interpretations. This opens room for change on a scale that has no
precedent in Islamic history.22
While the regime tried to encourage women’s work only in certain spheres, many
women did not accept these limitations. Although few women were elected into the
early parliaments, many women kept their role in the public sphere, responding to
dismissals from governmental and other jobs by entering private employment in
imaginative and novel ways. They increasingly went into other areas open to them such
as small businesses, teaching, writing, medicine and the arts.23 The women’s press,
which preceded the revolution by decades, played a key role in the resistance to new
restrictions on women.24
The Women’s Press
The most vocal opposition to the curtailment of women’s rights came from female
journalists. Some of the women’s press was essentially regime-conform, as, for instance,
Neda (The Voice) or like Payame-Hajar (Hajar’s Message). However, the magazine
Zane-Ruz (Woman Today), which had been launched in 1964, became a platform for
opposing the post-revolutionary laws pertaining to family matters on the basis of new
Islamic interpretations. Later Zane-Ruz was increasingly joined in this undertaking by
Payame-Hajar, with the result that the latter was not published in 1996 due to a series
of critical articles. Several other journals have since consistently concerned themselves
from different viewpoints with the woman’s role in Muslim society and problematized
official feminine values that emphasize the woman’s role in the private sphere: among
them are Zanan (Women), Jens-e Dovvom (The Second Sex) and Farzaneh (The Wise/Cul-
The magazines bring out stories of women’s suffering in contexts of domestic
violence, depression, suicide risks and loss of children. Among the journals that have
been publishing a feminist agenda, Zanan is the most widely read. Its monthly
subscription rate is at about 120,000 readers who are mostly urban-educated women.
Instituted in 1991 under Khatami’s auspices (then minister of culture) and edited by
Shahla Sherkat, a former contributor of Zane-Ruz, the most outspoken women’s
journal in the 1980s, it fights against women’s oppression and addresses men as well as
women.26 In contrast to most other women’s journals in Iran, Zanan is independent in
that it is not tied to the state or to any specific political faction, and the women who
publish it have no family ties to important public figures. The journal raises subjects
considered taboo in public discourse and publishes important articles concerning the
judicial system in relation to women’s rights. Both men and women with both secular
and Islamic backgrounds publish articles. With arguments that stand out in their
emphasis on reinterpretations of the shariah and other religious texts, Zanan has
become a locus of political debate outside and inside the country. Characteristically, its
most prominent contributors include the female lawyers Mehrangiz Kar and Shirin
Ebadi, now a Nobel laureate, the female sociology professor Zhahleh Shaditalab, the
female film director Tahmineh Milani and the male reformist cleric Hojatoleslam
380 Mirjam Ku¨nkler
What is new in many of the arguments found in Zanan compared to pre-revolution-
ary feminist positions is their stress on reinterpretations of Islam. Articles discuss and
highlight what is presented as the egalitarian spirit of many verses in the Qur’an and
often explain in-egalitarian verses, such as those allowing polygamy, as to be seen in
light of their historical context. The authors present ‘their view as the authentic view of
Islam and in-egalitarian laws and doctrines as deviations caused by various kinds of
male prejudice and historical circumstances’.27 Hojatoleslam Saidzadeh, the male cleric
publishing in Zanan, has accordingly termed his enterprise ‘the Equality Perspective’.
Among the important articles in Zanan were two from 1992, which Saidzadeh
published under the name of his wife, Mina Azadi, perhaps as a means to guard himself
against too much attention from the authorities. In the articles he criticized the decision
made by revolutionary authorities to exclude women from judgeship, by establishing
that on the basis of hadiths (Islamic traditions) women and men had equal potential,
regardless of employment or function, and that there was no Islamic foundation to
justify the discriminatory state policy. As a consequence to the discussion in Zanan, the
clerical serial Payame Zan (Woman’s Message), which is run by young (male) clerics in
Qom and contains the latest theological thinking on women’s equal rights,28 published
notes that put established interpretations into context. Thus in apparent response to
Saidzadeh’s articles on the subject, it included a note by late Ayatollah Motahhari in
1992 which stated, ‘among the hadith cited to exclude women from judgeships only two
are authentic and they do not justify in any way the prohibition of women to be
judges’.29 Similarly, in 1993 a posthumously published note of his confirmed ‘if a
woman is more knowledgeable than men, we are not only authorized to follow her but
have the duty to do so’.30 Thus the advancement of women’s causes has required the
growing involvement not only of religious and secular women, but also of clerics of high
status and education.
Another topic discussed by a Zanan article in 1992 was the competence of women to
become fully recognized mujtaheds (doctors in Islamic jurisprudence) and to make
religious judgments binding on their followers in all respects.31 Clerics had tried to limit
the judgments of female mujtaheds to the family sphere. Again in response to this claim
a decree by Ayatollah Motahhari established in Payame-Zan that there was no basis for
the confinement of women’s judgments to family matters only.32
Indicative of Zanan’s capacity to stir debate, it has repeatedly been the case that once
Zanan launched a novel theme, the rest of the women’s press would take it up—even
if in less critical ways. During the campaign for the 1997 presidential elections, Zanan
scrutinized the favorite candidates in their approach to the role of women. As Haleh
Afshar tells us, when Nateq Nouri (the favorite conservative candidate who ultimately
lost against Khatami) refused to be interviewed, the journal published its unanswered
questions—indicative also of the degree to which freedom of speech in certain contexts
could be exercised at that time—among them the following: ‘Is it true that in the
presence of outsiders you call your wife by your eldest son’s name?—Have you ever
punished your wife? If so, how?’ and finally: ‘We were told that asking such questions
would mean that were you to be elected you’d close our journal. Is this true?’33
Going further, the women’s journal Zane-ruz reported a statement by a cleric,
establishing that the constitution’s use of the term ‘man’ in describing the president of
Iran was generic rather than a limitation to the male gender.34 The latter theme became
acute in 1997, when for the first time, a woman ran for presidency. Azam Taleqani, the
daughter of late Grand Ayatollah Taleqani, a religious scholar herself and the editor of
the women’s journal Payam-e Hajar, had nominated herself along with seven other
women, arguing that the 1979 constitution did not explicitly exclude women from
Women’s Rights and Islamic Sacred Texts 381
contending for the office, that, moreover, there had been female caliphs in the history
of Muslim civilization and that Qur’anic provisions did suggest the equality of woman
and man.35
Reinterpreting the Sacred Texts
The Texts
To understand what is at stake in demands for a reinterpretation of the religious texts,
we need to review the sources of Islamic law.
