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Women's Movements in Iran, 1850 21st Century
A Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009

After Reza Shah's fall, independent organizations were formed. In 1942 Safiyeh Firouz formed ‘the National Women's Society” and in 1944 the newly formed “Council of Iranian Women” strongly criticized polygamy. The communist Soviet backed party, the Tudeh Party's, “Women's league”, was the best organized of this period. In 1944 Huma Houshmandar published Our Awakening and in 1949 the women's league changed its name to “the Organization of Democratic Women” and branches were opened in all major cities. Zahra and Taj Eskandari, Iran Arani, Maryam Firouz, Dr. Khadijeh Keshavarz, Dr. Ahktar Kambakhsh, Badri Alavi and Aliyeh Sharmini were amongst the best-known Tudeh activists. The society was later changed to the “Organization of Progressive Women” and in 1951 unsuccessfully lobbied for electoral rights. The popular Prime Minister, Dr. Mossadegh's fall put an end to independent organizations. In 1949 the Higher Council of Women was formed headed by Ashraf Pahlavi. The council opened branches all over the country focussing on health, education and charity work. By 1964, it was changed to the Organization of Iranian Women and in 1978 had 349 branches, 113 Centers and covered 55 other organizations dealing with women's welfare and health. The last registrar indicates that in 1977 alone over a million women used the services. Most centers were destroyed after the revolution.

In 1951, Mehrangiz Dawlatshahi (the first female Ambassador) formed Rah Naw (New Path) and with Safeyeh Firouz founded the first organization supporting human rights. The two met with the Shah and demanded electoral rights. Opposition by religious authorities ended the debate. In 1962 women were at last given the right to vote and to be elected. In 1968 the Family Protection Law was ratified. Divorce was referred to family courts, gains were made with respect to divorce laws, polygamy was limited, and required the first wife’s written consent. Marriage age for girls was set at 18 years. Mrs. Parsa became the first women minister in Iran. Women were required to serve the education corps and engage in military service. In 1975, women gained the right of guardianship over their children after their husband’s death. Abortion was never legalized, but the existing penalties were omitted and this made it a lot easier.

In 1975 Mahnaz Afkhami became the first minister responsible for women's affairs. The Islamic family codes of Shari’aremained and ulama's response was drastic. Fatwas—by known figures including Ayatollah Khomeini—declared the move heretic; demonstrations followed, but were put down. An important event was the appointment of the Empress Farah as the regent for the crown prince in 1967. She was also the first queen who was officially crowned in 1967 coronation of Muhammad Reza Shah.

The Muslim’s reaction to all these changes was drastic. Dr. Ali Shariati a popular speaker and writer published the best seller Fatima is Fatima and declared all western-looking Iranian women corrupt and the Muslim ones as confused and in need of guidance. Ayatollah Motahari started the popular series “women in Islam” in the secular magazine “Zan-i Ruz” and confirmed hejab. There were no independent organizations except the underground groups opposing the monarchy. Marzieh Ahmadi Oskouei, Ashraf Dehghani, Mansoureh Tavafchian, Fatimah Rezaei and Mrs Shayegan were amongst the activists. By 1978, 33 % of all the university students were female with 2 million in the workforce. Around 190,000 women were professionals with university degrees. There were 333 women in the local councils: 22 in Majlis and 2 in the Senate.


The Islamic Republic of Iran

1979 was the beginning of widespread protests against the Pahlavi Dynasty. Millions of women participated in the protests prior to the success of the movement. The Islamic Republic was established in January 1979 and by March women were barred from becoming judges. The Family Protection Law was abolished by a declaration from Imam Khomeini's office in April. Women working at government offices were ordered to observe the Islamic dress code. On March 8, International Women's Day, thousands of women gathered at Tehran University to protest. The speakers could not speak since the microphones had been sabotaged. The crowd moved towards Ayatollah Taleghani's house, Jam e Jam TV station and the Ministry of Justice. In April the marriage age for girls was reduced to 13 and married women were barred from attending regular schools. By this time many independent women's organizations were formed and all political parties had their own women's league.

Tens of women's magazines were published. The daily “Awakening of Women” was amongst the first published by Tehran University and was immediately followed by “Equality,” “Women in Struggle” and “Women's Path.” The latter with the “National Union of Women” and others formed a loose coalition called the Committee for Solidarity of Women. The Organization of Iranian Women, The Women Populace of Iran, Women's branch of National Democratic Front, National Front and the Association of women lawyers were amongst the most active. The last one is the only organization that still exists and it has formed an extremely powerful lobby in support of women's rights.

