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Gender Relations in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Women work only in areas the IRI deems appropriate (e.g., midwifery, medicine, teaching), compatible with their physical and psychological capacities (e.g., laboratory sciences, electronic engineering, pharmaceutical, and social work), or in fields where gender does not affect performance (e.g., unskilled work in industries or services). Women’s work, however, must not interfere with their familial role (Markaz-e mošārekat-e zanān, 1999, p. 343-46).

In general, conditions for the employment of women in the IRI have not been favorable declining from 12.9 percent active in 1976 to 8.9 percent in 1986 and 8.7 percent in 1991 (but rebounding in recent years to 14.4 percent). The rate of unemployment for women was at the very high level of 24.4 percent in 1991. It must be remembered, however, that students and housewives are counted as economically inactive; thus the rate of unemployment for women has been affected by two other important trends, declines in the rates of marriage and the pursuit of education, which have the effect of pushing women into a labor market incapable of absorbing them (see employment).

The IRI prefers skilled and educated to non-skilled female labor. In 1996, while women constituted about 40 percent of the “professionals” category, they accounted for only 1.15 percent of plant and machine operators, assemblers, and drivers, and 4.35 percent of unskilled workers (Iran Statistical Center, 1999, p. 102). Women wage-laborers are mostly selected from the unmarried pool, to reduce production costs such as childcare expenses. Factories often lack daycare facilities (Moḥsenī, 1998).

Iran’s economy is divided into private, public, and cooperative sectors. In 1996, over half of employed women worked in the private sector. This percentage included self-employed as well as unpaid family female workers, which jointly composed 73 percent of women’s employment in this sector. Women constituted 3 percent of employers and 7.64 percent of wage and salary earners. The public sector employed about 40 percent of all female employees; the cooperative, only .5 percent (Iran Statistical Center 1999, p. 103).

A supposed alternative to public employment, women’s cooperatives require limited or no contact between the sexes and only meager capital. The government urges women to use their homes as co-op centers, so as to work without neglecting domestic tasks (Ḵodāparast; Šaʿbānī, 1996). By 1999, 11 percent of all cooperatives were women’s. Women still face economic hurdles, restricted capital especially. The Islamic Republic recommends women’s co-ops have only a small percentage of total capital for loans. Yet most banks refuse even to that extent (Moqaddam).

The government is the biggest single employer of women. Less than one-third of all full-time, permanent government employees are women. The ministries of Education, Culture and Higher Education, and Health and Medical Education rank among the largest employers of women among the government agencies.

Women are primarily concentrated in education (44.1 percent), and health and social work (39.3 percent). Few work in construction, the restaurant and hotel business, wholesale and retail trade, and mining (from less than 1 percent to 4.2 percent). 23 percent of employees in manufacturing are female (Iran Statistical Center, 1999, p. 94). Skilled female labor in the industrial sector has been slight.

In the mid-1980s, preoccupied with domesticity, the government offered women part-time employment options. Women could reduce their working time one-fourth and accept reduced salary and benefits, contingent on employers’ agreement. That contingency effectively bars some women from this option. In addition to the financial burden, women lose rights to many fringe benefits, and their promotion time—even their position—is jeopardized. Furthermore, the availability of part-time employment to females reinforces fundamentalist attitudes that women take employment lightly (Zan-e rūz,30 November 1991, p. 9).

Sexuality and marriage. Gender and sexuality are interconnected in the fundamentalist outlook. Sexuality not only renders reproduction possible, but also becomes a means for men and women to play their gender roles, securing well-being for family and society. Marriage is the only proper context for sexual gratification (Javādī Āmolī, 1993). That women, like men, are sexual beings is accepted in the traditional Islamist view, but it is equally regarded as axiomatic that the sexual instinct remains dormant in “good women” until marriage. Women are supposed to have two mutually exclusive sexual selves. One, uninhibited and pleasing; the other, demure, practically non-existent. The sexual and asexual woman live in one, but when the sexual is present (i.e., with the husband), the asexual should depart. Conversely, woman should show no sign of sexuality before marriage or in public. Restricting sex to marriage necessitates strict moral codes. Ideologues expend energy delineating the whos, whens, wheres, and whys of legitimate sexual activity. Deviation is tantamount to anarchy. Any “premature” sexual awakening, i.e., before marriage, is thought to lead to anguish and moral degeneracy (Safarī, pp. 36-38).

