Iran’s Women’s Movement: A Look Back and Ahead

by Leila Seradj

Women in Iran are beginning to work collectively to address the country’s wide gender employment gap. In an environment that has made some increasingly hopeful about the ability to mobilize, there is growing recognition that the expansion of employment opportunities to women is good for the economy’s overall health. This is an encouraging trend in a country where females make up over sixty percent of university students but less than twenty percent of the workforce.

This recent phenomenon echoes the experience of the origins of Iran’s women’s movement at the turn of the twentieth century—a time when most Iranian females lived in seclusion and lacked formal education. These early activists maintained that the denial of rights and opportunities to females was a chief reason that Iran had lagged in its social and economic progress. Given this, it is worth taking a look back at the origins of women’s activism in Iran, called “the most progressive” if not the most “radical, in the world” by American diplomat William Morgan Shuster.

The Constitutional Revolution

In 1911, William Morgan Shuster was appointed by Iran’s newly formed parliament to manage the country’s finances. Shuster’s seven-month stay in the midst of Iran’s “Constitutional Revolution” resulted in a narrative eyewitness account of the revolutionary drama. Among his observations were those concerning the unprecedented rise of female participation to support the establishment of a democratically elected parliament and constitution in Iran.

Women, he wrote, were active in creating constitutionalist newspapers and secret societies, inciting street riots, and—in one instance—even storming the parliament building, armed with pistols under their robes, to demand that the parliamentary members not surrender to the Shah’s forces. Some particularly bold women worked as bodyguards for prominent constitutionalists clerics and joined the ranks of volunteer soldiers (at times disguised in men’s clothing).

For centuries—bolstered by selective interpretations of Islamic scripture—Iranian women largely remained confined to the home, did not receive formal education, and enjoyed far fewer rights and privileges than men. But the exigencies of the Constitutional Revolution required women’s active support. Given the fact that constitutionalist leaders needed as much assistance as they could garner, it became acceptable for women to break the social code of female seclusion.

The Rise of the Women’s Movement

Despite the hopes and expectations of female constitutionalists, the new regime legitimized political patriarchy in the very constitution for whose establishment they had fought. Namely, it denied women the right to vote or stand for election, along with criminals and the insane.

Undeterred by this setback, Iranian women refocused their efforts on expanding and securing their rights. Their experiences in the revolution gave them the confidence and tools to organize effectively—this time, for the purpose of openly questioning their status and rights.

Iran’s burgeoning newspaper industry was a major outlet by which many of its citizens could enter a public discourse on Iran’s advancement. Women’s rights activists took advantage of the opportunity and publically argued that the country’s social and economic progress relied upon the emancipation of females. Women’s rights activists—both individuals and on behalf ofanjumans, or associations—wrote letters to and articles in these periodicals (some of which were owned by women themselves) on issues ranging from the need to educate females, women’s underserved health needs, prostitution, child and forced marriage, and unequal divorce laws.

Women also acted individually and collectively to establish a variety of institutions to serve female populations. These included girls’ schools, orphanages, adult education classes, newspapers, and health clinics. They invested their own resources in these ventures and received no financial support from the government, which specifically barred women from the political process.

With the rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925, the first phase of the women’s movement gradually came to a close. What began as a spontaneous movement inspired by grassroots socio-political change in Iran gradually turned into a top-down policy of government centralization. Reza Shah’s policies, while intended to be in Iran’s best interests, changed the face of women’s rights from an autonomous movement that sought full equality and rights for women to one that was state-mandated and selective in its approach.

Looking Ahead

While President Hassan Rouhani has publicly made promises to expand women’s rights, the country’s women’s rights activists continue to face challenges. According to a forthcoming human rights report of the UN secretary-general, Iran’s women’s rights activists face an uphill battle. A number have been released from prison since September 2013, such as Mahboubeh Karami, member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, to demand changes to discriminatory laws against women. But others remain, such as Bahereh Hedayat, the One Million Signatures Campaign’s founding member who has been in prison since 2009.

If Rouhani is to make good on his promises, he must reverse the policies that continue to set women back—especially laws passed during the Ahmadinejad era that discouraged employers from hiring women. As journalist Jila Banighayoob argues, even if women’s legal status were to improve, “until women are financially independent, gaining equal rights would be very difficult for them.” While existing initiatives that promote jobs for women in both the private and public sectors are encouraging, proposed legislation like the Population and Family Excellence Plan would make it legal to discriminate against women in hiring practices.

Additionally Iran’s leaders ought to encourage an environment that enables, not discourages, women to organize to think about how to advance their status, including in the area of economic empowerment. Distancing himself from Catherine Ashton’s meeting with women human’s rights activists on International Women’s Day, for example, does not send a signal that he is genuinely committed to advancing the status of women in Iran.

Iran’s first champions of women’s rights understood that in order for their country to flourish, Iranian society required the active participation of its female citizens. While this is a sentiment that is being echoed today, Iran’s leaders would do well to pay attention to this reality and make good on its promises for greater equality and inclusion for women.

About the Author

Leila Seradj is a recent Fletcher School graduate. She has worked for the New America Foundation, and most recently for a fellowship program for emerging leaders in girls' education at the Brookings Institution.

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