A Look at Women in Iran 30 years after the Islamic Revolution

It has been 30 years since the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Western media has a slew of various features looking at Iran. The subject of many of these features is Iranian women and, the common themes in these stories are that Iranian women have made some progress, but that more progress has to be made.

There is the usual focus on hijab, with stories pointing out that hijab is mandatory. The AFP seemed particularly focused on hijab: “The Islamic republic still struggles to keep women properly covered by clamping down on defiant dressers in tight coats, with their hair tumbling out from under flimsy headscarves.” To be fair, the AFP mentions immediately afterward: “But ironically, the ubiquitous head-to-toe chador, the scarves and long coats that more liberal Western eyes view as oppressive for women have actually helped them achieve a greater presence in public life.” Vermont Public News also mentioned this: “But if the law imposing hejab were repealed tomorrow many Iranian women would continue to dress this way out of habit and religious conviction. The more universal issues for women in Iran concern legal rights and economic opportunity.” I am happy that the media finally has a more nuanced view about hijab in Iran and mentions that there are other issues that are more important to many Iranian women.

In addition to discussing hijab, the articles I read discuss how the Islamic laws put in place after the revolution took rights away from Iranian women. Honestly, I found this really disheartening, because I did get the feeling that Islam was being once again blamed for leaving women with fewer rights, instead of patriarchal interpretations of Qur’an and hadeeth, which form the basis of Islamic law. In the AFP article, the author writes: “And they still suffer from a whole raft of inequalities, much stemming from the Islamic legal concept that a woman is worth only half of what a man is. For example, under inheritance law, daughters received only half of what their brothers do.” There is no Islamic legal concept which says that a women is only worth half of what a man is. The author gets her support for this assertion by citing Qur’anic inheritance laws, which gave daughters half of what their male siblings received. However, that is not the same as saying a woman is a half a man. Additionally, there have been Muslim reformers, including Iranian ones, looking to reform inheritance rules on the basis that it was applied to a society where women did not have control over their financial affairs. However, Islam is once again made to seem monolithic.

The BBC also quotes an Iranian lawyer who believes that women’s issues cannot be dealt with in an Islamic regime:

Giti Pourfazel, a lawyer and female activist, believes those liberty-seeking women who supported the Islamic revolution were unaware of the true nature of a religious state.

“Some women felt they would stand a better chance of achieving their demands if they could emancipate themselves from political entanglements, but it was too late when they realised that a religious regime, due to its boundaries, could hardly deal with women’s issues intellectually.

“Women had already hit home some of their demands but lost them after the revolution, such as the Family Law, which was annulled immediately after the revolution. The reason was women were rallying under a religious flag, which had other priorities and ignored female rights.”

This quote seems troubling to say the least. It seems to provide little hope to those women who want a religious regime but also want their rights; plus, it makes women who supported the revolution seem like they had no idea what they were doing.

While I cringed at some of the ideas about Islam and women, a bright spot in the coverage was the mention of Iranian activists, men and women. Of course, there was mention of Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Laureate who has been a staunch supporter of women’s rights and human rights in Iran. There was also mention of former president Mohammad Khatami, who was elected in part because of a pro-woman agenda. There was also mention of the rights achievements that Iranian women have gained during the last 30 years: more Iranian women attend university now. In fact, they account for 60% of Iranian university students. Women have served in cabinet positions and in municipal and local governments. And more women have their own businesses.

Still, women on all ends of the ideological spectrum continue to fight for more rights and to keep the rights they have. Women were instrumental in bringing about the Islamic revolution and have been instrumental in gaining more rights. Shirin Ebadi summed up the women’s rights movement in Iran aptly with this quote:

Women took part in the revolution beside men. They felt their freedom and independence would be guaranteed when the country shifted into an Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, they did not obtain the freedom worthy of an Iranian woman.

That’s what activists like Ebadi fight for: “the freedom worthy of an Iranian woman” and all women.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    “…plus, it makes women who supported the revolution seem like they had no idea what they were doing.”

    The fact is, a lot of people in the revolution weren’t expecting what came from it. The coalition of those against the Shah was a myriad of forces from all over the political spectrum, and in fact was largely a leftist, communist revolution. So I don’t think it’s correct to say that the women (or men) involved in the Revolution were expecting this regime and knew exactly what they were doing. The majority of people supported Khomeini at the tail end of the revolution because it seemed Islam was the strongest antithesis to western imperialism and the Shah.

    Anti-imperialism and Islam were the strongest sources of legitimacy this regime had/has. That’s why the hijab is so important. While media reports concerning hijab are indeed superficial in the West, I strongly believe in its relevance and centrality to the debate. The hijab is a political instrument used by the regime to do what a lot of anti-democratic politic regimes do: use women’s bodies for the sake of crafting a homogenous (in this case Islamic) citizenry forming the basis of its “Islamic Republic.” Without the hijab, people will be free to show that many of them are indeed non-Muslims, and the “Islamic Republic” will have no basis of credence, as it is not an Islamic country.

    Finally, I think it’s ironic that we have so much trouble with the anti-Islam sentiment in Western reports, because there is nowhere you will find people who hate Islam more than in Iran. And that’s very sad.

  • Jamie

    I don’t understand what’s the difference between “Islam” and patriarchal interpretations of Quran and hadeeth”? Is anything that stems from Koran and Hadeeth Islam? I keep hearing different things, I’m confused. Basically, patriarchal interpretations of Qur’an and hadeeth are not Islam.

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  • Sobia


    Patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadees (for those who believe in the Hadees) are just that – interpretations. Some believe they are Islam and others do not because people can choose which interpretation they want to believe and follow. So, yes, you will see patriarchy justified using Islam but then at the same time you will see patriarchy opposed and challenged using Islam.

    Saying that patriarchy is not Islam basically means that Islam is not one definite set of rules and beliefs and that there is only one Islam. Because of the variations of interpretations we have “different Islams” in a sense, though again, they are really different interpretations.

    The Islam that I believe in is not patriarchal so for me Islam and patriarchy are separate.

  • SandMan

    THe BBC is notorious for doing pretty bad hatchet jobs on reporting of Iran, I saw a recent piece by a reporter on the youth of Iran which was chock full of cliche and ridiculous assertion. Apparently they did a documentary a couple years ago in which the crew happened to come upon an orgy in a pool in someone’s house. I’ve started to get really annoyed with Movadeni and her idiotic puff pieces both for Time and other journals. Her story in they NYT about trying to get wine for her wedding smacked of massive elitism; most of her stories seem painfully out of touch with the experience of the vast majority of Iranians. I haven’t read Lipstick Jihad or her new memoir, but if anyone has or will read it, a review of it might be nice.

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