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Women’s Fears and Hopes – Demands to be taken up by Reformists

Gender disparities lead to lower participation by women and lead to a rise in poverty, inequality and social injustice. These problems necessitate that policymakers and planners in the social field, especially in Iran, should pay particular attention to reducing gender inequality and improving human development, through planning at every level and in all areas.

A society that cannot take advantage of the resource of half its population cannot develop.

This level of injustice and discrimination against half the society is not only in contradiction to the aims of the 1979 Revolution, but it is a serious obstacle in the way of lasting development in the country. Since the 1970s … human capabilities and how they can be utilized for the development of the country have gained importance. … Investing in intellectual, physical and civil rights of citizens came to be thought of as the most important condition for economic development. Therefore, it follows that a society that cannot utilize the resource of half its population cannot achieve development.

One of these concerns was so notable that the United Nations organization declared 1975 the start of the decade of women in order to draw attention to the role of women in development and the necessity of ending discrimination against women. Thereby attempts were made to improve the gender-sensitive indicators and the condition of women in employment, education, health and politics. But the end of the decade was accompanied by the failure of the set aims, [for example] although there was improvement in women’s education, this had not led to greater economic or political opportunities. For this reason, experts in the field of development considered the approach to gender in social processes, behaviour and actions that have turned into beliefs and discriminations that are unchangeable. What is important in this approach is making changes in the fundamental social, economic and political structure through multiple programmes.

What is important is that the studies carried out by the President’s Bureau for Women’s Participation, during the presidency of Khatami, showed that lack of attention to gender in past development plans have been the most significant factor in the lack of progress in the condition of women, for this reason the second draft of the fourth development plan paid attention to the issue of gender.


With the consolidation of the Islamic Republican regime, having played a determining role in the victory of the revolution, there was an expectation that women would continue to play an appropriate role in the governance of the new regime, and to witness the removal of obstacles in their way for political, economic and educational opportunities. [During the Revolution,] a number of clerics annulled the Fatwahs that forbade women’s social presence, and as a result had a major effect in the participation of religious women in the demonstrations during the Revolution and later in the presence of girls in schools. Despite that, the newly formed order, much sooner than expected, reacted to the women’s issues – but not according to the wishes of women.

In its first move on 26th February 1979, only two weeks after the victory of the Revolution, the Family Protection Law was repealed. This law had removed men’s monopoly on divorce and it was stipulated that men and women had equal rights to file for divorce in similar circumstances, also the right to child custody which includes important decisions such as financial, educational, matrimonial, … ones, was given to the mother in case of the death of the father. The law had limited the possibility of married men re-marrying – taking a second wife without the consent of the first wife, was punishable by 6 months to one year in prison. With the repeal of this law, not only did women lose the right to divorce, but as polygamy became easier, by the Spring of 1987 the number of men with more than one wife, in Iran, increased by 145%.

Nine days after the repeal of the Family Protection Law the debate about making the wearing of Hejab compulsory was begun and a few months later women were banned from becoming judges too. During this period the Islamic Republic’s Constitution was ratified, according to which the right to become President, too, was taken away from women. Up to the end of the 1980s all the laws and social climate had been moulded according to a specific interpretation of Islam, the Islamic Penal Law was ratified in which the worth of a woman was deemed to be half a muslim man [where compensations, witness accounts or inheritance and the like are concerned].

Meanwhile, in this period, because of the war [Iran-Iraq war which lasted between 1980 and 1988] the government took some measures to extend education and training opportunities in villages and far-off regions. Due to the attitude of religious and traditional families towards education and the separation of boys’ and girls’ schools, we witnessed an increase in the number of girls attending school. This way, the national share of literacy among women (10yrs upwards) rose from 35.5% in 1977 to 52.1% in 1987. Among the urban population, literacy among women (10 yrs upwards) rose from 55.6% to 65.4%, in rural areas the share went from 17.3% to 36.3% in the same period, and the rate of literacy among girls aged 6 to 14 rose from 36.5% to 50.4%.

Besides this quantitative change, in keeping with the values of the state, qualitative changes were made in schoolbooks. The role of the Iranian woman in this period, was portrayed as one more akin to those at the time of the Qajar dynasty [Dynasty ruling Iran from 1785-1925]. The quota of jobs for women teachers was one in place of every 27 posts available for men, and women’s roles were defined in the confines of being a wife and mother. In addition to the changing role of women, even the names and images of women were subject to alterations so much so that by the time a child moved from year one to year five in primary school, the number of women’s names or images they s/he would encounter in the schoolbooks had been reduced.

In 1985 and the re-opening of the universities, it transpired that female students were not allowed to enroll in 91 of the university courses, mainly technical and engineering courses.

