Khatami and the Status of Women in Iran
by Donna M. Hughes
August 1998 Z Magazine, October, 1998, pp 22-24
Women in Iran want equality, respect and the right to participate in all social, political and economic activities. They want to live their lives productively and with dignity. Throughout the 20th Century Iranian women have organized and fought for human and political rights, from the Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the century to the democratic movement that overthrew the Shah of Iran. (1)
Iranian women were strong participants in the 1979 revolution, but fundamentalists, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seized control after the revolution. Once in power, the fundamentalists betrayed the work and humanity of women by implementing a crushing system of gender apartheid. Fundamentalists built their theocracy on the premise that women are physically, intellectually and morally inferior to men, which eclipses the possibility of equal participation in any area of social or political activity. Biological determinism prescribes women’s roles and duties to be child bearing and care taking, and providing comfort and satisfaction to husbands.
Men were granted the power to make all family decisions, including the movement of women and custody of the children. "Your wife, who is your possession, is in fact, your slave," is the mullah’s legal view of women’s status. (2) The misogyny of the mullahs made women the embodiment of sexual seduction and vice. To protect the sexual morality of society, women had to be covered and banned from engaging in "immodest" activity. (3)
Based on these woman-hating principles, Khomeini and his followers crafted laws and policies that are still in effect. The hejab, or dress code, is mandatory in all public places for all women. Women must cover their hair and body except for their face and hands and they must not use cosmetics. Punishments range from a verbal reprimand to 74 lashes with a whip to imprisonment for one month to a year. Stoning to death is a legal form of punishment for sexual misconduct. Women are banned from pursuing higher education in 91 of 169 fields of study and must be taught in segregated classrooms. A woman may work with her husband’s permission, although many occupations are forbidden to women.
The legal age at which girls can be married is 9 years (formerly 18 years). Polygamy is legal, with men permitted to have four wives and unlimited number of temporary wives. Women are not permitted to travel or acquire a passport without their husband’s written permission. A woman is not permitted to be in the company of a man who is not her husband or a male relative. Public activities are segregated. Women are not allowed to engage in sports in which they may be seen by men; or permitted to watch men’s sports in which men’s legs are not fully covered.
Although these laws were implemented with great brutality, women have always resisted. Recently in Iran there have been signs that women are increasingly rejecting subordinate lives ruled by the mullahs. Women have campaigned for inheritance rights equal to men’s, and for more rights to custody of their children. Women keep modifying or enhancing their public dress in ways that press the limits of the hejab. More publications by or about women are appearing. Women are demanding they be allowed to participate in and view sports events. Many Iranian women want change.
Some analysts have said that the election of Mohammed Khatami to the position of President was due to the votes of women. Khatami’s strongest distinction seems to be that he was not the hard-line government’s favorite candidate. His election was no doubt a vote against the hard-liners. His upset election has garnered him the label of "moderate," and raised expectations of people inside and outside of Iran. (4)
Khatami has been in office one year now. Is he a moderate? Has the status of women markedly improved in Iran since his election?
There is a widely held view that Khatami supports the rights of women, but his statements and appointments don’t validate that view. Prior to his election Khatami said, "One of the West’s most serious mistakes was the emancipation of women, which led to the disintegration of families. Staying at home does not mean marginalization. Being a housewife does not prevent a woman from having a role in the destiny of her people. We should not think that social activity means working outside the home. Housekeeping is among one of the most important jobs." (5)
Under Khatami’s leadership the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution decided not to sign the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the most important international agreement on the rights of women. (6) An international study comparing workforce conditions for women around the world ranked Iran 108th out of 110. (7) In urban areas women make-up only 9.5 percent of the workforce, and in rural areas the percent is 8.8 percent. (8) Even Khatami’s advisor on women’s affairs acknowledged that there is discrimination in employment and promotion against women in government offices: "Some officials are of the opinion that men have more of a role in running the family, so they favor the men."(9)
Khatami has not called for an end to the most savage and sadistic punishment in the world – death by stoning. This form of torturous killing was initiated by fundamentalists when they came to power after the Islamic Revolution. Law specifies the size of the stones and the method of burying a person to be stoned. The purpose is to inflict great pain and suffering before death occurs. Since Khatami has been president at least seven people have been stoned to death in public, four of them women. (10)
Khatami’s advisor on women’s affairs, Zahra Shoja’l, says she is an advocate of women’s rights, but all within a fundamentalist defined Islamic context. She defends the restrictive and symbolically oppressive hejab, calling the chador "the superior national dress of the women of Iran." (11)
Khatami’s highly publicized woman appointment is Massoumeh Ebtekar, Vice-President for Environmental Protection. She has a long association with the fundamentalists: after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 she was spokesperson for the hostage takers who captured the U.S. embassy in Tehran. She does not favor loosening restrictions on women that would give them more personal freedom or stop the most barbaric institutionalized violence against women. She supports the law that requires women to get their husband’s permission to travel. She justifies this law by saying, "Man is responsible for the financial affairs and safety of the family. Thus, a woman needs her husband’s permission to make a trip. Otherwise problems will arise and lead to quarrels between them." (12) She also defends stoning women to death by saying, "One should take psychological and legal affairs of the society into consideration as well. If the regular rules of family are broken, it would result in many complicated and grave consequences for all of the society." (13)
Since Khatami was not the hard-line mullahs' favored candidate for presidency, his election has created factions within the Iranian government. A power struggle has ensued, but this is not an ideological fight between those loyal to religious fundamentalists and proponents of secular democracy. All sides, including Khatami, are committed to a theocracy based on velayat-e-fahiq – the absolute supremacy of the mullahs.
