Women's Rights In Iran: Two Steps Back, One Step Forward

Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo.
Iranian women pray during the Eid al-Fitr prayer in Tehran on July 18.
Earlier this month, Refinery29 released a video series called "Tehran Unveiled," which seeks to inspire women all over the globe by introducing them to some of Iran's most creative, fearless, and dynamic female leaders.

We believe that part of that empowerment is education, not only about what women are doing in Iran now, but also about the country's history with respect to women's rights. In order to learn as much as possible, we reached out to Haleh Esfandiari, Ph.D., the founding director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Esfandiari was arrested and spent 105 days in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison for her activism. When she was released, she authored the memoir My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran. She served as deputy secretary general of the Women's Organization of Iran and has written several other books and many articles concerning gender equality, women's rights, and the women's revolution.

Dr. Esfandiari spoke with us about pre- and post-revolutionary Iran — about the progress women made for themselves, for their families, and for their country before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's oppressive regime, and how women are working to continue that progress under the current president, Hassan Rouhani.

What does feminism mean for Iranian women?
"What feminism really means is equality under the law and trying to repeal all the existing discrimination in the law. That’s why in 2006, a group of men and women got together and started the One Million Signatures movement to repeal all the discriminatory laws. If I want to put it in a nutshell, feminism has always meant equality under the law, among activist women and women who really are aware that they are living in a society which is discriminating against them."

Do you think the definition of feminism changes depending on which leader is in charge in Iran?
"Automatically. This is very natural. If you are a more conservative president and a more conservative government, then women’s rights are pushed on the back burner and are not dealt with as much as people expect. But if you are progressive, if you have a reformist president or a centrist president like the current president, Rouhani — who is aware of the role that women’s vote can play in his reelection, or play in his election to the presidency — of course they will try and improve women’s rights.
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What are conditions currently like for women living in Iran?
"If we look at the last 36 years of history in the Islamic Republic, it has been mostly two steps back and one step forward.

"Currently, life for women in Iran is improving when it comes to social issues. It is improving when it comes to political appointment; for the first time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed a woman as a spokesperson. But Rouhani has not been able to free all the women activists who are in jail, except for one person who was sentenced to death. [She] was released because Rouhani pushed very hard for her release. There are still women activists, [including] members of the One Million Signatures movement, still in jail.

"We are looking at a mixed bag when we look at the condition of women today in Iran. If Rouhani is elected for a second term, I'm sure he will push more for women's rights. But he hasn’t been able to stop the number of executions both for men and women since he came to power."

Tell us more about the One Million Signatures movement.
"The movement to collect one million signatures was part of the general women’s movement in Iran...Over the last 75 to 80 years, there has been an active women’s movement in Iran. It reached its peak in the decade before the revolution, where progressive family law was passed, where the age of marriage for girls was raised to 18, where women got the right to go and seek a divorce, where family courts were set up to look into family disputes, where women got equal access to education and employment.

"Those were the conditions before the revolution. After the revolution, one of the first decisions of the revolutionary government was to suspend the family-protection law. As a result, the age of marriage was reduced for girls to nine, and it took 10 years to raise it back up to 13.

"Women no longer have the right to go and seek a divorce. If they go to court, it is, at the end of the day, the judge who will decide whether the woman can get her divorce or not. Usually, the judge issues...[in favor of] the man. The man has the unilateral right to divorce his wife; child custody is given after a certain age to the father.

It's a modern society, but it’s also a traditional society where the approach is that the breadwinner should be a man.

Haleh Esfandiari, Woodrow Wilson International Center
"Today in Iran, there is equal access to education for women, so that's why over 63% of students entering classes at university are women. But education does not lead necessarily to employment, and unemployment is very high among the younger generation in Iran. The rate of unemployment among young women, women who graduated from university, is more than among men.

"If you look at it, it's a modern society, but it’s also a traditional society where the approach is that the breadwinner should be a man. But now, young couples look for jobs — both of them — because no young family can just live with one breadwinner."