The gender quota that was imposed alongside the quotas for ‘war heroes’ [these quotas gave priority to those who had returned from the war or had been members of the armed or security forces] led to the number of women students dropping from 32% in 1979.

The dominant discourse at this time was based on the role of women as mothers, that women were suited to being a wife and the home is the appropriate place for them, while the public arena should be left to men. These attitudes had a major impact on women’s employment.

The effect of the promotion of this mentality is apparent in the state’s recruitment policy. Incentivizing early retirement, purging of women and men (sic.), closure of nurseries in the public sector, replacing women in posts that were commonly filled by women (like secretarial posts) with men, stereotypical definition of posts as suitable for women, which are in line with role of motherhood, all played their part in reversing the process of employment and economic independence of women.

In this period, even employment advertisements and directives issued by public and private sector employers revolved around the natural division of labour between men and women. They drove women hard toward domestic work. The process of purges and redundancies, which threatens mainly women, had become a major source of anxiety for women.

As a result, women’s share of national employment figures fell from 13.8% in 1979 to 8.9% in 1986. Women’s share of unemployment rose from 4.16% in 1976 to 4.25% in 1986.

This trend which, had it continued, would have deprived many more women from the opportunity to develop in scientific, social and economic spheres, was halted to a degree when the war ended and the new government came to power. In 1989 the first economic, social and cultural plan was implemented. It stressed on promoting literacy and knowledge for all members of the society, especially girls, and stressed on the expansion of women’s participation in social and economic arenas. On this basis, for the first time, bodies were formed within the government especially around women’s issues, and numerous seminars were held around the importance of the participation of women in development plans. Non-Governmental Organisations were given a profile and a delegation took part in the Beijing World Conference on Women and reported on the condition of women in Iran. Later, the reformist government [following the presidential elections of 1997] allowed a more serious effort to remove obstacles against women’s participation. Although these efforts were met with negative reactions from the opposite faction who had a particular and closed interpretation of Islam, they created high hopes that the historical discrimination against Iranian women would end.

These hopes were dashed once again with the coming to power of the government of Ahmadi Nejad in 2005. Ahmadi Nejad’s first act in relation to women was to change the name of the President’s Centre for Women’s Participation to: the Centre for Woman and Family. This change in name signaled the (9th) government’s total difference in approach to [Khatami’s] reformist government. Once again the rhetoric of the importance of playing the role of mother and wife rather than social presence, and efforts to return women to the home, became the cornerstone of planning and policy-making of the government in relation to women. In this respect, first he introduced a time limit for the employment of women, which was first issued as a directive in some ministries and later was submitted to the parliament as a bill. On the basis of these proposals women should not remain in their place of work after set times. After that the government introduced the Bill on remote working for women on Thursdays and the part-time employment of women.

When the percentage of university places going to girls reached 70% of all university entrants, the government was displeased and in order to counter the situation, it introduced the gender quota for the passing grades for the university entrance exams. For the first time since 2007, a 40% male quota was implemented, such that the number of men being offered a place would not fall below 40%. This figure reached 50% in medical courses. This policy went so far that in the year 2012, 36 universities did not offer places to any woman, and women were barred from 77 courses. In courses such as archeology, general psychiatry, geography, urban planning, geography, rural planning, geneo-morphology, tourism, management, statistics and business management, theoretical physics and nuclear physics, etc.

The Social Security bill and the ratification of the [new] Family Protection bill were two other actions by the government of 9th and 10th elections. The Family Protection law which was ratified in July 2007, allowed men to remarry, provided they could provide for the new family and would have their wife’s permission. Also according to article 25 of this bill, the woman’s dowry is taxable if it is higher than a set amount.

In the announcement made by the Security Forces in 17th July 2007, it was stressed that this force would deal decisively with the following cases: any form of deviation from the prescribed form of dress for women, such as short or tightly fitted overalls, trouser length above ankle, unsuitable head dress, make-up and unusual style of clothing for ladies, those providing or wearing such clothes or make-up and exhibiting signs of deviant groups such as fashion, Rap, … are among the cases that the security forces will deal with severely for the sake of social security. The instances that are covered by the national security plan, which is in force at present, change by the season, and in the winter include the wearing of long boots over trousers.

The government of Ahmadi Nejad, presented the Amendment to the Passport Law to the parliament. In the original form, this bill made it obligatory for single women under the age of 40 to submit official permission of their ‘legal guardian’ or the ‘Sharia clergy’. This Bill faced a great deal of opposition and was finally ratified to allow women above the age of 18 to obtain a passport, but without the permission of guardian or husband would not be allowed to travel abroad.

The above is the translation of part of an article by Parastou Sarmadi, published in Jaras and also carried in MaZanan, Persian Language.

Translated by MaZanan
12 May 2013

Text in square brackets, by MaZanan

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