Following various human rights reports, it seems that in comparison with most other countries of the MENA region, Iranian women experience particularly serious discrimination both in law and in practice.
First of all, their political rights are very limited. Whereas since 1963 women have had the right to vote, they cannot become President and their right to run for parliament is restricted in practice, as the Guardian Council tends to disqualify the majority of female candidates. In 2011 four women were ministers and eight women served in the Parliament.
Women’s rights activists have been consistently harassed and arbitrarily arrested, as illustrated by the case of those involved in the One Million Signatures Campaign (a campaign aimed at collecting one million signatures in support of changing discriminatory laws against women).
The laws in question relate mainly to the so-called “personal status”, the term covering such as areas as:
- Marriage: A woman requires her male guardian’s approval or court’s permission to marry regardless of her age. Marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men are not recognised by the state. The law permits a man to have up to four wives and an unlimited number of sigheh (a practice of temporary marriage based on a Shia custom whereby a woman may become a wife of a Muslim man after a simple religious ceremony and a civil contract outlining the union’s conditions). Sigheh wives and children born of such unions are not granted rights associated with traditional marriage.
- Divorce: A woman has the right to divorce only if her husband signs a contract granting her that right, cannot provide for his family, suffers from drug addiction, or is insane or impotent. The ability of a woman to seek divorce is very limited in practice. A husband can easily divorce his wife without being required to give a reason for doing so.
- The law provides divorced women preference in custody of children up to age seven when the right passes to the father. Divorced women who remarry must give the child’s father custody.
- Nationality: An Iranian woman cannot pass on her nationality to her foreign-born spouse or their children.
- Travelling: A woman may not obtain a passport or travel outside the country without her husband’s written permission. In rural areas such permission is often required for any movement outside their home or village.
Iranian laws impose gender segregation in most public spaces, including for patients seeking medical care, and prohibit women from mixing openly with unmarried men or men not related to them. Women must ride in a reserved section on public buses and enter public buildings, universities, and airports through separate entrances. Some universities have been holding separate courses for male and female students. Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani has been quoted saying “In the optimal situation, a woman will not see any other man except her husband.”
Moreover, Iranian law and custom impose a very strict dress code on women. The penal code provides that a woman who appears in public without an appropriate hijab can be sentenced to lashings and fined. However, in the absence of a clear legal definition of “appropriate hijab“, women have been subjected to the opinions of disciplinary forces or judges. Morality patrols have been deployed to control the respect for these rules by society.
At the same time state law provides for a very limited scope of protection against discrimination, violence and harassment:
- Even though rape is illegal and subject to strict penalties including capital punishment, the laws are not enforced effectively. There have been reports of government forces raping individuals in custody. Sex within marriage is considered to be consensual by definition, and therefore spousal rape is not illegal. Not only do rape victims suffer from social stigma, but they also risk being charged with adultery for being in the presence of an unrelated male while unaccompanied. There are stringent witness requirements in rape cases (four Muslim male witnesses or a combination of three male and two female witnesses are required for conviction), which may also have contributed to low reporting to authorities. A woman or man found making a false accusation of rape is subject to 80 lashes.
- Domestic violence is not expressly prohibited by law. Spousal abuse and violence against women are common. According to a University of Teheran study a woman is physically abused every nine seconds in the country and each year an estimated three to four million women are beaten by their husbands. One of every two marriages has had at least one instance of domestic violence. Abuse in the family is considered a private matter and seldom discussed publicly.
- Numerous harmful traditional practices persist. For instance, if a father or paternal grandfather kills his child or grandchild, he will not be convicted and punished for murder. The law also permits a man to kill his adulterous wife and her consorts if he is certain she consented. Women convicted of adultery may also be sentenced to death, including by stoning, though, according to official reports, this method of punishment has not been used in recent times.
- Existing laws addressing sexual harassment are not victim-oriented and they are biased against women. Physical contact between unrelated men and women is strictly prohibited and is punishable by lashing.
Annual Report 2012 / Amnesty International.
World Report 2012: Iran / Human Rights Watch.
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011: Iran / U.S. Department of State.
The text is one of the four summaries published on the same day by the Library of the European Parliament. See also:
Women in 2011–2012 reports: Egypt
Women in 2011–2012 reports: Tunisia
Women in 2011–2012 reports: Syria