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International Socialism, Winter 2005


Workers, women and the Islamic republic

An interview with Elaheh Rostami Povey


From International Socialism 2 : 105, Winter 2005.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Most people in the West, including those of the far left, still have an image of Iran as a theocratic state, dominated by medieval mullahs. What is the reality today?

To answer this question it is essential to grasp the nature of the secular state run by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and of the 1979 revolution.

The 20th century saw uneven economic, social and political development as a result of the interaction between capitalist development under foreign domination, Shia Islam ideology and class formation. The main agent of capital accumulation was the secular state, supported by the West, particularly by the US. It determined the patterns of production and reproduction, and regulated the resulting relations between classes, genders, nationalities (Persians, Azaris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkmans, Gilakis), and religions (Shia Islam, Sunni Islam, Jews, Armenians and Zoroastrians).

Whenever the power of the state weakened, workers, women, students, nationalities and religious minorities struggled and forced the state to grant reforms in education, employment and gender relations, and over the specific rights of workers, national and religious minorities. But uneven economic and political development did not allow the majority of the population to benefit from the reforms.

The 1960s and 1970s saw Iran’s economy and society transformed on a much greater scale than in previous periods. The state intervened, limiting foreign imports, to use oil revenues to finance industrialisation with Western technology, build the infrastructure and improve health, education and employment opportunities. But the unevenness persisted.

Poverty and political repression continued to affect the lives of the majority of people, who were denied the basic human rights of access to health, education and employment while the regime accommodated the CIA and Mosad headquarters, training the notorious Iranian secret police which terrorised the population.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978–79 took place against a background of major civil discontent with growing social and economic disparities as well as popular anger with political repression. [1] A strong anti-Shah movement including workers, women, students, national and religious minorities led to political revolution and the end of the most brutal regime in the Middle East.

To understand the nature of the Islamic state I divide the period since into four phases.

Phase I: 1979–81: The working class and the traditional middle classes cemented their alliance with the Islamists during the revolutionary period of 1978–79. The majority of the population could not identify with the secular opposition [2], and the Islamists, who focused on nationalism in favour of independence from the Shah’s repressive regime and its American ally, expressed the feelings and aspirations of the urban poor more effectively than the liberal and the left political groups. The secular left and nationalists failed to preserve their autonomy within the movement and mistakenly regarded the establishment of an Islamic state as an advance towards nationalism and socialism. So they participated in the establishment of the Islamic state, finalised in a referendum in April 1979.

The state set out to establish an Islamic command economy, with an expanded state sector and attempts to control the private sector. But the attempt at economic self-sufficiency combined with an international trade ban against Iran to produce economic depression, declining output, shortages, rising unemployment and inflation. This cut into purchasing power, despite successful efforts of workers to raise money wages. [3]

Nevertheless, in these years the majority of the population saw the revolution as a first step towards liberation. The mass participation of workers, women, students, nationalities and religious minorities in the revolution can be measured by the re-emergence of diverse organisations and their struggles – for their class, gender and ethnic interests – to improve their circumstances.

Phase II: The 1980s and the Iran-Iraq war: My analysis is that in this period many of the poorer sections of society – religious women and men and working class women and men – materially benefited from the process of Islamisation and so supported the Islamic state. The state redistributed wealth by confiscating the property of the Shah and his allies – private owners of capital and their counterparts who had fled the country after the 1979 revolution. The shanty towns were demolished and their population were housed in the confiscated properties. The religious middle class, the urban poor and the working class who supported the Islamic state were given priority in employment and education. Many Islamists, who had been alienated and marginalised by the processes of development under the Shah’s regime in the 1960s and 1970s, now gained access to material and ideological resources and a space to exercise power. Islamism was born out of material circumstances.

This period is also the period of political repression. The state ruthlessly defeated the secular movements. Independent workers’ ‘shoras’ (factory councils) were replaced by lslamic associations, as were secular women’s and students organisations, which were driven underground.

The economy continued to be plagued by hoarding, shortages, a rationing system and high inflation as a result of the war and the low price of oil internationally, despite a shift away from the policy of economic self sufficiency. [4]

Phase III: The 1990s and economic liberalisation: The end of the war with Iraq in 1988 was followed by reconstruction and the use of oil money for economic development. The Gulf War of 1991 and the American destruction of Iraq’s economy pushed oil prices up, and Iran benefited with increased GDP, more imported goods and rising consumption levels. Economic expansion led to prosperity, high expectations and high inflation. Education and employment expanded and absorbed many religious men and women, including the working classes in urban and rural areas.

