Opinion: Women Key to Change in Iran As Human Rights Flatline

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Hassan Rouhani with a photo of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Image from Rouhani’s Twitter page

By Rose Rastbaf

Iran has posed policy dilemmas for the United States for decades, ever since the revolutionary transfer of power from the pro-Western Pahlavi dynasty to the Islamic Republic. A commonly touted belief is that moderation and reform are the only pathways to sincere change, but in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham, “There are no moderates in Iran; they’ve been killed a long time ago.” This statement remains as true as ever, despite the reelection of the supposedly more tolerant Hassan Rouhani.

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One of the simplest ways of gauging this reality is the condition of women in Iran. Serious concerns persist despite promises of a liberalized economy and the curtailing of abuses; in fact, women’s rights have actually deteriorated. Women continue to face discrimination as judiciary groups crack down on the compulsory dress code and restrict rudimentary freedoms even under the “moderate” Rouhani. While Iran remains in the headlines, little attention is paid to these stark realities, and women’s voices remain noticeably absent in these conversations.

The situation of women in Iran is an important indicator to bear in mind when assessing progress and meaningful change. There is a clear connection between women’s rights and larger human rights activism, as many prominent defenders of unalienable liberties are women themselves. Their struggle is for a democratic and modern Iran, and is as important an issue for policy makers as Iran’s nuclear program or its role in regional security. That is why it is crucial that we do not forget to shine a light on the heroic leadership of Iranian women as they struggle for genuine change and challenge false ideas of civil transformation.

Far from enacting reform under Rouhani, Iran continues to practice policies which discriminate against women and institutionalize inequality between genders. This includes unequal access to inheritance and legal rights, and male guardians (husbands included) having the ultimate say about certain life decisions such as employment. Far from embracing modern ideas about the role of women in society, Iran seems to be moving backwards in this regard. Proposed plans to limit their participation in the workplace including pushing for increased maternity leave, part-time employment, and early retirement have already started to affect the job market for women.

Women have been jailed for publicly standing up for equal rights; Rouhani remained notably silent when Hengameh Shahidi, an advocate for reform from an opposition party, was arrested during his election campaign. She harshly criticized his character, decrying, “You were supposed to be a breath of fresh air for reformists after the oppressive years under (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, and not choke the air out of them to become president like he did”.

In addition, Iran’s “morality police” continus to enforce laws which objectify women and their bodies, by requiring women to be categorically covered in public. “Guidance patrol” cars of security forces are employed to habitually monitor popular areas and to arrest those who do not comply. A jarring video of a young woman being slapped in the face and promptly tackled to the ground recently went viral, signifying how prevalent human rights violations are even under this leadership.

With twice as many women as men comprising universities’ entering classes and making up the majority of university students in general in addition to STEM degree holders, Iranian women leverage considerable human capital and can thus reshape the debate with their backgrounds and experiences.

The facts are clear; the Rouhani administration is far from moderate, and the situation of women inside the country is the clearest example of this reality. In having conversations on profound change in Iran, it is important that we not only acknowledge that the affirmation of women’s rights is the first step towards real development, but demand that coverage of this issue involve a complete picture of Iranian society.

The young women and girls who bear the brunt of the regime’s exploitation need to be allowed to share their stories; supporting their rights is tantamount to supporting human rights, and their promotion will change the narrative to one that paves the way for substantial advancement.


Rose Rastbaf is a first-generation Iranian-American and third-year undergraduate student at San Diego State University studying political science and history.

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