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Gender Relations in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Gender relations in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) are contentious and volatile. It is difficult to provide a single, comprehensive explanation of the ideology of gender in Islam or the Islamic Republic. Even in religious circles, interpretations of “women in Islam” have been influenced by an individual’s specific historical circumstances and considerations as well as by koranic axioms and Hadith narratives. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for example, had reacted vehemently in 1961 to the enfranchisement of women. Yet in 1979, he accepted the political role of women and solicited their vote for establishing an Islamic republic. In both cases, his ideas were based on Islamic principles: different times and circumstances, however, made conflicting interpretations possible. In recent years, Muslim reformists have similarly attempted to revise Islamic discourse in response to internal societal changes, political exigencies, and international opinion (for a detailed account of the debate on gender relations among the ʿolamāʾ see Mirhosseini).

One must read the gender ideologies of the Islamic fundamentalists (oṣūlgarā) in Persia not as reflections of Persian “popular beliefs,” but as delineating parameters of the Islamists’ aspirations and gender policies in the IRI. These articulations may reflect some social norms, but even among Islamic fundamentalists it is hard to find total conformity. The legal implications of many Islamist concepts potentially affect all women, yet many families do not adhere to them in actual practice.

The IRI came into being following decades of changes in gender relations. Albeit limited, women’s role in culture, politics, and the economy had increased steadily in the years preceding the revolution. Men’s power within the family was curbed, especially in terms of rights to polygamy and arbitrary divorce. New opportunities for interaction between the sexes emerged, particularly among the middle- and upper-class urban youth. Gradual reforms had created channels for expressions of sexuality prohibited or severely restricted in earlier periods. In reaction to this, the ideology and policies of the IRI have generally sought to reinforce the authority of the husband within the family, to reinstate the gender prerogatives of men that had been compromised under the Pahlavis, and to confine women primarily to the private roles of wife and mother. However, the social advances made by women in pre-revolutionary Persia made it impossible for women to be again confined strictly to the home. Though successful in passing some legislation injurious to women, Islamic fundamentalists have been forced to accept at least a limited presence of women in public life, so long as this did not compromise their familial duties.

Pressure to comply with the moral codes of Islamic fundamentalists continues in varying degrees in the IRI, but without always yielding the desired results. More than two decades after their triumph in the Islamic revolution in Persia, the Islamic fundamentalists have not been able to suppress completely the aspirations, expectations, and lifestyles of women that emerged prior to the revolution. Resistance has also forced the regime to modify some policies. In education, for instance, the IRI had to revise its initial banning of numerous courses of study for women. In employment, the regime had to compromise women’s exclusion from holding judgeships and accept them into this position—in a limited capacity, of course. Although unilateral divorce rights for men were restored, it has also been possible for marriage contracts to list stipulations under which a woman could initiate divorce. In many areas officials have been forced to justify their praxis through reinterpretations that acknowledged discriminations and pledged change. In short, a “dual society” has emerged—i.e., an idealized, official one representing the views of the ruling clergy, which they would like to make obligatory for men and women; and a de facto, personal one wherein women and men make their own arrangements, away from the watchful eyes of government officials.

Gender relations in post-revolutionary Iran must be understood in terms of this dialectic between Islamic fundamentalists who seek to reinforce the authority of men and confine women to domestic roles, and the individual women and men who attempt to safeguard and expand their rights. To this complex dynamic, one must also add the factor of factional politics in the IRI. While fundamentalists propose strict regulation of gender relations, reformists accept the incompatibility of such regulations with contemporary life. The latter contend that to save the Islamic system, the economic and political presence of women must be increased, the prerogatives of men within the family must be curbed, and the strict policing of gender relations avoided. The reformists have relayed, in a sense, popular concerns to IRI leaders. While reflecting these demands, they have also benefited from popular support. A prime example is the 1997 presidential election. The candidate most favored by the clerical leadership was ʿAlī-Akbar Nāṭeq Nūrī, a member of the clergy who was then speaker of the Majles. His campaign promised tougher policies on gender relations. His opponent, Moḥammad Ḵatamī, promised moderation and less social control over women. Ḵatamī’s promises helped win him an overwhelming majority, some 70 percent of the votes) a considerable portion belonging to women.

Despite these vicissitudes, the Islamic interpretation of gender cannot be ignored. Religious imperatives constitute a fundamental concern of all Islamists—fundamentalists and reformists alike. Several common threads—e.g., the role of women in the family, natural foundations of sex roles, and the assumption that women need protection—link diverse articulations. To accomplish these aims, fundamentalists propose seclusion; reformers, a “safe,” regulated social space for women. Women have continued, at any event, to resist restrictions on their perceived rights.

