The Women of…Iran | Sarah Stook

Part 1 of The Women of… Series


Formerly known was Persia; Iran is one of the most historical places in the world. Its literature, art and culture are known around the world for its decadence and beauty, its civilization being one of the oldest in the world. It has known Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great, as well as numerous empires, one of which- under Nader Shah- was arguably the most powerful of its day. In the current day, Iran enjoys an educated workforce and money from its oil rich lands.


It’s not a place exactly known for women’s equality. If one was asked which countries are worst for women, Iran would be quickly whittled off, along with other gender paradises such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Formally an Islamic Republic, women enjoyed a generally good degree of gender equality under Mohammad Reza Shah (he reversed the ban on veils his father had started and allowed women to pursue any career they wished under other reforms). Unfortunately for them, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 reversed all of this. Yes, a number of women supported the Ayatollah Khomeini, especially those who disliked the monarchy and were more traditional in their religious beliefs, but that does not mean he was a helper of women. Like his successor, the Ayatollah was hardly a fan of religious equality, something we will look at more.

A large number of women fought against the Shah during the Revolution, but we must distinguish between the women who were arguing for Khomeini and those who were simply against the monarchy. We must remember that whilst women gained an education and many rights under the Shah, it is important to note that they would not just support him because of this. The Shah’s father had been helped into power by the United Kingdom and the United States, against the democratically elected government. He was, to put it lightly, a dictator who threw lavish events and whose secular, modernising reforms drew the ire of many. The rich weren’t all enamoured with him, and his decadence angered the poor, especially when he threw an extremely expensive event for the anniversary of Iran’s founding. The Shah may have modernised the country through the White Revolution, but it was the Islamic Revolution that provided his undoing.

Firstly, as an Islamic Republic, it is unsurprising that its legislation and constitution is based upon Sharia law. Sharia law is somewhat controversial in its allowances for women- so much so that many decry its unfairness when men receive twice as much blood money or the rare cases of polygamy. By understanding its legal system, we can firstly understand the de jure situation of women and in a place like Iran, which is heavily policed, the de facto situation of women will not be far off.

To start with, we have the modesty laws that are applied to Iranian women (and men). Though the term hijab is often associated with the headscarves that women wear, it is technically the name of the partition between men and women in the Quran, and also a name for modesty of dress in general, but for the purposes of this article, it will be for the headscarf. In Iran, a woman must wear a hijab- Muslim or non Muslim, Iranian or foreigner, it’s mandatory. Interestingly, this is not the case in Saudi Arabia- female visitors or workers who do not follow Islam do not legally have to wear the hijab, though it may be insisted upon. This has been law since the first Ayatollah and remains so to this day. Even though the new President is a modernizer, the law still rests on the many conservative clerics, legislators and, of course, the current Ayatollah Khamenei. Unfortunately, there seems to be no movement in that direction, especially since Khamenei is a very conservative gentleman (he believes that gender equality is a ‘Zionist Plot’- yes, I know, this guy is in charge of a country). If you follow the news, you may be familiar with the case of Dora Derakhshani, who was banned from playing chess for Iran because she refused to wear a hijab. Ms. Derakhshani will now play for the USA, where she has now moved to. So, yes, that’s where they are. I believe that the first Shah was wrong for banning veils, and I believe that this government is wrong for forcing it upon them. A woman should not be dictated to by men whom she did not even elect, especially about what she wears- because at the end of the day, a number will be covering up for themselves and Allah (and let them if they wish), but a number will be covering up for the government.

If one wants an understanding of this, I’d suggest you try Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi was ten when the Islamic Revolution came, and from a liberal, middle-class family. When it came, she had no idea why she was suddenly forced to wear one. Most worrying for her was her mother. The mother was pictured protesting against forced veiling, and her picture was used around the world. Whilst young Satrapi was impressed by this, her mother wore a disguise in the streets for months later in order to avoid unwanted attention. As the book continues, she is almost arrested by the religious police for her jeans and ‘lack of modesty,’ but manages to convince them to free her. Later, her parents send her abroad for school in fear she will fall afoul of the authorities. What concerned me the most when I read it was how she could be arrested, lashed and murdered for these crimes. Every teenager rebels a bit- wears the wrong clothes, hangs out with bad influences and argues with their parents- but they are not jailed for this.

