Misreading Feminism And Women’s Rights in Tehran: Beyond Chadors, Ninjabis, And Secular Fantasies

It is nearly impossible to read any article about Iranian women and not spend the entire time rolling your eyes. Historically, the Western media has tended to make liberal use of Orientalist and infantilizing depictions of Iranian women as, alternatively, trapped in the harems of their turbaned overseers (a historically pre-1979 trope applied liberally to all Middle Eastern women) or militantly crazed and clad in black “traditional garb” (a post-1979 trope specific to Iranian, and later Islamist, women).

Since 9/11, meanwhile, these depictions have become increasingly politicized within the War on Terror “white men saving brown women from brown men” paradigm (so brilliantly identified by Gayatri Spivak & explored by, among others, Saba Mahmood & Lila Abu Lughod). Despite the increase in rightwing rhetoric calling for war on Iran, however, the charge that Iranian women are mistreated and must be saved (like their Afghan sisters, as NATO and some neo-colonial minded collaborators at Amnesty International would have you believe) has not quite caught on.

I’m sure if they manage to bomb just one more Afghan wedding and massacre these women’s husbands, brothers, and children, they will all soon be free!

The recent controversy over the Iranian women “ninjas” offers some insight into why it has thus far been quite difficult to convince Americans of the need to save Iranian women. On 2 February, Press TV ran a clip describing the increasing popularity of ninjutsu, a Japanese martial art, among Iranian women in a dojo in Karaj, a Tehran suburb. Reuters subsequently ran a story on the video with the headline, “Thousands of Female Ninjas train as Iran’s Assassins,” and on 18 February, the Telegraph ran a story entitled, “Iran trains ninjas as potential assassins,” one of many other news outlets that wrote pieces about a secret army of Iranian women ninjas that were being trained for war. Of course, this was all utter nonsense, though few of the agencies- besides Reuters- bothered to correct their mistakes.

As it became clearer that the ninja army angle was failing, other sites began to take a nominally feminist stance. The Guardian ran a piece discussing how the ninjas were “fighting for sexual equality,” and the Atlantic came out with an article that answered the question of “Why thousands of Iranian women are training to be ninjas” with: “In a society that treats them like children, sports — and especially martial arts — offer a way to express strength and independence,” proceeding to detail how marginalized Iranian women are in the Iranian public sphere, where their participation is “arduous and painful.”

The Iranian women “ninjas” themselves, sufficiently pissed off at Reuters for starting this whole insulting mess, subsequently sued the agency for defamation.

So what the hell happened?

An Iranian channel ran a story about how a certain kind of martial arts is enjoying increasing popularity among Iranian women. This means that a) Iranian women have rights, b) Iranian women can access the public sphere, c) Iranian women participate in organized, public sports, and d) an Iranian government news channel has no problem with any of this.

Faced with these facts, the Western media panicked: some news agencies resorted to the stereotype of Iranian women as veiled, militant fanatics; others opted for infantilizing portrayals of suffering women using martial arts as their only escape.

Can you imagine any self-respecting Western reporter writing a story that explained, unprovoked, the popularity of karate among girls in suburban Los Angeles by citing America’s high rates of sexual assault? Additionally, few bothered to mention that recently it has been Western sports organizations that have prevented Iranian women from playing, for example in 2011 forcing the Iranian women’s soccer team to forfeit hope of reaching the Olympics because they wore sports hijabs on the field.

To understand the wild and sloppy reactions of Western journalists- even sympathetic ones- to a banal story about karate in Iran, it is useful to examine the history of women’s rights in Iran before and after the Revolution and the quite complicated roles secularization and Islamization had in both oppressing and liberating distinct strata of Iranian women.

