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Second class
The legal status of Iranian women

By Mehrangiz Kar
April 18, 2000
The Iranian

This paper was prepared for a conference organized by Dialogue and Action between the People of Iran and America (DAPIA) in Cyprus in last November.

In many ways, the Iranian revolution has brought to the fore the discrepancy between reality and mental perceptions. But in no other respect has the inconsistency been more apparent than in the private and social lives of women.

Soon after the revolution, Iranian women came to discover the gap between the reality before them and the expectations that had prompted them to take an active role in the course of the revolution. They also realized the challenge that this gap was to pose before them. It is because of the impact of the events resulting from this historical challenge that many believe that the revolution has given birth to a kind of paradox in the life of the Iranian women.

As will be pointed out below, because of the revolution, women have gained greater influence and power to the extent that religious leaders have been persuaded to legitimize female participation in social and political processes. Yet because of the attitude that dominates the legislative circles and preserves the laws based on gender discrimination, women have continued to be treated as second class citizens.

The question is whether the situation created by the imperatives of the process of transition of Iranian society from conditions of underdevelopment and domination of traditions to that of development and modernity can promise the final resolution to this paradox and bring about a fundamental reconsideration of the demands of women in the third decade of the life of the revolutionary system.

The fact is that the current economic, social and political conditions of Iranian society have called upon women to play new roles that are essentially different from what their status in a traditional and underdeveloped social system would warrant. Yet what has created a crisis in the area of women's legal rights is the imbalance that exists in the process of development and certain approaches to the question of development. In other words, while the legal system has its roots in the period of traditionalism, the economic, social and cultural attributes of society are undergoing a process of transformation. As a result, the legal system is no longer capable of responding to the needs of this transitioning period of political, economic, social and cultural reality.

The shortcomings of the legal system are more poignantly felt by women than men. Women feel that their share in the benefits of revolution have been shortchanged with the result that, in the eyes of the world, Iran is a country standing firm in its opposition to the equality of the sexes. Laws and orders legislated or issued after the revolution and violent application of some of these laws against women lend credit to that view, and it is on that basis that the Iranian political system is judged by others. What has been concealed from the international community, however, are the enormous possibilities for Iranian women to exert their influence over the political processes that define their role, an influence that may, in time, alter their destiny.

In this speech, I shall look at the legal and social status of women from three angles. First, I will discuss what Iranian women have lost on the orders of revolutionary and religious zealots. Then, what women have succeeded in achieving over the past two decades through their own efforts will be discussed. And finally, I shall venture to make certain predictions about the condition of our women in the coming century.

What is certain is that the image of the Iranian woman in the course of the past one hundred years scarcely resembles the prototype of the Muslim woman as the world usually perceives her. The Iranian woman long ago left the seraglio and the seraglio mentality that was reminiscent of the setting for the tales of One Thousand and One Nights. She no longer submits to her fate without question and no longer has the sole objective of finding shelter and food within the walls of a wealthy man's harem. Instead, the typical Iranian woman is one who has participated in every political, economic, social and cultural challenge of the contemporary age and has been present in the labor market for almost one hundred years. She has managed to obtain employment of different kinds and has been active at various levels of employment. From a political point of view, she has exerted her influence and actively intervened in every political equation that seekers of power have formulated in order to rise to the position of power. Two instances worth mentioning are the way women acted in the course of the revolutionary change in 1978-9 and the decisive role they played in the presidential elections of May 1997, when they actually foiled pre-arranged political changes and altered the predetermined course of events.

In addition, nationalistic, secular and reformist movements that, despite the risk of incessant onslaughts by religious and traditionalist extremists, increasingly insist on their democratic demands have come to appreciate the significant role of women in the process of transfer of power. Yet there still exists a large group of traditionalist zealots holding key positions in the country who reject that fact. From their point of view, women's rights and human rights activists are no more than rootless seculars, infatuated with modernity and Western permissiveness, whose intended reforms are bound to endanger the foundations of the religion, culture, family and society. To them, modernizing models presented by reformists using such "Westernized concepts" as freedom, equality and individualism amount to a challenge in defiance of Islam that can only undermine the structure of the Muslim family system and, ultimately, the Muslim ummah itself.