One central problem for women in their struggle for a gender-egalitarian reading of
the Qur’an in Iran is that women are institutionally excluded from higher training in
Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh—the study of shariah). They may become lawyers, but the
attainment of mujtahed (similar to a doctorate in jurisprudence) had until recently been
ruled out.36 Still, female mujtaheds are not allowed to gather a religious following like
their male counterparts, nor may they serve as authoritative source of emulation or take
on political positions available to men with comparable theological degrees, such as
membership in the Council of Experts.37 Their degrees, therefore, have less social
relevance. For the most part, women in Iran keep relying on scholarly men and their
interpretation of the religious legal aspects.
The core texts of Shi’i Islam consist of the Qur’an, the hadith (the prophet’s sayings,
actions and decisions) and the teachings of the 12 Shi’i Imams.38 The Qur’an,
considered literally the word of God, is the undisputed and primary source of law.39 Of
its 6,000 verses 500 contain explicit or implicit divine commandments and a further 80
verses may be read as articles of a code. Beyond the Qur’an, Islamic legal reasoning
relies chiefly on the hadith as recorded during or shortly after the prophet’s time and
transmitted until today.40
While the Qur’an is considered immutable and excluded from scientific scrutiny,
reformist Muslim scholars have engaged in a critical examination of the hadith litera-
ture.41 In Iran such scholars still draw greatly on the methodology developed by
Al-Ghazzali and Abu Shaqqa by which to verify the authenticity of the hadith.42 In a
first step the chain of transmitters and their biographies are verified. Many hadith
previously regarded as sahih (sound) are deemed by the two scholars as only good
(hasan), weak (daif) or forged. In a second step, if the common interpretation of the
hadith is not compatible with the Qur’an, the hadith, if authentic, is reinterpreted.
Crucially, Abu Shaqqa concluded that many widespread hadith that put women on
unequal legal footing are forged.43
In a similar vein, Riffat Hassan, along with Wadud-Muhsin a prominent female
contemporary Arab scholar, emphasizes that while equality of the sexes can be read into
the story of the creation in the Qur’an, an entirely opposite view on gender relations
prevails in the hadith literature.44
The principal sources for shariah-based legislation in Iran are the Qur’an, the hadith,
analogy (qiyas) and reason (aql). Analogy (qiyas) presents jurisprudence by recourse to
a similar case dealt with in the Qur’an or the hadith, while aql45 (reason) is a particularly
Shi’i element in interpretation which suggests that ‘all that is reasonable is legitimate’.
This qualification to Shi’i interpretation of the core texts has allowed for the inference
of some of the most theologically remote judgments. At the same time, it may very well
present the ‘Shi’i opening’ for a feminist reformulation of Islam-based legislation and
jurisprudence with its implicit use of reason instead of dogma.
382 Mirjam Ku¨nkler
Reinterpretation of Texts
Although the framework of legal sources is thus precisely circumscribed, we find a core
of Islamic principles that has developed with different weights and different conse-
quences in the diverse cultural contexts of the Shi’i and the greater Islamic community.
Existing cultural norms and practices have been incorporated into the religious code
accommodating the idiosyncrasy of each society to which Islam spread. As Haleh
Afshar argues:
in the process of developing and constructing an Islamic jurisprudence,
interpretation of the texts, initially of the Qur’an and subsequently of fiqh, has
been of the essence. The adjustments and adaptations over time have given
Islamic laws a flexibility which has allowed their integration into diverse
societies in different continents without much difficulty.46
It is this adaptability that leads scholars such as al-Azmeh to suggest that the concept
of a single Islam is an illusion in itself: ‘There are as many Islams as there are situations
that sustain it’.47
This may well indicate that despite its solid core of commandments, Islamic law is
more adaptable to changing contexts of space and time than is often suggested in the
Islamic Republic and elsewhere.
The chief reformist intellectual of Iran, philosopher Abdulkarim Soroush, has pro-
vided the reform-minded Shi’i scholarly community with a crucial means to embark on
challenges of texts such as fiqh and shariah by insisting on a differentiation between
religion and religious knowledge, i.e. Islamic theology.48 While the former is expressed
in the core texts (the Qur’an, the hadith and the teaching of the Imams in his view),49
religious knowledge represents the study of the core texts and comprises the literatures
of shariah and fiqh. The recognition that religion and religious knowledge are not
congruent has had the crucial effect that issues about the reform of Islam can be
addressed without compromising the sacredness of religion itself.
Hojatoleslam Saidzadeh, the modernist cleric who became prominent through his
progressive writing in Zanan, echoes Soroush’s differentiation when he contends:
Islam is what the Prophet brought people from God. This is all I recognize as
Islam; we don’t have any other Islam. What Companions of the Prophet said
is not Islam, nor are the interpretations. For 1,400 years, discriminatory
interpretations of women have been produced; these aren’t religion, but
interpretations of religion. I defend my position against those who say I am
questioning religion, I do not question religion, only erroneous religious
Religious interpretation, following Soroush, shall be subject to scrutiny like any other
scientific discipline:
Since the interpretation of the text is social by nature and depends on the
community of experts, like all learned activities it will be an independent
dynamic entity, abstracting from individual interpreters; containing right and
Women’s Rights and Islamic Sacred Texts 383
wrong, certain and dubious ideas—the wrong being as important as the right
ones from an evolutionary point of view. It is a branch of knowledge no less,
no more.51
He goes on to argue that since it is contextual no interpretation can claim ‘truth’.
