Human Rights Brief: Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran



Iranian Women were heavily involved in the 1979 revolution; the changes brought in by Shah Pahlavi's regime did not always serve the needs of the majority of women, and the revolution was seen by many as a way to rid themselves of imposed, alien western ideas about womanhood and to restore their identity, which they felt bestowed them with honour and dignity (Tohidi 1991, 256-57; International Journal of the Sociology of Law 1985, 56; Moghadam 1989, 34; Afshar 1989, 42). But the new regime abandoned the model of the Muslim woman as a heroic militant on the national stage in favour of another model, centred on the virtues of the obedient wife and mother (Nashat 1983, 211). Women were urged to leave the workplace and devote themselves to their families (ibid., 209; Mayer 1991, 129). According to Valentine M. Moghadam, author of Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East,

Legislation was enacted to alter gender relations and make them as different as possible from gender norms in the West. In particular, the Islamic Republic emphasized the distinctiveness of male and female roles, a preference for the privatization of female roles (although public activity was never barred, and they retained the vote), the desirability of sex-segregation in public places, and the necessity of modesty in dress and demeanour and in media images" (Moghadam 1993, 90).

In recent years, "pragmatic" forces within the clerical elite of the country have grown in strength, creating an environment that is more receptive to women's concerns (Middle East Journal Summer 1993, 409). According to Nesta Ramazani, a freelance writer specializing in women of the Middle East, this change-particularly since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989-has led to some new, more moderate legislation regarding women's rights (ibid.). Observers caution, however, that it is very difficult to generalize about the present situation and that the different issues affecting women must be considered on an individual basis (ibid., 409-10; Hoodfar 4 Nov. 1993; Najmabadi 3 Nov. 1993).

2.                THE STATUS OF WOMEN IN IRAN

2.1   Women in the Constitution

According to article 20 of the constitution, "[a]ll citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria" (Flanz Dec. 1992, 25). Article 21 stipulates that

[t]he government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria, and ... create a favourable environment for the growth of woman's personality and the restoration of her rights, both the material and intellectual (ibid., 25-26). The section in the preamble entitled "Woman in the Constitution" affirms that "women should benefit from a particularly large augmentation of their rights" (ibid., 11).

The constitution also encourages the view that women should be seen primarily within a familial context and assigned the role of motherhood (Moghadam 1993, 90). The preamble says the following about the position of women in society:

The family is the fundamental unit of society, and the main centre for the growth and edification of human being.... This view of the family unit delivers woman from being regarded as an object or as an instrument in the service of promoting consumerism and exploitation. Not only does woman recover thereby her momentous and previous function of motherhood, rearing ideologically committed human beings, she also assumes a pioneering social role and becomes the fellow struggler of man in all vital areas of life (Flanz Dec. 1992, 11-12).

According to some observers of Islam and human rights, women's rights have been restricted in practice on the basis of Islamic principles (Moghadam 1993, 90; Mayer 1991, 129; Afshar 1989, 42). Guity Nashat, a Middle East scholar and editor of Women and Revolution in Iran, notes that in the family context, as elsewhere, Koranic texts have been used to formulate laws requiring a woman's total submission to her husband (Nashat 1983, 204). Ann Elizabeth Mayer, author of Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics, writes that the government's attitude towards women's rights has been characterized by the "revival of premodern shari'a rules determining women's status in the family," as well as the "imposition of new rules designed to perpetuate women's subordination, in part by curbing their job opportunities" (Mayer 1991, 130). In contrast, Ziba Mir-Hosseini--a research fellow at Cambridge University's Girton College--argues that in the particular case of marriage and divorce, customs and tradition have countered the impact that Islamic law has had on women (Mir-Hosseini 1993, 80). She writes that there "is a wide discrepancy not only between the legal and social conceptions as regards the shari'a rules of marriage and divorce, but also between the legal and actual position of women within marriage" (ibid.).

In its most recent report on the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted that "the persistence and extent of discrimination against women is incompatible with the provisions of article 3 of the Covenant [on civil and political rights]" (United Nations 3 Aug. 1993, 3). The committee referred,

in particular, to the punishment and harassment of women who do not conform with a strict dress code; the need for women to obtain their husband's permission to leave home [ There are other references in this document to restrictions on women's freedom of movement. The DIRB has a number of sources from 1992 and 1993 indicating that women need the permission of their husbands to obtain passports and to leave Iran. However, an on-line article from The Independent dated 12 October 1991 states that the requirement for written permission was repealed. The DIRB contacted the embassy of Iran in Ottawa for clarification but has not received a response.]; their exclusion from the magistracy; discriminatory treatment in respect of the payment of compensation to the families of murder victims, depending on the victim's gender and in respect of the inheritance rights of women; prohibition against the practice of sports in public; and segregation from men in public transportation (ibid.). Iran has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ibid., 62, 70).

