These are not statements made by Iranian men, apologists, or "hardliners." These are what some Iranian women claim who are by no means in favor of the Islamic Republic or Sharia laws. They understand and agree that Iran was better off under the secular monarchial government than the current mullahcracy in Tehran. They are well-traveled, enjoy Western values and education, and represent middle to upper class segments of Iranian society. Yet against this background, their analysis of women's conditions in 1979 versus 2009 is shocking.
As a country under poverty and foreign control until early 1900's, Iran's numerous social problems included discrimination against minorities. Despite being rich in natural resources, because of zealous and backwards clergy, disinterested Qajar ruling family, and meddling British and Russian forces, Iran did not have any capacity for modernization let alone women's liberation.
In 1936, Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944), a force for improving women's status and education, while addressing the unprecedented graduation ceremony of female candidates from the Faculty of Medicine and other schools said:
"I am exceedingly pleased to observe, that as a result of knowledge and learning, women have come alive to their condition, rights, and privileges…. Now, however, they are going to enjoy social advantages other than that of their outstanding privilege of maternity. We should not forget that up to this time one-half of the population of the country was not taken into account…. It seemed as though women were some other type of individuals who did not form a part of the population of Iran…. I am not trying to point out contrasts between today and the old days but you ladies should consider this as a great day…."
Iran's sudden invasion by the Anglo-Russo troops during WWII put social reforms on the back burner. During these strained times, the power of the clergy increased again to the detriment of minorities. Radical social reforms take time and are attained by taking careful, strategic steps. By 1963, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919-1980) announced that legal oppression against women under Islamic laws will be abolished, and women would receive the right to vote. In 1967, the Family Protection Law was introduced (amended in 1975) to curb unfair and draconian practices in marriage, divorce, and child custody cases. These reforms improved women's condition mostly in middle class strata albeit initially moderate and not fully enforced. It goes without saying that any form of modernization is seen in urban settings first before it is spread to rural areas.
In 1979, before these laws could take hold, the Islamic revolutionaries reversed all social progress including any civil rights granted to women. Women's Emancipation Day was also abolished. In the Islamic Republic, women are regarded as intellectually and morally inferior. Accordingly, among many things, women are now (a) subjected to violent enforcement of hejab, (b) facing employment restrictions, (c) prohibited from attending national sporting events, (d) facing possible marriage at the legal age of 9 instead of 18, (e) without any rights in divorce and children custody cases, and (f) subjected to inhuman treatments as prisoners including "legalized" rape and stoning. Additionally, the Islamic regime popularized polygamy and temporary marriages by easing legal restrictions giving women less security over their own household and personal relationships.
So why are some women incapable of seeing the difference in their status now as opposed to the 1970s? Why do they believe women attending colleges and wearing provocative hejab are indicative of status quo under the Islamic regime?
It is argued that because Iranians have always lived by conservative Islamic social standards, women were never really liberated and many of the advances in the 1960s and 1970s were not always enforced and realized. Therefore, with the exception of some minor issues such as enforced hejab, the Islamic Republic is not the main factor in women's limited personal freedom. This is partially correct. Although as a Moslem nation, only men were empowered and laws were not always enforced to protect rights given to women, modernization is a work in progress. Even if and when the laws are changed to provide more power and equal rights to minorities, it takes educating the public and a couple of generations later to see the positive results. Having had about 15 years of emancipation before the Islamic revolution, women in Iran did not have a chance to develop their social status as seen in Western nations, and Iran was robbed of its social modernity. A regime that is based on Sharia laws as opposed to secular laws will not have any tolerance for civil liberties, because it is based on social inequalities and intolerance.
It is further argued that women's "provocative" hejab as an indirect act of defiance and their high attendance at the universities are indicative of status quo and progress. This is not correct. These acts are not signs of social liberties granted by the Islamic Republic. For a short period of time in Iran's modern history, women experienced the freedom to dress according to personal preferences. The Islamic Republic will not tolerate women without proper hejab. The fact that women can no longer choose how to dress is blatant discrimination. The fact that women can pursue an education is a direct result of freedoms granted by the previous regime. Mullahs were and are against women's emancipation. Furthermore, according to recent studies, the higher ratio of women to men in Iran's higher education system is not unusual. As a matter of fact, Iran's ratio is under the median value for that study including several of its neighboring countries. One factor is that men are the breadwinners and with the country's economy in ruins, young men have to find work to support their families rather than having the luxury of continuing their education. Additionally, in a conservative society where gender interaction is restricted, women have a better chance of finding suitable husbands in a co-ed environment. Finally, most women are not taking places away from male candidates, because majority of them enroll in humanities and social sciences neither of which are typically pursued by male students.
In conclusion, it is not that perspectives may be a little off or understanding of events inaccurate, but rather these careless statements are detrimental to the issue-at-hand. Women suffer under a regime with laws that are set to treat them as second class citizens and dependents of male relatives. If Iranian women are attending colleges, defying mandatory hejab rules, and sacrificing their safety in current popular demonstrations against the mullahcracy, it is because of the legacy of social advancements achieved during the previous regime. The defiance exhibited by Iranian women does not mean the mullahs are going to curb their oppressive agenda, but that their radical changes are more difficult to implement now in the Age of Information than in the past. Just as the late Shah's regime had to achieve women's liberation through strategic steps given internal pressures, the mullahs will reach their complete oppression through steps as well. At first, it's how women dress, then how they are defined by law, then how they are allowed to make life choices, then their well-being and whereabouts, then their role in society and civil rights, then their education, and many more "thens" to come. Under the misogynistic regime in Tehran without proper laws protecting women and public education regarding social equalities, superstitions and backwardness in families will not be eradicated where women truly begin to feel empowered. It is imperative that eras are not interchanged or meshed together, and current affairs are analyzed in a broader sense in order to overcome Islamic Republic's injustices not only to women but to all Iranian minorities.
Sheda Vasseghi obtained a Master's degree in Ancient History with an emphasis on Persia from American Military University and is a member of the Azadegan Foundation.