After 1979, the measure of the success of the Islamic Revolution was the depth of the suppression of women’s rights and activities. Now, nineteen years later, battles among factions within Iranian government are played out over women’s rights, hejab and segregation.
Draconian laws and discrimination are not things of the past. Women’s public clothing continues to obsess the mullahs. In the last year, the Martyr Ghodusi Judicial Center, a main branch of the judiciary, issued a stricter hejab, or dress code. The new guidelines call for prison terms from three months to one year or fines and up to 74 lashes with a whip for wearing "modish outfits, such as suits and skirt without a long overcoat on top." The regulations ban any mini or short-sleeved overcoat, and the wearing of any "depraved, showy and glittery object on hats, necklaces, earring, belts, bracelets, glasses, headbands, rings, neckscarfs and ties." (14)
Women continue to be arrested for improper veiling. In November, an Agence France Presse correspondent in Tehran witnessed approximately ten young women being arrested and placed into a patrol car for improper veiling or wearing clothing that did not conform to Islamic regulations. The women were wearing colorful headscarves and light make-up. (15) In June Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told senior official that it was time "to crack down on wanton behavior by women." (16) By mid-August 1,800 women and men had been arrested for "mal-veiling and lewd conduct." Most of the women were wearing makeup or in the company of young males who were not related to them. Women who fail to conform to the strict dress code are boarded on minibuses and taken to a center for fighting "social corruption." (17)
Under fundamentalist’s interpretation of Islamic texts, women are banned from being judges because they are not considered capable of making important decisions. One of the claims of moderation in Iran is the appointment of women as judges, but in actuality no women are allowed this rank. Judiciary Chief Yazdi recently made the issue clear in his Friday prayers sermon: "The women judges I mentioned hold positions in the judiciary, they receive salaries, they attend trials, they provide counsel, but they do not preside over trials and or issue verdicts." (18)
In the past year, women’s groups campaigned for a bill that would give women the same inheritance rights as men, but, Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the bill saying the proposal was contrary to Islamic law, which stipulates that a woman’s share may only be one half that of a man’s. (19)
Women made a small gain by getting Parliament to pass a law that granted women some custody rights to children after a divorce, but only if the father was determined to be a drug addict, an alcoholic or "morally corrupt." (20)
New laws strengthening gender apartheid and repression of women are not a thing of the past. During the last year Parliament and other religious leaders proposed a number of new laws or policies that will adversely effect the health, education, and well being of women and girl children in Iran.
