A comparative perspective toward women’s voting right between Scandinavian and Middle Eastern countries - with a focus in Iran
The term women suffrage refers to women’s right to vote by law in national and local elections. Great social and economical movements were conducted by British women due to take the suffrage law and establish it as a legal right in the parliament. One of the earliest advocators in Britain was John Stuart Mill whose subjection of women (in 1869) was established as one of the pioneering works of that time. The first woman suffrage committee was formed in Manchester in 1865. One year later, Mill presented to Parliament this society’s petition, which demanded the vote for women and contained about 1,550 signatures.
On the other hand, United State is commonly known as the women’s suffrage origin in 1820s, while New Zealand is credited as the first country by which women got the right to vote; (Campbell 1966) even Corsican Republic, sometimes, is considered as one of the first countries to grant female suffrage in 1788. Thus, one can claim that different countries and locals in the world, obviously, experienced such a movement at various times. With these historical points, as a woman who lived in Iran for most of her life and graduated from Law, I want to point to some social, historic and legal improvements and difficulties toward the women suffrage matter in the Middle Eastern countries and compare them to the situation in Scandinavian countries. Iran will be my ultimate focus as one of the problematic countries over women issues.
Regarding this comparison between these two geographic regions, what can we grasp from the conclusion and what are the roots which make these two regions so different and even oppose to each other? And at the end to what extent, regarding this issue, we are able to improve the status quo conditions of countries like Iran?
• Women in Scandinavian countries
In this part I will, shortly represent some historical facts and points regarding women’s voting rights in some Scandinavian countries as well as giving some reasons to the improvement process in these countries. According to Dictionary of World History The first European nation to grant female suffrage was Finland in 1906, with Norway following in 1913. Sulkunen states that Finland’s thoroughgoing parliamentary reforms gave all adult men and women not only universal and equal suffrage, but also the full right to stand for elective office. In her analytical article looking for the reasons for the early enactment of voting rights in Finland and modern Finnish democracy, she points to some factors about the country’s overall cultural mould and how relations between the sexes were constituted in the field of conflicting pressures between a strong nationalist tendency, traditional agrarianism, and the democratization of social life. “No real place was left over for women’s issues per se, yet women were very visibly present in all reform-oriented activity. With the notable exception of the upper social classes, women also did not really perceive their social and political rights to be at odds with the rights of men in their own class. On the contrary, they considered themselves to be largely on an equal footing, seeing men as comrades and allies in the struggle to win a better life for all socially, politically and judicially downtrodden people.” (2000) Later in her article, she claims that the issue of voting rights thus did not offer a basis for the spreading of a conflict between the sexes in Finland. “Instead, it produced fertile ground for a snowballing socialist movement of which the Social Democratic Party, formed in 1899, took advantage.” Already by the mid-1890s, the workers’ movement together with the worker-led temperance movement had expressed its support for universal and equal suffrage for men and women. Their programme, which also included the demand for prohibition, was launched with panache amongst the masses during the so-called oppression years. In the year 1906 Finland made an almost revolutionary leap from having one of Europe’s most archaic systems of representation to having one of the most radical ones. As a result, all adult women in Finland were the first in Europe to receive full rights of representation. (ibid:2000)
Claréus believes that there are some clear evidences of the influence of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s giving rise to an increasing range of concerns and styles among Scandinavian women. (1989)
According to Greg Hurrell, the battle for equal rights in Norway started in the Nineteenth century with the formation of feminist organizations. Struggle to get suffrage right was one on their earliest demands. In 1885 the female suffrage union (Kvindestemmeretsforeningen) was established. (1998) Blom claimed that the primary obstacle to obtaining voting rights for women was that constitutional reform could only be achieved through men, and therefore the champions of the feminist cause had to exercise their influence by means of petitions, demonstrations, publications and through their own husbands and male colleagues who were affiliated with political parties. Despite the difficulty of this task, Norwegian women succeeded many years in advance of most other European countries, (e.g. even those of feminists in Britain) mainly, due to their non-militant, cooperative methods, which on the whole sought to emphasis that the suffrage struggle was not a 'conflict between the sexes', but rather that women were mature and interested enough to take on the vote, and play an active, supportive role in shaping society. (1980: 8-14)
In Sweden, the campaigns for women’s suffrage had been slow to get under way and also lacked the radicalism that had come to mark the campaigns in the other Scandinavian countries. The association for women’s suffrage, föreningen för kvinnans politiska rösträtt, was founded in 1902 and became a national organization in 1903; in ten years the membership of the organization climbed to around 17,000. The association published a newspaper, Rösträtt för kvinnor (votes for women), arranged public meetings, and also supported the production of plays on the topic of votes for women. Members worked on converting liberal and social democrat members of parliament to their cause, and as early as 1909 there was a majority for women’s suffrage in the Second Chamber. Swedish women were finally granted the right to vote in national elections in 1919. By 1921, four out of the 230 members of Second Chamber were women, and in 1924, the first woman took her seat among 149 male colleagues in the First Chamber. (Forsas-Scott 1997:28)
As I mentioned above, Scandinavian countries experiences women’s movements and the demand to get as equal rights as men in various times. Roughly speaking, the current women’s conditions in these countries, regardless to the historical events, represent a highly developed situation in which women achieved equal rights; they, even are considered as a roll model for many other countries. In the following part, I will go through the history of another geographical region, known as Middle East, to examine the events, developments and obstacles confronting women’s activists.
