Photograph: Flickr, TheLeon Vitali
This past January the sextremist group Femen protested in Paris against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani whilst he was visiting François Hollande, by staging a fake public hanging. They were denouncing the worsened situation of women’s rights in Iran and the dashed hopes its president implied to his Islamic Republic. Women’s conditions in Iran is not only an on-going issue; it has become a universal concern transcending Iran’s domestic borders.
Iranian women made significant progress during much of the 20th century. They gained the right to free education, access to employment, and achieved the right to vote in 1963. However in 1979, when Khomeini overthrew the Shah’s established monarchy and replaced it by an Islamic Republic, he prioritised Islamic tradition and restrained modernity. He replaced the Constitution of 1905, and rewrote the laws and rules affecting women’s rights: enforcement of full Islamic cover, retirement of government women employees, closing of childcare centres, and segregation of women. The revolution made women lose significant ground in the struggle for gender equality. Women lost most of the basic rights they fought for, and have tried to regain them ever since.
From a legal perspective, the gap between men’s and women’s rights within the Iranian family is massive. Women’s rights follow oppressive patriarchal principles. When the Islamic theocracy suspended the Family Protection Law adopted in 1965, women were put back at the mercy of men, needing their permission for most actions. Whilst restrictions on polygamy for males were removed, women could not divorce and lost the right to child custody. In 1981 the government applied the Law of Retribution, implying stoning, flogging, and serious physical abuse for crimes committed by women, from adultery to the violation of Islamic law. Morality police still patrol the streets to enforce Islamic law and ensure it is applied in public spaces. Since Rouhani’s election victory in 2013, 195 of the 230 members of parliament have demanded the enforcement of the full sharia dress code.
From a socio-economic and political perspective, the 1980s and 1990s were marked by great changes, such as the rising of the Iranian youth. Their demands were very moderate: to regain freedom of expression, sexuality, and basic rights. These entailed partying, wearing what they wished, and freely meeting with the opposite sex.
Economically, women’s conditions from the lower-class have evolved significantly after 1979, with better access to education, employment, and improved infrastructure. The improvement of socio-economic conditions has contributed to a form of homogenisation between men and women. The Iraq-Iran war allowed women to be drawn into the work force as nurses and doctors, gaining a better role in society. Rafsanjani’s years in the 1990s benefited women in their personal and legal status. He launched a successful family program to reduce the alarming fertility rate from 5.6 births per women in the early 1980s, to 2.0 in 2000. Iranian women started to engage in politics as candidates and their political status evolved significantly. In 1980, 4 women sat for the first time in parliament, increasing to 13 by 2004. Furthermore, in 1997 Masoumeh Ebtekar became the first female Vice President for the Environment under the Khatami presidency.
From 2005 to 2013, under Ahmadinejad, Iran suffered from serious oppression and violence. In 2008, the feminist magazine Zanan was shut down. Women were forced by the government to have more children, and they were subject to physical abuse when not conforming to the Islamic dress code. Moreover, in 2012, Ahmadinejad ended the efficient and beneficial Family Planning programme.
In 2013, Hassan Rouhani’s campaign promised more freedoms for women. Indeed, when elected he appointed many women as vice presidents and governors, albeit his actions were limited by the conservative majority in parliament. He also improved female conditions of living in urban centres and eased restrictions on women’s clothing. Furthermore, he released from prison many women activists, such as Nasrine Sotoudeh. However, many inequalities remain: the minimum age of marriage remains 13, polygamy is still allowed for men, and the deeply unfair Family Law has not yet been revisited.
Nevertheless, the digital age has allowed women to virtually engage against the government, with the Arab Spring uprisings spreading an air of hope for change. Many Iranian women have been emancipated from political invisibility and have denounced their country’s corruption and censorship through various mediums, such as the arts. As was the case with Marjane Satrapi – director of the film Persepolis –, the actress Golshifteh Farhani, and photographer Hengameh Golestan. All were witnesses of women’s fight for freedom during the revolution.
Rouhani has undeniably improved Iran’s diplomatic relations with the West. Hopefully Iran will benefit from the liberal principles of human rights, but from a domestic perspective, his measures on women’s rights have not yet been sufficient. The U.N.’s 2014 Gender Inequality Index ranked Iran 109th out of 152 countries – social changes are still long-awaited for Iran’s promising wonder.