Rather, it is the task of the scholarly community to deliberate on the validity of
proposed interpretations.52
In contrast to Soroush, Saidzadeh believes that only the Qur’an should be excluded
from scientific inquiry, while all other religious writing, including hadith and the
teaching of the Imams, should be considered interpretations and henceforth challenge-
able. Here he is supported by conclusions of the late Grand Ayatollah Motahhari who
similarly considered the hadith to be of human source. Some religious scholars have
argued that even the Qur’an has to be studied with an interpretive approach.
It is a consequence of Soroush’s arguments that interpretation can now publicly be
depicted as time-bound and relative in the Islamic Republic. Mir-Hosseini goes so far
as to argue that ‘clerics had to admit that their understanding of the sharia is subject to
change and that they must find new arguments, or else they must abandon the claim
to rule [!] in the name of sharia. Soroush’s ideas undermined the very basis of their
exclusive rights to religious authority’.53 Although Soroush himself has not developed a
novel approach to gender equality, he has achieved a twofold approach to sacred texts
which feminists can and do make use of. On the one hand, the differentiation between
religion and religious knowledge has enabled women to emphasize the possibility of
change in Islamic interpretation, while on the other hand it has also encouraged clerics
like Mohsen Kadivar, for whom gender has become a theme, to address it from within
a legal framework.
The journal Zanan, in turn, has given activists who do not posses the qualification of
mujtahed the space and justification to voice their claims legitimately, while at the same
time introducing gender-egalitarian arguments within the clerical discourse to a wider,
partly secular, audience. Most notably, it is in Zanan that Hojatoleslam Saidzadeh has
developed and advanced his Equality Perspective. He sees gender inequality in the
shariah not as a manifestation of divine justice, but as a mistaken construction by male
jurists that is contrary to the very essence of divine will as revealed in the Qur’an.
Arguing that a substantial number of hadith and fiqh theories obstruct the way to
establish equality between the sexes, he accuses a majority of jurists and hadith
specialists to have sacrificed the Principle of Equality in Islam in order to endorse a set
of theories resting on assumptions that are no longer valid. Discussing the unequal
treatment of women and men in inheritance as put forth by the Qur’an, he states:
we must understand why Islam made [fixed] inheritance [according to which
women’s share is half that of men] an exception; and once we understand the
reason for this, we’ll see that Islam has based everything on equality. I wonder
why some [Jurists] leave the Principle aside and focus on exceptions. […]
Equality is such an unequivocal Principle in the Qur’an that we can’t leave it
aside for the sake of a set of fiqh theories.54
As becomes clear, these debates aim not only at the reformulation of gender in Islamic
interpretation, but also at a reform of the very method of Islamic interpretation itself.
The critique of the woman’s role has developed into something (even) more fundamen-
tal: a challenge of the contemporary pillars of Islamic theology.
384 Mirjam Ku¨nkler
Islamic Feminism as a Vehicle for Change
The gender-egalitarian movement has achieved many concrete improvements
in the way women’s issues are dealt with in the public sphere.55 Partly as a result
of a campaign led by Zane-Ruz in 1984/1985 the government proposed that 12
conditions be printed into all marriage contracts as grounds for women to get
divorced—provided husbands signed them all. They were the same clauses as annulled
in the Family Protection Law, but, in contrast to the era of the latter, this time
they were not jurisdictionally enforceable. Moreover, in the same process the
courts were allowed to allocate up to half the property acquired during marriage
to the wife if she was divorced against her will. Crucially, women have achieved
the institution of exclusive family courts in which decisions have to reflect the recom-
mendation of obligatory female legal advisors. Against the official tolerance of polygamy
women have produced Islam-based arguments to strictly limit the practice, positing
that court permission should be required as had been the case in the Family Protection
Law. In the context of a campaign against honor killings, a law has been changed to
distinguish between adultery and rape. In the course of these struggles male judges have
become more sensitive to women’s rights and since 1998—not least due to the
persevering commitment of Shirin Ebadi—women may become judges again.56
In the realm of politics, approximately 60 women organizations have joined in the
‘National Muslim Women’s League’ to lobby for women’s rights in political institutions
under the leadership of Mahbube Abbas-Gholizade, the editor of Farzaneh.57 At the
same time, the meager results for female candidates in the 2000 parliamentary elec-
tions—of more than 200 female candidates 14 were elected to the 290 seat parlia-
ment—attest to the obstacles women still face in the political arena. In education,
women have regained equal access to all subjects and sciences, and at the university
level they are well represented in business, technical and science majors.58 Sixty-two
percent of the young people who pass the university admissions exam are women59 and
one third of all doctoral degrees are conferred upon women. Campaigns have also
successfully initiated parliamentary bills that produce limits on a father’s or husband’s
right to prevent his daughter or wife from exercising a profession. About a third of the
labor force today is female. In the realm of sports, women have slowly fought their way
towards the right of participating in certain public physical activities like cycling and
roller-skating.60 A medical bill against which Zanan had campaigned fervently during
president Khatami’s first term in office and which aimed at a segregation of the
healthcare system was ultimately approved, but no enforcement mechanism was estab-
lished, partly also due to widespread opposition from doctors. Finally, the women’s
press’ advocacy for women’s legal standing has resulted in the launch of the first
magazine entirely devoted to women’s legal matters in 1998: Hoquqe Zanan (Women’s
Rights), and the award of the Nobel peace prize to lawyer, activist and author Shirin
Ebadi in 2003 attests to the strength and perseverance of the women’s struggle for
women and human rights in Iran.61
Regarding reforms that were checked by the conservative legislative process, the
government tried to mitigate some gross injustices by providing instructions to the
courts. Keddie notes that ‘these developments, involving the acceptance of some legal
provisions castigated as un-Islamic under the Shah, show the flexibility under pressure
of what is termed “Islamic” and also show that earlier reforms had more impact than
was sometimes admitted’.62
Women’s Rights and Islamic Sacred Texts 385
Perhaps the most significant achievement with respect to Islamic reinterpretation has
been the provision of the women’s press for a space where it can unfold and reach out
to the greater public. Its activism has, in a sense, resulted in the enlargement of the
public sphere.
