Women and Politics in Iran

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Theoretical Framework


Discourse is a term comprising “ideas, values, identities and sequences of activity” (Machin & Mayr, 2012, p. 23) in society. In Lacanian terms, it comprises the Symbolic order, the meaning-making of our society (Žižek, 2007, p. 6).
Ideology Žižek describes ideology according to Hegel, divided in three “moments: doctrine, belief, and ritual” (Žižek, 2012a, p. 9) Cavanaugh refers to ritual as myth which will be mentioned in the literature review section (Cavanaugh, 2009, p. 3). Doctrine is described as “ideology as a complex of ideas (theories, convictions, beliefs, argumentative procedures)”; belief is described as “ideology in its externality, that is, the materiality of ideology” such as state and social institutions; and ritual as “the ‘spontaneous’ ideology at work at the heart of social ‘reality’ itself” (Žižek, 2012a, pp. 9–10). The third kind, ritual, is inspired by Althusser’s (Althusser, 2001, p. 199) efforts in marrying Lacanian psychoanalysis with Marxian social theory, which is close to Foucault’s understanding of the workings of ideology; namely as a function of power where ideology ‘interpellates’ (hails) the individual as a ‘subject’; that is to say, addresses the individual in such a way as to give him or her to understand that he or she is an autonomous agent, rather than a product of a definite society, limited by a definite class position. [Althusser] uses the example of religious ideologies, but the root illusion of liberalism is very similar: the idea that freedom and ‘human rights’ are something we ‘naturally’ possess so that all that is necessary to secure them is to keep the state at bay, rather than something that can only be secured by real collective control of social forces. Or again, there is the attempt to atomise trade unionists by appealing to ‘individual responsibility’, or to blame the unemployed for the non-existence of their jobs; it is assumed that it is the choices of individuals that explain social processes, rather than vice versa. The success of this ideological mechanism can be explained in Freudian/Lacanian terms by the narcissistic fascination of the individual by an ego-ideal. Ideology flatters our belief in ourselves as autonomous subjects, and distracts from brutal facts of class exploitation. (Collier, 1980, p. 10)
Foucault describes the process of interpellation as subjection (Foucault, 1982, p. 781), which is the method institutions use to legitimize themselves (thereby gaining power), as for example when a person submits to the domination of the church by confessing an identity of being Christian. Ideology works mainly through consent, as “those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology” (Althusser, 2001, p. 176).
Reproductive Labour is a term that encompasses reproductive, intellectual and manual labour needed for workers to reproduce themselves. It includes childbearing and childcare, production of art, cooking, cleaning, listening to others, caring for the elderly and sick, or helping your friend move. In the home it is unwaged but has exchange value outside of the home and can be paid. Men usually do reproductive labour outside the home, such as working at a restaurant. The unwaged reproductive labour inside the home befalls on women in patriarchal societies, notably as gestating and child-rearing. Marxist feminists such as Dalla Costa theorize that women’s oppression is for reasons of economic exploitation. (Mitchell, 2013; Vogel, 2013, pp. xix–xx) Reproductive labour is linked to the private sphere.
Productive Labour is value producing labour, or the work that we typically associate with “job”. Productive labour has been unavailable to women for much of history, both due to responsibility for reproductive labour, but also because women were restricted to the private sphere. Since men received wages for productive labour, they gained power over women. Since women’s unpaid domestic labour creates surplus-value for both the consumption of the family and for society at large, Marxist feminism argues that it is in fact productive labour.
Women are the slaves of a wage slave, the male breadwinner who becomes the instrument of her exploitation. Women and children being largely excluded from productive labour gave rise to the nuclear family, that enabled men to spend time on productive labour, as “men needed women and children to reproduce them, and women and children needed men to bring in a wage to reproduce the family as a whole” (Mitchell, 2013). Productive labour is linked to the public sphere (Mitchell, 2013; Vogel, 2013, p. 160).
Male Gaze The male gaze is a term in visual arts derived from psychoanalysis by Laura Mulvey (Mulvey, 1975). The male gaze is defined as the power dynamics between a male subject as a viewer, and the female object of the gaze (Kosut, 2012, p. 195). The male heterosexual gaze is related to pleasure involved in looking at the female body in Freudian terms, as the male perspective is from the outside and not from the person inhibiting that body. The male gaze also serves the purpose of the Foucauldian concept of surveillance, as it constrains the female body to the submissive, the erotisized, the objectified, the passive. The concept has been useful in analysis of advertising, where the male viewer buys the product that will then help him “get the girl of his dreams,” who is featured in the advertisement (identification). The female viewer buys the product because she wants to be the female in the advertisement (she identifies with her objectification) (Kosut, 2012, p. 196)
Patriarchy Feminist terminology is often negatively portrayed and poorly understood. Patriarchy in particular, is often taken to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean, usually pointing the aches of womanhood onto manhood, and the issues of manhood onto a male-made system dubbed as patriarchy. Patriarchy is most often thought of as the underlying system in societies telling men that it is forbidden to weep, and women to wear sexualizing clothes. While some truth lies in this notion, for the sake of clarity it is important to crystalize what exactly is meant by patriarchy. Attempts at pinpointing patriarchy reveals the problematic aspects of feminist theory. Feminist theory attributes gender differences mainly to socialization (Bryson, 2003, p. 166), while a surface knowledge of evolutionary psychology shows a complex interplay of hardware/biology and software/culture. Sexual reproductive roles shape human society (Campbell, 2013, p. 1; Potts & Hayden, 2010, p. 1), with culture as the overlaying narrative for humans to make sense of it. Beneath culture, we are but mere apes shaped by our biology.
While our behaviors can be chosen by each individual, the template of predispositions needs to exist for that choice to be made possible. One cannot act out violence if the biological predisposition does not exist. Similarly, one cannot choose altruism if the biological imperative is missing. As this essay is taking the Marxist historical materialist approach, material reality is the assumed basis of human behavior, including environmental reality, economy and biological predispositions.
Misogyny/misandry are often thought of as elusive and loaded terms. With the advent of new terminology in gender studies such as “transmisogyny”, it becomes of paramount importance to clarify the precise meaning of these terms as relating to sexism. Kate Manne comes to the rescue in Down Girl, describing misogyny as primarily a property of social environments in which women are liable to encounter hostility due to the enforcement and policing of patriarchal norms and expectations— often, though not exclusively, insofar as they violate patriarchal law and order. Misogyny hence functions to enforce and police women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance, against the backdrop of other intersecting systems of oppression and vulnerability, dominance and disadvantage, as well as disparate material resources, enabling and constraining social structures, institutions, bureaucratic mechanisms, and so on. (Manne, 2018, p.19)
Misogyny is hence sexism enforced onto female bodies. This elegant explanation also explains how terminology such as “transmisogyny” is a misnomer, as misogyny is not meted out to male bodies; misandry is.

