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Iran's Women: Subtle Dissent and Vocal Protest » Women's Courage

Iran's Women: Subtle Dissent and Vocal Protest

February 25th, 2011 by ayflores Leave a reply »

Araceli Y. Flores

In last week’s blog, I presented Iran as a unique case study in women’s rights. Like many other Muslim nations, Iran upholds Sharia law, the sacred law of Islam derived from the Qur’an and teachings of Mohammed. As a theocracy, however, Iran relies on Sharia law to dictate not only private customs and traditions, but also public life in Iran. Using Sharia law as the basis of its legal code, the Islamic Republic of Iran has reversed many of the gains made by the women’s movement prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Iranian women face many types of gender-based discrimination, especially in family and marital life. Often, nations have the constitutional framework for equal rights, but societal norms subvert proper enforcement of these laws. In Iran’s case, however, gender-based discriminations are inscribed directly into the legal code and then further supported by societal customs. In this way, Iranian women are doubly denied basic rights and freedoms. Harsh laws dictate how women are allowed to dress, who they can marry, and the rights they have as both wives and mothers. Even harsher punishments, such as public beatings and honor killings, exist for violating these laws: “In cases of divorce, child custody, inheritance and crime, women do not have the same legal rights as men. In the past four years, President Ahmadinejad has made it easier for men to practice polygamy and harder for women to access public sector jobs” [1].

Still, despite the repression that Iranian women face on a day-to-day basis, Iran possesses one of the most resilient, courageous women’s movements in the Middle East. With the election of the moderate leader Mohammad Khatami in 1997, the women’s movement regained footing in Iran. Many women viewed Khatami’s election as a wake up call: nearly two decades after the 1979 revolution, the “freedom and independence” promised by the revolutionary government still had not been achieved; it fact, equality under the law had been denied to women.

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, women had formed a huge support base for the Islamic Revolution during its principal stages. Now, two decades removed from the illusions and false promises, women’s alliances emerged to press the state for social and legal policy changes. Both Muslim and secular female activists used various arenas to voice their complaints about gender segregation, widespread domestic violence, and the discriminatory effects of Iranian family law. Interestingly, Iranian women activists have utilized a wide array of mediums to get their message across, from mass media to the film industry to literary works and poetry .

Within the last decade, Iran’s women’s movement has made great strides in increasing women’s participation in a variety of industries— while the total number of women participating in the labor force has not grown dramatically, women have expanded their presence and influence into nearly every sector: commercial, educational, agricultural, entertainment, and even political. Moreover, women’s education has boomed, surpassing men in percentages of college enrollment and graduate degrees. Using these skills, the women’s movement continues to expand their mission on a national level by publishing women’s journals, university magazines, and even feminist website sites.

The women’s movement in Iran has two faces: subtle defiance and vocal protest [2]. On a small scale, women artfully flout the state’s strict dress code through “carefully planned flashes of their hair under their head scarves, brightly colored fingernails, and trendy clothing that can be glimpsed under bulky coasts and cloaks” [3]. These small acts of defiance showcase the spirit of rebellion that fuels the Iranian women’s movement. On a larger scale, these same women have form the frontline of marches and protests against the government. The highly contested reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009 provides a remarkable example of just how readily and willingly women in Iran will fight for their rights. Iranian women marched alongside men to protest the fraudulent elections, brushing up against the armed military who fought to suppress the crowds [4]. Women were among several of the protestors and demonstrators who were fatally wounded in the skirmishes. Unafraid, the women’s movement took to the streets to protest, challenging another term of governance under Ahmadinejad’s hard line government and continued repression of women. One Iranian woman, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, commented that inspiration behind women’s involvement in the electoral protests originates from long seated resentment and frustration at the government’s rollbacks of women’s rights: “Because women are the most dissatisfied people in society, that is why their presence is more prominent” [5].

