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Women's Lives in Iran: New Confidence, Enduring Contradictions

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

09 Mar 2011 11:59Comments

Two-thirds of all university students, but 'considered too emotional' to be judges.

86419_832.jpg[ dispatch ] In a high-rise apartment building above the smoggy Tehran suburb of Karaj, 28-year-old Elham sets silverware on a carpet that doubles as a dinner table, watching her husband's grandmother pray. The scene around her is a generational pastiche: As the 85-year-old woman drapes herself in white prayer silks, Elham's mother-in-law, Manshuna, calls from the kitchen, where she's been putting the finishing touches on a labor-intensive dish of ghormeh sabzi. Two younger girls of the household, Elnaz and Nahid, rush in to help, carrying a new Nikon camera they were using to take fashion photos in tight tank tops and low-rise jeans.

Elham was eight years old when she first wrapped herself in a chador, the all-encompassing black cloth Iranian women wear to disguise their figures. Drawn to its association with femininity, she spent her entire adolescence under its heavy drape. When she graduated from the University of Tehran some 15 years later, she shed it and dyed her hair blonde. Now, Elham is determined to be progressive. She has a part-time teaching job, studies English, and dreams of moving to America. Traditionally, married women from similar backgrounds forsake makeup, hip-hugging overcoats, and elaborate hairstyles to play a more conservative role inside the home. But attitudes are quickly changing even in this milieu.

Three generations after the Iranian revolution, Iranian women are on the precipice of a social breakthrough. Women now comprise around two-thirds of Iran's university students, and, as one local employer said, are generally considered more desirable as employees because they are "easier to manage." Over the past decade, the number of women in the workforce has more than doubled, rising from 13 to 32.5 percent, according to the World Bank. But beyond the statistics, Iranian women continue to grapple with deep-rooted social constraints. They ride in the back of buses and are allotted a separate car on the subway, ostensibly to protect them from the groping hands of men. In the legal system and the workforce, they face systemic discrimination and sexual harassment.

As Green Movement protesters of both genders were eager to take to the streets in observance of International Women's Day on March 8, an increasing number of young Iranian women are demanding more rights. But, as demonstrated by their eclectic lifestyles in the densely populated, vibrant capital, the overall social position of young women in Iran remains riddled with contradictions: In the north of Tehran, girls from well-to-do families drag race against their male friends to prove they're the better drivers, while in the poor, conservative south, they're rarely seen out after sunset. In one of the world's most dynamic societies, traditional gender roles are quickly giving way to modernity. Yet though the new generation enjoys far more freedom than that of their chador-wearing grandmothers, women in Iran still face considerable obstacles within the home, the workplace, and themselves.

"There is a quote by Lord Byron -- I'm not sure how to translate it -- that says that women are far more beautiful than they are used to pretending they are," says Mina, a 24-year-old student at Tehran's University of the Arts. One day before the 17 Esfand demonstrations, Mina and her classmates distributed colorful, self-designed Women's Day cards on their campus. On the back of the card, in small Farsi lettering, is a synopsis of rights women are entitled to in an Iranian marriage contract. These include the rights to study, hold a job outside the home, or leave the country without obtaining the husband's written permission.

The rights advocated by Mina and her friends have been available to Iranian women in the Islamic Republic only since 1997, when a new law enabled the use of a document meant to bridge some of the gender inequalities of Islamic marital rules. For the first time, women who signed such documents were entitled to file for divorce, obtain custody of their children, divide assets, and receive child support. However, most Iranian women are not able to capitalize on these new rights, mainly because they are not aware of their existence. "It is possible to get de facto equality in an Iranian marriage, but many women don't know this -- they even don't know how to think about it," says Mina. "Part of the problem is that this government prefers to keep people in the dark. On TV and other national media, we never hear anything about it. Outside of the big cities, women don't have access to the Internet or satellite. I think it helps the government that women aren't informed."

Like most women's rights activists around the world, Mina believes the best way to empower women is through education. In this sense, Iran's growing mass of university-educated females is encouraging. Generally, Iranian women who feel smothered by their families choose one of two routes toward independence, she says. "The first option is marriage. The other is education, which explains why there are more girls studying in Iranian universities than boys. Education is a kind of escape, and of course it also gives you more understanding of your rights."

Among the wide range of gender inequalities embedded in the framework of the Islamic Republic, Mina believes that the main source of discrimination is mandatory hejab. To her, it symbolizes the state's intervention in the daily lives of women. "Some of our limitations are related to religion. Hejab is a religious rule, but the government supports it because it helps limit the power of women. These rules are very powerful in our lives, in our thinking, in our relationships." Mina also notes that the modern Iranian women's movement originated in 1980, one year after the Islamic Revolution, when the government first imposed headscarves on female factory workers. "Feminists protested because they recognized this as the first step toward oppressing women, but this subject wasn't widely recognized by other members of our society."

Mina believes that only a secular government has the ability to differentiate between traditional values and individual rights, and thus the will to bridge Iran's gender gap. Ultimately, however, social change will have to come from the minds of Iranian women themselves, she says. "There are still so many taboos, and it takes wisdom, courage, and responsibility to attempt to find a new way forward. Even in modern societies, many women prefer the security of tradition. They want to be perfect and acceptable, so they become what their families want them to be and ultimately end up resenting those who are more progressive. It is often said that the biggest enemies of women are women themselves."

* * *
women-multi-task-in-offices.jpg It is midweek, noon prayer time at the Jomeh Mosque in west Tehran's Shahrak-e Gharb Square. The atmosphere in the crammed women's section could not be more different from the university setting in which Mina and her liberal friends distributed feminist fliers. Chador-wearing elders, some of whom have been coming here for over 30 years, congregate near the front of the section, gossiping and keeping a watchful eye on the younger women. In between plans for the afternoon Qur'an readings, the elderly women seek suitable brides for their sons. In another corner, hidden from their view, Zahra, 27, grabs the hand of her eight-year-old. She says she has been visiting the mosque regularly for the past seven years, mainly to forge ties within the community, as well as to find respite from her quotidian life in the household.

Back in her mother-in-law's living room in Karaj, Elham reflects on the fates of women from conservative backgrounds. "Nowadays, people still think women cannot function outside the house," she says. "After I married, my husband told me I should not work." But Elham persisted, and eventually obtained a part-time job as a mathematics tutor. "Most women love the opportunity to work outside the home, but the work they are allowed to do is limited, because many career fields in Iran are still considered male-only. For example, only men are allowed to be judges in Iran, because women are considered too emotional."

Mina and Elham are part of the same generation of women -- one that is growing increasingly dissatisfied with inequality. In Mina's view, Iran's rapidly growing divorce rate is partially a result of this growing awareness. "It used to be that men were considered superior," says Elham. "Now, we are still far from equal, but things are much better." Although her social background is vastly different from Elham's, it seems that in principle, Mina agrees. However, she cautions that the wave of feminism embraced by the Green Movement may reflect a natural rebellion against restriction rather than actual knowledge. "Certainly, this new generation is different. But after decades of such harsh limitations, we cannot expect to solve basic problems overnight. There is a kind of anarchism among the new generation, a revolt against the political situation that doesn't necessarily represent real wisdom. But we are undoubtedly smarter. Just the fact that we are seeking more rights in this closed atmosphere is commendable."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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