While many Muslim countries have laws restricting the dress, habits, and jobs available to women, Iran is unique in both its oddness and inconsistency.
The situation of women in Iran is widely lamented, but is also not without its paradoxes.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran reversed decades of liberalizing laws and attitudes towards women and is often viewed as a rejection of the western concept of femininity. After the revolution the ban on the use of the hijab was lifted, and many women holding government posts were forced to wear the chador. Events and public spaces became sex-segregated, as well.
At the same time, women in Iran became more literate, and by the 1990s more women than men were enrolling in colleges. More women were also allowed to enter the workforce, and contraceptive laws were liberal by international standards.
These trends have not, however, prevented the creation of bizarre and often intrusive laws restricting women’s liberties. For examples, women in Iran are not allowed to cycle, work in coffee shops, wear boots or pants, go on stage, enter sports stadiums, or divorce upon request. These laws often target the physical appearance and modesty of women, their participation or affiliation with sporting events, and women’s legal abilities.
Laws making divorce for women harder have garnered criticism. In 2015, the state made divorce illegal unless the couple had undertaken state-guided counseling sessions. The move was taken in response to spiking divorce rates, particularly in big cities.
The “modesty police” who patrol Iranian streets enforcing codes of dress for women have also been a source of controversy. The agents, who are affiliated with the Intelligence Ministry, impose ever-changing, seemingly arbitrary rules on women, who can be harassed or detained for their style of dress or behavior.
Women also face restrictions on work and travel. A woman in Iran cannot leave the country without her husband’s permission. Men are also allowed to practice polygamy. Women are barred from entering certain industries, including the extremely profitable and knowledge-intensive oil industry, despite the high rate of obtention of scientific and engineering degrees by Iranian women.
Women’s rights have been a focal point for political dissent groups inside and outside Iran. The “My Stealthy Freedom” Facebook page, among others, shows women in public without their headscarves, an act of defiance against laws forcing women to cover their heads and wear loose-fitting clothing in public.
Iranian resistance groups also support expanded rights for women, with Maryam Rajavi of the National Council of the Resistance of Iran (NCRI) having extensively outlined its vision for women’s rights in a post-Ayatollah Iran, including equal protection before the law and equal political and economic rights for all Iranian women.
The “Pledge for Parity: Women United against Fundamentalism” rally, held in Paris in February, 2016 also attracted global attention for its goal of female liberation in Iran.
“Anything that promotes compulsion, denies people’s free choice and anything that denies women’s equal rights is not Islam but against Islam,” said Rajavi at the rally.
“We do not tolerate violation of women’s rights in the guise of religion or under any other pretext.”