Thus, the most powerful opponent of the human rights of women in Iran is a mentality that attacks these values in the guise of religion and in the name of religiosity. The great injuries that women suffered after the victory of the 1979 revolution can hardly be described in a few words. Yet these attacks have hardened the human character and experimental endeavors of women and have increased their awareness and understanding. These changes are no doubt a great asset for paving the way for inevitable reforms in future

A few examples of the change that women have wrought in their status over the past two decades can clarify the point. Existing figures about candidates of state university admission examinations show that the share of women in the total number of those sitting for the exams increased from 30.21 per cent in 1991 to about 52.1 per cent in 1998. At the same time, girls have been more successful in gaining entrance. For instance, in the current academic year, 51.4 per cent of candidates were women, of whom 52.1 per cent passed the examinations.

Not only that, but the evident growth of the spirit of inquiry among Iranian girls has narrowed the field of influence of the fanatics in the educational, sports, recreational and family circles. All these point to a possible end of the age of traditionalistic domination of the political, legal and cultural lives of the nation's women.

Meanwhile, the Iranian woman has borne the brunt of pressures needed to arrive at this stage. Before the revolution, a number of reforms, for instance in the laws relating to marriage and divorce, were legislated in favor of women. These reforms, on the whole, came from the top of the state apparatus. At the time, the political and cultural elite discovered that in view of the long-standing contact with modernist ideals and the appearance of educated women at various levels of employment, the traditional legal structure could hardly meet the needs of women for protection within the structure of the family. Moreover, to meet the imperatives of population control, the state exerted such a policy, providing the means for family planning that, in turn, enabled women to become socially more active. In the corpus of laws legislated in response to the need for creation of new employment and social opportunities for women, the Iranian women were granted the right to sit as judges. They also could volunteer for military service and spend their period of conscription as "soldiers of knowledge" (village teachers) or "soldiers of health" (village doctors) in remote rural areas. This gave many girls their first opportunity to experience an independent life.

Nonetheless, while these achievements were appearing on the scene, the traditional sector of society, led by religious opposition groups and aided by some parts of the so-called modernized sections and secular groups opposing the Shah, reacted to these reforms in a negative way. They also made effective use of the platforms under their control to persuade society that supporting the rights of women with the aim of arriving at gender equality was against the laws of the religion-or no more than a ploy by the ruling circle to disguise its plundering of the national wealth in the interest of global imperialism.

Because the Shah's regime was oblivious to the need for political development, such ideas succeeded in turning the tide against him and, in an atmosphere of political oppression, grew into a towering threat. After the victory of the Islamic revolution, as revolutionary extremists came to play the dominant role in the formation of the new system, those ideas were translated into policies, and the state, making use of its power, became active against the civil and political rights of women. Separation of the sexes became the focal point of state policy, and the process of revising existing laws began with the repealing of the legal reforms of the previous regime. The pretext for the onslaught against women's rights came from an order that laws that were in contravention of religious (or sharia) rules had to be revoked. The result was passage of new laws entailing the imposition of new restrictions against women and their rights.

A few examples illustrate the nature of the reversal:

· Enforcement of compulsory hejab (or veil) or the Islamic code of dress, which deprived women of the right to choose their own attire;

· Repeal of reforms in family laws;

· A ban on appointment of women as judges and expulsion or change of the employment status of female judges;

· Forbidding women employed by the armed forces from receiving military ranks and reducing their employment status to that of office employees;

· Stoppage of the family planning and population control policy;

· Legislation of the Islamic Penal Code according to which women's right to live is not protected as the right of a full human being and in which young girls of nine years of age (but not boys) are considered of age of criminal responsibility, and the decision that testimony of women is not the equivalent of the testimony of men;

· Emphasis on the absolute right of custody for the father or the paternal grandfather in the matter of matrimony of female children to the extent that the father or the grandfather can marry a child of nine years of age to any man he intends.

