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  • Revolutionary Religiosity and Women’s Access to Higher Education in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Following the 1979 revolution, women’s access to higher education in Iran increased dramatically. In just two decades higher education went from a privilege afforded to a tiny minority of women to a social norm and an “Islamic” right for the majority. Today most of the students in Iranian universities are women, and women’s access to the public sphere has expanded tremendously in every field. This essay is based on oral histories of twenty-one Iranian women who in the late 1980s and early 1990s were the first in their families to go to a university. Accounts of women’s agency during this period have tended to read the relationship between the revolutionary state and sociopolitically active women as one of religious repression versus secular resistance (Esfandiari 1997; Gerami 1996; Rostami-Povey 2011; Sanasarian 1982; Shavarini 2005, 2006a, 2006b). This study argues for more nuanced readings of women’s agency complying with and challenging hegemonic state policies and prescriptions. The women interviewed articulated a revelatory political binary between “revolutionary religiosity” (mazhabi-yi enqilabi) and “ordinary religiosity” (mazhabi-yi ma`muli) that emerged during the revolution. The revolution challenged patriarchal restrictions, particularly those on religious and middle- and working-class women’s mobility and public presence, redefining both as national and religious duties.

The women interviewed described revolutionary religiosity as innovative and subversive, affording new opportunities. Gender segregation in this hetero-normative revolutionary religious context helped women challenge patriarchal [End Page 126] restrictions in their families and also facilitated the crossing of urban-rural divides. Women’s involvement in the Iranian Revolution and the patriotic mobilizations of the Iran-Iraq War underpinned the structural shift in social norms.


The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the mass mobilization of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88 generated a productive public debate about women’s roles in Iranian society. Crucial to this debate, the revolution espoused a massive expansion of women’s public roles within vaguely defined “Islamic” bounds, sweeping away traditional restrictions on women’s involvement in the public sphere that had previously been expressed through religious discourse. A revolutionary religiosity that defended Iranian women’s right to the public sphere contested the conservative views of the majority through a discourse of mobility emphasizing national and religious duty, even as it enforced respectability discourses predicated on “Islamic” dress and homosociality.

This transformation of women’s lives and experiences was especially pronounced among the middle and working classes and among women from religious backgrounds, a transformation most visible in the realm of higher education. Although scholars have noted the rapid increase in women’s educational access and achievement in Iran following the revolution, these changes have been under-analyzed due to a focus on secular women from the upper and middle classes that has created a secular women versus religious state divide. This article focuses on Iranian women from a broader spectrum of religious and social backgrounds, using the oral histories of twenty-one women to document the ideological and material transformations in their lives. The majority of the women interviewed were middle-or lower-middle-class. Disaggregating the categories of class and religiosity reveals the rise of a dynamic new analytic unit, the revolutionary religious. In my analysis “revolutionary religiosity” emerges as a unique and novel category in three ways. (1) By understanding the space of the national public as morally contiguous with the family, it dramatically reduced the gendered boundaries between public and private space. Thus women became “obliged” to fulfill “national duties,” just as they had been previously obliged to fulfill family duties, but were able to mobilize these duties subversively in ways that allowed them to advocate for social change and move between the various spaces of the nation—urban and rural, school and work—to create that change. (2) By emphasizing homosociality (defined here as positively constituted forms of gender segregation), revolutionary religiosity created a discourse of security that aimed to eliminate threats linked to secularized heterosociality. The creation of these normative, religiously identified homosocialities allowed women to move across urban-rural and class divides as they spread...


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pp. 126-138
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