A restructuring of the economy involved a move towards further integration into the global economy. Despite the emphasis on Islamic moral, ethical and financial laws, the economic system in Iran rapidly adapted to world capitalism. In contrast to the first phase of Islamisation the Islamic economic laws and regulations were modified accordingly. The World Bank’s loans in 1991 and 1994 involved further liberalisation of the economy, and adjustment policies involving deregulation to encourage privatisation, removal of price controls, and the cutting of subsidies. Inflation and unemployment led to many workers’ protests over delayed and non-payment of wages, health and safety issues and redundancies resulting from subcontracting.

By the late 1990s Iran was following the free market doctrine of curtailing the role of the state and encouraging privatisation. Eighty percent of the economy is still controlled by Islamic organisations like Mostazafeen (Downtrodden), Janbazan (self-sacrificing people) and Bonyad Shahid (Martyred Foundation) set up in the 1980s and funded by the state to provide social services to millions of the urban and rural working classes. They therefore have grassroots support. But they have gradually turned into massive capitalist organisations and follow the logic of private capital accumulation, running large industrial enterprises and taking part in money markets. [5]

At the same time, the state has not been able to avoid turning its attention to the issue of poverty. Subject to political pressures from workers, women and young people, it has continued interventionist [6] policies and provided the state-funded public services which led to a phenomenal improvement in living conditions and a significant impact on health, mortality rates and educational attainment. This is very important because the secular pro-West state in the 1960s and 1970s only served to enrich a small elite and did little to develop the rest of the country.

Phase IV: 2000–04 legitimising neo-liberalism and the rising democracy movement: The New Policy Agenda of the World Bank since the late 1990s has promoted a massive expansion of NGOs in Africa, Asia and Latin America as service-providing agencies at the same time as seeing markets as the most efficient mechanism for development. The NGOs are also seen as appropriate vehicles for democratisation and strengthening civil society. [7] Iran has also moved in this direction. The government and the parliament, both dominated by the reformists, have accommodated privatisation and NGOisation. The NGOs are seen as a way for the state to get rid of its responsibility to provide basic care for its citizens. But at present the Islamic state continues to pay for the building of infrastructure, education and health facilities from its oil revenues. A comparison of literacy rates under the secular pro-West regime of the Shah in the 1960s and 1970 and under the Islamic state since 1980 also demonstrates this role [8]:


literacy rate

literacy rate













By 2004 the literacy rate had increased to 94 percent for women and 96 percent for men; 62 percent of university students were women. Infant mortality dropped from 131.2 per thousand in 1975 to 25.5 per thousand in 1999. Life expectancy at birth has increased from 49 for men and women in 1960 to 70 for men and 72 for women. Contraceptive usage levels have risen to 74 percent, and the number of patients with AIDS and HIV positive is the lowest in the region. [9]

Nevertheless, with the demise of the interventionist state, social services are declining and the standard of living is falling for a significant percentage of people. [10] Every year approximately 1 million educated and potential skilled workers are added to job seekers in the labour market. But the economy can absorb only one third of them per year. As a result unemployment combined with bureaucracy and corruption has created disquiet. This is expressed through some of the very NGOs the state is trying to use to dismantle services. Political restrictions do not allow independent organisations. Women, students and youth grabbed the opportunity provided by the reformist government and parliament to establish their NGOs, as important components of the democracy movement which are currently under attack by the conservative dominated judiciary. Many NGOs rely on women’s volunteer work. Women’s NGOs, as the extension of the women’s movement, are becoming aware that their activities cannot compensate for the state’s primary responsibility as a welfare provider. They continue to lobby the state in order to make the state responsible for its citizens. [11]

It is misleading and ignorance to treat the Iranian state as a ‘theocratic state dominated by medieval mullahs’. Taking into consideration the rise of Islamophobia in global politics, this position is also racist. Iran is a capitalist Islamic state. It is a repressive state and has systematically undermined the autonomous spheres of social activity. However, it has provided education and health to the majority of the population.

Young men and women including the working classes in urban and rural areas are getting higher education in unprecedented numbers. They have high expectations – the desire for equality before the law, equal political participation, the right to health, education and employment, and women’s rights to choose whether to wear or not to wear the Islamic hijab (headscarf). This process has led to an increase in class, gender and ethnicity consciousness, especially among the new generation. Under pressure of the global economy, the threat of sanctions, war and regime change, the state has moved away from an Islamic welfare state isolated from global economy to adapting to neo-liberalism. However, it is still standing hard against Israel and the US and their imperialist agenda in the region. It still has the critical support of the majority of the population. They see the state as defending their nationalist, religious and cultural aspirations against Zionism and Western economic, political and cultural domination.

