The situation of women in Iran since the revolution of 1978 to 1979 has been a complex and contradictory one and is often oversimplified when looked at from abroad. (1) Many Americans get their view from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, which at best tells of one group of female students in Iran a decade and a half ago, when restrictions were far greater than they are today. Those who travel to Iran from the United States now are, on the other hand, often amazed at the freedoms of Iranian women as compared to the women in several other Middle Eastern countries.
Reporting on Iranian women is complicated by its foreign policy connotations. Ever since the so-called freeing of Afghanistan's women was used as a rationale for war, some have been wary that negative reporting on Iran's women is being used as one element to justify an attack on Iran. Those who advocate such an attack often say that Iran is so seething with discontent that, if the United States were to help, such an action would result in the overthrow of the clerical regime. They cite the impressive oppositional activities of women and women's groups as one element of this scenario. Yet none of the heroic women cited by proponents of U.S. intervention favors an aggressive U.S. policy, nor do they advocate further U.S. support to those widely seen within Iran as enemies, such as ethnic separatists or the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, the violent cult that fought against Iran in the Iran--Iraq War. More sober analysts from the Right and Left think that any attack on Iran would solidify support for the government.
Some opponents of American aggression go so far as to equate Reading Lolita in Tehran and other memoirs that criticize post-revolution treatment of Iranian women with advocacy of imperialist control of Iran and support for a U.S. right-wing program to overthrow the Iranian government. Such arguments are based on far-fetched postmodern criticisms, especially of Nafisi's book, that even extend to its cover photo of girls with chadors reading. However, this photo, which was not even chosen by the author, seems innocuous to most readers. Surely it is time to attempt a more balanced approach. Such an approach would recognize that fear of major U.S. interference in Iran is reasonable given the experience with the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 and recent threats and hostile activities. It would also recognize that American hostility toward Iran is driven by proponents in high places and politically influential groups rather than by those truly concerned with the issues raised by female memoir writers.
The situation of women in Iran and the Muslim world is sufficiently complex that it can be portrayed in either a positive or negative way. To use an appropriate cliche the choice of facts can make the glass seem half full or half empty. Again, as with other issues, too many people make generalizations about "Islam," or "Iran," while women's status and roles have varied dramatically over time and in relation to such factors as mode of production, ethnicity and class. As a gross generalization, we can note that while the Koran, which pious Muslims see as a divine revelation to the Prophet Mohammad, contained both important reforms and some restrictions on women, the earliest Islamic practice was, on the whole, no more restrictive than other contemporary religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity. More restrictions were added in the first centuries of Islam, when veiling and seclusion of women came to be the ideal. Some Muslim thinkers held misogynist views, and there was, as in nearly all literate societies, unequal legal treatment of men and women. On the other hand, comparison with the West was not all negative; women held their own property and often went to court to defend their rights.
From the first centuries after the adoption of Islam, women's status varied, but it came to be influenced by pre-Islamic practices among the peoples of greater Syria, Iraq and Iran, including Jews and Christians, and veiling and seclusion of some urban women long pre-dated Islam in those regions. …