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(Un)Veiling Feminism
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Social Text 18.3 (2000) 29-45

Contrary to what the title of this essay may conjure, this essay is not about (un)veiling as a contemporary practice in Islamicate societies -- about which there is now a very lively and enormous literature. It is about how feminism itself may have worked as a veil, about the veiling work of feminism as a boundary marker for secularism of Iranian modernity. My hope in rethinking the history of feminism is to seek out possibilities for the present moment of Iranian politics. I mean to be provocative but not accusatory, seeking to unpack the implications of feminism's imbrication in secularism of modernity. By unfolding the veiling work of Iranian feminism in its past history, I hope to envisage possibilities for "building working alliances" in contemporary Iranian gender politics.

Let me emphasize at the outset my refusal to generalize the ideas of this essay to all Islamicate societies. One of the problems with current discussions of Islam and feminism is ahistorical generalizations. These generalizations screen away vast historical and contemporary differences among countries as diverse as Algeria, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Indonesia, to name just a few. My argument assumes historical specificity; it assumes that to understand what is going on in Iran today, we need to look at the specific contingent configurations of the politics of modernity in that country. What may or may not be generalizable cannot be known from what is assumed to be Islamic, modern, feminist, or secular by any prior definition of these terms. For instance, the configurations of Islam, feminism, nationalism, and secularism that are now unfolding in Iran have very much to do with the fact that an Islamic republic has been in power for the past twenty-one years, one that came out of a mass popular revolution. As a very hybridized phenomenon, these developments go beyond previously dominant and accepted political paradigms. We have an unshaped and fluid muddle with women as key producers of it! Two concepts, feminism and civil society, move through this complex reconfiguration and acquire new meanings, while crafting a discursive space more marked by opacity than transparency, thereby challenging our previous certainty about what divides Islam from un-Islam, secular from religious. Consider this: The editors of Iran's two most prominent feminist women's periodicals, Zanan [Women] and Huquq-i zanan [Women's rights], had previously been editors of Zan-i ruz [Today's woman], a women's weekly published by the Kayhan Institute. This institute is possibly the most ideologically and viciously rigid Islamist cultural organization in Iran (a self-conscious ideological state apparatus if there ever was one!), and it publishes a large number of dailies, weeklies, and other periodicals marketed to different segments of the population. How can we make sense of this bastion of Islamist hard-liners producing a lineage of feminist editors? What is the meaning of these emergences in the overall political mapping of contemporary Iran?

Woman and the Culture of Revolution

The legal and social restrictions that women have faced in Iran since the 1979 revolution are widely reported. Seemingly trivial matters, such as the shape and color of a woman's scarf or the thickness of her stockings, have been matters of public policy and disciplinary measures. Women are far from legal equals of men. Despite years of hard work by women activists, inside and outside the Parliament, many discriminatory laws passed within the first few months and years of the Islamic Republic remain on the books and in full force. Many secular feminists continue to feel silenced, if not repressed or exiled, by the dominant cultural and political climate.

Yet the past decade has also witnessed an incredible flourishing of women's intellectual and cultural production. Twenty-one years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, not only have women not disappeared from public life, they have an unmistakably active and growing presence in practically every field of artistic creation, professional achievement, educational and industrial institutions, political participation, and even in sports activities. It would be tempting for a secular feminist, such as myself, to claim that Iranian women have achieved all this despite the Islamic Republic, against the Islamic...

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