Iran: Decades of female anger rocks the regime

Behind the current protests convulsing Iran lie years of resistance to the theocracy’s repression of women, says Sanam Vakil.

The World Today Published 2 December 2022 Updated 23 April 2024 3 minute READ

In mid-September Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman died after being arrested by the Iranian morality police for allegedly flouting veiling laws. She was beaten so badly she slipped into a coma and died in hospital. Her death ignited spontaneous protests by people across the social spectrum and throughout the country. These are continuing. 

Under the slogan ‘Women, life, freedom’, the protests feature women and girls, particularly those from Generation Z, who are challenging state control of Iran’s social, cultural, economic and political life. Women are burning headscarves, publicly baring or cutting their hair and dancing in the streets, chanting messages condemning Iran’s conservative leadership, an ageing patriarchy that stands aloof from popular demands. 

Rage at Mahsa’s death and against rising inequality, poverty and international isolation have led Iranian men, members of ethnic minorities and even children to join the protests. The uprising represents the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic since its own revolutionary founding in 1979. Its repressive government has responded with deadly force, leading to more than 400 deaths and 15,000 arrests by mid-November. 

The hijab as a political weapon

The hijab may not seem like an item critical to the functioning of a repressive state but as a symbol of the Islamic Republic’s religious authority, it is fundamental to the government’s ideological legitimacy. Casting it aside is seen as the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to women’s civil rights. 

Iran’s leaders, like others in the Middle East, have long used the suppression of women’s rights as a cudgel to foster compliance. In the early 20th century, Shah Reza Pahlavi launched a modernization drive and in 1936 banned Iranian women from wearing the veil, making a show of Iran’s embrace of secular values. This empowered some parts of Iran’s complex society at the expense of others. Devout women were marginalized and forced to retreat into their homes.

In 1963, Reza Shah’s son and successor, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, granted voting rights to women. Four years later, his government passed a Family Protection Law that put women on an equal footing with men in matters of divorce and child custody. 

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would become the clerical leader of the 1979 revolution and the Supreme Leader of the post-revolutionary state, opposed both of these measures. Nonetheless, once in power Khomeini saw female suffrage as an important tool of legitimacy that could be used to show female support for the state at the ballot box. As a result, women retained the right to vote and run for political office.

After the revolution, women on the streets of Tehran protested the announcement of a law making the veil mandatory

However, the Islamic Republic did reverse the legal and social gains by gradually imposing Islamic law that chipped away at women’s rights. On International Women’s Day in 1979, only a month after the revolution, women protested on the streets of Tehran at the announcement of a law making the wearing of the veil mandatory. Their objections fell on deaf ears. 

In 1980, mandatory wearing of the veil for women in all government offices was imposed, and by 1983 headscarves and shape-obscuring coats of at least thigh length were the law. Streets were heavily policed, and women who fell foul of the law, which banned the wearing of make-up and nail polish, were liable to a fine, up to 74 lashes or even jail. 

The hijab was only the most visible restraint on women’s freedom. Within three years, the Islamic Republic had reduced the marriage age to nine years old, revoked women’s ability to divorce and increased custody rights for men. Restrictions on polygamy and temporary marriage were lifted. Schools became segregated by gender, and mixing of the sexes outside close familial relations was prohibited. 

Revisions to the penal code in 1981 made women subject to stoning if found guilty of adultery. Blood money, owed by the family of a convicted criminal to the family of a victim, was unequally apportioned with women entitled to only half as much as a man.

Men could prohibit their wives from working or travelling. Female judges were dismissed, and many women fired from government jobs. Women were discriminated against at work and were not protected from sexual harassment. They were banned from watching sports events and not allowed to ride bicycles. 

While female participation in elections brought some women into parliament, no woman has been approved to run in any of the 11 presidential elections held since 1979 by the Guardian Council, the body that vets candidates. Women are prohibited from serving as Supreme Leader, but have on occasion been appointed to government positions. There has been progress in education, however. Segregation rules helped girls from religious families enter the university system. 

A four-decade battle for rights 

For the past four decades, however, women have not been passive. They have sought to restore their rights through petitions, activism and legal channels. 

By the 2000s, as women began to outnumber men at university, the state imposed male admission quotas to rebalance higher education. The election of Mohammad Khatami, a reformist president, led to a period of social and cultural relaxation. Improvements to the Family Protection Law saw the marriage age increase to 13. Women won the right to maintenance in divorce and were re-appointed as special advisers in family courts.

Women led the charge through the development of NGOs and took up controversial gender and feminist issues as artists, filmmakers, journalists and writers. The Stop Stoning Forever campaign and the Campaign to Enter Stadiums saw women push back but these strategies left activists vulnerable to arrest.

Mothers of demonstrators who were killed organized protests and young women have defied hijab laws by standing on telephone boxes to remove their veils. Occasional crackdowns, such as those in 2009 and 2017, led to the imprisonment of female activists as a warning to those who would confront the state.

Women and men have challenged Iran’s legal and social order just by posting on TikTok and engaging in everyday fun

The Iranian women’s movement has become adept at the kind of passive resistance chronicled in the work of sociologist Asef Bayat, who describes how ordinary daily actions can become a form of political action. 

By adopting liberal styles of dress, mixing socially, dancing, posting on TikTok and engaging in everyday fun, women and men have challenged Iran’s social order. Women have increasingly flouted veiling laws, growing ever more daring in the way they dress. Headscarves have loosened and in more affluent areas become more of an accessory. 

In August, President Ebrahim Raisi issued an edict returning the morality police to the streets to reassert religious authority. Doing so revealed a leadership tone-deaf to its people. The protests now confronting the state caught it by surprise. 

The power of female anger 

If the Islamic Republic really wishes to regain its footing in this tug of war with its people, it might consider a temporary, face-saving concession, such as rolling back the mandate of the morality police or even turning a blind eye to women’s dress. While this would be a positive step, it would leave the broader question of gender rights unaddressed – and with it, a largely unmitigated female anger that will no doubt continue to fester and grow bolder with time.