MYTH vs. FACT: Women in Iran

It is a pervasive belief that women in Iran are voiceless victims of the patriarchy, bereft of intellectual energy or otherwise barred from making genuine contributions to Iranian society.[1] Ann Coulter, the conservative American commentator, regularly paints a miserable picture of women’s rights in Iran, among other nations. Here’s a particularly brash remark[2]:

“In Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and many other Muslim countries, women ‘choose’ to cover their heads on pain of losing them.”

It is true that women have long endured horrific oppression in many parts of the Middle East. But is that the case for all women in Iran?

The answer isn’t nearly as straightforward as Coulter suggests.  

Yes, women in Iran do face entrenched discrimination in several realms of life. The government prohibits women from entering sports stadiums to watch athletic contests, mandates the wearing of hijab in public, and forces women to obtain permission from their husband before traveling abroad.[3] More seriously, Iranian women continue to suffer from spousal abuse, sexual violence,[4] and legal repercussions – like long prison sentences – for feminist activism.[5] And, while Iran’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, has expressed confidence in the state – “the Islamic Republic of Iran has always had the empowerment of women and improving their status… on its agenda,” she told the Commission on the Status of Women – meaningful reforms appear elusive.[6] On the same day of Molaverdi’s speech, the Iranian parliament considered legislation that would dramatically curtail women’s access to voluntary sterilization, a popular form of contraception in Iran, and subject women to heightened gender-discrimination both in the home and in the labor market.[7]

But this hasn’t always been the case. Historically, the Iranian government has actually proven itself fairly adept at expanding educational, professional, and social opportunities for women. Under Shah Reza Pahlavi, women were enfranchised, allowed to wear modern dress, and encouraged to attend school. (But Pahlavi’s program of modernization, modeled after the west, wasn’t all peaches and cream. His government’s intelligence operatives orchestrated a brutal program of political repression, suppressing thousands of dissidents.[8]) After the 1979 revolution, coeducational institutions were segregated based on gender, and the hijab became compulsory – but traditional Iranians, alienated by Pahlavi’s cultural transformations, preferred the post-revolution state of affairs.

Iranian women also benefitted from successful family planning policies.[9] As early as 1966, Iran adopted a modern family planning program, incorporating public education and professional development in its health programs. In 1989, after the war with Iraq devastated the country’s finances, the government revitalized its family planning initiatives. Contraceptives were made free for couples, and women were encouraged to go to school and find work. The results, according to the Los Angeles times, was the “largest and fastest drop in fertility ever recorded.”[10] In 1985, Iranian women, on average, gave birth to 5.6 children; that number fell to 2.0 by 2000.[11] Even the fertility rates of rural women fell, from 8.1 births per woman in 1976 to 2.4 in 2000, thanks to the thousands of “health houses” that provided basic medical care in rural areas.

Today, Iranian women are not silent; rather, they are on the frontlines on the struggle for greater gender equality. (That women in Iran, aged 15 to 24, enjoy nearly universal literacy certainly helps.[12]) Molaverdi, the Iranian Vice President of Women and Family Affairs, routinely criticizes the country’s administration for ignoring the rights of women. “The world today has reached the conclusion that the separation of men and women is inefficient, unprincipled and unjust,” she said, “The time has come that women must fulfill their share in the… [Iran’s] development prospects.”[13]

Iranian women have taken to the streets, too, to protest discriminatory laws. In August 2006, the One Million Signatures campaign, an attempt to file a petition against the Iranian state’s poor record on women’s affairs, emerged as a major feminist force. And, while the government arrested many demonstrators, members of the movement managed to ignite a national discussion about women’s rights in Iran – the first of its kind in the new millennium.[14] After the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian women adapted their early experience in guerrilla campaigning and became more confident. On July 10, 2013, intellectuals and activists involved with the feminist effort in Iran made several demands of Rouhani’s administration: reduced censorship of women’s magazines and artistic depictions of women; reforms in how activists are treated under the law; and the destigmatization of Iranian feminism in the public sphere.[15]

The overarching message here is that, while Iranian women do suffer from unjust laws and social practices, their future is far from bleak. When Iranians leaders – both male and female – are committed to the cause of women’s rights, they can make extraordinary advances in the right direction. So, the question isn’t if the women of Iran will ever see equality, but when. And, if the evidence of the recent past tells us anything, it’s that progress will come faster than we can imagine.