Women of Iran, 31 years on

  I shall never die

As I have sowed the seed of words. 

Ferdowsi, 10th century Iranian poet.


It was 8 March 1979, a month after the Iranian revolution had overthrown 2500 years monarchy and was about to set a date for the referendum to establish a republic. Iranians had just woken up to the startling changes in every aspect of their lives through various decrees Ayatollah Khomeini was announcing in his sermons on daily basis. Women were preparing to celebrate their newly acquired freedom unaware that freedom was a far cry from reality. The first decree addressed women and ‘advised’ to wear moderates clothes because Iran was to become an Islamic state. It alarmed women. Thousands were out on the streets of Tehran to show their objection to this decree and the implementation of the Shari Law which was rumoured was in the process. These were the very women, who until a few weeks before were on the same streets to welcome the same leader, the Messiah. Women, who participated in the closure of workplaces and encouraged their men folks to raise their voices against the Shah’s regime, which in their view was corrupt and a western puppet, were the first targets of the new Order.


March 1979 put an end to the high expectations of secular women’s movement. For the next 30 years, Iran witnessed a complex and diverse transformation in its society especially the situation of women. From the being women were intimidated verbally and physically, banned from specific jobs, forced to wear the veil, forced to witness their husband marry and remarry without their knowledge and the custody of their children taken away from them.

Women who had campaigned against the Shah came from a diverse backgrounds; secular working women; women who had joined the underground guerrilla movements and who had fought the Shah in the 1960-70s, of whom many had been captured and served long prison sentences and witnessed their comrades executed by the secret service; women of different faiths and traditional religious women who until then had not attended a public gathering and had not raised their voices in objection to any injustice but now were encouraged by the Leader to go on the streets and put an end to the monarchy. All these women joined for one goal as the world saw on their TV screens; to overthrow the monarchy. Following the first decree, slowly and meticulously women became the centre, the banner and the emblem of a theocratic regime which in the coming years was confronted and challenged, not only by secular women but also by Islamic women from within its own rank and file.


The complexity of the Iranian society makes it problematic to explain in simple terms what had been the situation of women in a theocratic regime. Iran in general was a modern, secular society although aspects of the Shari law were preserved in judiciary and the family law. During 50 years of the Pahlavi rule, and as Iran entered the world stage, women gained rights which did not exist in any other Middle Eastern country, except Turkey.

Initially, the new Islamic government abolished all women’s organisations and suspended the Family Law in which women had rights in matters of divorce, the custody of children and so on. A family law was drafted in haste and amalgamated the Sharia Law in full. The Islamic Penal Code was even harsher than the Family Law. The age of marriage which in 1933 was raised to 16 was lowered to 9, and later to 13 for girls. The penal code recognised 9 year old female children as adults.

Secular women objected fiercely to all these changes especially the enforcement of the veil but were sidelined and forced to leave their jobs en-masse. Women judges were discharged and law students dismissed from universities. Later, universities closed down for 4 years to become ‘Islamic’. In the early 1980s, the wave of arrests and executions created terror and intimidation, where thousands of women, who were sympathisers or members of political groups who had fought the Shah and now opposed the Islamic regime were imprisoned, tortured and executed. The actual accounts had been registered in the official documents as well as memoirs of women who had spent time in prison and had written their accounts of the events.

To this date 36 books had been published, 21 of them by women in which they had explained the harrowing years they spent behind bars and the torture and execution of their friends, relatives and loved ones. The actual number of people who were imprisoned, tortured and executed during the first 10 years of the revolution is not known. But from all accounts during the few months of August-October 1988, some 5-8 thousand political prisoners were executed by the direct order of Ayatollah Khomeini. Many were as young as 14 years of age. However, the wave of terror in the first 10 years of the Islamic regime forced some 3 million Iranians to leave the country, many of which women.  The 8 years of Iran-Iraq war consolidated the regime’s power by eliminating all resistance.

A period of 15 years past before a new generation of women, mostly from religious backgrounds found a voice of their own and rejected to return to the kitchen. These women formed their own contingent of women’s rights advocates. They were present in the most unconventional places; women as commander in the Revolutionary Guard, or women students taking part in the siege of the American Embassy, women who went to the war fronts to help behind the lines. Daughters of these women entered universities and gained new insight into their situation as women. These women found the family law and employment law problematic. They could not get employment without permission from their husbands. They could not travel without his written consent. If they had an outside marriage affair, there was a chance they would be stoned to death. Their share of inheritance was half of men and their power to be a witness in the court of law was half of men: two women equalled one man. The war widows who were mostly young women could not have the custody of their children or get benefits as these were claimed by their husband’s family.  

During the first 10-15 years, a young generation of women forced their way and replaced the vacancies left by the secular section. These women were indeed daughters and relatives of the clergies who were initially the face of the Islamic revolution but now stood opposed to the very foundations of the regime.

Iran found a new generation of fighters who could not be silenced on the ground of secularism and westernised.

Throughout the 1990s, these women formed their own groups, published magazines, studied feminism, compared and contrasted the situation of women in Iran with other similar countries and began debate about the rights and wrongs of life in Iran. They also made contacts with secular women inside and outside the country and formed a loose collaboration on certain issues. The election of 1995 which brought a more moderate president to office was the first breakthrough for women. Millions went to polls and thousands took to the streets celebrating the emergence of a so called liberal force which they hoped would move Iran away from the theocratic state into democracy. Women’s high hopes were dashed as their first major gathering was crashed by the security services and tens were detained and imprisoned.

