Women’s Movement in Iran

By | June 25, 2019

Iran has had an organized women’s movement since the early 1900s, but we can distinguish between periods of greater or less leeway. Under the Shah’s regime up to 1978, a modernization process was under way that also included women. It facilitated education and professional activity and encouraged them to leave the veil, but not to participate in politics. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini became the sole ruler of a totalitarian, a prestigious state. The majority of Iranians, including women, were thrilled. It should turn out that he systematically abolished the rights that women had obtained. After Khomeini’s death in 1989, the conditions for the women’s movement have changed. Under more liberal leaders, it has worked fairly freely, and women have achieved a certain strengthening of their rights. Under Islamist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, conditions worsened, with widespread use of arrests and violence against the opposition.

Ghorrutalein – an early pioneer

The roots of the modern Iranian women’s movement can be traced back to the first part of the 19th century, when the independent and learned Fatemeh Baraghani (1814-1850), nicknamed Ghorratulein (Light of the Eye), wrote, spoke and taught at a high level. She joined the liberal Baab movement, which was being pursued by the authorities. Finally, she took off her veil in public. Ghorrutalein was sentenced to death for her business, but she also set an example for other leading women.

A women’s movement is created

An organized Iranian women’s rights movement first emerged in 1905-1906. Then the country went through a constitutional revolution. The requirement was increased national independence and the introduction of a democratically elected national assembly. The women participated very actively in the revolution and also fought for their own voting rights and eligibility. When the Electoral Act was passed in 1906, they were nevertheless refused to engage in any form of politics. Iranian women first got voting rights in 1963.

In the first decades of the 1900s, there was lively contact between women’s rights defenders in many countries. Iranian women participated in conferences both in Europe and in the Middle East. The first feminist journal, Danesh (knowledge) was published from 1910 on, and later there were several such journals. On March 8, 1915, Iranians celebrated International Women’s Day for the first time. This became a regular tradition, and March 8 has since been used for meetings and demonstrations.

Military dictatorship and modernization

In the years 1925 to 1978, Iran was a military dictatorship, with a more democratic interlude in 1942-1953. Rulers of the period were the former officer Reza Shah, followed by his son Mohammed Reza Shah. Both Reza and Mohammed Reza Shah introduced a number of reforms aimed at modernizing the country. Independent women’s organizations were illegal during the dictatorship, they presumed freedom of speech and democracy. But many of the reforms met goals that the women’s rights movement had championed, such as the right to divorce, possible parental rights for children, and decriminalization of abortion. The marriage age for women was set at 18 years. Both boys and girls got free education, and at the University of Tehran one third of the students were women. Some measures were controversial and created divisions. In 1936, the use of veils was banned. Modern secular women saw this as an important step forward, but women in traditional, religious environments were strongly opposed.

Khomeini’s totalitarian rule

During the 1979 revolution, millions of women participated in the struggle against the Shah’s dictatorship. Independent women’s organizations were founded, and dozens of magazines and magazines were published. The struggle ended with a totalitarian state on religious grounds, under the absolute rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. On March 7, 1979, he announced his decree that all women should cover themselves with veil ( chador ). It was the starting point for a protest demonstration that started on March 8 and lasted for six days.

Khomeini’s tried to introduce full segregation between men and women in all public places. Women were pushed out of work and politics and over to the family and the private sphere. One of those who was banned from employment was lawyer and human rights advocate Shirin Ebadi, Nobel laureate in 2003. The state controlled privacy and removed the rights women had obtained. The lowest matrimonial age was set at nine years for girls and 15 for boys. Daughters got half of the brothers’ inheritance. A moral police arrested and punished those who showed some hair or an ankle. Stoning was introduced as a punishment for adultery. Independent women’s organizations were again banned. Many fled the country and formed organizations for resistance to the regime. A large network of Iranian feminists in exile grew.

More leeway during Khatami

In 1989, Khomeini died. The devastating war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988) was over. After this, the situation became somewhat easier. When the reformist Ayatollah Khatami took the lead in 1997, independent organizations (NGOs) were again allowed, and women were allowed to participate more actively in political life. The women’s movement in Iran also began to rise again. Liberal, religious women with theological education raised critical questions for the regime based on Islam, and a Muslim feminism arose. Both secular and religious women formed organizations and groups that worked for multiple rights. There was also some collaboration between these communities, including the print of the feminist journal Zanan(Women) articles from both teams. The requirements for full coverage of body and hair were not strictly followed up. In 2002, the age of marriage for girls was set from nine to 15 years.

Setbacks and rebellion during Ahmedinejad

This trend turned when Mahmoud Ahmedinejad became president in 2005. On March 8 this year, Women’s Day was marked as usual, this time with a large gathering in a park in Tehran. The government intervened with brutal violence both against all opposition and against those who were not adequately covered. Again, women were removed from local and national politics. Zanan was stopped in 2008.

At the June 12, 2009 presidential election, two reform-friendly candidates voted against Ahmadinejad. They received support from tens of thousands of women from all social groups, both secular and religious. Women’s rights became one of the main issues in the elections, something that all candidates had to decide on. When Ahmadinejad was re-elected in 2009, charges of electoral fraud were immediately settled. Millions of people poured into the streets protesting the election. Armed police and soldiers shot and killed protesters. At least a hundred people were killed. Several thousand people were arrested and jailed. Here there was a widespread use of rape, other violence and torture. In 2010 and 2011, the protests continued. Then it ended.

Protest and backlash

Instead, women in opposition have found other, more individual-based, often new and surprising methods of resistance. For example, they start using sports, where they have long excelled. Social media was used extensively in the resistance struggle in 2009. In 2014, women began posting photos of themselves without blur on Facebook. The action was immediately a huge success, and now Youtube videos are also posted.

The relatively liberal Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013, including with promises to include women in politics. This has been unsuccessful. He has succeeded in easing the chador requirement so that women can dress more as they please, and he has initiated measures to make it easier for women to start and run their own businesses. But there have also been setbacks, and participating in a feminist opposition is still a demanding balance.

In May 2014, editor Sahla Sherket published the first issue of her old magazine, now entitled Zanan-e Emruz (Women of Today). In April the following year it was again banned. This spring came another setback: The state needed more children, it was called, and only the women could provide them. The marriage age for girls was reduced to 13 years again. Access to contraceptives was severely limited, and voluntary sterilization was banned. The law makes it harder to get a divorce, and companies have been told to prioritize men in hiring.

Equality ranking in Iran

On the World Economic Forum’s equality index in 142 countries for the year 2015 (Gender Gap Index), Iran ranks 139th, ie five from below. By comparison, Saudi Arabia is ranked number 134. The poor result is primarily due to women not getting into the labor market or politics. Only 15% of them have paid work, and they are hardly represented in political assemblies. In Parliament there are 3% women. The UN Human Development Report for 2015 has a somewhat more positive result for Iran. Here, the country is ranked number 69 on the HDI (Human Development Index), but when it comes to gender equality it is ranked at number 114. Here, too, participation in politics and working life is declining.