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Published on December 4th, 2012 | by Usman Butt
Image © [caption id="attachment_11462" align="alignnone" width="566"] A female Iranian Ninjutsu athlete trains in Karaj, 21 miles (35 kilometers) west of the capital Tehran, Iran, Thursday, March 15, 2012. About 10,000 athletes train in Ninjutsu in Iran, while 3,500 of them are women. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)[/caption] There is perhaps no issue that separates East from West more than the issue of women, their rights and place in society. Iran has an Islamic system of government which derives its laws from the Qu’ran, Sharia (Islamic law) and opinions of Muslim scholars. The image of women in Islamic countries is often negative, as they are often depicted as oppressed, veiled, beaten and trapped inside the narrow confines of a house. The cause of this oppression is religious orthodoxy and politicised religion, which adheres to an ancient system of ethics and morality. We (in the West) have come to associate this relationship between Islam and women through regimes such as the Taliban or Saudi Arabia. This caricature of the nature of Islamic Regimes does not apply to Iran; as despite deriving its laws from these sources, they have adopted a modern relatively flexible understanding of these sources. For example the religious right in America strongly opposes embryonic-stem cell research. The Iranians on the other hand are amongst the world leaders in stem-cell research with the full approval of the clergy. Arriving in Tehran you notice that women seem to be everywhere, on the streets, in the cafes and shops and working in business. It is the law in Iran, that women must wear the Hijab (headscarf) but not the full face veil. In large parts of Iran it is not unusual to see women with a Chador (Black cloak covering their head and body) but in other parts of Iran western fashion is more common and the Hijab is only worn its minimum. This is called an ‘Iranian-Hijab’ which means the girl wears the scarf over some of her head, but at all times exposing the front fringe of her hair.  It is not unusual to see young girls in Tehran in high heels, tight jeans, and full face of make-up with this Hijab style. Once, I saw a young girl with her curly-hair premed upwards 15-20 inches and a Hijab on top of this. In North Tehran dating is a common topic amongst the youth; as there are no night-clubs, cafes and restaurants are popular meeting spots. Sitting in one café a group of Iranian guys share their thoughts on dating with me. One guy, Ferdowsi, is a young student at Tehran University.  He told me “things are very bad now in Iran. People have lost their morality. You know my brother wanted to get married last year, so we looked for a good wife for him. We visited many families to look for a respectable girl. But until now he has not found one, because every girl we visited, not one was a virgin.” A friend of his, Hafez, interjects “It’s common now days. Many people live together before they marry. But the girls here want to live like they do in Europe. Once I took a girl out. After three dates she refused to meet me again. You know why? She said I was weird as we had three dates and in that time I didn’t try to sleep with her.  You know girls will often bring their boyfriends home and even with their parents in another room, fool around with their boyfriends.” What is interesting is that despite the indignation over women’s behaviour the young men in question still enjoyed the dating scene. This simplification of modern women in Iran would earn scorn from female friends of mine. One girl said to me “these guys, they are happy to fool around with you. But when it comes to marriage they want ‘innocent’ virgins. So stupid. That doesn’t mean I approve of the behaviour of a lot of girls here. You know on Valiasr Street if a guy is in a nice car, a girl who is on the street will often get into the car, even if they don’t know him. But not all the changes are bad, women nowadays refuse to stay at home and be housewives. You know over 60% of university students are women, we have career aspirations.” She seemed to be right about career aspirations as the women I saw and spoke to all had these goals. Although the idea of women’s sexuality has some way to go because of the negative connotations associated with women that choose sexual liberation, Iranian women have had success in driving change.  Women are at the forefront of Iranian society and their issues are essential for the ruling regime. This was true in the Shah’s time who sought to ‘modernise’ Iranian women. Women’s rights did expand under the Shah and his reforms did lead to the creation of an active women’s movement. He reforms allowed women to go to university, however these reforms only effected the top half of Iranian society. The Islamic republic expanded the field of women’s education, because of their Islamic and thus conservative credentials, they were able to make women’s education more acceptable to other elements of society. As well as the traditional mixed universities, The Islamic Republic set-up female only education institutions, which helped encourage women from more conservative and rural backgrounds to go to university. According to a study done by Professor Shahla Haeri literacy rates for women between the ages of 16-24 were 97%, among the highest in the world. Womens rights groups are increasingly active in Iran’s civil society and this is partly the result of the expansion of their education which has led to greater awareness of their rights according to the study. There is limited segregation of the sexes however segregated options do exist for women. To help increase female security, women can opt to take a female only taxi’s driven by female drivers, or go into a female-only carriage on Tehran’s metro. They can equally opt for a mixed taxi or Metro carriage. These social options means that women who are from conservative backgrounds can lead active lives just as easily as those who come from liberal backgrounds. Gender politics is big in Iran, one of the notable difference between Iran and some other Muslim countries, is that Gender politics and women’s rights movements are being led by women from more complex social-economic backgrounds than just wealthy liberals or poorer conservatives. Women here are not passive victims of a masculine dominated society.

