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01. April 2004

Nayereh Tohidi

Nayereh Tohidi - "Women need to be educated to believe in themselves"

Edit Schlaffer, Women Without Borders, talked with the Iranian woman Nayereh Tohidi, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at California State University, Northridge about the situation of women in Iran, the change in Iranian society, new political developments and
the empowerment of women for the international politics.

Nayereh Tohidi is associate Professor of Women’s Studies at California State University, Northridge teaching in the areas of sociology of gender, women, Islam and democracy in Muslim societies. She has been a consultant for the United Nations, including UNDP, UNICEF, ILO, and WIDER on projects concerning women, identity politics, and gender and development in the Middle East and post-Soviet Eurasia. She was a representative of Iranian women’s NGOs at the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Forum 1985. During the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (Forum 1995), she was part of an international delegation representing the concerns of women in transitional economies of Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

WwB: Iran is a society between hard-line clerics on the one hand and moderate refomers on the other hand. Where are the women in this picture?

NT: The society is primarily divided into two forces: One makes up the minority, it has about 10 or at most 15 percent of support, who are basically very traditionalist, very conservative, who have monopolised the economic power, the military power,and judicial power. They want to basically maintain the status quo, not a democracy. Then there is the majority which, is made up of at least three groups. One is the reformers within the government and the executive branch, who are basically Islamic reformers, some of them are bureaucrats who have been vacillating between the ruling clerics and people and compromising too much. And some who are in the parliament, many among them have maintained their loyality to their reform agenda. The third and larger groups of reformers are outside the government in the society at large. We need to be careful not to limit our assessment of the reform movement to the elites in power. There has been a profound change in the political culture of Iran toward appreciation of democracy, a cognitive transformation in the minds of people, especially women and the younger generations about how to run the country, which relates to their disillusionment with an ideological or Islamist state.

You see, in Iranian history, since the Constitutional Revolution in 1905 - 1911, we have had movements for independence, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism and anti-dictatorship of the Shah. During the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran became populist and Islamic because the emphasis was on imperialism and Western influence. What has happend in Iran in recent years is that the political culture of Iran is pro-democracy and pro-modernity now. People are more liberal oriented. In the past I would say that people were more socialistic, but because of the failure of socialism, especially the autoritarian type of socialism in the Soviet Union, people, even intellectuals in Iran think that at this point we need to emphasize liberalism, we need to emphasise the development of industrial capitalism in order to advance and then perhaps later we can talk about socialism. So this is a new phase in political culture in Iran, especially among women who are emphasizing egalitarianism and gender equality and for young people who are emphasizing their individual freedom, civil rights, the right to privacy even more than political rights of the instrusion of the theocratic government in every personal aspect of an individual´s life.

WwB: Is there space for women to contribute in this process or do they have to be very careful? Do they run the back office or are they seen and heard?

