Bazr Interviews Shahrzad Mojab on the Women's Movement in Iran

Bazr Interviews Shahrzad Mojab on the Women's Movement in Iran



Question (Bazr): What do you think about women's role in the people's uprising in the last several months in Iran? And how has the broad participation of women in these struggles been viewed outside the country?

Shahrzad Mojab: I want to take the opportunity here and talk beyond an interview. There was a seminar in the Middle Eastern study section in Toronto University on women and the gender question. I started my speech with a poem from Shamim, a young Iranian woman who lives in Europe. It says:

"You violently fucked me, 

And called me a whore,     

As simple as that, 

And the day after the papers wrote:

A prostitute was condemned to death,      

I died and you didn't realize,

As simple as that."

Shamim who also has a good voice sings a song in memory of her 22 year-old friend who was stoned to death in 2000 in Evin Prison: that says:

Later on (when the times come), write on my grave that I am a woman

Write, you tore my flesh in pieces.

Write that, this punishment is the spiteful form of religion.

Write that, this crime is the pride of Omat (the believer of Islam)

Shamim put it correctly when she says that the suppression, stoning, and violence against women is the 'spiteful' form of religion and any 'omat' who do not raise up against this system is part of that violence. There was much debate on this point that on one hand shows the confusion on the dynamics of the Iranian women’s struggles – the deep social, cultural and historical contradictions that give rise to this explosive social movement – and on the other hand shows the broad and extensive influence of the so-called 'moderate' and rightist (and pragmatist method corresponding to that) views on the Iranian people's struggle in general and on the women's struggle in particular – views that try to define these struggles within the limits of the horizons and interests of a faction of the regime and a small section of the dissidents. Let’s go more into detail on that.

For three decades, political and academic circles, women's groups and the media outside the country have followed the social, political and the individual initiatives of Iranian women in opposition to the Islamic regime. The dominant view is admiration, approval and encouragement of the reformist, pragmatist, and violence-avoiding moves of women. This is the reason that outside the country the 'One Million Signature Campaign' [The one million signature campaign is the name given to a coalition of women collecting one million signatures to change Islamic laws. These trends believe that Islamic law has no contradiction with Islam, and want some rights for women within the framework of the Islamic regime.] is considered the 'women’s movement' in the Iran as opposed to the women's reformist trend in Iran. However in my view the 'one million signature campaign' even as one of the trends within a reformist framework, has a very limited horizon because it wants to remain within the structure of the Islamic system and ideology that is one of the pillars of women's oppression in Iran.

On the other hand there are not many who are aware of the views of the individual women and women's groups who have perspectives beyond reforming and refurbishing the legal-judicial aspect of the existing system. The analysis and views of other women's groups who demand the destruction of the whole religious male chauvinist system are not considered as part of the Iran's women's movement. For example "the other women" in their 8 March statement in 2009 explicitly stated that the woman question cannot be solved through reforming this system ( It is interesting to see that for more than twenty years the families of the political prisoners of the 80's and in particular 'the mothers of Khavaran' (referring to the mothers of the political prisoners who were executed and buried in the Khavaran graveyard outside Tehran) rose up demanding justice, but these struggles have been given no place in the human rights scene of the international arena. How and why such selections are made are not coincidence or accident. They are the product of the entanglement of several trends in the last three decades. Therefore the role of women in the recent uprising and its reflection outside the country should be considered in the context of this thinking, and these political and practical developments.

The eye-catching participation of women in the 1979 revolution was the start of a significant development of women as an important social force in (Iran's) contemporary period. After the revolution when women in the first IWD protested against Khomeini's compulsory hejab decree came into the streets, they found themselves confronted with the violence of the new ruling regime. Most of the organisations within the communist movement and the students groups who were inclined towards that movement, failed to support them, with the pretext that there were other more important questions of the revolution or that the women's uprising lacked a working class character! This was an indication of the functioning of the old viewpoint in the communist movement, that 'reification'of the working class viewpoints tend not to see the decisive importance of the women's liberation movement for the communist movement. Some of the so called 'leftist' parties such as the Tudeh Party and Mojahedin (Mojahedin Khalq organisation) were negotiating with the new Islamic regime, hoping to take part in the political power. Basically the necessity of how they saw their interests was in conflict with supporting the women's movement against Khomeini.

This choice made by the political forces of the communist movement and student movement had two consequences:

1)     The suppression of women opened the way for the suppression of other social forces including students.

2)     The compulsory hejab decree was the beginning of Islamisation of all the socials relation. Covering a woman's body is the religious symbol of male chauvinism in the relation between women and men in all private and public spheres of life. These religious-based relations are defined, compiled and enforced by the state and its vast intelligence, police and oppressive apparatus.

Women did not keep quiet in the face of these state-religious attacks, but their rebelliousness did not take on a concentrated militant form nor result in permanent organisation to fight uncompromisingly with the Islamic regime. More importantly it did not base itself on a clear programme.

Women's mass struggles in the last three decades have been mainly spontaneous and have had many ebbs and flows. But some groups of women had defined more or less concrete political horizons. They were the women from the families in power, from women who belonged to nationalist-religious trends and some secular intellectual women who are outside the circle of power but whose programme is to encourage reform of some of the system's anti-women laws. Some of non Iranian feminist researchers call these attempts "Islamic feminism". In this way they stamped the women’s struggle with a religious identity.  Such thinking is consistent with the growing conservatism in the world feminist movement. In fact following the ebb of liberation struggles in 60's and the empowering of conservatives in Europe, the US and Canada, and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the rightism in the academic world, in the media and in the general culture of the capitalist countries has swelled. The predominant view was that capitalism had fundamentally changed and there was no alternative to the present situation, that it was only possible to decrease the sharpness of this cruel social system here and there.

