Iran's repressive government has long put limits on how women dress in public, and limited their rights in myriad ways. Girls as young as 13 can be forced into marriage and, regardless of their age, they need their father's permission to marry. Only men can initiate a divorce, and men automatically get custody of any children over the age of seven. Women can inherit only half as much as their brothers can, and their testimony in court is worth half that of a man. Although rarely used, stoning is still on the books as a penalty for adultery.
If that weren't enough, in recent months the Islamic Republic has been making life for women even more difficult and unfair. A long-standing state-sponsored birth control programme was scrapped in August, after Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that Iran should more than double its current population of 75 million. In September, Iranian universities announced that more than 70 subjects in the liberal arts and sciences would be closed to women, including archaeology, computer science and business management – despite the fact that women now make up more than 60% of the student body in Iranian universities.
Now, the latest turn of the screw is a proposed law that would require single women under 40 to obtain the permission of their father or male guardian in order to get a passport to travel outside the country.
What's behind this?
At the moment, all Iranians aged under 18 need paternal permission for travel documents, and married women need their husband's approval. This latest assault on women's freedom is, say many rights activists, part of an effort by the ruling religious elite to put women back under male control.
As women have flocked into higher education, they have delayed marriage and childbearing. As they become more educated, Iranian women have had a greater sense of what autonomy feels like, and they like it. So the ayatollahs are doing their best to reel them back in while they still can.
Until recently, universities were also something of an oasis where women could take advantage of a more casual atmosphere to express themselves. But after the Green Movement protests of 2009 – in which women, especially from the universities, joined in demonstrations against the stolen presidential election – universities were segregated by gender, and student freedom was scaled back.
Bravery, despite the odds
Despite the dangers of protesting, a number of brave women continue to do so, drawing on a long movement history in Iran: women were at the centre of the 1979 revolution. Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was recently co-winner of the EU's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for her work for women's and children's rights in Iran, even as she's locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, on hunger strike to protest prison conditions.
The feminist movement is one of the strongest civil rights movements in Iran and it has witnessed a significant growth in the past two decades. The movement, which opposes discriminatory policies and laws, considers democratisation of the government as the key to overcoming the problems. To achieve its goal, the women’s movement has been seeking alliances with other civil rights movements, such as students, workers, etc, in the past few years. This has, in fact, contributed to its strength and established it as an influential force in various strata of society.
The government has tried to fight this movement in different ways. Adopting different plans, laws and policies, the government is seeking to bar women’s access to education and active presence in society; it is pushing them back to into the house in the hope that they abandon their demands and leave the government alone to pursue its wrong policies.
The Iranian government is trying to stifle any opposition voice regarding gender discrimination. For instance, one could highlight the arrest and punishment of dozens of women’s rights activists, some of whom have received heavy prison terms; Mahboobeh Karami, Bahareh Hedayat, Nargess Mohamamdi, Nasrin Sotudeh, Haniyeh Farshid Shotorban are currently serving their prison terms.
Last year, security forces illegally shut down the “Sedighe Dolat Abadi” Library, the only independent, non-governmental library in the field of women’s studies.
Some recent policies of the Iranian government have been mentioned to demonstrate that the Iranian authorities cannot tolerate women’s presence in the public arena. Therefore, they are trying to push women back to the private sphere of their homes so that they may abandon their opposition and legitimate demands.
Ebadi's letter lays bare both how grim the facts are on the ground, and how tough the fight for women's rights has been and will continue to be. But it also makes something else clear: whatever political transformation might be in store for Iran in the years ahead, women will be at the forefront.
Sources: New York Times, Daily Beast, Telegraph, BBC, Radio Free Europe, Guardian, European Parliament, Amnesty, PeaceJam