Iranian women launched their struggle for rights in the early 20th century in an undeveloped society dominated and defined by a rigid patriarchy. Their struggle had to be waged on two fronts: Before they changed men’s view of their social position they needed to educate themselves to the possibility of seeing the world beyond the patriarchal order. The concept of an equitable society, variegated and involved in implication, could not as yet be theorized. Rather, it was contained in and defined by the process of challenging the existing structures and norms; its dialectic forced men and women, caught between the past and the future, to choose their objectives piecemeal; its battles, never ending, was to be fought one by one as the circumstance permitted. It is within this framework that women’s achievement of rights between 1906 and 1978 should be considered and the cost of the reversal forced on the Iranian women by the Islamic Republic judged.
Women’s Milestones: Pre-Revolution
1905 to 1911
Under the twin pressures of foreign imperialism and domestic socioeconomic instability Iranians from three segments of society, namely the intelligentsia, the merchant class and the clerical establishment unite to readjust the governing institution of the state. This was the first event of its kind in Asia and opened the way to significant change in Iran, heralding the modern era.
Women played an important role in these events. Their political activities ranged from circulating information, participating in demonstrations, and even taking up arms in protest. In an article published in Qanun newspaper, Malkom Khan wrote, “the rush of women to participate in the movement of humanity is surprising. The state of affairs is such that many of our noble women have gone ahead of men in promoting humanity. Women have understood the meaning and advantages of humanity much better than men, or rather non-men.”
The revolution leads to the establishment of the Constitution and a parliament.
The electoral law expressly denies the suffrage to women along with minors, the mentally ill, and criminals. Women are told “their education and training should be restricted to raising children, home economics and preserving the honor of the family.”
The American missionary school in Orumiyeh allows Muslim girls to enroll. Yousof Khan, a French convert to Islam, opened the École Franco-Persane for Muslim girls in Tehran, which was followed by another French school, Jeanne d’Arc, opened by two French sisters.
A Supplement to the Constitution defines the powers and responsibilities of the crown, the three branches of the government and enumerates a bill of rights.
The Women’s Freedom Society (WFS) is founded.
This was a mixed-gender society, which had sixty female members, including Sedigheh Dowlatabadi and Taj ol-Saltaneh, daughter of Naser od-Din Shah. The organization’s objective was to encourage women’s involvement in sociopolitical matters and to familiarize members with cross-gender political debate and discussion. Religious zealots dissolved the organization after several violent attacks.
Mrs. Kahal publishes the magazine Danesh. This is the first journal published by a woman in Iran.
WFS returns under the name of The National Ladies’ Society. The Society gave itself over to nationalist issues. The members opposed loans from foreign countries and foreign interference in Iran’s internal affairs.
Women hold a conference in Tehran to discuss and plan for women’s education.
The government employs an American financial adviser, Morgan Shuster, to put the country’s finances in order. Russia issues an ultimatum giving the Majles (Parliament) the option of dismissing Shuster or facing occupation.
The ultimatum ignites mass protests, in which women participated. On one occasion women carrying pistols under heavy veils went to meet the president of the Majles threatening the deputies with death “if they wavered in their duties to uphold the liberty and dignity of the Persian people and nation.”
Women offer money and jewelry to the Majles to establish a National Bank, and collected money to help the government pay off its debts to Russia.
1914 to 1918
In World War I, Iran remains neutral but is occupied by British and Russian troops.
Members from the Messengers for Women’s Prosperity celebrate the International Women’s Day for the first time in the city of Rasht.
Sedigheh Dowlatabadi opens the first girls’ school in Isfahan, but is forced to close it after only three months. She also publishes two women’s journals, Zaban-e Zanan (Women’s Language) in Isfahan and Zanan-e Iran (Iran’s Women) in Tehran.
Fakhr-e Afagh Parsa, Farrokhroo Parsa’s mother, publishes Jahan-e Zan (Women’s World) journal in Mashhad. The journal is violently opposed by religious zealots and Parsa and her family are forced into exile in the city of Qom.
Military commander Reza Khan seizes power.
Reza Khan becomes prime minister.
Qamar ol-Moluk Vaziri becomes Iran’s first female vocalist to hold a formal public performance at Tehran’s Grand Hotel.
Reza Khan is crowned king; eldest son Mohammad Reza is pronounced crown prince. During Reza Shah’s leadership a link is established between gender equality and national progress, as women’s affairs for the first time become important to government policy.