The truth is that most countries in the Middle East and indeed throughout the developing world are autocratic. However, what is important is that the improvement in lran’s social conditions and standard of living since the mid-1990s opened up the political system. In spite of all the perils from the state power, different social groups in Iran have been engaged in campaigns for their class, gender and ethnicity equality. They have achieved many more reforms of family, education and employment than in US-backed regimes in the region.

The media here talk of a split between reformers and conservatives. Where does the split come from, and does it represent different class forces or different groups within the ruling class?

It is important to understand that the reform movement in Iran is from below rather than imposed from above through neo-liberalism and the New Policy Agenda. Workers, women and students have been demanding greater political and social changes since the mid-1990s, and it was this and the contradictions of the Islamic state which brought about the split between reformers and conservatives at the top.

The 1980s had been years of political repression. Under President Rafsanjani in early 1990s the press grew bold. Newspapers were published by leading dissident clerics and professors who disagreed with the idea of a theocratic government. Islamic political parties and organisations expressed different opinions about economic, political, social and foreign affairs. Within strict Islamic bounds, universal suffrage and freedom of speech, press and assembly were obtained. By the late 1990s a number of sons and daughters of the clergy joined the reform movement – for instance, Ahmad Khomeini (the son of Ayatollah Khomeini), Faezeh Hashemi (the daughter of ex-president Rafsanjani), Azam Taleghani (the daughter of Ayatollah Taleghani) and Zahra Eshraghi (the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini). Many people felt that they were participating in political life, and eagerly followed debates in the Majles (parliament), the judicial system and the government through the media.

This form of Islamic pluralism and parliamentary rule was different from the autocratic secular state of the Shah, when no opposition was tolerated, even within the ruling class. The Islamic state had no choice but to accommodate this limited pluralist system. The 1979 revolution was not forgotten and the strength of various movements demanding democratic changes had a great impact. This was evident when Khatami won a landslide victory with 85 percent of the votes in the 1996 presidential election. Following this, for the first time since the establishment of the Islamic state secular liberal and nationalist organisations joined the reform movement.

During the period 1997 to 1999 the constant demands of the majority of the population led to a democracy movement. Art, cinema, theatre, literature, dress codes, journals, magazines and newspapers all began to blossom with a sense of new possibilities.

There was a bitter power struggle with the conservatives and their supporters, who were rapidly losing popular support. Some 80 secular and religious writers, poets and political activists were killed in mysterious circumstances. Nevertheless, the political participation of workers, women and students in elections resulted in the defeat of the conservatives and a landslide victory for the reformers in the parliament, the government and the local councils. By 2000, Iranians had hundreds of publications – newspapers, magazines, intellectual journals – to choose from. The work of foreign intellectuals like Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, Tony Cliff, Alex Callinicos, Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, as well as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao, circulated freely. Even secular Iranian activists had a voice.

The conservatives, who control the judiciary, responded in February–May 2000 by closing down reformist newspapers, journals and magazines. They arrested hundreds of editors, journalists, writers and activists, among them Shahla Lahiji, the first woman publisher, Mehranguiz Kaar, a woman lawyer, and Shirin Ebadi, another woman lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Nevertheless the democracy movement went from strength to strength; the arrested were released and banned publications reopened.

Some reformists have swung radically away from Islam as an organising principle in public life. Others are religious and politically more moderate. They are resistant to the idea that political Islam is incompatible with democracy. Others are in between.

The conservatives have concentrated their attack on the Muslim reformers and many have suffered unrelenting persecution at the hands of the judiciary. But under pressure from below they have continued their struggle for change and have achieved a great deal of reform of laws and regulations in the interests of women, workers and students.

In the last five years we have seen students’ protests against the arrest of students and teachers by the conservative judiciary. The 8th of March, International Women’s Day, was celebrated in Tehran and thousands of women and men demanded gender equality. The 1st of May was celebrated by thousands of workers demanding better pay and conditions. The women’s NGOs of the religious minorities (Zoroastrian, Jewish and Armenian) succeeded in reforming the law of Dieh, which meant that a Muslim who caused someone’s death had to pay less compensation if they were from the minorities. Now women’s NGOs are pressing for the same compensation for women as for men. This is a major challenge by women across ethnic and religious identities to traditional interpretations of Islamic law in Iran.

But many of those involved in the struggles of the last five years have been disappointed by the low level of support from the reformers in the parliament and the government. The 2003 local elections demonstrated the demoralisation of many within the democracy movement. They boycotted these elections, which led to many reformers losing their seats.