2.2           Women in the Penal Code

Iran's penal code is divided into a number of sections that deal with such issues as Hudud (punishment according to religious law), Quasas (retribution), and Diyeh (blood money) (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, (appendix) 1; Amnesty International 1987, 31). Under Diyeh, for example, the value of blood money-which is based on how much a person would have earned in a lifetime-is twice as much in the case of a murdered man as in the case of a woman (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, (appendix) 6; Amnesty International 1987, 31; International Journal of Sociology of Law 1985, 58). In other words, "the life of a woman who is murdered [is] worth only half that of a man's" (Rhoodie 1989, 379).

The penal code also stipulates the number of witnesses required to prove a crime, which is higher if the witnesses are female rather than male (Amnesty International 1987, 31; International Journal of Sociology of Law 1985, 58). For example, in the case of adultery article 76 of the 1991 penal code states that "[t]he testimony of women alone or in conjunction with the testimony of only one just man shall not prove adultery but it shall constitute false accusation which is a punishable act." The testimony of four men or three men and two women is required to prove adultery (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, (appendix) 2). Regarding the crime of sodomy, article 119 stipulates that the "[t]estimony of women alone or in conjunction with that of a single man shall not prove sodomy" (ibid., 4). And in the case of murder, article 237 states that:

First degree murder shall be proven by the testimony of two just men. Evidence for second degree murder or manslaughter shall consist in the testimony of two just men, or that of one just man and two just women, or the testimony of one just man and the sworn testimony of the accuser (ibid., 5-6).

2.2.1           Adultery

Article 63 of the 1991 penal code defines adultery as "the act of intercourse, including anal intercourse, between a man and a woman who are forbidden to each other, unless the act is committed unwittingly" (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, (appendix) 1). The penal code accords the death penalty, stoning or flogging to the adulterer or adulteress and sets out a number of different scenarios to determine which punishment shall apply in each case. For example, if a non-Muslim man commits adultery with a Muslim woman, he is subject to the death penalty; if a man or woman who is married permanently commits adultery, the penalty is stoning; if the alleged adulterer or adulteress is unmarried, the punishment is 100 lashes. Article 82, which lists the cases in which adultery carries the death penalty, stipulates that a rapist shall receive the death penalty (ibid., 2-3). In an interview with the United Nations special representative, Iran's minister of justice, Hojjatolislam Esmail Shoushtari, reportedly stated that certain penalties, such as the stoning of adulterers, could not be abrogated by the government since they had originally been established under Islamic law (United Nations 2 Jan. 1992, 45).

According to the United Nations special representative's report of 1990, the Iranian English-language newspaper Kayhan reported that a number of women had been stoned to death in Bakhtaran, in Karaj and in Meishaboor after being convicted on charges of adultery in 1989. Another newspaper, Jomhouri Islami, reported that a woman was stoned in Zahan (United Nations 12 Feb. 1990, 12). Recently, the daily newspaper Resalat reported that a woman convicted of adultery was stoned to death in Qom (Reuters 3 Mar. 1994). A few reports indicate that men have also been stoned to death for committing adultery (ibid.; United Nations 12 Feb. 1990, 12).

Mahnaz Afkhami was minister of women's affairs prior to the 1979 revolution and is currently the executive director of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, an international organization with members in 70 countries. According to her, the practice of stoning is probably not a "daily occurrence," but she has heard of at least three incidences in the last couple of years. These took place primarily in the northern provinces (Afkhami 3 Nov. 1993). Homa Hoodfar, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University, emphasizes that "since this law [on adultery] has not been repealed, the threat is always there; one never knows what to expect and it is this insecurity that is a real problem" (Hoodfar 4 Nov. 1993).

2.2.2      Sexual Orientation

The punishment for lesbianism, which is defined as "genital sexual acts carried out between women" in article 127 of the penal code, is 100 lashes for the parties involved. Article 131 stipulates that if punishment has been carried out three times and the act is repeated a fourth time, the death penalty will be applied (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, appendix) 4).

According to the monitoring service of the BBC, both men and women have been executed for homosexuality (Bay Area Reporter 31 May 1990). One article indicates that Ayatollah Musavi-Ardebili, a leading Islamic cleric, addressed Tehran University with a message that was broadcast on the radio and that justified the killing of homosexuals (ibid.). A 1990 article reports that in the city of Langrood, two accused lesbians were stoned to death in 1990 (Outlines Mar. 1990). More recent reports on the punishment of lesbians could not be found.

2.3     The Hijab

In March 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini first advised women to wear a veil (Afshar 1989, 44; Chafiq 1991, 126). For Islamists, the unveiled woman represented the negative influence of western values on indigenous culture (Moghadam 1993, 88). According to the late Iranian cleric Murteza Mutahhari, who wrote a booklet entitled On the Islamic Hijab, the "lack of hijab [modest dress] in Iran before the Revolution ... is a product of the corrupt western capitalist societies" (qtd. in Moghadam 1993, 89). In the preface to the booklet, the Islamic Propagation Organization writes that western society sees "women merely through the windows of sexual passion and regards woman as a little being who just satisfies sexual desires [which] results in nothing other than woman becoming a propaganda and commercial commodity in all aspects ..." (ibid.). However, Moghadam argues that the imposition of hijab did not result from a desire to protect women, but was an act

negating female sexuality and therefore protecting men. More profoundly, compulsory veiling signalled the (re)definition of gender rules, and the veiled woman came to symbolize the moral and cultural transformation of society" (ibid.).

