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Being a woman in Iran : between myth and reality | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Being a woman in Iran : between myth and reality

Being a woman in Iran : between myth and reality

Being a woman in Iran : between myth and reality

During a meeting over lunch with a group of Arab journalists, I noticed that the visitors were astonished by what they say. They looked in amazement at the women who passed them by. They weren’t attracted to exposed flesh as the female bodies were covered with coats and “chadors” (A chador is an outer garment worn by women. It covers the wearer from head to toe) except for the faces and few stray hairs. The group of journalists, on their first visit to the Islamic Republic, had erroneously thought that the woman of Iran was prisoners in their own home and believed that she did the housework and little else.

In fact, they discovered, it is the men who make tea and shop for vegetables, while conference halls teem with women journalists and photographers. Women in Iran , participate fully in society, whether as a student in high school or university, an employee in the public or private sectors, and a labourer on a building site. The veil hasn’t prevented the women of Iran of participating in politics. They hold important posts in government such as Vice- President, Deputy to a number of Ministers, Director- General in many state companies, Mayor, and MP in Parliament.

Despite having much in common, it’s impossible to speak of a typical model for Iranian woman. The woman living in North Tehran , predominantly an aristocratic area, is very different from a woman in the South of the capital. The former probably owns and drives a car, goes out with her friends, wears jeans, smokes, flirts, and celebrates her birthday. The woman in the South, however, most likely wears the full chador, replacing it with a long coat and headscarf at university or in the workplace, and regularly attends the Friday prayer. Both archetypes take part in demonstrations, on opposite sides, with the woman from the North of the capital supporting the reform movement and calling for more social and personal freedom, while the latter embraces the Islamic Revolution and condemns foreign pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program. Both women equally represent the Islamic Republic.

One issue worth mentioning is that the constitution of post revolutionary Iran didn’t specify in any of its clauses a specific penalty against women who don’t veil. This is because, in the early days of 1979, those opposing the Shah belonged to several intellectual currents; some to radical Islamic left, others to a liberal moderate Islamic trend and some to nationalist groups. When the radical Islamists took over government, the laws incriminating women who didn’t veil were issued soon after.

The women of the Islamic Republic may be veiled, but their minds remain free and independent. I asked Faizah Rafsanjani, the daughter of former Iranian President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the Asian Committee for Women games, during our interview, why she was dressed in jeans. She replied that wearing denim relieved her from ironing duties and meant she didn’t need to change her clothes everyday. This, however, doesn’t prevent her from supporting traditional Islamic dress that covers the entire body, she added. Rafsanjani, who was elected an MP for the capital in the new Parliament, formed last February wanted to discuss more important matters, such as women and the presidency. She made clear she believes that a woman can become President of the Islamic Republic and considers that no article in the constitution opposes this.

Much like Rafsanjani, Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and winner for the Nobel Peace Prize, thinks women in Islamic Republic face problems with regard to their social and economic rights because the men formulated the laws and explained them to own their benefit. However, Ebadi, together with other women activists, do not deny the many benefits of being a woman in Iran and do not minimize the rights they’ve gained since the Revolution. The fact that an Iranian woman has been awarded a Nobel Prize is a clear indication women’s non-governmental activities are thriving.

According to a census in 2004, there are 33.4million women in Iran , half of the total population of 67.5million. About one third of women in the Islamic Republic are under 15 years of age, while 5% of women over 65, indicating a young female population. In Iranian laws, there are no large differences between the rights and obligations of a man and those of a woman. Article 20 of the constitution states: “The law affords protection to all citizens, men and women alike, in an equal manner. They both enjoy all the human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, within an Islamic framework.”

In effect, the laws gives women the right to vote during an election, run for parliament and the local councils, become a judge, and to assume any political positions, except that of President and Wali Faqih (Supreme Leader). A woman in Iran also has the right to stipulate conditions in her marriage contract, including a clause that prevents her husband from marrying another woman without her prior consent. Some women, however, go even further and insist the law doesn’t, in itself, prevent them from become president when it describes candidates as having to be “men”.

Azzam Talqani, the daughter of the late religious leader Ayatollah Mahmud Talqani, told me the term “rijal” or men, featured in the Arabic language constitution, is taken from a verse in the Quran that praises the sincerity of Muslim men and women, “men who are not distracted by any trade from remembering Allah”. The verse refers to both sexes by using the plural term “rijal”. Talqani reckons that if the legislation wanted to restrict the presidency to Iran ’s male population, it would’ve used the Persian word for men, mard. In her opinion, the legislation aims for inclusion and not restriction. However, this interpretation clashes with that of the Council for the Protection of the Constitution who is responsible for interpreting Iranian laws.

The fact remains that, until today, the Council, consisting of six religious scholars and six lawyers, hasn’t conclusively defined the term “rijal” or men that appears in the constitution. Every presidential campaign, the Council accepts to examine the files of women candidates; so far, however, its has rejected all female applicants and prevented them for standing in the elections. Perhaps it is worried about a possible confrontation with religious authorities in the city of Qom who strongly object to the idea of a woman president.

Women in Iran are refusing to despair about their lack of full political participation. This is partly explained by the increase in the education capabilities of women in the Islamic Republic. The percentage of literate girls, aged between 10 and 14, reaches 96.4% in the countryside and almost 100% in cities, with 39% of the female population enrolled in school or university. However, at the socio-economic level, women are facing an increasing number of problems, with 38.5 of the female population currently unemployed, almost half of whom hold a high school diploma and a university degree.

In addition, the socio-economic transformations currently occurring in Iran , have led to a decrease in the number of married women, a rise in marriage age, and a rise in the number of marriages that end in divorce. According to some statistics, only ten women out of every thousand were married in 2004, compared to seventy two decades earlier. This means that more than a third of men of marrying age are single in Iran . The age of marriage has also risen from twenty in 1988 to twenty four in 2003, with the rate of divorce soaring to 10% that same year.

As for the percentage of women employed in the public and private sectors, it currently stands at 76% in the cities and 92% in rural areas. On average, women in Iran work for forty hours a week, similar to others around the world.

In conclusion, despite the problems that women in Iran are facing in Iran , their energy and participation in the political, economic, social, and cultural affairs of the country strongly indicate their amazing potential and desire to progress in life.