Iranian women defy ‘Sarkari’ feminism

Iran is on a boil. Women are up in arms and the uprising is being crushed by the Iranian government, making world headlines that once again point to the brutality against women.

Women in central Rome protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s religious police in September
Women in central Rome protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s religious police in September
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Lekha Rattanani

Iran is on a boil. Women are up in arms and the uprising is being crushed by the Iranian government, making world headlines that once again point to the brutality brought by a mix of fundamentalist ideology and political power.

But the Iran story is slightly different from the standard tale of clerics seeking subjugation to their religious demands. It was groups of women who supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, turning away as they then did from the Westernised influences brought by the regime of the US-supported Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown as mass protests took over Iran.

Those days, skirts were more common than the hijab. In fact, the hijab was banned! And yet, that was a regime that the women helped uproot with their support against what was perceived as an almost un-Islamic, US-influenced modernity that had made Iran a popular destination for celebrities and heads of State, a high level of women participation and a country with a pumped up economy.

A lot changed with the Islamic Revolution, but it would not have been easy to take the women in the workforce and daily life and quickly lock them behind the doors of their houses and villas. So, women were everywhere even after the Islamists under Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s then Supreme leader, took charge. But the headscarf designated for women was back, often with a touch of fashion attached to it. Soon came a law (in April 1983) that made covering heads mandatory even for non-Muslim and foreign women visiting Iran.

Some two decades ago, this writer was part of a team of Indian lawyers, journalists and social activists invited to visit Iran. An important part of the itinerary was meeting Dr. Massoumeh Ebtekar, an immunologist and the then Vice President. As the country turned away from a Western influenced monarchy to an Islamic Republic, Dr. Ebtekar had been one of the more famous faces in Iran, both pre and post the Islamic revolution. She lived for some years in the US with her parents before returning to enrol in an Iranian university. It is here that Ebtekar chose to start wearing the chador and joined the revolution.

English speaking and articulate, she became the voice of the revolution as the spokesperson of a group of militarised students who laid siege to the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage over 444 days before finally releasing them on January 20, 1981. The “nun” as she was known to the West for the signature chador covering her from head to foot, Ebtekar went on to become the most powerful woman in the Islamic Republic as one of four Vice Presidents of Iran.


Dr. Ebtekar and members of the government-associated women’s group that initiated the visit spoke of the important role that women played in the economic and socio-political life of Iran. As one of them said to me: “We are everywhere.” That was true then.

From the tarmac off Mehrabad International airport to the malls and offices dotting Tehran’s tree-lined boulevards, women—mostly in black and bustling around, or working behind counters and desks—were indeed everywhere.

Though Dr. Ebtekar’s Twitter feed today has nothing on the protests by women that have made it to global headlines, she is now known as a reformist and has criticised the government often on environmental policies saying they have contributed to pollution.

In 2012, she and several other women wrote for a book that sought to provide contemporary insights on women in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Titled Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran, a review of the volume noted its effort: ‘Written by women, the majority of whom live and work in the country, this anthology endeavours to counter mainstream Western representations of Iranian women as oppressed and subordinated, and instead to depict the modes of resistance and negotiation they have adopted. The editors frame this narrative in terms of the women’s struggle against orientalism and imperialism, and against traditional Iranian patriarchy.’

As the review pointed out, a key term was “indigenous”, to describe the post-1979 revolution of women “in contrast to the arguably less authentic movement that had been associated with the Shah’s projects of Westernisation and modernisation”. Yet, the review authors presciently pointed out: “While we acknowledge the efforts of these women, we should also note that they have been given a voice by the State because they share a common politico-religious frame of reference with it.”

In essence, a sarkari form of feminism was taking root, while the march continued toward more exclusion, segregation and increased tyranny as newer controls on women have taken shape, slowly but surely.

An example of this is Iran’s Parliament, the Islamic Consultative Committee, approving a law segregating healthcare given to men and women. Since there were not enough women doctors, this put 30 million women at risk. While gender segregation has not been so successful beyond schools, where it is enforced, the implementation of the Same Sex Health Care Delivery system (SSHCD), a religion-based separation of women from men in a medical environment brought new ways of enforcing the gender separation. In 2012, over five university hospitals started gender exclusion policies, dividing the sexes in health care treatment and using female physicians only in the care of women.


Newer harsh laws since 1979 have pushed women to the back of public transport buses as gender segregation in public was approved. Others destroyed women’s protection under family law, lowered the age of marriage from 18 to 13, and removed women from certain fields of employment and study. Changes in family law articulated male guardianship in a specific way.

Under the new regime this meant that though regarded as financially independent, the wife now required the husband’s permission to leave the house. Today, if they want to, men can determine what work is appropriate for their wives and can demand that she leave her job. Men can divorce while retaining custodial rights over children while women are responsible for child-bearing and rearing but lack custodial rights.

The horrible tales of crackdowns and beating back protests that are emerging from Iran today are testimony to the fact that sarkari feminism has failed and a point of no return has been reached. Many efforts have been made to shape the narrative on women, but ultimately, what was sought to be sold to the world has not been bought by the ordinary women of Iran.

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