Women may look freer in Tehran, but some of the most repressive legislation in the history of the Islamic Republic has been put forward in the past two years, says the writer. File picture: Morteza Nikoubazl

Despite progressive positions by its leaders, conditions for women in Iran have been deteriorating, says Shannon Ebrahim.

Johannesburg - Iran is one of those countries few Westerners have the occasion or intention to visit, even if they are issued with a visa, which is not easy to get. What really happens there is clouded in mystery and misconceptions.

Having just spent almost a week in Tehran, after not having visited the country for 12 years, the societal changes on the surface were stark. As a woman, I was told more than a decade ago that I could not walk around Tehran in pants – only a skirt – and had to be fully covered and veiled. No hair was allowed to show.

There was nowhere I could go without an official minder, and I was perpetually watched, even in my hotel room.

Twelve years later, I could not detect any minder, even though I visited as a journalist, I could wear pants and a jacket below the hip and a colourful scarf with hair showing. This was not just true for the few foreigners who were visiting Tehran, but women everywhere in the capital were dressed in this more relaxed fashion.

It was less the norm to see women in the traditional chador, although many older women dressed in such conservative attire.

Tehran is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, which provides an ideal locale for mountain side cafés with rivers running through them. The Darband is a 250m stretch of mountain cafés which are teaming with young couples by day and night. Both men and women smoke shisha pipes and eat kebabs, and occasionally one can observe the odd public display of affection.

In 2003, unmarried men and women were not supposed to fraternise in public together, and youngsters would resort to hidden cafés, where even wearing make-up was a risk. There were the omnipresent morality police or guidance patrol that could fine or arrest transgressors.

Today women, in the capital anyway, are emboldened not only to enjoy themselves in public, but also to assert themselves and make their voices heard.

Since 2006, women account for well over half the university students in Iran, and comprise 70 percent of the science and engineering students. This enrolment has been much to the alarm and chagrin of the nation’s conservative men.

Conservatives have responded by trying to increasingly limit women to domains exclusively for women. Quotas have been established for female paediatricians and gynaecologists, and it is difficult for women to become civil engineers.

What is clear is that there is a constant tension in Iranian society between the Islamic hardliners who insist on a strict interpretation of Sharia law, and the more modern and younger Iranians, who are patriotic but seek avenues to express themselves and enjoy social freedoms.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in 2013, has taken a more progressive approach towards women’s rights, stating in a speech on April 12: “The government will strive to ensure that 50 percent of society does not remain unemployed and Iran’s second gender.” Rouhani has repeated his campaign pledges to address discrimination against women, and called for respect for women at all levels.

These sentiments are echoed by his Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi, who has also spoken up against discrimination against women. Molaverdi has criticised the government’s recently announced quotas for government jobs.

Of the 2 284 announced positions, there are 16 “women only” jobs. “Gender discrimination does not correspond with the president’s promises,” Molaverdi has said.

Despite these progressive positions by the country’s leading political figures, conditions for women in Iran have been steadily deteriorating. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, the situation has worsened for women since Rouhani’s election.

While women look freer as they walk down the streets of Tehran, some of the most repressive legislation in the history of the Islamic Republic has been put forward in the past two years. This legislation seeks to further restrict women in their social lives, restrict employment opportunities, and even health care.

The most notable reversal in women’s rights is the recent bill in the Iranian parliament called the Plan to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. The plan calls for the nation’s Basjid militias to enforce strict hijab, and was approved by Iran’s Guardian Council on April 22. The bill is on its way to becoming law.

Criticisms of the bill have been fierce from the Rouhani administration and civil society activists. Some state officials and clerics have been promoting the extra-judicial enforcement of Plan to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. This led to a series of acid attacks against women in Isfahan in October last year.

Reports documented 14 such attacks, where unidentified men flung acid in the faces of women, claiming they were defending hijab. A large group of Tehran citizens gathered peacefully outside parliament to protest against the acid attacks, the lack of judicial attention to identify and pursue the suspects, and the state’s efforts to silence media coverage of the attacks.

The protesters were beaten by security agents, dispersed with batons and tear gas, and several arrested.

The apparent “spring” for women in Tehran does not seem to be shared by women across the country, and it appears that even in Tehran the rights of women are likely to become seriously curtailed through draconian means if parliament has its way.

* Shannon Ebrahim Independent Media’s foreign editor.

The Star