Women, Islam & Equality

The National Council of Resistance of Iran Foreign Affairs Committee

A publication of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Correspondence address: B.P. 18, 95430 Auvers-sur-Oise, France

Chapter One - A Century-Long Quest For Equality

The Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world. That this statement upsets the ideas of centuries makes no difference... Having themselves suffered from a double form of oppression, political and social... they broke through some of the most sacred customs which for centuries past have bound their sex in the land of Iran.
W. Morgan Shuster, April 30, 1912(1)

The tragic plight of women in Iran today reflects not their acquiescence to the misogynist mullahs, but the degree to which the clerics find the oppression of women vital to their survival. This vengeance, equivalent by modern-day standards to gender-based apartheid, in turn demonstrates the need to keep, at all costs, an ever tighter lid on a potentially explosive social force that has frequently and profoundly affected various popular movements against the status quo in the past century.

Iranian women have always played an important part in their society, and their resistance is very much synonymous with their nation's struggle for democracy and human rights, dating back to the dawn of the 20th century. They were the first women in the Islamic world to struggle to attain an equal say and standing in society. As William Morgan Shuster, an American who lived in Iran in the early 20th century, wrote in 1912 in his book, The Strangling of Persia: "The Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world. That this statement upsets the ideas of centuries makes no difference. It is the fact. It is not too much to say that without the powerful moral force of those women... the ill-starred and short-lived revolutionary movement,... would have early paled into a more disorganized protest. The women did much to keep the spirit of liberty alive. Having themselves suffered from a double form of oppression, political and social, they were the more eager to foment the great Nationalist movement...in their struggle for liberty and its modern expressions, they broke through some of the most sacred customs which for centuries past have bound their sex in the land of Iran."(2)

Women's prominent role in social movements in Iran began long before the 19th century. With the spread of Islam to Persia, the interaction between Persian nationalism and Shiite Islam's defiant outlook gave impetus to many movements which rebelled against the oppressive status-quo. Women actively took part in many of these movements, which surfaced from 11th to 15th centuries, including the Sanbad movement in Neyshabur, Moqane' and Sarbedaran, in Khorassan province (northeast), Ostadsis in Sistan (southeast), and Babak in Azerbaijan, (northwest).(3)

The rise to power of the Safavid Dynasty (1502-1736), which espoused a backward, rigid interpretation of Islam, particularly toward women, brought with it the demise of progressive movements, and for that matter women's participation in the social setting.

The emergence of women's movements in Europe and America(4) in the latter years of the nineteenth and beginning of the 20th century, revived the spirit of social activism in Iranian women, whose potential for defiance was far greater than that of their male counterparts. The first rebellion occurred exactly one hundred years ago, and is known as the "Tobacco Movement." When in 1895, the Qajar monarch, Nasser od-Din shah, gave the exclusive rights for tobacco production and sale to the British firm, Rejie, the populace vehemently objected and boycotted the use of tobacco, forcing the king to annul the agreement. Iranian women were at the forefront of this resistance. At the peak of the protests, Amin ol-Soltan, the Court- appointed chancellor, tried to convince and coerce the citizenry to end their rebellion. Hundreds of women charged forward, calling on their husbands to reject his pleas. Even within the royal court, the women rose up against the agreement, broke the hookah and joined the boycott.

In his book, The Tobacco Boycott, Ibrahim Taymouri writes: "Women's perseverance in this movement was such that when the ban on tobacco was announced, women led the protesters who marched toward Nasser od-Din shah's palace. As they passed through the bazaar, these women closed down the shops, igniting a city-wide strike."(5)

Historians write that when the throng of people reached the palace, the Qajar monarch sent one of his confidants to calm the women. His attempts at talking to the protesters failed, because the women continued shouting slogans against Nasser od-Din shah. When, in a nearby mosque, the Friday prayer leader called on the marchers to disperse, angry women charged in and forced him to flee.