NT: The percentage, numberwise and also in terms of the quality of women’s voices and women’s presence in society and politics, it is unpresedented in Iran. And it is very, very paradoxical and ironic that an Islamic government and a revolution that took an Islamist course unwantingly, unwittingly lead to gender consciousness and a more feminist consciousness among women. I should say and draw attention to the fact that Iran at present is full of contradictions and paradoxes. For example, on the one hand, you still have sporadic practice of stoning to death of women and men for commiting adultery or other sexual “offences, thoug this practice does not happen frequently, it must be condemned in strongest terms. And as in many other societies, in Iran you have violence against women, both by the state and at home, domestic violence, wife abuse, child abuse, you have prostitution, you have repression against women who do not observe the dress code the way conservatives want them to. You have a very biased family law, men´s unilateral right to divorce and male-favored child custody and inheritance rights.
On the other hand, there is much evidence that makes you be optimistic about the future of women in Iran. A few examples: the youngest woman film director of the world, Samira Makhmalbaf, is from Iran who is winning prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, who is only 23 years old. She has made three outstanding films all with social egalitarian orientation and feminist messages. There are actually quite a few female film directors and also a few male film directors who are making feminist films, like the one about the women’s prison. These are all indicatives of a turning point in Iranian cinema in terms of bringing up feminist ideas and women’s issues. Some of the best-sellers among novels and literature are written by women. Women have been prominent in painting, in sculpture making, even in music. It is so ironic that, in field of music which has been so repressive especially for women, you still hear some vocalists who have only been singing for women audience only, but are gradually singing in public and you also have women music players in professional level. There are many women scientists. The women’s press has been doing very well in contributing to consciousness-raising among women. There are several magazines that have been cautiously but persistently educatio women and menand defending equal rights for women.
In recent years especially after Khatami´s election, who allocated more budget for helping non-governmental activities and also helped the relaxation of political repression, we’ve had more progressive and open media, especially print-media -- television and radio are in the monopoly of the conservatives, but in print media we have also had women’s press, which despite all restricitions is doing well and also some women NGO’s. These NGO’s are working for the protection of women’s rights, against violation against women, establishing courses to teach how to fight against violence and child abuse, prostitution, addiction. Premliminary Steps have been taken to establish Women and Gender Studies Programs in some universities. The women´s press and NGOs are dealing not only with political issues, but also with social ills and social problems. Another positive evidence is the rather impressive level of women’s participation in politics.
Of course, I am talking relatively. I am not comparing Iran with the Scandinavian countries, for example. I am comparing Iran with what was happening in Iran say ten years ago and with countries similar to Iran in the same region. Women have begun to take part in politics not only in urban centers, not only among highly educated women, but also in rural areas. Thousands of women took part in the municiple elections, even rural women. And quite a few of them got elected, which tells us two things: One, that women are gradually getting ready to take part in politics and the second thing is that the public is also getting ready to vote for women hence accept women politicians. This is important when you compare it with, for instance, the recent electios in Bahrein where women were for the first time allowed to run for public office, but nobody voted for them. In Iran however, thanks to recent changes in political culture, including some shift in sexist attitudes and also because of a longer history of women´s presence in the public area, which dates back to the years under the previous regime, there is a relatively more readiness among women and men for women´s roles in politics.

WwB: What encouraged those tendencies? Is it education that more and more women are highly educated or are in the process of being educated? Is this a key issue?

NT: Yes, this is true and education is a major factor. In recent years in Iran, again surprisingly and unexpectedly, women have been outnumbering men in enrolling in universities. That is actually becoming a rather international trend. Women need to be educated to believe in themselves. In Iran in the past two or three years, almost 60 percent of the students who pass the entrance exams are female and note that these exams are hard, very hard in Iran because of the limited number of universities and the extraordinary number of applicants. And this shows that our girl students are doing better in schools, are working harder and that they are very intelligent. So they are even the top students in the class, the students who are earning the highest scores. Usually the newspapers publish the names of those who have passed the exams and among the ten highest scores you see that five or six of them are women! And that is creating a new role model for young women and scaring the patriarchal society. Some of the officials have argued that this is a dangerous trend because if the women become better educated than men, then they will not marry less-educated men and this will create a problem. A few of them had actually called to establish a quota to prevent women from enrolling in universities, which is crazy. And of course, women activists, including some women in parliamentary positions have opposed such suggestionsa and so far prevented its implemention. Some patriarchal authorities are worried and feelthreatend by these highly educated women. So the fact that women are getting highly educated is an important factor behiind social change. Let me give you some facts and figures: In 1976, just three years before the revolution, the literacy rate among women was only 36%. By 1996, that rate increased to 72% and today I believe it is up to 75%. That itself is a big change in society and among women.

There are only very few women in parliament, unfortunately. The number is small, but the present women deputies are dedicated and also highly educated, committed women.
Recently an open letter was written by such deputies, which was very daring and like an ultimatum to Khameini, the supreme leader, calling him to stop obstructiong the reform process. 137 deputees signed it, including all women deputies. But the letter is banned, Khameini would not allow for it to be published in Iran. Some internet sites however have put it on and it is also being circulated in Iran informally.

WwB: Is this letter related to the possibility of Iran becoming the next target of the US attack?

