Distributed January 2001
Copyright ©2001 by William O. Beeman
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 780 Words

William O. Beeman

Iranian women’s situation has improved under Islamic Republic

The average marriage age for Iranian women before the 1979 Islamic revolution was 18; it is 21 today. Education for women is obligatory and universal. More than 75 percent of Iranians are under 25. For this population, literacy for men and women is well over 90 percent even in rural areas. University enrollment is nearly equal for men and women.

Contrary to American belief, women in Iran are better off today under the Islamic Republic than they were under the regime of the Shah of Iran. I was able to see this surprising development on a recent trip to Iran, my first in many years.

Women have always had a strong role in Iranian life. Their prominent and often decisive participation in public political movements has been especially noteworthy. Brave and often ruthlessly pragmatic, women are more than willing to take to the streets in a good public cause.

The Islamic Republic has made a special point of emphasizing women’s equality in education, employment and politics as a matter of national pride. Although women have served in the Iranian legislature and as government ministers since the 1950s, there are more women in the current parliament than ever served under the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his father Reza Pahlavi. Today’s Iran finds a civil reform movement led by elected President Mohammed Khatami held in check by Islamic clerics.

The average marriage age for women before the 1979 Islamic revolution was 18; it has increased to 21 today. Education for women is obligatory and universal. More than 75 percent of the nation is under 25 years of age, and for this population, literacy for both men and women is well over 90 percent even in rural areas. University enrollment is nearly equal for men and women. As women’s education has increased, Iran’s birth rate has fallen steadily and is now estimated at a respectable 2.45 percent.

Female employment is the one area where women have suffered a decline since the years immediately preceding the revolution. However, the statistics are difficult to assess since unemployment is extremely high for both men and women (30 percent). Under the Islamic Republic, virtually all professions are theoretically open to women. A class of female religious leaders has even emerged. They have attended religious training schools and have the title mujtahedeh, the female form of the word mujtahed, or religious judge.

The sole limitation on female employment is that women must maintain modest dress or hejab in the workplace. Islam requires that both women and men adopt modest dress that does not inflame carnal desire. For men this means eschewing tight pants, shorts, short-sleeved shirts and open collars. Iranians view women’s hair as erotic, so covering both the hair and the female form are the basic requirements of modesty. This precludes women from some physically active professions. In earlier years, revolutionary guards accosted women who violated the dress codes in public, including wearing makeup. Today these attacks are rare.

For many centuries women in Iran have practiced modesty by wearing the chador, a semicircular piece of dark cloth that is wrapped expertly around the body and head and gathered at the chin. This garment is both wonderfully convenient, since it affords a degree of privacy and lets one wear virtually anything underneath, and restricting, since it must be held shut with one hand (some women cleverly use their teeth in awkward moments).

Since the revolution, an alternate form of acceptable dress has emerged – a long dress with full-length opaque stockings, a long-sleeved coat and a headscarf covering the hair. The dress has gradually evolved into a thin shoulder-to-ankle smock called a manto after the French word manteau or overcoat. The headscarf has been transformed into a hood modeled after a similar garment in North Africa called a magna’eh.

In adopting this dress, women have been wonderfully inventive. The manto, though dark in color, is often made of silk or other fine fabric, embroidered, finely tailored, with elegant closures. Women wear it over jeans or other Western fashions. The magna’eh may also be of satin and turned out in fashionable colors like eggplant or dark teal. In short, the Iranian women have made virtue out of necessity and created high fashion from their concealing garments.

Many older Westernized women decry any restrictions on their dress, but younger women who grew up in the Islamic Republic take it in stride. “I view it as a kind of work uniform,” claimed one female journalist. “I’m far more concerned about press restrictions than about dress codes.”

Indeed, the universal modest dress code may have helped women from conservative families. “Before the revolution, religious parents would not let their girls even go to school for fear they would be dishonored,” said Parvaneh Rashidi, a Tehran schoolteacher. “Now they have no trouble letting their daughters go anywhere.” Judging from the large number of women one sees today on the streets, in retail management, in offices and on university campuses, Ms. Rashidi appears to be more than correct in her assessment.

William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University.
He is author of Language, Status and Power in Iran.