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Iranian Women’s Long Climb Back

How did Iranian women gain an uneasy truce with Muslim clerics?

May 4, 2001

How did Iranian women gain an uneasy truce with Muslim clerics?

The rights enjoyed by the professional, Western-educated female elite of Tehran under the Old Regime might not have meant much to the majority of lower-class religious women who had never stopped wearing the veil. But many of these women came into the public sphere through another venue: the revolution.

Ayatollah Khomeini, in an act that illustrates just how complex his tactics were, chose to politicize these women. In the early days, he encouraged them to leave the confines of their homes and take to the streets — with or without the permission of their husbands and fathers. And so they did, by the thousands, putting on their black chadors to confront the Shah’s army.

They were joined by many secular women who demonstrated against the Shah’s dictatorship. When it was over, both groups of women expected to assume a less subservient place in society.

The secular, Westernized women expected that their emancipation and professional opportunities would expand as society became more democratic. And the religiously oriented revolutionaries expected that society would become more pious, but in a way that would respect women as the equals of men.

When that didn’t happen, many women felt betrayed. They began to rebel, quietly, against the constraints. As the economy contracted, as they lost their husbands and sons in the war with Iraq, they often had no choice but to go to work.

The clerics discovered that they simply could not exclude women, particularly younger women, from government, employment, and education.

Mohammad Khatami’s sweeping victory in the 1997 presidential election was due in large part to the votes of women, who believed his pledges to elevate their legal and social status and give them a key role in the civil society he envisioned.

It still stuns me to see women daring to be outspoken, whether it is a peasant woman arguing with a bank clerk — or a female deputy in Parliament arguing for passage of a piece of legislation. Perhaps it is that women are not as harshly treated or punished for wrongdoing as men. Perhaps it is that they are not taken as seriously as men or considered as much of a threat.

Or perhaps the traumas Iran has suffered since the revolution have in some way jarred loose the feminine imagination, allowing previously powerless women to become more powerful if only because they need to be.

During the Iran-Iraq war, for example, women in chadors pressured the Parliament to change the law that gave custody of the children of a war casualty to the dead soldier’s family, not to the children’s mother, and the law that gave survivor benefits to fathers rather than to widows.

The reality, of course, is that Iranian women have an uphill struggle. Despite their gains, women do not serve as judges or religious leaders. Adultery is still punishable by stoning to death. Polygamy is legal. In a divorce, fathers control custody of sons over the age of two and daughters over the age of seven. A girl can be tried for a crime as an adult at the age of nine — a boy at fifteen. Although the practice is officially discouraged, girls are allowed to marry at nine.

Women inherit only half of what men do. Men can divorce their wives at will, but women need to prove that their spouses are insane, impotent, violent, or unable to support the family. A woman needs her husband’s permission to start a business and sometimes even to get a job.

Yet women have begun to use their growing political clout to press for more rights, more important jobs in government, and the same pay, work benefits, and promotions as men. The women leading the charge are products of the revolution. (Since the revolution, literacy among women has soared from less than 50% to 70%.) Together, these women share a common goal: They want something much more fundamental than sisterhood. They want power.