Family law and theory. Key to the fundamentalist gender ideology is a teleological universe. God has predefined a perfect order. People are born sexed and gendered. They have responsibilities corresponding to their nature. Being a Muslim means understanding one’s role and living accordingly. A Muslim woman recognizes her function, which in turn defines her identity (Ommī 1987; Javādī Āmolī, 1993). The IRI acknowledges man as head of the family. In return for his wife’s submission, he is responsible for her expenses (nafaqa). “Every morning, the woman is entitled to the nafaqa of that day, but only to the amount she spends that day” (Khomeini quoted in Maʿsūmī, 1998, 37). She must reside in his house unless the husband grants her a choice, or unless living together poses a threat to her well-being. Tamkīn, a woman’s duty to her husband, in its general sense, means cohabitation. A woman is nāšeza (recalcitrant, persistently disobedient) when she does not conform to the requirements of tamkīn (Maʿsūmī, 1998, p. 90). The husband can refuse to provide for his nāšeza wife. A man will be nāšez if he does not pay his wife’s nafaqa. But her only recourse is to advise or sue him. She does not have his rights to ignore (qahr) or beat the spouse (ibid, p. 95). In less extreme interpretations, the man is portrayed as a benevolent boss, punishing or charitable as he sees fit (Ḥojjat-al- Eslām Hāšemīnežād, quoted in Zan-e rūz, 19 January 1997).

A husband can prevent his wife from working if the “nature” of her profession is injurious to family honor. Provided both parties agree, a woman can stipulate her right to work in the marriage contract. If the husband reneges, however, her only recourse is to seek a divorce. The wife is supposed to obtain permission from her husband, verifiable by IRI authorities, in order to travel abroad. Within Iran, an unaccompanied woman must obtain authorization from local officials to stay in a hotel. Those authorities have then the right to control her movements (Kār 1999a, p. 60).

A man inherits one fourth of his wife’s wealth if she has children by him, and half if she does not. Partners in a temporary marriage receive no inheritance. In polygamous marriages, wives must divide among themselves the allotted inheritance which can never exceed their designated fourth or eighth (Markaz-e mošārekat-e zanān, pp. 30-31).

A Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim under any circumstances. A man, however, can marry a non-Iranian woman, and only under special circumstances need seek official permission. Offspring of a marriage between a Persian and non-Persian are treated according to the laws of the father’s homeland.

Temporary marriage (motʿa or ṣīḡa) is legal, as is polygamy when the man is certain he can treat his wives equally (something now decided by an Islamic court). A woman can object to her husband’s remarriage and the court might uphold her protest, but only if she can prove him incapable of caring for more than one family.

Men have certain rights to divorce that are not available to women. Upon divorce, he must pay the mahr (a bridal gift stipulated in the marriage contract), her nafaqa for three months and 10 days, and, should the court decide, payment for prior housework. Women may seek divorce under conditions of ʿosr wa harj (penury and hardship), so that living with the husband is absolutely unbearable. Proving that, however, is extremely difficult. Many women forego economic compensation to buy a husband’s approval for a divorce (Kār, 1999b, p. 343).

In 1986 and 1992, the Majles amended the divorce law (Markaz-e mošārekat-e zanān, pp. 58-60). But revisions merely changed procedures without limiting men’s rights. If the wife objects to divorce, the husband must take his case to the Special Civil Tribunal (Dādgāh-e madanī-e ḵāṣṣ). The Tribunal attempts to reconcile the couple. Should this process fail, the Tribunal issues permission to terminate marriage (see family law iii).

The mother has custody (ḥeżāna) of her son until the age of two and of her daughter until seven unless she forfeits custody due to remarriage or insanity. From the child’s birth, the father has legal guardianship and obtains custody when the mother’s term expires. In the father’s absence, the paternal grandfather receives guardianship. Guardians can bequeath their guardianship, even when the mother is still alive (see children iv).

