Current Iranian women must adhere to strictures of dress and regulation, including the veil (hijab) and full body covering (chador). Yet this was not always the case. Prior to the Iranian revolution the Shah began modernising the state of Iran and introducing woman’s rights. However, many religious factions strongly disagreed with what they saw as a violation of Islamic culture. When the Islamic Republic took over the monarch in 1979, they began to abolish the changes made to women’s rights. This essay hopes to explain how education has contributed to the awareness of many urban Iranian women to their oppressive state. It will explain Iranian women both pre and post Iranian revolution and will draw upon the different viewpoints Iranian women have of Islam to emphasise the current state of Iranian society. Finally it will touch upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and discuss how scholars of gender view the topic of Iranian Woman.
As noted by Elton Daniels, in Iran, strict cultural rules and religious regulations dictate and govern the actions of Iranian woman in the public arena. This is because Iranian women, especially married women, are seen as upholding the honour of a family; therefore, individual desires are often sacrificed to centre the husband and children as primary responsibility. The Islamic Republic takes this role seriously and to ensure that women do uphold family honour, Iranian women must be chaperoned by their husbands or male relatives at all times, lone women are either fined or imprisoned. Women are seen as the guardians of Iran’s moral code and therefore there is much less freedom allowed to them and they must be constantly monitoring their public behaviour. Many urban Iranian women feel themselves restricted by oppressive attitudes and blamed for any misfortune that befalls Iran’s patriarchal society. This tension is developing mainly in urban women’s circles and is likely due to the increase of educated women who are becoming progressively aware of their situation.
According to Daniels, in a bid to open itself up to the rest of the world during the 1930s (Pre-Iranian revolution), Iran was becoming an increasingly modernised state, therefore relaxing the religious and social strictures that bound and alienated Iranian women. More schools and higher forms of education and governmental employment (especially in hospitals and schools) were being introduced to urban women and even after the Islamic Republic took over, they could not quell the growing education of women. Urbanisation and the expansion of education offered women, mostly urban women, the opportunity to send their daughters to school. In 1936, the chador was banned in public places, which provided the change that was necessary for encouraging women to participate openly in public life. Political developments began to follow, including that of the White Revolution (1963), in which an act was passed that allowed Iranian women to participate politically. Furthermore, in the years between the White Revolution and the Iranian Revolution, several women were elected to the parliament and ministry of education.
However, there was unrest between the growing modernising ideologies and the more traditional rural Islamic views. The Shah was ruling autocratically and had alienated many sectors of society; this eventually leading to his overthrow. The bourgeois continued to feel restricted by the lack of career and intellectual opportunities available to them and the religious sectors of Iran ruled by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini began to accuse the Shah of a corruption and distilling Islamic beliefs. The unhappiness that Iranian’s felt against the Shah led to a religious revival among Iranian society and the destruction of the modernisation of Iranian culture. During revolt against the Shah, secular urban women and tradition rural women worked together to protest absolute monarchy and many urban women donned the Chador out of respect for the traditional women.
Yet, when the Iranian Revolution (1979) proved successful, and Islamic Republic took over as the existing form of government, the budding rights and freedoms for women were smothered. Khomeini decreed that wearing the Chador was now law; many women lost their government jobs and it also became mandatory to segregate both males and females in the public arena. “Morality police” were put in place to ensure that such laws were stuck to. This marked a significant change for Iranian culture because before the Iranian revolution Islamic modesty was adhered to as religious sympathy, never before had such commands been made law.
The current attitudes faced by many urban Iranian women are dictated by the edicts put in place post- Iranian Revolution. Many urban Women feel stifled by these laws and still remember a time when their life was not mandated. Although there have been cases of women receiving political seat between 1979 and 2011, many of those women were set up to appease the feminist movement and have no power within the government. Realising this, an increased number of Iranian women deploy secular feminist movements such as protesting their grievances through public mediums like the media and press, and civil insubordination. For example, deliberate improper wearing of the veil and Chador is practised by many young Iranian Women and is called bad hejabi. Bad hejabi consists of wearing the veil differently than society norms, such as brightly coloured Chador’s and crooked hijab, with hair showing. An interview with a young Iranian women explains the nature of bad hejabi; “Because of these (conservative) people and their aggressive thinking, I believe I am vulnerable to attack if I don’t wear the hijab. If I was living in a place where people could respect individual choice and not do me any harm, certainly I wouldn’t wear it. I want to show I don’t approve”. Wearing bad-hejabi proves the desire felt by many young Iranian women to be free of their restricting patriarchal establishment and the religious control that they feel has no place in their lives.
Contrary to bad-hejabi are the traditional women who see wearing Islamic dress as a matter of pride and representation of their religious society. Women that are pro-Islamic Republic believe that the laws surrounding women were based around the teachings of Mohammed in the Koran. Questioning these laws would be questioning the foundations upon which many Iranian women live their life. The female Professor Barzin Maknoun in charge of woman issues at the Institute for Cultural Research and Studies states in Iran; “The problems have come up because women in the west are trying to be the same as men. Women work outside the home, but they also have to take care of the children, because by nature she’s the one who bears the children. The whole burden rests on women now, because they’re trying to be equal to men. But Islam says no to all this. Islam says the best thing for a woman is to be a wife and mother. That doesn’t stop her having a job or a profession- she can do that if her husband agrees, but her first job is to take care of her children. And it’s the job of the man to take care of her.” Professor Maknoun represents the views held by many conservative Iranian women.
However, the Islamic Republic’s attitude toward women seems to contradict the rights for women stated in Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was to ensure that every person’s dignity was upheld worldwide. In relation to this view, many scholars of gender are mostly working in the west and there seems to be more interest in pro-feminism in academic circles. Pro feminist studies include Rebecca Barlow’s article, prospects for feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran, or from a analysis point of view similar to Mahnaz Kousha’s article, predictors of life satisfaction among urban Iranian Women and Mitra K Shavarini’s article, the feminisation of Iranian Higher Education which deals with overall unhappiness and dissatisfaction of Iranian women. This research indicates an interest in the feminisation and oppression of Iranian women and less interest on the Islamic Republic as a legitimate form of government. Professor Marknoun was the only pro- Islamic Republic scholar found.
In conclusion many urban Iranian women feel restricted by the hijab and chador due to the oppressive society they represent. Although there are circles of traditional women who view these forms of dress as a symbol of honour and family, wearing the hijab and chador, was originally a personal choice. However, this was before the Islamic Republic made many religious traditions into law upon the conclusion of the Iranian Revolution. A study of Iranian women pre and post Iranian revolution shows that the progressive education of women has contributed to the urban dissatisfaction of a Women’s place in Iranian Society and that many scholars of Iranian Women take pro feminist angles.