Universal women's human rights and the 'Muslim question' : an inquiry into the Iranian women's movement

2017-01-13T05:02:58Z (GMT) by Barlow, Rebecca Lorraine
The relationship between human rights principles defined at the international level, and questions of justice, rights, and representation in Muslim contexts, is an issue of significant complexity. Within this broad debate – a defining feature of contemporary international relations – this thesis focuses on the extent to which the discourse of universal human rights provides women in the local Iranian context with a valuable point of reference to advance the ongoing struggle for women’s empowerment. To address this question, the author begins broadly by questioning the commonly held view that human rights are a legacy of Western culture. An inquiry into the development of international standards in the second half of the twentieth century suggests that although Muslim actors were not the ‘main players’ in this process, nor were they passive spectators. Rather, members of Muslim communities – indeed Muslim women – have been active and impacting participants in the ongoing development of the human rights framework. The thesis then provides a more specific exploration of the strategic manoeuvres of the Iranian women’s movement. Through an analysis of the shifts that have taken place within the women’s movement over the course of Iran’s reform and post-reform years (1997–2003, and 2004–present), the author argues that the two conventional approaches to advancing women’s rights in Iran – Islamic feminism and secular feminism – carry significant practical limitations when carried out in mutual exclusivity. It appears, however, that women activists of both religious and secular orientations have recognised those limitations, and reformed their approaches accordingly. In the context of the Change for Equality Campaign, launched in August 2006, feminists of both secular and religious orientations are working together in a sustained and systematic attempt to advance mutual goals of non-discrimination. This paradigmatic shift, where practicality has trumped the maintenance of positional ideals, has taken place under a human rights banner. The aim of the Campaign, as defined by its members, is clear: to bring local laws on women into line with international standards on women’s rights and gender equality. The Iranian political landscape has thus witnessed the birth of something unique: a non-ideological form of feminism, wherein both secular and religious oriented women have identified a common point of reference in the discourse of universal women’s human rights. The author argues that this new form of feminism, expressed through the Change for Equality Campaign, is having a positive impact on both civil society and government, in a way that past approaches to advancing women’s rights were unable to achieve.