It is Hard to be a Woman in Iran

An Iranian woman shows Persian writing on her hands reading women should same rights as men. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

Rashin KhosravibavandpouriThe result of first round of the Parliamentary election in Iran, held on February 27, shows that so far, women captured 14 of 290 seats of the Iranian Parliament. Compared with 9 female policymakers in the current Parliament, the result of the recent election may bring a ray of hope for the women who live in a country which is primarily ruled by men. Having more women representatives in the country’s legislature could increase chance of women to overcome their current unfair situation which has been created by laws that subordinate women.

Based on the World Economic Forum’s 2015 report, out of 145 countries, the gender gap index in Iran is ranked 141st. This report was made based on four different indices: political empowerment, economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, and health and survival.

It’s a cold sunny Sunday in Boston; I get up early and as usual make myself fresh tea. After a couple of minutes, my cellphone is ringing; I pick up my phone and hear my friend from Iran screaming in my ear, “He divorced me and got the custody of my son.” I ask her to calm herself down so I can hear her better. Last month I was told by my other friend that she and her husband had major problem in their marital life. She just got her master’s degree from a well-known university in Tehran and started looking for a job. Her husband, however, was not happy with her decision. As I heard it, he told my friend that he would provide her as much as her future job income could be if she stayed home with their son.

My friend did not accept her husband’s offer and kept looking for a job. Consequently on the day of her first job interview, when her husband realized that she may get employment, he left the house. She did not hear from him for couple of weeks until she received a letter from her husband’s attorney with her husband’s request for a divorce. She went to court; the judge, a clergyman, asked her to obey her husband and stop looking for a job. My friend resisted and told the judge that it was her right to make a decision for her life. Last Saturday, she received her divorce certificate and a letter that showed her husband had the custody of their 11 year old son. She was shocked: “How it is possible?” she asked me. “It is possible, he is a man, based on Sharia law you have to be obedient, and you were not, so the judge as the administrator of Islamic law had the authority to divorce you.” I answered. “Concerning the custody of your son, mothers have the custody of their children when they are less than seven years old; your son is 11 so his father has custody”, I continue. I feel deep down, it is not fair; she did not do anything wrong. So I decided to write about the history of gender inequality in Iran:           

Gender inequality and subordination of women in Iran has a longstanding history. Back to 1785-1925, during the domination of the Qajar dynasty, Iranian society was ruled by strong traditional, religious, and patriarchal beliefs. In that society women did not have other choices but to live under the protection of their male guardian. At that time, the only education for women was basic religious study for middle or upper class girls. The veiling order was not enforced by the state but was demanded by society. Polygamy, unilateral divorce by husbands, and forced and under-age marriage prevailed. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907 was an answer for the need for correction. The Constitutional Revolution granted the rights of women for education, and condemned polygamy and seclusion of women; but in reality nothing changed for women.   

The demise of the Qajar dynasty did not change the situation of women in Iran either. In a first step toward modernization of the country, Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), passed the unveiling law which prevented women from wearing the veil outside of their homes by police enforcement. This discriminatory order kept thousands of religious women captive in their homes for decades. Reza Shah considered education of women as a tool to facilitate modernization of the country; with this policy, he increased the number of schools for girls and provided financial assistance for higher education of women. Based on his attempts to westernize Iran, marriage became a part of Western-derived civil jurisdiction instead of being part of religious jurisdiction. According to the new law, women could ask for divorce under certain conditions; the law also banned under-age marriage and demanded the registration of marriage. Because of the strong patriarchal culture of Iranian society, the reforms were not strongly implemented, and even in some areas, such as unveiling law, discriminated against women’s rights. 

After Reza Shah, his son Mohammad Reza Shah came to power in 1941. The new ruler had a strong tendency toward the West and capitalism. At that time, clergy and left secularists were critical of the corruption and autocracy of his regime, so Mohammad Reza Shah’s political game was based on controlling religious and left secular opponents. To achieve his purpose, he announced the White Revolution of 1963 as the best way to confront opponents and be close to the West. The new policy, which emphasized expanding the economy and the labor market, granted women’s rights to vote and to be elected to parliament. Mohammad Reza Shah also passed the family Protection Law in 1967 (revised in 1975) which raised the age of marriage to 18, changed the divorce and custody law in favor of women, restricted polygamy, and legalized abortion. It is fair to mention that the effect of the Pahlavis’ legislation on women varied according to their social class; the main beneficiaries of new laws were privileged classes of urban women.  

In 1979, Mohammad Reza Shah was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution, which was shaped by different socioeconomic, religious, and gender groups against monarchy and its imperialist support. Despite the role of women in creating the new order, none of women’s experiences and strategies had been injected into the nation’s policy. The Islamic order of Iran which was created by male politicians based on their patriarchal norms has restricted women from social, economic, and political participation. The excuse of national survival has silenced women critical of patriarchal practices and attitudes. Whenever women ask for equal relations between men and women, they are accused of being divisive and traitorous.  

After the 1979 Revolution with its Islamization of gender relations, reveiling has become legally compulsory and violators have been fined or received prison sentences. In the current Iranian society, reveiling is the most pervasive symbol of the Revolution; it stands for Islamism, anti-imperialism, and anti-westernization. The Islamic government of Iran adopted several new reforms to create better situations for women’s lives. The protective law is one of them; it concentrates on material payments to women, dowries, and women’s rights to have payments from their husband. The Protective Labor Law for women prevents women from being involved in dangerous and difficult work. It also emphasizes equal pay for women, bans under-age employment, and prohibits night shifts for women. The Protective Labor Law allows no work for pregnant women up to 6 weeks before childbirth and 4 weeks after delivery with pay. It obligates employers to establish daycare facilities at the work place for women workers who have a child or children. In this law there is a 30 minutes breast feeding break for every 3 hours work with pay for women who are nursing. There is a paradox regarding the Labor Law; because of the high cost of female employees, employers prefer not to hire women. Despite all positive steps to reduce gender inequality in Iran, gender inequality is still very high.  Furthermore, in the current legal framework in Iran, most of the civil codes are in favor of men.

By looking more closely at these three Iranian governments, the common concepts among them regarding women and gender equality are be revealed. They have been gendered, therefore their policies have been discriminatory against women. They have used gender to legitimize their power. They are based in the desire to control women’s sexuality, which has been rooted in the sense of masculinity and their related policy choices. As it was mentioned, Reza Shah adopted the unveiling order to emasculate religious opponents and to promote westernization. On the other side, the reveiling order by the Islamic Revolution has been used to define the Islamic orientation and identity of the government.  Both have applied gender as part of establishing their global images. Despite liberalized family laws and legislation, all three governments have reinforced institutional male domination in the secular or religious way. They have manipulated gender issues to promote their own political interests.

One question remains unanswered: under such conditions, can 14 women legislators make any real difference in favor of women?


Sedghi, H. (2007). Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling, and Reveiling. Cambridge University Press.

Mahdi, A, A. (2004). The Iranian Women’s Movement: A century Long Struggle, The Muslim World. Vol .94 Issue 4

Khaz Ali, A. (2010). Iranian Women after the Islamic Revolution. A Conflicts Forum Monograph