Morteza Nikoubazl / Courtesy Reuters A woman walks past a poster on a street in northern Tehran, March 5, 2012.

So Much for Moderation

How Rouhani Failed Iranian Women

For nearly a year, Maryam Shafipour, a 25-year-old Iranian student, has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. Her crimes, in the eyes of the regime, are “spreading propaganda” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.” But her real offense, it seems, was campaigning for Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist candidate, during the 2009 presidential election.

In Evin, Shafipour faces unimaginable horrors. Guards systematically rape female prisoners and, according to Shafipour’s relatives, prison interrogators use torture during questioning. Even if Shafipour survives her time in jail, which is slated to last until 2018, the state has barred her from ever returning to school -- a common tactic for fully forestalling a woman’s pursuit of independence.

So many Shafipours -- academics and students -- have disappeared behind Evin’s walls in recent years that the prison is now called “Evin University.” According to a 2014 Amnesty International report, Shafipour is one of thousands of students to have fallen victim to the Iranian state’s brutality. This wave of repression began in 2009, following the peaceful mass protests against the reelection of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In those days, authorities detained intellectuals by the hundreds, and many of them were then allegedly tortured and killed.

Ahmadinejad’s government stripped universities of any remaining autonomy and placed them under complete state control. Universities faced renewed “Islamization” and were purged of Western and secular influences. The government expelled or suspended student activists and replaced intellectuals and tutors with members of the Basij militia and the military.

Schools were also divided along gender lines. In order to protect women’s “morality,” university curriculums were re-written to exclude any “Western” influence -- particularly humanities subjects, which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described in 2009 as leading to “disbelief in Islamic and divine teachings.” In 2011, the government reinstated a strict dress code for female students, which barred make-up and clothing considered “un-Islamic” or “vulgar.” In the same year, the government banned a number of female students from registering at the Iran University of Technology in Tehran because they had failed to attend compulsory “Hijab and Chastity” briefings. The next year, university authorities were instructed to strengthen sexual apartheid by banning male and female students from “mingling.”

It was hoped that Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, would dial back the attacks on women. When Rouhani, whom many championed as a reformist, was elected, he vowed to follow “the path of moderation and justice” and promised that, under his leadership, “differences between women and men won’t be tolerated.” Just a year into his time in power, though, he has broken those commitments. In some cases, his government is just as bad as his predecessor’s.

These days, for example, state officials still monitor female university students for proper behavior and dress. Failure to adhere to the rules can still result in written reprimands, expulsions, and even beatings. What’s more, women are banned from studying “masculine” subjects, such as computer science and engineering, in at least 36 of Iran’s universities. The restrictions were imposed despite the fact that, for over a decade, Iranian female students had both outnumbered and outperformed their male counterparts on the entrance exams for all fields except mathematics. In 2012, moreover, four out of the six top graduates from Tehran University had been women, even outranking men in such the very “masculine” field as mining. But now, women in many schools are left to study subjects the regime deems appropriate, such as “Family Studies and Women in Islam.”

It isn’t only students that the Rouhani government has targeted. Last month, the state attempted to silence Masih Alinejad, a journalist, because of her “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign to get Iranian women to post pictures of themselves online without the hijab. In response, Iranian state-television referred to her as a “whore,” and 195 members of parliament sent a letter to the president, urging him to enforce a stricter dress code for women and to give the country’s morality police full rights to uphold women’s “chastity” and “honor” within the public sphere. They warned that there would be consequences if he failed to heed their call.

So why has the Rouhani government opted for such repression? Iranian regimes have often responded to instability and unrest by tightening their grip. For example, in 1980, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini launched a decade-long campaign to purge universities of “imperialist influence,” marking the beginning of a campaign to reassert control over those who had risen up against the previous government. The same thing happened after the Green Movement. Now, the spectre of unrest is haunting Iran once more. According to some studies, sanctions have cost the Iranian economy some $120 billion since 2010 and unemployment stands at over ten percent -- a recipe for unrest. Meanwhile, a “bitter contest for power among the regime's political elites” seems to be unfolding, pitting conservatives against moderates. Against this background, sidelining might just seem like an easy out.

But if Rouhani thinks he has won, he should heed the words of the great feminist and intellectual Hammed Shahidian, who, 11 years after Khomeini launched his university purge, warned of the “the paradoxical importance of education as a contributing factor in the reproduction of patriarchy as well as a precondition for women’s liberation.” Today, Shahidian’s words ring truer than ever. The government continues to violate academic freedoms, twisting its educational system to enforce patriarchal norms. The war on women’s education is having a direct result on their work prospects, and in turn, Iran’s sanctions-hit economy. Since 2000, the proportion of women in higher education has decreased by 11 percent and, in terms of economic participation, the gender gap between men and women has significantly widened since 2005, when Ahmadinejad came to power.

Tehran responds to upheaval by trying to disarm what it sees as the greatest source of chaos -- women. It does so by taking away their opportunities for gaining independence and for demanding rights. Those wishing for a fairer, more stable, and more prosperous Iran will be disappointed as long as the country marginalizes half of its population. 

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