Domestic Work. Though the role of women in the home has always been revered in Persia, under the Islamic Republic it has been accentuated and ruled sacrosanct. Government officials emphasize the primacy of being a wife and mother among the responsibilities of women. Ayatollah Khomeini placed mothering above all other female duties. Conservative Islamist magazines warn readers that crises befall families that inadequately supervise their children and that working mothers might fall short in this regard. Many women, however, have no choice between domestic and other work; they must do both. Of Persian women employed in the mid-1980s, 62 percent were between 15 and 35 years old; 60 percent of this cohort were married, thus working inside and outside the house (Kār, 1994, p. 142). According to a survey of 200 married female nurses in Tehran, housework claims 91 to 297 hours of their time monthly. On average, these women spend 178 monthly hours doing housework, in addition to their 140-hour workload (Zan-e rūz, 27 October 1996, p. 13; Šāmbayātī). A woman may seek remuneration for household tasks outside her wifely duties, undertaken at the husband’s “order” (dastūr). However, this requirement, and the lack of procedures determining her labor value, make observers skeptical about the actual benefits to women under this law (Zan-e rūz, 18 December 1993, p. 19). It should be noted that while a man’s employment is a source of pride, a women’s employment “creates an artificial feeling of not paying adequate attention to the responsibilities of a wife and mother” (Šāmbayātī, p. 93).

Education. The success of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s gender policies depend on the availability of female personnel to provide services for women. Government educational policy has been shaped accordingly, reflecting two fundamental Islamic assumptions: the natural differences between the sexes and women’s primary role as wives and mothers. In 1982, for instance, the Ministry of Education introduced the Kād (kār o dāneš, “work and knowledge”) Plan as a step toward self-sufficiency. According to the Kād Plan, students were to be sent to various technical centers one day a week to receive hands-on training. Yet training for female students was restricted to their high schools and limited to such fields as hygiene, first aid, sewing, cooking, and knitting (Zan-e rūz, 16 March 1984, p. 15).

Based on data projected for the year 2000 (UNESCO, 1999), illiteracy is 30 percent for females 15 or over and 16.3 percent for males of the same age. Females aged 15 through 24 years have only an 8.2 percent illiteracy rate, a clear indication of increased availability of education. Illiteracy for boys of the same age is 3.7 percent.

Moderate but steady changes can be traced in female education at both pre-college and college levels. Female enrollment in primary schools increased from 38 percent in 1975 to 47 percent in 1996. Secondary enrollment rose from 36 percent (1975) to 46 percent (1996). At the tertiary level, enrollment remained between 28 percent in 1975 and 27 in 1990, but rose to 36 percent in 1996 (UNESCO, 1988, 1998). The closing of coeducational schools negatively affected women’s technical education. In 1997, only 31 of 540 technical schools were for girls. Females lacked access to 73 agricultural schools (Iran Statistical Center, 1997).

Vast differences exist between urban and rural education and among provinces for both males and females (see education vii, xxiv, xxvi). The higher the education level, the lower the rural access. Opportunities are unavailable for rural girls to pursue technical and agricultural education or technical and rural teachers’ training programs unless they live near a city with educational facilities. But the gap between boys’ and girls’ education in rural primary schools has narrowed since the revolution. Considering the shortages of rural education facilities, the government allowed mixed primary schools (Shahidian, 1991; Šādīṭalab, 1995) Access for women to mathematical and technical sciences, experimental sciences, law, and management at the college level was similarly curbed in the 1980s. Restrictions in most fields were eased in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the result of a campaign launched by the reformist faction (Jalālī Nāʾīnī, 1994, pp. 27-43; Kār, 1999b, pp. 213-17).

The majority of women in higher education are enrolled in BA/BS and postgraduate programs, while men constitute a higher percentage in programs offering a technical certificate (kār-šenāsī). Medical sciences attract a high proportion of women, who by the mid-1990s constituted over half of medical school enrollment (UNESCO, 1998). The government seeks to create sufficient skilled female health care staff to provide services to women.

Males with at least a bachelor degree are eligible for study abroad. Women applying for such scholarships must be accompanied by their husbands (Markaz-e mošārekat-e zanān, 1999, p. 310). Under equal conditions, married men have priority.

Employment. The Islamic Republic of Iran initially aimed to confine women to the private sphere so that they could attend to their duties as wives and mothers. Asserting this objective in 1979 evoked a strong reaction. Since then, though women’s employment has significantly declined compared to the pre-revolutionary period, the government found resistance too strong to confine them to the private sector. As in many other areas, in employment, too, rights and privileges for women gained under the Pahlavis (e.g., increasing female employment and education) have stunted the implementation of many exclusionary policies of the IRI. In addition, economic hardship under the IRI has left no choice for many families other than reliance upon two incomes (and often, more than one job per partner). These considerations notwithstanding, the Islamic sexual division of labor has taken its toll on women’s employment.

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