• Women in Middle Eastern countries
There has been a continuous struggle between defenders of Islam and critics upon women issues. Advocators of Islamic rights claim that the law of creation has so ordained that both man and woman seek, and are interested in each other. But their relationship is not of that nature which they have with other possessions; that relationship emerges from selfishness. They want to possess things for their own use, and look on them as the means of their comfort. But, the relationship between man and woman means that each one of them wants the comfort and happiness of the other, and enjoys making sacrifices for the sake of the other. (Motaharri 199u) The idea stands against European point of view that want to compare genders, since in Islamic thoughts the nature of creation of man and woman is as different that makes any comparison impossible. One can claim that there’s now an almost universally held belief that most women in Islamic societies face wretched persecution and that Islam itself is wholly to blame. Joshua Holland, as a denial of this idea believes that there is no empirical data to suggest that an Islamic majority itself correlates with the subordination of women better than other co-variables like economic development, women’s ability to serve in government, a political culture that values the rule of law or access to higher education. (2008) However, the matter of women’s suffrage seems quite absent from academic works of these countries.
In many countries in the region, women's right to vote, to acquire an identity card or passport, to marry, to work, or to travel is granted only with the consent of a spouse or other male family member. Most of the countries -with the exception of Iran, Tunisia, Israel, and to a limited extent Egypt- have permitted only fathers to pass citizenship on to their children. Women married to non-nationals are denied this fundamental right. One significant point we should take into account is that the social and cultural situations of these countries should not be considered as the same as well as their women’s social situations. There is a great distinction -which is ignored in most cases, between these people naming Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Persians, Afghans, Pakistani, etc. all these names connote to a specific culture and attitude toward women, e.g. in Saudi Arabia, one of the most male-dominant countries, there is No suffrage for women. In 2003, 300 Saudi women signed a petition calling on the country's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, to recognize their legal and civil rights. The first local elections ever held in the country occurred in 2005. Women were not given the right to vote or to stand for election. On the contrary, Turkey has provided a better situation for women and granted women to vote in the same time of many pioneer countries. Burcak Keskin writes that Turkish women entered parliament in 1934 but the number of female MPs has decreased in time. In the early Republic, Ataturk was facing accusations of dictatorship. In order to eliminate this undemocratic image, women's suffrage was granted in 1934. During the one-party regime women had secured their place in the parliament. (Keskin 1997) in Pakistan, as an example, full suffrage for women was introduced in national election in 1956. So my point, besides introducing some historical facts about voting rights in Middle East was that the different cultural and social backgrounds of these regional countries should make us to be more precise about the various ethnicities and people live there. In the following part, the condition of women’s suffrage in Iran, as a country located in this region will be examined.
• Women in Iran
First there is a need to present some snapshot about Iranian women movement during last century. Women's NGOs and movement were very active in Tehran and other major cities during 1920-1930. These NGOs finance schools, health clinics for women and cultural activities. In 1934, following secular ideological plans, Reza Shah banned the veil. Women's suffrage became a burning issue in Iran during the 1940s and early 1950s. Mossadeq, Iran's popular prime minister at that time, was then in the midst of a fight with the United States and England over nationalization of Iran's oil industry. But it was Mossadeq's social reforms, including his support for women's suffrage that contributed to the break up of his coalition from within when the leading clerics withdrew their support. (Afary 2004) 'In 1963, the Shah granted female suffrage and soon after women were elected to the Majlis (the parliament) and the upper house, and appointed as judges and ministers in the cabinet. In 1967 Iranian family law was also reformed to improve the position of women in Iranian society which was the most progressive family law in the Middle East.
After granting some of these equal rights legislation in the 70s, all these gains were replaced when the revolutionary government came to power in 1979. Women were eliminated from all decision-making positions within the government, dress requirements were enforced, and women’s organizations were declared corrupt and disbanded. The future looks brighter today. A growing urban, middle class is making some progress by situating women’s rights within the cultural framework of Iran, and noting that in order to modernize, Iran must improve the status of women.
