Iran 2009: Iranian women make gains, but barriers remain

02/05/09 12:50PM By Steve Zind
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(Host) Iran's civil rights movement isn't about race - it's about gender.  

Since the revolution, Iranian women have made gains in education and employment.  Women now make up more than 60% of college undergrads in Iran. They've entered the workplace as business owners, doctors, and cab drivers and they've become involved in politics.  

But barriers remain.

In the last of his series of stories about Iran, VPR's Steve Zind introduces us to several women with different views on the challenges facing them.  

(Zind) There are a thousand differences between a street scene in Tehran and one in, say, New York.  But one image makes an instant impression in Western eyes:  The women in hejab, the required Islamic dress that is supposed to cover the hair and the shape of the body.  

But if the law imposing hejab were repealed tomorrow many Iranian women would continue to dress this way out of habit and religious conviction.

The more universal issues for women in Iran concern legal rights and economic opportunity.

(Salon sounds)

(Zind) One day, I was invited to a beauty salon owned by a woman name Maryam.  

Maryam told me cultural norms and legal restrictions prevent women from making progress.  She dreams of a different life for her young daughters.  

(Maryam in Farsi)

(English over)  "I would like them to get out of Iran.  I don't see a future for my kids in this country.  I consider myself part of the wasted generation, because my life has been wasted."

(Zind)  Maryam's is just one view, though. 

(Restaurant sounds)

(Zind) Fatemeh Tariqhat Monsared doesn't feel her life has been wasted - although she had a difficult time when she opened her popular Tehran restaurant nearly 30 years ago.    

(Tariqat in Farsi)

(Zind)  She came up against a cultural bias against women in the workplace when her father objected to the fact that she'd be working with men.  He refused to speak to her for several years.

(FARSI SPEAKING, THEN ENGLISH TRANSLATION)

(Translator) "But eventually I proved myself to him and to my country that I can be successful and be a woman."

(Zind)  Monsared says she thinks the idea of a woman running a business is more acceptable than it once was. 

(office sounds Thursday 8)

(Zind) Another woman, Layla Daneshmandi, operates a private employment center in Tehran. 

Daneshmandi says because of the obstacles placed before them, women in Iran are more motivated than men. She sees it in her own business. 

(Daneshmandi in Farsi)

(Daneshmandi English over)  "If I contact twenty women about a potential job, almost all of them will show up to apply.  Out of twenty men, only a few would bother to go in for an interview."

(Zind) When I ask people, "Why do women seem more determined and more outspoken than other groups in Iran?  The usual answer is that women have the most to gain.  

While the cultural norms have been changing, creating space for them in the workplace, women have been less successful at changing Iran's version of Islamic law. 

In matters of divorce, child custody and inheritance, even in the weight given their testimony in court, women have fewer rights than men.

The argument is men and women have different roles in society, and therefore different rights.    

It's a point Maryam Behruzi makes when I meet with her at the office of the conservative foundation she heads. As an example she cited the ability of men to have more than one wife - even though it's rare in Iran. What would happen, she asked me, if men and women had equal rights.

(Behruzi) "Then, it should be possible for a woman to have more than one husband!  This is impossible!"

(Zind) Behruzi supports the current laws, but there are times she's opposed efforts to further weaken women's rights.

At those times she finds herself on the same side as Shirin Ebadi.

Ever since she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the diminutive Ebadi has been the face of human rights in Iran, defending activists, including women.

(Ebadi in Farsi)

"A society where women are more educated than men cannot be governed with these old laws," she tells me.

Ebadi says women in Iran are making progress, but recent arrests and crackdowns have had a chilling effect. 

She says there is nothing in Islam that prevents women from having equal rights,

She and others argue that Iranian leaders' patriarchal interpretation of Islamic law is the problem.

How long it will take for change to happen is open to debate.  People I talk to seem mostly pessimistic about the short term. 

In this young woman's voice you can hear both hope and uncertainty - that's what passes for optimism in Iran.

(Woman) "I can feel in my country that people are searching for something new. They're looking for something new to come and change the situation.  Maybe something will happen in my country but the situation is really complicated.  We cannot predict."

(Zind) For VPR news, I'm Steve Zind.

Top Photo:  Layla Daneshmandi

Middle Photo:  Fatemeh Tariqhat Monsared

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Related Links

Steve Zind's Iran Today 2006 Steve Zind's January 2009 blog report from Iran Iran Journal Photo Gallery Steve Zind's Report From Iran 2005 Iran 2009 Photo Gallery Steve Zind'sIran Journal 2004
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