Women in Iran


Women in Iran want
equality, respect, and the right to participate in all social, political, and economic
activities. They want to live their lives productively and with dignity. Throughout the
20th Century Iranian women have organized and fought for human and political rights, from
the Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the century to the democratic movement that
overthrew the Shah of Iran.

Iranian women were
strong participants in the 1979 revolution, but fundamentalists, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, seized control after the revolution. Once in power, the fundamentalists betrayed
the work of women by implementing a crushing system of gender apartheid. Fundamentalists
built their theocracy on the premise that women are physically, intellectually, and
morally inferior to men, which eclipses the possibility of equal participation in any area
of social or political activity. Biological determinism prescribes women’s roles and
duties to be child bearing and care taking, and providing comfort and satisfaction to

Men were granted
the power to make all family decisions, including the movement of women and custody of the
children. “Your wife, who is your possession, is in fact, your slave,” is the
mullah’s legal view of women’s status. The misogyny of the mullahs made women
the embodiment of sexual seduction and vice. To protect the sexual morality of society,
women had to be covered and banned from engaging in “immodest” activity.

Based on these
woman-hating principles, Khomeini and his followers crafted laws and policies that are
still in effect. The hejab, or dress code, is mandatory in all public places for all
women. Women must cover their hair and body except for their face and hands and they must
not use cosmetics. Punishments range from a verbal reprimand to 74 lashes with a whip to
imprisonment for one month to a year. Stoning to death is a legal form of punishment for
sexual misconduct. Women are banned from pursuing higher education in 91 of 169 fields of
study and must be taught insegregated classrooms<C5,5,0,0,0,255>. A woman may work
with her husband’s permission, although many occupations are forbidden to women.

The legal age at
which girls can be married is 9 years (formerly 18 years). Polygamy is legal, with men
permitted to have four wives and an unlimited number of temporary wives. Women are not
permitted to travel or acquire a passport without their husband’s written permission.
A woman is not permitted to be in the company of a man who is not her husband or a male
relative. Public activities are segregated. Women are not allowed to engage in sports in
which they may be seen by men; or permitted to watch men’s sports in which men’s
legs are not fully covered.

Although these laws
were implemented with great brutality, women have always resisted. Recently in Iran there
have been signs that women are increasingly rejecting subordinate lives ruled by the
mullahs. Women have campaigned for inheritance rights equal to men’s and for more
rights to custody of their children. Women keep modifying or enhancing their public dress
in ways that press the limits of the hejab. More publications by or about women are
appearing. Women are demanding they be allowed to participate in and view sports events.

Some analysts have
said that the election of Mohammed Khatami as president was due to the votes of women. No
doubt Khatami’s upset election a year ago gained him the label of “moderate,”
and raised expectations of people inside and outside of Iran.

There is a widely
held view that Khatami supports the rights of women, but his statements and appointments
don’t validate that view. Prior to his election Khatami said, “One of the West’s
most serious mistakes was the emancipation of women, which led to the disintegration of
families. Staying at home does not mean marginalization. Being a housewife does not
prevent a woman from having a role in the destiny of her people. We should not think that
social activity means working outside the home. Housekeeping is among one of the most
important jobs.”

Under Khatami’s
leadership the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution decided not to sign the United
Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
(CEDAW), the most important international agreement on the rights of women. An
international study comparing workforce conditions for women around the world ranked Iran
108 out of 110. In urban areas women make up only 9.5 percent of the workforce, and in
rural areas the percent is 8.8 percent. Even Khatami’s advisor on women’s
affairs acknowledged that there is discrimination in employment and promotion against
women in government offices: “Some officials are of the opinion that men have more of
a role in running the family, so they favor the men.”

advisor on women’s affairs, Zahra Shoja’l, says she is an advocate of women’s
rights, but all within a fundamentalist defined Islamic context. She defends the
restrictive and symbolically oppressive hejab, calling the chador “the superior
national dress of the women of Iran.”

highly publicized woman appointment is Massoumeh Ebtekar, vice-president for Environmental
Protection. She has a long association with the fundamentalists: after the Islamic
Revolution in 1979 she was spokesperson for the hostage takers who captured the U.S.
embassy in Tehran. She does not favor loosening restrictions on women that would give them
more personal freedom or stop the most barbaric institutionalized violence against women.
She supports the law that requires women to get their husband’s permission to travel.
She justifies this law by saying, “Man is responsible for the financial affairs and
safety of the family. Thus, a woman needs her husband’s permission to make a trip.
Otherwise problems will arise and lead to quarrels between them.” She also defends
stoning women to death by saying, “One should take psychological and legal affairs of
the society into consideration as well. If the regular rules of family are broken, it
would result in many complicated and grave consequences for all of the society.”

Since Khatami was
not the hard-line mullahs’ favored candidate for presidency, his election has created
factions within the Iranian government. A power struggle has ensued, but this is not an
ideological fight between those loyal to religious fundamentalists and proponents of
secular democracy. All sides, including Khatami, are committed to a theocracy based on velayat-e-fahiq—the
absolute supremacy of the mullahs.

