During the Arab Spring uprisings last year, Iranian women's groups circulated a cautionary video, “Message from Iranian Women for Tunisian and Egyptian Women.” The film depicted how Iranian women's lives changed dramatically after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and warned Tunisian and Egyptian women that the same thing could happen to them if the religious party, the Muslim Brotherhood, gained majorities in their countries.
During the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi, Iranian women had made progress in the traditionally male-oriented region. They wore whatever they wanted in public and have been allowed to vote since 1963.
Under the ayatollahs, however, the hijab — the headscarf worn by Muslim women — immediately became mandatory, and Islamic law was introduced and strictly enforced. For example, the minimum age of marriage for women was changed from 18 to nine — although it has since been raised to 13 after protests by activists.
Polygamy has increased, as has the so-called temporary marriage (mut'a), a verbal, short-term relationship for a pre-determined period, with no divorce necessary to end it. Permitted under Shiite Muslim law, the mut'a is seen by many as prostitution under another name, because a dowry is one of its prerequisites.
The changes helped to spark the One Million Signatures Campaign, a grass-roots Iranian feminist effort to convince Iran's parliament to change marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance laws that discriminate against women.
The movement also wants to improve the legal position of women who are sex-crime victims. A married Iranian woman who is raped is considered to have committed adultery and can be stoned to death. If she kills her aggressor, she can be tried for murder. If she is unmarried, she could end up being killed by a male family member to avoid bringing shame on the family name. Such so-called honor killings are more a patriarchal custom than a practice condoned by the Quran.
Female supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran's reformist candidate in the 2009 presidential election, show off their fingers and nails — painted green, the color of Mousavi's campaign — during a Tehran rally on June 9, 2009. Iranian women, who have been able to vote since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, played a big part in the so-called Green Movement — anti-government demonstrations that challenged Mousavi's defeat by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The movement was brutally suppressed by the government. (AFP/Getty Images/Atta Kenare)
But that's not the full picture, according to Sussan Tahmasebi, an American-born Iranian who helped launch the campaign. “We have female doctors, we have politicians, MPs (members of parliament),” she said. “It's paradoxical that, despite these achievements, discrimination against women is embedded in the legal system, and that lawmakers justify it by saying it's based on religion.”
However, CNN broadcaster and columnist Fareed Zakaria says Iranian women fare better than women in Saudi Arabia. He was struck while on a recent visit, he writes, “by how defiantly [Iranian] women try to lead normal and productive lives. They wear the headscarves and adhere to the rules about covering their bodies, but do so in a very stylish way. They continue to go to college in large numbers, to graduate school and to work.”
Iranian women can vote, he added, while women in Saudi Arabia — “another country … run along strict Islamic lines” — cannot. And in Saudi Arabia, he noted, women “are not well integrated into the workforce or mainstream life.”
Even so, Iranian women face a litany of constraints. A daughter still needs her father's permission to marry; a wife must obtain her husband's written permission to travel abroad or get a passport. An Iranian woman can't sing in public or attend sports events where men are present.
In 1979, thousands of women protested in the streets against the shah — only to be repressed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as soon as he assumed power. In 2009, women were a strong presence in the “Green” protests against the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Neda Agha Soltan, a 26-year-old music student, was shot dead in a Tehran street during the demonstrations. The bloody video of her death went viral on the Internet, making her what The New York Times called “the public face” of those who died in the protests.
In 2002, the European Union lobbied to help persuade the Iranian courts to declare a moratorium on death by stoning, of either gender. The moratorium was extended in 2008 — although according to reports, four men and one woman were executed by stoning, a method usually reserved for convicted adulterers. In 2008, a spokesman for the judiciary confirmed that two of the men had been stoned, saying that the moratorium had no legal weight, and judges could ignore it. However, draft legislation to abolish death by stoning is being considered.
The United Nations also has pressured Iran to reform its discriminatory laws, most of which violate the U.N.'s 1979 Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which the mullahs say undermines Islamic teaching.
The regime is particularly vigilant with regard to cultural activities. In 2011, the Iranian actress Marzieh Vafamehr was sentenced to a year in jail and 90 lashes for her role in the film “My Tehran for Sale,” an internationally acclaimed underground movie about life in Tehran. She was never lashed, however, and was released after serving three months.
It was a case of life imitating art. Vafamehr played a young theater actress trying to pursue her career against the backdrop of Iran's repressive regime. But the film's director, the Australian-Iranian poet Granaz Moussavi, says the movie, which was filmed in Iran, actually had the regime's approval.
“Nobody can deny that we are working with restrictions when it comes to writing and film making,” she says. “But in Iran, and especially in Tehran, everything can be risky, even crossing the road.”
— Roland Flamini