Sedigheh Dowlatabadi attends The International Women’s Conference in Paris. Upon her return, she discards the veil and appears in public in European attire.
Women are provided with financial support to study abroad.
Ladies hats are exempted from taxes.
Mirza Abolqasem-e Azad establishes the first emancipation society.
The first conference on Muslim women begins in Damascus Syria. Sedigheh Dowlatabadi Mastureh Afshar and Mrs. Tabatabai represented Iran.
A new civil code is completed which secularizes the judiciary except for matters pertaining to the family. Family law is codified within the Shari’a, which maintains it largely within the jurisdiction of the ulama (Shiite clergy)
During the Congress of Oriental Women, Iran Erani makes an important speech concerning the status of women in Iran and proposes socialist remedies for the problems faced by women. Erani criticizes the existing system for “treating women like animals” and contends that women’s emancipation is contingent on their economic independence through participation in production.
A new act removes religious minorities from the jurisdiction of the ulama and enables them to be governed by their own personal and family laws.
Recommended reforms at Damascus and Tehran conferences are presented to Majles. Women’s demand for emancipation and electoral rights are refused.
Ardeshir Irani’s film Dokhtar-e Lor (Lor Girl) is released. The film is the first to feature a female performer as a star. The actress, Ruhangiz, was a volunteer and a wife of a studio employee at the time. This role made her an automatic star.
Tehran University, Iran’s first modern institution of higher education is officially inaugurated.
Reza Shah visits Turkey and is inspired by the modernization programs initiated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
1935 May 12
The government invites activist women and students from the Women’s Teacher Training to a reception where a proposal is made to establish Kanun Banovan (Ladies’ Center) under the presidency of Hajar Tarbiat.
The establishment of the Center is a significant step in giving women’s movement legitimacy as it made it financially secure, protected against the harassment of fanatics and respected by the authorities.
Women are admitted to University.
Most of these women later acquired significant positions in public and social services. They included Shams ol-Moluk Mosaheb (senator), Mehrangiz Manuchehrian (lawyer and senator), Zahra Eskandari (educator), Batul Sami’I (educator), Tusi, Hayeri (educator), Shayesteh Sadeq (scholar of Persian and French literature), Tajo ol-Moluk Nakha’i (educator and inspector), Forugh Kia (medical doctor), Zahra Kia (university professor), Badr ol-Moluk Bamdad (author and advisor to the Ministry of Education), Seraj ol-Nesa (from India).
1936 January 7
The veil is abolished.
The new mandate proves to be a difficult transition. For most women it was a traumatic experience due to their own religious values and fear of being assaulted by religious zealots. The policy was not popular and its forceful implementation remains a stigma on Reza Shah’s reign. However, its effect as a sign of freedom and equality took root and many women remained unveiled after Reza Shah’s abdication and exile.
The Marriage Act of Iran is added to the Civil Code.
The act eased ulama’s hold on the family by making it compulsory to register marriages, divorces, and deaths in state notary offices. It also outlined punishments for those who failed to observe the minimum age of marriage (fifteen) for women.
The British and the Soviets invade Iran and force Reza Shah to abdicate. He is succeeded by his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Badri Teymourtash begins her career as a dentist in Iran. She is Iran’s first female doctor.
Dr Fatemeh Sayyah becomes Iran’s first female professor when the chair of Russian language and comparative literature at Tehran University is awarded to her.
Safieh Firuz, Hajar Tarbiat, and other like-minded women organized Hezb-e Zanan (Women’s Party). Many of the members were later attracted to Prime Minister Qavam’s Demokrat Party of Iran, established as a counterbalance to the Tudeh.
Mahin Oskouei begins her career as Iran’s first female actress to enter the performance stage. She would become Iran’s first female theater director.
Mehrangiz Manuchehrian becomes Iran’s first female lawyer.
Manuchehrian practiced as an advocate from 1947 to 1968 and also served as professor of penal law at Tehran University from 1964 to 1968. In 1963 she became one of Iran’s first female senators.
Dr Mohammad Mossadeq becomes prime minister.
Mehrangiz Dowlatshahi establishes Jam’iyat-e Rah-e Now (New Path Society). The organization’s main objective is to work towards the extension of the franchise to women.
Ministry of Labor establishes the Welfare Council for Women and Children. The function of the council is to act as a general advisory body and provide assistance to female workers. The council’s objective was to improve labor conditions for women and children through the avenues of law, social welfare and health.
The government asks the United Nations to assist in training welfare personnel. The first trained Iranian social worker is Sattareh Farman-Farmaian.
