Rethinking the Gendered Making of Iranian Modernity: The Role of Capitalist Development

Feminist critiques of modernity in Iran have provided a rich array of discussions on the intersections of gender relations and the politics of modernity. Tracing the cultural labour performed by gender and sexuality in the making of Iranian modernity, these studies have made important contributions to a critical understanding of the shifting debates around identity that have occurred since the encounter with colonial modernity, as well as the ways in which European ideas about modernity have been selectively appropriated and rejected by both ‘modernizing’ and conservative or Islamist nationalist movements. Despite their contributions, these studies remain limited to the extent that they critique modernity as merely a discursive construct. Offering a culturalist critique that primarily conceptualizes gender and sexuality as tropes and markers in the politics of making and negotiating modernity, this body of literature has neglected the implications of contemporary transformations in global capitalism on cultural production in the Iranian context, resulting in a dehistoricized understanding of modernity.

In addressing this gap, this paper will attempt to put extant feminist critiques of Iranian modernity in conversation with the growing body of literature on capitalist modernity. The latter has emphasized, first, the historically contingent and nationally-specific trajectories of capitalist development, and second, that these specific trajectories are themselves embedded within and mediated by the international context of global capitalism. Seen in this way, the making of modernity and the development of social, economic, cultural and ideological forms in Iran has – far from occurring in isolation – been fundamentally shaped by the ongoing encounter with Western capitalism and has been international in both origin and substance. In this paper, I argue for the need to expand existing feminist critiques of Iranian modernity to specify the role that gender has played both as determinant and determined in pre- and post-revolutionary configurations of capitalist modernity in Iran, as well as to examine the shifting ways in which this dynamic has been mediated by the ‘international’. The paper aims thus to sketch out a theoretical framework for uncovering the complex ways in which gender tropes and discourses mediate capitalist modernity in Iran.