Women: the first victims of the ayatollahs
After being forbidden from wearing the hijab for 40 years Iranian women were forced to cover themselves.
"Everything you hear about the status of women in the Islamic Republic is just hostile propaganda,” Ayatollah Khomeini told a group of German reporters on Nov. 12, 1978. “Iranian women will enjoy full freedoms (under the future government) in their education and in every area of their lives, just like men.”
As the strategic mastermind of the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini laid out this vision for the future status of women in the Islamic Republic while he was still in exile in France. In many ways, it promised to leave in place reforms that had already been made during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. In 1936, Pahlavi established a mixed gender education system that enabled women to enter universities, and in 1963, he granted women the right to vote and run for office. When Pahlavi’s wife, Farah, was crowned Shahbanu in 1967, she became the first woman in a Muslim country to enter the line of royal succession. If her husband had died before the crown prince reached the legal age to succeed his father, Farah would have become the head of state. “My impression then was that the Shah crowned all women in Iran,” the Shabanu said.
But the mullahs who took power after the Iranian Revolution reinstated patriarchal and religious values that undid all the progress that Iranian women had made throughout the 20th century. Following decades of dictatorship, corruption and foreign intervention, Khomeini emerged as national figure and powerful symbol for the masses. He was hailed as a “leader of the people who rejects tyranny” during popular demonstrations in December 1978, but soon revealed himself to be a totalitarian bent on achieving his political ambitions. He had publicly promised to be a moderate once he gained power. But as soon as the revolution was complete, respect for human rights, freedom of expression and democracy was thrown out the window, and he rapidly set about Islamicizing society, much to the surperize of at least some of the Iranian public.
Victims of oppression
Women played an active role in the demonstrations and strikes that led to the downfall of the Shah’s regime. But when Sharia was strictly applied by the new government in the aftermath of the revolution, they became its first victims.
Millions of middle class and working class women had responded when Khomeini called on them to take part in protests. "Women fought side by side against the Shah's regime, but once Khomeini tightened his grip on the government, he started to show an anti-women stance," Mahnaz Shirali, a professor at Sciences Po University in Paris, told L'Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).
Less than a month after Khomeini returned to Iran the interim government began implementing measures aimed at marginalizing women in the legal system, the army and the media. Women responded with shock and panic. Iran was the first Muslim country to have had a female cabinet minister, Farrokhroo Parsa, who served as minister of education. Now, it was deliberately legislating away their rights and forcing them to return to their homes.
A new labor law appeared to honor women and give them maternity and nursing privileges. But the law was actually a sham, and employers began hiring fewer women. "They have done everything possible to make women's employment very difficult, if not impossible," said Shirali.
Gender discrimination was institutionalized as the Shah’s legacy was dismantled. On Feb. 26, 1979, the Family Protection Act was repealed. Passed 12 years earlier, the law had created protections for women by curtailing polygamy and ending unilateral divorce. New legislation that replaced a Western-inspired penal code with Sharia reduced the legal age of marriage from 18 to 9 years old.
In 1978, women made up one-third of all students and more than 2 million women were employed in various fields. Following the Islamic Revolution, they were marginalized from employment, mixed schools were banned, gender segregation was introduced on public buses (women in the back and men in the front) and, most importantly, wearing the hijab was made mandatory for women who reached a certain age. In short, Iranian women were deprived of any means to advance their status in society.
As the Iranian Revolution was still unfolding, Khomeini had told a journalist from the Guardian newspaper that “women have the complete freedom to choose how they dress." But on March 7, 1979, he changed his tune, declaring that it was mandatory for women working in state institutions to wear “decent clothes that conform to Islamic standards during work, which includes covering the hair, back, arms and feet.”
It was a major turning point after which women were forced to cover their bodies against their will. In 1935, the Shah had banned women from wearing the hijab and mandated that men wear Western style clothing. “Now we see Khomeini imposing the hijab on women in a very dictatorial manner, in the same way that the Shah forced the woman to take it off, but I think making the hijab mandatory was more violent," Shirali argued.
Khomeini's “anti-nakedness” decree also called for the establishment of a new ministry to make sure people’s behavior conformed with the principles of Islam. Thousands of members of this ministry, often volunteers, infiltrated all aspects of society and took responsibility to “personify the Quranic principles in the field”, according to a description published by a newspaper in Tehran.
Western newspapers at the time noted that "Iranian women employees, who used to go to their workplaces wearing fine shoes, narrow skirts and their hair flying in the air," were being kicked out at the doors of their offices with harsh instructions to return home and dress modestly.
Meanwhile, female TV hosts began appearing on air with their hair and arms covered. Some women chose to stand out while still adhering to the new law by sewing colorful chadors. “This was not a marginal issue,” Shirali said. “It should also be noted that when women were forced to remove the hijab in the 1930s, all women groups obeyed and all dressed in Western fashion.”
The new orders sparked an immediate wave of protests in Iran’s major cities. One day after Khomeini’s decree, March 8, was International Women’s Day. In Tehran, high school and university students, who had been the vanguard of the struggle against the Shah, protested in the name of progress and the emancipation of women. Four thousand to 6,000 women gathered by the entrance to the University of Tehran. A crowd of men nearby chanted: "Either wear decent clothes or get severely beaten!"
The female protesters responded with a counter chant: "We’d rather be beaten than give up our freedom!”
Other women who supported the turn toward conservatism also gathered. “We are Muslims. We must cover our bodies," they said.
Leftist and progressive movements held protests in the following days calling for full equality between men and women. Some of the rallies were attended by a famous figure in the women’s movement, American activist Kate Millett. The new ministry called the protests “political deviations and imitations from abroad”, but the protesters said that “International Women’s Day is neither a Western nor an Eastern tradition, but a global celebration.”
A feminist struggle
Iranian authorities were afraid that these movements posed a threat to the revolution. The morality police replaced the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police who had terrorized millions of Iranians. Confrontations broke out and many women were raped and stabbed by a group of thugs sent by supporters of Khomeini. "The woman's body became a theater on which the new regime established its authority. By forcing women to obey and abide by the new dress code, the regime declared victory,” Shirali said.
“These strict laws that I will spend the rest of my life fighting against were printed in black and white and stipulated that women's lives are worth half of men’s lives; that a woman's testimony in court as a witness to a crime is worth half that of a man,” Shirin Ebadi wrote in her 2006 book “A Free Iranian”. “It was clear that the new penal laws were inspired by the legislations of the seventh century. These laws took us fourteen centuries back, to the early days of Islam, a time in which it was considered fair to stone women guilty of adultery and or cut off the hands of a thief.” Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle to support the rights of women, children and political prisoners.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 22nd of January)
Editor’s note: 40 years since the Iranian revolution under L’Orient-Le Jour’s magnifying glass
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The country went from being an imperial state to a theocracy and then to an Islamic Republic. Given how transformative the revolution has been in Iran, the Middle East at large and Lebanon in particular, it is undoubtedly one of the most significant events that took place in the region during the 20th century. L’Orient Le Jour will cover this anniversary by publishing a series of stories.
The article of our serie, in French