Iranian women are not children nor are they lunatics, and their presence in the public sphere is not “arduous” nor “painful.” Indeed, visitors to Iran are often struck by the visibility and active involvement of women in most domains of the public sphere. Documentary filmmakers in particular are quite explicit in their surprise, and images of young, smiling, well-dressed Iranian women have become a common visual trope for Western films that seek to offer a “different” view of Iran (in sexualized Orientalist Western media parlance, to “unveil” Iran). As much as the right-wing has sought to paint an image of a country where clerics have pulled women back to the Dark Ages, they have been unsuccessful thus far because this image is so clearly quite far from the truth.

Despite the Iranian government’s violent repression of dissent, brutal policing of the public sphere for immoral conduct, and the deeply misogynistic legal codes often passed under the guise of “Islamic law,” many Iranian women coming of age in the 1990’s and 2000’s experienced a reality that bears little resemblance to the nightmarish scenarios painted by many outside of the country.

In this reality, women comprise 65% of all university students and an increasingly high percentage of the workforce (27%, compared to 20% in 1980) in almost every field.

One of the most notable changes in Iranian gender politics over the last 30 years has been the entrance of women into public life en masse. Despite major legal setbacks and the rapid encroachment of the government into the personal lives of all of its citizens in the 1980’s, Iranian women were by no means merely victims. The mass mobilization of Iranian society during the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War brought many women into the public sphere in unprecedented ways.

Early on, even figures like Ayatollah Khomeini called upon women to protest in the streets alongside Iranian men, a position quite at odds with traditional conservative gender norms. This mobilization continued through the war years, when women actively signed up to work at the front with Iraq as well as by working in nursing, organizing blood drives, and joining local religious and political committees. Indeed, in the words of Janet Afary, author of Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, “the role of the Islamist state in releasing lower-middle class youth from the grips of their highly patriarchal families,” can hardly be ignored.

Prior to the Iranian Revolution, women enjoyed a high standard of legal rights. However, because of the secularization of the public sphere which had accompanied the Pahlavi dynasty, veiled women were discouraged from leaving their homes, both by secular social and political norms as well as by religious families. In 1937, Reza Shah Pahlavi instituted forced unveiling, meaning that policemen were instructed to rip the veils off women’s heads if necessary. The result was a generation of women who refused to leave their homes, mortified by the prospect of being effectively stripped and humiliated in public.

Even after the act was repealed some years later, social and political norms remained in place that discouraged veiled women from accessing the public sphere. Thus, although women in secular and elite families enjoyed high standards of legal rights and social mobility, they constituted a quite small percentage of the general Iranian population.

Most Iranian women, meanwhile, had to contend with both patriarchal families and a secular public sphere that de facto denied them access. As Nima Naghibi has argued in her book “Rethinking Global Sisterhood,” Western and elite Iranian feminists’ support for the Shah’s secular regime made them complicit in his brutality and effectively identified feminism with secular authoritarianism for many Iranians.

Massoumeh Ebtekar participated in the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and went on to become Vice-President for Environmental Issues in President Khatami’s cabinet.

The advent of a public sphere within which women’s rights to education and to work were guaranteed and supported through economic programs aided women’s efforts to claim social rights that had previously been off-limits. Islamic feminists drew upon Revolutionary ideology and politics in ways that often critiqued patriarchy as a whole, both Islamic and Western.

Prior the Revolution, “feminism”  was slandered by conservatives because the same ideology that claimed to “free women” was supported and facilitated by the Shah’s tyrannical dictatorship.

Now, however, religious women who had tasted the liberation of the 1979 uprising began to formulate a doctrine of women’s liberation that incorporated Islamic religious beliefs. In this new equation, young women could resist the domination of patriarchal families by relying upon an interpretation of Islam that facilitated women’s participation in the public sphere.

If the university and the workplace are officially “Islamic” and gender-segregated, what right does a patriarchal father or a misogynistic government official to tell a woman she can’t study or work?

Because women interpreted Islam as guaranteeing their right to education, work, and participation in the public sphere more broadly, they resisted both their families as well as the state’s attempts to reintroduce patriarchal or misogynist legislation or norms.

