Exactly four years ago, amid anti-regime protests in Iran, “The Girls of Revolution Street” became a symbol of resistance. A young woman stood on a utility box, took off her hijab and held it high in front of the crowds in protest against the compulsory hijab law that has been in force since the 1980s. This brave act resulted in a succession of women following suit and unveiling in public, only to be met by violence and harsh punishments, including imprisonment. Since then, Iranian women have been on the front lines of protests against the country’s hardline Islamist regime – yet this resistance has taken place with little recognition or support from either Western feminists or liberal democracies. It’s time they both responded.
Just as the Taliban is doing in Afghanistan today, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been restricting the rights of women and erasing them from society for decades. Women were the first targets of the Islamists when they came into power in 1979; prior to this, women had maintained an active role in society. Only two weeks after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, 100,000 Iranian women took to the streets to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March 1979 and oppose the new Islamist regime’s attack on their rights. Today, 42 years on, despite the decline in their human rights, the revolutionary spirit of Iranian women has not faltered. They continue to resist the regime, actively pushing back against the top-down Islamisation of Iranian society.
Gender inequalities are prescribed and enforced legally by the regime. The Iranian Civil Law at the centre of the Iranian women’s rights protest is the compulsory hijab, under which women can be sentenced for up to 15 years in prison, and receive lashings as well as fines for “bad hijab” – defined as a woman’s hair showing. Just months ago, a video went viral of the morality police dragging a woman with “bad hijab” into a van, using a dog-catching pole. The footage gave an unfiltered glimpse of what life is really like for women in Iran.
Resistance to the compulsory hijab law has been demonstrated by both religiously devout and secular women alike.
The Islamic Republic’s other discriminatory laws – some unimaginable to Western readers – include women not being able to travel abroad or obtain a passport without the written permission of their male guardian, divorced women forfeiting custody of their children, women being prohibited from singing and dancing, and a ban on them attending football stadiums. Even more disturbing are the numerous reports of sexual abuse that Iranian women have endured when in prison, particularly those who have spoken out against the regime.
But the situation for women in Iran is on the verge of getting far worse.
Oblivious to Western policymakers preoccupied by the 2015 nuclear-deal negotiations, the past year has seen Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lay the foundations for triggering another wave of grassroots Islamisation. Through this wave of repression, Khamenei’s objective is to create his ideal “Islamic Society” – a stage of the Islamic Revolution that he and his circle still regard as incomplete. In practice, this means a sustained effort to eradicate “non-Islamic” and Western influences from Iranian society. And the first targets are women.
The ruling clerical establishment is not satisfied with the current role of women in Iranian society, who have resisted the regime’s ideal of women being mothers and wives. In turn, the new Iranian president, hardline Islamist cleric Ebrahim Raisi, has set his eyes on changing this. Groomed to become president to “purify” the Islamic Republic, Raisi has been facilitating the mass rise of a cohort of highly indoctrinated technocrats and individuals who can implement and achieve Khamenei’s “Islamic society”. They include the hardline Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Ansieh Khazali, who has been quoted as saying: “[When my children were younger] my husband decided that I was only allowed out the house for 15 hours per week. Of course, I complied.” She and others have been mandated with restoring the “proper” role of women in an Islamic society, namely as mothers and wives.
There are already early warning signs about how this might look in practical terms, among them the restriction of women’s working hours and the reduction of university quotas.
Convinced by their own deeply misogynistic views, the clerical regime believes the cause for rising divorce cases and low birth rates is being driven by women not having time to perform their duties as mothers and wives as a result of increased female employment and education at universities. The supreme leader’s representative to Khuzestan province, Hojatoleslam Seyed Mohammad Nabi Mousavifard, asserted on 22 September: “In the time of our fathers and mothers, women were not educated and some did not go to school, [and] as soon as the marriage was established, there was no divorce. However, unfortunately, the more women’s education has increased, the more [women] have been unable to strengthen family life.” There is precedent for reducing women’s quotas as a way to limit female university admissions: hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad implemented such a policy during his presidency from 2005 to 2013.
The clerical regime has also set its eyes on restricting working hours for women. On 4 November, for example, Raisi asserted: “Working hours should not be planned in such a way as to neglect the role of women as mothers and wives.” The Iranian president declared it “necessary for all companies and departments to set up work plans [for women] in a way that does not inflict disruption on family life.” In a bid to increase the birth rate, lowering the age of marriage for girls appears to be on the agenda too, which is especially concerning given that more than 31,000 girls aged between 10 and 14 were married to adult men in Iran in 2019 alone.
Make no mistake: this is all in service of a systematic effort by the clerical regime to demonise women and strip them of their most basic rights. As Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s interior minister and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, said on 9 December: “If the Islamic Revolution is going to be harmed, it will be by women.” These early warning signs should prompt Western governments and feminists to act.
Western governments today have struggled to coordinate effectively on Iran, but on the rights of women, Western liberal democracies must stand firm together against policies that strangle those freedoms even further. Earlier this month, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called for a creation of a “network of liberty” to advance the values of freedom and democracy. Her commendable goal of uniting liberal democracies against malign forces will be fundamental in pushing back against authoritarian regimes, such as Iran.
As a first step, Western governments must unite to condemn the shocking election of Iran to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women earlier this year. Silence in response to the Islamic Republic securing this role risks legitimising the regime’s treatment of women while portraying governments in the West as indifferent to women’s rights abusers. This is not only significant practically, but also symbolically, since Iranian women activists already feel demoralised and disregarded by the West.
Next, words must be put into action. The West possesses the policy mechanisms that are able to target specific regime individuals and institutions that play a leading role in oppressing Iranian women. For example, the UK’s new Magnitsky-style sanctions could be employed as part of this approach. This would send a clear message to Iran’s leaders, and other oppressors globally, that the West will not tolerate women’s rights abuses and that there will be consequences for violators.
Alongside governments, Western feminists have a key role to play in supporting Iranian women. As they call for the regime to be held accountable by the international community, Iranian women are questioning why Western feminists rallied internationally to oppose the burkini ban in France yet they remain silent when Iranian women are similarly having their choices taken away from them. There is a prominent women’s rights movement in Iran struggling for global recognition. Western feminists must use their platform to mainstream the Iranian women’s struggle in order to stand with them against the misogynist policies of the Islamist regime – and elevate their voices globally.
Iranian women have been calling to be heard – surely, it’s time we responded.