Women’s liberation in Iran, the struggle against sexual apartheid


Sohaila Sharifi
No Hejab No. 1

The past twenty nine years have been struggling times for Iranian people and in particular for Iranian women. Right from the very beginning of coming to power of Islamic republic, the women’s rights have been attacked and a sexual apartheid state has formed brutally oppressing and suppressing any activities demanding women’s right and equality. Thousands of young girls in Iran grew up to realise that they criminals by nature, just by being born women. In Iran and according to the religious laws, a woman is considered the root and the cause of most social problems. She is the one causing men to loose their minds and commit terrible sins. She usually gets the blame for rape, prostitution, corruption and many other dysfunctions of the society and more than often she is punished in a brutal way. According to the Islamic republic of Iran, women must cover up, stay at home and look after their family. Wearing make up, showing your hair, going out and being independent are not qualities valued in women. There is a sexual apartheid ruling women’s lives and unfortunately the rest of the world has turned a blind eye on all these for a long time.
At the same time and from the very beginning of coming to power of the Islamic government, a mass movement has formed to fight against inequality and discriminatory laws. The Iranian society very much resembles a battlefield with the government and its battalion of mullahs and clergies and security services and police and other forces on the one side and masses of women and men who refuse to accept reactionary and inhumane laws ruling their lives on the other side. In this battlefield there had been many attacks and counter attacks and loses and gains. At the beginning it was usually the government that won, brutally suppressing women, dismissing them from their working places, literally pinning the veil to women’s heads, cutting uncovered legs and throwing acid on the made up faces. But women and masses of freedom loving people never completely gave in. they fought back. They rebelled in their own little and great ways and so far they have achieved a great deal.

The first major demonstration in Iran was organised by women activists and organisations on 8 March 1979, only few days after ayatollah Khomeini’s Fatwa for compulsory veiling. Ever since, this struggle has continued and women have managed to force the government back step by step. They refused to stay at home and be mere servants, they went out and studied and tried to find jobs. They fought for custody of their children and the right to divorce. No wonder more than 60% of all students in higher education are girls and young women and no wonder this has caused great concern among the authorities, trying hard to dissuade young women to go to university and even limiting university places for girls and women. Even though many of these girls will never manage to find a job in the market, they still insist to go to university and study and do something about their lives. The unfair and unjust regulations have never stopped women from trying on the contrary, the more restrictions the government introduces the more women find ways to defy them. According to the authorities in the course of six months more than a million women have been arrested, flogged, fined and beaten up for not observing the Islamic dress code, and again according to the same sources the government authorities have officially announced they have failed in their attempts to force the proper Islamic Hijab on women in Iran. A survey done by a women organisation in Iran showed that 71% of women in Iran want a secular society and a secular state. They want internationally recognized human rights to govern their lives and thy want religion to stay out of their public and private lives. The list is long and these are only few examples of a strong and growing movement against sexual apartheid and discriminatory laws in Iran.

While the western governments and western media have been trying to sell a religious, traditional image of Iranian women to the rest of the world, while the followers of cultural relativism were trying to persuade people that what is happening to women in Iran is “their own culture and must be respected” , while the western politicians were looking for a moderate president or politician figures in Iran to justify their economic connections with a fascist government, Iranian women and those who cared for equality and freedom fought none stop for a better life, for equality and for freedom.

What is happening to women in Iran is horrendous and unique in a way. We hear sad stories of women who have been oppressed, destroyed and humiliated in different parts of the world, wherever traditional, religious and male chauvinist ideas have got any ground and power, but what is happening in Iran is a legalised sexual apartheid through which women are officially second or even third citizens who should be heard and seen as little as possible. The long arm of religious law reaches deep inside their private and public lives and they are deprived of the little rights that ordinary men in that society enjoy. Sexual apartheid or any kind of discrimination against human being is totally unaccepted in twenty first century and we have to do something about it. We have to form a united front and fight for a secular and humane society. We have to demand an immediate end to sexual apartheid in Iran. We can do that by demanding Iranian government’s isolation from the international organisations, by demanding that our governments break connections with Iranian government. The world and especially the western world has got experience in dealing with apartheid governments, what with the racial apartheid in south Africa and the international solidarity with people ruled by apartheid. It is up to us to do something and today is the day. The history and in particular the history of international women’s day is full of brave women and men who refused to accept the fate they had been destined to have and decided to step out and change the course of history and mark it with their own good action. It is now up to us to do our bit. We can make a difference to our world.

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