One woman, the tales of whose audacity have been passed down through generations of Iranians, is Zeinab Pasha. Also known as Bibi shah Zeinab, she led the popular opposition to the Rejie agreement in Tabriz, capital of East Azerbaijan Province. Zeinab Pasha organized seven groups of armed women to parry government efforts to put down the rebellion. The seven groups under her command themselves led other groups of women. When government forces intimidated the bazaar merchants into opening their shops, Zeinab Pasha and a group of armed women, wearing the chador, re- closed the shops.(6) Eventually, bowing to pressures from across the country, Nasser od-Din shah canceled the Rejie agreement.

The beginning of the Constitutional Movement marked the unprecedented participation of women as a major social force. As the movement grew, women's democratic institutions grew with it. Although the Movement did not achieve its goals, it was nevertheless very important in propelling the women's movement in Iran forward. Many pro-Constitutionalist intellectuals addressed the situation of women and their historical oppression. Simultaneous with attacks on the reactionary, feudalistic culture and social relationships, recognition of women's rights became a subject of hot debate in the progressive media.

In its August 1890 issue, Qanoon (The Law), a monthly published in London, wrote: "Women make up half of any nation. No plan of national significance will move forward unless women are consulted. The potential of a woman aware of her human essence, to serve in the progress of her country is equivalent to that of 100 men."(7) Elsewhere, it wrote: "There are many cases of distinguished women surpassing men solely because of their abilities to reason and their wisdom. Their understanding of society's meaning and privileges is far greater than men's."(8) Such commentaries at a time when women were generally considered as the property of men sparked many egalitarian ideas.

The expansion of the press, itself an indicator of the growth of democracy and a new era in Iran, was accompanied by greater participation of women in social affairs. From 1905 to 1915, some 30 women journalists joined the media. Gradually, independent women's newspapers were also published and played a significant role in diversifying public opinion, spreading the revolution and opening doors for women.

The role of women in the Constitutional Revolution began with their offers of logistical and financial support for the movement, their success at inspiring patriotism and pride at gatherings, and their participation in marches and demonstrations. Secret or semi-secret women's councils and associations took shape in large cities and launched a series of organized activities to advance the cause. Activities pioneered by the more educated and enlightened women, gained momentum and women from all walks of life entered the social arena.

On December 16, 1906, Edalat (Justice)newspaper wrote the following on the role of women in the Constitutional Movement: " The Honorable Seyyed Jamal ad-din Va'ez, addressing an enthusiastic crowd, said: Constitutionalism will not take shape without financial support. Everyone must contribute what he can. Suddenly, loud voices were heard among the women present. The impoverished women took off their earrings and offered them to advance this sacred movement. One of them told His Honor, `I have two sons who earn two qarans (pennies) a day. From now on, I will give half of what they earn to any locality that you designate.'"(9)

The renowned Iranian historian, Ahmad Kasravi, referred to an incident on January 10, 1906, in Tehran: The shah's carriage was on its way to the home of a wealthy aristocrat, when it was attacked by a multitude of women marching in the streets, forcing it to stop. One of the women read a statement addressed to the king, saying: "Beware of the day when the people take away your crown and your mantle to govern."(10)

Women supported the newly established parliament and actively challenged the conservative factions and the clerics who had been elected as deputies. When the parliament decided to establish Iran's national bank without seeking financial help from foreign countries, women enthusiastically raised money and donated their jewelry. In Azerbaijan, they took up arms and took part in the 1908 and 1909 movements.

Women were also very active in the movement to boycott foreign imports. In Tehran, Tabriz and other cities, they held gatherings to make people aware of the issues and urged families to use their old clothing in the hope that in the future, the country could develop its own textile industry.