As Moghadam holds, the women’s movement in Iran has achieved reconciling
feminism with Islam. Zanan’s contribution, and the contribution of other women’s
journals, to the bridging of these two discourses has become substantial in providing the
forum where these debates can take place. In bringing together secular women activists,
religious women activists and reformist clerics, the journal has brokered previously
unconnected actors.
In the course, what has started to unfold resonates a self-fulfilling prophecy uttered
by Keddie: ‘The overthrow of the Pahlavi state by an antithetical politics and culture
forced people into the newly-dominant clerical theocratic mode, which, however, could
solve neither economic nor cultural problems and increasingly alienate many, especially
women, young people and professionals. Out of this may emerge a new synthesis that
is developing a more indigenously-based culture, a culture that finds more local roots
for practices of gender egalitarianism and human rights’ in Iranian Islamic as well as
non-Islamic traditions.63
The advancement of women’s causes, while primarily due to the cooperation be-
tween secular and Islamic female activists, has required the growing involvement of
reformist clerics of high status and education. The latter are still a minority among the
high clergy and often must choose their words carefully in order to operate in a clerical
context still dominated by conservatism in the sphere of gender and the family. But
crucially, as Esfandiari notes, all of these current allies have changed their immediate
post-revolutionary positions in order to be able to work together.
A quote from the lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, a frequent contributor to Zanan, sheds
some light on the relation between feminist activists and religious scholars and the
relevance of their dialogue:
We cannot speak of an agreement between [women and reformist clergymen],
but rather of a moderation of positions on both sides. Our meetings are in no
way official or political; we discuss women’s problems. There are still many
reservations on both sides, but underneath an apparent silence one may see
already an adjustment of the different modes of thought and a cultural
maturity beginning to emerge. It may be via women that this divided society
may find its social and cultural cohesion again … The revolution gave women
confidence in themselves. With all the sacrifices they made, Iranian women
know how much their current and future rulers owe them and that egalitarian
rights are part of what is due to them. This demand is no longer that of a
group of women; it is a nationwide one. The Islamic government cannot
escape it without risking a brutal separation of the state and religion.64
Significantly as well the debates in the women’s press have started to tear down the
instrumentalization of Islam in the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, as
Gheytanchi argues. The representation of a diversity of voices of women and men in
Zanan, so she holds, has gradually ended the state’s authorship on modernity. ‘It was
precisely the dichotomization of West versus East, modernity versus tradition, mani-
fested in Pahlavi’s statist policies to modernize women, that led to the unbounded
power of clergies to claim the “sacred” truth of Islamic sources on preservation of
women as the last bastion against Western cultural penetration’.65 Now for the first time
386 Mirjam Ku¨nkler
in the history of the Iranian women’s movement, so she argues, the dichotomy is
abolished through the implantation of feminist claims into Islam.
The publications have become the linkage between reformist intellectuals and clergy-
men who seek to build a new polity on a reinterpretation of Islam, and women who seek
a reinterpretation for gender-egalitarian provisions. The Islamic feminist movement
represented by the women’s press has broadened the public sphere by constituting
women as autonomous individuals and citizens. That women have positioned them-
selves as public ‘commentators’ of the religious texts promises that a future process of
democratization of politics may not remain an exclusively masculine occupation.66
There is a significance of this reformist development for other countries in the region.
Reformist interpretations to the advantage of women are by far not new, but they have
not used such theologically sophisticated arguments, or been adopted by so many
traditionally-educated clerics or by so many women from a variety of social back-
The development of the gender-egalitarian movement to advance its objectives on
the basis of Islamic reinterpretation (a reform from within the system) parallels the
arguments made by Iran’s most prominent and influential thinkers on Islamic democ-
racy, Abdulkarim Soroush, Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari and Mohsen Kadivar,
who seek an integration of democratic values with government in a Muslim country and
an integration of human rights with religiously informed law.67 What contribution could
this intra-Iranian struggle based on reinterpretations of Shi’i Islam play for the wider
Muslim world and for women’s rights in Sunni Muslim countries?
A sustainable democratic regime in Iran as in any other Muslim country can only
evolve if dissimilar notions of rights are integrated into the transitional discourse that
addresses their real or perceived incompatibilities and ideally them, that is, arrives at an
accommodation of Islamic norms into the legal framework of a secular state. The
reinterpretation of Shi’i Islam, or as Saidzadeh would put it, its theological renewal, is
a prerequisite for democratization, and a reformulation of the woman’s role in Shi’i
Islam an integral part of this process.
1. Consequently, women played a decisive role in the 1997 Iranian presidential elections, when the
moderate candidate Mohammad Khatami secured victory against the institutionally favored
conservative candidate Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, then Parliamentary (Majles) speaker and preferred
candidate of the conservative wing of government. Here for the first time gender issues were
debated in the election campaign and an agenda of gender equality became part of Khatami’s
program. Ultimately, it was the women’s ballot that largely contributed to Khatami’s win. The
struggle for gender equality has been carried out in the broader framework for democratic change,
and indeed, the women’s movement has been juxtaposed to the liberal press and the students’
movement as one of the three principal motors in the fight for a transition to democracy. For
examinations of the role of women in settings of political contention, see Lisa Baldez, ‘Women’s
Movements and Democratic Transition in Chile, Brazil, East Germany, and Poland’, as well as
Janine Astrid Clark and Jillian Schwedler, ‘Who Opened the Window? Women’s Activism in
Islamist Parties’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2003. Compare also Georgina Waylen,
‘Women and Democratization: Conceptualizing Gender Relations in Transition Politics’, World
Politics, Vol. 46, No. 3, 1994, pp. 327–254.
Women’s Rights and Islamic Sacred Texts 387
2. ‘Clergy’ is a term associated with Christianity, but to some extent applicable to Shi’ism, because
(unlike in Sunnism) all Shi’i believers must follow a religious leader. See Nikki Keddie, ‘Women
in Iran since 1979’, Social Research, Vol. 67, No. 2, 2000, p. 406.
