On January 25, Iran celebrated “National Women’s Day” with customary official ceremonies. The holiday is dedicated to the daughter of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, and its dates move annually in accordance with the Muslim calendar.
A “number of wives of Islamic countries’ ambassadors” attended an event held at the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, and “President Raisi’s wife Jamileh Alamolhoda delivered a speech,” the Iran Press news agency reported.
The remarks by Alamolhoda expressed hope that the government planned to further elevate the status of women in Iranian society, the terse report stated, although no direct quotes from her speech were cited.
According to Iran Press, “Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that 440 of the personnel of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are women who play a key role in political, legal, international, and cultural areas.”
That claim is misleading given Iran's well-documented and continued suppression of women's rights.
In fact, most women in the Iranian Foreign Ministry are tasked with low-level jobs. Historically, Iran has had four women diplomats. Currently, however, no women are listed as diplomats among its foreign ministry staff in Tehran or the country’s missions and embassies abroad. With few exceptions, like Zahra Ershadi, who serves as Iran’s deputy permanent representative in the U.N., females are limited to clerical and office assistant positions.
Iran is one of six United Nations member states that did not sign the U.N. convention pledging equal rights and prohibiting discrimination against women (CEDAW).
During the years of high-profile nuclear negotiations with Iran, neither Iran nor Russia included women among their representatives at the talks. On several occasions, Iranian media digitally altered the clothes of the Western female diplomats who appeared in photographs used for their reports.
In 2015, Iran’s Islamic clergy heavily criticized the country’s Foreign Ministry for including women in its delegation to the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. The delegation members had not been vetted by Iran’s intelligence services, and as such posed “a threat to national security,” the conservative Kayhan.ir news agency reported at the time.
Moreover, the topics discussed at the U.N. meeting were “against the values and principles” of the Islamic Republic, as “women’s issues” are “not a part of the system,” the news outlet said.
Though Iran is a strict Islamic republic, some Muslim scholars consider its constitution “generally liberal,” as it includes language on women rights, equality and nondiscrimination.
However, as Iranian researcher Gholamreza ZakerSalehi wrote in the Journal of International Women’s Studies in 2020, “in the section of women's rights, the emphasis is on the family as a unit and not just on the woman as an autonomous human with different personal freedoms. This Constitution considers women in the framework of the family and acknowledges their rights and duties alongside her husband and children.”
The U.K.-based Centre for Civilian Rights said in a 2019 report commissioned by the European Union that constitutional protections don’t amount to much in practice.
“Women are treated differentially in many aspects of Iranian law and the judicial system, solely on account of their gender. Those who peacefully advocate for women’s rights are often arbitrarily detained and imprisoned, where they endure the harsh treatment given to political prisoners in Iran. They are vastly underrepresented in political positions and in the labour force and continue to grapple with legacies of discrimination in the educational sector,” the report said.
Iran’s Civil Code defines a man as the head of the family, and states that a woman can’t leave the house or take a job without permission from a man. It also allows a man to have multiple wives and arrange temporary marriages with girls from older than nine.
Iran’s Penal Code states that there is no death penalty for a man who deliberately kills a Muslim. A woman guilty of the same crime must be sentenced to death. The code says the value of woman’s life is half that of a man’s – a ratio used to determine compensation payments made to relatives of a homicide victim. Courts count the testimonies of two women as equal to one man’s and disregard them if the female witnesses are not accompanied by a male guardian.
The “Protection of Honor and Hijab” law adopted in 2015 mandates that all women aged nine and older must wear a hijab in public (a full body coverage). This includes foreign nationals, diplomats and non-Muslims. Punishment for violation of the hijab law is “75 lashes” delivered in public, or a fine and imprisonment for up to two months.
There is also the Guardian Council – a conservative religious decision-making body that rules Iranians’ lives according to its interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). All council members are male.
The Centre for Civilian Rights report said women in Iran are subjected to arbitrary vetting when considered for government positions. It described the Guardian Council as “a major obstacle preventing women from serving in many state institutions, even when they are theoretically eligible to hold such positions.”
Despite societal, political and religious obstacles, women in Iran strive to achieve professional and political relevancy. The Guardian Council has regularly disqualified women who registered as presidential candidates, the U.S. Peace Institute reports. The Council approves women for parliamentary seats and government positions based on their religious views and relation to the country's selected elite. Yet, once in the office, the Iranian women tend to keep their focus on a struggle for rights and equality reforms, the Institute said.
In the 2020 elections, women won only 17 of 290 seats in the parliament, called the Majles.
Under the threat of brutal punishment, from public flogging to long-term imprisonment, brave Iranian women have formed and led nonprofit advocacy groups to fight for rights and freedoms, organize mass protests and rallies.