Who Speaks Up For Women’s Rights, and How?

Two highly educated professional women in Tehran argued for reform that goes beyond shared housework. They want to see gender equality in Iran in government, society, and the home. They said revisions were needed in divorce and child custody laws and cited a host of smaller issues, including the fact that their husbands are not allowed in hospital delivery rooms while they are giving birth. Like women all across Iran, they expressed a desire to attend soccer games and other sports events along with men. Such wishes are typical of the plethora of freedoms that Iranians press for in addition to human rights, freedom of speech, judicial practice, and government transparency.

On a street in Tehran, a 23-year-old graduate student in blue jeans, sweater, and headscarf pointed out another woman in head-to-toe chador and asked, “Do you know what she’s wearing?” When we said politely that the outfit was a chador, she vehemently countered, “No, it is a prison.” Such statements clearly show that the visceral objections to the public concealment of women that many Westerners feel when they travel through the streets of Iran are not foreign to some Iranian women. But the dodging of the veil by university-educated women should not be promoted as the primary battleground in the struggle to improve the lives of Iranian women. “Progressive women need to bring along the more conservative female forces in Iranian society,” we were told by a sophisticated Iranian woman in her mid-forties. “Sometimes these women hold us back more than the men. They are difficult because they are fundamentalist and ideological. Also they are ignorant of international norms.” It should be noted that besides the large increase in female literacy in Iran since the revolution, contraception is now available to more than 70 percent of Iranian women. Other young women we met bristled at having to wear a headscarf, and many went to lengths to fulfill the requirement of public modesty in minimal ways, wearing form-fitting outfits, bright lipstick, and token scarves perched on the back of the latest hairdos. But they told us also that they don’t want to be told by outsiders that they should take it off.

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