Interview with Soheila Vahdati Bana: Elevating the issues of Iran’s women to the world’s stage

Equality Now

Soheila Vahdati Bana, a scholar, writer and human rights activist focusing on Iranian women's and children's issues, has written numerous articles against the death penalty and state violence against women, children and ethnic and religious minorities. Her areas of research include the effects of mandatory hijab on the image of Iranian women and their role in society, the recent history of state oppression of followers of the Bahai Faith and child soldiers in Iran. She has also written extensively on the current Islamic Penal Code’s encroachment on women’s rights, the treatment of women as second class citizens and the deprivation of their sexual rights.

During her work to organize the “Stop Stoning Forever” campaign, Soheila worked closely with Equality Now to bring international attention to the issue and generate worldwide opposition to the legal practice of stoning in Iran. As a result, the Iranian government removed the text regarding stoning as a punishment in the revised draft of the Islamic Penal Code and reversed more than ten stoning sentences. She has played a key role in transmitting reliable information about the difficult ground realities of her counterparts living in Iran, helping expedite international advocacy to end human rights violations against women in Iran. 

1. What is the current status of women’s rights in Iran?

The situation of women’s rights in Iran is very complex because while the Islamic state is imposing harsh misogynistic regulations to control women’s sexuality, they are also promoting women’s roles as mothers and trying to improve their status. Since Iran has not yet ratified CEDAW, there are many laws and regulations that provide room for violence and discrimination against women both at home and in the work place. A woman is forced to abide by laws of “modesty” and cover herself in public and obey her husband at home. The current Family Law considers the husband the head of the household with the right to divorce, polygamy and custody of children. A woman needs her father’s permission to marry and her husband’s permission to divorce, and she cannot even travel without her husband’s permission. There is no published data about domestic violence and the related deaths, but officials have announced that ‘honor killings’ are on the rise and comprise 2/3 to 1/2 of all homicides in some major cities.

On the other hand, the government has done an excellent job in terms of closing the gender gap in education with 96% of all children attending public school, and a higher number of girls in college today than boys. However, though Iranian women are 80% literate and comprise more than half of all college students, they make up less than 20% of the workforce. Recently, some universities announced that certain majors, mostly in engineering, would be open to male applicants only. This news was received with such strong criticism in the country that government authorities denied any role in the decision and blamed it on local policy makers at the universities. Some parliament representatives have said they will follow up on this issue. But, the really interesting point is that some local university officials justified their decision by saying that they will not admit women because women will not penetrate the job market. While the issue of women’s education is currently very hot, almost nobody talks about 40% unemployment rate among women and the legalized discrimination that they face in the job market. For example, if you take a look at the list of government employment opportunities, you see that many of the positions are designated male only, especially in rural areas, and women cannot even apply. There is not sufficient data to determine what percentage of educated women choose to stay home after marriage and what percentage of them face gender discrimination in employment.

So, as you can see, the women’s rights situation is very complex. Women enjoy an improved standard of living and access to health care and education, but are still deprived of sexual rights, equal rights in court and equal employment opportunities. However, as women become more educated and aware, their demand for equal rights to their male counterparts, be it at home or at work, increases. Many women in cosmopolitan areas already exercise their sexual rights. Women no longer accept their traditionally-defined roles as mothers and housewives confined to the home as their only option; there is an awakening among women, including the most religious and conservative women, and they are demanding more than their current social status. Consequently, we see a vibrant women’s movement today that is not exclusively comprised of women. Fortunately, we have many male academics, journalists, activists, politicians, and intellectuals for women’s rights, too.

2. The Islamic Penal Code was updated in early 2012. Has there been any concrete progress towards gender equality?

Unfortunately, no. The only improvement has been the sparing of some under age children from the death penalty, which still might not work in all cases. The only advancement in the legal system is that divorce and child custody has been made slightly easier for women.

3. What strategies have been most effective in addressing Iranian women’s rights?

The most effective strategies so far have been raising public awareness about women’s issues through campaigns, articles, weblogs, books, sharing research findings and art. Women have started to explore their history and social environment as well as write about them. Empowered by education women have stopped adopting a male perspective or a prescribed code for their conduct; they are seeing the world from a feminine perspective. Women currently have the larger share in producing art, including theatre and film, and literature and this has had a significant impact on public conscience and awareness. Women have an increasing role in making decisions for themselves and within the family, and are now seeking participation in political decision making as well. This climate of gender awareness has opened the way for women in society and laid the foundation for demanding equal rights. However, it is a tough road as there are serious concerns, not only from right wing radicals, but also from society in general about the women’s rights movement weakening family values. The increased rate of divorce heightens such concerns. But, like women all over the world, Iranian women are striding forward, striving for equal rights and a better world.

4. What about grassroots women’s groups in Iran? Is there a thriving civil society working on women’s rights,  addressing service provision, shelters, literacy, and other such needs?

