For women of the Arab Spring, Iranian women provide a warning and a model
HALEH ESFANDİARİFollowing the successful revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, Islamist parties emerged in all four countries. They are attempting to Islamize their states, particularly in laws dealing with women’s social and legal rights. The number of women with a role in the new regimes is significantly smaller than that in the pre-revolution period.
Iranian women had made considerable gains in the decades prior to the 1979 revolution. They served as Cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, ambassadors and mayors. Women had equal access to education and employment.
One of the most important achievements of prerevolutionary Iran was the Family Protection Law of 1967. The law established Family Protection Courts to adjudicate marital and family disputes. Women could apply for divorce. Female judges served on and presided over these courts. Polygamy was sharply restricted. Child custody was no longer given automatically to the father or the male members of his family. The age of marriage was raised from 13 to 15 and later to 18 for girls.
However, after the revolution succeeded in 1979, the Family Protection Law was suspended. Women were prohibited from studying a number of fields at universities, including agriculture, the veterinary sciences and certain fields of engineering. The hijab, or Islamic dress, became the law of the land; women who violated the dress code received a punishment of 74 lashes.
Women holding managerial positions and senior civil service posts were gradually dismissed or given early retirement.
Not a single woman was appointed to the powerful Revolutionary Committee or the first post-revolution government. When the constituent assembly completed drafting the new Constitution, only four of the 175 articles had anything to say about women’s rights.
As president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was neither a supporter of women’s rights nor did he care much about women’s issues. On the contrary, he adopted a number of measures that adversely affected women.
Parliament under Ahmadinejad once again discussed legalizing polygamy. In 2006 a group of women and men founded the “One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws Campaign.” The government responded by systematically arresting campaign activists, putting them on trial, and sentencing them to long prison terms. More women’s rights activists are serving terms in jail under Ahmadinejad than at any time in the history of the Islamic Republic.
In 2009, after Ahmadinejad was elected to a second term, the government launched a purge of the university faculty and once again sought ways to limit women’s access to education. Officials appeared to believe that if women’s educational opportunities were limited, they would marry early, have more children and remain home-bound, creating fewer headaches for the regime.
In September 2012, in a move that shocked women, 36 universities and colleges barred women from 77 fields of study. These institutions acted with the tacit approval of the Ministry of Higher Education and the minister of Science, Research, and Technology.
While Iran has had one of the most successful family planning programs in the world, the government also announced in August 2012 that it was cutting the program’s budget. This signaled a reversal of a successful policy of trying to limit family size in favor of a policy of larger families that would keep women at home. In December 2012, Ahmadinejad sacked the only female member of the Cabinet, whom he had appointed in 2009 to placate women.
Thirty-three years after the revolution, the Islamic Republic has yet to legislate a family protection law that meets the standards set by the pre-revolution Family Protection Law. The regime has trouble with tolerating educated women. Iran’s experience should serve as a warning for women in the countries of the Arab Spring. As the most progressive laws can be set aside and ignored by lawmakers who do not believe that women’s rights are human rights, and who are instead committed to the proposition that societies should have one set of laws for men and a different set for women.
*Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).