The call for veiling was followed by a public outcry as women demonstrated in protest (Afshar 1989, 44; Moghadam 1993, 88; Moghissi 1993, 160). In 1980 the dress code became mandatory (Moghadam 1993, 175), and it is required regardless of a woman's religion or citizenship (Country Reports 1993 1994, 1181). Further, men were prohibited from wearing short sleeves or ties (Moghadam 1993, 178). [ Little information is available on the impact of hijab on men. Where available, information has been included in this section.]

The government requires that the hijab be worn in all public places (Rhoodie 1989, 379). Women's hair must be well covered and their faces not made up (ibid.; Country Reports 1993 1994, 1178; Mayer 1991, 131). Those in contravention of the dress code are subject to punishment which may range from a verbal reprimand to a fine to 74 strokes of the lash to a prison term of one month to one year (League of Iranian Women June 1993, 25; United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 38; ibid. 8 Nov. 1993, 29; Rhoodie 1989, 379). The extent of the dress code differs from region to region in Iran (ibid.). For example, Jewish and Baha'i women of Muslim origin in Yazd are required to wear the chadur-a black cloth that covers the entire body except for one eye or the face (ibid.).

Women have been harassed and arrested or detained under legal pretexts for wearing make-up or being improperly veiled (United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 38; Mayer 1991, 131; Country Reports 1993 1994, 1181). Men have also been detained for dress code violations (ibid., 1178). Women who ignore the dress code have sometimes been sent to special camps for up to three months for instruction on proper dress (Rhoodie 1989, 379; League of Iranian Women June 1993, 26). In a June 1993 report the League of Iranian Women states that the regime has decided to abolish these camps (ibid.).

Some women reportedly manage to extricate themselves from punishment with bribes (ibid.; Hoodfar 4 Nov. 1993; Ms Magazine Sept.-Oct. 1990, 10) or by signing an agreement to observe the dress code in the future (United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 38; L'Actualité 15 May 1993, 43). According to The Economist, "[w]omen are no longer flogged for disobeying the dress code ... but they may well be fined" (The Economist 13 Aug. 1993). An article in Libération notes that women who have been detained are often released after a verbal reprimand (Libération 16 May 1993). Public places such as restaurants and cinemas are not allowed to serve women flouting the dress code (Afshar 1989, 44), and shops have been closed in police raids for ignoring such restrictions (United Nations 2 Jan. 1992, 33-34). In 1993, the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mohamed Yazdi, recommended that women be fired for failing to observe hijab (Le Devoir 1 Aug. 1993).

Arrests have been carried out by the morality police, sometimes referred to as Komitehs, who verify that women's dress meets Islamic standards (L'Actualité 15 May 1993, 42-43; The New York Times 23 Apr. 1992). Arrests have also been made by Revolutionary Guards and local police forces (United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 38; The Economist 22 Aug. 1992), and by young revolutionaries known as Baseej, who answer primarily to the call of Iranian clerics but who are beyond any formal state control (As It Happens 2 Feb. 1993; The Gazette 9 Feb. 1993). Although the morality police were allegedly merged with the regular police force in 1991 (The New York Times 23 Apr. 1992), the merger was never enforced (Le Point 5-11 Dec. 1992, 10), and the power of the former was reportedly on the rise again in 1993 (L'Actualité 15 May 1993, 42-43).

In recent years, after a temporary lull, the harassment of women in public increased (Middle East Journal Summer 1993, 421). During a two-day period in 1991, approximately 800 women were arrested (United Nations 2 Jan. 1992, 34). In August 1992, a 13-year-old girl reportedly fell from a window to her death after being pursued for having a lock of hair showing (Libération 3 Sept. 1992). Various press reports estimate that over 100,000 women in Iran were apprehended in 1991-1992 because their dress was deemed not to conform with Islamic criteria (L'Actualité 15 May 1993, 43; AFP 17 Sept. 1992; Libération 6 Aug. 1992), although this figure is considered too high by other sources (Najmabadi 3 Nov. 1993; Afkhami 3 Nov. 1993).

According to Country Reports 1993, "there was a widespread surge in enforcement in 1993" (Country Reports 1993 1994, 1181). In May 1993, the newspaper Libération reported that 80 women were arrested at the International Book Fair in Tehran because their dress did not conform to Islamic standards (Libération 16 May 1993). According to an AFP report, 15 people in Tehran were arrested after police raided a wedding reception and caught women disregarding the dress code, and men and women dancing (AFP 16 Sept. 1993). In another incident that took place in September 1993, a woman was shot dead in a phone booth by a Revolutionary Guard after he argued with her over the state of her hijab. Although a public outcry followed the incident (Hoodfar 4 Nov. 1993; Afkhami 3 Nov. 1993) it is not known whether the guard has been brought to justice. Hoodfar says that President Hashemi Rafsanjani publicly acknowledged that the guard had exceeded his authority and that he would be brought to justice (Hoodfar 8 Nov. 1993).