The list is longer than stated above. What happened was the implementation of severe measures against women with the pretext of preserving the religious or revolutionary values of society.

What women lost was serious indeed. For a number of years, suppression of women helped the authorities to dress up the social appearances and relations in a way that conformed to the ideals of the traditionalist extremists. Yet suppression has not been sufficient to give real effect to their plans.

With the passage of time, even certain layers of the state apparatus discovered that suppression could no longer be affected with ease. They came to evaluate the social conditions of women and, it seems, fearing extensive protests in the future, joined the ranks of those who called for moderation of the existing attitude. Members of this layer were unofficially dubbed the moderates. What should not be forgotten is that making these so-called moderate functionaries and politicians understand that it was impossible to follow antiquated social models and impose the social conditions of the Arabian peninsula of 1400 years ago on the revolutionary society of Iran was the work of the Iranian women themselves.

Unfortunately, the fanatical extremism has continued to resist any change that reflects social reality. The moderate ruling faction and its policy of moderation have resulted, on the whole, in the passage of certain laws relating to the status of women. To some extent, they have improved the situation. In particular, within the last ten years, they have tried to pass laws and rules to reduce the harshness of laws against women. But their efforts have never crossed the lines beyond which they could be exposed to attacks by the conservatives, who easily resort to allegations of promoting the onslaught of the Western culture as a weapon of war. The moderates have never been able, or willing, to overcome the attitude of extremist traditionalists who base their arguments on ancient interpretations of religious texts. The limit of reforms intended by the moderates has been certain changes to improve the legal rights of women.

Indeed, it seems that the moderates themselves are not fundamentally convinced of the need for the equality of the rights of men and women. Indeed, even they can hardly tolerate it. As a result, the two approaches, one supporting suppression of women and the other talking about moderating that suppression, have continued to cooperate in all areas, especially in the legislation of new laws. The outcome has been the passage of laws based on suppression that only appear, on the surface, to be moderate. In the best instances, what has happened has merely gone some way toward restoring the laws of the past, and, as such, amount to no more than retrospective measures. We can refer to such instances as permission for the appointment of women with the rank of judges to work in the judiciary branch and rise to the level of advising, but not ruling judges. Such a change is nothing more than a half way return to the situation that existed two decades ago. Other laws, such as inflation-adjusted calculation of the real value of the dower-payable to women usually on being divorced-on the basis of the rise in the cost of living and the right of divorcees to demand payment for the work they have performed in the home of their husbands during married life are among what we can call compensatory steps. The motive of moderates in passing such laws has been reduction of the harms resulting from men's absolute right of divorce and moderation of damages suffered by divorced women. Neither the religious traditionalists nor the so-called religious moderates have ever thought about limiting the absolute rights of divorce, which remain the sole prerogative of men.

Other instances of such moderating laws include the following:

· The Family Planning Act, which is also a response to the rapid pace of population growth in the first decade after the revolution;

· Formation of family guidance and assistance units attached to special family courts;

· Amendment to the custody law according to which the mother may, under certain conditions, demand the right of custody of the children of divorced parents and actually receive the right.

We can add other examples to the list, but on the whole, one can hardly claim that the moderates have done much to revise those articles and notes of existing laws that constitute a direct attack on the human dignity and rights of women. We cannot credit them with any serious attempt in that direction.

With respect to women's political participation, no new laws have been passed, but the application of the old law on election of local and rural councils in 1998 must be viewed as a positive step. In the course of the elections, held with a time lag of nineteen years, it became apparent that a total of 297 women were elected to city and some 484 women to rural councils. What is more, in 56 cities women topped the list of elected councilors in terms of votes received, and in another 58, they came second. These are signs of the change in social attitudes and public perception of the capabilities of women.

In light of such promising signs of change as women's success in obtaining higher education and convincing the electorates, even in the rural areas, of their ability to manage public affairs, we can assume that the ground is prepared for more changes to come.

For instance, during the past two years, nearly 1,000 women rose to executive positions or retained their executive posts. Three women have been appointed as the President's advisors, 16 women as advisors to ministers, 105 women as Directors General or Deputy Directors in two thirds of ministries, and one woman has been appointed Vice President and another as the Deputy Minister of Guidance and Islamic Culture. There are many women active in various professional and academic positions.

