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Why Do You Treat Us Like This?, Iranian Women Challenge Their Government


A Baluch woman in the city of Chabahar in Sistan-Baluchestan Province. As women in Iran have been trying to be more assertive, from rejecting laws on clothing styles to challenging social mores, the risks they can encounter for doing so can be dire. JOHANNA HIGGS

ZAHEDAN, Iran — “They give all of the rights to men,” said Neda, a young woman living in Zahedan, a border city near Afghanistan and Pakistan, who did not want to reveal her last name. “You can never make your own decisions. Many women need permission from a man in their family to leave the house or to go to university. If you get married and your husband doesn’t want you to study, then you can’t. Why do they treat me like this?”

I spent a month this year traveling through Iran, speaking to women about their rights in their country. My trip took me through Tehran, the capital; to Qom, one of Iran’s most religious cities; and the cities of Zahedan and Chabahar in the region of Sistan-Baluchestan. Poor and underdeveloped and known for its heroin and opium smuggling, the region has also gained a reputation for its severe lack of women’s rights.

In Iran, women face discrimination in every aspect of their lives, including on issues of marriage, divorce and custody, equal inheritance, political office and family and criminal law. Iranian law even allows a man the right to stop his wife from working in certain areas; and some employers require husbands to give written consent for women to be allowed to work.

Despite the adverse circumstances of women and girls throughout Iran, the more than 20 women that I interviewed about their lives spoke up — sometimes anonymously — about the rights they felt they deserved. Here is a capsule of what they said:

Career restrictions

  • Fatima (not her real name), a university student studying genetics in Tehran: “There are so many laws that I don’t like. Women here are not allowed to participate in the Olympics. They can go and swim for another country’s team, but then they won’t be allowed to come back to Iran. It’s just because they don’t want to see a woman in her bathing suit. . . . If a woman can swim well, then she should be able to participate like everybody else.”
  • Mandana Jahandideh, a Baluch surgeon from Zahedan, moved to Chabahar to work in a hospital, where she said she experienced deep discrimination. “As a woman, it is difficult for me to work the same as a man, they don’t trust me. They think that women can’t work the same as men, this is the culture here.”
  • Leila, a banker in Tehran, attributes much of the discrimination against women to religious ideology. “In Iran, women are not allowed to sing, because they say then she’ll be too attractive men. On one of the Friday prayers, an imam said that the reason that there are storms is because women don’t cover properly. He said that there are floods in Europe because women don’t cover their hair. So women started making jokes that if we are not getting rain then we should push our scarves back a bit so we can get rain. Everyone made fun of them.”
A marketplace in Chabahar, one of the strictest regions in Iran regarding the rights of women. Signs in marketplaces remind women, for example, to keep themselves covered, such as wearing the chador, above.  JOHANNA HIGGS

Clothing requirements

  • Women who do not cover their hair, as required by law, can face serious penalties for not doing so. A 37-year-old woman who started her own company as a buyer and a distributor in Tehran, said, “We are forced to cover our hair, and if we choose to not wear the chador, then we are often discriminated again when applying for government positions.”

The chador is a large black cloth that is wrapped around the body and the head, leaving only the face visible. In religious cities such as Qom, almost all the women wear a chador. Signs in the markets, hanging from the ceiling, remind women to keep themselves covered.

  • Hamideh Akhtar, an English translator in Qom, explained how she would prefer to not wear a chador but had no choice. “I wish to be able to go running in the morning, but I can’t because of the culture. There are many things that are difficult here, women are not allowed to laugh too loudly.”

The rules on women’s clothing are strictly regulated by Iran’s morality police, the Gasht-e Ershad. Most of the women interviewed for this article had been arrested for a perceived clothing infraction.

    • “We are not are not allowed to wear short things or anything too tight,” said Fatima, the student in Tehran. “Some of my friends have been arrested because their manto [a coat covering arms and hips] is too short or for wearing too much makeup. One woman was arrested because her scarf fell off. I don’t want to wear the hijab, but the problem is if I don’t wear it then I would be arrested and I would go to jail. I think one day all the women who don’t want to wear the scarf should take it off, what would the police be able to do?”

Human rights

    • Pegah Nikraftar, a humanitarian aid worker in Zahedan: “I want equal rights between men and women in all situations including at work, in the family, in marriage and in the law. I want to have the right to wear what I want to wear and to live in the way that I want to live.”
    • Mandana Jahandideh, the Baluch surgeon: “The problem is here most women don’t know that they have rights. I tell women to educate their daughters and to not let them get married young. I say to women to be strong and to work hard and that you can be everything you want to be, you can change the world. You can be the best.”
    • Fatima, the student in Tehran: “I want there to more female members in Parliament. I saw that the English prime minister is a woman, and I thought, why don’t we have a female leader? I want women to be leaders. One day, if I have a girl I would let her be more free.”

Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.

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