Young fashion in Iran. (Flickr/Stefanie Eisenschenk)
International Women’s Day offers another opportunity to recognize "the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women." The media often portrays two contradictory images of Iranian women. The first is that of the oppressed woman, stoned and silenced—like Sakineh Ashtiani, who was convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning in 2009. The other extreme is a less familiar image, that of the empowered woman, educated and strong—like Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Like all stereotypes, neither of these images accurately depicts women in Iran today. The majority of the women in this country live somewhere between these two extremes. That is, most women in Iran are neither subjected to stoning nor are they empowered through education.
According to recent statistics, Iranian women have taken up education in droves. However, despite the fact that 65 percent of university graduates in the country are females, most positions available to them are secretarial. And women who manage to find higher-paying jobs in Iran are pressured to quit after marriage. So, with few protections against harassment and discrimination, Iranian women are dependent on male family members and vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
Instead of stones thrown at women as punishment, acid is being thrown at women today to “keep them in their place.” In October, across the populous and religious city of Isfahan, 25 women had been victims of acid attacks—for no discernible reason other than their failure to live up to Iran’s strict dress code. The anonymous assailants claimed that they were defending the hijab.
Under the law, women in Iran are required to be wholly covered except for their hands and faces. However, a growing number of educated urban women are finding holes within the law and pushing the boundaries of the country’s dress code. Women may wear a headscarf, but they also leave some stylish hair uncovered. Or they may cover their bodies, but also wear tight overalls that show off their curves. For others, their exposed faces are often completely made up.
The conservative clerics in Iran consider the dodging and bending of the dress code laws to be a threat and, as a result, the Iranian parliament passed a law in October that protects individuals who “enjoin good and forbid wrong.” In other words, “correcting” the behaviour of women who do not follow the appropriate Islamic apparel is encouraged. Incidently, the spate of acid attacks against women began after this law was passed.
And yet, while modest attire for ladies is mandated, Iran is also a culture that equates feminine identity with beauty. A woman’s value is measured against an ideal of a small, pointed nose and full lips, of full breasts and buttocks. It is against such standards that women are judged as marriageable or unmarriageable. Defined by their bodies and forced to be economically dependent, it is not surprising that most women in Iran have few prospects other than marriage.
Women in Iran are turning to plastic surgery to obtain the desired lips, breasts and buttocks in an attempt to increase their chances of marriage. In fact, Iran has become the nose job capital of the world. The Iranian newspaper Etemad reports that every year, 200,000 Iranians reduce the size of their nose.
For Iranian women, beauty is mandatory yet illegal. An Iranian woman has to cover up, yet she is also expected to be beautiful. She is expected to be educated but has to excel at household duties. These paradoxical expectations subject women to constant scrutiny, judgement, ridicule and animosity.
While women in Western countries also face strong pressures to have the right body, Iranian women face the added risk of being attacked for trying to do so. Iranian women have little recourses in the justice system. An Iranian woman still cannot work or travel abroad without her husband’s permission. Women also often don’t retain custody of children following divorce. Furthermore, women are not considered to be reliable witnesses in a court and a woman can only inherit half of what a man can inherit.
Women's rights groups were hopeful that discrimination against women would ease under President Hassan Rouhani, but they have seen few improvements. According to the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, Iran ranked 130 out of 136 countries in 2013. Just 3 percent of Iran’s parliamentarians are women. Even influential ministers such as Maryam Mojtahidzadeh, head of the women's ministry, talk about ‘complementary’ roles for women—not equality.
There are some signs of hope. Ashtiani’s sentence was commuted and she was freed last year. And despite the obstacles faced, women’s workforce participation is slowly growing; women make up 13 percent of the paid workforce. Meanwhile, women like Parwin Zabihi, an activist in Iranian Kurdistan (Rojhalat), and Soraya Fallah, a Kurdish activist in Los Angeles, continue to push for improvements and international pressure aims to ease the difficulties experienced by women in Iran.