Feminisms, Islamic and Secular

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals.


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As scholar-activists deeply familiar and participant in the Iranian women’s movement, we are acutely aware of the challenges facing fellow “Third-World” feminists. We must strategically coordinate our scholarship and activities to fit into prevalent discourses about Islam in both the United States and the Middle East. For secular activist-scholars like ourselves, who have worked in Iran to critique and improve gender discriminatory laws and positions, we have been accused of supporting Western hegemonic practices and neoliberal projects. These accusations have arisen from both American and Iranian institutions and thus have fostered an academic space in which conversations about women’s rights are limited to who controls the dialogue. In the case of Iran, Islamists, American-Iranian academics and American pundits determine the range, scope, and analysis of the Iranian women’s movement and its central characters and objectives.
Our paper hopes to highlight the following points: The Iranian women’s movement is unique in that it is caught in between two ideological projects advanced by a hardline government in Iran and also by a tenuous and rising Islamophobia discourse. Women’s activists, Muslim and secular alike, who had joined forces to promote gender equality within the parliamentary and legal systems, are now accused by both government officials and NGO activists of aiding Western imperialism. This has led to a severe government clampdown of the diverse group of Iranian women’s activists. In the United States, the situation appears just as grim. Islamophobia is on the rise and contributing to the discourse against veiling in Europe. Thus international human rights and women’s rights organizations--which, in the past, have encouraged the activities of the Iranian women’s movement-- are now hesitant to support and critique domestic issues--one of which is compulsory hejab-- for fear of contributing to the Islamophobia discourse, as well as taking the attention away from the democratic uprisings in the Middle East. In this paper presentation, we hope to construct both a strategic discourse and action that promote Iranian women’s causes in their struggle against compulsory hejab, and, at the same time, a discourse and action that do not fall into the trap of the Islamophobia propaganda machine.

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In the 1990’s, despite the fact that a religious government was in power, the term “feminism” reappeared in prominent women’s magazines (e.g. Zanan) and newspaper articles, thus entering the public discourse in Iran. This time feminism took center stage, for it was accompanied by another term - Islamic. Regardless of the contested politics around the notion of Islamic feminism, one cannot deny the fact that through the use of this phrase, a space was created for women in Iran to speak of feminism once more.

One of the emerging theories of recent scholarship, put forth by the Iranian political philosopher Mohamad Reza Nikfar, argues that “[secularization] in our cultural landscape means woman’s freedom.” Consequently, I pose the following question: If woman’s freedom is a common goal for both secularism and feminism in contemporary Iran, can we then assume the existence of some kind of common denominator in their theoretical and methodological approaches to today’s social and political issues ? Feminist scholars warn against the perception of feminism as a monolithic social movement, subject to a single acceptable definition. Starting from a pluralistic understanding of feminism, this paper asks how women’s freedom gives meaning to, and becomes the objective of the secularization process in Iran.

Moreover, if we accept Nikfar’s assessment of the intertwined paths of secularization and feminism, that is-- if feminism is a “condition” for secularism, I ask if the reverse is also true--i.e. if any manifestation of feminism in Iran needs secularism as its basis. Why is a pluralistic understanding of secularism a necessary condition for any kind of feminism to grow in Iran?