The Islamic Women's Movement was formed with the support of the government. Monireh Gorjee a member of the Islamic Republic Party was the only woman at the Assembly of Experts when the new constitution was drafted. She did not oppose the new legislation concerning women. Shari’a became the legal code. In the first election after the revolution, two women Gohar Dastghayb and Maryam Behruzi were elected for the Majlis and represented the two prominent parties, Islamic Republic and Crusaders for Islam. Azam Taleghani represented the Women's Society of Islamic Revolution and send letters to Khomeini cautioning the authorities about compulsory veiling. Altogether 217 members were elected to the first Majlis; only 3 were women. The birthday of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, was declared National Women's Day. In 1980, Azam Taleghani completely wrapped in Islamic attire, represented Iran in United Nations Conference on Women in Thailand. Zahra Rahnavard, Prime Minister Mousavi's wife, took over the popular magazine “Etelaate-i Banouvan” and the name was changed to “Rah Zeynab” (Path of Zeynab). Fereshteh Hashemi was appointed chief editor of the popular weekly, Women Today “Zan-i Ruz”. In the early 1980s Dr. Shahin Tabatabei chaired Iran at another United Nations' women's conference in Denmark; among independent participants was Laleh Bahktiar, the well-known scholar of Islamic mystic literature, and psychologist residing in England. When asked about stoning women to death, she commented that no crime is worst than adultery committed by women! At the same time the tomb of Sadigeh Dawlatabadi was destroyed. In her last will and testament she had said that she did not want any veiled woman ever to visit her grave!

In the summer of 1980, Rajai the Prime Minister introduced the Law of Compulsory Veiling to Majlis. Soon all political parties were banned, members were arrested and the mass executions of the 1980s put an end to all independent political activities. The Islamist group, Mojahedin Khalgh suffered the most. Maryam Firouz, an executive member of the Tudeh Party, praised Imam Khomeini and called him the most important supporter of Women's rights in our history. The Tudeh party was the next one to go! A year later, Maryam Behruzi in Beijing condemned abortion, denounced daycares as centers for producing robots. She defended the Islamic Criminal code and regarded Ghesas (punishment prescribed by the Islamic codes) as appropriate and Islamic. Outside Iran the National Council of Resistance and the National Union of Women were established. Rah Zeynab magazine was closed down. Muslim women began expressing concern over their situation in Iran. Armed male and female personnel began their function as the guardians of the Islamic code of conduct by arresting, imprisoning, flogging and imposing monetary penalties on both males and females.

In 1982, after a meeting with Zahra Rahnavard, Azam Taleghani, Ali Mojtaba Kermani, Ahmad Sadr Haj Sayyid Javadi and Naser Katousian, the Freedom Movement’s women's league in Tehran expressed concern over the implementation of the Islamic Legal Code. In 1984, the first theology school for females was established in Qom. The male teachers entered the fortress-like building through an underground passage and never met any of the students. The school has female tutors only and no males are allowed inside. Unlike male students of such schools, the women do not have a religious rank. Such schools have stayed away from all debates about women in Qom and nationally and only support the official policies. The only women journal published by the theology students in the 1980s; “Payam-i Zan” (Women’s Message) was published by males.

After the war with Iraq and during the 1990s, women's issues became front-page news. In 1992, the magazine “Zanan” published and systematically criticized the Islamic family code. They argued gender equality was Islamic, but that religious literature was misread and misappropriated by misogynist interest-oriented males. Secular activists Mehrangiz-i Kar, Shahla Lahiji, Shirin Ebadi and the Muslim Shahla Sherkat (the editor of “Zanan”) lead the debate on women's rights and demanded reforms. The leadership did not respond, but for the first time they could not silence the movement.

Segregation of sexes legitimized the entry of millions of lower class girls from traditional families and rural areas into the public life and the education system. The segregation required training of women to serve the female-only policies. Thousands were employed in the security forces and morality corps and others to impose strict Islamic codes. For many women, this was the first time they had fully entered public life and received wages with pensions at the end. Khatami's presence in the Ministry of Guidance paved the way for a less restricted press. Hundreds of books about feminist issues were and are published currently, including radical feminist books and biographies. Faezeh Hashemi, President Rafsanjani's daughter, initiated Asian games for Muslim women in 1993. Later on, the establishment attacked her for being outspoken, wearing blue jeans and riding bicycles. In a landslide victory she was elected to the 5th Majlis with the highest number of votes in Tehran. Muslim feminism had emerged in Iran.

