Women in Iran
Shorn of dignity and equality
Oct 16th 2003 | GHAZVIN AND TEHRAN
From The Economist
Iranian women are proud of the lawyer (above, at the centre)
who has won the Nobel prize. But her reformist approach has not done
much to improve their lot
SHIRIN EBADI, this year's winner of the Nobel peace prize, is the
sort of woman?assertive, severe and frighteningly well-versed in Islamic
and western law?that Iran's conservative establishment cannot stand. A
judge under the monarchy, she did not follow colleagues to overseas
refuge after the revolution, but stayed on as an advocate, fighting
cases of political murder, repression and domestic violence. A defender
of Islam, she wrote learnedly about women's and children's rights under
Islamic law. She lost most of her high-profile cases, but survived.
Overnight, she has become a celebrity.
Ms Ebadi, who has always argued that Iran must solve its own problems,
returned home this week from a visit to Paris to find hardline
newspapers charging her, yet again, with supposed links with foreign
powers. One paper surmised that devious America had influenced the Nobel
committee's decision. Her celebrity will probably protect her from a
repeat of the short prison term she served in 2000, but not from the
restrictions and dangers that dog all Iranian women who struggle for
It has been a bad summer for assertive women. A female journalist was
slain in custody (true to form, Ms Ebadi has let it be known that she
will represent the dead woman's Canadian-Iranian family). A young mother
was sentenced to death for killing her would-be rapist; her mode of
dress had, the judge believed, ?prepared the ground for her rape?. Four
women were given suspended prison sentences for disseminating
contentious ideas about women in Islam. Iran's appointed upper house,
the Council of Guardians, vetoed the country's adherence to the UN's
1981 convention against sex discrimination. Worse still, the mass of
Iranian women reacted to all this with indifference.
Women were at the forefront of the 1979 revolution that toppled the
monarchy, although they had not done so badly out of the shah. Under his
rule, women got the vote, polygamy was, in effect, outlawed and the
divorce laws were egalitarian. If anything, the state was too permissive
for most tastes; the elite gyrated in bikinis to Shirley Bassey, and
swam in pools full of milk. The revolution promised women dignity, as
well as equality.
A quarter of a century on, they have neither. Rather than the flexible
jurisprudence to which Shia Islam lends itself, and which Ms Ebadi
champions, Iran's Islamic Republic has promoted what Farideh Gheirat, a
leading women's lawyer, calls a ?bone-dry version?. Lawmakers and judges
reinstated polygamy, made it virtually impossible for women to divorce
without their husband's consent, and condemned adulteresses to be stoned
to death. The intrusion that offends foreigners the most, the compulsory
head covering, is a minor irritant.
Iranians' patriarchal mind-set, says Ms Gheirat, is as constricting as
the fustian legalism. Many official buildings do not admit women without
a black chador, even though Islam has nothing against bright colours,
and a coat and headscarf can be concealing. Only in the teeth of
vociferous opposition did women win the right to ride a bicycle in
Healthy, well-educated and abandoned
But Iranian women have the Islamic Republic to thank for two things:
health and education. After a baby boom in the 1980s, family planning
reduced the national fertility rate to two. Women live to 72, two years
longer than men. In 1975, women's illiteracy in rural areas was 90%, and
more than 45% in towns. Now, the nationwide literacy rate for girls aged
between 15 and 24 has risen to 97%. Last year, for the first time,
female students in state universities outnumbered male ones.
There is disagreement over the responsibilities that society should
assign to these healthy, well-qualified girls. The state-approved role
model is Fatima Zahra, the Prophet Muhammad's daughter, but different
people concentrate on different facets of her life. Progressives recall
her active politics, in the vanguard of Islam's efforts to fight
injustice. Traditionalists highlight other qualities: her piety,
chastity, devotion to God, even her housework.
We don't have one model for all women, says Fakhrolsadat Mohtashamipour,
the head of women's affairs at the Interior Ministry, but the law
regards men as the rightful breadwinner. Friday prayer leaders counsel
women to concentrate on raising children. Senior clerics assert that a
woman needs her husband's permission even to go shopping.
With inflation running at more than 15%, few families can survive on one
income. But the economy is not generating enough jobs to absorb educated
women. The most recent available figures, from 1999, showed that 10% of
women were part of the workforce, 3% less than the proportion in 1972.
Although unemployment is high across the board, it is much higher among
women than men. Senior positions in the civil service are overwhelmingly
a man's preserve. And since it is not uncommon for male bureaucrats to
use spurious sexual slurs as a means of keeping uppity female colleagues
in their place, some women prefer not to work in government offices that
are male dominated.
Indeed, a lot of young women are not offended by the idea that Iran is
churning out overqualified housewives. The majority, says Mahdiyeh
Ghafelbashi, who helps run the Association for Tomorrow's Women, an NGO
in the city of Ghazvin, two hours from Tehran, subscribe to their
grandmothers' view that men should bring home the loot and protect them.