The parliamentary election of 2004 was the most serious crisis facing Iran’s theocratic rulers since the revolution in 1979. The Guardian Council (an unelected constitutional watchdog consisting of conservative clergy) disqualified reformist candidates, including 80 MPs (14 of them women), who protested by organising sit-ins and resignations. They tried to delay the election in order to negotiate further, but the conservatives refused. As a result, the reformist parties, with the support of the democracy movement, called for a boycott of the election. Parliament, which was dominated by the reformers for seven years, fell into the hands of the conservatives who control the television and radio, the army and the police. There is a consensus that President Khatami will be replaced by a less liberal figure this spring.

Since September 2004, 25 journalists, weblog writers and NGO activists have been arrested. Among them are Javad Gholam Tamayomi, Omid Memarian, Shahram Rafihzadeh, Hanif Mazroi, Rozbeh Mir Ebrahimi, and two women journalists and NGO activists, Mahbobeh Abbasgholizadeh and Fereshteh Ghazi, who devoted their work to women’s rights issues. Mahbobeh Abbasgholizadeh’s arrest follows her speeches at an Asia Pacific Women’s Watch Beijing +10 NGO Forum in Thailand in July 2004 and at the European Social Forum in October 2004 in London. In these conferences she discussed how young women and men in Iran wish to shake off rigid social structures imposed on their lives. In her speech at the European Social Forum she criticised Western feminists for not supporting their Muslim sisters in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. [12]

Many at the grassroots of the movement are disillusioned with the reformist leadership’s conciliatory approach that has failed to fulfil their high expectations. They believe that President Khatami should have fought the conservatives when they vetoed reforms, closed down newspapers and journals and arrested people. Many increasingly regard the reformists as apologists for the theocratic regime.

However, the pressure from below is continuing and conservatives cannot ignore it. The evidence is the emergence of a group of ‘pragmatic conservatives’. Some are non-clerical veterans of the Iran-Iraq war who are influenced by nationalism and economic imperatives more than the revolutionary Islamic ideology of the early years of Islamisation. [13] They know that they may have defeated the leaders of the reformist movement but not the ordinary women and men as workers, students, women and minorities who constitute the democracy movement.

The contradictions of the Islamic state have politicised the majority of workers, women, students and national and religious minorities, especially those who supported the Islamisation of society. They have been struggling to reduce inequality and to increase their participation in political, economic, social and cultural arenas. Moreover, the support of the majority of people for change and reform played an important role in eroding the legitimacy of the authoritarian rule and promoting democratic issues. The informal associations of workers, women, students and minorities are deeply involved in the process of democratisation and are the cause of the split between the reformers and the conservatives.

How big is the working class? Does it have a recent record of struggle? What is its attitude to the state, to the reformers and to the student movement?

Some 30 percent of the economically active population work in industry, 26 percent in agriculture and 44 percent in services; 14.57 million are in major industries; employing more than ten workers (12 percent are women) and 2.33 million in government institutions (31 percent are women). There are also hundreds of thousands of small-scale industries in the ‘informal sector’ employing less than ten workers. And there are large numbers of women (including home makers) and men contributing to the economy in urban and rural areas.

The importance of the working class can be measured by trade union activities in Iran. They are an important centre of power in civil society, which can be bases for the struggle for democracy.

The history of the labour movement goes back to the early 20th century with struggles to establish unions by teachers, journalists, copper smelting workers, oil workers, print workers, bakery workers, textile workers, shoemakers, postal and telegraph workers, confectionery workers and clerks in the years 1912 to 1922. [14]

In the years after the Second World War the Iranian trade unions with 276,150 members organised strikes, factory occupations and demonstrations in major industrial cities and won the 48-hour week, paid holidays for Fridays (the weekend) and the right of workers to form trade unions. In 1951 the oil workers’ strike led to the victory of Mossadegh’s nationalist government and oil nationalisation. This period ended with the 1953 CIA coup. The new autocratic monarchy controlled the trade union movement and other social movements. [15]

In this period the term trade unions was replaced with syndicates or factory-based trade unions. They increased from 30 in the 1960s to approximately 519 in 1972. In many cases the workers’ representatives were affiliated to the state secret police. Nevertheless, many workers remained militant and class conscious about their economic demands. Despite the dictatorship some strikes were successful and the workers won their rights to have national insurance, to guarantee sick pay, retirement and unemployment benefits. [16]