Marxist Feminism

Feminism is not a homogenous ideology, indeed even some core points are widely debated among feminist, including but not limited to issues of prostitution, gender and sexualization. The two largest groups of feminists in the West are radical feminists (radical as in origin), and liberal feminists. Marxist feminism shares core values with radical feminism, such as:
1. Stance against prostitution as it’s seen as commodification of female bodies
2. Stance against belief that sex class can be changed through surgery or hormone therapy
3. Stance against sexualization of female bodies for male gratification (advertisements, pornography, etc.).
Liberal feminism embraces aforementioned values as “empowerment” and is essentially a “reformist” movement that does not seek overthrowing the system (Bryson, 2003, p. 40). These differences will be touched upon when relevant but not delved into at depth due to the vastness of the topics and limit of this paper.
The history of feminism is short but rich. Beginning in the 19th century liberal feminism took over and brought into law many protections for women in Western countries, including right to divorce in case of domestic violence and the right to vote and own property. It can be argued that while liberal feminism takes the side of women, it still operates within the framework of sexism.
Marxism is a framework of economic and political analysis. It does not dictate mode of political authority as dictatorship, democracy or even anarchy, but later politically influential philosophers including Léon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Ali Shariati have incorporated Marxism into all modes of political leadership with Islamic Marxism on one end and genocidal authoritarianism on the other. In current academia, influential Marxist philosophers include Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg, Slavoj Žižek and famous campaigner of the Suffragette movement of the beginning of 20th century, Sylvia Pankhurst.
The sum of Marxist analysis is in historical materialism as described by Marx:
The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness (Marx, 1859).
The implications of this simple theory are massive. Socially we have little choice, determined by our place in society with regards to our economic class, ethnicity, sex and sexual orientation. Our choices are illusions, constricted by our environment and consciousness, meaning we wouldn’t even be able to conceive of a choice outside our own individual consciousness. Labour roles of segments of productive labour and reproductive labour is assigned each. Thus the economic incentives behind societal functions such as misogyny, misandry, homophobia, and racism become apparent. Women’s autonomy and abortion rights for example, disturb the required reproduction (Bryson, 2003, p. 187; Vogel, 2013, p. 123). Homosexual couples being able to marry or even live in peace, disturb fertility rates required (Mitchell, 2013). Outsourcing of dangerous or cheap labour hinges on racism keeping certain ethnicities in their assigned places, within and outside national borders. State institutions serve to exert control over the class system, through injustice, lack of compassion, neighbourhood segregation, cultural segregation, legal constrictions, criminalization, laws limiting autonomy, laws requiring labour, as well as positive measures like financial incentives. Financial incentives have indeed been a powerful tool not just for control of reproduction, but also for mothers to give up their sons for war efforts, as was the case during the Iran-Iraq war. Iranian mothers of soldiers were given monetary compensation through benefit programs and subsidies to last a lifetime. The mothers were also given social status through glorification of “martyrdom”, as any soldier in the war effort is labelled martyr by Iranian authorities. They set up glass boxes of items representing marriage for the unwed soldiers killed in action called hejleh (Afary, 2009, p. 300). The status of mother of martyr as the ultimate sacrifice and worship of God is highly revered through state propaganda such as murals covering an entire side of a multi-story building strewn across the city landscape, special events and mentions in media.
The foundation of Marxist feminism is female labour. Beautifully argued by Vogel in Marxism and the Oppression of Women (Vogel, 2013, p. 141), Marxist feminism takes into account the necessity of the labour that only female bodies can actualize: reproduction. Reproduction of workers is necessary for a capitalist means of production, and it is free labour expected of women – so expected that states take measure in controlling female bodies through policies on contraceptive help, femicide, abortion, monetary incentives, ejecting women from the workforce, restricting movement, restricting clothing, bodily mutilation, eugenics, violence, social narratives, and infanticide, particularly female infanticide. These measures are collectively under the umbrella of controlling “the work force”.
The view of the population as “work force” implies commodification. The labour of the worker is a commodity she sells to the employer. Slavery is another example of commodification of human bodies. Nowhere is the commodification of humans more apparent than in the commodification of the female body in prostitution, and especially so in trafficking.
The expectation of reproduction enforced on female bodies is the most insidious type of commodification of women; women are objects of society protected for the sake of reproduction and sexual gratification. Women are not allowed subjecthood, as it disturbs the extraction of reproductive, domestic, and sexual labour off which the capitalist benefits.