Shahla Riahi becomes the first Iranian woman to direct a feature film, Marjan.
Fourteen women’s organizations join in a federation called the Organization for Cooperation of Women’s Association.
Sattareh Farman-Farmaian establishes the first School of Social Work
The issue of women’s enfranchisement is brought to the 19th Majles. The clergy objected strongly to the idea. Mohammad Taqi Falsafi denounces women’s right to vote and Ayatollah Borujerdi vetoes the government’s plan to hold a women’s day parade in Tehran.
The New Path Society joins the Federation of Iranian Women’s Organizations and places its family law program on the council’s agenda.
The Shah marries Farah Diba
The Organization for Cooperation of Women’s Association is dissolved and replaced by the High Council of Women’s Organization of Iran (HCWOI) under the honorary presidency of Princess Ashraf Pahlavi.
Trained opera singer, Monir Vakili establishes Iran’s first opera company.
An Esfahani woman, Hakimi, attempts to participate in the election for the Esfahan City Council and is barred.
At the urging of HCWOI, Prime Minister Alam announces that local elections are to be held under a new law, which does not prohibit women’s participation.
Prime Minister Alam is pressured by the ulama to cancel the permission for women to participate.
1962 December 10
The Association of Women Lawyers issues a statement on Human Rights Day, complaining about the government’s retreat.
1963 January 7
Members of the HCWOI attend the celebration for the anniversary of the unveiling ruling of 1935 and subsequently stage a sit-in to protest the government’s withdrawal of the new electoral law.
1963 January 9
The Shah introduces a six-point program of reform which includes extension of the franchise to women.
1963 January 22
A major demonstration is held by the opposition against the program. The ulama denounce the program as unconstitutional and irrelevant as an alternative to the Shari’a.
1963 January 23
A one day strike is announced by female teachers and headmistresses against the exclusion of women from the franchise.
1963 January 26
The Shah holds a national referendum and officially launches the ‘White Revolution’.
This was an extensive program of social reforms including raising literacy, reforming land ownership laws, improving rights for industrial workers, and extending franchise to women.
1963 March 3
Women’s enfranchisement is made official.
The government invalidates Article 13 of the Electoral Law, which excludes women from the franchise. The word male is also removed from articles 9 and 6 to bring it into line with the Constitutional reforms.
During the Islamic holy month of Muharram, in response to a call by Ayatollah Khomeini a large demonstration is held against the White Revolution. Khomeini issues a fatwa equating women’s franchise to prostitution and is subsequently detained and exiled to Turkey and later Iraq.
1963 August 11
Members of the HCWOI announce their readiness to participate in parliamentary elections.
1963 August 13
Despite ongoing extremist threats and occasional violence, women organize a march in Tehran in support of their participation in the parliamentary elections.
1963 August 27
A Congress of Free Men and Free Women is convened in Tehran to choose candidates to stand for the Majles. For the first time in Iranian history several women were included amongst the candidates.
1963 September 17
For the first time in Iranian history women participate as both voters and candidates in the elections for the 21st Majles.
Six women are elected to the Majles including Hajar Tarbiat, Showkat Malek Jahanbani, Farrokhroo Parsa, Nayereh Ebtehaj-Samii, Mehrangiz Dowlatshahi, and Nezhat Naficy.
Mehrangiz Manuchehrian and Shams ol-Moluk Mosaheb are appointed as Iran’s first female senators.
Senator Manuchehrian proposes a legislation that guarantees “full and complete equality of men and women, including equality in marriage, guardianship of the child, employment and women’s right to employment free of the required husband’s approval, and also equality in the right and condition of divorce, inheritance, and all other social, economic and civil matters.”
Monir Vakili stages the first full-length opera production in Tehran and thus becomes Iran’s fist female opera singer.
The HCWOI is dissolved and replaced by the Women’s Organization of Iran (WOI).
Manuchehrian’s bill is reprinted as the “Proposed Law of Family Based on the Principle of the Equality of the Rights of Men and Women Granted by HIM Mohammad Reza Shah to the People of Iran” in several issues of Ettela’at Banovan (Ladies Ettela’at) and is widely discussed in the press. The Bill proves to be too radical and is met by vehement opposition by the ulama and other conservative elements of society.
1966 October 16
A seminar is held in Tehran’s Hall of Culture to debate the general issues of interest to women and to draw up a set of proposals, based on which a bill might be introduced and passed in the Majles. The seminar concludes with a resolution about the problems women faced with respect to health, education, employment, and family and asked the government and the Majles to introduce and pass appropriate legislation.
