The Struggles and Achievements of Women in Iran


The constitutional movement, and the aftermath of the constitutional revolution was the starting point of awareness amongst Iranian people to get rid of the yoke of despotism and the tyranny of the rulers. It was also a starting point for the Iranian women’s activists to put forward their demands to be free of the gender oppressions in a paternalistic society whose attitude was against the women.


The women’s struggle in this period of time was based on the two pillars, first the struggle to achieve political and citizenship rights, to be elected and to have the right to elect to the national assembly, and their rights to be ratified in the national assembly and to become part of the body of laws that safeguarding the interests of the women, that their voice to heard affecting the fate of the country, be able to express themselves ,to be able to criticize the shortcomings and the weaknesses of the administration and national  assembly and to provide some solutions in the face of these problems arising hereof.

The second was focused on the struggle for limited objectives, whose achievements would be more practical in the political environment of the time but with wider implications in the future. These objectives were for constructing schools for girls, which faced with the opposition from the government and reactionary clergy. However the collective struggle of the women with a progressive and vanguard women like Nessah Khanoom, Mrs Toubaroshtieh and Mrs Vazirov, led to the creation of these schools in 1908.


Struggle against the paternalistic society which was dominant and change in the general mentality towards the women was carried out with the intellectually enlightened women, for which the literature and the publications of the Constitutional era is the best indication of it.


Women were active in the Constitutional Revolution by demonstrating their social awareness against despotism, by participating in the political and civil demonstrations, by their propaganda activity.They understood the advantages of a constitutional government and defended of it, supporting financially the democratic movement and even playing their own role in the armed uprising against the discredited monarchy.


During this period in Iranian history, two women’s associations named Women of the Fatherland (Mokhadarateh Vattan) and Association of Women’s Will (Anjomanneh Hematteh Khavateen) were involved in the political matters of the country. They were criticising the political administration that was acting more on behalf of their supportive foreign countries rather than their own constituency that presumably were representing it.

Women also were persuading their national assembly representatives to resist against anti national stand and political behaviour of the government.


In reality the socio-political posture of these women was more nationalistic rather than putting forward specific gender issues of the Iranian women. They had a firm belief that the women’s questions and gender discriminations could be generally solved by the industrial and economic progress of the country; for this reason they were supporting the internal products in contrast to the anti nationalistic policy of the government of the time, which was opening the internal market to the unrestricted competition of the foreign companies.


In such a social environment, the slightest change in the social status of the women, like education and participating in the artistic and public associations or working outside of their home, required hard work and sacrifices.


As most of the women activists had come from the higher sections of the society and well off families, they were not able to influence the unprivileged populace and to get the mass support off them for the endeavours that could be a heavy instrument of pressure in the change of social and economic situation of the women.

 Nevertheless, these women in spite of their different standing in the face of complexity of issues, they had a consensus and a common stand to persist for the creation of more schools for girls and a better education for them.


This was a hurdle that they had to overcome. However their efforts got the results by the creation of the 57 primary schools for girls in 1911 with an attendance of 2172 students. This number increased to 18050 schools in 1925, in which 17624 students attended in primary, and 426 in secondary education.


In the period of constitutional revolution, seven feministic journals were being published, which was a progressive step. Unfortunately, all of the women’s efforts were encountered with the resistance of religious canons and the despotic government trying to stifle these efforts and prevent the nascent blooms coming from the darkness of the time to reach the light of the modern world.


We may summarise the achievements of women’s struggle in the constitutional revolutionary period as follows:

in spite of participating in the revolution,  they failed to get tangible results such as the right of the citizenship for women and to have the right to a universal suffrage, as was the case  even in the French revolution.


After the removal of the Ghajar dynasty from the thrown by a military coup in a 1921, masterminded by British Intelligence Services and carried out by Reza Khan, another period of dictatorship was started by the Pahlavits. Paradoxically, it was the period of the initial stages of industrialisation of the country and reforms from the above, by relying on bureaucratic methods which was accompanied by violent repression of any sign of democratic movements by the people.


One of the major reforms initiated by the government was to forbid the use of the veil (Chador) in the public places. There were also reforms in the body of civil laws, increasing the age of marriage of girls, from 9 to 15, and for boys 15 to 18.  There were also improvements in the employment status of women.



