The Rights of Women in Iran and International Women’s Day

On 8 March the world celebrated International Women’s Day; one day amongst 365 to celebrate women’s accomplishments. Despite my appreciation for International Women’s Day, its efficacy seems to fall short of what is needed.  Women are structurally oppressed, and the tendency for some (mainly men) to dismiss women’s rights remains pervasive, as women are still ignored in politics, business, the arts, entertainment, and academics. The list could go on and on.

Image courtesy of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, © 2007, some rights reserved.

It should not be news to anyone that women, simply put, do not receive equal treatment with men. Women do not have equality in its true form in one single country in the world. The gender binary of male and female always leaves the female disadvantaged as the lesser counterpart, and will continue to do so unless we continue to not only educate women, but start to focus on educating men, whose behaviours and norms concerning women must change. Indeed, the objectification of women in the media that contributes so greatly to men seeing women as objects of their desire, rather than as a whole person, must also change. The structural barriers women are faced with need to be broken down.

Many people seem to think women’s rights are getting better, but sadly that is not the case in most places, or for most women. Women’s rights are getting better for some wealthy women, and some white Western women, but not for the majority of women. This is the case in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The Western public tends to know Iran does not have a great record with women’s rights, but most do not know the specifics, and the example of Iran explores and problematises some women’s rights issues facing the international community.

Iran is known for actively enforcing different standards for men and women, though the country is in no way as repressive of women as the favoured example for gendered oppression in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia.  Iran is a fascinating country from a political, social and cultural perspective. Iran underwent a revolution in 1979, overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty, became an Islamic Republic and promoted a supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. In short order a number of restrictions, including those focused on women and their public behavior were initiated and remain in effect today. These policies include various restrictions such as banning women from singing solo in public as it ‘triggers immoral sensual arousal’ to full covering of the female body in public.

In October 2014, multiple acid attacks were carried out in Isfahan (Iran’s third largest city) due to women not ‘conforming to Iran’s Islamic dress code.’  On 20 October, the Iranian parliament began debate on a bill that would allow further powers for volunteer militias enforcing head covering for women. On 25 October, the Iranian government also stated it had executed a 26 year-old woman for killing a man attempting to sexually abuse her.  Needless to say, October was a bad month for women in Iran. Conditions will likely only get worse. There is an ongoing public debate about how women should act in public, following the Mayor of Tehran’s segregation of municipal offices by sex, and the national police chief’s suggestion that women should be banned from waitressing as it allows men to stare at them.

The President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, who is largely considered a reformer and moderate political figure, has openly disagreed with the religious supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader has already dismissed gender equality as a Western concept, whereas Mr Rouhani has outrightly said, ‘Iran has plenty of shortcomings in women’s rights and gender issues.’ Conservatives dominate Iran’s parliament, and will likely continue to push anti-women policies in an attempt to further undermine Mr Rouhani. Although Mr Rouhani campaigned, and won with a reformist agenda, this platform has all but dissolved in the face of Islamic conservative obstinacy.

In Iran, like in other places – life tends to be easier for the more affluent. Wealthy Iranian women can wear Western clothes and a hijab, which barely covers a high ponytail. Those who bear the brunt of these conservative policies are the poor. In Iran, as in many places around the world including Europe and the United States, the rules apply to everyone but the rich, and with growing income inequality that is sure to be a whole lot of people.

In Iran, conservative policies and the rhetoric they employ rely on the gender dichotomy of women being the weaker, lesser counterpart and men the stronger dominant.  This dichotomy is hurtful to every person, man or woman. What is most alarming is that this rhetoric is used all over the world, and seems to be rising, though many people are not aware of it.

My parents recently traveled to Iran, and one of my mother’s principal remarks was how much energy the state expends on discussing women’s sexuality; how these expectations and cultural norms mainly affect women; how women are the ones chastised; what political ramifications this has.

This gender dichotomy, and the belief that men are somehow better than women, and have the right to make decisions about women, is learned behavior, which can in turn be unlearned, and changed, in the same way that gender is performative, and socially imposed.  What must happen is continued education on women’s rights, for all sexes and genders, but with particularly emphasis towards males.

Resurgence in conservative policies affecting mainly women is not a good sign for any of us; rather it is reminiscent of historical oppression.  Former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration’s rhetoric of ‘saving brown women from brown men’ in the 2003 Iraq war has left many disenchanted with the idea of the West ‘waging a battle for women’s rights’. We need to accept that the West does not know better, in fact most of the West does not itself have a very good track record on women’s rights. We need to allow for cultural and religious differences, but we also need to raise the status of women, and urgently so. We need to teach that women are equal members of society, and deserve to have their own say, regardless of religion, culture, or location.