According to Afkhami, there were approximately 800 recorded cases of arrest in 1993 as a result of which women were taken in for questioning; some of the women were flogged (Afkhami 3 Nov. 1993). Hoodfar suggests the figure may be as high as 5,000 (Hoodfar 4 Nov. 1993). Afsaneh Najmabadi, an associate professor of women's studies at Columbia University's Barnard College, emphasizes, however, that the actual numbers are irrelevant: "The relevant thing is the actual fact of the arrests and the widespread fear that such arrests generate in society.... The fear is very real and relevant" (Najmabadi 10 Nov. 1993). In a recent public protest, Homa Darabi, a prominent psychologist and university professor, reportedly set herself on fire after being dismissed from teaching for not observing the dress code (Sisterhood is Global Institute n.d.). According to the opposition news agency Iran Press Service, Darabi was protesting the condition of women in the country (Middle East Times 20 Mar. 1994). She died of her injuries on 22 February 1994 (ibid.).

There have also been reports of clashes between Revolutionary Guards and men wanting to protect women being arrested for improper hijab (United Nations 2 Jan. 1992, 33). In one incident, in July 1991, Revolutionary Guards fired gunshots into a crowd in Isfahan that tried to liberate a number of women who had been harassed, beaten and arrested by the guards for being improperly veiled. Approximately 355 persons were allegedly arrested following the incident (ibid., 34). Clashes have also broken out between some of the self-styled religious vigilantes, also known as hezbollahi, and security patrols who had "admonished the youths [young hezbollahi] for harassing women" (Moghadam 1993, 179). The government has denounced the vigilantes (ibid.).

2.4        Employment

The constitution of Iran guarantees that "[e]veryone has the right to choose any occupation he wishes" on the condition that "it is not contrary to Islam" (Flanz Dec. 1992, 27). During a 1993 sermon on the right to work, Ayatollah Mohamed Yazdi stated that the "right to work is a fully natural right for any human being. The women, the same as men, are allowed to have a job and earn a living and what they earn belongs to themselves" (Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran 11 June 1993).

The head of the judiciary also indicated that a married woman could hold a job as long as this was agreed to by the husband in the marriage contract (ibid.). According to other sources, a woman's choice of occupation depends on her husband, who determines whether she will work and how she will be employed (L'Actualité 15 May 1993, 43; Rhoodie 1989, 381). The husband may prevent his wife from working if he deems that her choice of employment is contrary to the family's interests, although he must prove this to the Special Civil Tribunal (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 5).

In 1990, women constituted 18 per cent of the labour force (UNDP 1993, 150). According to Haleh Afshar-who teaches politics and women's studies, and has written extensively on women, Islam and Iran-women have been excluded from the labour force over the years because the authorities want to promote the idea that the best environment for a woman, no matter how educated she is, is the home (Afshar 1989, 42). Many methods were used to advance this idea, ranging from early retirement packages in the public service (Moghadam 1993, 177; Nashat 1983, 209) to legal action dismissing female judges and prohibiting other women from becoming judges [ According to an April 1994 AFP report, the Iranian parliament recently approved a draft law permitting women to act as legal advisors in court cases. Specific details of the law have yet to be worked out by parliament (26 Apr. 1994).] (Middle East Journal Summer 1993, 411; United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 37; Mayer 1991, 131; Chafiq 1991, 131-32; Tabari and Yeganeh 1982, 232) to the closing of daycare centres (Moghadam 1993, 177; Tohidi 1991, 254; Rhoodie 1989, 380).

In 1993 female secretaries were allegedly fired from the Ministry for Islamic Guidance and Culture because, in the words of an official with the ministry, this type of work "is not a fit job for a woman" (The Economist 22 Aug. 1992). Women have also had difficulty obtaining positions that involve travel (L'Actualité 15 May 1993, 43) since they are not allowed to work in remote areas with men (The Economist 22 Aug. 1992). Positions which require travel abroad are restricted as women need the official permission of their husbands to leave Iran (see footnote 1) (United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 38; Tohidi 1991, 254; Rhoodie 1989, 379; Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 5). The New York Times reports that women who have reached managerial positions face harassment. According to one female official who works for a government ministry, women are "systematically at war with male colleagues who insinuate promiscuity if they sense that women are dedicated and ambitious" (The New York Times 14 Mar. 1992).

Nesta Ramazani notes that Rafsanjani's government-which first came to power in 1989-has promoted the idea that women should play a larger role in the labour force but that the government "faces deeply entrenched norms and attitudes that make it difficult for women to enter the workforce in larger numbers" (Middle East Journal Summer 1993, 413). She cites a study in which 72 per cent of the women interviewed did not feel that working outside the home was "a major goal [or even] highly valued" (ibid.).