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Women and Politics in Iran

Recognition, Misrecognition and Redistribution

In The Politics of Recognition Taylor puts forth a theory that “identity is partly shaped by recognition or its’ absence” (Taylor, Gutmann, & Taylor, 1994, p. 25). Identity is also shaped by misrecognition, which is the society mirroring back a “confining or demeaning or contemptible” picture of a group, leading to a distortion of identity and suffering. Taylor argues that “non-recognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being” (Taylor et al., 1994, p. 25). Women are the largest group by number to suffer misrecognition in patriarchal societies. The misrecognition has led to an internalized sense of inferiority, thereby replicating the projected image of womanhood.
Taylor describes the emergence of the concept of recognition as arising from the ashes of the fallen honor based culture. Honor is a quality served for the few, and therefore requires inequality to have meaning. In this sense, Iran as a collectivistic culture, with high levels of power distance (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 58), does not value equality of individuals. Thereby individuals, or rather groups, are recognized by their position in society, which then becomes an internalized sense of self. Women, in the case of Iran, are not viewed to possess the same level of honor as men, but are rather symbols of a man’s honor. This view  of women has been legislated by the clerical regime and is linguistically visible in Farsi by expressions such as namoos, translated as “honor”, “reputation”, “chastity of wives/daughters”. Namoos is an attribute of the male, and is not directly associated with women.
Taylor describes the concept of individualized identity taking shape during the eighteenth century, which in turn led to the honor being replaced by dignity, an inherent quality of all human beings (Taylor et al., 1994, p. 28). As the cultural heritage of different societies is not historically identical, there can be no expectation of all cultures to follow the same trajectory of development. In the sense that the prerequisites of growing recognition are valid only in individualized societies, the right conditions for the march of Western feminism in Iran might not be in the current situation. Iranian religious culture views the moral compass as an external quality made possible by the connection to God, as opposed to the “modern culture” of turning inward (Taylor et al., 1994, p. 29). As the Iranian society is not individualistic, recognition in the inherent dignity and need for recognition of the individual is not valued, but must be attained through the collective.
In connection with the theme of recognition, Nancy Fraser claimed in her famous essay Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition and Participation (Fraser & Honneth, 2003, p. 8) that social justice movements have increasingly moved from the politics of redistribution of resources, to that of recognition of differences. The claim holds true for feminism, where “activist tendencies that look to redistribution as the remedy for male domination are increasingly dissociated from tendencies that look instead to recognition of gender difference”. However, studies have shown that it is not a pure ideological function determining the recognition of differences, but a material one. US women in higher economic classes report fewer instances of discrimination, regardless of their ethnicity and sexuality (Hurt, 2017). Economic disadvantage is an important, if not the root aspect of the struggle of Iranian women, without which recognition would essentially be meaningless. The socioeconomic disadvantage of women is not just a question of attitudes, but a matter of legislation legitimized by tafsir/interpretations of the Quran.

