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Women’s Leadership in Resistance to
Fundamentalism in Iran


Donna M. Hughes


Women’s Studies International Forum


Vol. 19 No. 6, xv-xvii, 1996


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The revolution in Iran in 1979 brought to power religious fundamentalists who have created the most misogynous theocracy in the world. Since 1979 the ruling mullahs have systematically denied women’s equality to men claiming women are physically, intellectually and morally inferior to men. Women have limited access to education, employment and public activities (Parliamentary Human Rights Group, November 1994).

The most symbolic and visible sign of oppression for women in Iran is the legally required hejab, or dress code. Women, labeled seductive beings, must cover their bodies with a chador or a long, loose coat and trousers. All parts of the body, including the hair, must be covered. Only the hands and face may be exposed. "Mal-veiling" can be punished by 74 lashes. In the years since the revolution the oppression has not moderated. In January 1993 women’s faces were banned from advertising (The Washington Times, 7 May 1995). In June 1994 police warned women against provoking "satanic desires" by smiling in the street (Agence Frances Presse, 11 June 1994). In October 1995 a new ruling prohibited women from wearing bracelets, eyeglasses and watches (Israeli Radio, 18 October 1995).

Following the revolution all women judges were dismissed and women were prohibited from attending law school (The Washington Times, 7 May 1995). According to the Iranian national census bureau in 1986 only nine percent of work force was women (Rajavi, 21 June 1996). The percentage of girls in schools and universities has continuously declined since the revolution.

The legal age for marriage was lowered to puberty, which is legally defined as nine full lunar years (i.e. eight years and nine months). However, with the permission of the girl’s guardian and "when the interests of the ward are duly observed" marriage can be contracted at an earlier age. Marriages can be also contracted for very short periods of times, enabling a legal form of prostitution. Khomeni wrote: "A woman who has not yet reached the age of nine can immediately remarry after getting a divorce." On the bases of this thousands of girls are legally sexually abused and exploited in child prostitution (personal communication, Sept. 1996). In impoverished regions in northeastern Khorassan and southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan girls are sold for $4 to $30 (Rajavi, 21 June 1996).

The penal code of the fundamentalist regime specifies stoning as the punishment for women found guilty of adultery or "illicit relations." (Israeli Radio, 2 July 1995). Virgin girls who are sentenced to death are routinely raped by agents of the regime to prevent their souls from going to heaven (Rajavi, 1 June 1996).

After the overthrow of the Shah a power struggle took place between fundamentalists and liberal Islamic and/or secular political groups who also participated in the revolution. After the fundamentalists prevailed others were forced into exile where some of them formed a resistance movement. Although not initially part of the leadership, in the early 1990s women began to move into positions of responsibility and leadership in the resistance movement. Experience showed that one of the biggest barriers to women’s leadership was women’s own self doubts about their competency and fear of responsibility. Once these obstacles were overcome the energy of liberation brought renewed resources to the resistance movement. In the last few years they have instituted a policy of positive discrimination propelling more and more women into management and leadership positions. Currently, more than half of the 572 member Parliament-in-exile are women and all of the positions of general command in the resistance’s armed forces, the National Liberation Army, are women.

One woman has emerged as the leader of the resistance — Maryam Rajavi. She is the president-elect of the Iranian Resistance. In March 1996 The Times of London named her one of the world’s 100 most powerful women. Rajavi uses Simone de Beauvoir’s writings and United Nations Women’s Human Rights documents to formulate her analysis of what she calls "gender apartheid" in Iran.

In Paris on 9 March, 1996 1000 women attended a conference entitled Women, Islam and Fundamentalism (Women’s Human Rights International Association, Spring 1996). Although the French government barred Rajavi from addressing the conference, she later spoke at a private gathering of women who had taken part in the conference. She defined fundamentalism as a political, social and economic ideology based on misogyny. Fundamentalists claim women’s nature is sinister and satanic and woman is the embodiment of sin and seduction and therefore women must be controlled for the sake of society (Rajavi, Autumn 1995). Further, fundamentalists base their rule on the suppression of women. A significant portion of Rajavi’s speech refuted the fundamentalists use of the Quran to support their suppression of women.

In London on 21 June 1996 there was a festival of music and speeches attended by 25,000 people. Maryam Rajavi gave a speech Women, Voice of the Oppressed, in which she described women as "history’s first victims of oppression" who have suffered the greatest and longest of oppressions in the world. She outlined the oppressive conditions for women in Iran and called upon women the world over to unite and rise up against fundamentalism and its threat to women’s equality (Rajavi, 21 June 1996).

On 4 July 1996 in London Rajavi again spoke to a gathering of women. This time her speech focused on the importance of women’s leadership. Women all over the world suffer from similar problems because women are deprived from participating in decision making. Women have participated in revolutionary struggles all over the world, only to be sent back to their homes afterwards. Rajavi feels confident that this will not happen this time because they have women acting in all roles and levels of decision making. In addition, a Charter of Fundamental Freedoms for Women is included in the future Constitution. At first in the resistance, women lacked training and confidence and, as mothers, they lacked time. In the past five years the resistance has created systemic solutions to these barriers. Women in leadership directly challenge the misogyny of the fundamentalists who deny women’s capabilities. Rajavi emphasized that emancipation and equality must be earned, but the advancement of democracy and world peace depend on the advancement of women. If women want world peace they must be involved in politics and foreign policy.


For more information : Women’s Human Rights International Association in France: 23 rue du Depart, Boite 37, 75014 Paris (fax 331 43 20 20 31); in U.K.: P.O. Box 10767, London N3 1RU (Tel 171 419 5010). Email:

Agence France Presse. 11 June 1994. Agence France Presse: Tehran, Iran. As cited on Brief on Iran,

Israeli Radio. 2 July 1995. "More Execution of Women." As cited on Brief on Iran,

Israel Radio. 18 October 1995. "Bracelets, Eyeglasses and Watches Announced "UnIslamic." As cited on Brief on Iran,

Parliamentary Human Rights Group. November 1994. Iran — The Subjection of Women. Parliamentary Human Rights Group, House of Lords: London, England, UK.

Rajavi, Maryam. Autumn 1995. Islam and Women’s Equality. Excerpts from the speech by Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian Resistance’s President-elect, in a gathering of Iranian women. Foreign Affairs Committee, The National Council of Resistance of Iran: Auvers-sur-Oise, France.

Rajavi, Maryam. 1 June 1996. As cited in: Muir, Kate. 1 June 1996. "Unveiled Threat," The Times Magazine: London, England, UK.

Rajavi, Maryam. 21 June 1996. Women, Voice of the Oppressed. Speech by Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian Resistance’s President-elect, London, 21 June 1996. Women’s Human Rights International Association: Paris, France.

The Washington Times. 7 May 1995. "Erosion Of Rights For Iranian Women," The Washington Times: Washington, D.C., USA. As cited in Brief on Iran,

Women’s Human Rights International Association. Spring 1996. Women, Islam and Fundamentalism. Conference on the Occasion of International Women’s Day, Paris March 9, 1996. Women’s Human Rights International Association: Paris, France.

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