Dialogue Series, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Social Change in Post-Khomeini Iran Working Group II

Social Change in Post-Khomeini Iran Working Group II

On March 16–17, 2013, CIRS held a second working group to conclude its research initiative on “Social Change in Post-Khomeini Iran.” Experts and scholars from various multidisciplinary backgrounds reconvened in Doha to discuss their research findings and garner feedback on their individual paper submissions based on original areas of research that were discussed in the first working group meeting.

Scholars began the discussion by problematizing conventional theories of territorial nationalism and assessing the evolving dynamisms of nationalism within the Islamic Republic. The infusion of national identity and religion in weaving national consciousness has been used by various leaders in the post-Khomeini era to develop particular ideologies amongst their constituents and mobilize support for their respective policies. However, elements of national identity and religiosity in conceiving nationalism do not manifest themselves uniformly across Iran and may differ according to overlapping identity formations such as socio-economic status and ethnicity.

While discussing the theory and practice of human rights in the Iran, participants addressed the increasing politicization of rights terminology. In the wake of the 2009 Green Movement, protesters were indicted on the basis of using the human rights discourse to further their cause. More recently, political leaders have bestowed a veneer of legitimacy to the term “basic rights” to counteract the seemingly westernized “human rights” discourse. The extent to which the Iranian concept of “basic rights” encompasses elements of the universally defined normative notions of human rights was a contested issue during the meeting. Scholars further addressed the degree to which individual actors, domestic forces and systematic geo-political relations serve to undermine or further the trajectory of human rights development in Iranian private and public life. Within this dialogue, participants paid particular attention to the rights of women in Iran. The depiction of women as agents of social rehabilitation by religious leaders in the Islamic Republic has manifested itself in the disproportionate penalties for women in criminal law. Changes to the laws of hudud and qisas, which incorporate elements of gender disparity, reveal the state’s efforts to morally sanction women in Iran. While these laws may be reflective of the state’s central policy, Iran’s hybrid legal system and clerical judicial structure complicates the matter of localized implementation. Current public debates on the disproportionate diya and the ensuing advocacy by some legal scholars and leading Ulama alike for the equal compensation of women reflects a broader change within Iranian society where a woman’s contribution and worth to a family is considered to be equivalent to that of men.

The change of women’s status in society is central to the transformation of the Iranian family in the post-Khomeini era. The demographic transition of Iran indicates that declining fertility rates are associated with increased investment in children’s education. As such, a rise in schooling has narrowed the gender education gap and transformed the average Iranian family into a less constrained, pro-growth family, where the improved bargaining position of women within the household is accompanied with augmented investment in human capital. While on average women in urban Iran tend to be more educated than their male counterparts, the most dramatic family transformations have taken place in rural Iran.

As gender relations are being negotiated in the household, women writers have also progressively revisited the Iranian family structure in their literary works. Notions of women’s single commitment to motherhood are questioned, and issues such as adoption are being addressed in Iranian literary works for the first time. A central theme in women’s literature is the issue of space and mobility, where women perceive themselves as prisoners of sex-segregated spaces. The range of issues that both explicitly and subtly question the state’s uni-dimensional vision of women as vanguards of the moral public order are not only pursued by elite Iranian women as was the case pre-revolution, but have increasingly been produced and consumed by women of various ideological and socio-economic backgrounds in the contemporary period.

Transformations in other forms of cultural production such as indigenous pop-music and Iranian films were also discussed by the contributors. While the post-revolutionary government regarded music as one of the most contested art-forms, pop-music faced heightened constraints in making it to the Iranian public scene due to the pre-revolutionary, Westernized connotations associated with the genre. In contemporary Iran there has been a gradual revival and state-sanctioning of pop-music. This shift has also been accompanied by an evolution in the form and content of music, which progressively no longer needs to be heavily defined along Islamic themes.

Post-modern cinema, as exemplified in Iranian art-house cinema, has also gained both local and global recognition. While a state ban on cinema does not exist in contemporary Iran, distribution and screening of films is usually done in private spaces, abroad or on the internet. In the midst of a highly securitized international mainstream media debate on the Islamic Republic, the simple and humanist content of Iranian films has enabled art-house cinema to provide social and cultural insight on contemporary Iran.

The ramifications of political relations between the U.S. and Iran on the experiences of Iranian immigrants in the U.S. were also tackled. Due to the hostile political environment that followed the Iran hostage crisis, first generation Iranian immigrants in the U.S. faced difficulty in assimilating and participating in American politics. Second generation Iranians, however, have woven themselves a new identity that binds their Iranian heritage and roots with an American civic identity. Increasingly, the Iranian diaspora and American-Iranians in particular are serving as cultural conduits between Iran and the U.S., affecting developments both in the home and host states.

The transition of the Iranian family into a modern pro-growth family mirrors the transformation of Iran’s economic landscape from a government-run war economy to a diverse growth economy. Within this larger phenomenon, scholars discussed the role of corporate Iran. Key factors such as privatization, subsidy reform and the imposition of external sanctions have shaped the corporate sector. While the privatization process has meant that the government no longer plays the dominating role in corporate Iran, the beneficiaries of these processes have mainly been semi-state institutions and individuals with access to government networks and assets. Within Iran, the genuine and independent private sector has become more commercially oriented, is providing the majority of employment opportunities in the job market, and is exhibiting increased professionalism. However, the presence of parastatal institutions limits Iran’s competitive environment. In the first decade of the revolution, quasi-governmental organizations such as the bonyads were political entities responsible for charitable dispensation to lower class constituencies which could accordingly allow them to mobilize support for the regime. The post-Khomeini era, however, has brought about the evolution of the bonyads into robust political and economic entities that act as parallel institutions to the state. Their transition into profitable enterprises that account for a third of Iran’s economy, has stifled competition and has increasingly crowded out the independent private sector.

At the culmination of this research initiative, the various topics and chapters submitted by the contributors will be compiled into a comprehensive edited volume on contemporary Iranian society.



Participants and Discussants:

Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarNerida Child Dimasi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarManochehr Dorraj, Texas Christian UniversityBarbara Gillis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarManata Hashemi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarBijan Khajehpour, Atieh InternationalMehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarFarzaneh Milani, University of VirginiaSuzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMansoor Moaddel, Eastern Michigan UniversityMohsen M. Mobasher, University of Houston-DowntownMahmood Monshipouri, San Francisco State UniversityRogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarHamid Naficy, Northwestern UniversityArzoo Osanloo, University of WashingtonDwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarDjavad Salehi-Isfahani, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityNahid Siamdoust, University of OxfordNadia Talpur, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarLuciano Zaccara, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMehdi Zakerian, Islamic Azad University


Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS