Operating on a Knife’s Edge: Achieving Gender Equality in Iran

By Steven van der Plas

In December 2017, an Iranian woman was incarcerated after she removed her hijab on a busy street in protest of the country’s strict religious laws. Footage of this event was widely shared on social media, which inspired many more Iranian women to do the same. Further protests were organised through Facebook and Twitter, with demonstrations gathering a large amount of attention during the first months of 2018. During this period, over thirty-five female protestors have been arrested by the Iranian government while many more face daily abuse and death threats. These instances have been the most well-known events of feminist protests against the status quo in Iran yet, but they are certainly not the first. This article explores the past and future of feminism in Iran, arguing that it has kept the issue of gender inequality relevant in Iranian society despite the difficult situation it operates in.  

The Iranian revolution and women’s responses 

The origins of today’s feminist movement can be traced back to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to the fall of the Pahlavi regime and the creation of the current political system. The Pahlavi regime was committed to modernist reforms, which eventually led to gender law reforms in the sixties. [1] Most notably, the ‘White Revolution’ introduced women’s suffrage in 1963. Moderate family law reforms were adopted in 1967 and 1973, which drastically improved the position of married women. [1] The rejection of the modernization efforts and pro-western shift of the Pahlavi regime by the Iranian people led to the religious revolution of 1979 and the subsequent shaping of an Islamic republic. [2] This new system was theocratic in nature and installed a dual structure: A Supreme Religious Leader that serves for life is complemented by a weaker democratic structure, which is represented through a president, parliament and an Assembly of Experts. The Supreme Religious Leader commands all branches of the military and is the head of the judiciary and most other branches of government. [2] Lastly, a Guardian Council oversees parliament and ensures that all laws passed adhere to its interpretation of Islam. [2] In the weeks after the formation of the Islamic Republic, laws were adopted to institutionalize inequality between men and women. Family laws introduced a decade ago were annulled and the government made wearing a veil mandatory for women. [3] 

The initial developments in the shaping of the Islamic Republic were met with fierce resistance from women across the country, which the new regime could not ignore. [1] Large demonstrations held in response to the introduction of mandatory veil laws caused the government to temporarily back down from introducing the law. [2] This meant that the first Supreme Religious Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, could not ignore women as political entities, despite his misgivings. [1] Ironically, Khomeini was put into power by the very forces of female political activism he tried to repress. The complete marginalization of women in Iranian society was avoided, but gender would not be an issue of political relevance in Iran for the next 20 years. [2] 

Women’s rights after the revolution and later resurgence 

The enforcement of strong religious laws in Iranian society did not mean that the conversation regarding women’s rights was over. In fact, the regime was unsuccessful in implementing its agenda of gender segregation based on Shiite Islamic ideology. [1] For instance, even though Khomeini strongly criticized female suffrage, he failed to annul women’s voting rights. This did not withhold the government from introducing strong barriers when it came to women’s representation in institutions. Only women with certain religious backgrounds or appropriate credentials were allowed to be elected, despite the wide participation of women in the elections after the revolution. [2] Secular citizens were also marginalized in this system through the suppression of political forces that deviated from the status quo. From 1979 to 1997, political attention for women’s rights was mostly confined to this status quo, which did not result in meaningful policy towards addressing gender equality. [1]  

Interest for gender equality and change flared up during the elections in 1997 when the liberal cleric Khatami won the presidential elections in a landslide victory with an agenda of tolerance, freedom, and justice for women. [2] Khatami’s victory caused an explosion of political and social dialogue on the position of women in Iran’s society. Civil society groups and NGOs were formed and some restrictions were lifted on the freedom of press and women’s access to education. [2] Activist feminist movements also gained prominence in this period. [2]  

