Women and Social Change in Iran

Four women engage in conversation in Isfahan, Iran. (twocentsworth/Flickr)

A Summary

November 6, 2003

Asia Society's Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders.

Haleh Esfandiari, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Shahla Haeri, Boston University
Negin Nabavi, Princeton University
Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, New York

*Affiliations for identification purposes only.

A panel of Iranian women's human rights experts painted a complex, difficult but encouraging picture of social reform in Iran as the Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders kicked off its fall season. Equality for women under the Iranian government is within their grasp constitutionally but in practice the clerical leadership interprets Iranian family or personal laws according to a narrowly-defined vision of the Sharia, and has shown itself hostile to human rights principles. For every outward sign of progress, such as improvements in women's political representation, employment opportunities, university attendance and dress codes, there are reminders that society as a whole has been stalled in its human rights march for the past six years of President Khatami's reign.

The struggle for women's rights in Iran could be epitomized by the reaction of the Iranian government to the October 10 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer. While the official reaction was to ignore her as unimportant, members of the Parliament and President Mohammad Khatami's own cabinet were reportedly at the airport to greet the returning laureate, waving white flowers beside the republic's many women who consider her their road to equality. Many panelists said that the Khatami administration desires reform but is unwilling or unable to press for change, if it leads to unrest and repression. "The reformists within the government are very worried about provoking the hidden forces," said one panelist, referring to the 400,000-strong private plainclothes army of the conservatives. "Transition to real reform is messy and President Khatami has shown he is not willing to go through the messy process."

Haleh Esfandiari, who served as deputy secretary general of the Women's Organization of Iran and is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, gave an overview of the women's movement both before and after the 1979 revolution. She explained that although women were a potent force behind the revolution that deposed the Shah of Iran, they lost ground soon afterwards and 25 years later are still struggling to regain lost rights. For example, the revolutionary government immediately suspended Iran's hard-fought family protection law and reduced the marriageable age of girls to nine years old after the Shah's government spent years raising it to a more liberating 18. Child custody in case of divorce automatically went to the husband's family after being adjudicated under the Shah.

But women's rights are being heard again, and recently the marriageable age was raised to 13 and child custody in cases of divorce will now go to the courts, rather than being decided automatically in the husband's favor. A former Princeton University professor, Ms. Esfandiari says that women attending university are so numerous that there is talk of establishing quotas for males. And today Iran streets are seas of bright colors as women are able to express themselves fashionably and in mixed company. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Ms. Ebadi seems to vindicate women, she adds, who will push for more social reform.

Shahla Haeri, Director of the Women's Studies Program at Boston University and author of many studies of Muslim women, showed a portion of a video she made during the 2001 Presidential elections, when 47 women registered to run for the office. This little-known fact illustrates the challenge they are becoming to the established idea, imposed mostly from the religious sector, that only men are able to govern. To paraphrase one videotaped contender, an intelligent woman, like an intelligent man, is a manifestation of God and Iran is denying God by refusing to let women run for President. Ms. Haeri notes, however, that there are cracks in the religious unanimity and the conservative ayatollahs no longer speak with one voice on some of these social human rights issues.

Princeton University assistant professor Negin Nabavi reported on the liberalization of the Iranian cinema, which can be seen as a mirror of society. A 1999 box office hit called Two Women dealt with the fate of a modern-day university woman who gradually loses all self-esteem as she is rushed into an expected but unhappy marriage. This film gave voice to women's grievances for the first time, said Ms. Nabavi, whose area of interest and research is the intellectual and cultural history of modern Iran. A 2002 Iranian film, the sympathetic portrayal of a young girl who takes control of her life after giving birth out of wedlock, shocked Iran by the bold mention of the taboos of abortion, runaway girls, and teenage pregnancy, she says. It also was a box office hit and garnered a best actress award. Women are increasingly being depicted in new roles by filmmakers, says Ms. Nabavi, and the sophisticated subject matter of many films has helped challenge the social mores.

Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks, who has a distinguished career in international human rights with Human Rights Watch and the UN and graduated from Tehran University Faculty of Law and Political Science in 1982, suggested that no further major reforms will come with this administration. She stated that President Khatami's reputation for reform outside Iran exceeds that internally and that he is unwilling or unable to change the power the clerical leadership claims for itself - the absolute authority to interpret Islamic law. Given this inaction, she spoke of the need for President Khatami to at least issue a categorical statement on the goals of reform, so that it would serve as a legacy for the next generation of reformers. Yet even she held out some hope. If the Khatami reform movement, which seemingly came out of nowhere, could succeed to win over the government perhaps a second generation reform movement could suddenly appear as well -- one that would change the institution of the Islamic Republic, revise the Constitution, which is based on Sharia law, and reduce the power of the conservative Council of Guardians. Nothing less is needed.