Still, there is a long way to go before we have a proportionately satisfactory number of women in top executive positions to reflect the number and level of knowledge and experience of women in society. To move in that direction, the state structure needs to be reformed and the attitude of political layers of society to be improved. In particular, we ought to have an agreement among all three branches of the State in support of the protection of the rights of women through the passage of appropriate laws, their implementation and safeguard.

In the midst of all this, the main achievement of the Iranian women-and one that cannot be easily demonstrated by figures and statistics-is the emergence of the motive and the continuation of what we can call the "modernist Islamist" trend. The proponents of this movement try hard to extract the necessary humanitarian and egalitarian concepts from the corpus of religious texts and traditions. Those researchers that have put their hearts in this movement are able to redefine and present the rights of women in Islam in such a way as to conform to the needs of the contemporary society. They draw our attention to the fact that if the political environment is not opened up to allow a critique of both religious and non-religious traditionalism, then our religious heritage will degenerate into a closed and introvert entity incapable of holding a dialogue with other cultures and civilizations. Worse, its domination will deprive us of the opportunity to receive and assimilate the great achievements of the modern age in the areas of science and culture.

The proponents of the movement declare that obstacles created before the growth of religious thinking and freedom of expression are bound to prevent us from understanding and using the principles of human rights, which are among the most valuable achievements of the Twentieth Century.

Thus, if the political atmosphere of Iranian society can be cleansed of oppression, and if modernist religious ideas succeed in advancing the critique of traditionalism, then the rights of the Muslim woman can be appraised in conformity with the conditions of the world in the new century.

What are the expectations of Iranian women at present? Their demands constitute a long list, and even though a number of religious, political and cultural figures in the country have derided women's demands and have rejected them as against the religion, I am glad to say that the conditions of women's' rights in Iran and the anomalies that exist have been a subject for comment by international observers.

At no time before or after the revolution have Iranian women had the opportunity to make use of the world media to publish their own ideas-and image-and reach a wide audience. Of course more than anything else, we owe this success to our own endurance, patience and perseverance against the incessant onslaught of the anti-feminist approach that lurks in certain layers of our political structure. Today, the condition of the Iranian woman has not only become the subject of a national discourse, it has the chance to become a major topic in the course of the dialogue of civilizations.

On the whole, I see a new stage in the social life of Iranian women unfolding before our eyes, a stage closely linked with the totality of the political life of the country. At this stage where the political survival of the country is threatened by political superstitions and taboos concealed in such disguises as the "Western political onslaught," the social life of our women is the most accessible symbol that provokes the opponents of the principle of freedom to attack it as the epitome of the enemy of the revolution and Islam.

As I am speaking here, the guise of religiosity and revolutionary pretensions are used to attack the social life of women in Iran. Despite the large number of educated Iranian women who, inevitably, will enter the employment market, I believe that this aggressive attitude has not been left much stamina to sustain its attacks for much longer

There are signs indicating the end of the political life of traditional extremists. One such sign was the result of the May 1997 presidential elections when the world witnessed the preference of the Iranian people, especially women. With their active presence at the polling stations, women ended their presumed historical lethargy and voted overwhelmingly for the reform programs promised by President Mohamad Khatami.

To most Iranian women, even those with strictly secular tendencies, Khatami was better qualified than his rivals to carry out a program of political development because of his election manifesto, in which he emphasized the elimination of state violence at home, détente abroad, and above all, defense of civil liberties. We hope that with the effort of reformists, the opportunity will arise so that all three branches of the State-the legislature, the judiciary and the executive-will be able to cooperate in the direction of improving the condition of women's rights in Iran.

Today, the bone of contention between the reformists and the traditionalists is the fateful subject of political development. While the majority of the Iranian women naturally have sided with the reformists, it is still hard to deny the fact that they have a long, arduous and hazardous way to go before they have the appropriate channels for the expression of their views in the form of independent civil societies and formations.

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