Symbol of struggle
Women's rights are Iranian rights
September 30, 2003
For a long time I found it difficult to contextualize
the problems Iranians face, both inside and outside Iran. There
are, of course,
fundamental concerns relating to civil and political rights as
displayed by acts of commission by the state, particularly the
denial of the right to press, the freedom of thought, and other
physical freedoms such as the inherent right to life.
there are equally disparaging violations as a result of acts
of omission as a result of insufficient social welfare programs
medical facilities, in particular children belonging to the ethnic
minorities, including disparities that exist between different
ethnic and economic
groups in the enjoyment of their rights to
to work, to travel, to housing and to the enjoyment of cultural
Whereas many Iranians have been hurt by these circumstances,
specifically members of religious minorities like the Bahais
and Jews, Iranian woman have stand out as the symbol of our socio-political
struggle as a whole. On both a de facto and de jure level
Iranian woman face mountains in their pursuit for gender equality.
yet, they have been the impetus for another revolution: the current
From the beginning Iranian woman have been the
motor behind the calls for greater freedoms, equality, and measures
During the Iranian Revolution, it was women whom Khomeini felt
forced to appeal to and it was women whom he claimed "earned
more credit than men". Yet women were deceived as.
As New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino writes in
The secular, Westernized women expected that their emancipation
and professional opportunities would expand as society became
more democratic. And the religiously oriented revolutionaries
that society would become more pious, but in a way that would
respect women as the equals of men. When that didn't happen,
In fact, the first victims of the Revolution were
women. Two months after the establishment of the Islamic Republic,
from becoming judges. A month later, the marriage age for women
was reduced to 13 and married women were by law prohibited from
attending regular schools.
Later, the hijab became a form of compulsory dress for both Muslims
and non-Muslims. Finally, but not lastly, the 1967 Family Protection
Law abolished extra-judicial divorce and required judicial permission
for polygamy and only for limited circumstances was the law abrogated.
Despite these hardships, women have prevailed.
Since the Revolution
the literacy rate for women has risen to 80%. In 1998, 52% of
the students entering universities were female and the worsening
situation forced millions of women to enter the workforce. By
2000, the number of females entering universities increased to
53%. Of the 1.5 million students taking entrance exams in 2002,
60% were women despite only accounting for 12% of the overall
In political affairs, women were the first to rise
up against Khomeini.
On March 8, 1978, International Women's Day, thousands of
Iranian women converged at Tehran University to protest against
the institutionalization of "Islamic dress" [See: Right
In 1998, President Khatami won by promising women gender reform
However, as Ramesh Sheppard, president of the
National Committee of Women for a Democratic Iran, states:
Initial excitement over Khatami's presidency and promise of
an improvement in women's rights in Iran was countered with a
dramatic admission... about the proliferation of prostitution...
officials in Iran have admitted that at least 300,000 prostitutes
in various cities. The number of run-away girls... is on
rise, with a 30% increase in 2001 alone. There are close to
2 million homeless women and one million without any social benefits.
official report states that the average age of prostitutes
in Iran had dropped to 20 from 27 a few ears ago.
In 2002 Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist
for the New York Times, contexualized these numbers
are 60 new runaway girls hitting Tehran's streets every day --a
12 percent increase over last year. Forty percent of all drug-addicted
women in Iranian prisons have AIDS. Two sisters, ages 16 and
17, recently gave AIDS to 1,100 people in a two-month period."
I won't continue with more evidence of violent abuse or the state
failure to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms
of Discrimination Against Women. These are piece-meal portions
of the continued denial of women's rights in Iran that have gone
beyond issues of non-discrimination to the core concern over
to choose", whether that be social or political choices.
Islam's position on women's rights is not
for this discussion.
With respect to human rights Islam has been defined a variety
of ways and implemented differently by a variety of
marriage laws in Tunisia versus Saudi Arabia which both rely
upon conceptions of Islam are as wide apart as the difference
east and west and yet they share the same source.
would not categorically contend that women's rights have been completely
destroyed as a result of the Revolution.
In fact, it is clear that in terms of gaining attention, women
had a greater role to contend with, and more fundamental to
the progress of society than they have ever been.
What I do wish
draw attention to, however, are the pains women contend with
as a representation of the pains of society as a whole. Their
during the Revolution demonstrated the resolution of the Iranian
population as a whole in the ouster of a tyrannical Shah. Their
betrayal after the institutionalization of the Islamic Regime
portrayed the abuses the government could and would commit.
to fight back for their rights, and the struggle for reform and
the failure by the government to provide it have become representative
of its failure as a whole. Former Secretary-General of the United
Nations Boutros Boutros Ghali once stated that "women's
rights are human rights." Similarly, I would contend that
the movement toward women's rights in Iran is the movement toward
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Nema Milaninia is a Graduate Student, International Human
Rights Law at the American University in Cairo.
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