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Monday, July 23, 2012



The pursuit of women’s rights in Iran has experienced twists and turns for more than a century. There have been advancements, then regression, and now progress once again - although it’s a qualified progress. The traditional view of Iranian society is one where women are limited to the home, performing domestic tasks and raising children; and men work in the public domains like farming, government, manufacturing, and religious duties. It had been this way for hundreds of years.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, women were first allowed to attend universities and to study abroad. Education for all women became compulsory in 1944. By mid-century, women’s rights organizations were permitted to organize. Several focused on working to give women the vote. In 1963 their efforts were rewarded when a national referendum conferred voting rights to women as well as the right to run for public office, even though conservative clerics were opposed.
This was known as the Pahlavi Era, named for the ruling Pahlavi family of whom the Shah of Iran was head. His government was a main promoter of a change in attitudes toward gender discrimination. It sought to discourage the veiling of women and encouraged mixed participation in public gatherings. Women were urged to get an education and to participate in the labor force (at all levels). Women entered the diplomatic corps, the professions, parliament, and in 1968 Farrokhrou Parsa became the first women to hold a cabinet position in the government (below right). Unfortunately, this brought the secular Pahlavi government into direct conflict with the Shia clergy who sought to defend traditional Islamic values.
In 1969, the judiciary was opened to women for the first time, and one of the five new female judges was a young woman of 22, named Shirin Ebadi. Within five years she became the first woman to preside over a legislative court. During her tenure the Family Protection Law of 1975 was enacted. It granted women equal rights in marriage and divorce, strengthened their rights in child custody disputes, increased the minimum age of marriage for women to 18, and eliminated polygamy. Other labor laws were amended to eliminate sexual discrimination in the work place and instituted equal pay for equal work. The future looked bright and Iran had a leading role in advancing women’s rights among developing countries.
But the promise of a new direction for Iranian women was shattered by the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Shah’s close association with the United States was questioned. He was seen as a puppet of the Americans. The secular middle class, men and women, had a renewed sense of Iranian nationalism that called for an end to perceived Pahlavi domination.
Almost all the progress seen during the previous twenty years washed away. The leaders of the women’s rights movement were discredited. The Family Protection Law of 1975 was annulled as it was counter to Islam. Veiling was made obligatory. Stoning and polygamy returned. Farrokhrou Parsa was executed. The women’s movement in Iran could no longer campaign for yet unrealized rights but had to work just to keep what it had - with little success. Its organization went underground.
Shirin Ebadi, the young, brilliant, progressive judge, was removed from her position and given secretarial duties in the court where she had been presiding. Conservative clerics insisted that Islam prohibited women from being judges. Her law license was also revoked. She was unable to practice law for the next 14 years. She wrote books on the rights and struggles of Iranian women and children and lectured around the world.
She was first of all a loyal Iranian and a dedicated Muslim. But her philosophy did not preclude questioning the status quo. In her book “Iran Awakening” Shirin says, “An interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered.” By 1994, she was again permitted to practice law. Since then she has been a staunch defender in court of the rights of the oppressed in a society that shows little judicial empathy for the accused.
In 2003, Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for human rights. She is the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to have received this honor. Representatives of the Islamic Republic condemned the award as a political trick by a pro-western institution. They refused to cover or report the award ceremony. In 2009, Ebadi’s Nobel Peace Prize medal was removed from her safe deposit box in a Teheran bank by the Revolutionary Court and has never been seen again. Her bank accounts were frozen by government authorities.
Shirin continues to travel and lecture, to write books, and to defend the defenseless in Iranian courts. She is frequently at odds with the government, and threats on her life have intensified over the last few years. Even though a courageous fighter, she has been a voice for peaceful regime change in Iran.
But there is good news for the women’s rights movement in Iran today. Female legal consultants have been reintroduced into the court system, Parliament has been petitioned to reform the laws that discriminate against women, court decreed punishments are being reviewed, and universities have initiated women’s studies courses. The movement is finally showing a remarkable and well organized resurgence.

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