Reflections about feminism in Iran after watching the movie "The Circle".

by Ségolène on November 3, 2014 - 5:18pm

In his film " The Circle ", Jafar Panahi deals with discriminations suffered by women in Iran. From the first scene, we understand that being born as a woman is not easy in the Iranian society. The different followed women during the film have to face up several discriminations: ban to smoke, obligation to have a veil, ban to travel alone or without the permission of the father or of the husband, ban to abort without the same permission, etc. These women seem to be really locked into a vicious circle (“The Circle”), without exits.

Thus, having seen this movie, I wondered if in such a context the feminist thought could emerge, and especially how it could emerge. If for us, I mean western women, it seems obvious that in front of such disparities, feminism has to be the fight of every Iranian, it does not always match with reality. Indeed, as explained it to us professor Sabine Levet (Boston MIT), events take a totally different sense according to the eyes with which we look at them. From a country to an other one, from a culture to an other one, the perception and the interpretation of events can really and completely vary.
So the question of the Iranian feminism is complex; a lot of factors have to be considered (political, cultural, social, religious). And it is in this perspective that feminism in Iran has to be questioned.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 (which transformed Iran into Islamic Republic), which institutionalized the gender disparities, had also paradoxically contributed to emancipate a lot of women, more particularly stemming from religious and traditional circles, as explains it Azadeh Kian-Thiébaut. Notably, the increase of girls enrolled in school system participated to delay the age of the first marriage (from 19 to 23 years), increase the number of really granted marriages, but especially, women were able to acquire a bigger economic and intellectual autonomy, so allowing them to dispute the male dominion and the Islamic laws which tried to strengthen it.
However, at the beginning of the Revolution, laic women who opposed the Islamic laws were really excluded from the public sphere, by means of Islamist women. Indeed, these islamist women saw the possibility of knowing a real upward social mobility thanks to the Revolution. But many privileges granted to men did not delay disillusioning some of them.

Muslim women, who have finally chosen to support the fight of the laic ones, were more particularly opposed to those, who justify sexual disparities by the religion. After the Iraq war at the end of 1980s, more and more women's magazines were able to be published (such as Farzâneh or Zan) thanks to a relative freedom of the media. These magazines were very important in the construction of a dialog between laic and Islamic movement in favor of women rights. With these exchanges of opinion, a real awareness took place and certain Muslim activists have thus start to question the official interpretation of the Islam and to develop alternative readings of the Koran.

This new consciousness of genre led a lot of women to ask for changes for their condition and for their status by means of pressures on the political and religious elite. Furthermore, these pressures are strengthened by the massive schooling and the expansion of social, economic or cultural activities, which really played a very important role in the mitigation of the weight of traditions in the Iranian society.
A study about 31000 people, of whom approximately 8000 married women of 15 and more years old, show as well as the majority of the questioned women think that the disparities between the sexes find more political choices than a divine will.
Moreover, women have really used the 7th art as well as the literature to express their contesting. We can quote the novelists Goli Taraqi and Shahrnoush Parsipour for instance.

Besides, the reforming president Mohammed Khâtami ( 1997-2005 ) had promised a lot of reforms, particularly concerning the condition of the women in Iran. Unfortunately, the slowness of these reforms and, in the end, little of changes concerning women led to a certain disappointment but especially, to a demobilization. Conservative women or ultra-conservative gained ground on the political scene and, just elected, several of them supported the polygamy, or pleaded for establishing repressive measures against the women badly veiled for instance.

Today, contrary in the reformist period, activists do not look any more for a dialog with religious and political authorities, but it is really through independent social actions as much as mobilization of civil society that they want to claim their rights.
The (forbidden) street protests then increased, bringing to disorders with law enforcement and to arrest of several feminist activists. At the same time, a lot of campaigns developed, such as ,for example, a million signatures for the abolition of the discriminatory laws. This ascent of the women's movement in Iran worries the religious and political authorities, for whom the activists "prepare a slow revolution aiming at the reversal of the Islamic regime" (words of Mohseni-Ejeyi, Iranian Secretary of the Information, on 2007).

Thus, the question of Iranian feminism is complex. If the consciousness of genre develops itself little by little, the way leading to the effective emancipation of Iranian seems still very long. Changing mentalities is not an easy task, as showed the recent acid attacks against women in the steering wheel, just because their veil was badly worn…




Azadeh Kian-Thiébaut, « From Motherhood to Equal Rights Advocates : The Weakening of Patriarchal Order », Iranian Studies, 2005

Azadeh Kian- Thiébaut, « Le féminisme et l’islam. Les conservateurs iraniens face aux mouvements des droits des femmes », La Vie des idées, 2007