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Iranian women walk along a sidewalk, Tehran, Iran, April 26, 2016 (AP photo by Vahid Salemi).

Iran’s Conservatives Stifle Moves to Expand Women’s Rights

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing WPR series on the status of women’s rights and gender equality in various countries around the globe.

Women’s groups in Iran recently reported that women were barred from attending a major volleyball tournament featuring the men’s Olympic team. In an email interview, Val Moghadam, a professor of sociology and international affairs at Northeastern University, discusses the state of women’s rights in Iran.

WPR: What is the current status of women’s rights and gender equality in Iran, and how has the situation for women evolved since the Islamic Revolution?

Val Moghadam: Women’s rights are quite circumscribed in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In addition to compulsory veiling and a set of patriarchal personal status laws in the Civil Code—which requires women to get permission from their father or husband for travel and employment; allows men to take more than one wife at a time; and codifies unequal inheritance rights—women’s political representation, presence in senior positions, and share of the paid labor force has been among the lowest in the world. Although women represent about 30 percent of those in the civil service, including teachers, health workers and some administrators, their total share of the labor force is just 16 to 17 percent because of their marginal presence in the much larger private sector.

In other areas, advances have been significant—although these might have happened even without an Islamic revolution and change in regime. Female educational attainment is quite high, and women’s university enrollments have exceeded men’s for over a decade. Women are marrying later. Fertility rates have dropped dramatically and are now at replacement level, partly because of past governments’ family planning programs, partly because of women’s educational attainment, and partly because of women’s own aspirations for smaller families. Women vote in elections and are considered to be an important electoral constituency.

And when they can, they join women’s rights groups or public demonstrations for change. The One Million Signatures Campaign for the repeal of discriminatory laws and the End Stoning Forever campaign, both of which were launched in 2005, are but two examples. Thousands of women also took part in the Green Movement protests in June 2009, which protested election results giving a second term to then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Many women also choose to defy their second-class citizenship in different ways. Their mode of dress and personal appearance, for example, can be quite daring. Wearing make-up, pulling back their headscarves to reveal their hair, wearing a short and fitted coat in public rather than a long and shapeless one: These are but some of the ways by which women challenge the dress restrictions. Young people organize parties with music and dancing, which is also against the law.

WPR: What social and political barriers stand in the way of gender equality in Iran, and what efforts are there to advance women’s rights and status?

Moghadam: The political barriers lie in the political system, which is religion-based, but also very masculinist and highly controlled. For example, the Council of Guardians vets all candidates for elections and disqualifies many. A woman running for parliament can be disqualified if her appearance is considered “bad hijab”—meaning insufficiently covered—or if she is known to have shaken the hand of a man unrelated to her. Such behavior is considered un-Islamic, which makes her ineligible for office. According to Iranian law, a woman also cannot be a judge; she can only assist a judge. Recent parliaments had some feisty female parliamentarians who worked very hard to change laws and policies, but in the end they could not accomplish a great deal, as the conservatives in parliament, the judiciary, and the Council of Guardians blocked their bills and initiatives. Since the 1990s there have been various campaigns and initiatives to improve women’s legal status, and a number of women lawyers have sought to defend detainees or draw attention to gaps or deficiencies in the law—but their work has been stymied, and they have faced prosecution.

It is true that in recent years a handful of women have attained senior posts in government ministries, and more recently a woman was appointed ambassador to Malaysia. The current adviser on women’s affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, is known to be in favor of expanding women’s rights and has the support of President Hassan Rouhani, but it appears that once again the conservatives are impeding progress on women’s rights.

WPR: How prominent an issue are women’s rights in Iranian public opinion and politics, and how much internal pressure is there on the Iranian leadership to improve women’s rights?

Moghadam: The issue is very prominent in the public discourse, and has been since the early 1990s, when the first steps were taken to highlight injustices faced by women. At the time, a number of magazines and newspapers advocating for women’s rights began to appear; filmmakers began highlighting the difficulties that women faced in the home, in communities, and in the political process; and women’s rights groups began forming.

At the same time, the perennial “problem” of women who appear in public insufficiently covered is frequently mentioned in the media, as is the “problem” of women wanting to attend soccer matches. Ahmadinejad called feminism a “threat to national security.” Rouhani has criticized the conservatives’ obsession with women’s dress and has called on the police to leave women alone, to no avail.

Other troubling developments are the unprecedented cases of acid attacks on several women in Isfahan, which shocked the nation and generated much media discussion. The women’s rights activist Nargess Mohammadi remains in prison. Meanwhile, the conservatives retain control over the country’s key institutions, and thus have far more leverage than those who desire improvements not only in women’s legal status, but also in terms of respect for the human rights of all citizens and the right to dissent and peacefully protest.