Women outside Tehran University. Photo: Richard O’Regan
Producer Richard O’Regan ventured to Iran for the Worldfocus signature story “Women in Iran race ahead, but still face gender block.” He describes his impressions of the changing role of women in Iranian society.
The problem Iran has with its women citizens comes into sharp focus when you’re hanging around the gate of Tehran University. As the class day begins, students gush through the turnstiles. Little knots of friends eddy into campus and head off in their separate ways. Two out of three of the students passing by are women. Young women. They are, of course, Iran’s future.
What to do about the pressure for legal rights from young, educated women seems an intractable problem for the men responsible for the last few decades of Iran’s past. Like it or not, women will soon be their nation’s educated elite.
The women you talk to on campus — those few willing to risk being quizzed later about their contact with foreign reporters — say there are aspects of the system that they like. The Islamic dress code does prevent men from “checking you out.” Iranian women can’t imagine how women elsewhere put up with it.
Visiting Iran as a foreigner, you get the feeling that you have parachuted into a work in progress that no one involved can quite figure out; one which leaves outsiders thoroughly baffled. Some women push the limits of what the law permits. Others take comfort in it.
The closest we came to being in danger during our pre-election trip was when a young man took exception to his sisters and female cousins being filmed. The young women teased him for what they saw as an old-fashioned attitude. They were doing they best they could to be noticed. The law says everything but your face and hands must be covered. They went out and got nose jobs so what little the world saw of them was as attractive as possible.
From the look of things — and as a TV crew you sometimes never get past how things seem –- women are oppressed. But then there is the scene at the university gates, and even more revealing scenes outside the medical and pharmaceutical schools. Seventy percent of Iran’s medical students are female. The idea that a democratic nation can suppress its own professional class seems absurd.
Like many really knotty problems, this one stems from internal contradictions. Revolutionary Iran rooted its legal system in Islamic law. But they also were determined to create a Democracy. Not a Western-style democracy, to be sure, but Iran is governed by elected legislators. Soon after the revolution, the Islamic government began a campaign to spread literacy. The campaign worked. Nearly 100 percent of Iranian women educated since the Revolution can read and write. Before the 1979 Revolution, that figure was less than 50 percent.
But the Islamic legal system also took hold. Enshrined in it was a very traditional interpretation of what the rights of men and women should be. To an outsider, they seem a throwback to long-discredited sexist attitudes. When you sit down, as we did, with the men in power, they put forward their belief that the system keeps families stable and that women enjoy the protections it affords them. It sounds reasonable and thoughtful. But it also sounds uncannily like the defenders of patriarchy I met years ago in apartheid South Africa. They assured me that the vast majority of black people loved the system. It turned out they didn’t have that exactly right.
The problem for the men running Iran today is that the cohort of educated women they have helped create are perfectly capable of reading the Qur’an for themselves. When they do, they don’t find in it the rules they have had to live by for their entire lives. The movement to upend Iran’s legal patriarchy seems to be building. Mostly surreptitiously, activists have begun gathering signatures on a petition demanding change. Their stated goal: A million people.
So many Iranian women have come to think that the current laws of the Islamic Republic — which, in most cases, put them under the legal supervision of their male relatives — are not part of their religion at all, but part of the social customs of the Arab nomads who first adopted Islam and brought it to Persia in the Seventh Century. (Arabs in general, and nomads in particular, are not widely admired in Iran.)
Their reading has led to a nightmare for those in Iran who like the system just as it is. They see any movement for change as an attempt to overthrow the government. In one sense, it is. In a patriarchy, after all — it is the patriarchs who have all the power. Upend the system and other people take charge.
To Iran’s current leaders, a faithful religious opposition to laws and policies that they have declared to be a divine mandate is the worst kind of revolution -– one that strips them of their religious and political legitimacy by using the tools of democratic change.
You’d have thought they might have seen it coming when they started that literacy campaign.
– Richard O’Regan
For more, view our Voices of Iran extended coverage page and listen to our online radio show on Baha’i faith and modern Iran.
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