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The Iranian Revolution and Women’s Tight to Political Participation

Throughout human history, the issue of women’s political participation has always been a recurrent theme that has undergone fluctuating status. It took many years and at times decades for even great revolutions to actualize and fulfill the political participation of women.

The present Op-Ed article attempts to investigate the issue of the political participation of women in the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran.

Suffragettes are a group of American feminist women who joined together in the 19th century protesting against the unequal political rights of women and asked for women’s suffrage in the United States. The importance of suffrage for these women lay in the fact that it was an introduction to any kind of political participation or right. This group was formed in 1848, which is 60 years after the American Revolution[1] and after 70 years of resistance and fight, they finally managed to achieve suffrage for all American women in 1920. At the same time, Thomas Paine believed the reason for the American Revolution was the fight for protecting America as the haven for freedom and resistance of human wisdom against the tyrants’ threats.[2] However, it seemed like this haven had no place for women.

The French Revolution also had a similar status. The Great French Revolution was formed in a ten-year period between the years 1789-1799 chanting the slogan of freedom. It concluded after the war and much bloodshed. Politicians and historians consensually consider this revolution as the mother of revolutions, which was able to change the monarchy into a democratic republic and lead to laïcité in France.[3] This revolution also was motivated by the wish for freedom and republicanism and was under the influence of the changes in the enlightenment period.[4] However, despite these slogans, after the revolution, suffrage was not granted to women until Charles de Gaulle recognized women’s right to vote for the first time one and a half century after the French Revolution in 1944.

The 1988 revolution in England has a similar story. This peaceful revolution chanted the slogan of fighting dictatorship and asked for a constitutional monarchy and achieved it with the slogan of freedom, but it did not give any kind of a fair share to women. More than one and a half century after this victory, in 1866, a petition was presented to the British parliament in which the British women asked for changing the elections rule to recognize their right to vote. But this petition encountered violent protests by those opposing the petition, who considered women’s suffrage as a great threat to England. The British parliament believed that women’s interference in policy spoils political life and destroys family stability. Therefore, they did not put the petition into action. From 1867, suffragettes also became active in this country and, finally, with the synergy of English and American suffragettes, after years of protest, chaos, and strikes, suffrage was granted to women in 1918.

As against these narrations of the movements asking for women’s right to political participation in the post-revolution and post-reformist countries, Iran is one of the few countries with no such records in its post-revolution history as from the very beginning of the formation of the Islamic Revolution, women’s suffrage was recognized.

Women’s share in the slogan of freedom

An examination of the history of suffrage in the countries that have experienced freedom-seeking revolutions leads us to the question of why discrimination against women and depriving them of liberty has continued and even increased after more than one century from these revolutions? Rereading the basic principles of these revolutions and comparing them can help to find the answer to this question.

Out of the mentioned revolutions, few are as known for freedom-seeking as the French Revolution. But this slogan yielded nothing for women. Muller Akin, the political feminist theoretician, in his book entitled Women in Western Political Thought focused on the marginal role of women in the history of western policy and examined this paradox of the French Revolution in Rousseau’s thought. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the French philosopher in the enlightenment period and the source of inspiration for the Great Revolution. He pursued the idea of equality and freedom in his thoughts, but he considers these two valuable features as essential to men and views women in an unequal status to men because men are, by nature, masters and women are by nature obedient and subordinate (Moller 193)[5] And nature is not something that can affect upbringing at human will. Therefore, there is no open path to changing women’s status. Based on this view, he expressly states that men and women should be separate from each other unless in some required cases so that men can live freely and away from women’s chattering (Moller 193). It is obvious that any political thought coming out of this belief cannot yield anything for women.

The Islamic Revolution and women’s political life

After the victory of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, Iranian people were granted the right to political participation for the first time, but this right did not involve women. In the Islamic Revolution, however, women were actively involved both in its formation on the streets and in demonstrations, to the extent that leaders of the revolution called women the pioneers of this movement, and after the victory of this revolution, by participating in the very first elections with an equal right to vote and contributing to the selection of the political system of Iran after the revolution based on direct order and approval by Imam Khomeini as the leader and theoretician of the revolution.

However, from the initial formation of the Islamic Revolution and movement of Islamists, many accused these groups of reaction and backwardness due to their strong connection with religion and did not change their idea even after the revolution and regarded Imam Khomeini’s movement as a political and utilitarian turn, which is in conflict with his inherent tendencies, because, according to them, in 1341 SC (1963), after approval of the State and Provincial Associations Bill, Shah granted suffrage to women, but Imam Khomeini was opposed to it and announced his opposition in public and this opposition caused this right to be abdicated. But when it came to his own government, he changed his view because he needed women’s support. Is this not a contradiction? A close scrutiny reveals that not only there was no political turn at work, but Imam Khomeini insisted on his previous position on this matter. In the early years of his opposition, he announced that he was never opposed to the basic idea of women’s right to vote but is against Reza Shah’s policies that led women to corruption. Shah, in contrast, had a utilitarian view of women and wanted to use them as puppets. Religion is against these (human) disasters and sufferings not freedom (Khomeini Vol. 3).[6] Islam has been never opposed to freedom. On contrary, it has been against the concept of using a woman as an object and has returned her dignity and honor to her. Women are equal to men. They are free like men to decide their fate and decide what to do. From these statements, it is clear that Imam Khomeini believed in women’s freedom and right, but does not consider what has been included in the State and Provincial Associations Bill as ensuring their freedom believing that the Islamic Revolution has provided the ground for women’s freedom to freely participate in building the foundation of the Islamic society.[7] Based on this intellectual system, in the Islamic system, a woman has the same rights as a man; the right to education, work, ownership, vote and being voted for. A woman has the same rights in all aspects as a man. Islam wants to preserve men’s and women’s dignity. Islam wants women not to be a plaything for men (Khomeini Vol. 5).

An examination of these views shows that not only suffrage and political participation but also all civil and social rights are both permissible and essential in the thought of Imam Khomeini. The Islamic (ruling) system is a humanistic system the formation of which is beyond gender with equal participation of men and women and its survival is dependent on this synergy. This view will yield tangible achievements and outcomes for women if it serves as the foundation of a revolution.



[1] There are conflicting views on the history of this revolution. Some believe it happened in the time range of 1765-1783 and some consider 1757 as the time when it began and consider 1789 and the presidency of George Washington as its end.

[2] Ferguson, Robert A. “The Commonalities of Common Sense.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 3, 2000, pp. 465–504. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2674263. Accessed 3 Feb. 2021.

[3] Bachrach, Bernard S. “France”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Jan. 2021

[4] Abbott, John. S. C. French Revolution of 1789, as Viewed in the Light of Republican Institutions. Rarebooksclub Com, 1887.

[5] Okin, Susan Moller. Women in Western Political Thought. Princeton University Press, 2013.

[6] Khomeini, Ruhollah Mousavi. An Anthology of Imam Khomeini’s Speeches, Messages, Interviews, Decrees, Religious Permissions, and Letters (Sahifa). The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 2008.

[7] Imam Khomeini,  4th of November, 1979, Interview with the weekly magazine of Nieuwe Revu about Islamic government.


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