Second Class Citizens in Iran: Systematic Repression of Women in Demand for Equality

Submitted by Fernando Aguiar on Tue, 04/17/2018 - 13:42

Throughout history, Iranian women have played a crucial political role, whether in the events leading up to the constitutional revolution (1905-1911), under the subsequent Pahlavi monarchy and before, during and after the ’79 Islamic revolution. The recent images of the Girls of Enghelab Street taking of their veils in public, and the coverage of the mass movement My Stealthy Freedom , an online protest movement challenging Iranian state gendered violence, have been circulating, and praised, internationally. During the Green Revolution in 2009, the highly visible presence and agency of women during and in the protests following the elections has been widely reported in the media.

However, its aftermath showed that issues affecting women were conspicuously absent from Iran’s 2017 presidential election. After President Hassan Rouhani, who can rely on the support among Iran’s urban population, the middle class, young people and women, was reelected in 2017 with a wide majority for another 4 year term, a renewed, reactionary discourse emerging from the political scene could be observed. This was perhaps accurately illustrated by conservative candidate Hojjat al-Islam Ebrahim Raisi’s comments that his government would enhance women’s dignity within the family, because women should be “good mothers and wives”.[1]

As we have seen in the previous article, the post-revolution dominant Shi’a clerics dismissed any opposition by eliminating the left and liberal values from the political landscape. By reaching out to a new, urban middle class, through the subsidized social justice programs while playing on return of the religious traditions in the public sphere, they delivered a serious blow to the women's movements. The new theocracy systematically rolled back five decades of progress in women’s rights. All females, including girls in first grade, are by law obligated to observe the hijab. This lack of women’s choice is a striking example how the political sphere imposes itself on the intimacy of the private one.

In addition, at one end of the patriarchal sphere, Iran’s revolutionary male elite made women’s wearing head-covering integral to their campaign to reform the gendered meaning of the Iranian nation after the fall of the Shah Pahlavi in 1979. The nation’s honor was seen as dependent on women’s honor. Being reduced to symbols in Iran has meant (and still nowadays) that women have not been treated as genuine participants within the society[2].

In its 2018 yearly report, Human Rights Watch stipulated again the deep rooted discrimination women were facing in Iran.[3] Unequal treatment in marriage, divorce, heritage and custody, a variety of laws also restrict their freedom of movement or level of independence by limiting possibilities for education and work.[4] Sadly and strikingly, the majority of the new middle class does not seem to support the women movements’ calls for social justice, equality, liberty and autonomy. According to Mahnaz Zahirinejad:

Even the professional women of the new middle class, who were active in clandestine political and guerrilla warfare against the Shah and also fighting against discrimination and social injustice after the revolution, have been stopped by the Islamists”.[5]


The Islamists opted for a restoration of principles men enjoyed under the private and public spheres and the obligations women undertook according to the traditional patriarchal bargain, as the Islamists were originally opposed to women’s presence in social and political activities. That doesn't mean the struggle for women's rights ceased to exist. They were rather met with a lack of support from different political groups.[6] As we saw in the previous article, the Iran- Iraq war as well as an increasing wealth from oil revenue led to an imbalance in economic and social development between the urban and the rural spheres. Simultaneously, Iran witnessed the rise of a new, educated middle class economically tied to the regime. After the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, this new middle class started to demand increased social and political freedoms. The enormous costs to society as a result of that war, and the absence of men from the public space created a vacuum for increased professional opportunities – or necessities, rather- for women.


After the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in ‘89, newly emerging political pressures urged the state for changes in social and legal policies regarding women. These efforts became more pronounced after the presidential election of 1997 when Mohammad Khatami, with massive support from women and youth, became president.[7] As a result of that, gradual reforms were introduced with regard to women's education and employment. The new situation led to gender consciousness and enforced the women's struggle for change. Consequently, the levels of female education and health became greater under the Islamic state, than they were at the height of westernization and modernization in the 1960s and 1970s. However, this was not to last.



The Green Revolution and the role of women



On 25 June 2009, Iran witnessed a popular uprising in which protesters demanded the removal of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office after they regarded the outcome of the election as fraudulent. The subsequent government reaction was excessively harsh. The nominal leaders of the uprising were systematically arrested, subjected to 'kangaroo courts' and jailed. Moreover, the women's movement took a serious hit.  Having succeeded in demanding a gradual release of restrictions over the years, women found themselves again at the center of a new found traditionalism, hijacked by a renewed ultra-Islamic discourse of the conservatives. According to Noushin Ahmadi Khansari, the situations for women became worse as many civil-rights activists were in jail or have suspended sentences hanging over their heads or are regularly summoned for interrogations; many others have been forced to leave the country. She argues further that:

"at that time the state tolerated some of our activities, but all the extensive censure and international sanctions against the government of Iran that followed the 2009 elections - and, unfortunately, the intensified hostility between Iran and the international community - all this has led not only to pressure on the women's movement but to uncertainty and deadlock within society as a whole."[8]

This social deadlock is important to take into account. Although president Rouhani is considered a religious moderate, as on several occasions he openly criticized gender discrimination in addition to claims that he would open up social and political spheres to women, many Iranian women feel disappointed after his reelection in 2017.