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Strange Times in Persia: A Travellers Account of Iranian Politics, Part 4

A female Iranian Ninjutsu athlete trains in Karaj, 21 miles (35 kilometers) west of the capital Tehran, Iran, Thursday, March 15, 2012. About 10,000 athletes train in Ninjutsu in Iran, while 3,500 of them are women. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

There is perhaps no issue that separates East from West more than the issue of women, their rights and place in society. Iran has an Islamic system of government which derives its laws from the Qu’ran, Sharia (Islamic law) and opinions of Muslim scholars. The image of women in Islamic countries is often negative, as they are often depicted as oppressed, veiled, beaten and trapped inside the narrow confines of a house. The cause of this oppression is religious orthodoxy and politicised religion, which adheres to an ancient system of ethics and morality. We (in the West) have come to associate this relationship between Islam and women through regimes such as the Taliban or Saudi Arabia. This caricature of the nature of Islamic Regimes does not apply to Iran; as despite deriving its laws from these sources, they have adopted a modern relatively flexible understanding of these sources. For example the religious right in America strongly opposes embryonic-stem cell research. The Iranians on the other hand are amongst the world leaders in stem-cell research with the full approval of the clergy.

Arriving in Tehran you notice that women seem to be everywhere, on the streets, in the cafes and shops and working in business. It is the law in Iran, that women must wear the Hijab (headscarf) but not the full face veil. In large parts of Iran it is not unusual to see women with a Chador (Black cloak covering their head and body) but in other parts of Iran western fashion is more common and the Hijab is only worn its minimum. This is called an ‘Iranian-Hijab’ which means the girl wears the scarf over some of her head, but at all times exposing the front fringe of her hair.  It is not unusual to see young girls in Tehran in high heels, tight jeans, and full face of make-up with this Hijab style. Once, I saw a young girl with her curly-hair premed upwards 15-20 inches and a Hijab on top of this.

In North Tehran dating is a common topic amongst the youth; as there are no night-clubs, cafes and restaurants are popular meeting spots. Sitting in one café a group of Iranian guys share their thoughts on dating with me. One guy, Ferdowsi, is a young student at Tehran University.  He told me “things are very bad now in Iran. People have lost their morality. You know my brother wanted to get married last year, so we looked for a good wife for him. We visited many families to look for a respectable girl. But until now he has not found one, because every girl we visited, not one was a virgin.” A friend of his, Hafez, interjects “It’s common now days. Many people live together before they marry. But the girls here want to live like they do in Europe. Once I took a girl out. After three dates she refused to meet me again. You know why? She said I was weird as we had three dates and in that time I didn’t try to sleep with her.  You know girls will often bring their boyfriends home and even with their parents in another room, fool around with their boyfriends.”

What is interesting is that despite the indignation over women’s behaviour the young men in question still enjoyed the dating scene. This simplification of modern women in Iran would earn scorn from female friends of mine. One girl said to me “these guys, they are happy to fool around with you. But when it comes to marriage they want ‘innocent’ virgins. So stupid. That doesn’t mean I approve of the behaviour of a lot of girls here. You know on Valiasr Street if a guy is in a nice car, a girl who is on the street will often get into the car, even if they don’t know him. But not all the changes are bad, women nowadays refuse to stay at home and be housewives. You know over 60% of university students are women, we have career aspirations.” She seemed to be right about career aspirations as the women I saw and spoke to all had these goals.

Although the idea of women’s sexuality has some way to go because of the negative connotations associated with women that choose sexual liberation, Iranian women have had success in driving change.  Women are at the forefront of Iranian society and their issues are essential for the ruling regime. This was true in the Shah’s time who sought to ‘modernise’ Iranian women. Women’s rights did expand under the Shah and his reforms did lead to the creation of an active women’s movement. He reforms allowed women to go to university, however these reforms only effected the top half of Iranian society. The Islamic republic expanded the field of women’s education, because of their Islamic and thus conservative credentials, they were able to make women’s education more acceptable to other elements of society. As well as the traditional mixed universities, The Islamic Republic set-up female only education institutions, which helped encourage women from more conservative and rural backgrounds to go to university. According to a study done by Professor Shahla Haeri literacy rates for women between the ages of 16-24 were 97%, among the highest in the world. Womens rights groups are increasingly active in Iran’s civil society and this is partly the result of the expansion of their education which has led to greater awareness of their rights according to the study.

There is limited segregation of the sexes however segregated options do exist for women. To help increase female security, women can opt to take a female only taxi’s driven by female drivers, or go into a female-only carriage on Tehran’s metro. They can equally opt for a mixed taxi or Metro carriage. These social options means that women who are from conservative backgrounds can lead active lives just as easily as those who come from liberal backgrounds. Gender politics is big in Iran, one of the notable difference between Iran and some other Muslim countries, is that Gender politics and women’s rights movements are being led by women from more complex social-economic backgrounds than just wealthy liberals or poorer conservatives. Women here are not passive victims of a masculine dominated society.

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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.



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