Genealogies of Iran’s Gender Politics: Technopolitical Space, Feminine Body, and Knowledge Hierarchies

Ata Heshmati
05/01/2023 | Reflections

In September 2022, following the brutal killing of Jina (Mahsa) Amini, a young Kurdish woman, numerous Iranian protesters fearlessly voiced their concerns about the unjust enforcement of the hijab, the oppression of women in both private and public spaces, and the violent marginalization of national minorities. This feminist uprising, known by its canonical slogan, #Woman_Life_Freedom, has exposed the shortcomings of Eurocentric theories concerning the nature of modern nation-states in the Middle East, particularly those downplaying the significance of intersectional gender politics and semi-colonial strategies for controlling the body, space, and labour in the making of an authoritarian state.

In this Backchannels post, I will share the historical findings of an ongoing project that traces the genealogy of gender politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). This gender politics attempts to segment technoscientific spaces rendering feminine bodies invisible and creating gender-based knowledge hierarchies in the labor market. Inspired by the Southern theorist Bandana Purkayastha, my understanding of “knowledge hierarchies” includes two interplaying layers. While the first layer refers to the hierarchy between the social-political theories generated by the Euro-American scholarship and those of the native scholars, the second layer highlights the attempts to place women in a lower-skilled knowledge-worker position due to their “physiological specifics” and heteronormative gender roles. I argue that to dismantle knowledge hierarchies in the former sense, we must take the knowledge hierarchies of the latter type more seriously.

This project presents a history of the emergence of technopolitical gender hierarchies in postrevolutionary Iran within three categories: space, body, and knowledge.

Segmenting the Space: Birth of a Control Society
In March 1980, in response to the rising popularity of leftist parties on the Iranian campuses after the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini urged for “bringing the Revolution to universities” and called it “the Cultural Revolution”. All universities and higher education institutes were shut down for three academic years from 1980 to 1983. This created an opportunity for Islamists to expel leftist dissidents and reshape women’s participation in technoscientific publics.

As Shahrzad Mojab showed[1], the state wanted to create a new form of governmentality and surveillance to control students’ bodily and social motions. To do so, Khomeini established a state-level organization called the Headquarters of the Cultural Revolution (HCR), appointing seven men as its central council. Among policies they pursued, such as revising curricula and organizing revolutionary science fairs, one was too provocative: The Islamization of Classrooms. It aimed to divide all academic spaces and scientific labs into male and female sections. On September 1982, the University Jehad, an HCR executive branch in the University of Ahwaz, released a press report announcing this revolutionary “innovation” accompanying a photographic instruction on how to install a curtain in the middle of a classroom. It argued that the benefit of this setting is that it increases the “efficiency” of learning for all students[2].
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Curtains within classrooms. This picture was attached to an instruction explaining how universities should separate rows of men from rows of women. [Image Source: Daneshgah-e Enghelab, no. 16: 66.]

Hijab, efficiency, and feminine body
As Jennifer Alexander argues, efficiency has always been a watchword for “Motion Control”, to be precise, bodily motion. Similarly, the revolutionary Islamists’ passion for intervening in the space soon turned into an unquenchable desire to reorient women’s bodies with this new Islamized space. A strict form of hijab became the only acceptable uniform for academic women. Gradually women were erased from any scientific public, including the HCR science fairs.

Meant initially to demonstrate the contrast between the earlier regime’s colonial science and the rising Islamic science, these science fairs became a platform for showcasing the idealist image of a true Muslim engineer, embodied in the form of a masculine body. Women, on the other hand, were only casually depicted as mothers, caregivers, nurses, and subjects of maternal reproductivity. This demonstrates the continuity of a nationalist-maternalist discourse from the Pahlavi era of the 1960s to the postrevolutionary period.
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Revolutionary science fairs on the anniversary of the establishment of the University Jehad. Notice how all participants in this illustration are male. In the center above the picture, there is a banner which reads "The soul and spirit of every revolution is the cultural revolution". [Image Source: Daneshgah-e Enghelab, 1983, no. 28: 12]

Inventing Knowledge Hierarchies: A Gendered Taxonomy of Sciences
Neither the dividing curtains nor the HCR’s science fairs lasted in the years that followed the Cultural Revolution though the idea behind such misogynistic aspirations persisted and metamorphosized into subtler admission policies. The idea was that women’s technical knowledge should be limited to certain fields compatible with women’s caring nature and physiological characteristics so that their work does not conflict with their motherhood duties.