Would you say, taking into account the progress that was made before Ahmadinejad was elected, that we've gone backwards or forwards?
"It’s very difficult to say if we’ve gone backwards or forwards. The point I'm making is that Iran is a very vibrant society, and the women have been at the forefront of change. No matter how much Ahmadinejad tried to push back women and to convince parliament to pass legislation that was harmful to women, women pushed back. Women were very active in stopping these laws. For example, the idea of barring women from certain fields of education was aborted because of the pressure that was brought in by women.

"It is a gradual change and a gradual progress. It’s not leaps. It is step by step, but it can’t be reversed, because the women won’t allow it."

Do you think that the recent talks between the United States and Iran will have any impact on liberalization in Iran?
"I don't think it's just contact between Iran and the U.S. — it’s the contact between Iran and the outside world that is instrumental in making these changes.

"You have a whole generation of young people who are very savvy when it comes to accessing the Internet. They tweet, they write blogs, they use Instagram, they take pictures, they email the pictures. So you have a country which is connected, a young generation of men and women who are aware of and make use of social media.

"If you arrest a woman activist, within a matter of minutes, you get the news not from one person but from many, many people. If there is an incident, let's say of stoning a woman, there is an outcry outside, because the news has been sent out. So the social media has been also instrumental and helpful to women's progress and change in Iran."
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Women have been at the forefront of change. It is step by step, but it can’t be reversed, because the women won’t allow it.

Haleh Esfandiari, Woodrow Wilson International Center
What official roles do Iranian women occupy in the country's current government and political space?
"They definitely are active, because had women not voted in great numbers for President Rouhani, he wouldn’t have been elected. The women's vote now in presidential elections is very important.

"Also, parties, whether they are conservative or centrist or reformist, feel that they have to have women candidates among the names they put up for parliamentary elections. There is a pressure on ministers to appoint at least one woman deputy minister, director, or general, and also a pressure on the president to make sure that each governor has an office of women's affairs.

"Women play a role, a political role, but how effective they are, we just don't know. Time will tell.

"But I think the women activists, the women who are part of the women's movement, are much more effective in pushing for reform and change than what the government tries to do. It is because of them that we see these changes in Iran."

What is the state of women's reproductive rights in Iran?
"Iran had one of the most successful birth-control programs in the whole world. They had managed to lower the birth rate to 2.2 [children per woman], but under Ahmadinejad, they cut off the funds to this program.

"But the reality on the ground is that families cannot afford to have too many children. The whole notion of having large families has changed in Iran, because of the level of education both among men and among women and also because there was free access to family planning.

"At this stage, they have not been able to reintroduce that law back, but I don't think it will affect the population growth, because both women and men know that it’s not affordable."

One should give the credit for change, and any progress that women have made, to women. They fought back against measures that were not in favor of women’s rights.

Haleh Esfandiari, Woodrow Wilson International Center
If a woman wants to obtain birth control in Iran today, is she able to?
"She can go and buy it. In the past, she could get whatever she needed for free. Now she probably has to pay for it."

Can she have an abortion?
"Abortion was never free after the revolution in Iran. Abortion was never free, except in the case of the health of the mother, or if the fetus was not completely intact. But it wasn't as if you could just walk in and get an abortion in Iran. This was never part of the post-revolutionary law in Iran.

"What happened before the revolution was that they had removed the criminalization of abortion from the law. They never said abortion is legal, but by removing the criminalization of abortion in the law, it then automatically became legal. But after the revolution, this was reversed and never touched."

If you had to pinpoint one goal for the future of women in Iran, what would it be?
"What I would like to see change is an end to laws discriminating against women. What I would like to see is a progressive family law, and what I would like to see is much more freedom in social spheres. Also, just like we have equal access to education, I would like to see equal access to employment and equal access to political appointment, as well as more women in leadership positions.

"I think basically one should give the credit for change, and any progress that women have made, to women. They fought back every step of the way against any measure that was not in favor of women’s rights."

Related: Meet an incredible Iranian designer who can't put her job on her résumé.
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