A number of women occupy high-ranking positions in the public sphere. In 1992, Shahla Habibi was named special consultant to President Rafsanjani for Women's Affairs (The New York Times 14 Mar. 1992). Another woman, Fatemeh Karrubi, wife of the speaker of parliament, is director of the Martyr's Foundation Hospital Centre (ibid. 23 Apr. 1992). Like Karrubi, though, a number of women who hold important political positions in the country are related to prominent male politicians (ibid. 14 Mar. 1992; Moghadam 1993, 166-67).

Nine women were elected in the 1992 parliamentary elections (Moghadam 1993, 166; The Washington Post 26 Oct. 1992); by comparison, the number of women in parliament throughout the 1980s was less than five (Moghadam 1993, 166). During the last elections, several female candidates were reportedly disqualified from running by committees of the Guardians Council (United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 37).

2.5          Education

Literacy statistics for women vary. A report from the Islamic Republic of Iran that was submitted to the United Nations declares that the proportion of literate women rose between 1972 and 1986 from 27 per cent to 47.4 per cent (United Nations 14 Apr. 1992, 47-48). According to the 1986 national population and housing census, the 1986 literacy rate for the female population over the age of six is 52 per cent, as compared to 70.9 per cent for males (Moghadam 1993, 184). The figures for rural areas are lower than the national average; a United Nations report puts the figure as low as 11 per cent (United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 37), while the aforementioned census average is closer to 36 per cent (Moghadam 1993, 184). According to UNICEF, the Literacy Movement of Iran, which was established in 1979, has been successful in publicizing the need for female literacy, particularly in rural areas (UNICEF Feb. 1993).

The segregation of female students from male teachers has had repercussions in schools, including overcrowded classes, a noticeable decline in the level of instruction, and the closure of several educational institutions for girls because of a lack of female teachers (Tohidi 1991, 253). Female students in the rural regions, in particular, do not have access to education (United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 37). According to 1986 census statistics, males receive more education than females. At 11 per cent, the participation gap between males and females is lowest at the primary school level, but increases to 20 per cent at the intermediate level (Moghadam 1993, 185).

The 27 November 1993 edition of the daily Kayhan reports that the High Council of Planning at the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education has recently removed all restrictions on areas of study open to women. Iranian women will now be permitted to enrol in any academic course upon successful completion of their entrance examinations (IRNA 28 Nov. 1993). In the past, women were either barred from certain fields of study or restricted on a quota basis (Moghadam 1993, 178). Other fields were either open to men only or to women only (ibid.). Restrictions kept women out of university disciplines such as agriculture, engineering and mining and metallurgy (Tohidi 1991, 253; United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 37). A United Nations report released in 1993 indicated that 91 of 169 fields of study were closed to women (ibid.).

Shahrzad Mojab, an assistant professor in applied social sciences at Concordia University who has written on women's academic freedom in Iran, suggests that, although there was no legislation banning women from areas of study, "the government ... institutionalized a policy that impede[d] women's access to certain disciplines" (Mojab10 Nov. 1993). As examples of this policy, she notes that female high school students were encouraged to pursue certain fields and not others, and that university guides for new students contained a column indicating which disciplines were open to men or women (ibid.). This is corroborated by a Middle East Watch report which indicates that "binding restrictions in Iran often occur in the stated form of 'recommendation' and 'advice'" (Middle East Watch Aug. 1993, 121). According to Mojab, these factors have contributed to the fact that only two per cent of Iranian women pursue higher education (Mojab 10 Nov. 1993). She notes that while some positive changes had taken place in terms of what disciplines women were allowed to study, female student enrolment in higher education has remained steady over the last few decades at approximately 27 per cent (ibid.). Valentine Moghadam states that female enrolment at the university level for the years 1986-1987 was approximately 31 per cent (Moghadam1993, 185). According to her, available statistical data do not show that attempts to curtail women's access to higher education-which increased in scope following the revolution-has led to a "significant" drop in the participation of women (ibid., 187). She attributes this to the following changes in society:

the growth of the urban middle class, urbanization, diversification of the urban economy, limited but steady industrialization, expansion of the state apparatus, and economic imperatives and labor needs (ibid., 188).

Different restrictions apply to single and married women. Single women are not entitled to receive foreign study scholarships (L'Actualité 15 May 1993, 43). Married women are entitled to such scholarships, but Hoodfar has heard of several cases where women whose husbands returned to Iran had their scholarships revoked before they could complete their studies abroad (Hoodfar 4 Nov. 1993). Further, married women are not allowed to attend public secondary schools (Tohidi 1991, 253; Rhoodie 1989, 380), although they are permitted to attend night school (Najmabadi 3 Nov. 1993).

2.6 The Family Context

Roughly 90 per cent of Iranians are Shi'a Muslims (Country Reports 1993 1994, 1179; Keesing's 1992, R136). According to the 1933 Law on the Legal Standing of Non-Shiite Individuals, the courts, when ruling on personal or family rights of an individual who belongs to one of the other officially recognized religions, are required to apply (except in cases involving the public order) the rules and traditions of that individual's religion. Iran recognizes the four main sects of Sunni Islam, as well as Zoroastrianism, Judaism and various Christian denominations (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 8-9). Under Islamic law, a female Muslim is forbidden from marrying a non-Muslim. Only the conversion of the future husband to Islam can make the marriage legal (ibid., 4; Nasir 1990, 84).