The failure of the dictatorial regime to deal with the economic and political crisis led to a growing revolutionary movement which finally led to a general strike, including the 70,000-strong oil workers’ strike, and the collapse of the monarchy in February 1979. During the revolution these strikes were organised by the strike committees, which replaced the syndicates. After the revolution the strike committees provided the core of the leadership of the new shoras, workers’ factory councils. [17] Militancy and strikes continued even after the Islamic shoras and Islamic associations replaced the independent shoras in the early 1980s. Ninety percent of these strikes were illegal yet in 65 percent of all cases workers won their demands over pay rises, delayed wages, overtime pay and benefits. [18] There have been a significant number of workers’ protests over similar issues from the 1990s to the present. [19]

Many Islamists have joined the growing democracy movement, arguing for democratisation of different institutions. A number of activists in the Islamic shoras and associations say that using the term ‘Islamic’ for workers’ organisations will lead to the exclusion and alienation of some workers and weaken the shoras. There is a need for independent workers’ organisations. [20] These workers’ organisations are state sponsored, but in their own way they have been challenging the theocratic state and have played an important role as a part of the democracy movement.

The NGOs have also been involved in the struggle for reforms since the mid-1990s, and constitute a bulk of the democracy movement. Their activities are limited and the majority are not involved in the formal sector of the economy. However, some women’s and youth NGOs have provided opportunities for women and youth in voluntary and paid work in the informal sector. Equally important, their actions have proven to be crucial for the promotion of social and institutional change.

Another example is the increase in the number of modern coffee shops in large urban centres. Throughout 2003–04 the number of coffee shops increased, employing young women and men university graduates who are not absorbed into the formal sector of the economy. Many believe that it is good to have young women working in these coffee shops because the presence of a woman makes it easier for young women to sit in them without being harassed by men. Many young women and men use the coffee shops to meet socially or to have meetings to discuss social and political issues. [21]

What has been the character of the student movement? To what extent is it connected to the reformists? Does it have illusions in the West, in the way that the movements before 1989 in Russia and Eastern Europe had those illusions?

One important aspect of the Islamic welfare state was provision of education to majority of population. There are 1,673,757 students are in higher education alone. The student movement in Iran is associated with the reformist movement. Many within the student movement are struggling to be independent of the state. Meanwhile, they are active as part of the reformist and democracy movement. The views of students are diverse. Some believe in separation of religion from the state. Some believe in unlocking the chains of religion which is imprisoning the country. Others believe in cautious reform and see Islam as an important part of people’s lives which cannot be ignored by the state.

Since the 1990s students have demonstrated against arrests and political repression. Since 2000 they have campaigned for the release of Muslim intellectual reformers such as Akbar Ganji, Emadeddin Baghi and Hashem Aghajari, a history professor and disabled hero of the war with Iraq, who was sentenced to death for a speech in which he advocated an Islam that wasn’t dependent upon the clerics. The death sentence provided the university students with an opportunity to unleash their anger upon the regime. They continued their struggle until the death sentence was repealed. He was released in 2004.

The 2003–2004 students’ demonstrations demanded the resignation of President Khatami. They argued that they had passionately campaigned for his election a few years earlier but now they were angry that he was unable to reverse the conservatives’ crackdown on the press laws, that he was doing nothing to defend the reformists who had brought him to power.

In recent months the student movement and youth movement have taken up two issues: the threats against Iran’s nuclear energy by the West and the presidential election in spring 2005.

The students and youth, like the rest of population, despite their diverse political persuasions, support their country’s right to have nuclear power and the right to defend themselves against threats by Israel, the US and Britain. They support their government’s claim that it is not engaged in building a nuclear weapon. They are angry about the double standards of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) and Europe for dragging Iran along the same path as Iraq.

On 1 November 2004 Tehran University students staged a demonstration outside the Atomic Energy Organisation and released a statement explaining their action. They ‘condemned the colonial style behaviour of the West and in particular the US about Iran’s nuclear energy’. They argued that ‘Iran has the expertise and technology and natural resources to move away from using the limited resources of oil and gas for their energy’. [22]

At the local level the students are engaged in organising meetings and discussions about the presidential election this spring. They are fighting for the reformist candidates and in some cases have been physically attacked for doing so. In a recent incident in the university of Elm va Sanat (Science and Industry) a number of students, teachers and the head of the university were injured. [23]

The Iranian students and youth do not have illusions in the West in the same way that the movements before 1989 in Russia and Eastern Europe did. The majority of students and youth reject the idea that modern progressive attitudes are held exclusively by the West. They also oppose the rigid traditional rules and regulations set by the conservative clergy. They are actively trying to construct emancipatory models that derive from their own experiences, models that are inclusive of Western, Eastern, Islamic and Iranian culture.

