In 1936, Reza Shah ordered the public unveiling of women in Iran. The clergy vigorously protested; women of the mercantile middle class stayed home, refusing to appear „naked” in public. Lower middle class and rural women began to work outside the home, most of them in small textile shops. It is the labour of women and children, with their small fingers, which forms the backbone of the carpet industry in Iran.
Any benefits relating to housing or childcare which they receive are given not to them but to their husbands. Their working conditions are harsh, with long hours, low pay and inadequate maternity provisions.
In 1964, Mohammad Reza Shah gave women the right to vote. Family planning was introduced, with free contraceptives and legalised abortion. Clerical jobs in government ministries, banks and commercial offices were filled with women. Women from the middle class entered the professions.
In 1975, the Family Protection Act was passed. It gave women the right to divorce their husbands, required the husband to obtain the first wife’s consent before taking a second, and fixed the legal age of marriage at 16. It placed some restrictions on “sigheh” (temporary marriage), the custom where the husband enjoys all the privileges of marriage for a fixed period of time, usually a few days or hours. After being discarded, the woman generally becomes a prostitute. The Act was a genuine reform; but its impact was limited to those women who could afford to defy their husbands and fathers.
Also in 1975, the Shah spent $50 million to finance the Women’s Organisation of Iran, headed by his sister, Ashraf Pahlavi, a woman with a bad reputation. The Organisation sent students into the countryside in a literacy campaign modelled after the US Peace Corps.
Shah's reforms of women's right actually brought women into public life in Iran. For the upper and middle class, women’s partial emancipation was part of their adaptation to western behaviour. For the Shah, it was a way of challenging the authority of clergy, who repeatedly called for a return to Islamic values.
Ayatollah Khomeini, upon arriving in Paris in October, 1979, was asked by a reporter what the position of women would be in an Islamic society. He replied, “Women are free in the realm of education and in the professions, just as men are. Islam does not exclude women from social life but elevates them to a platform where they are not objectified, where they can assume responsibility in the structure of the Islamic government in accordance with their development”. Immediately upon coming to power, Khomeini declared the Family Protection Act null and void and announced a ban on abortion and contraceptives.
On March 7, 1979, on the eve of International Women’s Day, Khomeini decreed that all women employed by the government must wear the “chador” (an all-enveloping black veil), an extension of four walls of the home.
Thousands of women filled the streets in protest. For three days they marched and rallied; on the third day staged a sit-in at the Palace of Justice, demanding a legal guarantee for their right to choose what to wear and where to work, at home and in society at large.
Women’s demonstrations erupted in Kurdistan, Azarbijan and Isfahan as well. They chanted “At the dawn of freedom, there is no freedom.” The women were attacked by Khomeini’s supporters, armed with knives, who cursed them, yelling “Wear a head or get your head rapped.” They stood at windows along the parade route and exposed their genitals: “This is what you want, you whores!” The women’s male supporters linked arms and formed a protective barrier around them.
The demonstrations forced Khomeini to retreat; he claimed to have said only that women should be modestly dressed. Nevertheless, thousands of women were fired from their jobs in the beginning of 1079, accused of looking like “western dolls”.
On June 29, 1980, mandatory veiling was imposed. No exceptions are made for women of religions other than Islam.
March, 1979. On the eve of the referendum for the Islamic Republic, Khomeini reiterated his promises in order to lure voters to the polls. “Islam has considered women’s right to be higher than those of men. Women have the right to vote which is denied them in the West. Our women can vote and be elected. They are free in all aspects of their lives and can freely choose from most areas of employment. We promise you that in the Islamic government, every person will be free to achieve his or her rights.”
But what does freedom mean to the Islamic Republic? The first women to lose their jobs were the radio and television announcers, whose presence on the airwaves was considered immodest. Then women lawyers were forbidden to practice and dismissed from their jobs at the Justice Department. Their efforts to retain their positions met with failure. Thousands of workers were laid off in the industrial slowdown which followed the revolution, among them a disproportionate number of women. Children centres were closed down and the new labour laws did nothing to relieve their right.
October 2, 1979. A bill is passed, establishing a special civil court to handle matrimonial cases. It legalised polygamy and sigheh and lowers the marriage age for girls to 13 years. In fact, girls can be married at age of 9 with their father’s consent. Women can divorce their husbands only if they stipulate that possibility in a contract made prior to the marriage.
The school have been segregated by sexes, thus barring women from religious seminaries and technical colleges and halting the education of girls in villages.
The school books have been revised, showing veiled women in the home, raising children and cooking; Darwin’s theory of evolution has been expunged. The schools are used to hunt down critics of the regime; attempts are made to trick children into releasing incriminating information about their parents.
Women’s participation in sports has been crippled; they are forbidden to enter international contests and are required to wear voluminous clothing, even while swimming. Men and women are segregated at all times, at public stadiums, at the beach and etc.
Islamic morality demands an end to pleasure: wine, music, dancing, chess (for a few years) and backgammon, have been all banned. Women’s part in theatre and cinema stipulates that female actors wear Islamic veil.
Soon after the revolution, Mr. Bani Sadr, who has lived 15 years in France, was asked by a television interviewer if it was true that women’s hair emits sexually enticing rays and if this is why Islam requires the veil. “Yes, it is true,” was his reply.
In November 1079, a conference drew 2,500 women, who met by candlelight when the Tehran authorities cut off the electricity at their meeting place. A rally on International Women’s Day, 1980, drew a crowd of 7,000-8,000.
The regime has responded by forming its own women’s group, which produced a newspaper, “The Moslem Women,” which the main task was to inculcate misogynistic norms into mind of women.
The Constitution was announced on December 1, 1979. It regards motherhood as women’s reason for being. “Since the family is the unit of Islamic society, all relevant rules and regulations and planning should be done to facilitate its formation and to guard its continuity on the basis of Islamic laws.” (Article 10).
The Bill of Retribution, a criminal law passed in 1981, stipulated that women have half the value of men in the eyes of the law. In this Bill, a murderer may pay a sum of money, called blood money, to his victim's family in order to escape punishment by death. If the murderer is a man and the victim is a woman, the woman's family is required to pay half the man's blood money if he is to receive the death sentence; this is because her life is equal to only half of his, so the family is required to pay for the other half. If they do not pay, the man can pay them the women's blood money and be set free.
The Bill of Retribution was the platform to which Khomeini has elevated Iranian women.
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