Effective by November 1983, the HCR issued a bylaw in which women were banned from enrolling in or switching to the majors like petroleum refinery engineering, chemical engineering, [oil and] gas, manufacturing and production engineering, iron and steel production, foundry, non-ferrous metallurgy, mining, geology, veterinary sciences, and all agricultural fields except for rural crafting[3].

These prohibitions were accompanied by some limited provisions in the form of special quotas for female students in selected scientific and medical fields such as midwifery, nursing, laboratory sciences, public health, nutrition sciences, optometry, and physical therapy. In basic sciences, women were encouraged to go to physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology, disciplines deemed to require no physical strength.
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Image Source: Daneshgah-e San'ati Sharif (University as of the Revolution: Sharif University of Technology), Daneshgah-e Enghelab, no. 4 (1981): 29–34
Women Challenging Knowledge and Labortech Hierarchies
The most significant part of my project was to search for moments of resistance, resilience, and backlash from Women against these violent gendering strategies. For example, in December 1982, a group of women instructors of the school of agriculture at Tehran University, Karaj Campus, published an open letter in a widely-circulated newspaper to protest the HCR’s decision restricting women’s access to agricultural education. The authors mentioned the historic role of Iranian women in the agricultural industry as under-waged labor, capable of acquiring more sophisticated technical knowledge. They wondered:

Women in nomadic areas of Sistan and Balouchestan and northern parts of Iran undertake most drudges and the hardest jobs in farms. How come bending down all day long and standing knee-deep in water and mud to plant rice is considered plausible work for women, yet, when it comes to educational opportunities for technical knowledge for girls, there are hesitations about their ‘physical abilities’? This is the reason why the important issue of agricultural education for rural girls has always been postponed indefinitely[4].

Their reasoning faced severe reactions from the HCR’s officials. They accused women scientists of “Westoxification”, being deceived by the Western rhetoric of gender equality and neglecting the spirit of Islamic laws. The revolutionaries, ironically, situated their interpretation of what they perceived as the ‘true Islam’ based on biological and physiological differences between sexes.

Nature here became yet another familiar excuse for semi-colonial intervention and violation of women’s rights. “To make women’s work unnecessary,” the HCR responded brazenly, “we aim to let women be free of work to meet the duties of motherhood”. Though Iranian women have been challenging its technopolitical gender politics constantly, the IRI keeps exercising the aforementioned threefold strategies of motion control on space, body, and knowledge with quite the same level of crudeness and violence.

The threefold policies exercised on space, body, and knowledge, which I briefly described here, had one converging goal: to control the flow of the workforce, hence, to make women’s work predictable and governable. Studying the early Islamic Republic period from a Postcolonial-STS perspective can reveal how authoritarian states are more sophisticated than the Western-centric image of a fundamentalist regime fueled by medieval ideas about women. As I have briefly shown in this post, the IRI, both now and in its genesis, have internalized, theorized, and implemented a vast range of modern controlling policies and ideas rooted in secular and semi-colonialist ideologies that are designed to subjugate the marginalized. Women and people of national and religious minorities, however, have been challenging this ruling system reclaiming their rights in everyday life.


[1] Mojab, Shahrzad. The Islamic Government’s Policy on Women’s Access to Higher Education and Its Impact on the Socio-Economic Status of Women. East Lansing, Mich: Michigan State University, 1987.
[2] This announcement cited a passage from Morteza Motahari's The Question of Hijab, published in 1970: "If girls wear ordinary clothing, simple shoes, and chador in public gatherings, or put on a thorough set of coat and scarf while going to school and university, don't they study better in these conditions, compared with what we see nowadays?"
[3] As a consequence, while in 1983-84 AY, women were permitted to study in 50 out of 75 technical and engineering majors, by 1985-86, this ratio reversed, as women were barred from enrolling in 52 majors out of 74. In the Agriculture Group, though women could be admitted to 20 percent of all majors, only marginal majors with very few seats available. Out of 40 majors in basic sciences, too, six majors were closed to women in 1985-86. During the 1980s, women were barred from 80% of programs in agriculture, 70% in engineering, and 15% in basic sciences.
[4] 'Khatt-e Ertebati-e Ma Ba Shoma', Ettela'at, 15 December 1982.

Ata Heshmati is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST). His primary interests include Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the History of Technology, particularly around the issues of race, gender, and nationalism in the 20th-century Middle East.

Published: 05/01/2023