They are not against Western culture. For example, the most favoured piece of music by most young people of different classes is a mixture of Arabic, rap, rock and Iranian music. It is titled Eskenas (paper money). The first track is about a young working class man admiring his girlfriend. The following tracks condemn poverty, hunger, political repression, the obsession of upper and middle class young women and men with money, and ridicules traditionalism and obsession with women’s behaviour.

They are puzzled by Bush’s religious and ideological rhetoric. They see Islamism developed out of material circumstances in the 1980s in Iran and 25 years later modernism is also developing out of local and global material circumstances. They find it strange that in contrast Bush and his supporters are moving away from modernity to religious fundamentalism.

They also strongly believe that the Bush administration’s Middle East adventure is for Israel’s benefit and for the economic and oil interests of the US. [24]

At the same time they are also angry that anti-imperialism is monopolised by the state and they are restricted by the state and other institutions to organise their own independent organisations and their NGOs are currently under attack by the conservatives.

As in many other societies, there is a minority of young people who glorify the West and the US in particular. Some have left Iran, and those who have money have gone to Los Angeles. In exile they have made musical links (a mixture of Western and Iranian music) through the internet with some young people in Iran, known as ‘Tehrangeles’ music. ‘Tehrangeles’ music is not simply Western propaganda. To make a foothold in Iran, the ‘Tehrangeles’ musicians had to adapt to the authentic rhythm of the ‘Tehran street’. Despite mushrooming internet cafes, not everyone has access to the internet. But ‘Tehrangeles’ music is copied and distributed widely.

The voices of young women and men can be found in internet chat rooms, websites, student meetings and youth NGOs. They say, ‘We are the real victims of fundamentalism, be it Islamic or American. We struggled to achieve a reformist government but our demands were not met. We demand civil rights, the right to participate in economic, political, social and cultural arenas, the right to chose what to wear, the right to love and enjoy life.’

What is the position of women? Is their oppression qualitatively worse than in Western and other developing countries?

It is important to look back at women’s status before the 1979 revolution and compare the changes which have taken place since.

The autocratic secular state under the Shah determined the way women should be incorporated into the public sphere. Women’s independence in the family and their independent presence in the public sphere were opposed, despite some reforms taking place. The state maintained its legitimacy by making concessions to traditional Islamic sexual hierarchies, the sexual division of labour and, as a result, female subordination.

The state provided some education and employment for a minority of urban women, while the majority of women constituted the bulk of the illiterate, semi-skilled, unskilled and unpaid family workers in industries where new technology was not applied and production remained labour intensive. The female population remained smaller than the male population, which is characteristic of many developing countries where women’s health is neglected, and their education lags behind that of men. [25]

The interrelationship between pro-Western capitalist development and Shia Islam ideology was particularly painful for working class and traditional middle class women. They had to endure modernisation while observing the absolute traditional Islamic values of segregation, including wearing the chador (full length cover) dictated by their families, especially male relatives, who regarded the culture of modernity as horrific and inappropriate for their women. On the other hand they had to pay the heavy price of being labelled as backward in schools, universities and workplaces for respecting these values and traditions. These women were torn between their families’ traditional values and a society which promoted Western values, including wearing the latest Western fashions. Many tried to resolve this dilemma by accommodating both values. They left home veiled and took their veil off before entering school, university or the workplace. But many others took a defensive position and wore the veil as a sign of protest at the uneven economic, political and social change. [26]

Cultural restrictions affected working class women’s mobility: many families did not allow their daughters and female members of their families to join workers’ organisations and trade unions. But during and after the 1979 revolution more women became active members of shoras in industries like pharmaceuticals, food and textiles. They were struggling to set up workplace nurseries, literacy classes for women workers and better health and safety conditions at work. In this period women’s activities raised gender consciousness. These women were engaged in activities within the workers’ organisations as women. This was significant in a number of ways: the shoras were under attack by the Islamic state. Female and male workers were struggling to save the shoras. But some male workers were against female representation. They believed that women should leave these activities to men. For their part, women believed that they should be represented in the shoras as women workers, because they had specific demands.

After a referendum in April 1979 decided that Iran would be an Islamic republic the state isolated secular women and favoured only the participation of religious women. It provided material and ideological opportunities for religious women to exercise a degree of power, in comparison with their status under the secular state of the Shah. Soon afterwards sex segregation and hejabe eslami (Islamic dress code) were imposed on women. The state’s initial gender and employment policy aimed at excluding women from the labour force and many teachers, nurses and secretaries lost their jobs.