3. The women’s movement goes back to the late nineteenth century, but was an occupation almost
exclusively of the wealthier class, and particularly strong in the cities as women were excluded from
public life in the cities more than in the countryside until the end of the Qajar dynasty. Women
played a key role during the Tobacco Revolt in 1891 and the constitutional revolution in 1906.
All-girls schools were first opened by Presbyterian missionaries in 1838 in Orumiye and in 1875
in Tehran, but their visit was forbidden by the state for Muslim girls until 1896. First organizations
were founded in the early twentieth century and concentrated their efforts towards having a bill
passed in parliament that facilitated women’s education. By 1913 there were nine women’s
societies and 63 girls’ schools in Tehran with close to 2,500 students. In 1919 the first public girls’
school was opened. The first women’s journal was founded in 1910 (Danesh), followed by more
publications in 1912 (Jahan-e Zanan), 1913 (Shikufah), 1918 (Zaban-e Zanan) and 1919 (Zanan-e
Iran), amounting to a total of 14 women’s journals in 1930. In 1962 women were granted active
and passive suffrage. See, for instance, ‘A Brief History of Women’s Movements in Iran’, available
online at:
4. To give an indication of the women’s role in public life in the late 1970s, by 1978 33% of
university students were female with two million in the workforce. A total of 190,000 were
professionals with university degrees; 333 women were elected to the local councils, 22 to the
Majlis (national parliament) and two to the Senate. See ‘A Brief History of Women’s Movements
in Iran’, op.cit.
5. Khomeini, who in French exile continued to attack what he considered un-Islamic laws and
practices in Iran during this time, deemed couples who were married or divorced under the Family
Protection Law not ‘truly’ married or divorced in an Islamic sense.
6. Dr. Shahin Tabataba’i may be portrayed as one of the earliest women arguing from a perspective
of Islamic feminism. Shortly after the revolution she emerged as the official representative of
Iranian women at international conferences and wrote articles concerning the role of women in
which she argued for a new interpretation of Qur’anic verses concerning women. See Katajun
Amirpur, ‘Islamic Feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran’, available online at: http:// article.php/ c-307/ nr-9/ p-1/i.html?PHPSESSID
f535f30454bebbaa6ccabc84e12ad141,25.02.2003 .
7. For a review, see Keddie, ‘Women in Iran’, op.cit.; Haleh Esfandiari, ‘The Politics of the Women’s
Question in the Islamic Republic’, in eds John L. Esposito and Rouholla K. Ramazani, Iran at the
Crossroads, New York: Palgrave, 2001, pp. 75–92; Farhad Kazemi, ‘Gender, Islam and Politics’,
Social Research, Vol. 67, No. 2, 2000, pp. 453–474; Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The
Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
8. However, in practice it is not possible for girls to get married until they are 15 years old. This is
due to a provision in the civil code which states that state identity cards must be presented on the
wedding day. These are issued for holders 15 years and older only. According to Haleh Afshar the
average women’s marriage age in 1996 was 22 as compared to 20 a decade earlier. Haleh Afshar,
Islam and Feminisms: An Iranian Case-Study, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, p. 148.
9. This was later stipulated in Article 1117. Article 1105 furthermore laid down that the man is the
head of the family.
10. The Islamic dress code is binding for girls at the age of nine and older. Violations against it can
be punished with 74 slashes according to Article 102 of the criminal code.
11. The constitution also includes all civil liberties and political freedoms listed by Robert Dahl and
other political scientists, but significantly, they may be qualified by decree of the Supreme Spiritual
Leader and superior interpretation of shariah-based clauses in the constitution. The struggle of
power between reformists and conservatives moved along these lines: the reformists used the
democratic principles embodied in the constitution, emphasizing the rule of law, while the
conservatives superceded parliamentary decisions by decree or veto through the council of
guardians. As to freedom of speech, the Iranian people have witnessed a seesaw struggle in
everyday politics in recent years where the ministry of culture headed by a reformist constantly
issued new licenses for newspapers while the head of the judiciary shut them down.
12. On the situation of human rights in Iran, see Ann Elizabeth Mayer, ‘The Universality of Human
Rights: Lessons from the Islamic Republic of Iran’, Social Research, Vol. 67, No. 2, 2000,
388 Mirjam Ku¨nkler
pp. 519–536. See also Youssef Aliabadi, ‘The Idea of Civil Liberties and the Problem of
Institutional Government in Iran’, Social Research, Vol. 67, No. 2, 2000.
13. Nikki Keddie reminds us that the ‘highjacking’ of the revolution, as undertaken by Khomeini and
other members of the Islamic clergy when marginalizing, suppressing and eliminating secular,
leftist and liberal forces that had been instrumental for the success of the revolution, is not an
experience confined to Iran. Instead, she proposes, the elimination of erstwhile allies and the
monopolization of power on the part of the strongest group is a phenomenon equally observable
in the French, Russian and Chinese cases. See Keddie, ‘Women in Iran’, op.cit., p. 409.
14. On how the custodians of the shariah have attempted variously to ‘perpetuate, modify, deconstruct
and reconstruct’ the notions of gender, see Mir-Hosseini, ‘Debating Gender with Ulema in Qom’,
2000, available online at:
15. See Keddie, ‘Women in Iran’, op.cit.; Haleh Esfandiari, Reconstructed Lives.Women and Iran’s
Islamic Revolution, Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1997.
16. Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender,op.cit., pp. 5f. Some women who I subsume here under the rubric
of (Islamic) feminism do not identify themselves with this terminology; perhaps because they
believe it carries a Western connotation, or because they believe it to be an exclusionary
17. For a review of the debate, see Moghadam. Reflecting on reservations of the secular camp, she
asks, ‘Is it correct to describe as feminist or even as “Islamic Feminist” those publishers, activists
and scholars, including veiled women, whose work towards women’s advancement and gender
equality are carried out within an Islamic discursive framework?’ Val Moghadam, ‘Islamic
Feminism and its Discontents: Notes on a debate’, 2000, available online at: www.iran-bull- feminism.htm ,p.1.
18. What is perhaps most problematic about ‘Islamic Feminism’ as a concept is that it was applied to
any approach that would discuss the woman’s role in an Islamic setting. Certainly there are women
(mostly members of the conservative parliamentary faction, and those holding governmental
positions) who legitimized the Islamic Republic and did not address the root causes of the limited
women’s role even though they claimed or suggested to do so. Nevertheless, Moghadam contends
that more women who identified themselves as strong Muslim believers and advocates of gender
equality have attempted to synthesize these two convictions rather than to legitimize the current
regime and its policies. See Moghadam, ibid.
19. One symbol that attests to this new symbiosis is, for instance, the joint campaign between the
secular lawyer Shirin Ebadi and the religious activist Azam Taleqani who protested together
against the ban on women judges.
20. This may not least be an effect also of the increased fieldwork exiled secular feminist scholars have
undertaken in Iran during the 1990s. See Mir-Hosseini, ‘Debating Gender’, op.cit.
21. This trend is certainly not confined to Iran. Mir-Hosseini notes the shift in the writings of feminist
Muslim women, who used to locate themselves opposite an Islamist shariah-based discourse.
Fatima Mernissi’s work, so Mir-Hosseini holds, exemplifies this shift well. While her ‘Le harem
politique’ (1987) sought to expose the patriarchal inner logic of Islamic texts, her more recent work
‘Beyond the Veil: Male–Female Dynamics in Muslim Society’ seeks new meanings within the
sacred texts. See Mir-Hosseini, ‘Debating Gender’, op.cit.
22. Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender,op.cit., p. 7.
23. See Haleh Esfandiari, Reconstructed Lives.Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution,op.cit. Indicative of
women’s strong role in the arts, for instance, is that most art galleries in Iran today are owned or
run by women. See Keddie, ‘Women in Iran’, op.cit., p. 240.
24. The first women’s journal Danesh was founded in 1910 in Tehran. With Zabane Zanan Esfahan
received its first journal eight years later. See note 3.
25. Farzaneh is published by the environment minister of Iran who is a close collaborator of President
Khatami. The journal’s main editor is Mahbube Abas-Gholizadeh, who also leads the ‘National
Muslim Women’s League’, an umbrella organization of 60 women’s associations.
26. Shahla Sherkat is a 42-year-old psychologist who worked for the partly state-funded journal Zan-e
Ruz from 1980 until 1990, when she was dismissed due to differences with the editors of that
publication. According to Katajun Amirpur, they could not agree on how to address gender-
specific topics. With Zanan Sherkat founded her own journal which was to address women’s issues
exclusively and was to become a state-independent platform where women like herself could voice
new approaches to social affairs. See Katajun Amirpur, Islamic Feminism in the Islamic Republic of
Iran,op.cit., p. 1.
Women’s Rights and Islamic Sacred Texts 389
27. Keddie, ‘Women in Iran’, op.cit., p. 420.
28. It was launched in 1992 by the Propagation Office of the Qom Seminaries. Similarly, the office of
Ayatollah Yazdi, the head of the Iranian judiciary in the 1990s, has made many public responses
to the articles published in Zanan.
29. Payame Zan, No. 5, 1992, p. 10. However, generally, Motahhari dismissed gender equality as a
Western concept. Instead he emphasized ‘complementarity’ between man and woman. See
Mir-Hosseini, ‘Women’s Rights and Clerical Discourse’, in ed. Negin Nabavi, Intellectual Trends in
Twentieth Century Iran.A Critical Survey, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003, pp. 193–
30. Quoted in Keddie, ‘Women in Iran’, op.cit., p. 421.
31. The same male who had questioned the religious grounds for the republic’s policies towards female
judges, again using the female pseudonym of ‘Mina Azadi’, launched this discussion. It soon
became clear to informed readers that these articles were written by the same cleric who had
formerly published in Payame-Zan, the conservative women’s journal run by male clerics in Qom
(Hojatoleslam Saidzadeh, Zanan, No. 8, 1992, pp. 24–32). See Keddie, ‘Women in Iran’, op.cit.,
p. 421, and Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender,op.cit., p. 248.
32. Lately, according to Mir-Hosseini, laws have reversed decisions made early in revolution and
re-granted women the right to become judges (Islam and Gender,op.cit.). Thus in 1992 the first
female advisory judges were re-instituted and full judges in 1998. Gheytanchi, on the other hand,
states that of 2,661 registered lawyers in 1993 only 185 were women, and indicates that former
female judges could work again only as inspectors in 1997 in the equivalent of a district attorney’s
office, but never in positions of their original status. See Elham Gheytanchi, ‘Post Revolutionary
Iran: Islamic Feminism and the Crisis of Civil Society’, 1998, available online at: , p. 8. Keddie also notes that some
women lawyers continued to practice in the name of male family members shortly after the
revolution. Others turned to work as legal advisers for private companies (‘Women in Iran’, op.
33. Zanan, No. 43, May 1997 cited in Afshar, Islam and Feminism,op.cit., pp. 30f.
34. Zane-Ruz, No. 1440, 1993, pp. 14–17.
35. Azam Taleqani directs the Alliance of Muslim Women in Iran (Mo’assase-Ye zanan-e eslami-ye
Iran), where she teaches women from poor backgrounds to read and write so that they can make
a living independent from their husbands. She also lectures on the exegesis of the Qur’an,
including the tafsir of her father Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani, to promote her father’s more
women-friendly Qur’an interpretations.
36. The term mujtahed denotes a qualified Shi’i jurist who has reached the level of competence
necessary to arrive at independent judgment on points of religious law using reason (aql) and
principles of jurisprudence (fiqh). There were not only female mujtaheds before the Islamic
revolution, but also many male mujtaheds had been awarded their qualification through their female
mujtahed teachers, the most prominent being Nosrat Amin (1896–1983). Women who had become
mujtaheds during the Shah regime were deprived of their qualification after the revolution.
37. This is Iran’s 86-member clerical council entrusted with the election of the Supreme Leader and
his removal, if he becomes unable to fulfill his duties (articles 107 and 111 of the 1979
constitution). Members are popularly elected for eight-year terms. Until today, only men are
granted passive suffrage to the council, in contrast to the parliamentary and presidential elections
in which women are also permitted to run.