NT: The letter is about many issues, including Iran´s misguided foreign policy that has bien an excuse to the hegemonic goals of the present adminsitration of the United States to threaten Iran´s self determination. This letter signifies a turning point in the fight between the reformers and the religous hardliners (Islamic fundamentalists). The reformist deputies are saying that people are about to loose hope for any meaningful reform within the persent structure and the country is in danger of being invaded by America. They are urging the hardliners to change both internal policies and foreign policy, especially the irrational attitudes towards the US – such as shouting “death to America, death to Israel.” They advise the supreme leader to support reconciliatory efforts wiht the United States. In this letter, they are saying that the only thing that can save Iran from an attack and can unite people against any foreign invasion is the regime´s submission to the course of reform an democratisation.

If you continue to keep people so repressed and disappointed with any advancement of reform, then they are going to welcome a foreign invasion, because they may feel so abused by their own government that they wouldn’t care about a foreigns invasion; out of desperation many young people may welcome help from whoever appears helpful. So the letter is very frank and very daring. Along with this letter, a statement issued by 24 student organizations from different universities which is also the most daring statement that has been released by student organizations so far. These are not some isolated student groups; these are the ones who used to be supportive of and connected to the Islamic government. Can you imagine how they have evolved due to the oppresive policies of the ruling clerics?

An US invasion would be very risky however. It can disrupt the natural course of political development in Iran. It also depends on the nature and the goals of the invasion. If the United States mishandles it the way they did in Iraq, people will resist the US no matter how alienated they have become from the Islamist regime. So far, the US invasion has not created a good and appealing model in Afghanistan or Iraq. You cannot bring about democracy simply with military invasion and then put someone with no national roots in power. If they do something like that, that is, just militarily destroying Iran, creating chaos and then bringing back old monarchy or some other outsiders who have no basis among the peole that will be a desaster not only for Iran but also for the whole region.. If that is the US agenda, is going to fail, not only in the long run, in the short run too it is just going to disrupt instead of facilitating the course democratisation.

On the other hand, instead of a Us unilateral invasion, if there is a multilateral international intervention coordinated with the European Union, the US and Russia through the UN on behalf of democracy and in support of democratic and reform forces in Iran, that can be a constructive intervention. Iran actually needs such a constructive international intervention because there is now a political impasse, a dead-lock in Iran. The Islamist hardliners are not ready to give up their wealth and power, they are not showing any sign of flexibility. That is why many people do expect an outside intervention. But Iran´s situation is very different from that of Iraq. Unlike centralized dictatorship in Iraq, Iran has experienced a revolution only 24 years ago and a post-revolutionary dynamic society with a polycentric political structure full of contradictions and vibrant debates. Outside intervention can be constructive if it takes the side of the pro-democracy and pro-reform movements, especially that of women, students and the youth who are already demanding free elections and changes in the constitution through a national referendum.

Rather than bringing in a US lackey, it is the reform movement inside Iran that shall takle care of democracy building not any invading force from outside.

All is needed from outside is a continous international pressure on the hardliners against their repressive measures.
People´s reaction to an outside intervention depends on the nature and goals of such intervention; sometimes when the native rulers are so abusive, you need some outside support.

WwB: When you look at the personal level and look at the families, are they encouraging the girl’s freedom, are they encouraging their freedom of speech and movement, education? Do they try to draw the line and say be careful, be aware of the national values?

NT: Of course, it depends. Overall, there is a change in attitudes, even in the sexual morals. Not radical changes, but changes that are visible. If you had visited Iran ten or fifteen years ago and would visit Iran now, you can see the changes clearly. You can see that even the extent of women´s hejab, the covering has changed. It is much less and loser and people have turned the mandatory scarf into fashionable designs, at times ironically more exotic and interesting. Boys and girls are occasionally seen to hold each other´s hands and walk together.
The moral police is still there, but they are not as active as they used to be. Although always when there is a heated fight within the government or the situation becomes tense, putting more pressures on women is the first thing the hardliners do, they send out their vigilantes to repress and fight the young people in the streets. Overall, however, people, especially the younger generation that makes up 70 percent of Iran´s population have asserted themselves and a counterculture against the impostion of the ruling Islamists.

