Special report on the changing role of women

The importance of changes that have taken place for women in Iran under theleadership of President Mohammed Khatami varies depending upon who you talk to in this deeply Islamic country. While some positive steps have been taken much more needs to be done, according to female activists in the nation.

In this special report IRIN looks at different perspectives of Iranian women from all walks of life on how far they have come since the 1979 revolution and what the future holds in store for them.

Sitting in an internet café in downtown Tehran, 26 year old Seema Zohre told IRIN that she was happy to be able to show off her new haircut to her friends and not have to wear a headscarf in one of the few public places in the capital which has special permission allowing women to remove their headgear and manto (long coat) while surfing the net. "I’m so used to wearing it that it actually feels strange to take it off when I come here, but it feels liberating too," she remarked.

"Its unusual to be able to do this in such a public place," Fatemeh Baghestani, from the women’s marketing centre housing the café, told IRIN.

Strict Islamic dress code for women, comprised of the manto and headscarf in dark colours only, was enforced two years after the revolution in 1979, but it took time for women to accept it. "My older sister remembers this time well. She said girls would keep their scarves on their shoulders until they saw the revolutionary guards and only then would they cover their heads,"
she explained.

But places such as the Internet café give the women of Iran some hope that times are changing. "Yes this is a step forward, but it is only a small step forward and there is still a long way to go," she added.

The idea of allowing girls to be able to take off their religious dress is also being practised in some all-female schools in the capital. While much of what we read about Iran suggests that women are marginalised, some would argue that they have much more freedom here than in neighbouring nations such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where women are rarely seen in the streets outside of the big cities.

Growing access to education

Iran also boasts a fairly relatively high literacy rate for women. According to the 1991 census, 67.1 percent of the total female population over the age of six (14.9 million) were literate. Today 65 percent of university entrants are women.

"Women have always had a strong presence in education in Iran. The drive for opening girls' schools was initiated by women of the more privileged classes and they were the first educators," Mahsa Shekarloo, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Badjens, [www.badjens.com] an on-line magazine that covers women and gender issues in Iran, told IRIN in Tehran.

With the opening of girls' schools came women's employment in education - as teachers and headmistresses. Teaching was one of the first professions for women in Iran and they still compose a significant portion of schoolteachers. Some 46 percent of school teachers are female and if you include administrative staff, the numbers are certainly higher.

"The effects of women's strong participation in universities, I think, will be seen in the future. With all of these graduates, society will inevitably have to deal with them and their increased demands for employment and having a say in public matters," Shekarloo maintained

Education is a way out of the home, a way into increased independence and freedom of movement, and a way to postpone marriage, according to Shekarloo.

Although the mean age of marriage across the country has risen to 20, in rural areas earlier marriage is still common. This can create difficulties for young married women who are not permitted to attend school with unmarried women, and therefore tend to stop going to school, according to the International Planed Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

More women professionals

These days in Iran women have a presence in most professions in this traditionally male-dominated society, with many employed by the state and public sector.

There are an emerging number of women setting up their own businesses, and women are now active in all fields of the economic and political spectrums.

These activities cover a broad range of professions ranging from the legal and medical fields to serving as members of Iran's police forces.



Photo: IRIN
A female Taxi driver on the busy streets of Tehran

In 1976, 13 percent of all economically active females held professional occupations, according to the United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA]. By 1986, this percentage had risen to 32.8 percent and by 1991 had further increased to 39.7 percent.

"Women are taking the initiative. For example, a few of them will get together with some sewing machines, and start manufacturing clothes," Shekarloo remarked.

These gains are bolstered by some aspects of Iran's institutional framework. For example, women's rights in the workplace are strengthened by the country’s labour laws and codes, which comply with all international norms pertaining to women's rights in the workplace.

But there is still much work to be done at the grass roots level, according to Shekarloo. "Iran's economy is still dominated by the bazaar which is quite traditional and male-dominated," she said.

The 1979 Revolution

The 1979 overthrow of the Iran’s hereditary monarch, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, after decades of corrupt and authoritarian rule, ushered in the world’s first Islamic republic and a period women’s rights in Iran would be shaped by the ruling clique’s interpretation shari’ah law.

The revolution, headed by the previously exiled religious cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was immediately followed by an unstable and bloody period, including an eight-year war against neighbouring Iraq.

"I remember the days when the government collapsed before the revolution took place and our friends were executed and imprisoned," Shahla Lahiji Iran’s first female publisher of women’s books and magazines told IRIN, adding that women have sacrificed their lives for years. The days that followed the revolution became increasingly difficult for women.

In December 1979, Farrokhru Parsa, the female minister of education was executed after being accused of promoting prostitution, corrupting the earth, and "warring against God."

New education policies prevented women from enrolling in the fields of engineering, agriculture and finance as these were deemed to be male professions. However, women were still encouraged to enter the field of medicine.

In addition, daycare centres closed, and women were denied the right to divorce and obtain custody of their children if divorced. The age of consent for marriage was lowered from 15- to 13-years and contraception and abortion were also banned.

Following the death of Khomeini in June 1989, and the subsequent appointment of the then President Khamenei as Iran’s spiritual leader, some initial moves towards reform were seen. For example, government family planning activities, which had been halted in 1979, were re-started and led to a dramatic rise in the prevalence of contraceptives in the country, according to the IPPF.


Continued