Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Iran’s Embattled Women

by Isobel Coleman
September 27, 2012

Schoolgirls attend the Iranian parliament in Tehran on November 15, 2009 (Morteza Nikoubazl/Courtesy Reuters). Schoolgirls attend the Iranian parliament in Tehran on November 15, 2009 (Morteza Nikoubazl/Courtesy Reuters).


In his speech at the UN General Assembly this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to scale the blustery heights achieved in previous years–with predictable swipes at the European Union, Israel and the United States. Instead, he came across as a has-been bloviator, unable to escape his lame duck status and myriad problems at home, where he has his hands full with a deteriorating economy (hurt in no small part by tightened international sanctions), persistent internal political divisions, and continuing public disaffection, particularly among women.

Last weekend, one of the headlines out of Iran was news about a cleric who claims he was badly beaten by a woman he had told to cover up because she was a “bad hijabi,” meaning she wasn’t sufficiently veiled to meet the country’s strict dress code. The semi-official Mehr News Agency reports that such attacks by women on the religious police are “not rare.” Indeed, several of them have been posted on YouTube.

Despite its best efforts, Iran’s government can’t seem to fully suppress the women’s movement, which it blames for many ills, including the unrest that engulfed the country after the disputed 2009 elections. (Last year, a senior Iranian cleric even blamed women who wear immodest clothing for causing earthquakes.) But it continues to try.

Over the past few years, thinking that too many over-educated women are at the root of its problems, the government has quietly moved to limit female higher education. Prior to this move, women made up roughly 60 percent of Iranian university students. As of the beginning of this school year, women are now barred from about 77 academic majors in 36 universities across Iran; banned majors include nuclear physics and electrical and industrial engineering but also extend to English literature.

The government also announced earlier this year that it was eliminating its previously comprehensive family planning program, cutting all budgetary support for birth control in an effort to reverse the country’s declining fertility rate. At the time, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described birth control–which the government pushed for many years to reduce the country’s once-high population growth rate–as “wrong.”

On Saturday, the regime sent to prison one of the leaders of the women’s movement, Faezeh Hashemi, a former member of parliament and the daughter of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. After being found guilty of “spreading anti-state propaganda” during an interview that she gave in April 2011, she is now serving a six month sentence. Hashemi’s conviction also includes a five year ban on political and media activity. Her brother Mehdi Hashemi was also arrested on Monday for similarly political reasons. Some say that certain hardliners are prosecuting the Hashemis to prevent their father, a more moderate figure, from becoming politically involved in the 2013 election.

While the world focuses on Iran’s nuclear program, human rights–and women’s rights in particular–continue to be degraded by the regime.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by rousseauC

    This is good article, only you have to write about US allies in the Middle East too, the Saudis, the UAE etc, where the US does not seem to care about problems with women’s rights.

  • Posted by Muhammad NaIya

    No, this is simplt not an accurate reading of Iran. No matter the level of rhetoric by the Iranian president and the West’s haatred of him, Iranian women are far better off than most women in the region. Come to think of it, in some countries women cannot even drive, yet all we read about is Iranian women denied coruses in some faculties of Iranian universities! Well at least they can read, learn,graduate and even work in their own country.
    The jail sentence of the Hashemi is a political issue not a gender issue and it is idngenuios for the author to raise that here, at least Ahmedinejad is not contesting for the presidency and much unlike the allies of the democratic US it does not require an extension of Khalifah, Sabah, or even bn Saud to aspire to contest for the Iranian presidency.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required