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IRAN: Special report on the changing role of women

TEHRAN, 24 Apr 2003 (IRIN) - The importance of changes that have taken place for women in Iran under theleadership of President Mohammed Khatami varies depending upon who you talk to in this deeply Islamic country. While some positive steps have been taken much more needs to be done, according to female activists in the nation.

In this special report IRIN looks at different perspectives of Iranian women from all walks of life on how far they have come since the 1979 revolution and what the future holds in store for them.

Sitting in an internet café in downtown Tehran, 26 year old Seema Zohre told IRIN that she was happy to be able to show off her new haircut to her friends and not have to wear a headscarf in one of the few public places in the capital which has special permission allowing women to remove their headgear and manto (long coat) while surfing the net. "I'm so used to wearing it that it actually feels strange to take it off when I come here, but it feels liberating too," she remarked.

"Its unusual to be able to do this in such a public place," Fatemeh Baghestani, from the women's marketing centre housing the café, told IRIN.

Strict Islamic dress code for women, comprised of the manto and headscarf in dark colours only, was enforced two years after the revolution in 1979, but it took time for women to accept it. "My older sister remembers this time well. She said girls would keep their scarves on their shoulders until they saw the revolutionary guards and only then would they cover their heads," she explained.

But places such as the Internet café give the women of Iran some hope that times are changing. "Yes this is a step forward, but it is only a small step forward and there is still a long way to go," she added.

The idea of allowing girls to be able to take off their religious dress is also being practised in some all-female schools in the capital. While much of what we read about Iran suggests that women are marginalised, some would argue that they have much more freedom here than in neighbouring nations such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where women are rarely seen in the streets outside of the big cities.

Growing access to education

Iran also boasts a fairly relatively high literacy rate for women. According to the 1991 census, 67.1 percent of the total female population over the age of six (14.9 million) were literate. Today 65 percent of university entrants are women.

"Women have always had a strong presence in education in Iran. The drive for opening girls' schools was initiated by women of the more privileged classes and they were the first educators," Mahsa Shekarloo, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Badjens, [Hyperlink:] an on-line magazine that covers women and gender issues in Iran, told IRIN in Tehran.

With the opening of girls' schools came women's employment in education - as teachers and headmistresses. Teaching was one of the first professions for women in Iran and they still compose a significant portion of schoolteachers. Some 46 percent of school teachers are female and if you include administrative staff, the numbers are certainly higher.

"The effects of women's strong participation in universities, I think, will be seen in the future. With all of these graduates, society will inevitably have to deal with them and their increased demands for employment and having a say in public matters," Shekarloo maintained.

Education is a way out of the home, a way into increased independence and freedom of movement, and a way to postpone marriage, according to Shekarloo.

Although the mean age of marriage across the country has risen to 20, in rural areas earlier marriage is still common. This can create difficulties for young married women who are not permitted to attend school with unmarried women, and therefore tend to stop going to school, according to the International Planed Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

More women professionals

These days in Iran women have a presence in most professions in this traditionally male-dominated society, with many employed by the state and public sector.

There are an emerging number of women setting up their own businesses, and women are now active in all fields of the economic and political spectrums. These activities cover a broad range of professions ranging from the legal and medical fields to serving as members of Iran's police forces.

In 1976, 13 percent of all economically active females held professional occupations, according to the United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA]. By 1986, this percentage had risen to 32.8 percent and by 1991 had further increased to 39.7 percent.

"Women are taking the initiative. For example, a few of them will get together with some sewing machines, and start manufacturing clothes," Shekarloo remarked.

These gains are bolstered by some aspects of Iran's institutional framework. For example, women's rights in the workplace are strengthened by the country's labour laws and codes, which comply with all international norms pertaining to women's rights in the workplace.

But there is still much work to be done at the grass roots level, according to Shekarloo. "Iran's economy is still dominated by the bazaar which is quite traditional and male-dominated," she said.

The 1979 Revolution

The 1979 overthrow of the Iran's hereditary monarch, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, after decades of corrupt and authoritarian rule, ushered in the world's first Islamic republic and a period women's rights in Iran would be shaped by the ruling clique's interpretation shari'ah law.

The revolution, headed by the previously exiled religious cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was immediately followed by an unstable and bloody period, including an eight-year war against neighbouring Iraq.

"I remember the days when the government collapsed before the revolution took place and our friends were executed and imprisoned," Shahla Lahiji Iran's first female publisher of women's books and magazines told IRIN, adding that women have sacrificed their lives for years. The days that followed the revolution became increasingly difficult for women.

In December 1979, Farrokhru Parsa, the female minister of education was executed after being accused of promoting prostitution, corrupting the earth, and "warring against God."

New education policies prevented women from enrolling in the fields of engineering, agriculture and finance as these were deemed to be male professions. However, women were still encouraged to enter the field of medicine.

In addition, daycare centres closed, and women were denied the right to divorce and obtain custody of their children if divorced. The age of consent for marriage was lowered from 15- to 13-years and contraception and abortion were also banned.

Following the death of Khomeini in June 1989, and the subsequent appointment of the then President Khamenei as Iran's spiritual leader, some initial moves towards reform were seen. For example, government family planning activities, which had been halted in 1979, were re-started and led to a dramatic rise in the prevalence of contraceptives in the country, according to the IPPF.

The victory of President Muhammad Khatami's liberals over the long-ruling conservative elite in parliamentary elections in April 2000, and his re-election for a second presidential term in June 2001, has buttressed the reformists and opened the door to an era of social and political transformation in the country.

In the high streets of central Tehran, for example, scores of Iranian women can be seen wearing western clothes covered by a stylish three-quarter-length coat, in place of a traditional full-length manto, complete with a fashionable designer headscarf.

