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Iran women’s movement » Women's Courage

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Iran's Women: Subtle Dissent and Vocal Protest

February 25th, 2011

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.

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Citations:

[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/