Daily Archives: 12 May 2006

Feminist Flashbacks in Tehran

At the start of the twentieth century, the age of marriage in Iran—nine, according to sharia laws—was changed to thirteen and then later to eighteen. My mother had chosen whom she wanted to marry and she had been one of the first six women elected to Parliament in 1963. When I was growing up, in the 1960s, there was little difference between my rights and the rights of women in Western democracies. But it was not the fashion then to think that our culture was not compatible with modern democracy, that there were Western and Islamic versions of democracy and human rights. We all wanted opportunities and freedom. That is why we supported revolutionary change—we were demanding more rights, not fewer.

I married, on the eve of the revolution, a man I loved…. By the time my daughter was born five years later, the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother’s time: the first law to be repealed, months before the ratification of the new constitution, was the family-protection law, which guaranteed women’s rights at home and at work. The age of marriage was lowered to nine—eight and a half lunar years, we were told; adultery and prostitution were to be punished by stoning to death; and women, under law, were considered to have half the worth of men. Sharia law replaced the existing system of jurisprudence and became the norm. My youthful years had witnessed the rise of two women to the rank of cabinet minister. After the revolution, these same two women were sentenced to death for the sins of warring with God and spreading prostitution. One of them, the minister for women’s affairs, had been abroad at the time of revolution and remained in exile, where she became a leading spokesperson for women’s rights and human rights. The other, the minister of education and my former high school principal, was put in a sack and stoned or shot to death. These girls, my [students], would in time come to think of these women with reverence and hope: if we’d had women like this in the past, there was no reason why we couldn’t have them in the future.

Our society was much more advanced than its new rulers, and women, regardless of their religious and ideological beliefs, had come out onto the streets to protest the new laws. They had tasted power and wre not about to give it up without a fight. It was then that the myth of Islamic feminism—a contradictory notion, attempting to reconcile the concept of women’s rights with the tenets of Islam—took root. It enabled the rulers to have their cake and eat it too: they could claim to be progressive and Islamic, while modern women were denounced as Westernized, decadent and disloyal. They needed us modern men and women to show them the way, but they also had to keep us in our place.

What differentiated this revolution from the other totalitarian revolutions of the twentieth century was that it came in the name of the past: this was both its strength and its weakness. We, four generations of women—my grandmother, my mother, myself and my daughter—lived in the present but also in the past; we were experiencing two different time zones simultaneously.

SOURCE: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2004), pp. 261-262

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