Through experience women learnt that they had to fight for their rights and a generation of women activists emerged who were well aware of women’s position in the society, who had reconciled with secularism  and who were trying to find a way out of the entrapment. During these processes women wrote articles, translated books and travelled abroad. They formed the ongoing women’s movement which was in a way a continuation of previous movements. This new movement went forward to open a dialogue and debate with the clergy on women’s issues and the interpretation of Sharia Law. In the process a number of high ranking clergy became advocates of women’s rights and feminism was even discussed in religious schools. In the course of years a large number of women became lawyers and advocates of women’s rights, who in later years fell victim to the regime and went to prison themselves. During the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st  century, harassment and detention of women activists became a norm within the Iranian women activists..

* * *

Iranian women had some achievements as well. Their percentage at the universities rose to 64 and they were able to engage in professions that were men’s before. Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Prize. Some others won Human Rights prizes, Olaf Palmeh Prize and the latest was Simon De Boire Prize which was given to One Million Signature Campaign. Thereafter Iranian women have swept almost all international prizes for their courage and persistence to defend their rights and also face the consequences of their bold actions. Internet contributed hugely and become a powerful tool for women to connect and exchange ideas and talk to a wider audience. Women opened their own web sites and web logs and wrote about their lives and published views and news of their situation as well as other women in order to raise awareness and change the society and the law in their favour. Whatever achievements Iranian women have had is the fruit of their own continuous and tireless struggles. Over years they had faced severe opposition from within the ruling elite and the male establishment but that has not deterred them from activity.

After Mahmood Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, the situation of civil liberties in general and women in particular changed to the worse. As a fundamentalist with deeply conservative views, Ahmadinejad did not waste a day to suppress every opposition to his deeply backwards and destructive policies. The list of people who had been executed and stoned to death, who had been flogged, detained and imprisoned, the number of institutions which had been established to control and crack every voice, especially that of women is a long list. Every gathering, even the gathering on Mother’s For Peace in front of the Palestinian Embassy in Tehran in 2008 has been attacked by organised thugs and scores of women were taken to detention centres guilty of not wearing proper Hejab. Apart from that, large numbers of women activists were banned from travelling abroad. ‘Zanan’, the only magazine which was published for 10 years and focused on the injustices in the society and opened debates on women’s rights in Islam and a dialogue on the interpretation of the archaic texts and modern life was closed down. Women’s equal opportunities in entering the universities were limited, websites were filtered regularly and women activists were branded agents of the west.       


On the other hand and over years, women’s campaigns had attracted more women from the rank and file. Women have used more initiatives to carry out campaigns for various causes. The most active campaign which was taken from the Moroccan model: ‘Campaign for One Million Signature’ was a success nationally and internationally. Other campaigns followed:

1-     Campaign against gender ratio in universities.

2-     Against stoning.

3-     Open stadiums to women.

4-     Campaign against unlawful pressure on women’s rights activists.

5-     No to gender segregation in school books.

6-     Mothers for peace.


After the June 2009 presidential elections in which women actively participated through Women’s Coalition and put forward their demands to the candidates and lobbied to have their demands incorporated in their manifestos, women expected to see changes in the law. Unfortunately election results were rigged and Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in a coup and the opportunity for change in the society turned into street demonstrations which lasted for months. During demonstrations which were also the birth of the Green Movement in Iran women’s activities were diverted towards this newly, energetic movement. Needless to say that women have had a lead in this movement if not in its leadership on the streets and rooftops. During the crackdown on the opposition which started from the Election day, women along with men were subjected to harassment, beatings, detention, torture, rape and imprisonment. The symbol of the Green Movement was a young woman, Neda Agha Soltan which was killed in front of the world media and in broad daylight. During the past ten months women have raised their voices to the brutalities of the regime in various groups; Mourning Mothers which consists of mothers of those who were killed during peaceful demonstrations or in prisons under torture, who assemble in a park every Saturday in silence to remember their loved ones and to seek justice. Women whose loved ones are in prison have created a new genre in literature by writing them love letters. Families of those who are in the notorious Evin prison gather routinely at the gates and stay until early morning with candles, posters and songs. Women who fled Iran and spoke of their ordeal in detention especially those who were raped. At the moment the situation in Iran is fluid, volatile and uncertain. This will change soon.

I would like to end this article with the notes of one witness on the demonstrations of 18 of June 2009 and the courage women had shown on that day.

Farhad Rajabi racalls:

‘As we were moving away from the elections day we seemed more confused. Everything seemed surreal. Demonstrations were getting more organised but the security forces were more prepared as well. On this day 18 June, from Ferdowsi Square to Azadi Square, some 10 mile away, special guards and the security forces were creating a chain. Anybody who seemed suspicious was taken away. By-passers were forced to walk away in haste. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. In front of Tehran University gates, a number of brave women rushed to the centre and invited the people to join them. The guards could not believe that these women were doing such a suicidal act to shape a centre force. What followed was the rush of the crowd who began to form a wave and the amazement of the guards who stood witness to the scene, paralysed. The crowd spread throughout the nearby streets and beyond. Control of the people was impossible. What ensued was the brutality of beatings, arrests and detention in large scale.’


Every year for 31 years, on approaching International Women’s Day, women’s activities go under special scrutiny and their gatherings, even in private are banned and raided. This year they celebrated the day in the privacy of their homes although that wasn’t even immune from raids. Some even dared to move other events such as the Prize given by Sedigheh Dowlatabadi Foundation, to this day. Every year, since the first International Women’s Day in 1979, where women, including the author of this article went on the streets of Tehran to object to the first decree for compulsory veiling, the Iranian regime has shown its intolerance to any voice of opposition from within or without especially if comes from women. The cost of such opposition for the Iranian women who had relentlessly fought for their basic human rights had been dire. However, with the present atmosphere and the weakening and the crumbling of the foundations of the regime they are prepared to pay the cost and stay in the community of the twenty first century instead of returning to the Dark Ages.


Written by: Rouhi Shafii, author and human rights advocate.

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