Women in Iran: unmistakably oppressed

Solidarity with women of Iran

Yassamine Mather salutes those struggling against oppression

This year March 8, International Women’s Day, coincides with the 35th anniversary of the first major protest by Iranian women against Iran’s Islamic regime in 1979.

Although women played a crucial part in the revolution that overthrew the shah in February of that year, Iran’s clerical rulers wasted no time attacking the little that existed in terms of women’s rights and imposing new forms of gender repression, including legalisation of polygamy, temporary marriage (sighe), forced veiling, segregation …

The following years saw violent attacks against what Islamists called ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ hijabs, which were deemed to insufficiently cover the hair - Hezbollah thugs even took to throwing acid in the face of women they regarded as too immodest. Women trying to join demonstrations and protests were attacked by religious zealots carrying chains and batons, with leftwing females identified as the worst of enemies.

Over the last three and half decades it is women, especially young women, who have been in the forefront of confrontations with Iran’s fundamentalists, constantly fighting the imposition of religious laws and practices. Ironically, amongst the generation brought up under Islamic rule can be found people with the most secular of attitudes throughout the Middle East, demanding the separation of religion from the state. It is these elements of the population who, along with women, have played a crucial role in pushing back the religious state, allowing the emergence of a contradictory yet remarkable women’s movement in Iran. Needless to say, these women are hated by the Islamic establishment. But the discipline imposed by having to work and campaign under the worst of dictatorships has forced some of them to avoid an outright challenge to religion and Islam, thereby creating illusions amongst some western academics that there is such a thing as Islamic feminism.

During the same time a minority of Islamist women associated with factions of the regime have taken up a limited defence of some of the issues concerning women’s rights. They advocate minor reforms, which, I would argue, are too little, too late. They do not even challenge the medieval laws of hodud and qessas (talion and punishment), let alone the rule of the religious guardian of the nation, the supreme leader.

Although it is true that over the last decade middle class women have succeeded in asserting themselves and influencing minor aspects of the country’s politics, real improvements in the plight of Iranian women have been due mainly to their perseverance, their tradition of struggle against the dictatorship and their courage. But it remains the case that the overwhelming majority of Iranian women face the double burden of exploitation at home and at work, while remaining victims of Islamic laws and customs.


There is no doubt that with the exception of a minority of middle class and upper class women, most Iranian women have traditionally suffered from patriarchal laws and practices both in the family and at work (the shah’s policies regarding women’s education and jobs only affected a minority of middle class and upper class urban women).

The establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 made the situation worse. The rigid imposition of the hijab reinforced discrimination. In rural areas families refuse to send their daughters to high school. In further education girls are discouraged from studying in fields considered ‘masculine’, such as engineering, mining and the judiciary - women are considered too emotional and irrational to be judges. They are also considered by Iran’s Islamic laws women to be too stupid to be witnesses - their power of observation is considered half that of a man; their testimony in a murder trial can never count unless it is supported by a male witness. There is discrimination against women in sport - participation in cycling and horse riding in particular is discouraged, and facilities are rigidly segregated and rarely available to women (many have called this a system of apartheid against women). The ministry of education often reports that over 90% of schoolgirls are unfit, as they do not participate in any sport. Although over the last few years some of these policies have been successfully challenged by women in major cities, especially Tehran, in rural areas little has changed since the days of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

As they become teenagers, girls are driven more and more into a world dominated and manipulated by their male relatives. They can be ‘given away’ in marriage without their knowledge or consent while still in childhood. The legal system allows fathers or male guardians to marry off under-aged girls in return for financial gains. The minimum legal age for marriage for girls is nine.

Discriminatory Islamic laws govern the private and public life of women: they have to follow a very specific and restrictive set of dress codes - a full veil or headscarf and long overcoat is the only acceptable form of dress. The law discriminates against women in inheritance, giving them at most half of the share of their male counterparts. In fact the life of a woman is worth half that of a man in law.

Islamic marriage laws, as applied in Iran, are amongst the most repressive in the world in terms of discrimination against women. While men are allowed to marry up to four wives at a time in permanent marriage and an unlimited number in what is known as ‘temporary’ marriage (siqeh), women who do not adhere to strict monogamy are considered criminal and may be brutally punished by being publicly stoned to death. This is the legally recognised Islamic punishment for extra-marital affairs in Iran.

Men control the life of their wife or wives, their daughters and their unmarried sisters. In Islamic societies women need a male guardian throughout their lives, who gives them permission to travel, study, marry, etc. As no consent is required for sex within marriage wife-rape is common and even wife-beating is tolerated in the process (legitimised by a Quranic verse in the case of “disobedient women”).