Commodification of Bodies

In Hijab as Commodity Form: Veiling, Unveiling, and Misveiling in Contemporary Iran (Gould, 2014), Gould considers how the repeated veiling and unveiling of the shifting governments of the last century in Iran have reinforced capitalism by incorporating the female body into the political economy as a form of commodity. Because the veil is an empty signifier, it can be filled with whatever signification that satiates human desire. The veil itself is just a piece of fabric. The only practical function it serves is to be worn on the head, providing protection against wind and weather. When the object becomes a commodity, it “enters into relations with other commodities…The commodity’s pure materiality is usurped by its social function.” (Gould, 2014, p. 222). The significations given to the veil are so numerous, that “[t]he literature on the hijab is arguably thicker and denser than that for any other issue in the Islamic public sphere” (Gould, 2014, p. 222), varying from social status, economic status, sexuality, availability, identity, religious belief or lack thereof, conformity or non-conformity, protection against the male gaze, nationality, ethnic group, and so on. As such, it fulfills the Marxian definition of commodity; “(1) it is traded on the market; (2) it fabricates and satisfies a human desire; (3) it stimulates a desire for the perpetuation of the immaterial relations it engenders.” (Gould, 2014, p. 222). In discussions of hijab, it is not infrequent that the issue of oversexualized clothing in the West is brought up, yet the fallacy of the argument is “both articles of clothing render the woman’s body up for consumption” (Gould, 2014, p. 232).
In Islamicate societies, the veil has historically been a common divider of class. In Assyrian, Byzantine and Persian societies, only upper class women were allowed to be veiled, while in modern times the lower classes are more likely to cover with niqab or chador than the upper classes. Hiding coercive secularism behind the display of neutral liberalism, in some instances women are unveiled such as the case of France and the American University of Cairo forbidding face covering. In both instances, women’s “bodies serve as marker of class difference” (Gould, 2014, p. 225). Before the ’79 revolution, the ban on hijab restricted the autonomy of girls and women who refused to unveil or were not allowed to unveil, confining them to the home and pulling them out of jobs and schools. As these women were primarily of the lower classes, the restrictions widened the chasm between women of different social classes, Gould writes. The chasm between the social classes of women would later serve the instatement of the Islamic regime, as lower class women saw the opportunity for more freedom than they previously held. Secular and liberal Iranians have difficulty grasping why Khomeini had such support among women, as to them freedom was restricted post-revolution, but the view from the religious lower classes is the complete opposite, as not only did they become free to wear the veil, but also to engage in a society better suited to their worldview.
More importantly to the Islamic regime, the veil serves as marker of gender. Psychoanalytic feminist Luce Irigaray’s hypothesis is used to explain the alienation and exclusion of women in society, asserting that it stems “not so much from their social reduction to some biologically determined function”, but rather through enrolment of women into the discourse of the gender role of Woman, enforced through misogyny and reproduced “through their erasure or self-effacing complicity” (Gould, 2014, p. 230). The gender role of Woman is a “prescriptive homogenisation imposed on their bodies” that sustains the oppression of women and erases the space for “sexual difference within female sexuality” (Gould, 2014, p. 230). Women are denied individual sexuality to a different extent than men as “the state’s interpellation of the body is less coercive for men than it is for women” (Gould, 2014, p. 230). On the surface, the marginalization of female sexuality is visible by the coercion of the veil onto female bodies. Here, Gould references Anne-Emmanuelle Berger who illustrates how, in both the Islamic and European public spheres, differences among women are erased and suppressed even as their generically feminine status is accentuated. On Berger’s account, engendering through veiling homogenises the female body in such a way that it renders women visible to men in what is seen as the only appropriately ‘Islamic’ fashion. (Gould, 2014, p. 228).

Table of contents :

Research Question
Methodology & Method
Method: Critical Discourse Analysis
Method: Jefferson Notation
Theoretical Framework
Marxist Feminism
Literature Review
Women and Politics in Iran
Recognition, Misrecognition and Redistribution
Commodification of Bodies
Sexual Politics in Iran
Women, Conventions and Islam
A False Dichotomy of Islam versus Secularism
Islam and Feminism in Iran
Towards A Feminist Interpretation of The Quran
Summary of Literature Review
Appendix A: Jefferson Notation Legend
Appendix B: Propaganda Pictures
Appendix C: Propaganda Photographs
Appendix D: MSF Photographs
Appendix E: MSF Videos


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