The government keeps NGOs from addressing women’s rights issues because the majority of such issues are rooted in the legal violence and discrimination against women. For example, providing shelters for abused women could be a dangerous endeavour because the law prohibits sheltering women without their husband’s consent. In such cases the law allows the husband to file a lawsuit against the shelter for taking away his wife. And after the Green Movement following the last presidential election was crushed, many women activists had to leave the country to avoid prison sentences. This left not only a void following their emigration, but also an atmosphere of fear. With the constant threat of war from the US and Israel, the government considers any voice of criticism and dissent as a “threat to the national security.” Currently, many activists are in prison including women’s rights defenders. The remaining women’s groups working on gender issues prefer to avoid any media attention because the government is very sensitive to international attention and would stop their work.

Women, therefore, are typically more active in charitable work like education and supporting homeless children. They are also very active in forming NGOs in the fields of charity, special needs health care and protecting the environment. As the government is doing an excellent job with regard to literacy, there is not much left to do in that area.

An interesting project that some women activists in Iran have undertaken is identifying and documenting gender issues in rural areas, such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, the sex trade and the forced immigration of women married to non-Iranian husbands. This is usually done through field research, often without official organizations and with minimal provisions, to avoid government scrutiny. The goal is to identify the hidden issues, raise public awareness and ultimately force the government to address these issues.

5. It is clear that Iranian women’s rights face internal obstacles, but what about external ones?  How have the economic sanctions impacted women’s societal roles, financial independence and issues such as patriarchy and polygamy?

The current government’s economic policies are more along class lines than gender lines. For instance, the government provides food rations for basic items at a lower price for the public and offers supplemental income to single mothers, etc. The skyrocketing inflation rate, however, makes such measures insufficient as a remedy for the poor.

The current economic sanctions place pressure on women in two major ways: high food prices and major cutbacks to social welfare programs. The situation for the underprivileged has become something of a living nightmare because the government has to deal with both the sanctions and paying more for its needs in the global market. In addition, it spends more on the defense budget since the threat of war has become more serious than ever. Therefore, women, usually the majority of those living beneath the poverty line, are most affected by the limited social welfare budget.

Additionally, lack of sufficient employment opportunities for women and the wealth gap has pushed many women into prostitution and temporary marriage (“sigheh”). The Sharia law allows a single woman and a man, single or married, to have a temporary marriage for a defined period of time, say, from one hour to 99 years. Men do it to have sex without facing charges of adultery and women do it for money; when resources in the society are scarce for women, they tend to turn to sex as a way to survive. The government attitude is that “sexual sins” are blamed on women and they are responsible for social modesty with their hijab; men have impunity for sexual harassment. This attitude has made sexual harassment so common in the private industry and offices that some find female prostitution to be a comparable position with higher pay.

There is also the issue of child brides, i.e., the legal trafficking of girls under the sanctity of marriage. Poor families tend to marry off their daughters at a young age, an occurrence which becomes more frequent during times of economic hardships. Official records show more than 1500 child marriages in the first quarter of this year.

6. In order to escape persecution faced by many women’s right activists, some have fled Iran. Does this make the situation harder for those who stay? As an expatriate, do you believe that there are any positive effects that the expat community can have on Iranian women's rights?

Forced emigration always makes it harder for those who stay behind, reducing their strength and support while making it easier for the State to target them. Over the years my generation of Iranian emigrants, the first wave after the revolution, have learned to start a dialogue with those who stayed behind. Fortunately, this dialogue continues to this day and is strengthened by those who have more recently emigrated and joined the Iranian diaspora.

Interestingly, dialogue amongst people with different religions and beliefs was first initiated by women activists. Such dialogue promotes diversity of thought and enhances tolerance as all generations with different faiths and ideas try to pave the way for democracy. A couple of decades ago, it was hard to find people with different political inclinations having discourse. It has been a couple of decades now that women with differing religious and secular views have been sharing ideas on women’s issues. Today, you can see the fruits of their labor in dialogues that take place amongst political activists. Furthermore, the activists who were forced into exile after the Green movement are currently building new bridges between young Iranians and expatriates.

7. In the last presidential election, candidates addressed women’s issues. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani’s lifted execution threat is a successful case of progression in Iran’s discrimination against women. Does the current political climate show any further promise for women’s rights?

Discrimination in Iran is a very complicated issue because while the state appears progressive in certain areas, e.g. welfare programs for single mothers, excellent maternity leave benefits and shorter work weeks for mothers, Iranian feminists consider such measures a plot to move women away from the workplace and back into the recesses of their homes, eliminating chances of promotion, etc. Or they feel that the private sector does not hire women because such benefits are too costly to provide, and therefore it remains limited to the government employees to enjoy such benefits. And the law is most discriminatory when it comes to the family law, the penal code as well as government regulations concerning the mandatory hijab.

The government is also strengthening women’s rights in health and education. However, while education is getting closer to becoming a level playing field for both men and women, the already high rate of unemployment is even higher for women and a college degree does not often guarantee financial security or independence in their case.

In general, I feel the current political situation in Iran is bound for a change towards democracy and women’s rights. Even the ruling authorities are aware and admit that they cannot continue to treat women like this. If there are no military attacks on Iran, attacks that would hinder the progress towards democratic change for decades, we will likely see major advancements for women.