Women’s public
clothing continues to obsess the mullahs. In the last year, the Martyr Ghodusi Judicial
Center, a main branch of the judiciary, issued a stricter hejab, or dress code. The new
guidelines call for prison terms from 3 months to 1 year or fines and up to 74 lashes with
a whip for wearing “modish outfits, such as suits and skirt without a long overcoat
on top.” The regulations ban any mini or short-sleeved overcoat, and the wearing of
any “depraved, showy and glittery object on hats, necklaces, earring, belts,
bracelets, glasses, headbands, rings, neckscarfs and ties.”

Women continue to
be arrested for improper veiling. In November, an Agence France Presse correspondent in
Tehran witnessed approximately ten young women being arrested and placed into a patrol car
for improper veiling or wearing clothing that did not conform to Islamic regulations. The
women were wearing colorful headscarves and light makeup. In late July, the Tehran police
arrested a number of young women who failed to conform to the strict dress code. They were
boarded on minibuses and taken to a center for fighting “social corruption.”
Most of the women were wearing makeup or in the company of young males who were not
related to them.

fundamentalist’s interpretation of Islamic texts, women are banned from being judges
because they are not considered capable of making important decisions. One of the claims
of moderation in Iran is the appointment of women as judges, but in reality no women are
allowed this rank. Judiciary Chief Yazdi recently made the issue clear in his Friday
prayers sermon: “The women judges I mentioned hold positions in the judiciary, they
receive salaries, they attend trials, they provide counsel, but they do not preside over
trials and or issue verdicts.”

In the past year,
women’s groups campaigned for a bill that would give women the same inheritance
rights as men, but Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the bill saying the proposal was
contrary to Islamic law, which stipulates that a woman’s share may only be one half
that of a man’s.

Women made a small
gain by getting Parliament to pass a law that granted women some custody rights to
children after a divorce, but only if the father was determined to be a drug addict, an
alcoholic, or “morally corrupt.”

New laws
strengthening gender apartheid and repression of women are not a thing of the past. During
the last year Parliament and other religious leaders proposed a number of new laws and
policies that will adversely effect the health, education, and well being of women and
girl children in Iran.

Temporary marriage,
in which a man can marry a woman for a limited period of time, even one hour, in exchange
for money, is permitted in Iran. Earlier this year, Ayatollah Haeri Shirazi, a prominent
religious leader called for a revival of this practice so clerical officials could have
religious sanctioned sexual relationships with women. This practice is an approved form of
sexual exploitation of women and allows the regime to have an official network of

A new law approved
by Parliament imposes more restrictions on the photographs of women that can be published
in newspapers and magazines. The Iranian state television announced on August 1 a decision
by the Justice Department in Tehran to shut down a newspaper and put its proprietor on
trial. One of the charges leveled against the publication, Khaneh, was that it had
published “obscene” photographs of women playing football.

deputies submitted a plan to make girls’ schools a “no-male zone,” which
will require all teachers and staff to be women. This requirement will make education for
girls even more inaccessible and difficult. Official statistics recently released reveal
that 90 percent of girls in rural districts drop-out of school.

More ominously, the
Parliament also approved a law prohibiting the discussion of women’s issues or rights
outside the interpretation of Shari’a (Islamic law) established by the ruling

In early July 1998,
Mohsen Saidzadeh, a cleric, was arrested after writing articles that opposed these bills.
He said that laws that deprive women of their rights are based on incorrect
interpretations of the Koran. So freedom to criticize the government position on the
rights of women does not exist even for fellow mullahs.

In some Western
writings Khatami is said to have given new freedoms to the press, but the experience of
publishers is contrary to that claim. In February, the newspaper Jameah started to
publish articles critical of the government, color photographs of smiling women harvesting
wheat, and an interview with a former prisoner. By June a court revoked their license.
Also, police filed charges against Zanan, a monthly women’s magazine, for
“insulting” the police force by publishing an article on the problems women face
with the authorities on Iranian beaches, which are segregated by sex.

Although Khatami is
the president of Iran, he is not the supreme spiritual leader, the most powerful position
in Iran. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, controls the armed forces, the
police, the security and intelligence services, radio and television, and the judicial
system. The velayat-e-fahiq is a serious impediment to any reforms that may benefit
women or society at large. Ayatollah Khamenei’s opinion of women and their place in
society is the same as his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini’s: women should be wives
and mothers. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly stated: “The real
value of a woman is measured by how much she makes the family environment for her husband
and children like a paradise.” In July 1997 Ayatollah Khamenei said that the idea of
women’s equal participation in society was “negative, primitive and childish.”

There is no
moderation in Iran. Both the UN special rapportuer and the U.S. state department found
that there was no improvement in human rights in Iran since Khatami took office. The
Iranian government engaged in summary executions, extra-judicial killings, disappearances,
and widespread use of torture. The hard-line mullahs will not lift the severe restrictions
on women; in fact, they favor stronger gender apartheid. Khatami, although not aligned
with the hard-liners, does not support the empowerment and emancipation of women from the velayat-e-fahiq
 or supreme rule of the mullahs. If the
women in Iran want the rights and freedoms they deserve they will have to look elsewhere
for change.


Donna M. Hughes is director of the Women’s Studies
Program at the University of Rhode Island.