Despite numerous obstacles and challenges, the women’s rights movement in Iran continues to move forward. Indeed, while to some the pace of its advances may seem slow, its achievements in the past few years cannot be ignored.
Rights activists have put in a great deal of effort to overcome the traditional, cultural and legal challenges that women confront in Iranian society. In many cases, these efforts have been fruitful and resulted in the removal of certain obstacles.
The ban on entering sports events at stadiums, and especially for soccer games, is one of the strangest restrictions imposed on Iranian women in recent years. While women are allowed in cinemas or concert halls, they have been prevented from entering soccer stadiums. But this restriction was briefly lifted for this year’s World Cup. On June 20, Iranian women were permitted to enter Tehran’s famous Azadi Stadium along with their male counterparts to watch the match between Iran and Spain being broadcast live on screens at the stadium. While no official statement was made as to who ultimately issued this order, unofficial reports point to a direct order by President Hassan Rouhani to this effect. Now, there are hopes that this will pave the way for subsequent orders that allow women to watch live games at stadiums, too.
However, this is not the only achievement made by Iranian women. Perhaps what is more significant are the efforts of civil rights activists to improve the situation of women as a whole in Iranian society.
The Abuse Monitor is a newly established nongovernmental organization (NGO) launched by a group of women’s rights activists in Iran. This NGO is aimed at raising public awareness about issues such as harassment and abuse of women. Posters and brochures published by this NGO can be found both online and in real life, all bearing the same message: stop sexual harassment of women. These posters have received a warm welcome, even from the Tehran municipality, and can now be found in the capital’s metro and bus stations, warning both men and women against sexual harassment.
Ghoncheh Ghavami, the co-founder of this initiative, told Al-Monitor, “We pushed this idea forward by studying similar tactics [that had been adopted] in different countries and tried to inform the public about the abuse of women and how it should be banned. We focused our approach more on public areas such as bus stops and taxi stations and talked to people one by one about this [topic] and were generally welcomed.”
But the Abuse Monitor is not the only body that is trying to revive focus on women’s rights in Iran. The Campaign to Stop Domestic Violence is another independent grass-roots initiative launched by women’s rights defenders in Iran. The campaign is trying to promote the need for further laws designed to stop domestic violence against women by raising public awareness about the issue.
The organizers of the campaign are opposed to the idea that whatever happens in people’s homes should be considered private. By posting a public call, the group is asking abused women to share their stories so they can elevate these voices in the public debate. In this vein, the campaign is working on a draft law that bans domestic violence against women. They plan to submit this draft to the necessary legal authorities to have it ratified and included in the constitution.
Another factor that has brought more attention to Iranian women’s rights than in the past is the spread of social media. The expansion of social media has made Iranian society more sensitive toward women’s issues. For example, on June 13, before Iran’s national soccer team played in the World Cup, a huge poster was displayed in one of Tehran’s main squares. It depicted a group of men, with each individual representing a different ethnicity in Iran, standing side by side and holding up a golden trophy. Though the poster aimed to send the message that the entire Iranian nation, with all of its various groups and ethnicities, supports the national team, it did not feature a single woman.
This sparked a social media backlash of a magnitude so great that two days later, on June 15, the poster was taken down and replaced with another one that included women.
Many rights activists have deemed a World Cup TV advertisement by the Iranian branch of South Korean electronics giant Samsung insulting. The ad showed members of a family watching soccer, with the men following the game and cheering on while the women looked after the children. The ad was harshly criticized on social media and created a very negative atmosphere for Samsung. The company responded to critics by posting an explanation in Persian on its official Instagram page in an attempt to calm sentiments while deflecting accusations of being anti-women.
But do these kinds of backlashes and initiatives, which progress at a glacial pace, have the ability to change the situation for women in Iran?
Fahimeh Miri, a journalist and rights activist, told Al-Monitor, “The efforts to improve the situation for women are no longer restricted to a limited number of rights activists. Other parts of society are also seeking this change. Therefore, we see that measures aimed at improving women’s status are welcomed and supported by the public. Of course, we still have major cultural and traditional obstacles in our way, but we have no choice but to pursue this path.”
Although some rights activists outside Iran seek to portray an entirely dark image of women in Iran, rights activists inside the country have both pushed back against such characterizations and continued to pursue a different approach.
“It is natural that the situation has changed and is improving," said Ghavami. "Although there might be differences of opinion regarding the speed of these changes, what is clear is that this is a more intellectual and successful approach than sudden orders [from above], which, for example, are implemented in Saudi Arabia. I do not believe in those [efforts] at all.”
Iranian women, given all the obstacles and challenges they have faced, continue to pursue their path for change and improvement. Even on issues such as the mandatory hijab, a development in the decades following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the headscarf became compulsory, illustrates that Iranian women are steadfast in pursuit of their goals to change society. Although this path has faced stricter restrictions and challenges at some historical junctures, it has never come to a halt.