The Conservative–Reformist Conflict over Women’s Rights in Iran Ziba Mir-Hosseini

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International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall 2002 ( C 2002)

The Conservative–Reformist Conflict Over Women’s Rights in Iran Ziba Mir-Hosseini∗

The struggle over women’s rights has been one of the main battlegrounds between the forces of modernity and tradition in Iranian politics and society. With the emergence of a Reformist movement in 1997 this struggle entered a new phase in the Islamic Republic. It became part of the part of a broader conflict over two differing notions of Islam. One is an absolutist and legalistic Islam, premised on the notion of “duty,” tolerating no dissent and making little concession to popular will and contemporary realities. The other is a pluralistic and tolerant Islam that promotes democratic values and human rights—including women’s rights. KEY WORDS: Iran; Islam; Islamic law; women’s rights; gender; hejab.

INTRODUCTION Shortly after the Iranian Revolution of 1978–9 and the foundation of the Islamic Republic, religious scholars were charged with establishing the religious basis of the new regime’s program and its social, economic and political order. At the same time, they had to manage the difficult transition from a standpoint of opposition to one of power. As the regime has increasingly faced real, contemporary issues of social policy and practice, clerics have had to make accommodations in many key areas of Islamic doctrine and law. One such area has been gender relations, and the legal, social, and political rights and roles of women. The process of accommodation was intensified ∗ Correspondence should be directed to Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Centre for Near and Middle Eastern

Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG, UK; e-mail: zibamir@onetel.net.uk. 37 0891-4486/02/0900-0037/0
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2002 Human Sciences Press, Inc.

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Mir-Hosseini

after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, and has been accompanied by a lively debate on women’s rights in the seminaries and in various government and independent publications. The debate has centered on whether shari‘a injunctions should take into account the demands of time and place. The arguments for reform have come to be known as “dynamic jurisprudence” (feqh-e puya), as opposed to the “traditional jurisprudence” (feqh-e sonnati) supported by those who resist change of the law.1 By the mid-1990s, a kind of consensus was emerging among clerics of opposing political tendencies, and some of the harsher edges of the gender policies introduced early in the Revolution had been rounded off.2 With the unexpected victory of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential elections and the birth of the reformist movement, women and the scope of their rights in Islam became a hotly contended issue. Reformist efforts to reconcile Islam with democracy and human rights brought to the surface the inherent contradictions between the construction of gender rights in shari‘a law and democratic ideals. A new round of struggle began among the clerics over women’s rights in Islam, and the battle lines were redrawn. The dividing line this time is between Conservatives, who insist on keeping intact the ideological discourse of the Revolution, and Reformists, who want to reconcile it with the discourse of human rights and democracy. Paradoxically, the very clerics who now argue for a tolerant and democratic Islam were themselves once ardent supporters of the Revolutionary discourse and played an important role in turning Islamic law into a powerful ideological tool to suppress other voices. The central role in containing and frustrating Reformist efforts to formulate a more egalitarian reading of Islamic law role is played by two bodies dominated by Conservative clerics, the Special Court for the Clergy (Dadgah-e Vizheh-e Rowhaniat)3 and the Guardian Council (Shura-ye Negahban). In this conflict, the issue of equal rights for women has become an index of the success of the...
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