2.6.1   Marriage

Current law in Iran sanctions two types of marriage: permanent marriage and temporary marriage (called sigheh or mut'a). In both cases, the husband holds and exercises exclusive rights as head of the family (Rhoodie 1989, 377; Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 3). Unlike permanent marriage, temporary marriage, in accordance with article 1075 of the civil code, is limited by a period of time, normally specified in the marriage contract. This period may vary from one hour to a maximum of 99 years. The husband may terminate the marriage at any time. At no time is he required to make support payments, and neither the husband nor the wife is permitted to inherit from the other [According to a researcher with the Sisterhood is Global Institute, inheritance is permitted for children born in temporary marriages unless specified otherwise by the father (17 June 1994). The researcher has heard of a couple of cases where such children have received inheritances (ibid.). Professor Hoodfar states that such cases occur only rarely (17 June 1994).] (ibid.; Rhoodie 1989, 377; Social Research Spring 1992, 211).

In a sermon given in 1990, President Rafsanjani expressed his implicit support for sigheh (ibid., 203-07; The New York Times 23 Apr. 1992). He offered two justifications for the practice: first, many young people did not have enough money for a proper Persian wedding, and second, it was legitimate for widowed or divorced women to enter into temporary relationships (ibid.). Ramazani notes that Rafsanjani's speech has made it more difficult to enforce strict morality codes. She believes that many men and women caught together in public places have been able to take refuge in sigheh and avoid harassment (Middle East Journal Summer 1993, 421). L'Actualité reports that a man and woman who are not married and who are caught together by the authorities in the street, a movie house or a vehicle risk being sentenced to lashings (L'Actualité 15 May 1993, 42-43).

According to the authors of Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, the only purpose of this type of marriage is to fulfil men's sexual needs; "by relegitimizing and officially encouraging Mut'a, the Islamic regime has, in reality, endorsed a form of prostitution" (Tohidi 1991, 254). An article in The New York Times corroborates this, saying that prostitution has made a "comeback" since the early years of the revolution and is practised largely in the form of sigheh (The New York Times 23 Apr. 1993). A leading women's magazine, Zan-e-ruz, has been publishing information on the problems associated with temporary marriage and how women can protect themselves in such relationships (Middle East Journal Summer 1993, 420). Shahla Haeri, who has published a book on the subject, argues, however, that, despite the Islamic regime's efforts to encourage it, temporary marriage is "still a marginal and stigmatized institution with which are associated many conflicting moral values" (Social Research Spring 1992, 213).

Men are allowed to have up to four permanent wives and an unlimited number of concubines or temporary wives (Mir-Hosseini 1993, 66; United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 38; Rhoodie 1989, 377; Afshar 1989, 46; Nashat 1983, 206). Although Islamic law requires that a husband treat all his wives in an "equally fair" manner, the Iranian civil code reportedly leaves to him the decision as to whether he is capable of treating his wives accordingly (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 5). In 1984, the Council of Guardians removed previously existing restrictions on polygamous as well as unregistered marriages. According to Mir-Hosseini, polygamous marriage or the failure to register such a marriage is no longer illegal; "neither the registry officer nor the couple involved are liable to prosecution, although some marriage registries still decline to register it without a court order" (Mir-Hosseini 1993, 66).

Children, in accordance with article 41 of the Law of the Registration of Vital Statistics, cannot be given the mother's maiden name even with the father's consent. According to Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl, who have collaborated on an upcoming publication on women in post-revolutionary Iran, "the law is both a reason for and a reflection of the fact that in most Iranian families a male child is held in higher regard and ... the ultimate wish of most fathers is to have a son who will be the bearer and guardian of their name" (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 1).

2.6.2                The Legal Age of Majority for Girls

The legal age for girls to marry, which was 18 prior to 1979, was reduced to 13 after Khomeini's accession to power (Tohidi 1991, 253; Chafiq 1991, 133). Some sources state that it was further reduced to 9 (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 1; United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 38; Tohidi 1991, 253). However, Ramazani writes that in the fall of 1991, the age was raised from 13 to 15 (Middle East Journal Summer 1993, 415).

Even at the age of majority, a girl must obtain the permission of her father or paternal grandfather to marry. If either refuses her without justification, the girl can solicit the intervention of a special court to which she must first provide detailed information on her future husband, the terms of the proposed marriage and the dowry (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 1). Once all the requirements have been satisfied, the girl can ask the court to inform her father or paternal grandfather of all these details. If, following notification, the tribunal does not receive any justification for opposition to the choice of the husband from the legal guardian, it may, in accordance with article 1043 of the civil code, issue the complainant an authorization to marry (ibid.).