The justice system is also unfair to women. The age of crime is not given at an exact age as it is in the UK (ten), merely defined by puberty. As girls go through puberty at an earlier age- often by three or four years, they are defined as criminals before boys- meaning that they can be arrested for things like immodesty from an age where most children here are still in primary school. In Iran, where the death penalty is used in a liberal manner, juveniles can be given the death penalty- and killed before they reach adulthood. Regardless of whether you agree with the death penalty or not, it is pretty abhorrent that a child can be killed by the government.

In a much lesser way, there is the issue of blood money (diya). In insurance cases, the blood money is equal for women and men, but other than that- it is not the case. See part of the penal code:

The diya of [harm to] limbs and bodily abilities, up to one third of the full diya, is the same for man and woman; however if it reaches, or exceeds, one third of the full diya, the diya of the woman shall be decreased to half.’

So a woman’s life, and her health, is worth half of a man. What a delightful thought.

In 1991, a code was enacted which meant Muslims and non-Muslims would receive equal blood money- a step towards equality. Who was exempted from this, apart from the men of the Baha’i? Take a wild guess.

Then there is one of the most chilling parts of the legislative system. Virgin girls are not allowed to be killed under the death penalty under Iranian law (how kind of them). So, if an unmarried girl is given the death penalty (all unmarried girls-apart from ‘fornicators’- will be assumed virgins, one imagines, due to social views on sex before marriage), they have a loophole. A member of the Revolutionary Guard will marry the girl then ‘take’ (read: rape) the woman so she no longer is a virgin. Then she can be executed. The family of the girl even gets a dowry!

So let’s finish on the misogynistic education, economic and political system. To their credit, the government has opened up the avenue of higher education for their ladies- women take up a huge amount of university places, and are able to study many subjects. Recently, however, the Iranian government rolled out a list of subjects that were men and women only. Men cannot study certain subjects, but 77 courses were taken from women- with the reasoning being that a large percentage of these women (I’m talking in the 90s region) do not get a job with these degrees. Well, that’s because they won’t be employed but that’s too much sense for them. So yeah, case closed for these women who just want an education to better themselves and change the world, but it’s ok, because they’ll be able to stay home and be good little Iranian women.

At least women can vote in Iran (1967), so yay fair democracy. They make up a meagre 6% of parliamentarians (17 out of 290), so they are very limited in their powers in high legislature, though they have a little bit more success in councils, though barely. There are a few female ministers, but again, they are few and far between. As for running for President? Well, candidates are vetted by the 12-person Guardian Council of the Constitution. Six are chosen by the Ayatollah, and the other half by the Iranian Council (so yay, democracy). They of course have completely stopped any women coming close, and anyone who is interested in reform is also shut down by the conservative men. So if you have money on a female Iranian President, I’d withdraw your bet.

Finishing up with Bill Clinton’s favourite- it’s the economy! Jobs are advertised either as both genders or men-only, so that’s obviously why so many female graduates cannot get jobs. The private sector is where most women work, as working in the public sector is incredibly hard for them to get, perhaps because there is more gender mixing when it comes to that line of work- or because the public sector is, obviously, regulated by the government in a way that the private sector is not. Then there is the kicker- a man can stop his wife from working. This is thankfully incredibly rare, as most husbands recognise the economic importance (or you know, are nice people who respect their wives their wishes), but it is still a law. There are several reasons why they can stop their wives from working- incompatible with his family interests, it’s against his wife’s dignity (and here’s the best part) or his dignity. So a man, who is insecure because his wife is working in a better job or gets (gasp) a better wage than him, can get her fired because his ego is shattered. Poor guy must be hard- thank God that it’s incredibly rare. One such recent example was when the captain of the women’s football team of Iran had to forfeit her position, as her husband would not sign the necessary documents for her to go abroad to play. Yep, it’s the 21st century people.

So, if you haven’t grasped from my lovely narration, the women of Iran are presented with some unique and interesting challenges that stop them from achieving their full potential. It isn’t the only country to have problems for women, but as with every country, its social, economic, political and geographical differences allow for a unique set of problems. From modesty to political oppression, the women of Iran will have entirely different challenges from those in Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Next Time: Known for its rugged landscapes and sadly, its many political instabilities, it’s Afghanistan.

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