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  • Mirna Wabi-Sabi

The introduction to 'A History of the Iranian Women's Rights Movement', by Donya Ahmadi

Updated: Apr 28

Iranian women have a rich and long-standing legacy of political activism. The origins of the Iranian women’s movement can be traced back to the emergence of independent women’s groups and periodicals during the constitutional revolution of the early twentieth century. Despite women’s active presence and contributions to global political developments of the past century, contemporary historical narratives, by and large, remain characterized by gender-blindness.

This book problematizes the systemic sidelining of women’s causes and contributions, not only in the field of historiography, but in Iranian politics at large. It shows that throughout the twentieth century, women’s bodies repeatedly emerged as sites of political contestation while their causes were simultaneously instrumentalized and erased from the masculinist political debate. It ultimately posits that the gendering of history constitutes a vital first step towards developing an Iranian intersectional feminist agenda.



Women in Contemporary Iranian Activism


On International Women’s Day on 8 March 1979, only weeks after the victory of the revolution that overthrew the Shah, thousands of Iranian women marched the snowy streets of Tehran. Disillusioned with the new revolutionary council’s dubious and discriminatory stances towards women, they took to the streets to demand the preservation of their meagre but hard-earned rights and chanted ‘In the dawn of freedom, women have no freedom’. The images of masses of women protesters, many of whom had previously marched the streets in support of the revolution, shocked the world as they rapidly circulated media outlets across the globe.

What had fueled this spontaneous expression of collective anger was a series of direct attacks on women’s rights launched by the new regime which included the suspension of an important piece of family legislation that had improved women’s divorce and reproductive rights, and the barring of women from becoming judges. The final nail in the coffin was hammered a day before the march, when Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced that women civil servants should wear the hijab in their place of work.

The events of International Women’s Day of 1979 marked the beginning of a long and ongoing struggle for gender equality in post-revolutionary Iran. The seeds of this resistance, however, had been planted nearly seven decades before, a fact that is often historically overlooked. The majority of hitherto historical writings on contemporary Iran have, in fact, failed to account for the important role played by women’s activism in shaping modern Iranian politics and society.

Writing gender and women back into the history of Iranian mobilization highlights Iranian women’s long legacy of political activism. It builds on and contributes to an existing body of work by women historians who have embarked on the essential task of combatting the ‘gender-blindness’ which characterizes not just contemporary historical narrations of Iranian activism but the field of historiography in general. Gendering historicization cannot be achieved through the mere annexing of women’s names, stories, and images to the existing male-centric historical narratives. Rather, it requires the re-introduction of gender as a category of analysis from the onset, in a way that fundamentally transforms historicization itself (Najmabadi, 1996).

By tracing the origins of the Iranian women’s movement in the constitutional revolution of the early twentieth century, an overview of women’s major political activities throughout various stages of political development in contemporary Iran takes form. Meanwhile, the coercion and cooptation periods of the women’s movement under the Pahlavi I and II eras respectively cannot be overlooked. By closely examining the role and position of women in political opposition groups of the revolutionary period and their subsequent activism and repression in the years following the 1979 revolution, a common thread is traced through all major political developments of the past century. The promises and pitfalls of the women’s movement carry lessons for the future of feminist activism within and outside Iran.


A history of the women’s movement in Iran

Afsaneh Najmabadi once aptly referred to the general model of historicization in contemporary Iran as one of “Great Men and Grand Ideas” (1996: 102). Much has been written about Iran’s modernization from above since the early 1900s as well as its grassroots histories of conscientization and political activism. These historical narrations are heterogenous and often-times contested in their claims, reflecting ideologies and standpoints from all over the political spectrum. What unites these diverse historical plots, however, is the systemic and effective downplaying, and at times complete erasure, of the role of women (in particular rural, tribal, and working-class women) and their political claims from the collective national memory, rendering modern Iranian historiography centralist, elitist, and undeniably masculinist.

(This is an excerpt from the book A History of the Iranian Women's Rights Movement)

A History of the Iranian Women's Rights Movement


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