Iranian rights activists were pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago, when they heard of Soor a publication that addressed women’s rights and discrimination against women, published by male high school students at Allameh Helli High School in Tehran. For rights activists who have worked tirelessly for decades to raise awareness about gender-based violence and discrimination against women, with little success in the way of legal changes, the news was reaffirming.
The 66-page publication addresses issues such as discrimination against women, sexual harassment in the public sphere, restrictions placed on entry of women into sports stadiums and pressures faced by men to conform to strict gender roles. The group has also produced a pod-cast examining the negative stereotypes perpetuated against women and objectification of women in Iran’s pop music industry.
Even if rights activists have not been able to push through major reforms on laws that discriminates against women, they have managed to change the hearts and minds of many Iranians, including the youngest generation of Iranian men.
Despite little impact on State decision makers, Iranian rights activists have been successful in changing attitudes and behavior of a large segment of the public about women. There is a clear difference between the status of Iranian women under the law and their status in society. For example, while the State promotes marriage and stresses the primacy of women’s roles as wives and mothers, in today’s Iran, both women and men are getting married later, over 60% of university students are women, the birth rate is low, and while women’s economic participation remains low, women are still doctors, lawyers, university professors, entrepreneurs and even bus and truck drivers.
These are the contradictions that exist in a country where largely older conservative men refuse to make changes in support of women’s rights, who justify their outdated arguments based claims of religion and culture. For example, After a long battle in Parliament, legislation designed to increase the age of marriage for girls to 16 was rejected on religious grounds. The current age of marriage for girls is 13 and with court approval girls younger than 13 can also marry. At the same time, statistics indicate that the average age of marriage for women in Iran is 25 years, with high rates of divorce, especially in urban areas.
But even among government officials, albeit largely midlevel, the women’s movement has managed to leave its mark, changing beliefs, attitudes and approaches on gender roles and about the rights of women and girls. In February 2019 Imam Ali Charity, a civil society organization, published news about an 11 year-old girl who had been forced into marriage with a 50 year old man. The news about the marriage quickly spread on social media and in response the prosecutor’s office in Ilam Province, where the girl was located, and social workers from the state welfare organization got involved to remove her from the home. Officials subsequently brought charges against the husband and the girl’s father, who had agreed to the marriage of his daughter to a 50 year old man, for a sum of money.
Recent other events point to the impact of the women’s movement on changing perceptions and beliefs even in the most restrictive and conservative environments and among unlikely groups. In June 2018, Iranians were shocked to hear that 41 women had been abducted and raped in the small city of Iran Shahr, in Sistan and Baluchestan Province, which is a religious, conservative and Sunni majority province. Women suffer from broad-based gender and ethnic discrimination in this province and rape has traditionally been viewed as a dishonor for the families of girls, resulting in under-reporting. But in this case, not only did the women come forward, the Sunni Friday prayer leader, Mowlavi Mollazehi, was the one to break the news at his Friday prayer sermon. Shortly after that, Mowlavi Abdul Hamid, who is the spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslims, came out in support of the survivors, alluding to the possibility of honor crimes against the girls, he stressed the innocence of the girls and emphasized that the safety of the survivors should be guaranteed by the family and the community. Women supporting the survivors staged a sit-in the local governor’s office and women’s rights activists issued a statement expressing their support for the bravery of those who came forward despite the possibility of facing shame and even honor violence as a result.
These developments were unheard of a decade ago, but today we have both conservative communities and religious leaders speaking out in support of survivors of violence and condemning perpetrators.
Stories like these are not rare and in fact they are on the rise in a country where women and society have had to come up with strategies to bypass discriminatory laws, which are too regressive for an increasingly educated and younger population.
The publication on gender equality by high school boys, was a welcome development and tangible testament to the impact of the women’s movement, especially those activists inside the country working on the ground to create sustained change over the long run. Follow them on the magazine on Instagram: @soor_mag