However, following the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war the state’s economic and gender and employment policies changed in response to the pressures of war, economic dislocations and rigidities in the labour market. Despite the effect of Islamic gender ideology, a number of factors soon increased the state’s demand for female labour.

The Iran-Iraq war reduced the supply of male labour. The demand for female labour also increased, because men were neither trained nor ideologically willing to do ‘women’s jobs’ such as nursing, teaching, or secretarial and administrative work. Thus the demand for female teachers and nurses increased, despite the initial attempt to stop women tending male patients and teaching male students Although the ideological constraint placed women in a disadvantageous position within the labour market, paradoxically gender segregation opened up opportunities for religious women to enter employment, and occupy positions such as heads of departments. As a result, a significant number of women were employed in secretarial and administrative tasks. At the same time, rising prices increased the number of women seeking work or resisting exclusion from their jobs.

The demand for female labour continued to rise throughout the Iran-Iraq war in the state and private sectors Women were engaged in a variety of occupations and their contribution was absolutely necessary for the well-being of their families. Also women were mobilised by the state in urban and rural areas, to cook, sew and prepare medicines (in the mosques) for men at the war fronts. A large number of Islamic institutions were established and demanded the voluntary work of women. Demand for the unpaid labour of women increased and the state benefited from it economically and politically. Even under these circumstances, where the state mobilised women to be active outside the home, the emphasis was on the home being women’s priority.

By the late 1980s women’s issues became important socially and politically throughout society. Many Islamist women (later calling themselves Muslim feminists) gradually changed their position in relation to the state they had supported in the previous period. Issues such as divorce, custody of children, and other family laws and regulations affected all women, especially poorer women in urban and rural areas. The impact of Islamic gender ideology was, therefore, contradictory. The contradiction between the Islamic state’s ideology and women’s experiences of involvement in the revolutionary period led them to struggle over women’s rights issues.

Religious women resisted the differential treatment meted out to them by the state. For example, according to the Sharia Islamic law, when a husband/father dies, the child custody rights go to their male kin and not to their mother. The war widows, many of them working class women, worked and raised their children on their own. They supported the Islamic state, but they also challenged the Sharia law of guardianship. They protested and won the right to keep and raise their children and to be entitled to their husband’s wage, salary or any living expenses payable out of government budget without interference of male kin. [27]

They pressurised the state to reform family law, the education system and employment regulations in favour of women. Nevertheless the social relations of gender remained tightly controlled by men and by the state. Yet women’s participation in economic and political activities had increased gender consciousness. They constantly put pressure on the state and other institutions. This produced dynamism within the society which brought into question the material and ideological basis of the Islamic state.

In 1988 the Iran-Iraq war ended. The prisoners of war returned. The voluntary work of women in Islamic institutions declined. But to subsidise the unemployed, the war veterans and their families, more opportunities were created for these women to participate in the paid labour force in Islamic institutions. Priority for training and employment opportunities was given to women who lost men from their families in the war, mainly from the religious middle classes and the urban and rural working classes.

Although the subordination of women was deeply ingrained in the consciousness of both men and women, they also saw from their own experiences that the state and the family benefited from women’s participation in the spheres of economy and politics. Within the formal sector of the economy many women fought for their employment rights within the workers’ shoras and associations. In some cases women workers’ activities were objected to by the state and some male workers. Women workers reacted by forming Women’s Trade Associations-for example, the Women Publishers Trade Association, Women Teachers Trade Association, Women Nurses Trade Association and Women Lawyers Trade Association. [28]

The rise of women’s NGOs must be seen as the extension of the women’s movement in the 1990s when women’s issues became an integral part of the politics of the Islamic state and society. These women’s and youth NGOs have created a space where some women and young people can develop skills of negotiations and leadership. Their activities highlight the slow yet steady growth of self-confidence and self-determination.

Women’s oppression is universal, but takes different forms. In 2004 there is more gender consciousness and more reformed laws and regulations on women’s issues than at any time under the secular pro-US Shah’s state. Today women in Iran exercise more rights than in US-backed states in the region. They have the right to vote, and more gender-balanced family law, education and employment laws. Gender issues are systematically debated fiercely and publicly. However, the West ignores these achievements, which are the result of 25 years of bitter struggles, and only highlights the women’s hijab as the symbol of women’s oppression in Iran. The women’s movement and some women’s NGOs are an important part of the democracy movement, struggling for change.

The socialist left was defeated and to a large extent driven into exile in the early 1980s. What signs are there of a recovery?

