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How Did Women's Roles Change after the Revolutions in China and Iran?

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Woman after foot binding in Qing China

Chinese woman with bound feet on a chaise lounge, late Qing Era.

Library of Congress Prints and Photos/Carpenter Collection
Iranian women check voter IDs while wearing chador, Tehran, 2008.

Iranian women check voter IDs while wearing chador, Tehran, 2008.

Majid / Getty Images

During the twentieth century, both China and Iran underwent revolutions that significantly changed their social structures. In each case, the role of women in society also shifted enormously as a result of the revolutionary changes that took place - but the outcomes were quite different for Chinese and Iranian women.

Women in Pre-Revolutionary China:

During the late Qing Dynasty era in China, women were viewed as the property first of their birth families, and then of their husbands' families. They were not really family members - neither the birth family nor the marriage family recorded a woman's given name on the genealogical record. (Ng 374)

Women had no separate property rights, nor did they have parental rights over their children if they chose to leave their husbands. Many suffered extreme abuse at the hands of their spouses and in-laws. Throughout their lives, women were expected to obey their fathers, husbands, and sons in turn. (Ng 374)

Ethnic Han Chinese women of the middle and upper classes had their feet bound, as well, limiting their mobility and keeping them close to home. If a poor family wanted their daughter to be able to marry well, they might bind her feet when she was a small child.

Foot binding was excruciatingly painful; first, the girl's arch bones were broken, then the foot was tied with a long strip of cloth into the "lotus" position. Eventually, the foot would heal that way. A woman with bound feet could not work in the fields; thus, foot-binding was a boast on the family's part that they did not need to send their daughters out to work as farmers.

The Chinese Communist Revolution:

Although the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) and the Communist Revolution caused enormous suffering throughout the twentieth century, for women, the rise of communism resulted in a significant improvement in their social status. According to communist doctrine, all workers were supposed to be accorded equal worth, regardless of their gender.

With the collectivization of property, women were no longer at a disadvantage compared with their husbands. "One goal of revolutionary politics, according to the Communists, was women's liberation from the male-dominated system of private property." (Ip 334)

Of course, women from the property-owning class in China suffered humiliation and the loss of their status, just as their fathers and husbands did. However, the vast majority of Chinese women were peasants - and they gained social status, at least, if not material prosperity, in post-revolutionary Communist China.

Women in Pre-Revolutionary Iran:

In Iran under the Pahlavi shahs, improved educational opportunities and social standing for women formed one of the pillars of the "modernization" drive. During the nineteenth century, Russia and Britain vied for influence in Iran, bullying the weak Qajar state.

When the Pahlavi family took control, they sought to strengthen Iran by adopting certain "western" characteristics - including increased rights and opportunities for women. (Yeganeh 4)  Women could study, work, and under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's rule (1941 - 1979), even vote.  Primarily, though, women's education was intended to produce wise, helpful mothers and wives, rather than career women.

From the introduction of the new Constitution in 1925 until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranian women received free universal education and increased career opportunities. The government forbade women from wearing the chador, a head-to-toe covering preferred by highly religious women, even removing the veils by force. (Mir-Hosseini 41)

Under the shahs, women got jobs as government ministers, scientists, and judges. Women got the right to vote in 1963, and the Family Protection Laws of 1967 and 1973 protected women's right to divorce their husbands and to petition for custody of their children.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran:

Although women played an important role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, pouring out into the streets and helping to drive Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi out of power, they lost a considerable number of rights once the Ayatollah Khomeini took control of Iran.

Just after the revolution, the government decreed that all women had to wear the chador in public, including news anchors on television. Women who refused could face public whipping and prison time. (Mir-Hosseini 42) Rather than having to go to court, men could once more simply declare "I divorce you" three times to dissolve their marriages; women, meanwhile, lost all right to sue for divorce.

After Khomeini's death in 1989, some of the strictest interpretation of sharia law were lifted. (Mir-Hosseini 38) Women, particularly those in Tehran and other large cities, began to go out not in chador, but with a wisp of scarf (barely) covering their hair and with full makeup.

Nonetheless, women in Iran continue to face weaker rights today than they did in 1978. It takes the testimony of two women to equal the testimony of one man in court. Women accused of adultery have to prove their innocence, rather than the accuser proving their guilt, and if convicted they may be executed by stoning.

Conclusion:

The twentieth century revolutions in China and Iran had very different effects on women's rights in those countries. Women in China gained social status and value after the Communist Party took control; after the Islamic Revolution, women in Iran lost many of the rights they had gained under the Pahlavi shahs earlier in the century. Conditions for women in each country vary today, though, based upon where they live, what family they are born into, and how much education they have attained.

Sources:

Ip, Hung-Yok. "Fashioning Appearances: Feminine Beauty in Chinese Communist Revolutionary Culture," Modern China, Vol. 29, No. 3 (July 2003), 329-361.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. "The Conservative-Reformist Conflict over Women's Rights in Iran," International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Fall 2002), 37-53.

Ng, Vivien. "Sexual Abuse of Daughters-in-law in Qing China: Cases from the Xing'an Huilan," Feminist Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, 373-391.

Watson, Keith. "The Shah's White Revolution - Education and Reform in Iran," Comparative Education, Vol. 12, No. 1 (March 1976), 23-36.

Yeganeh, Nahid. "Women, Nationalism and Islam in Contemporary Political Discourse in Iran," Feminist Review, No. 44 (Summer 1993), 3-18.

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