Two schools of thought can be distinguished within Iranian feminist groups. Religious-oriented feminism seeks to use Islam as the solution to achieve gender equality. [3] Many feminist groups with this ideology supported Khatami’s gradual and incremental approach to promoting universal rights. [3] In line with this approach, thirteen women were elected to parliament in 2000, forming the Women’s Faction. [3] The purpose of this new entity was that it sought to improve women’s standing in Iran while retaining loyalty to the Islamic revolution. The success of Khatami and the Women’s Faction in achieving reform was limited by the Iranian political system, which not only actively undermined women’s representation in parliament but also made it impossible for any substantial pro-feminist law to be adopted by parliament. [3] The Guardian Council struck down or hollowed out many of the pro-equality legislation, citing that they were either not in line with Islamic faith or unconstitutional. [1] Frustrated with the lack of reform and the absence of a pro-gender equality candidate on the ballot, women massively boycotted the 2005 parliamentary elections and instead resorted to different methods to make their voice heard.  

Modern attempts to promote gender equality in Iran 

It was in this context that secular-oriented feminism, the second feminist school of thought, gained in popularity, leading to new goals and methods to achieve lasting change in the Iranian political system. [3] The secular-oriented, or ‘reformist feminist’ movement saw a large influx of support in the period from 2005 to 2013, after the unsuccessful attempts to promote gender equality from within the system. [3] Online media and grassroots networks were used to focus international attention on acts of repression inside the Iranian system. [3] The internet and social media were also used as successful tools from 2008 onwards, allowing for the sharing of news and images regarding state repression of protests and movements. [4] 

During the past few years, the level of repression has decreased under the more moderate president Rouhani, who also advocated for a major shift in foreign policy by signing the now-cancelled nuclear deal with the United States and the European Union. However, the Rouhani administration faces similar limitations as the Khatami government did a decade ago. [4] First, Rouhani only won the election with a small victory, leaving him with little mandate to actually implement reformist policies. [4] Second, the Guardian Council again proved to be a conservative counterweight to democratically elected institutions by rejecting most progressive legislation. While the political status quo has put a hold on the feminist movement’s progress, the relatively moderate societal climate has led to an increase in advocacy networks and grassroots movements. [4] Protests and demonstrations have garnered widespread international attention to the plight of Iranian feminists, even though they are still subject to discrimination and persecution in their own country.  


The feminist movement in Iran has kept the issue of gender relations a topic of ongoing relevance in society since the beginning of the 21st century, even though Iran’s political system is designed to stifle such efforts. In fact, the success of the Iranian feminist movement can be explained by looking at the inconsistencies in the Iranian political system, which allow civil society groups to constantly push the boundaries of what is allowed within Iran’s repressive environment. The biggest weakness of the movement is that it has been historically fragmented between various schools of feminism with different goals and methods. [1] Unity is needed now more than ever, as the abandonment of the nuclear deal by the United States has put pressure on the Rouhani government from conservative and religious forces. The appointment of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as head of the Assembly of Experts earlier this year puts him in a prime position to become the new Supreme Religious Leader, which will undoubtedly further limit the freedom of moderate political forces in the country. This means that there are new challenges on the horizon for the Iranian feminist movement. Luckily, feminist groups in Iran have proven themselves to be adaptive, committed and persistent in their quest for improved gender relations, no matter what the consequences may be.   

Other sources

[1] Hoodfar, H. & Sadr, S. (2010). Islamic politics and women’s quest for gender equality in Iran, Third World Quarterly, 31(6), 885-903. 

[2] Rezai-Rashti, G.M. (2015). The politics of gender segregation and women’s access to higher education in the Islamic republic of Iran: the interplay of repression and resistance. Gender and education (27(5), 469-486. 

[3] Barlow, R. & Akbarzadeh, S. (2008). Prospects for Feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Human Rights Quarterly, 30(1), 21-40.  

[4] Tohidi, M. (2016). Women’s rights and feminist movements in Iran. SUR international journal on human rights, 13(24), 75-89.  

© Ninara, 2010. Retrieved from Flickr Creative Commons.  

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