Between Skepticism, Pragmatism, and Gentle Protest

Although the women's movement in Iran is one of the most progressive and active in the Islamic world, it remains to be seen whether it will truly be able to assert itself in the sclerotic patriarchal system of the Islamic Republic. By Arian Fariborz

photo: AP
Growing confidence - women protesting for more constitutional rights at the University of Teheran

​​A young Iranian woman, dressed as a boy, tries to sneak into the Azadi Stadium in Teheran so she can watch Iran play Bahrain in a Soccer World Cup qualifying game. But her camouflage is detected. She is taken from the stands and banned from the stadium. In front of the entrance gates she encounters other unhappy female fans being kept at bay by male guardians of virtue.

In his film "Offside", which was recently awarded a "Silver Bear" at the Berlinale, renowned Iranian director Jaffar Panahi could hardly have more aptly described the social dilemma of modern women in Iran today. According to official estimates, 60 percent of soccer fans in Iran are women, and the names of their shooting stars are Mehdi Mahdavikia and Wahid Hashemian.

Many of them are better informed about the latest scores of international soccer clubs than their husbands. And yet they are regularly denied the right to watch major live sports events if men are among the spectators or are playing on the field.

Despite a women's sports movement offsides

At the same time sports in the Islamic Republic have long ceased to be an exclusively male sphere. On the contrary, Iran today boasts an official women's sports movement without parallel in the Islamic world. As early as the mid-1980s the mullahs were promoting sports for women and building special sport centers for women in the larger cities.

Fazeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, even regards feminine competitive sports as a milestone for the emancipation of women. The conservative reformer created quite a stir when she founded the first Islamic women's Olympics in 1993, which has since been held in Iran on a regular basis.

But although the younger generation of Iranian women today – unlike the revolutionary mothers of the Khomeini era – highly value sports, from karate to Nordic walking, the restrictions placed on them in the public sphere have scarcely changed over the last three decades.

Women can still only pursue sports only when men are excluded, no matter whether in closed fitness studios, in gyms, or outdoors – and when wearing headscarves. And since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 women have been prohibited from attending male sport competitions and events.

Soccer and politics

But after decades of prohibitions and decrees by Islam's guardians of virtue, Iran's women know best how to circumvent them. Therefore in 1997 radio appeals before the World Cup qualifying game between Iran and Bahrain calling for women to stay away from the game between the two teams fell on deaf ears.

After the 1:0 victory of the Persian national team thousands of Iranian women poured into the Azadi Stadium in Teheran and transformed the close victory over the Arabs into a real celebration together with the men. And in doing so, they probably gave Jaffar Panahi the idea for his profound soccer comedy "Offside".

Events like these highlight the changing self-awareness and self-image of women in Iran today. Contrary to popular Western perceptions, separation of the sexes and the obligation to wear a headscarf do not automatically mean that women are excluded from society.

As a rule the opposite is true, says Iranian feminist Mahsa Shekarloo: "The image of Iranian women is often distorted in Western media and portrayed in the form of two extremes: either as a repressed, passive victim compelled to live a dependent life as a housewife, or as a young, modern rebel who superficially breaks with social and religious taboos".

Strong presence at universities and in professions

In reality, a larger portion of Iranian women are more actively involved in economic and social life today than during the era of the Shah. Nowadays more than the half of the students at Iran's institutes of higher education and universities are female. Also in their choice of professions Iranian women today are in no way inferior to men: They work as physicians, engineers, teachers, and university professors.

And as actresses and film directors they are making a significant contribution to the film and theater culture in their country. They even exert their influence at a political level by running as candidates for the parliament or by letting themselves be elected mayors.

This development derives from the gradual dissolution of the heavy-handed patriarchal family structure of the Khomeini era. The image of women has changed from the Muslim revolutionary and the sacrificing mother during the Iran-Iraq war to the self-empowered, emancipated woman of today, who works to reconcile family and profession.

In addition, the general trend toward modernization in Iran and the rise in economic constraints have further equalized living conditions between women and men. Nowadays, it is often the case, especially in urban centers like Teheran, that both husband and wife have to work in order to make ends meet for their family.

Paradoxically the Islamic dress code appears to have helped women in their education and emancipation. The dress code allows women especially from conservative families to participate in a professional life without having to turn their backs on their culture, writes Iranian publicist Nasrin Alavi. The veil has in part given women in male society more opportunities to participate in and shape society than under the Shah regime.

Cultural instead of structural change

Many women hoped the election of reform-oriented Mohammed Khatami to president in 1998 would bring about a strengthening of their political and above all civil rights as well as the dissolution of the rigid moral laws in the public sphere. But that a president acting within the constitutional constraints of the theocratic system of the "Rule of the Jurists" ("velayat-e faqih") could effect a notable improvement in the legal status of women proved to be an illusion.

"At the beginning women had great hopes in Khatami, but he adhered to the religious state", reports Iranian feminist Hamila Nasgilli. "This meant that he actually could not or did not want to change much. But the women fought really hard. When they then saw that nothing changed under him, they were very disappointed!"

During his eight-year reign Khatami promoted at the most the development of civil society. He thus changed less the political structure than the political culture in Iran. Women activists such as the editor of the magazine "Zanan", Shahla Scherkat, also stress that the Iranian women's movement has always fought tooth and nail for their rights independent of the government.

The fact that women were able to obtain a few freedoms in the male-dominated society is not least of all the result of the efforts of the Muslim emancipation movement.

Today many women place their hopes in Iran's courageous women rights' activists such as lawyer Mehrangiz Kar and Nobel Peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, especially after the reform Islamists under Khatami gambled away their political credit by neglecting to abolish the massive discrimination against women, particularly in family and inheritance laws, despite the growing professional and family demands placed on them.

Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, who resides in Paris, remarks in this respect that "this discrepancy – subjective similarity between young men and women with a concurrent disparity in legal status – has given women a strong feeling of injustice. Herein lies the roots for a new women's movement which demands equality between men and women in Iran – also in family law."

Tenacious sex segregation

In the eyes of Islamic human rights activists it is not so much the Koran that ignores women's rights but much more the patriarchal customary laws adhered to by Iranian men. They therefore call for a contemporary reading and reinterpretation of the Koran as well as for a reform of the Islamic penal law that would have greater respect for women's civil rights.

In fact, the ambitious women's rights activists have already won a few, albeit modest successes in their fight for equality, for instance in divorce law, in legal regulations for maternal leave, and in labor laws.

Nonetheless very little has changed in sex segregation – no matter whether in public buses, in university lectures, at concerts, or at sports events. Against the backdrop of a patriarchal social order cemented within the framework of the ruling doctrine of the "velayat-e faqih" it hardly seems realistic to imagine that the legal equality of women could be anchored in the constitution in the near future.

Monitoring the women's rights movement

Even twenty-six years after the Islamic "revolution" the judiciary and the Guardian Council watch like hawks over the women's rights movement, whose advances they regularly try to block and label as "un-Islamic" or "Westernized" innovations.

Since now even the last bastion of the so-called reformers, the office of the president, has fallen since the elections last June, and the entire political power is now concentrated in the hands of the conservatives, the women's movement is on more difficult terrain than ever.

Despite Ahmadinejad's radical proclamations to return to the early social revolutionary days of the Khomeini era, Iran's women's rights activists are showing no signs of backing down. They doubt that the government can really succeed in turning back the wheel of history and send Iranian women back to their kitchens. But there is a deep-seated fear and skepticism that the few rights that women have been able to wrest from the male society during the Khatami era could again be nullified.

Arian Fariborz

© 2006

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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