The (Slow) Rise of Iran’s Women
Image Credit: REUTERS/Caren Firouz

The (Slow) Rise of Iran’s Women


Nearly 35 years after the Islamic Revolution, gender discrimination is still a challenging issue for Iran. On the one hand, the situation for Iranian women has improved considerably in many respects under the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). On the other, there is a clear and seemingly impregnable ceiling for women in administrative and government positions.

Iranian Women Under the Islamic Republic

In some ways, women have enjoyed significant gains under the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowhere is this more true than in education. In 1976, on the eve of the Revolution, the female literacy rate was a mere 35 percent. Despite the turmoil of the revolution and the imposed war with Iraq, by 1986 this rate had risen to 52 percent. Today, Iranian girls between the ages of 15 and 24 enjoy near universal literacy.

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These gains are also reflected in education levels, which have greatly improved as part of the IRI’s commitment to providing universal education. For example, the female enrollment rate for primary education institutions is actually higher than it is for males. Women also graduate from their primary education programs at the same rate as their male counterparts. And despite new restrictions on what they can study, Iranian women are also strong participants in secondary education, with the female general enrollment rate in secondary education about 86 percent of the male rate.

In many ways, the high female education rate also extends to employment, especially since 1992 when the High Council of the Cultural Revolution adopted a new set of employment policies for women. Although women are unemployed at a rate of roughly twice that of men, one-third of doctors, 60 percent of civil servants, and 80 percent of teachers in Iran are women, according to the British historian Michael Axworthy.

One area where Iranian women continue to face clear obstacles is in the upper reaches of the Iranian government. For example, around 30 women signed up to run for president earlier this year, but the Guardian Council – Iran’s constitutional watchdog – rejected their candidacies based solely on gender. As Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdii, a conservative cleric and member of the Guardian Council explained at the time, the “law does not approve” of women running for president.

Women vs Clergy

Indeed, the clergy have long been the fiercest opponents of women holding senior political positions, opposition that dates at least as far back as to the Western-backed Shah’s regime. In fact, before the Revolution, two women served as cabinet ministers under the Amir-Abbas Hoveida premiership. Even during that time, however, religious leaders used their power to prevent these female ministers from playing crucial roles in governing the country.

This competition between women seeking a senior role in public life and conservative clergy opposition has continued during the Islamic Republic. It’s been a long struggle, but Iranian women have continued to chip away at many of the restrictions.

Although women served in parliament during the 1980s and early 1990s, the taboo against a woman serving as an administrative official and in a top management position was finally broken during the reform presidency of Seyed Mohammad Khatami.

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