38. The leading Iranian reformist intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush considers these texts untouchable
and part of religion itself, as opposed to religious knowledge, which in his view is subject to
reinterpretation and comprises inter alia,fiqh and shariah (see below). Aziz Al-Azmeh, a Sunni
Muslim scholar, by contrast, goes so far as to contend ‘Islamic law has a tangential connection only
with ethical or dogmatic consideration and the divine origins of the text of the Qur’an are
technically irrelevant to their legal aspects’. Aziz Al-Azmeh, Islam and Modernity, New York: Verso,
1993, p. 11.
39. See Haleh Afshar, ‘Introduction’, in Islam and Feminisms,op.cit. Contrary to the way many Iranian
clerics like to portray Islamic theology, there has never been a uniform exegesis. Rather, as
reformist scholars repeatedly point out, the possibility of interpreting the Book in the most diverse
ways seems to be a strong proof of its supernatural origin. See also Haleh Afshar, ‘Islam and
Feminism: An Analysis of Political Strategies’, in ed. Mai Yamani, Feminism and Islam: Literary and
Legal Perspectives, New York: New York University Press, 1996.
390 Mirjam Ku¨nkler
40. The hadith is a body of traditions relating to the Prophet Muhammad and informs believers of the
words and activities of the Prophet, especially his explicit or tacit wisdom about human conduct
and social affairs.
41. Annemarie Schimmel, Islam—An Introduction, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992,
p. 53.
42. On the method of verification, see Anne Sofie Roald, ‘Feminist Reinterpretation of Islamic
Sources: Muslim Feminist Theology in the Light of the Christian of Feminist Thought’, in eds
Karin Ask and Marit Tjomsland, Women and Islamization: Contemporary Dimensions of Discourse on
Gender Relations, New York: Berg, 1998. Bukhari (d. 870) was the first to collect and classify the
more reliable hadith of the tens of thousands in circulation in the ninth century. His comprehensive
collection comprises more than 7,300 hadith. His contemporary, Abu Muslim (d. 875), produced
a similar compilation and their collections are mostly considered sahih (sound). Further collections
stem from Abu Daud, Nasai, Tirmidhi and Ibn Maja in the tenth and eleventh century.
43. See Roald, ‘Feminist Reinterpretation of Islamic Sources’, ibid. It is interesting to note that
Hojatoleslam Saidzadeh employs precisely this method in the articles where he criticizes the early
decision by state authorities to exclude women from judgeship. ‘Among other arguments, the
author interprets a Quranic passage usually taken to mean that males are naturally superior. As is
often done by Islamic reformists, the author then rejects some Islamic traditions (hadith)as
inauthentic and reinterprets others, concluding with a formula of the type found in Islamic
religious decrees: “We affirm that the potential of women is the same as that of men whatever the
employment and function; this goes equally for the function of judge or jurisconsult (faqih)” ’.
Zanan, No. 5, 1992, p. 23 quoted in Keddie, ‘Women in Iran’, op.cit., p. 421.
44. See Roald, ‘Feminist Reinterpretation of Islamic Sources’, op.cit.
45. The term aql relates not so much to the wisdom of individuals, as rather to a consensual
understanding of what, when quoted in a judgment, the general public could find reasonable.
46. Afshar, Islam and Feminisms,op.cit., p. 5.
47. Al-Azmeh, Islam and Modernity,op.cit., p. 1.
48. Abdolkarim Soroush, Reason,Freedom,and Democracy in Islam, New York: Oxford University
Press, 2000; ‘Islam and Pluralism’, lecture held at SOAS, University of London, 14 January 2001,
and ‘The Evolution and Devolution of Religious Knowledge’, in ed. Charles Kurzman, Liberal
Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 245. See also Valla Vakili, ‘Abdolkarim Soroush
and Critical Discourse in Iran’, in eds John Esposito and John Voll, The Makers of Contemporary
Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; and ‘Debating Religion and Politics in Iran: The
Political Thought of Abdolkarim Soroush’, The Council on Foreign Relations, 1997, available
online at: .
49. As hinted at before, the question of what exactly, beside the Qur’an, constitutes the core religious
texts, is disputed. Al-Azmeh, for instance, contends that the hadith do not constitute core texts and
that they are irrelevant to law making. Al-Azmeh, Islam and Modenity,op.cit., p. 11.
50. Quoted in Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender,op.cit., p. 253.
51. Abdolkarim Soroush, ‘The Evolution and Devolution of Religious Knowledge’, op.cit., p. 245.
52. Soroush does not engage in a further elaboration on which criteria should serve to establish that
validity. These, he holds, have to be established by each respective community within the
concerned field of science, and these also underlie the effects of time.
53. Newsletter, 3. An ideologization of Islam, according to Soroush, has not only occurred in Iran, but
in many parts of the Muslim world, and has furthered a particular, politically buttressed
understanding of religion, which suggests a final and absolute interpretation. The effects of the
monopolization of religious knowledge to narrow interpretations, he holds, have made religion an
instrument in attaining goals. It has promoted a dogmatic understanding of religion concerned
with exoteric, accidental aspects and, with its false emphasis on fiqh, has resulted in intellectual
rigidity and exclusivism. In Iran it has raised the Islamic clergy to an exceptional position with a
priori privileges—an elitist development, which runs counter to essential Qur’anic teachings about
the community of faith. He designates the rigid and politically supported interpretation of Islam
an ‘Islam of identity’—a comprehensible ideology that may help to overcome a modernity-inspired
‘crisis of identity’, but is far removed from a deeper understanding of religion. As an ‘Islam of
identity’, religion is transformed into an all-encompassing body of knowledge that prescribes
solutions even for the most particular and singular occurrences. To arrive at a deeper understand-
ing of it—an ‘Islam of truth’—Soroush believes one would have to engage in a deliberation about
Women’s Rights and Islamic Sacred Texts 391
interpretations arrived at through epistemological pluralism. The absence of such pluralism leads
to religious hypocrisy.
54. Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender,op.cit., pp. 251 f.
55. Zanan attends to the topic of ‘What have we accomplished this year?’ in an annual report.
56. There are currently two female judges in the Appeal Courts. See ‘Interview with Nobel Laureate
Shirin Ebadi’, available online at: About a third of the labor force
today is female. According to private communication with Professor Azam Ravadrad at the
University of Tehran, 18% of the women are in the workforce, comparable to the situation in the
late 1970s. Shortly after the revolution the percentage dropped down to 8. As Professor Ravadrad
points out, however, although the percentage of women working today is similar to the one shortly
before the revolution, women are much more politically active today and aware of their potential
impact on social developments compared to the 1970s.
57. Other prominent political leaders include Zahra Mostafavi, the daughter of Ayatollah Khomeini,
who is the director of the Society for Women of the Islamic Republic. She is active particularly in
securing equal opportunities for women in education. Fatimah Hashemi, the daughter of the
former Iranian president Rafsanjani, is the director of a women’s organization tied to the Foreign
Ministry (and a high-tech clinic for kidney patients). Apparently, among the women who are
fighting to improve women’s rights in Iran some are the daughters of prominent clergymen. As
Katajun Amirpur points out, these women can make themselves heard precisely because of their
background in conservative circles. See Katajun Amirpur, Islamic Feminism in the Islamic Republic
of Iran,op.cit., p. 2.
58. Interestingly, girls have recently been allowed to take off the headscarf or chador in all-girls schools
in Tehran.
59. Martine Gozlan, ‘Iran: The Liberation Won’t Come from America, but from Women’, Marianne
(weekly newsmagazine), Paris, France, 10–16 November 2003. See online at: http:// .
60. Faezeh Hashemi, another daughter of the former Iranian president Rafsanjani, is director of the
Iranian Organization for Women’s Sports and deputy chair of the National Olympics Committee.
She brought female athletes from the Developing World together in 1993 for the first Islamic
Women’s Olympics. In a landslide victory, she was elected to the 5th Majlis with the highest
number of votes in Tehran.
61. Shirin Ebadi was her country’s first female judge until women were banned from judgeship in the
course of the Islamic Revolution. As a lawyer, she has been engaged in a number of controversial
political cases, including the serial murders in 1999 where she served as attorney for the Foruhar
family and others. Pertaining to the devastating attack against students in their dormitories at
Tehran University in 1999 she has worked successfully to reveal responsible actors and their ties
to governmental officials. Ebadi is the founder and leader of the Association for Support of
Children’s Rights in Iran launched in 1993 and has written a number of academic books and
articles focused on refugee’s rights, children’s rights, medical law and women’s rights. Among her
books translated into English are The Rights of the Child: A Study of Legal Aspects of Children’s Rights
in Iran, Tehran: UNICEF, 1994, and History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran, New
York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000. After the decision of the Nobel peace prize committee had
become known, Ebadi was reportedly greeted at Tehran Airport by as many as 100,000 women
and men carrying slogans such as ‘This is Iran, I am a woman, I am Shirin Ebadi’, ‘This is Iran,
I am a woman, I am Parvaneh Foruhar’, ‘This is Iran, I am a woman, I am Mehrangiz Kar’, etc.,
and ‘We are against death penalty’, ‘Women’s awareness, women’s freedom’. Reportedly, many
women wore white headscarves at this welcoming as signs of hope and/or expressions of their
nonconforming attitude vis-a` -vis official instructions for women’s clothing that advise women wear
dark colors in public. President Mohammad Khatami, meanwhile, was quoted in Tehrani
newspapers stating that Ebadi’s award was ‘not very important’. When asked why he had not
issued a congratulatory statement, Khatami wondered, ‘Must I always send a message for
everything?’ See online at: . In her No-
bel prize acceptance speech Ebadi stated, ‘… The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states,
too, whether in the sphere of civil law or in the realm of social, political and cultural justice, has
its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam.
This culture does not tolerate freedom and democracy, just as it does not believe in the equal rights
of men and women, and the liberation of women from male domination (fathers, husbands,
brothers …), because it would threaten the historical and traditional position of the rulers and
392 Mirjam Ku¨nkler
guardians of that culture’. See online at:
ture.html .
62. See Keddie, ‘Women in Iran’, op.cit., p. 415.
63. Ibid., p. 412.
64. Quoted in ibid., p. 419.
65. See Gheytanchi, ‘Post Revolutionary Iran’, op.cit., p. 8.
66. See Afsaneh Najmabadi, ‘Feminism in an Islamic Republic—Years of Hardship, Years of Growth’,
in eds John Esposito and Yvonne Haddad, Islam,Gender and Sociopolitical Change in the Muslim
World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
67. In a country that has lived under ‘theocratic’ rule for more than 25 years and claims to be the only
truly Islamic Republic in the world, political and social contention towards change tends to engage
in one major argument: whether reform should be aimed at the creation of an Islamic democratic
state, where modes of government prescribed in the core Islamic texts supersede democratic
devices. This would result in the strengthening of current democratic devices in the decision-mak-
ing process, but conserve supreme power in the hands of a clerical official or clerical body. Here
the stress in the country’s title ‘Islamic Republic’ will be on the former term. Or, so the debate
goes, whether reform should instead be aimed at the creation of a democratic secular state, where
law may be informed by Islamic values, but where, if in conflict, democratic values and human
rights reign supreme. For the latter to occur in Iran, it requires a change in the current official
Islamic discourse, to the effect that a separation between political and religious authority can be
justified on the basis of Islamic reasoning and the term ‘Islamic’ in Islamic Republic be omitted.
This is what major oppositional actors and even reformist clerics have been targeting. The framing
of reformist arguments in Islamic thought has in that sense not been strategic. It has been
dedicated at tackling the very future of Iranian Islamic thought and Iranian government where a
prospective democratic system will be integrated into the intellectual traditions of the country, and
where legislation will be informed by the normative constitution of the people (and thus indirectly
by their religious convictions), but not Islamic convictions alone.
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