The role of women in Iran is complex.
Like women elsewhere in the Muslim world, women in Iran suffer legal and cultural discrimination at the hands of a patriarchal society. Yet, most agree that what Iranian women desire is more complicated than a carbon-copy Western version of gender equality. Tradition and culture and history matter as well.
Education and Health
Iranian women enjoy excellent access to education, something their counterparts in many other developing countries, and particularly other Muslim countries, cannot claim.
- Ninety-four percent of Iranian women attend school, and women comprise over 60% of all university graduates.
- Segregation of the sexes in educational institutions varies, yet the quality of women’s education is thought to be largely on par with that of men.
- Women benefit from family planning programs that help keep birth rates and maternal mortality rates low. Beyond this, access to health care may be controlled by a woman’s husband or father in a society where financial and familial decision-making is in the hands of men.
- A focal point of attention on women’s issues in Iran is frequently the chador.
- The chador is the black, full-body covering worn by many Muslim women.
- It satisfies the requirements of a strict interpretation of hajib or Islamic dress where a woman’s hair and skin must be concealed in public, with the exception of her hands and face.
- Some women in Iran wear the chador, others adhere to a minimalist version of hajib, covering only their hair with veils of different color and lengths. There is as much diversity in veiling as there is in dress and hairstyles among non-Muslim women.
Despite their education and relatively good health, women in Iran experience significant discrimination in employment.
- Women make up only about 15% of the working population, a percentage that is the lowest in the Middle East, which, regionally, is the lowest in the world.
- A husband may prevent his wife from working outside the home, and women who do work are often underemployed.
- Women are overrepresented in jobs such as taxi driving and vastly underrepresented in higher skilled jobs.
- Women cannot hold public office above the municipal level and traditionally earn less than their male counterparts in similar jobs.
- The United Nations has created a special index to evaluate the extent to which women in different countries are able to “take an active part in economic and political life.” Based on their representation in legislative bodies, senior-level management positions, and professional sector jobs, Iranian women score 103 out of 108 countries ranked on the UN Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM).
Iranian women also face discrimination in family matters.
- Not only can women be compelled into marriage at age 13, but they also have few rights in the areas of divorce, custody, and inheritance.
- Domestic violence generally goes unpunished. A woman’s testimony in court is technically worth just half of a man’s, and a woman may still be stoned for adultery.
- Women cannot obtain a passport without the permission of a husband or male relative.
- Overall, women in Iran rank 92 out of 157 on the United Nations Gender Disparity Index.
- Famed Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji has characterized Iran’s treatment of women as “gender apartheid.”
Next: Inside Iran - Society: The Women's Rights Movement in Iran