In order to understand the position of women in Iran as far as their roles, rights and empowerment is concerned, it is significant to understand the wider picture of the prevailing condition in the Middle East and the contrast that there is in the West. These two represent different polarities in the context of culture, perspective on women, roles assigned, rights granted and the positions that women hold in these two societies. There is a still not an in depth understanding of the lives of women in the Middle East and the roles that they are meant to play. In majority of the societies therein, women are hardly seen carrying out any meaningful role, let alone being heard. They are assigned a background role in this Muslim world and the persistent stereotypes and judgments about the social practices form a single dimensional depiction of women that rarely reflects the real depth and variety. Some of the common depictions often refer to the freedom of dressing or lack of it, the burdensome role of wife and of mothers within the household and to other subtle issues like right to drive. However, this is just a figment of the reality in the society where people live different experiences occasioned by issues such as the social class, the prevailing customs, family traditions, geographical location and the cross cultural influences among other factors.
It is significant hence to note that when discussing sensitive issues like gender in the Middle East, there is need to take into account the context within which that issue is based. Some of the contexts often considered are the value of family network, the progression of rights over a period of time, the variation in family or personal status laws across the country or the region, the role of the Islamic law (Sharia) in the issue at hand. The role of indigenous religions and religious practices in directing the cultural norms must be considered among other factors that must be put into context. Basing on this contextual basis, the discussion herein will not look at the gender in isolation, but will constantly compare and contrast the Middle East and Iran in particular with the West and even other countries of the Middle East (TeachMideast, 2018).
The present day Iran is unique in many ways as much as it has similarities with other nations of the Middle East. On mentioning of the name Iran, thoughts that are often triggered in the minds of many are their constant interference with the affairs of their neighbors and the nuclear operations going on therein. It seems Iran is at odds with many nations of the world, including some of the Middle East countries. It is important to mention that the country is governed by a strict theocratic constitution and over the years, starting from the 1979 revolution, women have been in the forefront in confronting and questioning the heavy restrictions imposed.
The role of Iranian women ion education has been of great interest since being an Islamic Republic women are legally prohibited from pursuing education in certain fields. Though of late there has been the trend of attempting to provide education to women, the segregation still does not give a fail and equal chances of access and utility of educational institutions. This is worrying particularly talking into account that in Iran, the womenâ€™s college education was delayed significantly until the last decades of the 20th Century yet in other Western nations like in England, the first women joined university in 1893. Similarly, in the US universities like Chicago, Cornell and Berkeley started to admit female students in the 1890s. This time gap puts the Iranian women at a much lower status educationally. It is worth noting however, that since the 1979 revolution, the rate of women enrolment in tertiary education has gradually increased. The UNESCO puts the enrollment figures of women in Iran at 51% in 2005 which is an impressive rate as compared to 72% in Canada and 70% in the UK in 2007. It is evident however that, despite having made significant strides in equalitarian educational system, as compared to other countries, the rights to equal education among Iranian women has not yet been achieved. Studies on the womenâ€™s contemporary position in the universities still indicate that women do not make up a substantial workforce in Iranian Universities. The female academic positions rates are relatively low and second aspect is that gender based discrimination is still a defining factor in the election of eligible candidates for open academic positions (Rahbari L., 2016:Pp1005). There has hence been common postulation that female education can lead to late marriage by changing the priorities and hence roles of the women in two specific ways. That enrolment into the academic institutions consumes time and academic pursuit is not compatible with the marital life, and secondly the acquisition of education significantly increases the chances and urge for engagement in alternatives presented therein to the roles that are marriage related. This increased enrollments into the Iranian universities has not gone well with all members of the Iranian community and social political debates have emerged on the role of higher education for Iranian women. The Iranian parliament has actually started questioning whether quotas should be placed on the number of women joining Iranian public colleges and Universities (Zahedifar E., 2012).
It is interesting to look at women and religion in Iran as well. From the onset, it is important to know that Iran has an Islamic political system as was prescribed in 1979 under the leadership of Imam Khomeini. It is the only existing political system in the entire world where politics and religion are intimately intertwined. The supreme leader, Ayatolah Khamenei is considered the highest religious as well as the political leader in as much as there is a presidential system in Iran. Apparently, the situation of women has been worse under the customary law that in the Islamic law, the Islamic law still has gaps that renders the Iranian women at a clear disadvantage. For instance the traditional Islamic laws allowed child marriage and a girl child could be forced into marriage by a qualified male relation. It is also worth noting that women were allowed only to marry one man at a time, yet a man is allowed by the Islamic law to marry four women at a time and have unlimited number of concubines. The Islamic laws also gave women a raw deal in times of divorce as the law requires him to provide support for the divorced wife for only three menstrual cycles after the pronouncement of the divorce. This provision subjects women to strenuous conditions and poverty. Harsh as they may seem, the Islamic laws regarding the treatment of women in an out of marriage in Iran have been jealously guarded. However, in other Middle East countries reforms and legal interpretations have been made to help reduce the inequalities between men and women. These changes have been achieved mostly in nations and governments that do not depend on the goodwill of the clergy to run smoothly or to implement a political decision. However, greatly, the reforms have faced strong opposition from the Islamic clerics and other conservative religious forces who accused the political class of violating the divine law. In Iran, though there were gains that had been achieved in the 1970 and 1980s as far as women place in the society and rights, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has reversed the changes that had been achieved, the women have now been relegated the traditional roles in the home and they are subjects to harsh criminal penalties if they disobey the dress codes, all in the name of religion (UNHCR, 2018).
At the economic front, the Iranian women are seen to be discriminated against at the workplace as seen above. This deprivation of equal working rights and employment chances means women still suffer economically and have no equal leverage when it comes to the financial stability. They are left to majorly rely on their husbands for upkeep in most cases. Civil rights champions have always wanted to change this and have put pressure on the government to have employers avail equal access and equitable pay for women just like men. It is said that the Iranian women participation in the labor force is one of the lowest in the world. At the global scale, it is estimated that between 40%-45% of the labor market is occupied by women, yet in Iran this projection goes down to a paltry 15%. It is said that 65.5% unemployment rate of women is experienced currently in Iran. In a report by World Bank of 100 countries, it was noted that just below Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Iran was seen to be the third highest in the number of discriminatory tendencies and laws that discriminated against the economic activities of women (Alikarami L., 2016). These discriminatory laws hence send the women back to the home where they play their traditional roles despite being well educated.
At the political front, Iran has not had a bright or vibrant history of women politics. The discrimination against women has always pervaded even the political sphere. Before the 1979 revolution a few women organization tried to voice the needs of women and encourage women to get into politics but that was not to be since the governments that be actively undermined the women pressure groups. In total despondency, the women right groups waited for successive governments to pass and hope for change but that did not come. However, there was female activism that came into being after the 1979 revolution. Since this time, women have taken central and decisive roles in politics and they have assumed political positions. The upsurge of women in Iranian politics can be effectively seen in the 2016 elections where women had a significant increase in numbers in parliament. In the previous regime, there were nine women representatives and this increased to 14 female candidates who campaigned on the grounds of economic reforms and were all reformists won their seats in the first round. Though it was not the 30% anticipated in the campaigns by the women rights groups, it represented and impressive increase in awareness of women in politics and these numbers can be built on for future representations (Regencia T., 2016).
The reproductive health is yet another key aspect that women directly participate in. Women in Iran traditionally did not have any say over their own bodies and the choice to give birth and at what time or not. This has significantly changed over the years with the introduction of family planning. Initially, family planning was considered by Iranians to be an international agenda but as the family planning programs took root in Iran, there has been increased acceptance of family planning over the years. In point is the increased use of contraceptives from 49.9% in 1989 to 73.8% in 2000. The family planning services are provided by the government free of charge and even in the rural areas there are mobile ambulances to provide the same. This initiative has borne fruits since there was a drop in fertility from 5.6 births per women in 1985 to 2.0 births per woman in 2000 (Vakilian K., 2011). This trend is a clear indicator that the Iranian woman is fast changing from that baby making machine kind of treatment in the society to a person who can make decision about their reproductive health and take active part in shaping her destiny as far as reproductive health is concerned. Despite the grim figures of prevalence of HIV in the world, Iran has managed to keep the figures low and women have been in the centre of ensuring the reproductive health among adolescents and women is effectively done for the good of the women and the teenagers.