2.6.3     Divorce and Child Custody

The act of divorce applies to permanent marriage only. Article 1133 of the Iranian civil code stipulates that the husband can divorce as he pleases (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 7; Mir-Hosseini 1993, 63; Chafiq 1991, 95). However, under the Special Civil Courts Legislation of 1979, the husband is required to obtain court permission to register the divorce if his wife does not agree to the divorce in the first place (Mir-Hosseini 1993, 62-63). Registration of the divorce can only be delayed by the court, not prevented (ibid., 63).

The conditions under which a woman can obtain a divorce vary depending on the year that she married, and the legislation that was in effect at the time of her marriage (ibid., 63-65). For example, a woman who married after 1982 has recourse to 12 conditions stipulated in her marriage contract, of which she must establish only one. Two of these conditions are: "the husband's failure to support her or to fulfil other compulsory duties for at least six months," and the "husband's maltreatment (of the wife) to the extent that the continuation of the marriage has been rendered untenable for her" (ibid., 65). According to Mir-Hosseini, an amendment to article 1130

provides an Islamic judge with discretionary power to issue or withhold a divorce requested by women. In other words he can compel a man to divorce his wife or issue the divorce permission if he deems that the marriage entails her 'harm'. The grounds inserted in marriage contracts ... are a means of identifying and listing those circumstances which can render marital life intolerable to women (ibid., 65-66).

A more recent amendment to article 1130 of the civil code was passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly on 12 March 1992, and subsequently adopted by Iran's Exigency Council on 19 November 1993 (Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran 21 Jan. 1994, 4). The amendment provides for female "counsellors" to sit in courts dealing with divorce hearings (ibid., 3; Reuters 8 Dec. 1992; Los Angeles Times 6 Apr. 1993), and women have been granted greater rights for financial support in divorce cases (Country Reports 1993 1994, 1182). Women whose husbands wish to divorce them are now entitled to receive compensation for domestic work performed during the marriage (Los Angeles Times 6 Apr. 1993; Reuters 8 Dec. 1992; The New York Times 17 Dec. 1992). A December 1992 report in The New York Times notes that some Iranians have voiced scepticism over whether the measure is even enforceable given other existing laws that limit a woman's participation in court and that place her testimony beneath a man's (ibid.). Nonetheless, there are others who view the measure as "a social and legal victory for women" (ibid.), and a recent article in the Los Angeles Times tells the story of a woman who obtained a divorce under the new law and was promised compensation for her housework (Los Angeles Times 6 Apr. 1993). The law does not specify how the compensation is to be calculated, although the government has apparently been working on compensation guidelines for the courts to use (Hoodfar 4 Nov. 1993).

It has been stated that it is extremely difficult for a woman to obtain a divorce in Iran (The New York Times 23 Apr. 1992; ibid. 14 Mar. 1992) and that judges reportedly view "divorce as the exclusive right of men" (United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 38). In contrast, Ziba Mir-Hosseini-who carried out research in the Special Civil Court in Tehran between 1985 and 1988-argues that women have challenged

the standard image of powerless Muslim women who have little to say in their marriage and are at the mercy of their husbands. These women, aware of their rights and their limitations, are able to manipulate the legal system to acquire a degree of autonomy (Mir-Hosseini 1993, 81).

In the event of divorce, the father has legal custody of his children. However, according to article 1170 of the civil code, custody of a male child belongs to the mother until the child is two years of age, and custody of a daughter until the child is seven (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 6; Tohidi 1991, 254; Rhoodie 1989, 378; Mir-Hosseini 1993, 67). In the event of death, the surviving parent receives custody (ibid.). In the event of remarriage, the mother loses custody (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 6). For a court to grant a mother guardianship of her children, the precondition is that she have the prior consent of her husband (ibid., 7). A New York Times article suggests that it is extremely difficult for a woman to win custody over her children in the courts (The New York Times 23 Apr. 1992).

2.6.4 Inheritance

According to Islamic law, the value of a woman's inheritance is half that of a man's (Rhoodie 1989, 378). Under article 907 of the civil code, upon the death of a parent, "each son's share of the inheritance will be twice that of each of the daughters" (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 2). The widow of a man who has left children or grandchildren behind is entitled to only one-eighth of her husband's inheritance; if he has left no children, she is entitled to one-quarter (the rest is deemed as intestate and, therefore, public property). If the man had more than one wife, the one-eighth or one-quarter is shared among the wives. If the woman dies, the rights of her surviving husband are double those she would get if he died (ibid., 8). These laws apply to permanent marriages only (ibid.).

2.7  The Treatment of Women Prisoners

Amnesty International has documented a number of cases where women associated with political opposition parties have been "subjected to lengthy pre-trial detention without judicial supervision during which they faced torture or other forms of coercion, then convicted at summary trials" (Amnesty International May 1990, 1-7). The United States Department of State's Country Reports 1992 also notes that "[in] the past, there have been credible reports of the torture and execution of women detainees, some of whom were allegedly raped before execution" (Country Reports 1992 1993, 1004). According to the author of Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran, medical probes have been "used to evaluate the moral decency of women. For example, women's genitals are probed on arrest 'to prove later to the prison authorities that they are not good girls' and thereby justify arrest" (Rejali 1994, 115). Another source says that because Islam does not allow virgin women to be executed, they must be raped before a death sentence can be carried out (Rhoodie 1989, 379). Country Reports 1992 indicates that there was no information on whether ill-treatment of female prisoners occurred in 1992 (Country Reports 1992 1993, 1004), while the 1993 report makes no mention of it. Hoodfar notes that families whose daughters have been arrested will inevitably try to get them out of jail as soon as possible, usually with the help of money. There are rumours that the Revolutionary Guards rape women in custody, and families fear that even if their daughters are not raped they will incur dishonour because of the rumours (Hoodfar 4 Nov. 1993).

