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  • A Women's Non-Movement:What It Means to Be a Woman Activist in an Islamic State
  • Asef Bayat (bio)

Feminists have long argued that probably all modern states possess, albeit in different degrees, patriarchal tendencies. But patriarchy figures especially prominently in those authoritarian regimes and movements that exhibit conservative religious (Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or Hindu) dispositions. Indeed, patriarchy is entrenched in religious authoritarian polity.1 It is known that in many authoritarian Muslim states, such as Egypt, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, where conservative Islamic laws are in place, women have turned into second-class citizens in many domains of public life. Consequently, a central question for women's rights activists is how to achieve gender equality under such circumstances. A common strategy proposed consists of organizing strong women's movements to fight for equal rights. Movements are usually perceived in terms of collective activities of a large number of women organized under strong leaderships, with effective networks of solidarities, procedures of membership, mechanisms of framing, and communication and publicity—the types of movements that are associated with images of marches, banners, organizations, lobbying, and the like.

It is a credit to women in most Western and democratic countries for creating sustainable movements that have achieved remarkable outcomes in the past four decades. While it may be that many women under Muslim (and non-Muslim) authoritarian states do wish and indeed strive for building similar social movements, their struggles are often thwarted by the repressive measures of authoritarian/patriarchal states as well as the unsympathetic attitudes of many ordinary men. Consequently, the type of collective actions practiced mostly in the democratic settings, which have come to dominate our conceptual universe as the women's movements, may not deliver under nondemocratic conditions, if they are ever allowed to emerge. The conventional social movement is concerned chiefly with politics of protest, contentious politics, where collective actors exert pressure (by threat, disruption, or causing uncertainty) on adversaries to meet their demands. How does one account for women's activism that may rarely deploy organization and networking, mobilizing strategies, street marches, picketing, strikes, or disruption and yet is able to extend their choices? [End Page 160]

In the aftermath of a revolution in which they had participated massively, Iranian women faced an authoritarian Islamic regime that imposed forced veiling, gender segregation, and widespread surveillance and revoked the prerevolutionary laws that favored women. Women resisted these policies not much by deliberate organized campaigns but largely through mundane daily practices in public domains, such as working, participating in sports, studying, showing interest in art and music, or running for political offices. Imposing themselves as public players, women managed to make some significant shift in gender dynamics, empowering themselves in education, employment, and family law, while raising their self-esteem. They reinstated equal education with men, curtailing polygamy, restricting men's right to divorce, demonizing religiously sanctioned mut'a (temporary marriage), reforming marriage contracts, improving the employment status of women, bringing back women as judges, debating child custody, and to some degree changing gender attitudes in the family and in society. Women's seemingly peculiar, dispersed, and daily struggles in the public domain not only changed aspects of their lives, but they also advanced a more inclusive, egalitarian, and women-centered interpretation of Islam.

Not just the Islamic Republic but many other Muslim societies have also experienced similar dispersed activities, albeit with varying effect depending on the degree of misogyny of the states and the mobilizational efficacy of women. Nevertheless, because of their largely mundane and everyday nature, such women's practices are hardly considered a particular type of activism that can follow some far-reaching consequences. How does one characterize such activities? How does one explain the logic of their operation? Drawing on the experience of women under the Islamic Republic of Iran, my purpose in this essay is to suggest that there are perhaps different ways in which Muslim women under authoritarian regimes may, consciously or without being aware, defy, resist, negotiate, or even circumvent gender discrimination—not necessarily by resorting to extraordinary and overarching "movements" identified by deliberate collective protest and informed by mobilization theory and strategy, but...


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pp. 160-172
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