The women’s movement in Iran demonstrates the determination of women to courageously challenge the repressive laws placed upon them by their government. The expansion of women’s presence across Iranian industries and their commitment to education provide encouraging signs of change and growth. Hopefully, as demands for greater human rights and civil liberties sweep the Middle East —as seen by 2011 revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain– the Iranian government will be charged both domestically and externally to recognize and grant greater freedoms to its people. Iranian women continue to be strong agents of this change.



[1] Mahdi, Ali Akbar. “The Iranian Women’s Movement: A Century Struggle.” The Muslim World (2009) http://go.owu.edu/~aamahdi/Iranian%20Women%20Movement%20A%20Century%20Long%20Struggle.pdf

[2] Lyden, Jacki. “Despite Odds, Women’s Movement Persists In Iran” NPR.org(2009): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100039579

[3] “Iranian women fight on the frontlines of protest,” MSNBC.com (2009) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31531225/ns/world_news-mideast/n_africa/

[4] Basu, Moni. “Women in Iran march against discrimination” CNN WORLD (2009): http://articles.cnn.com/2009-06-19/world/iran.protests.women_1_iranian-women-mohammed-khatami-reformist?_s=PM:WORLD

[5] “Iranian women fight on the frontlines of protest,” MSNBC.com (2009) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31531225/ns/world_news-mideast/n_africa/



  1. amayacc says:

    Interesting post. I want to start off by saying that, shamefully, I have been almost completely unaware of this dynamic women’s movement in a seemingly overtly gendered society. I recently learned in Global Public Health that Iran also serves as an example for increasing family planning and decreasing fertility. Unlike nations with similar policies regarding women’s rights, Iran has stood apart in decreasing maternal mortality in rural areas despite gender-empowerment barriers as a result of this increased access to family planning. I wonder now whether this is a result of a the growing feminist movement you describe in your post. Perhaps it is this women’s empowerment movement that has allowed women to negotiate sexual decisions, even in more rural areas, and has allowed women to make use of their increased access to family planning. Connecting the dots…

  2. kheflin says:

    What a great post!

    Such an important region and vital issue…thank you for writing this.
    I am especially interested in the laws in Iran around women, and how that contrasts with what is practiced. Especially interesting to me is the stoning that still occurs to women for adultery, when the male in the relations gets away scot-free. Even is areas where stoning is illegal, it continues to happen to Iranian women without the regime stepping in and stopping it.

    These problems are very frustrating to me, and I’m looking forward to advancements in the area soon. I am glad to see so many women involved in the protests and rebellion, regardless of the outcome: female participation in politics is a key goal I think in improving women’s health in any given country.


  3. adakulen says:

    This post comes at a fascinating time– amidst growing contention of the Iranian diaspora over the failures of their own uprising– yet it takes a uniquely feminist approach, thus highlighting the centrality of women in pushing for human rights in this time of change in the Middle East.

    I find it very interesting that Iranian women were at the forefront of the 1979 revolution, then as the Islamic conservative wave came women’s freedoms were ironically restricted. I like your point that “two decades removed from the illusions and false promises, women’s alliances emerged to press the state for social and legal policy changes.” This is again manifesting itself in the modern movement, making me wonder what the likelihood is that history will repeat itself.

    As I read your post, I couldn’t help thinking about the dichotomy of women’s spirit and women’s collective action. It seems that obedience is not inevitable, nor culturally engined, rather in this case it is artificially enforced. So what results is what you refer to as “subtle defiance,” the hair, the fingernails– there is a natural spirit of rebellion and these women want to grasp on to a means of expressing it. This brings me to two things: the potential role of social media and the connection between women in Iran and Iranian diaspora.

    I have several very close friends who identify as Iranian American. These progressive strong women are anything but submissive; in fact, in Persian circles, it is very often the women that are the central outspoken leaders. They are all very involved in what is happening in Iran right now (all one has to do to confirm this is check their recent facebook statuses and twitter posts.) I wonder, how can social media can empower Iranian women and connect them to the networks of strategic diaspora.

    Great post! Thanks!

    Ada Kulenovic

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