Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women's Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolutionary Movement

By Mahdi, Ali Akbar | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women's Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolutionary Movement


Mahdi, Ali Akbar, The Middle East Journal


Populism and Feminism in Iran: Women's Struggle in a Male-Defined Revolutionary Movement, by Haideh Moghissi. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. xii + 190 pages. Notes to p. 206. Refs. to p. 213. Index to p. 217. $19.95.

Reviewed by Ali Akbar Mahdi

This book is about the way Iranian women's individual and collective lives are affected by male attitudes towards women and sexuality. It deals with the organizational dynamics of women's groups, the religio-legal system, and the political struggle against despotism and imperial powers. The first two chapters give an overview of the emergence of women's activism in Iran and the legal and political changes in their status during the regime of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-78). The next two chapters deal with the images of women and sexuality in populist discourses of both religious and secular intellectuals and activists. Chapter Five deals with the socialist view of women's position in society as well as in social movements. The final three chapters are devoted to the politics, especially with regard to women, of the Fedayeen, a leftist organization, during and after the 1979 revolution. The detailed description of the emergence of the National Union of Women and its relationship to the Fedayeen and interviews with activists within these organizations make up the most informative part of these chapters.

Moghissi advances two theses: first, that "the dominance of populist tendencies and ideologies among the [Iranian] opposition and their preoccupation with foreign aggression made the struggle for democracy and individual liberties peripheral" (p. 2); and second, that the Iranian left's antifeminist ideas and practices were rooted in "the hegemonic influence of Shiite/Iranian concepts and perceptions of female sexuality and sexist beliefs and values" (p. 2). She criticizes the theoretical reductionism of the left and emphasizes the question of gender identity and agency. She shows how Iranian secular intellectuals and activists failed to understand and reflect on the realities of women as women, independent of their position in class struggle and national movements. The socioeconomic problems of Iranian women are not isolated from the problems they face as a result of the sexist views shared by men of all social classes, political ideologies and religious orientations. Moghissi criticizes the oppressive, gendered order that has dominated the lives of Iranian women and that has often been based on implicit but shared assumptions of men of opposing ideological persuasions.

Moghissi wants democracy for Iran, not only in politics and society, but also in the family, i.e., in the most individual and intimate relationships. Furthermore, she argues that Iranian women should not wait for the eradication of political and economic inequalities to achieve their individual rights. They should ask for autonomy, dignity and equality now and not after the elimination of class and other forms of oppression. Whether such a goal is achievable prior to the democratization of Iranian society is debatable. There is, however, no denial that without an egalitarian relationship in the private sphere, it will be very difficult to generate or sustain democracy in the public one. To achieve a genuine democracy and liberation, both Iranian men and women should begin changing themselves concomitantly with the expectation of a change in their social and political environment.

Moghissi's book is partisan but honest, radical but courageous, provocative but reasonable. She is painfully blunt in exposing the lack of adequate gender-consciousness among her fellow activists. …

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