The majority of the Iranian left in exile have gravitated rightwards. Some may hate the ideology behind the US administration, but support the US project on the grounds that it will eliminate the injustices in Iran. This is similar to a minority of the Iraqi left who have been cooperating with the Bush administration because they believe that Saddam Hussein’s regime was so bad that the Iraqi people will benefit from its defeat. Eric Hobsbawm, in the context of the US occupation of Iraq and invasion of Afghanistan, has called this the ‘imperialism of human rights’. [29] These left groups do not understand that the US is not interested in restoring democracy and development in the Middle East or anywhere else for that matter. The Bush administration is only capable of military interventions wherever its economic and political interest lies.

Most left wing groups do not support the reformist movement in Iran on the ground, that it has an Islamic base and its leadership is mainly the Muslim reformers. But the workers’ movement, the women’s movement and the student movement are the concrete forms of actual movements in Iran which have been radicalised in complex ways that reflect the class, gender and age structures of Iranian society.

The left in Iran (similar to most of the Middle East) have had a rich history of secular (nationalist and communist) movements. But at most crucial historical periods they failed to respond and give political leadership to the real alternatives that became available. Currently, they are confused about both the nature of US imperialism and the democracy movement in Iran.

The majority of workers, women, students and national and religious minorities are not revolutionary socialists. The majority are Muslims or belong to other religions. Their movements constitute the democracy movement – different forces have come together in response to contradictory national and global policies. They are challenging the anti-democratic Islamic state and other institutions. They are against US, British and Israeli military aggression against people in Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. So what is important is not their religious or cultural beliefs but the direction in which they are moving. The failure to support the democracy movement in Iran means sectarianism and not having a voice in an important era of transition from autocracy to democracy – an important period when the majority of population are not just talking and thinking about establishment of democracy but acting and winning their demands.


Elaheh Rostami Povey is the author of Women, Work and Islamism, Ideology and Resistance in Iran (under the pen name of Maryam Poya, Zed Books, 1999).

1. M. Poya, Women, Work & Islamism, Ideology and Resistance in Iran (Zed Books, 1999), pp. 35–60.

2. For the history of secular (nationalist and communist) movements in Iran see E. Abrahamian, Between Two Revolutions (Princeton University Press, 1982); A. Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (Zed Books, 1987), M. Poya, Iran 1979, Long Live Revolution, Long Live Islam?, in C. Barker (ed.), Revolutionary Rehearsals (Bookmarks).

3. As above, pp. 61–67.

4. As above, p. 62.

5. S. Maloney, The Bonyads and Privatisation in Iran, Golt-O-Gu, Political Economy Journal 28 (2000), pp. 83–112, Farsi.

6. The notion of the interventionist state revolves around the idea that it is embedded in civil society, and subject to political pressures exerted by various civil groups. For example, see Peter Evans, Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation (Princeton University Press, 1995).

7. D. Eade and J. Pearce, Development, NGOs and Civil Society (Oxfam Publication, 2000).

8. Iran Statistical Yearbook, March 2001–March 2002.

9. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA, 12 July 2004); World Development Indicators; UNICEF Statistical Yearbook (various years), annual report, 2001; Human Development Report (The United Nations, 2003).

10. Iran Statistical Yearbook, March 2001–March 2002.

11. E. Rostami Povey, Trade Unions and Women’s NGOs: Diverse Civil Society Organisations in Iran, in Development in Practice, vol. 14, nos. 1 & 2 (February 2004).


13. J. Steele, The Guardian, 27 August 2004.

14. H. Lajevardi, Labour Unions and Autocracy in Iran (Syracuse University Press, 1985), pp. 1–28.

15. As above, pp. 50–70 and 233.

16. As above, p. 240; Andishe Jamehe 12, 2001, Farsi.

17. A. Bayat, as above, pp. 77–81; M. Poya, Iran 1979, as above.

18. A. Bayat, as above, pp. 100–141

19. Andishe Jamehe, no. 20, 2002; Jense Dovom Journal, nos. 6, 7, 9, 2001, Farsi.

20. Andishe Jamehe, nos. 16 and 19, 2001.

21. Zanan Women’s Journal, no. 107, 2004, Farsi.


23. Iran Student News Agency,

24. E. Rubin, The Millimetre Revolution, The New York Times Magazine, April 2003.

25. M. Poya, Women, Work, Islamism ..., as above, pp. 49–60.

26. As above, p. 54.

27. As above, pp. 130–138.

28. E. Rostami Povey, as above.

29. E. Hobsbawm, America’s Imperial Delusion, in The Guardian, 14 June 2003.

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