Respect for women’s rights in Iran dates back to the ancient Persian Empire where it was common practice for women to serve as monarchs, army commanders, or naval officers. However, when the great empire was occupied by zealous followers of Islam in the seventh century A.D., Iranian women lost many of their privileges and were relegated to a status inferior to men. Some were even condemned to live as slaves. In recent times, the practical struggle of Iranian women to regain their status began with playing a great role in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905. Further, that struggle continued in the efforts of the citizenry during the former monarchical government in Iran.
Iran before the Islamic Revolution (1979)
Reza Shah the Great, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, courageously initiated the greatest challenge of his era (1925 – 1941): the abolishment of the hijab (veil) for Iranian women on Jan. 6, 1935. The policy of “Kashf-e-Hijab” banned a very basic Islamic law, the covering of the whole woman’s body except the eyes and hands. However, avoiding hypocrisy, he commenced this task with his own family– namely his own wife and daughters.
His policy of forced un-veiling was a catalyst in the advancement of Iranian society and in ending women’s slavery. By doing that, Reza Shah the Great aroused a deep animosity in fundamentalist clergies who had practically ruled the country during the previous Qajar Dynasty for 136 miserable years. He rightfully considered the hijab the emblem of an obsolete tradition which aimed to hinder Iranian women from equal life opportunities. His wholehearted efforts encouraged women to pursue higher education and to work outside the home.
His successor, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, continued to respond positively to the aspirations of Iranian women for a full emancipation in 1962. The late Shah of Iran implemented one of his greater policies, “The White Revolution,” which among other achievements, ratified very impressive women’s rights measures, ahead of all other Middle Eastern nations and even sooner than a few European countries.
The White Revolution introduced the massive “Family Protection Law” that was absolutely designed in favor of Iranian women: the right to be elected in various government ranks and posts, the right to divorce, the restriction of polygamy, and the increase in marriage age for girls from 15 to 18. In short, Iranian women up to the Islamic Revolution enjoyed a high degree of equality with men. There were female ministers, ambassadors, mayors, college professors, judges, parliamentarians and even military officers.
In the last parliamentary elections during the monarchical government in 1978, a year before the Islamic Revolution, millions of Iranian women voted. Out of 99 female candidates, 19 were elected to the parliament (Majlis) and two to the Senate. Women were also appointed to the government in new posts as Minister of State for Women’s Affairs and Minister of State for Education. Women were playing an increasingly active role in public life through obtaining higher education, which enabled women to acquire better jobs. They were entering the job market in a much wider range of fields and at higher levels of skill and competence.
Most of the present clergies’ animosity toward the Pahlavi monarchs resulted from these policies, which emancipated Iranian women who had been deprived of basic human rights for almost 14 centuries since the Muslim conquest. The Islamic theocracy perceived such actions as an affront against the sanctities of Islam.
Iran after the Islamic Revolution
With the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, clergies in Tehran immediately and severely curtailed the laws established under the White Revolution, including the Family Protection Law in favor of women, which was repealed. Today in Iran under Islamic law, gender equality is practically non-existent. Women are required to obey the Islamic law of wearing the hijab, otherwise they are subject to the severe punishment of lashing and days in prison. Islamic law specifies that women are banned from wearing perfume or shaking hands with males. Women who wear lipstick are detained and their lips are cut with blades or broken glass. Many women’s faces have been permanently scarred by acid, thrown in their faces by Islamic fascist secret police. Women have been barred from judging positions. Islamic laws consider legal testimony by women to be half as valuable as legal testimony by men.
There is absolute segregation of the sexes in any place out of the home, including schools. Education in grade school for girls overly emphasizes moral and religious teaching. In any gathering at colleges and universities, female students must be seated in the back of lecture halls, or else curtains may often divide lecture rooms. A female student must pose her question to the instructor in writing so as not to be heard by male students or male instructors, who may be “excited” by the voice of the female students.
The dark-age institutions of polygamy and temporary marriage have also been reinstated. Islamic law allows a man to have four “permanent” and as many “temporary” wives as he desires, and of course without his first wife’s permission. The legal age of marriage for girls has been dropped to 9. Women have forfeited the right to unconditional divorce, while a man can divorce his wife whenever he wishes to do so. The custody of children, regardless of their age, is always with the father.
These grave injustices of the Islamic clergies in Iran toward women began a few days after they seized control of the country and brought the first deaths of brave Iranian women, such as Dr. Farokhroo Parsa, Minister of the State of Education, who was accused of corruption for allowing Iranian educators to teach and promote the awareness of their natural rights to millions of young Iranian girls in schools. She was put in a sack and brutally beaten and stoned to death by the Islamic fundamentalists who carried out the so-called Islamic Revolution. Many thousands of female journalists, administrators, college professors, civil servants, etc., were discharged, arrested or executed.
Despite all the hostilities expressed by the Islamic governing system, Iranian women have not compromised their aspirations; they teach their daughters that no one can force them to live under the hijab, and they do not yield to the false role of a second-class citizen who is inferior to men. The resilience and constant rebellion of Iranian women under 38 years of the cruelest Islamic dictatorship is truly due to their knowledge of and admiration for the accomplishments of their predecessors. This psyche originated in the exalted status of women of ancient Persia and was rejuvenated in the Pahlavi era by Reza Shah the Great when the law of un-veiling was nationally instituted (the 6th day of January, 1935). Not surprisingly, the clerical regime has a hard time appeasing Iranian women by comparing their condition to that of women living in Saudi Arabia. The regime often prides itself on being more progressive than the latter government, but Iranian women remember their past rights and accomplishments during the Pahlavi monarchs’ system of governing.
Mansour Kashfi, Ph.D., is President of Kashex International Petroleum Consulting and is a college professor in Dallas, Texas. He has over 50 years experience in petroleum exploration, primarily about Iran. He also has authored more than 100 articles and books about petroleum geology, the oil and gas industry, and market behavior.