"We have only been able to do this under President Khatami's rule," Baghestani said, adding that the way in which a headscarf was worn had also changed. "We wear the headscarf at the back of the head and we have a big choice of colours and patterns". High street shops selling mantoes these days cater for all tastes and ages. "You can find long ones, short ones, baggy ones and fitted ones in light as well as dark colours," she added.

But some aspects of life are still restricted. In restaurants across the capital and elsewhere, women are forced to keep their mantoes and scarves on as they sit down to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner.

"The mixture of western clothes with the headscarf is the paradox of our society. Yes times have changed under the reformist government, but we must remember what it was like before the revolution and we still have a long way to go," Shahla Lahiji told IRIN. She spoke of the pre-revolution days when men and women were more or less equally treated and said much more needed to be done to improve women's rights.

The female publisher has already paid a price for her passion to improve the rights of women. In 2000, she was jailed after speaking against the government at a women's conference in Berlin. "I was sentenced to four years but after an appeal and a heavy fine I was in jail for two months," she explained.

The relative freedom of the press is regarded by many as one of the greatest achievements of Khatami's reformist administration, and has meant the press has become a target for conservatives in their power struggle with reformists, according to the BBC.

Sixteen reformist newspapers were closed and several prominent journalists jailed in April 2000, and in December a court ordered the top-selling daily newspaper, Hamshahri, to restrict its distribution to the capital, Tehran, the BBC says.

At present there are some 500 female publishers in Tehran, according to Lahiji, who also celebrated the number of female filmmakers in Iran, calling it a remarkable achievement. "The best film makers here are women and it is fantastic and very positive," she maintained.

The recent changes and improvements that have taken place have also encouraged a return of qualified Iranians from abroad. "At the end of the day we love our country and this is where we want to be," Rehmina Zaraki told IRIN in Tehran, having returned to her homeland after spending 12 years in San Francisco. Zaraki said her decision to return was also based on her understanding of the changes for women.

The legal struggle

Despite the undoubted moves towards social liberalisation under Khatami's government, his support for greater social and political freedoms has often put him at odds with conservative groups keen to maintain established Islamic traditions.

The president is thought to hold little real power under the constraints of a political system that remains restrictive despite some political and economic reforms. As a result conservatives have been able to use the courts and mosques to limit liberalization.

The ongoing tussle between the reformist and traditional camps has given rise, in some areas, to a degree of ambiguity in both society and the law in the treatment of women's rights.

For example, under shari'ah law women in Iran are not allowed in public in the company of a man who is not related to her. However, only very few random checks are made on cars and then mostly only during religious festivals.

"Laws still discriminate against women. For example, if a woman wants to leave the country she has to get permission from her husband," Lahiji told IRIN. "If a woman divorces her husband and her children are of a certain age then they will remain with the father," she said..

According to many women's rights activists, while the reformists have taken up issues such as domestic violence, they are less willing to tackle some of the public restrictions still placed on women.

Transforming many of the social norms inherited from the revolutionary phase has its counterpart in similar attempts to challenge the legal basis of some of those norms.

With 13 female MPs in the 290-member Iranian parliament, legal change has at times been slow, although there is a growing sense that the need for women's rights is gaining greater recognition. "Some of the laws restricting married women and single mothers have been changed," reformist MP, Fatemeh Rakei told IRIN in Tehran.

In 1999 a law was passed by parliament allowing judges to award custody of minor children to the mother in divorce cases if it was deemed that the best interests of the child would be served. Prior to the enactment of that law, the father would have automatically been given custody.

However, there is still a lack of awareness among women of some of the legal changes, particularly in the rural areas, according to IPPF.

In addition, there is some resistance to changing the law in favour of greater freedoms for women. Also in 1999 a bill was passed in parliament making it a crime "to create division between women and men through defending [women's] rights outside the legal and shari'ah frameworks," and also sought to ban pictures of unveiled women appearing in the press. The bill has yet to become law, but did pass a second reading in parliament in August 1999.

Notably, Iran is yet to sign the UN Convention for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, [], adopted by the UN in 1979, the same year as the Iranian revolution.

Although the Iranian Constitution [] particularly provides for the important role of women in all aspects of society and the economy, it is still based heavily on shari'ah law. A 12-member judicial body - the Council of Guardians - exists to, among other things, ensure that any new legislation is in accordance with the constitution and with shari'ah

In addition, an Assembly of Experts, elected by universal suffrage but consisting entirely of clerics, decides on religious and spiritual matters, including the appointment of the country's spiritual leader (the Wali Faqih).

In the opinion of Fatemeh Rakei, the only way to progress was to look onwards and upwards. "I hope we reach a new state which brings a new look to the laws on punishment and recruitment of women and that the parliament accepts our struggle without too much of a struggle," she added.

Rakei said one of her main concerns over the future of women in Iran was the type of employment available for women and the dearth of women in senior positions. "We don't have many women in high positions and this is something we need to work on."

One encouraging sign lies in the appointment of Iran's first female Vice-President, Dr Masoumeh Ebtekar is one of seven vice-presidents in President Khatami's Cabinet. A 37-year-old university professor with a Ph.D. in immunology and a mother of two, Ebtekar holds the portfolio of environmental affairs and is responsible for a staff of three thousand personnel at the Environmental Department.

Meanwhile, at the women-only Internet café in Tehran, the mixed feelings of Liberation and caution will take time to change. "The headscarf is part of my religion and I don't mind wearing it. But it is a nice feeling to have the choice," student Rohi Akbari told IRIN.

The article contained on this page comes to you via IRIN (, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post any item on this site, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All graphics and Images on this site may not be re-produced without the express permission of the original owner. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003

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