One result of this system of values has been that young people are encouraged to marry soon after puberty (Fażl-Allāh, 1998; Kāẓemī Ḵalḵālī, 1991, pp. 109-18). The legal age for marriage is 9 for females and 18 for males. Since 1979, the number of married girls between 10 and 14 has considerably increased. Nearly 50 percent of all women marry before 19 (Šādīṭalab, p. 9). Most authors, however, recognize that economic factors such as high unemployment and skyrocketing inflation seldom make early marriage practical.

In this context, however, the question of temporary marriage (moʿta) has attracted much attention. Former President ʿAlī-Akbar Hāšemī Rafsanjānī, for example, encouraged youth to use temporary marriage as a safe, sanctioned zone for interaction between the sexes.

Though temporary marriage for sexual pleasure in exchange for remuneration is legal, sexual liaisons without religious sanction is not. Women engaging in illegitimate sex—either for money or due to “not adhering to moral and social values” (Markaz-e mošārekat-e zanān, 1999, p. 261)—are sent to rehabilitation centers.

Veiling. The veil (ḥejāb, q.v.) is best understood in the context of modesty, applicable equally to both sexes. “A Muslim wears clothes not to present, but to conceal the body” (Ḥaddād ʿĀdel, p. 40). However, women must care about concealment more than men because men respond more to visual stimulation (ibid, p. 63).

Legal ambiguity in the IRI about the requirements of “proper ḥejāb” and the means of enforcing it creates opportunities for individuals to negotiate proper behavior (Shirazi-Mahajan, 1995), but it also makes women vulnerable. What is acceptable one day might be outlawed the next, and the line between acceptable and unacceptable may be crossed, in the eyes of some, by the slippage of a scarf or an overbold use of lipstick. The IRI often exploits this uncertainty, especially during politico- economic crises.

Gender-based domestic violence. Though family violence is officially condemned, little is known about its actual extent (ʿAbbāsqolīzāda, p. 141). Violence against women in this regard is thought to stem from structural inequities between the sexes (Eʿzāzī). The disproportionate power of men in terms of rights to divorce and custody limits women’s freedom to leave abusive relationships. The concept that men rule the household justifies spousal abuse, “jeopardizing thousands of women due to men’s use of instruments of power and violence” (Ḥoqūq-e zanān no. 2, May-June 1998, p. 27).

According to Ayatollah Aḥmad Beheštī (Zan-e rūz, no. 40-41, 5 October 1985), a husband’s fair supervision guarantees a happy marital life. Beheštī instructs the husband that authority makes him ultimately responsible for his wife’s morality. Repeating the Koran’s three-step “remedy” for a wife’s insubordination (advice, refusing to share a bed, and beating), Beheštī recalls the Prophet’s dicta, “do not beat her unless the beating does not injure; do not leave her unless inside the house.” Ayatollah Moḥammad Bojnūrdī has attempted to define the limits of the right to “beat” the wife: Beating is vengeful, and Islam only approves of chastisement, taʿzīr, which can only be administered by the proper authorities. Thus if a husband cannot persuade his wife to comply with his wishes, he must go to court to determine her guilt and any consequent physical or financial punishment (Ḥoqūq-e zanān no. 3, June-July 1998, p. 9).

Opposition to gender policies. Secular and Muslim women have challenged various aspects of the gender policies of the IRI. Muslim reformists, known as “Islamic feminists,” express themselves in such journals as Payām-e zan (Woman’s message), Zanān (Women), Farzāna (Sage), and Ḥoqūq-e zanān (Women’s rights). “Islamic feminism,” however, is an imprecise term. Like other movements, “Islamic feminism” unites a number of convergent streams. Some, led by token women in the higher echelons of the Islamic government, fundamentally agree with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s gender policies, but recommend modifications to appease national and, especially, international critics (Aḥmadī Ḵorāsānī, 1999a). Others, more critical, offer new interpretations of Islam to save it from male-oriented “misconceptions.” And there are others still, non-religious thinkers trapped in the confines of an Islamic state, who seek some way to express their criticisms. Among these are lawyers who must work within the existing legal system or intellectuals who, to avoid censorship and censure, shroud their ideas in an Islamic discourse, or at least a discourse that does not overtly and fundamentally challenge Islam (Shahidian, 1998b). They share an objective: to reform IRI gender policies, especially in education, employment, politics, and law. Most acknowledge distinctions between sexes, but contend that inequalities derive from society and thus denounce biological justifications for discrimination.