The democratic movement of the women flourished in the early 10 years of Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign, reaching its heights within the general democratic movement between 1948 and 1953.

 Women were able to create their own organisations. Nevertheless the 1953 coup tried to repress these democratic activities and it lasted until 1961, when the Shah initiated himself a new set of agrarian and civil reforms. The reforms changed the economic and social structure of the society. Urbanisation became more widespread and as a result, new opportunities were opened for women in education and employment. More women entered into education and work and they were benefited from relatively more just statuses within the society. The legal system as well, even if on a limited scale, was reformed in support of women’s rights in divorce and granting the right of the care of their children, which have been reversed by the Islamic government.


In spite of compulsory education for girls and the removal of some hurdles for the women’s employment, the ratification of the laws permitting the women to elect and be elected, the repressive presence of the dictatorship everywhere deprived Iranian women to have their own independent organisation for themselves and to put forward their demands within the democratic framework of their own institutions. Such an environment was one of the main motives to pushing the women towards clandestine activities and in joining underground organisations that were carrying out armed struggles.


With the toppling down of the Pahlavits dynasty and with the start of the revolution in 1979, the huge population of the women from any section of the society and within all of the cities poured out into the streets like an eruption of volcanoes. This was a massive force unrivalled in comparison to any revolution in the world. The women entered into history by revolution, raising their voice against the dictatorship of the Shah. However the democratic demands of the constitutional period and their dream for freedom and democracy was shattered by the Islamic government in power, which its anti-women stand was part of its ideological tenets.


These freedom loving women who sacrificed their lives and many of them having been killed during the revolution and having lost their husbands, brothers, daughters, sons, were now a target of the most barbaric methods of repression, unprecedented in the history of the country.







The fanatic clergy took the helm of political power in hand. It employed every method to deprive the women from education and pushing them back into their homes. They initiated a set of reactionary laws emanating from pre-history values ,legalising compulsory veils, reducing the age of marriage of girls, cancelling the supportive family laws, forbidding any type of organisation, preventing any type of artistic activities for the women, revival of the prehistoric laws of revenge, stoning, and finally torturing, executing and imprisonment of women active in society.

 Notwithstanding, they were less successful in spite of their harsh and barbaric methods. The mass participation of the women in the revolution and their social presence had given them a new awareness of themselves, and new experiences which was hard for the government to overcome.

 The struggle of the women in the post-revolution period could be distinguished from the past in many ways and it has its own particularities. It has become an everyday clash and challenge with the government, religion and fanatism.

They are bearing more than any section of society the burden of struggle for a secular and democratic world.


 Now the women are active in all levels within the society, in every field, from the political, social, legal, civic, cultural and artistic, without being formally recognised and respected by the government and their reactionary allies within the society.


However, the associations are volatile and in loose forms because of the repression.

The struggle of the women has become so widespread and has influenced all the sections of the society that nobody can neglect it. This has become a common fact to the government and to the opposition alike.


The compulsory veil which is a symbol of religion and ideological logo of the government has become one of the areas of resistance of the women. The veil is now synonymous with a joke rather than being approved by the society. It has become an instrument of sarcasm rather than a religious belief.


 A glance at the statistics of educated women is the best indication of their struggle against the resistance against the discriminatory policy of the Islamic government.


The number of students in universities and higher education, between 1996 and 1997, was 209163. According to statistics, in 2000, the number of books written by women only in the province of Tehran was 789. In the field of arts, 174, in science, 804 and in biology and maths, 394, in languages, 233, in social sciences, 300, in philosophy, 163, in literature, 106, and in religious matters, 163.

 Surprisingly the number of books authored by the women jumped from 358 in 1999, to 1309 in 2000. And the number of poets from 28 to 106, translators from 207 to 708. Accordingly the number of editors and painters were 258 and 127 respectively.


The numbers of the publications by women in 1999 were as follows: 32 newsletters, 26 analytic publications, 16 general information, 30 education and 10 in different research fields.


 The ignorant in power, failed to recognise the power and capacity of women who compose half of the society. These facts are the sign of awareness and the bold steps that women have taken in our country in the dark days of Islamic government.





Nahid Nazemi. 2March 2005