At the same time, the material support in terms of the expansion of literacy, free schooling, and other social programs offered a basis upon which Iranian women could materially support their ideologies of liberation. One example was a massive, nationwide educational campaign targeting women, increasing women’s literacy from 29% in 1976 to 87% in 2005.

The Islamic Republic and the ideology it embodies contains a systematic critique of secularism as a form of society and governance. Within this critique, the position of women retains a special place, as women under secular regimes are often seen as disrespected by societies that see them as little more than sexual objects or playthings. This critique, of course, obscures the complex realities of women’s lives in secular societies.

Crucially, however, it makes the treatment of women an important issue for the Islamic Republic and thus opens up a space for feminists to demand their rights within an Islamic society. On the one hand, this strongly marginalizes secular feminists; but in a society that is mostly religious and quite conservative, this fact empowers religious women to pursue and advocate their rights within an Islamic model.

The Islamic state has engaged in gross human rights violations over the last 30 years in pursuit of Islamization of society and the public sphere, and the feminist struggle in Iran since the Revolution has been an extremely difficult one. But in spite of repeated attempts by men within the government to pull back women’s rights over the last 30 years, women have effectively resisted and continue to make progress on the ground in various fields, as well as through pursuing effective legal change.

The One Million Signatures Campaign seeks equal rights in marriage and inheritance, an end to polygamy, and stricter punishments for gender-based violence.

Despite improvements in economic and social conditions in Iran over the last 30 years (and particularly since the reformist years of President Khatami in the 1990’s and early 2000’s), women in Iran resist patriarchy, misogynistic legal codes, and state violence and repression on a daily basis. However, the reality is not just one of religious fundamentalism against secularism or an oppressive state versus suffering women. The reality is deeply complex, and in order to get a sense of this complexity we must understand the history of women’s rights and feminism- both Islamic and secular- in Iran.

Narratives of weak or militant Iranian women are not just dishonest; they also fuel a political narrative whereby Islam is equated with backwardness and the ability of women to reconcile Islamic ideals with feminist goals is entirely obfuscated.

Both Western conservatives and many secular feminists often participate in this obfuscation, effectively trying to either hide Iranian women’s successes in order to demonize Iran. As a result, Western conservatives and some secular feminists link arms with the same misogynist Iranian men who are trying their hardest to keep Iranian women down.


Adelkhah, Fariba. Being Modern in Iran. New York: Columbia UP in Association with the Centre D’études Et De Recherches Internationales, 2000.

Afary, Janet. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Bahramitash, Roksana, and Eric J. Hooglund. Gender in Contemporary Iran: Pushing the Boundaries. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Moallem, Minoo. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran. Berkeley: University of California, 2005.

Naghibi, Nima. Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2007.



  1. Thanks for a very interesting and well-researched post, and for providing insight into the narrative the Western media gives on Iranian women.

    I would largely agree with this:

    Faced with these facts, the Western media panicked: some news agencies resorted to the stereotype of Iranian women as veiled, militant fanatics; others opted for infantilizing portrayals of suffering women using martial arts as their only escape.

    As someone who has worked in news media, I would also add that the press, including news agencies, is driven by writing attention-grabbing headlines because these are the stories that provide more web hits (since most news is web-based) and hence drive advertising revenue, which is how news outlets make money. We are told that readers like to read news that confirms beliefs they already hold. The narratives that Iranian women are all trapped in hijabs and that Iranians, including women, are all militant fanatics are (sadly) memes that have been repeated so often that many people believe them to be true, so consciously or subconsciously reporters go looking for these sorts of stories, because it pleases their editors who know that these stories are going to be popular. Take the more recent story that “Iran” banned women from universities for example.

  2. Thanks for this incredibly insightful article. Every word resonated and I only wish more people could see it this way. An example of true journalism. More please!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *