Women’s rights in modern Iran: a tumultuous history

Women protesting during the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

When we talk about the great oil reserve that is Iran, it’s easy to conjure images of oppression. This isn’t unfounded considering the persecution of religious minorities, for example the Bahá’ís who are banned from universities, or, of course, the suppression of women’s autonomy. Although current president Hassan Rouhani has been heralded a ‘reformer’ and a ‘moderate’, execution rates have risen sharply during his time in office. Amnesty International reports that between 1 January and 15 July 2015, almost 700 people were put to death, making Iran the top country committing executions per capita. This number is made even more sinister by the corruption of the judiciary and is just one example of Iran’s barbaric means of coping with crime, or alleged crime. We must also note that the democratically elected Rouhani is accountable to the theocracy’s Supreme Leader, Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the first successor of Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the controversial 1979 Revolution that established the world’s first islamic state, overthrowing hundreds of years of constitutional democracy.

Generally, the West avoids speaking about Iran. It is a country depicted as malevolent, tyrannical and ambitious. However, it is also the country with the fourth largest number of proven oil reserves in the world which has been exploited in the past, particularly by the UK: British Petroleum was previously the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, built on the Anglo-Persian Oil Agreement of 1919. With some sanctions on Iran lifted recently after the country complied to a nuclear agreement, Iran is set to become an oil-based power again, bringing prosperity to the West and its own battered economy. Rouhani chose to celebrate this, and encourage business prospects, by touring part of Europe. Inevitably, this sparked outrage. In France, the feminist group ‘Femen’ dramatically dangled a topless woman from Paris’s Debilly Footbridge in a mock hanging, with the Iranian flag painted across her chest. The banner on the bridge read: ‘Welcome Rouhani, executioner of freedom’.

Protests about Iran spread across the world, including this one held in Amsterdam in 2010.

When considering the reign of Rouhani, it is important to understand the context from which he emerges. The Revolution meant that all the liberal systems in place were quashed. Family Protection Law was suspended, Family Law Courts were obliterated, and women were once again at the mercy of their husbands. Divorce became even more difficult and women were guaranteed to lose all custody rights. The Islamic Law of Retribution was reinstated in 1981, legitimising stoning and flogging. It was in this period that Mona Mahmudnizhad, a 17-year-old girl, was executed for giving Bahá’í Sunday School classes. Recently, her resting place has been excavated, exposing Iran’s fear of the martyr they created. Prior to the Revolution, government-run day-care centres had been established; these were closed and women were pushed out of the workforce into the home. During the ten years after the Revolution it is reported that the percentage of women in employment fell from around 13% to 8.6%. Those who retained their jobs tended to be in traditionally female fields such as nursing or education. Though some women were able to advance politically, there was a great taboo surrounding females in positions of power – all women who have ever run for president have been disqualified by some means.

Rafsanjani’s election in 1989 eased the repression of women somewhat and under Khatami things improved to the extent that, in 2004, 13 women were elected to Parliament. This was the largest number since the Revolution and a ‘pro-reform’ sentiment was established. As women had a growing importance regarding the ballot box, President Ahmadinejad, who rose to power in 2005, struggled to balance the ideas of hard-line conservative leaders with the importance of his female electorate. After establishing himself as leader, however, the representation of women in politics again decreased dramatically. Women’s voices in the public sphere were once again stifled, with the popular feminist magazine ‘Zanan’ being closed down.

Iranian women stage a protest in Tehran in 2006.

As is evident, the status of women in modern Iran, though consistently lower than that of men, has been tumultuous. Thus, Rouhani’s statement in 2015 that ‘police do not have a duty to enforce Islam’ was seen as respite from the extreme interpretations of Islam that the government holds to. Women began to dress more liberally, applying heavier make-up and wearing their headscarves further back on their heads. However, these changes are superficial and limited. Femen’s epithet ‘the executioner of freedom’ becomes justified when looking at the book ‘Iranian Women Under Rouhani’, published by The Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). It is a damning report on Iran’s abuses. One particularly pertinent case is that of civilian Reyhaneh Jabbari – her 2014 execution was ordered due to an act of self-defence against an Intelligence Ministry member who tried to rape her. A woman left dangling for an hour after her death is not a sign of ‘moderation’.

The great tragedy of Iranian women’s rights is that prior to the 1979 Revolution, Reza Shah Pahlavi had started an intense programme of modernisation, perhaps due to increased involvement with the West, which was continued by his son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Alongside reform of the judiciary and the economy, a women’s movement grew. In 1936, an official programme began for the emancipation of women called the nahzat-e banovan. Girls attended secular schools and were encouraged to work outside of the home. Finally given the chance to combat illiteracy, women had a voice with which to challenge their treatment. The age for marriage was increased and women won the right to seek divorce – highly controversial and progressive moves for a country steeped in tradition and the hierarchy of men over women. Indeed, photographs of Persian women from before the revolution could be mistaken for westerners: miniskirts, shorts, big hair and make-up, swimsuits and fitness magazines. Of course, Reza Shah’s ‘freedom’ was somewhat enforced. His banning of the hijab was controversial – some women refused to leave the house without the Islamic dress they found comfort in. For younger women, this was not an issue; however, the instruction to forcibly remove the veil from those wearing it in public is not the image of the liberal society Reza Shah was trying to establish. His supporters, however, insist that the only way to destroy female subjugation was by removing the veil, a symbol of oppression, using whatever means necessary.

What is shocking about Iran’s history is how it runs backwards. Though clearly an imperfect situation, women in pre-Revolution Iran were given the chance to reach empowerment, to have a political voice and to establish clear rights. The rise of Muslim clerics and the rejection of secular society has brought the status of women into decline, to a place where they are second-class citizens, a far cry from the Pahlavi years. The French protest against Rouhani is very clearly justified; the human rights abuses allowed to continue in Iran are little short of repulsive. Perhaps once again, as relationships with the West develop, Iran’s treatment of its citizens will improve. However, it is evident that for France, if not the entire Western world, it is Iran’s financial potential that makes it attractive. The overwhelming sentiment is that human rights simply aren’t important where wealth is concerned.

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