It is difficult to assess the influence of “Islamic feminists” in Persian politics in the absence of empirical evidence. But “Islamic feminists” and the “moderate” or “reformist” faction of the IRI have been mutually supportive (see, e.g., Zanān no. 43; Saʿīdzāda, 1998). Such a relationship has undermined the autonomy of “Islamic feminists,” making women’s gains contingent upon the regime’s internal conflicts. For example, after the election of President Ḵaṭamī in 1997, the “conservative” Majles representatives passed laws to segregate hospital services, to forbid using pictures of women on the front pages of magazines, and to curtail discussions of women’s rights outside the šarīʿa. Some women activists, like Šīrīn ʿEbādī and Mehrangīz Kār, have received death threats; both, as well as Šahlā Lāhījī, an active publisher, were imprisoned in spring 2000; and Moḥsen Saʿīdzāda, a clergyman authoring revisionist interpretations, has been defrocked.
Secular women have had still harder struggles. Secular feminists as well as female nationalists and leftists, opposed the IRI from early on (Shahidian, 1997; Moghissi; Tabari and Yeganeh, 1982). With increasing suppression, secular women ceased organized activism. Located outside accepted political frameworks, deprived of many resources available to reformists, wary of persecution, and hindered by theoretical uncertainties, they have continued intervening through informal friendships, research circles, formal and informal associations, cyber communities, and contacts abroad. Though resilient, these individuals are fragile; their effectiveness must not be overemphasized. They are isolated and cliquish, and thus of limited efficacy.

Repudiating the claim that “the Muslim woman is the Persian woman,” secular writers have exhumed the past, revived censored or forgotten figures, and explored various experiences of Persian and non-Persian women. Particular attention has been paid to narratives of working women. The concept of a primarily domestic role for women has been criticized for restricting their financial independence and limiting their opportunities outside the home (Keshāvarz; Aḥmadī Ḵorāsānī, 1997; Shahidian, 1998a). Clashes between traditionalism and modernity in this regard have been frequently noted (Samīʿī, 1999; Najmabadi, 1998; ʿEbādī, 1999; Aḥmadī Ḵorāsānī, 1999b; Shahidian, 1999). Women have been warned of the negative socio-political implications of attempts to marginalize them, but the discontent it causes also has the potential to mobilize them in the vanguard of those struggling for humanism, democracy, and internationalism (Najm ʿErāqī).

The emergence of Ḵaṭamī in the 1997 elections tended to sharpen the divisions between the secular feminists seeking an alternative to the IRI from the Islamic reformers searching for a remedy within the existing framework of the state (Shahidian, forthcoming). Ḵaṭamī supporters opt for greater freedom and equity for women through legal complaints that effect “incremental progress” (Aḥmadī Ḵorāsānī, in Zanān no. 51, p. 4). Others criticize this orientation, holding that such limited demands reinforce conservatism and that supporting any faction of the government only jeopardizes women’s autonomy. These critics welcome working with Muslim women on specific issues, but see a fundamental difference between their objectives and those of the various reformists.

Political Participation. Women have made incremental gains in terms of their political role under the IRI. the right of women to vote was not restricted, and indeed government officials frequently exhort Muslim women to participate in politics as a religious duty. This tends to legitimate their political activity, but the subordination this political role to their domestic responsibilities remains emphasized. Of course, women who advocate opposition to policies of the IRI are often condemned for crossing social and moral boundaries. Thus, the women who demonstrated in March 1979 against compulsory veiling were likened to prostitutes (e.g., Eṭṭelāʿāt, 6 July 1980).

Since a woman is constitutionally ineligible to serve as walī-e faqīh (the supreme religious leader), a man will always overshadow the political life of women in the IRI. In practice, men have also had a hold over the presidency. Several women have applied to run for president, but as of this writing all such applications had been rejected.
Women are absent at the highest levels of government. Only 11 of 290 deputies in the Sixth Majles were women. The highest political position held thus far by a woman is Vice-Presidency for Environmental Affairs. There are now three women presidential advisors and one university president; few other women have been appointed to directorships of governmental offices.

In state-related politics, rank-and-file women have gained experience and claim more prominent positions. In 1999, 2 percent of municipal candidates were women; 297 in urban areas and 484 in rural areas were elected (Zanān, no. 51, March 1999, p. 65).

There are over 90 ostensibly non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for women. A bureau within the president’s office, essentially a control agency of the IRI, was established to supervise them (Jalālī Nāʾīnī). The overwhelming majority of NGOs are in fact built from the top.

The IRI has mobilized women to promote its political agenda. Women employed by various control agencies such as the Zaynab Sisters roam the streets checking for ḥejāb compliance. During the war with Iraq, Islamist women garnered material and spiritual support. They sewed, prepared meals, collected financial assistance, and promoted the war.

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