As elsewhere in provincial Iran?as distinct from Tehran awareness of
women's issues among Ghazvin's 350,000 residents is virtually nil. At a
recent exhibition to publicise the city's new NGOs, Ms Ghafelbashi's
activities were met by incomprehension by local women. Unless there was
money in it,? she recalls, they couldn't understand the point. Even so,
she insists, a historical process is in train.
There are ten universities in Ghazvin province, which has about 1m
inhabitants, and they provide an environment for boys and girls to
mingle that exists nowhere else. Gone are the days when a curtain
divided male and female students. Now, young Ghazvinis grade
universities according to the tolerance they show in allowing the sexes
Conservative-minded university chancellors used to cite Fatima Zahra's
pious aphorism: The best thing for a woman is not to see, and not to be
seen by, an unrelated man. But they are now fighting a losing battle to
prevent boys and girls socialising on campus. Progressives at the city's
three private universities have reined in the snoops that used to
monitor student morals. They concede that allowing a boy and a girl to
share a lunchtime sandwich may not be so terrible after all.
Small freedoms have a knock-on effect. Ms Ghafelbashi says that quite a
few girls in the province are now marrying boys of their own choice,
rather than their parents'. A decade ago, she says, that was virtually
unheard of. Some parents feel threatened. In a recent tragic case, a
father in Shiraz, a southern province, forbade his daughter from taking
up the MA place she had won. The girl immolated herself.
The journey to emancipation would be less daunting if there were a
consensus among politicians on the need. But there is no such consensus.
Along with much else, the issue of women's rights has become a football,
punted between the relatively progressive reformists, led by President
Muhammad Khatami (who himself belittled Ms Ebadi's achievement in
winning the peace prize), and his traditionalist, conservative
Punted rather gently: the reformists are not great goal-scorers. Prayer
leaders on good terms with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
fulminated from their pulpits against the UN's anti-discrimination
convention, which was, in the words of a senior ayatollah, ?a pretext by
westerners to impose their culture on Muslims.? But even if the Council
of Guardians had endorsed parliament's decision to sign the convention,
the result would have still been a sham. The parliamentarians had ruled
that Iran would opt out of all obligations that conflicted with Iranian
Iran's custom-made convention would have been shorn of commitments to
equality of employment: women are not eligible for the supreme
leadership, certain ministries, or to become judges (Ms Ebadi's
appointment was swiftly withdrawn after the revolution). Articles on
marriage and inheritance would have been binned: the law puts women at a
severe disadvantage in both. Even the blandest commitment to equality
would have been fatally undermined by the setting, according to Iranian
law, of a man's blood money at twice the level of a woman's.
Shadi Sadr, a courageous and talented female newspaper columnist,
distinguishes between two groups fighting for women's rights. First,
there are those who believe that piecemeal legal reform, underpinned by
an enlightened approach to Shia jurisprudence, can solve women's
problems. She puts Ms Ebadi, who insists on the essential compatibility
of Islam and human rights, into this category. Second, there is the more
radical group that ?takes issue less with laws than with the whole legal
It is hard for the second group to speak out: expressing their beliefs
might get them thrown into jail. But the first group?which includes
reformist parliamentarians and Mr Khatami himself?has achieved little.
Parliament's progress, in its three-way slugging match with the Council
of Guardians and the marginally more progressive arbitration body, the
Expediency Council, has been modest. After wrangling, the marriageable
age for girls was raised from nine to 13. The mehriyeh, a pre-fixed sum
that women receive on demand from their husbands, has been linked to
inflation. Girls can now get grants to help them study abroad; before,
there were fears that the experience would corrupt them.
The Expediency Council tends to echo the Council of Guardians. It did so
when it spiked parliament's plan to award a temporary stipend to widows,
disadvantaged by inheritance laws, from their late husbands' estates. It
agreed with the Council of Guardians that husbands should retain their
all but unassailable right to custody over their children.
Ms Mohtashamipour's office in the Interior Ministry, staffed by women,
and with a dress code that tolerates jolly colours, is one of the less
overpowering government departments. She talks seductively of
?empowerment?. In this year's budget, the government gave her department
a big dollop of extra cash, and obliged provincial governors to devote
0.25% of their budgets to ?women's affairs?.
The free marriage-guidance and vocational classes being offered by Ms
Mohtashamipour and her colleagues in the provinces seem only modestly
enlightened. But the advantage of their blandness is that they might
survive if the conservatives took over the government again. Moreover,
cautious as they are, they constitute an encroachment by the state into
areas of feminine life that were off limits.
At the same time, the reformists are trying to help NGOs whose goals may
be much more radical. According to Mahboobeh Abbasgholizadeh, who trains
NGO activists, Iran has gained some 150 women's NGOs in the past few
years. It will take time, she accepts, for the organisations to become
effective advocates. With a few exceptions, they are little more than
talking shops for young women: ?a way for these girls to express their
own identity, to announce: I'm here'.''