The result of this widespread idea was that the state and ruling system was no longer the target of struggle by the social movements and consequently the struggles were limited to a neighbourhood, region or particular group for improving the terrible situation of those who were ground under by the heavy wheels of patriarchy. Under the political and financial pressures of the ultra-state organisations such as the United Nations, the women’s movement lost its militant character. Non-governmental organisations replaced these movements. In other words NGO-isation took place. Their announced goals were reforming the situation of women. But since their method of work is to negotiate with the male chauvinist-religious system and not initiate a social movement for confronting it, they will never reach the point of 'reforming' the women's situation and will ultimately only repair some of the ruling class structures. They will reduce the women's movement to an institution of charity, a social security agency and so on with no common and long-term perspective for women. Its aim is to carry out the projects that have received budgets for that. In other words this budget will determine the policy of the women's movement and not a long term programme for achieving freedom and equality.

I will examine the problems of the Iranian women's movement in the context of this history and development. The past needs to be understood in order to grasp today's situation and charting a future path, and also to see the situation of the women's movement in Iran in the context of the international struggles of women.

The presence of women and in particular the young women with their beautiful and fearless faces in the street fighting that was broadcasted in the western media and the internet, created another feminist confusion. As I mentioned above since they regarded Iranian women as 'Moslems' and the hejab was supposed to be part of its inherent 'culture', they ask me if 'these pictures were real', 'then why they don’t look like Moslem women'. They talk about the 'Moslem women' as if 'Islam' is programmed in the genes and not as views and traditions that can be transformed parallel to the transformation of the society. From one side, this question represents some racism. From the other side, it shows a complete lack of knowledge of the complex social structure of Iranian society and its social-class formation.

While for 30 years the Islamic regime resorted to violence to push forward the Islamisation of  the gender relation, the feminists academics parallel to that, tried to justify Iranian women's subjugation within the framework of religion by resorting to 'cultural relativity', identity, pluralism, authenticity, intersectionalism.  

Some even considered women's resistance against the Islamic laws within the framework of religion and called it 'Islamic feminism'. But (history judges and) this kind of analysis was judged by the development of the movement. The violence of Islamic male chauvinism on a state level or in 'civil society' was not restrained, and women's resistance broadened in all spheres. The recent street fighting (on the part of Iranian women) proves wrong those who for years were encouraging Iranian women to compromise with the religious regime. Some of the reformists who were promoting gradual reform of the anti-woman system to the defiant women (and are still doing it) were confronted with tens of thousand women who see their liberation tied to the overthrowing of this system. What is going on is not the continuation of reformist policies (unlike what they claim) but a rupture from that.

Let's look at an example. The web site of the 'school of feminism' [that belongs to the 'one million signature' coalition] on the occasion of 8 March 2009, asked feminists some questions. One of those questions were, "what realisable wish do you have….? (this is the question that has provided the question with answer and method of thinking). They limit this 'wish', to immediate realisability. This viewpoint in fact promotes the kind of thinking that says "what is possible is then desirable". The 'realistic' and 'practical' activity that in philosophy is formulised as 'pragmatism', is the basis of the programme of reformists or those who want to amend the Islamic system, in the women's movement and the people's movement as a whole. Pragmatism believes that in any moment the truth is what is possible. And (for them) there is no universal or already discovered truth. (The Pragmatists believe) the truth can only be found through practice. The truth is the result of practice, but at the same time the practice can be real only when it is useful ( i.e. it has some immediate result). The reformist feminists say that the women's movement should consider only those actions that are useful, such as collecting ‘one million signatures’ and that its perspective is reforming the legal system of the Islamic regime.

The struggle in the recent months has inflicted a hard blow to this reformism such that some have been terrified by the radicalisation of this movement. But we women should be conscious that reformism is the policy and ideology of a certain class – the bourgeoisie – and it is very stubborn and it is necessary that this viewpoint be struggled with. This is why in this stage of the struggle, it is essential that women express transparently their demands and choose the way and method of struggle for achieving them. The leaders (of the green movement) have been no less guilty than the ruling faction in suppressing the women's movement and the people's movement. Even now their warnings against the 'anti-structuralists' (a term that the Islamic regime and Green leaders use for the anti-system forces) smell of violence and enmity. The fact is that women's demands for freedom and equality is the most anti-structural (anti-system) demand in relation to the Islamic republic system. And it is not without reason that they have remained silent on that. It is not without reason that the 'one million signature' group has been silenced by the green banner and their activists have warned that they should only limit themselves to 'general demands'. 

The question in this very important and sensitive historical moment is, what should Iranian women's demands be, and more importantly how can those demands be achieved? The unconditional abolition of all the Islamic and non Islamic anti-women laws (which the abolition of compulsory hejab is on top) has always been one of the most important slogans of the radical women's movement.  This is part of the separation of religion from the state. In my opinion the women's movement objectively has developed into the stage that should bravely and with self-confidence put forward its programme and method of struggle to become the centre of a powerful force of women launching a conscious social struggle.