In 1998, she published the popular daily “Zan” (Woman) for a few months. In the end, she was forced to close it down after printing a caricature mocking Islamic penalty (deyeh) with respect to women. She lost the 2000 election because of her support for her unpopular father.

In 1997, a prenuptial document to be signed at the time of marriage was approved. The object was to give women the rights they lacked in Shari’a. The future husband forfeits his rights to polygamy and unconditional divorce. Women can initiate divorce, divide assets and have joint custody of children and child support. All the articles are conditioned. As pointed out by the critics, this is only a voluntary contract, men do not have to sign it and, if they do not, they face no legal consequences. The practice so far has failed and most men will not sign the contract. Few gains have been made since then. Family courts are back again and divorce is referred to these courts, though the number of courts is very limited. Women can function as judges but do not have the title. The legal bride price; mahriyeh an obligation under Islamic lawis indexed and linked to inflation. But so far no fundamental changes have occurred. By the late 1990s, the National Muslim Women's League, sponsored and financed by the government, became a powerful umbrella organization providing support and networking for sixty registered women's organizations. In 1998, 52% of the students entering universities were female and the worsening economic situation has forced millions of women to enter the workforce. By 2000, the number of females entering universities increased to almost 53 of the total number of students and by 2006, the number was closer to 60%. The authorities responded first by restricting women’s access to certain subjects and then, by limiting the number of female students entering the universities by imposing quotas for different subjects. Currently females have access to around 80 of the subjects available while the only restriction for males is gynecology. The fifth Majlis had 13 female deputies out of 270. The changes and the oppression have released a massive political force never seen before. The result has been the formation of a dynamic grassroots movement led by the so-called Muslim feminists who believe men have misinterpreted and manipulated the religious texts.

This re-interpretation movement is part of a larger global movement by small reformist groups who are questioning the Shari’a and its compatibility with the modern world. Muslims have never criticized practices of Islam. Nor has any Muslim country provided a safe environment where such re-thinking could be experimented. Historically, all such movements have either been crushed or resulted in new religions such as the Ismaili and Baha’i. The struggles over the last two centuries have made one thing clear to women in Iran: the inability of the Shari’a and religious authorities to improve the legal status of women and the centrality of women to the political process. What happened in Iran is a logical evolution of the women's movement since its beginning in the 1800s. Ironically, it started with religious reformists and ended up forming a new religion—Baha’i. The women of Iran do not intend to create a new religion. But the realization is all too clear. Change is not going to come from within the system. Shariat is God's word and the constitution forbids any legislation contrary to Shari’a.

Pahlavi’s rule cleared the path for women. Eventually they had to face the major obstacle, Shariat. The revolution provided the momentum. The secular women, though extremely active especially in legal matters, are not heard as well as are the Muslim women. The two have joined forces now. How far the secular and the Muslim feminists will go depends on the success of the larger movement in the Islamic world and the political situation in Iran. In the 1997 presidential election, eight women nominated themselves as candidates. The Council of Guardians rejected all eight.


The Reformists

The reformist cleric, Mr. Khatami won the presidential election in 1998 by promising women reforms and equal opportunities. He appointed a few women at higher levels of the government. His controversial choice of appointing Dr. Massoume Ebtekar as the Director of the National Environmental Agency received international criticism. Dr. Ebtekar was the spokesperson for the militant group that occupied the American Embassy and initiated the hostage crisis in 1979. Other than such appointments, very little was achieved. After his term ended, he blamed the hard-liners. The Majlis has proved to be a failure as far as women’s issues are concerned. It dose not have enough power to implement reform. The Guardian Council rejected all new legislation approved by the sixth parliament aiming at improving the women's situation. Women were refused more grounds for initiating divorce and the increase in marriage age for girls and boys to 15 and 17 had been declared non-Islamic. A bill permitting single women to go abroad for higher education using government subsidies was rejected as well. However, it was eventually approved in March 2001, after adding a new clause: single women can do this as long as they have written permission from their fathers.

The three prominent feminists and human right activists, Mehrangeez Kar, Shahla Lahijii and Shirin Ebadi, were imprisoned for brief periods of time and were released on bail. Mrs. Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her human right activities in Iran. Raiding private residences, arresting and flogging youth—male and female—fluctuated but in general was reduced during president Khatami’s terms. Females became more daring with respect to clothing in public and street arrests have also increased. Khatami's second cabinet was a disappointment as far as reformists and women were concerned. He was not able to implement any major reform concerning women's issues and human rights in general.


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