The governments and the political dispensations that have been in Iran have not had a determined focus to font the women agenda and empower them in the recent decades. Though in the constitution there are spelt out equal rights of men and women, and the family is deemed the single most important unit of the society, meaning the members therein need to be treated with equality , this has not been implemented by the leaderships that have been in place in Iran. There are cases of outright disregard for the role of women and their place in building the society. Though it can be said that Iran has made significant efforts in the education and the health of women, the same cannot be said of the role of women in participating in the community and social development. The participation of women and empowerment by the government to do so still remains too low. Women still lack the decision making power and have low self-esteem. This is because Iran is yet to accede to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. The delay to accede is occasioned by the resistance by the Guardian Council who insist that the provisions of this convention are ageist the Sharia laws. To this end, the process of women empowerment does not enjoy any needed government support and the social barriers continue to hinder women progress all round. This is an attempt to keep the women within their roles at home and not to allow them to go astray. The Iranian law considers the man as the head of the house with complete control over the woman and governments over have let this be as it is. Am man can prevent his wife from working and some employersâ€™ ask for the letter from the husband before possible employment, they can stop the wife from traveling abroad and the government has not empowered the woman to counter this or even have an alternative source of income. Women are not even allowed to hold leadership offices like the supreme leadership or the presidency. According to gender inequality index, empowerment in nations is measured by the share of the elective positions in parliament are held by women as well as the attainment of primary and secondary by the women. In Iran, only 3.1% of women occupy parliamentary seats, and only 66 are secondary schooled (Sinha T., 2017). More appalling are not the dismal numbers but the sheer fact that there are no particular regulations not government policies, not even the political will to measure the situation is turned around any soon. In general, the legislation about women empowerment is vague and in between, and the government support on women empowerment does not exist in the strongest possible form.
The changes in equality, freedom and democracy as concerns women are still a long shot in Iran. The women in the women in the pressure groups face threats and dangers to their lives, discrimination and outright denial of rights is the order of the day but they keep pressing for changes in the political, social, educational and economic spheres. Women still face stifling conditions in the home, where they can hardly do anything do anything without the direct permission of their husbands. Young women caught in adultery are punished in public by 1200 strikes of the cane, yet their male counterparts are left with mere reprimand. Indeed there are times in 2001 and 2002 when married women caught in adultery were stoned to death in public. The women are not allowed to walk out of their houses without covering their hair and skin yet men have no regulation on their dress code whatsoever. There even instances when unfair bylaws are passed to curtain the basic freedoms of women like being banned from watching live football games with the guise that they need to be serving their men at home.
Women have over the years started knowing their worth in the society and their rightful place. This extensive sensitization has been done through social media since the TV stations are heavily censored and controlled. The information on sexual health, gender issues and reproductive rights may not be easily accessible in Iran as it is in other countries due to the heavy government content control. This information is often hosted over the internet and organizations have come up with packages that are free for women in Iran. This however is badly hindered by the frequent interruptions of the internet by the government particularly in days when such sensitizations are at the peak, or during times when there are demonstrations to demand the rights of women. The internet and social media has not been so free after all.
Coming from a history of prolonged denial of rights of women, lack of inequality and heavy censorship under the guise of protection of protection of religious teachings and values, Iran still has a long way in realizing the democratic space for women in particular. The Iran women have used the available pressure groups and resources to fight for political space in a regime where men are seen to be the default owners of the seats in parliament. There is need for more to be done for the full liberation of women and generations to come.
Alikarami L., (2016). Women and Iranian economy â€“ Where is the place of women in Iranâ€™s economy? Retrieved May 11, 2018 from http://www.ihrr.org/ihrr_article/economy-en_women-and-iranian-economy-where-is-the-place-of-women-in-irans-economy/
Rahbari L., (2016). Women in Higher Education and Academia in Iran. Retrieved May 11, 2018 from http://www.hrpub.org/download/20161030/SA7-19607524.pdf
Regencia T., (2016). Iran election: Women make gains in new parliament. Retrieved May 12, 2018 from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/iran-election-women-parliament-160301121014801.html
Sinha T., (2017). Breaking Down Social Barriers to Womenâ€™s Empowerment in Iran. Retrieved May 11, 2018 from https://borgenproject.org/womens-empowerment-in-iran/
TeachMideast, (2018). Introduction to Women and Gender Roles in Middle East. Retrieved May 11, 2018 from http://teachmideast.org/articles/introduction-women-gender-roles-middle-east/
UNHCR, (2018). Iran: Information on women, religious freedom, and ethnic minorities. Retrieved May 11, 2018 from http://www.refworld.org/docid/414fda374.html
Vakilian K., (2011). Reproductive Health in Iran: International Conference on Population and Development Goals. Retrieved May 12, 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3191677/
Zahedifar E., (2012). Women in Higher Education in Iran Student perceptions of career prosperity in the Labor market. Retrieved May 11, 2018 from https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/35482/Effatxthesisxx.pdf
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