The Independent / Book Review by Shusha Guppy
In the Eye of the Storm – Ed. M Afkhami & E Friedl: I B Tauris, pounds 5.95
DURING THE upheavals that led to the 1979 revolution in Iran, women’s support is supposed to have been the decisive factor in the overthrow of the Shah and the seizure of power by Ayatollah Khomeini. Every day in the news we saw images of women wrapped in black chador shaking their fists and shrieking slogans, like birds of bad omen in a horror movie. This was all the more astonishing as Iranian women were among the most emancipated in the Islamic world.
The Veil which had kept them down for centuries had been abolished in 1936, and within a couple of decades Persian women had flourished in education, medicine and the Civil Service, often on a par with their male peers. In 1963 they achieved the right to vote, and in the following 15 years further reforms enabled them to enter the Parliament and the Cabinet, the Armed Forces and the Law. Finally the Family Protection Law gave them equal rights in marriage and the guardianship of their children. It seemed Iranian women had ‘arrived’.
But, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, all modern revolutions use women to gain power, promising them freedom and equality in the new order, and then clamping down on them. Iranian women who had fallen for Khomeini’s vague rhetoric about ‘women’s honour’ and donned the chador as a ‘symbolic gesture’ were forced to wear it as soon as the Islamic Republic was established. Again they poured out into the streets clamouring ‘at the dawn of freedom, where is our freedom?’ – but it was too late.
The new regime proceeded to undo 50 years of gain, repealing all laws related to women’s rights. Women were ‘encouraged’ to leave the workforce, through early ‘retirement’ or hopeless conditions, while school texts were re-written to emphasise women’s domestic role, and 140 subjects of study were closed to them.
Yet as the revolutionary fervour subsided, it became clear that the country could not do without women’s work: small concessions were made, and soon women began to reassert themselves, like a body that mobilises its immune system to fight a pernicious virus.
It seems that Iranian women stemmed the reactionary tide with an abundance of creativity – in the arts, literature and politics. In The Eye of The Storm surveys their changing conditions, struggle and achievements. It is based on the proceedings of a conference held in Washington in 1991, to which further contributions have been added. Well-edited and free from jargon, it tells a fascinating, edifying, and often very funny tale – notably concerning sexual mores. It is also sometimes sad.
The editor of the book, Mahnaz Afkhami, was Secretary General of the Women’s Organisation before the revolution and one of the two women Cabinet Ministers in the Shah’s government – the other was arrested and shot early during the revolution. Driven into exile, Afkhami set up and runs the Institute for Iranian Studies in Washington.
Afkhami’s own paper tells the story of the women’s movement in Persia, from its early tremors in the 1920s to 1979, in the context of the country’s long history – there is a straight line of continuity between the strong, brave, independent heroines of ancient Persian mythology and the gallant women of today, who defy censorship and risk imprisonment to make themselves heard in books, films and political debate. Equally interesting is Haleh Esfandiari’s account of the Majlis (Parliament). The Assembly of Experts set up by Ayatollah Khomeini to produce Iran’s new constitution had a single chador-clad woman.
In ‘The Commoditisation of Sexuality’ Fatima Moghadam shows that the treatment of women as ‘quasi-commodity, quasi-human’ has little to do with Islam, while Shahla Haeri discusses the practice of ‘Temporary Marriage’, according to which people can ‘marry’ for as short a time as one hour. The custom had disappeared, but was re-introduced by the Mullahs, to the outrage of women’s groups who called it ‘legal prostitution’.
But in 1991 Prime Minister Rafsanjani justified it in his Friday sermon from the country’s highest pulpit, astounding his massive audience. He invoked first God ‘who has given us the sexual instinct . . . which should not be denied’, then modern science which proves that ‘deprivation is bad’ – surely the first time Allah and Freud were simultaneously called to clinch an argument. Thus Rafsanjani ‘proved’ the ‘superiority’ of sexual relationship in temporary marriage over its ‘chaotic’ and ‘decadent’ Western counterpart.
In poetry, novels, and above all films Persian women have been active. ‘More women feature-film directors have emerged in the single decade since the revolution than in all the decades of film-making preceding it,’ writes Hamid Nafisi in his survey of the industry. Just as a veiled woman has only her eyes to communicate her feelings, through ‘the gaze’ of the camera women film directors have defied crippling restrictions and depicted the reality of their lives, winning international recognition.
In The Eye of the Storm is a valuable book, for as Robin Morgan points out in her introduction, Iranian women have born the brunt of fundamentalism at a time when ‘all kinds – Christian, Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalism has been rising alarmingly’. And because Muslim women are victims of ‘invidious stereotyping of Westerners . . . even Western feminists’. This book restores the reader’s faith in the regenerative power of the human spirit, and tells a heart-warming story of courage, resilience, and creative energy.
The Independent / Book Review by Shusha Guppy