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.
However, there are equally disparaging violations as a result of acts of omission as a result of insufficient social welfare programs and 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 education, to work, to travel, to housing and to the enjoyment of cultural activities.
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. And yet, they have been the impetus for another revolution: the current reform movement.
From the beginning Iranian woman have been the motor behind the calls for greater freedoms, equality, and measures of respectability. 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 Persian Mirrors:
The secular, Westernized women expected that their emancipation and professional opportunities would expand as society became more democratic. And the religiously oriented revolutionaries expected that society would become more pious, but in a way that would respect women as the equals of men. When that didn't happen, many women felt betrayed.
In fact, the first victims of the Revolution were women. Two months after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, women were banned 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 economic situation forced millions of women to enter the workforce. By 2000, the number of females entering universities increased to almost 53%. Of the 1.5 million students taking entrance exams in 2002, 60% were women despite only accounting for 12% of the overall workforce.
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: ]. In 1998, President Khatami won by promising women gender reform and greater opportunities.
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… Welfare officials in Iran have admitted that at least 300,000 prostitutes are working in various cities. The number of run-away girls… is on the rise, with a 30% increase in 2001 alone. There are close to 2 million homeless women and one million without any social benefits. The 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 further: “There 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 the “right 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 states; marriage laws in Tunisia versus Saudi Arabia which both rely upon conceptions of Islam are as wide apart as the difference between east and west and yet they share the same source.
Moreover, I 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 have had a greater role to contend with, and more fundamental to the progress of society than they have ever been.
What I do wish to draw attention to, however, are the pains women contend with as a representation of the pains of society as a whole. Their dedication 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.
Women's determination 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 human rights in general
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Nema Milaninia is a Graduate Student, International Human Rights Law at the American University in Cairo.