But governmental authorities try to give clear statistics over women participation in policy and in the society. In Chronology of Events Regarding Women in Iran since the Revolution of 1979, they have declared many important dates e.g. four women are elected to the First Majles (1980-1984. These female Majles representatives were elected for ideological reasons. Even though they lack higher education, they are proficient in the Quran and religious matters. (Ghetanchi 2000)
Shirin Ebadi, winner of the peace Nobel in 2003 believes that laws in Iran institutionalize prejudice and support men. The law looks down on Iranian women - literally with a male face. Since the 1979 Revolution Iranian women have been forbidden from serving as judges. In Iran a woman’s evidence in court is worth half that of a man and some similar unjust laws. (2008) I have to point to current great movement of Iranian women in the name of ‘Campaign for Equality’ by which many women activists and feminists try to get a million signatures on a petition calling for an end to discriminatory laws.
• Ending point
In this paper, I tried to point to some factual events over women’s significant movements and particularly women suffrage within the last century in two different geographical regions, Scandinavian countries and Middle Eastern nations. Both regions experienced women’s resistance against unequal laws and their endeavour to get a very ordinary right, suffrage. Although the quality of these movements was different, the target and the demand were the same. Women’s movement in the Middle East was started later and has confronted some serious obstacles which root in the history, culture, religion, traditions, beliefs, etc. I believe that in the study of these countries, in order to get some proper outcomes, one should explicitly distinguish them by their various nations, races, ethnicities, languages, etc. As I mentioned earlier, in the case of Iran women experienced different and even conflicting periods within the last century. I think two factors play the most important roles to prolong women activities, one is the way these nations identify women and the other is the great power of current authorities which stop women’s activities in different ways. It seems that women still are looked inferior to men, so involvement in political matters is not considered as their business. For me as a person who lived in this country, women’s movement may be regarded as the most effective social trend in today’s Iranian society; and despite all the problems and uneven conditions, women have come up with their rights and powers to change the current situation.
# Afary Janet, Seeking a Feminist Politics for the Middle East after September 11, Frontiers, 2004, P 3, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3687/is_200401/ai_n9370015/pg_3?tag=untagged
# Blom, Ida, 'The Struggle for Women's Suffrage in Norway, 1885-1913', Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 5, 1980,
# Claréus Ingrid, 1989, Scandinavian women writers (An Anthology from the 1880s to the 1980s), Greenwood press.
# Colin Campbell Aikman, ‘History, Constitutional’ in McLintock, A.H. (ed), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 3 vols, Wellington, NZ:R.E. Owen, Government Printer, 1966, vol 2, pp.67-75.
# Ebadi Shirin, SUFFERING AND SUFFRAGE IN IRAN, 2008, HTTP://WWW.ALMENDRON.COM/TRIBUNA/INDEX.PHP/19046/SUFFERING-AND-SUFFRAGE-IN-IRAN
Forsas-Scott Helena, 1997, Swedish women’s writing, 1850- 1995 Women in Context. London: Athlone Press, 1997. Pp. xii + 333. The Women in Context series edi.
# Greg Hurrell, Henrik Ibsen, Frederika Bremer, Marie Michelet and the emancipation of women in Norway, Vol 2 1998 – Online Article, http://www.socsci.flinders.edu.au/scanlink/nornotes/vol2/articles/hurrell.html
# Gheytanchi Elham, 2000, Chronology of Events Regarding Women in Iran since the Revolution of 1979. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2267/is_2_67/ai_63787338
# Holland Joshua, 2008, Is Islam Really Stuck in the 12th Century on Women’s Rights?, Moderate Observer (Collection of News & Opinion articles.) http://moderate.wordpress.com/2008/03/08/is-islam-really-stuck-in-the-12th-century-on-womens-rights/
# Keskin Burcak, 1997, POLITICAL PARTICIPATION PATTERNS OF TURKISH WOMEN , Middle East Review Of International Affairs (MERIA) MERIA JOURNAL, online article http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/womtur~1.htm
# Lewis Jone Johnson, "Woman suffrage," Collier's New Encyclopedia, X (New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1921), pp. 403-405.
# Sulkunen Irma, Finland- A pioneer in Women’s Rights, VIRTUAL FINLAND website, online article http://virtual.finland.fi/netcomm/news/showarticle.asp?intNWSAID=25734
# Wikipedia, Women’s suffrage, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women's_suffrage
The author can be reached at: Negarniknam@legalserviceindia.com