They have a precarious toehold. The law is ambiguous on who should
register NGOs, the legality of their accepting foreign money, and their
tax status. They are deeply vulnerable to the conservatives' fear of
civil society. The newly-elected Tehran municipality, which is dominated
by conservatives, recently expelled Ms Abbasgholizadeh and several NGOs
from the building that the previous, reform-minded, municipality had
Six years after Mr Khatami came to power with an overwhelming majority
of women's votes, some women, even in parliament, suspect that the
reformists are more interested in women's votes than in women's rights.
The president, they point out, did not see fit to appoint a woman to his
cabinet (before the revolution, there were two female ministers). His
most forceful intervention on behalf of women, when he insisted that the
judiciary introduce a moratorium on stoning adulteresses to death, was
obviously motivated by a desire to improve Iran's image abroad.
A cracked society
The scene for women is gloomy, the pace of change sluggish. Even
professed reformists are reluctant to challenge patriarchal attitudes.
Beyond this, it is perfectly possible that the reformists will lose
their dominance of parliament at next year's elections, when the
expected disqualification of reformist candidates, and a low voter
turnout, may favour conservatives. Against this dispiriting backdrop are
the more immediate, and more shocking, incidents of female degradation.
It is a tribute to Mr Khatami, and to his genuine, if feebly advocated,
commitment to transparency, that such subjects as prostitution, domestic
violence and drug addiction are being discussed at all. Before 1997,
they were taboo. Nonetheless, so long as the transparency is not
accompanied by plans to tackle the ills, the impression will grow of a
Shoukou Navabi-Nejad, a north Tehran family psychologist, sees the
cracks in her middle-class patients. Familiar western complaints
domestic violence, infidelity and fear of AIDS are multiplied. The
erosion of family values has had a western consequence: a third of all
marriages end in divorce, whereas 15 years ago, Ms Navabi-Nejad recalls,
divorce was a rarity.Yet very few judges are sympathetic to female
divorce petitioners. In order to secure their husbands' consent to
divorce, women are often forced to barter away their mehriyeh: assets
that should, in theory, help them start up on their own.
Many of the problems noted by Ms Navabi-Nejad are exacerbated by a
sexual frustration that is writ large across society. No one knows how
many prostitutes work in Tehran, though their visibility on street
corners suggests that there are tens of thousands. There is agreement on
three things: most prostitutes are runaways from poor and broken homes,
they are getting more numerous and their age is falling.
A journalist from a magazine called Zanan (women) recently conducted a
remarkable interview with a 17-year-old prostitute. Arrested in Tehran's
southern bus terminal, the girl was condemned to 80 lashes and to a fine
that was commuted, when she pleaded penury, to a three-month prison
term. Upon her release, her brother tried to kill her for staining the
family honour. In a year or two, she will be past her prime, and alone.
The few NGO activists who work with prostitutes attest to the
government's inability to deal with the problem. Women's prisons are
full to bursting. Tehran's previous mayor stopped providing money for
the capital's sole rehabilitation centre for female runaways. The new
mayor, a conservative, has no plans to restart it.
Even if the government was co-ordinating attempts to wean girls off
prostitution, says Khosro Mansuriyan, who runs two NGOs in Tehran, they
would fail. Why should young prostitutes quit a well-paid profession, he
asks, when poverty awaits and they are already outcasts? The causes of
decay are as much economic as they are social and legal. Ghar Park, in
south Tehran, provides a snapshot of this decay. Designed to raise the
spirits of poor Tehranis, it has been colonised by drug addicts. One
female addict estimates she has spent 18 of the past 24 years in jail.
Being inside is bad, she says; the heroin is more expensive.
Looking for a role model
It is a far cry from Fatima Zahra. In these confusing times, the
prophet's daughter faces stiff competition for women's loyalty,
especially among the 19% of the population that is female and aged
between 10 and 25. Zanan recently ran a flattering profile of Hillary
Clinton. Some girls like Madonna, in part because her music is banned.
Iran's most talked-about young movie directors, two siblings by the name
of Makhmalbof, are women. Comely actresses abound.
Iranian women, even many who are indifferent to her causes, are
intensely proud of Ms Ebadi's achievement. But do not expect her to
become a role model. Despite a dash of radicalism?she goes bare-headed
outside Iran?she remains wedded to the cautious reformism that is
espoused by Mr Khatami and his supporters. And that, many believe, has
failed. A small but growing number of women are coming to reject the
legal superstructure to which Ms Ebadi is committed.
Take the increasing interest being shown in the poetry of Forogh
Farokhzad. In the 1960s, Ms Farokhzad was a beautiful hell-raiser who
had an affair with Iran's hippest film director. Shortly before her
legend-sealing death in a car crash in 1966, she observed that social
change had endowed concepts like religion, morals and love with new
meanings. Forty years on, expressing such revisionism can get you
jailed, but the judges are powerless to stop lots of young women from