Despite the shortcomings and failures, one of the achievements of the reform process led by President Khatami has been a relative relaxation in the cultural expressions and individual freedoms. Even if new non-segregated music groups have emerged, boys and girls singing togehter in public concert halls. But everything is precarious, everything is shaky, no one can be sure where the red line is, nobody knows what lines you can cross and everyone is testing the limits. Sometimes they get in danger when they do that because there is uncertainty about what is allowed and what is not allowed.

On the other hand, you also have more social problems some in total contradiction to the ideals of the Islamic revolution. For instance, there is more addiction and drug abuse, more prostitution and more economic hardship, eventhough some people are doing very well.
If you go to Teheran, the stores are full of comodities and the restaurants full of people and you can hardly imagine that this country is so poor. Yet, based on unofficial estimates, over 50 percent of people are living below the poverty line or have to hold two or three jobs to make ends meet. So Iran is really full of contradictions. It is a society in transition; it is hard to give a one-sided picture, it would not be accurate to give a one-sided picture.

WwB: I know a professor from the U.S. who said the women do not want to work as hard as men. I think that this is not a good enough explanation. I do not think that women are not prepared to work hard. They have to work harder than men if they want to achieve anything.

NT: Well, it depends. For instance, when I was doing field research in the former Soviet Union, after the fall of the Soviet Union, during the so-called democratization process, instead of being more active in politics, the number of women in formal politics went down drastically. I think it is in part due to lack of interest among women in politics. They are not politically minded yet. I can understand that. At times I too have become so alienated with politics and wanted to get away from politics altogether. I think that this is because of the present nature of politics. So far, it has been defined and framed by masculine terms and the masuline way of competing and the masculine way of arguing hours sometimes over nothing important.
I get so impatient with some of the conventional male activists. For example, in these political meetings where we want to organize something, I see so much fighting over male egos. It is actually all about this ego-assertion, rather than real political differences. So at times I say to hell with all this, let me do something useful rather than wasting my time. That is part of the reason for women´s lower interest in conventional politic as women are more practical people. They have to be; they cannot aford to waste their time fighting over nothing.

Look at Iraq, you have this incredible pool of educated women. Now, if you look at this table where they meet to decide the future of Iraq, there is not a single woman. Why do they not stand up and shout?

This goes back to old customs and the way women have been socialized. Women have beeen socialized to think that politics ist not for them, to not have the self-confidence to speak up in public. I know many women who are articulate in politics, they write well, but they still do not feel confident enough to speak out. Many women are used to having to be quiet. I personally had good teachers, powerful female teachers. At university I had a few very strong female professors, I think they inspired me to speak out, eventhough it was not politically, but just to have a strong mind and to speak up. That was one thing and the other thing was my father, not necessarily my mother. I know that many women in traditional societies who become socially and politically active, they are not necessarily being inspired by their mothers, they use their fathers as role models.
My father was a rebel. He spoke out against the the clerical corruption. He was a reformer, a Muslim, but a moderate and very modern thinking Muslim. He was not in politics, but his understanding of Islam was very egalitarian, very modern and liberal. He also tought us to always question the authority and think critically. When you first start and speak up and you get encouraged and have good company around you, then you get reinforced.

Based on my personal experience and experiences of women in Iran and Central Asia, I think women in Iraq will speak out sooner or later. In war times and under foreign invasion, societies tend to become overprotective of their women. They fear rape and victimization by the invadors, hence exclude women from the public area. Furthermore, the male members who due to invasion may feel humiliated and emasculated, hold onto their control over the family and women more intensely as the private sphere becomes the only domain of ego exertion and basis of power for them.
That is why as did colonialism in the past, statist and despotic political structures and foreign occupation tend to strenghten patriarchal relations and women´s subordination.

Iraq is a case in point and since US invasion, Iraqi women have already begun to experience furhter restrictions and increasing marginalization in society. Religous revival and rising nationalist sentiments will further complicate Iraqi women´s aspiration for emancipation and equal rights. Women´s status in Iraq will be a litmus test of the US success or falure in its promise to bring democracy to Iraq.


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