Gender Studies

Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran

Minoo Moallem, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. 267 pages.

This book examines the construction of gender and patriarchy in Iran during the onset of modernity, the Islamic revolution of 1979, and the post-revolution era. Among the many works published by prominent scholars of Islam and Iranian women’s studies, Minoo Moallem’s investigation of the construction of gender by neo-colonial modernity and political movements of a nationalist or fundamentalist orientation deserves special attention.

Inspired by Michel Foucault as well as Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal, Moallem incorporates a post-modern and a transnational feminist approach by arguing that post-modernity should be used as a framework to study the growth of modernity (p. 20). Challenging the popular belief that fundamentalism is a return to the roots and early periods of a tradition or a culture, she finds it “in dialogue with modernity” (p. 13) and thus argues that the Islamic fundamentalism observed in the twentieth century is a postmodernization phenomenon; in her words, “a by-product of the process of modernization” (ibid.). Nevertheless, she does not actually consider fundamentalism to be a truly post-modern phenomenon, since it does not respect the “concept of difference,” as is the case with nationalism.

Moallem questions the stereotypes presented by the travelers and foreign diplomats of the late-eighteenth to early-twentieth centuries concerning the harem, the veil, women, and so on. She challenges their vantage point in creating “otherness” and portraying Islam as barbaric. Although many works deal with women, patriarchy, and the construction of gender under the Pahlavis, the author offers a new reading and shows how the two rulers’ forceful steps in the name of modernization and progress led to the establishment of a nation-state in which each individual – man or woman – was socialized to perform his/her role according to the “natural and social division of labour” (p. 74).

Her work is timely, especially now when Islamic fundamentalism is defined and analyzed by the politics of power through the global media. In the case or jihad, for instance, the author states that for fundamentalists, and more specifically in Ayatullah Khomeini’s view, there are two types of jihad: the major jihad (each Muslim’s effort to follow Allah’s path and resist personal temptations) and the lesser jihad (the revolt against “taghut [idolatry])” (p. 100). But she fails to mention that Khomeini derived his view from Qur’an 22:78, 29:6 and 69, and 2:190-91, respectively.

The author examines the contribution of popular culture and Shi`ite ritual to the construction of revolutionary gendered individuals – sisters and brothers. She deconstructs the role of these factors in the revolution’s success and the subsequent establishment of an Islamic nation-state (ummah) with the warrior brothers and veiled sisters.What makes her work unique is her portrayal of how culture (i.e., such rituals as Syavashun [Siavash’s mourning]) and religion (i.e., rituals of Muharam and Imam Husain’s martyrdom) contribute to constructing gender identity. Moreover, she clearly demonstrates the relationship of these constructed gender identities with sexuality and martyrdom as well as with what is considered masculine and feminine. Moallem argues that although many women and men were willing to die for the revolution’s success as it was unfolding, and although such enthusiasm knew no gender, after its success “martyrdom” became a symbol of masculinity while women were relegated to the roles of a martyr’s mother, sister, or wife (pp. 106-07).

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