Violation of Women's Rights, Institutionalized discrimination against women

 (Source: Amnesty International)

Violence against women is a form of demonstrating power on the part of the strong against the weak. The institutionalized discrimination that Iranian women face is clearly illustrated when taking a look at the judiciary system and its flaws in administering justice. One of the key discriminatory legal practices revealing the concept of inequality, and its fatal consequences, are the so- called rules of evidence.  Sharia law, as being implemented in the classical way in countries such as Iran can be best understood as a ' wide-ranging moral and broad ethical principles drawn from the Qur'an and the practices and sayings (hadith) of Prophet Muhammad'.[9] The body of legal rulings that is referred to as "fiqh
" in Arabic, Islamic law  is the result of centuries long practice of deliberation among religious scholars, and can be regarded as  a product of human intellectual activity. This article will not elaborate on the broad aspects of the intellectual debate that surrounds the implementation and/ or interpretation of Shari’a law. However, in the cases of capital punishment, that have been carried out in the modern, post-colonial period in most notably Iran, we should be aware of the political agenda of politicians who want to position themselves as Islamic, in deploying, among others, this Islamic identity in opposition to the West, to position themselves with regard to their constituency or even in pursuit of personal gains. According to Asma Afsaruddin, Professor of Islamic Studies and former Chairperson, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University:


“… modern jurists who may have very little training in classical Islamic law and do not understand the principles of Sharia are being asked to implement “Islamic punishments” as a dramatic way of asserting a shallow “Islamic” identity”[10]


In the obviously male dominated judiciary administration, the value of a woman’s testimony is worth less than that of a man.  In criminal offenses such as murder or “illicit sexual relations” (zina) the woman’s testimony needs to be backed by the complemented, joint testimony of a man or two women, in order to be accepted. In addition, when providing proof for being subjected to violence, she can only prove her claim by presenting several witnesses.  Given that most violence against women.

takes place in the private sphere, it is extremely difficult for women to provide such eyewitnesses among others due to the social stigma surrounding these phenomena. [11]Female criminality on the other hand, is often domestic in nature and takes generally place in the most disadvantaged sectors of society. 

In instances such as adultery [both Zina and Zinay-i Muhseneh], murder, charges of corruption on earth and drug-related offenses , women are put at a greater danger of facing execution due to the nature of provisions that exist in both Civil and Criminal Codes.[12]  In addition to that, the means for defense and/ or bail are mostly limited, adding to the disadvantaged position of women often on the receiving end of punishment disproportionate to their crime.

Deteriorating Conditions under the current Government

Although Rouhani's presidency was introduced as a wave of reform and potential openness, many reports by human rights groups, including the UN, Amnesty International as well as official statistical numbers from the Iranian government indicate not only that Rouhani has not delivered on his promises, but that the condition of human rights has significantly worsened in Iran.[13]  While the president has been busy striking the nuclear accord with global powers to end the international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, Rouhani seems to be held short by powerful hardliners who control key Iranian political structures.


The Guardian Council, which dictates the interpretation of Islamic values and laws, is further backed by a conservative majority in the parliament which simultaneously prevents strong reforms from passing. [14] This has led to the dubious first place ranking of  Iran with regard to executions per capita. When taking into consideration the relative disadvantage women face when entering the legal spectrum in facing legal charges, the 75 [15] women executed under Rouhani's presidency since 2013 echo ( UNHR spokeswoman) Ravina Shamdasani words that:

the surge in the use of the death penalty... has dampened hopes for human rights reforms under President Hassan Rouhani."[16]

According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center annual report, 10 women were executed in 2017, however only one of  the executions was announced by official sources as executions of women and foreign citizens (mainly Afghani and Pakistani) are unlikely to be announced. [17] The socio economic cleavages in Iranian civil society are painfully clear. Women in under privileged social groups face challenges of a different nature than those in more favorable socio economic conditions.

Iran is faced with many challenges, in matters of security, of economic and social nature. The backlash of these current, imminent crises is weighing particularly heavy on the women's movement. Although a significant part of the population is probably in favor of Islamic relaxation and an equal treatment of, among others, women, the current economic challenges have changed the relations between the different social groups in modern day Iran. The educated middle class traditionally takes up a role as intermediary between the different classes and the political bodies but with its own socio-economic situation under pressure, priorities change.

Oppression affects different groups of women differently. Iran is no exception to this. The women of lower social classes face different challenges than those of higher social status. When it comes to death penalties for women, women of low social class are disproportionally affected while the majority of the new middle class doesn't seem to be able to provide leverage for the women movements’ calls for social justice, equality, liberty and autonomy. In the meanwhile, the delicate mix of Islamism and nationalist Iranianism serves as a carrot for the ruling elite’s legitimacy and its advocated Shi'a Islamism component therefore dismisses the women’s struggle as demands from second class citizens.