Until 1996, as far as divorce was concerned, the man had almost a free hand to divorce his wife, while the woman had no such right. Even after the more recent relaxations, a woman can only file for divorce in unusual circumstances. The extent of this discrimination is exemplified by a report from the Iran Human Rights Working Group, noting that an Iranian court had taken 14 years to approve a divorce request from a woman who complained she was tortured by her husband. Having reported new incidents of abuse every year, she was finally allowed a divorce by Iran’s prosecutor general (who reported that she “shivered violently” whenever her husband was mentioned) after she agreed to drop all financial demands on her husband.

It is usual for women to forfeit financial claims in the event of a divorce, even if the proceedings were initiated by the man. And the man is usually given custody over the children. Iranian law states that a male child above the age of two and a female child over the age of seven must live with their father. Even the father’s father is given priority over the mother in custody matters.

In marriage discrimination against women goes still further. A virgin woman (whatever her age) has no right to marry without her father’s consent (or her father’s father, in the absence of the former). A Muslim woman has no right to marry a non-Muslim (a right her male counterparts do have - with some limitations).

Most women do not report incidents of rape because the victim has actually more to lose. First she will be accused of bringing dishonour on her own family, which might provoke violent retribution. Second she fears prosecution under morality laws - I have already mentioned the extreme punishment meted out in the event of ‘unIslamic behaviour’ on the part of a woman, which may apply if the woman is judged by the court to have been a willing partner.

While the law of hodud and qessas prescribes “equal” punishments for men and women, it is the women who suffer most from these barbaric measures. A married man having an affair with unmarried women can always claim that they were ‘temporarily married’. But a woman in a similar position would have no such defence and death by stoning might be the result.

In Iran women have never forgotten that in the 1960s one of Khomeini’s main objections to the shah’s regime was over the voting rights given to Iranian women. It is true that under a dictatorship the right to vote is meaningless. However, Khomeini objected in principle to a women’s right to be elected or to elect. One of the first protests against the Islamic regime was the women’s demonstration of March 10 1979. Khomeini’s decree that women should cover their hair, rallied women of many classes and backgrounds in a major show of opposition to the new order. Since then women have constantly opposed attempts to erode their social and political rights.

Islamic feminism?

The history of women’s struggles in Iran goes back to the early years of the 20th century. Iranian women participated in the ‘constitutional revolution’, they were active in the nationalist movement of the 1950s and throughout the shah’s repression, when women formed a large part of leftwing underground organisations. Hundreds of thousands of women participated in the demonstrations against the shah’s dictatorship and no-one could have forced them back to the middle ages. Economic factors, the role of women in production, as well as subsequent involvement in political movements against dictatorship, have played their part. In summary the advances made by Iranian women have nothing to do with the postmodernist notion of ‘Islamic feminism’.

The fact that it took over 20 years for the more enlightened members of the Islamic regime to realise that it would be impossible to turn the clock back emphasises what an insult to the courage and perseverance of Iranian women it is to label this long and complex struggle an Islamist movement.

Whatever interpretation of Islam we take, the Quran is quite specific that women who disobey their men should be beaten. Should we accept this on the pretext of respecting Islamic values? Of course. many other religious books contain similar anti-women statements, but the difference is that in a country like Iran, where a religious establishment is in power, this becomes part of the legal system.

In Islam the most revered woman is the daughter of Mohammed who died at the age of 18, having already given birth to three sons. Her short life symbolises that of the ideal woman. Islamist women and their ‘anti-imperialist’ apologists claim that the veil, far from restricting women’s social activities, plays a liberating role. I would argue that anyone with a superficial knowledge of Islamic theology knows that the primary role of the veil is to subjugate women, segregate them and classify non-veiled women as evil temptresses whose sole role on earth is to corrupt men.

In Iran women, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, Zaroastrian and non-religious women are all forced to wear the veil. Their right to have their head uncovered is taken away because some men find it insulting to see non-veiled women. It is also argued that the veil, like a uniform, hides class differences. Anyone who has seen the elaborate veils of Iranian women in the affluent suburbs of Iranian cities, as opposed to those worn by working class women, can see how absurd such statements are.

Defenders of ‘Islamic feminism’ in the west have founded their arguments on cultural relativism - a dangerous precedent both for feminists and democracy activists. Others see any attack on the veil as a form of western racism. One has to point out that combating racism has nothing to do with accepting double standards: rights for white western women; Islamic restrictions for Muslim eastern women.

In recent years the supporters of the reformist factions of the regime, as well as the defenders of regime change from above, have tried to incorporate sections of the women’s movement in their campaigns, and in the absence of an organised left it is inevitable that class-conscious and radical women’s organisations will have limited success. However, such groups do exist and they have been instrumental in exposing the fallacies promoted by their detractors.

On the 35th anniversary of March 8 1979 demonstration, our commitment must be to support the struggles of Iranian women. They deserve our solidarity.