In one of its most recent amnesties--which the government grants periodically on religious holidays and anniversaries--109 women prisoners were pardoned or had their sentences commuted (AFP 4 Dec. 1993).


Sources provide somewhat conflicting information on the incidence of domestic violence in Iran. According to Country Reports 1993, no official studies have been conducted on domestic violence and not much is known about its extent: "[a]buse within the family is considered a private matter ... and is seldom discussed publicly" (Country Reports 1993 1994, 1182). Nevertheless, Afkhami sees the problem as "enormous" and notes that local newspapers and journals report on incidents of domestic violence on a regular basis (Afkhami 3 Nov. 1993). Najmabadi believes that wife battering is a "serious" problem but indicates that the extent of violence is under-reported (Najmabadi 3 Nov. 1993). According to this source, only in cases that result in the death of the woman or in the subsequent murder of the husband by the battered wife is it likely that the incident will be reported. There have even been cases where women have taken their own lives, allegedly because they were being battered (ibid).

Massomeh Namavar, an associate professor of counselling psychology at Cambridge College in Massachusetts, notes that women are extremely reluctant to bring the problem into the open and believes that approximately 70 per cent of women may be undergoing some form of physical or psychological domestic abuse (Namavar 4 Nov. 1993).

Both Afkhami and Najmabadi agree that women have few options in these situations. There are no shelters for battered women, and abuse is seen as the husband's prerogative (Afkhami 3 Nov. 1993; Najmabadi 3 Nov. 1993). Further, no social support is provided to a woman who leaves her husband (Namavar 4 Nov. 1993). While a woman may be able to return to her family home, social norms do not encourage this avenue (Afkhami 3 Nov. 1993). The possibility of leaving the country for those women with the means or the willingness to do so may be even slimmer, given the fact that a woman requires the permission of her husband to obtain a passport (Afkhami and Friedl 1993, 5; United Nations 28 Jan. 1993, 38; Rhoodie 1989, 379). Even if the woman has a passport, her husband may write to the passport office to prevent her from leaving Iran (see footnote 1) (The Economist 22 Aug. 1992).

4.                WOMEN'S ORGANIZATIONS

According to Haideh Moghissi, who teaches politics and women's studies at Queen's University and was once active in the women's movement in Iran, a women's movement emerged after 1979 as a reaction to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (Moghissi 1993, 160). Moghissi writes that following the revolution,

[w]omen's spontaneous protests, which led to the regime's temporary retreat and the proliferation of a number of women's political and professional organisations, could have instigated a movement in defence of democracy, civil liberties and justice which were originally the underlying motives of the revolution. The women's movement, however, was killed in embryo and could not develop into an independent feminist movement (ibid., 160-61).

More recently, particularly since the end of the war with Iraq, there has been a resurgence in women's activity (UNICEF Feb. 1993, 114). UNICEF notes that there are a number of government organizations active mainly in such areas as legislation and research regarding the legal and socio-economic status of women (UNICEF Feb. 1993, 114-15). Other organizations have started income-generating projects for women, and provided legal assistance to women in need (ibid., 115). Moghadam writes that women have "started their own study groups, their own associations, their own publications, their exegesis and interpretation of the Quran, gradually generating a new woman-oriented reformist discourse in Islam" (Moghadam 1993, 166). According to Najmabadi, "women are publishing and lobbying on a totally unprecedented scale" (Najmabadi 3 Nov. 1993). Nevertheless, she cautions, it is extremely difficult to work as a secular woman in Iran, and there is very little room in the system for secular women's politics (ibid.).


According to Ramazani, Iranian clerics have been slowly implementing "cautious reforms ... in the interests of the survival of their rule and revolution" (Middle East Journal summer 1993, 427). Hoodfar argues that while the efforts of women working within the system have led to a few welcome changes in such areas as education and family laws, the government faces strong opposition, primarily from more conservative religious leaders (Hoodfar 4 Nov. 1993). Afkhami suggests that the government operates within an ideologically oriented system that does not allow for much flexibility in the areas of women and the family. While President Rafsanjani's government may have taken a few positive steps, the "government cannot make real changes without losing legitimacy; a serious change in the treatment of women will require a serious change in the government" (Afkhami 3 Nov. 1993).

According to Moghadam, regardless of the varying perspectives on the current political climate in Iran, future improvements in women's rights will continue to be largely the result of work carried out by women and women's organizations (Moghadam 1993, 166, 206).


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