Iran: Rouhani's promises on women's rights are hollow

April 2015, Volume 71, Number 2

Hopes of improving the lot of women in Iran are being dashed

  A woman smokes a hookah in Shiraz. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

A woman smokes a hookah in Shiraz. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

President Hassan Rouhani’s latest tweet about women’s rights is a photomontage of veiled women playing sports, studying, cheering at a political rally and legislating in parliament. The strapline says: ‘Women must enjoy equal opportunity, equal protection and equal social rights’. A year ago words and images like these ignited hope; now they feel hollow.

It started off so well: the rousing speeches peppered with promises; the criticisms directed at those who disagreed; the female political appointments. Wielding a metaphorical key – his campaign symbol – Rouhani pledged to unlock the political door behind which both the economy and women were imprisoned. And Rouhani would rescue them, giving women back some of the rights that disappeared when the regime took power in 1979.

Instead the situation has got worse. Since Rouhani has been president, women have been banned from waitressing in coffee shops and a woman was jailed in solitary confinement for 41 days for attending a men’s volleyball match.

A bill was passed allowing men to marry their adopted daughters, some as young as 13. There are the same periodical crackdowns on ‘bad hejab’ and, despite Rouhani’s vows to end them, morality police patrols have continued.

Until recently, there were markedly more women graduates than men – a statistic the Islamic Republic and its supporters loved to tout – but in an attempt to reverse this trend, Ahmadinejad’s government imposed quotas on women studying various degree courses. Some universities even barred women from certain faculties, including engineering, accounting, English language and literature and archaeology. 

The government under Rouhani’s administration has continued to put diffi-culties in the way of women going to university. No surprise that the official unemployment rate for women is almost twice as high as for men and that every year, there are some 100,000 fewer women in the workplace.

In response to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s call to double Iran’s population, women’s rights are to regress yet again with the passing of two proposed bills: single and childless women will be discriminated against in the workplace, voluntary sterilization will be outlawed and divorce laws, which are already weighted in favour of men, will be tightened to make divorce harder.

In reality, some of these steps have already been implemented. Various family-planning programmes have been abolished, and there are restrictions on contraception, access to which is becoming increasingly difficult.

To put this in context, in 1988, with the end of the war with Iraq, the government felt the economy could not cope with a fast rising population. Birth control was re-introduced, including the options of sterilization and vasectomy, and newlyweds and students received mandatory family planning classes and the virtues of two-child families were proclaimed on posters.  

Any small progress Rouhani may make is usually quickly overwhelmed by the system he serves. A couple of months after he assumed office, for the first time since the revolution a female singer, Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, was allowed to perform in front of a mixed audience. In March, Mohammadkhani and her composer were summoned to court after a complaint by the security services.

Parliament, meanwhile, has reflected the hardliners’ entrenched conservatism by setting aside time for debates on female issues such as the moral threat posed by women’s ‘leggings’.

The women’s movement in Iran knows that even tweets with the hashtag #genderequality from their president are ultimately meaningless as long as the political landscape is dominated by the Supreme Leader and misogynistic hardliners.

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