“The liberty of man consists solely in this, that he obeys the laws of nature because he himself has recognised them as such and not because they have been imposed on him externally by any foreign will whatsoever, human or divine, collective or individual.”
– Mikhail Bakunin, Nature, Man, Liberty
In my previous posts this week regarding International Women’s Day, I have bashed feminism a fair amount it has to be said.
However, this is not to say that the struggle for women’s equality (and not to mention safety) isn’t still very real in much of the world today.
I stressed in previous posts the importance of making comparisons between the movements of a century ago versus the movements of today, and criticised (as have many others) the bizarre link drawn in current campaigns between the donning of hijab and women’s rights.
We have previously looked into the New York origins of the former International Working Women’s Day, and the traditions of the Soviet Unions female workforce.
In light of the current focus of the feminist movement on Islam and hijab being made the symbol of women’s ’emancipation’, let’s focus on another important International Working Women’s Day from the last century: March 8th 1979.
In 1979, shortly before the reintroduction of the mandatory veiling of women in Iran, and after 43 years of hijab being an illegal form of dress, Iranian women marched with uncovered heads. Their thick, black hair flowing freely, they protested what they saw as a step back in time, to an age when they had been second class citizens.
Let’s make no mistake: these women were not ‘Islamophobic’, and their motives were certainly not the dismantling of Islamic or Iranian culture – far from it! In fact, many of them were educated at the University of Tehran during the period between 1935 and 1978, when women were able to freely pursue their educational aspirations. Many of these women studied the philosophies and doctrines of Islam, and the Women’s Organisation of Iran (WOI, founded in 1966) maintained that they aimed to not only achieve political and social equality, but to do it within the traditions of Islam.
So, a little history.
Following the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, awareness of women’s rights issues became more widely recognised among the population, despite their having been a small feminist tradition running alongside that of the West from as early as the 1850’s.
In 1918 primary schools for girls gained government funding, following the previous opening of two privately funded schools; although mandatory education for both sexes did not materialise until 1944.
Alongside primary education, degree level education became a possibility for Iranian women: 1928 saw the government financing of women travelling abroad to earn their degrees, and in 1935 Tehran University began admitting female students.
As can be expected in a population rapidly advancing its literacy, women began producing their own literature, predominantly in the form of a number of women’s journals. The journals published feminist rhetoric and thought, but also occasional poetry and short stories. Such publications included Alam Nesvan (Women’s Universe), published 1920-1934 by the Association of Graduates at Tehran’s American Girls’ School. This journal showed particular admiration for Western feminism and a disdain for hijab.
Iran wasn’t the only country in the region to undergo changes during this period, and in 1932 Tehran hosted representatives from Iraq, India, Lebanon and Egypt for the Congress of Women of the East.
Four years later a landmark victory was won by the women of Iran – the 1936 law, courtesy of Iranian leader Reza Shah Pahlavi, which outlawed the wearing of hijab.
In 2013, Firouzeh Mirrazavi of the Iran Review remarked on the influence had upon Reza Shah by Afghanistan in its moves toward greater democracy, and too the Westernisation of Turkey: “During the visit, the Afghan queen (Soraya Tarzi, 1929) did not wear hijab and this led to heated debates among the Iranian clerics who urged Reza Shah to make the Afghan queen observe the Islamic code of dress in Iran.”
It must have seemed at this point that the only way was up as by the late sixties not only had suffrage been achieved, but women could hold cabinet positions and work as police officers and members of the judiciary.
In fact, by the time of the revolution and repealment of the law, 40% of the female population was literate, women made up 33% of university students and polygamy had been virtually eradicated by the 1975 Family Protection Act.
Which brings us back to 8th March 1979 – the day on which 100,000 Iranian women marched in protest of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran and the 7th century laws it brought with it.
According to Islamic law, improper hijab, i.e. the revelation of anything more than the hands or face of a woman to any man other than her husband, father or son is punishable with lashes and/or imprisonment.
In the last ten years there has been a re-invigoration of the crack down on women’s right to dress as they choose by Iranian authorities, and hundreds (if not thousands) of arrests have been made as a result.
For the best part of the past 40 years the women of Iran (not to mention the women of other nations such as Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) have been wearing hijab not as a symbol of their faith or their pride or even their cultural inheritance, but rather as a symbol of the sad failure of a once progressive country to maintain the basic freedoms of its citizens.
Although there have been more recent movements in Iran, such as the 2006 ‘Change for Equality’ campaign, efforts are largely ignored by feminist movements from around the world.
I suppose that the story of Iran and other such cautionary tales are a challenge to the narrative of intersectionalism, and to the idea that the ‘religion of peace’ is a misunderstood liberator of women. And who’s to say that it couldn’t be?
If only a single Islamic women’s movement were allowed to run its course and reach its aims, such an assertion would be reasonable. As things stand and as they have stood until this point: it is not.
I hope that what we can draw from this comparison and the ideological pickle in which the feminist movement currently finds itself is that: while culture has value, that value can only ever be realised or benefited from through free enquiry.