1966 October 24
Senator Manuchehrian introduces a bill in the Senate signed by fifteen senators regarding family law. This causes a furor amongst the ulama and they threaten to excommunicate Manuchehrian.
The government initiates an extensive family planning program to control population growth.
Iran’s first prime ballerina, Aida Ahmadzadeh, and her husband Nejad Ahmadzadeh formally establish Iranian National Ballet.
1967 April 13
The Majles prepares and passes the Family Protection Law. This was based on a much more moderate bill than the one proposed by Manuchehrian in the Senate.
1967 August 23
A constitutional amendment allows the Queen to exercise regency in the event of the Shah’s death and prior to their son’s twentieth birthday.
Farrokhroo Parsa becomes the first woman to hold Cabinet position as minister of education.
Women’s Literacy Corps and Health Corps are established.
The Majles passes a law volunteering unmarried female high school graduates without dependents to serve in the corps. Members are charged with spreading literacy and assisting with medical and agricultural projects in underdeveloped rural and urban areas.
The judiciary is opened to women with the appointment of five female judges, including the future Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi.
A new Passport Law is proposed which requires women to obtain written permission from their husbands for each trip they take abroad.
Hajar Tarbiat becomes the first woman in Iran to be elected to the senate.
Mahnaz Afkhami becomes secretary general of WOI.
The WOI and the ministry of health organize a six-day women’s family planning conference. The event concludes with recommendations to raise the legal age of marriage and to abolish the provisions of Article 1031 of the Civil Code, which designates special circumstances allowing underage women to be wed.
A committee is established to study the 1967 Family Protection Law (FPL). Its recommendations include amendments to laws pertaining to child custody, joint ownership of family assets, and payment of alimony to divorced women from assets held by the family.
1972 June 29
The 1970 Passport Law is brought to the senate for a second reading.
WOI’s charter is amended to render its primary duty “defending women’s individual, family, and social rights in order to achieve their complete equality in the society and before the law.”
This marks a shift in the discourse on the women’s movement as the organization transcended, at least in principle, the established doctrine of complementary gender roles.
At the request of the Association of the Women Lawyers, WOI announces the establishment of a special committee to review the FPL and recommend necessary amendments.
The FPL is revised and enhanced.
Iran participates and plays a leading role in the United Nations International Woman’s Year, which passes an eleven-point resolution calling for the elimination of discrimination against women and equal opportunity and welfare for women from all walks of life.
1975 June 19
The First World Conference on Women held in Mexico City concludes with a World Plan of Action. The preliminary plan for the UN World Plan of Action is devised and prepared by Iran and is distributed by the UN Economic and Social Council. Subsequently, Iran becomes the first country to prepare and implement a National Plan of Action for full interaction of women in the process of development.
At the conference, Iran also conceives, lobbies, and becomes the designated site of two important UN research, training, and policy organizations for women, namely the Institute for Research on Women and Development of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW).
Mahnaz Afkhami becomes Iran’s first minister of state for women’s affairs. After France, this office was the second of its kind in the world.
Mehrangiz Dowlatshahi becomes Iran’s first female head of a diplomatic mission when she is appointed ambassador to Denmark.
The Passport Law is amended and it is announced that women must obtain their husband’s permission for traveling abroad only once.
Abortion is made legal with the consent of the husband. Unmarried women can obtain an abortion on demand.
A bill is presented to the Senate, which proposes to allow a woman to work part-time until her child(ren) reach(es) the age of three. This bill does not become law under the Shah, but is passed later as an Islamic law in the IRI.
1978 February 27
The draft for the National Plan of action is presented to, and approved by a National Congress of Women of Iran on the anniversary of women’s franchise. It is subsequently reviewed and discussed at local village, city councils, the meeting of governors of all provinces, and finally approved by the Cabinet.
On the eve of the Islamic Revolution, nearly 2 million women were gainfully employed in public and private sectors; 187928 women were studying in various branches of Iran’s universities; Of nearly 150,000 women employees of the government, 1666 occupied managerial positions; 22 Majlis deputies and two Senators, one ambassador, three deputy ministers, one provincial governor, five mayors and 333 town and city council members were women. Moreover, WOI had 349 branches, 113 centers and covered 55 other organizations dealing with women’s welfare and heath. The last registrar indicates that in 1977 alone, over a million women used the services. Most centers are trashed after the revolution.