Temporary marriage, in which a man can marry a woman for a limited period of time, even one hour, in exchange for money, is permitted in Iran. Earlier this year, Ayatollah Haeri Shirazi, a prominent religious leader called for a revival of this practice so clerical officials could have religious sanctioned sexual relationships with women. This practice is an approved form of sexual exploitation of women, and allows the regime to have an official network of prostitution. (21)
In April, Parliament approved a new law requiring hospitals to segregate by sex all health care services. This will compromise the health care for women and girls because there are not enough trained women physicians and health care professionals to meet the needs of all the women and girls in Iran. (22)
Another new law approved by Parliament imposes more restrictions on the photographs of women that can be published in newspapers and magazines. (23) The Iranian state television announced on August 1 a decision by the Justice Department in Tehran to shut down a newspaper and put its proprietor on trial. One of the charges leveled against the publication, Khaneh, was that it had published "obscene" photographs of women playing football. (24)
Parliamentary deputies submitted a plan to make girls' schools a "no-male zone," which will require all teachers and staff to be women. (25) This requirement will make education for girls even more inaccessible and difficult. Official statistics recently released reveal that 90 percent of girls in rural districts drop-out of school. (26)
More ominously, the Parliament also approved a law prohibiting the discussion of women’s issues or rights outside the interpretation of Shari’a (Islamic law) established by the ruling mullahs. (27) In a further effort to repress all discussion of women’s rights, in mid-August, the Parliament passed a bill prohibiting the publication of material in the media that defended women’s rights in a way that would create conflict between the genders. Advocates of women’s rights are subject to imprisonment and lashing for violations. (28)
In early July 1998, Mohsen Saidzadeh, a cleric, was arrested after writing articles that opposed these bills. He said that laws that deprive women of their rights are based on incorrect interpretations of the Koran. So freedom to criticize the government position on the rights of women does not exist even for fellow mullahs. (29)
In some Western writings Khatami is said to have given new freedoms to the press, but the experience of publishers is contrary to that claim. In February, the newspaper Jameah started to publish articles critical of the government, color photographs of smiling women harvesting wheat, and an interview with a former prisoner. By June a court revoked their license. (30) Also, police filed charges against Zanan, a monthly women’s magazine, for "insulting" the police force by publishing an article on the problems women face with the authorities on Iranian beaches, which are segregated by sex. (31)
Although Khatami is the President of Iran, he is not the Supreme Spiritual Leader, the most powerful position in Iran. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, controls the armed forces, the police, the security and intelligence services, radio and television, and the judicial system. The velayat-e-fahiq is a serious impediment to any reforms that may benefit women or society at large. Ayatollah Khamenei’s opinion of women and their place in society is the same as his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini’s - women should be wives and mothers. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly stated: "The real value of a woman is measured by how much she makes the family environment for her husband and children like a paradise." (32) In July 1997 Ayatollah Khamenei said that the idea of women’s equal participation in society was "negative, primitive and childish." (33)
There is no moderation in Iran. Both the U.N. Special Rapportuer and the U.S. State Department found that there was no improvement in human rights in Iran since Khatami took office. The Iranian government engaged in summary executions, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and widespread use of torture. (34) The hard-line mullahs will not lift the severe restrictions on women; in fact, they favor stronger gender apartheid. Khatami, although not aligned with the hard-liners, does not support the empowerment and emancipation of women from the velayat-e-fahiq or supreme rule of the mullahs. If the women in Iran want the rights and freedoms they deserve they will have to look elsewhere for change.
(1) Iranian Women: A Century of Struggle for Equality, Associations of Iranian
Women, February 1996.
(2) Judiciary Chief Mohammad Yazdi, Ressalat, 15 December 1986.
(3) The Subjection of Women, Parliamentary Human Rights Group, United Kingdom, November 1994.
(4) "The ‘New’ Iran," James E. Akins, U.S. Congressional Record, 3 June 1998.
(5) The Daily Salaam, 11 May 1997
(6) Iran Zamin News, 7 February 1998
(7) Internatinal Labor Organization, quoted in Bergens Tidende, 12 July 1997.
(8) Abrar, 2 December 1997.
(9) IRNA, 8 May 1998
(10) Associated Press, Tehran, 26 October 1997.
(11) IRNA, 8 May 1998.
(12) Die Tageszeitung, 18 October 1997
(13) Die Tageszeitung, 18 October 1997
(14) Agence France Presse, 20 February 1998
(15) Agence France Presse, 30 November 1997
(16) U.S. News and World Report, 17 August 1998
(17) Agence France Presse, Tehran, 26 July 1998.
(18) Tehran radio, 31 July 1998.
(19) BBC World Service, 5 January 1998
(20) Associated Press, 2 November 1997
(21) France Soir, 14 January 1998
(22) "Discourse needed on Islam interpretation of rights," Laila al-Marayati, Los Angeles Times, 16 May 1998.
(23) "Iran law sets tough rules on press photos of women," Reuters, 13 April 1998.
(24) Iranian state television, 1 August 1998.
(25) Iran Daily, 6 October 1997
(26) Jomhouri Islami, Tehran, 14 August 1998
(27) "Discourse needed on Islam interpretation of rights," Laila al-Marayati, Los Angeles Times, 16 May 1998.
(28) Iran Zamin News Agency, 13 August 1998
(29) "New Iran’s Alternative Voices Demand to Be Heard," Elaine Sciolino, New York Times, 20 July 1998.
(30) "New Iran’s Alternative Voices Demand to Be Heard," Elaine Sciolino, New York Times, 20 July 1998.
(31) "Hardliners Step Up Pressure on Press," Agence France Presse, 26 May 1998.
(32) Iranian state television, 18 February 1998.
(33) Tehran radio, 21 July 1997.
(34) "UN Report: Executions Doubled in Iran," Associated Press, 5 November 1997.