On December 30, 1906, when Mozzafar od-Din shah signed the new constitution, women had a statement published in the parliament's newspaper, calling on the government to initiate the education of women and set up girls schools. When the parliament did not go along with the suggestion, instead declaring that women had a right only to the kind of education that would prepare them for "child rearing and house work" and urging them not to engage in political and governmental affairs, women took the initiative, creating a network of different associations and setting up girls schools and women's hospitals. By 1910, some 50 girls schools had been established in Tehran. That same year, women organized a conference on cultural affairs. The weeklies Danesh (Knowledge) in 1910 and Shokoufeh (Blossoming) in 1913 were the first publications by women. Women's Letters, Daughters of Iran magazine, Women's World, and The World of Women soon followed.

The first secret society of women was founded in 1907. In the same year, the first organized meeting of women adopted 10 resolutions against discrimination and called for state education for girls. The Association of Women of the Homeland and the Association of Patriotic Women were among the more influential women's associations of the time. Shuster writes: "In Tehran alone, 12 women's associations were involved in different social and political activities."11Through their members and activities, which included gatherings, these associations acted as a pressure group against the despotic regime and closely monitored political developments. Other active associations included the Association of Women's Freedom, the Secret League of Women, the Women's Committee, the Isfahan's Women's Organization, and the Assembly of Women's Revolution.

Women's role in the uprising in Tabriz was particularly noteworthy. When the Qajar king, Mohammad-Ali shah, shelled the parliament and constitutionalists were being gunned down, women in Azerbaijan province, wrote Kasravi, "upheld the nation's honor more than anyone else."(12) They were active on several fronts. They sent telegrams to other countries to raise international awareness and seek help. During the 11-month siege of Tabriz, women handled logistics, raising money, getting food from one bunker to the next, getting medicine to the wounded, preparing ammunition, etc.

One group of women also fought in the front lines, and other girls and women wore men's clothing and fought alongside the men. "In one of the battles between Sattar Khan (the leader of the uprising) and the shah's forces, the bodies of 20 women in men's clothing were found."(13) A historian, living in Tabriz at the time, wrote that one of the bunkers was run by women wearing the chador14 and that he had seen a photograph of 60 Mojahedin women.

On November 29, 1911, Czarist Russia, with the approval of the British government, sent an ultimatum to the Iranian parliament: Shuster, the financial advisor to the government, must be expelled within 48 hours, or the capital would be occupied. A wave of protests erupted throughout the country. In Tehran, 50,000 marched and declared a general strike. Large groups of women, declaring their readiness to sacrifice their lives for the cause, were among them. On December 1, 1911, the Association of Women of the Homeland staged a demonstration by thousands of women in front of the Majlis (parliament). Shuster wrote that a group of some 300 women entered the parliament "clad in their plain black robes with the white nets of their veil dropped over their faces. Many held pistol under their skirts or in the folds of their sleeves. Straight to the Medjlis they went, and, gathered there, demanded of the President that he admit them all.... The President consented to receive a delegation of them. In his reception-hall they confronted him, and lest he and his colleagues should doubt their meaning, these cloistered Persian mothers, wives and daughters exhibited threateningly their revolvers, tore aside their veils, and confessed their decision to kill their own husbands and sons, and leave them behind their own dead bodies, if the deputies wavered in their duty to uphold the liberty and dignity of the Persian people and nation."(15)

In mid-December, when Russian forces reached Qazvin (140 km west of Tehran), the city's League of Women called for help. Isfahan's League of Women called on the provincial associations to arm their members and declared its readiness to resist against the Russian forces. It can be said with certainty that it was largely due to the activities of these brave women that the Constitutional Parliament resisted the ultimatum for more than a year.

Although the Constitutional Revolution brought real progress in Iran and the constitution subsequently drafted guaranteed certain rights of the Iranian people, it continued to deny women their rights. The wording of the electoral law adopted in 1906 unequivocally denies women the right to vote.

In 1905, when the first phase of the Constitutional Movement succeeded, the media remained silent about the denial of women's rights. After Mohammad-Ali shah shelled the parliament during the second phase, however, women's rights became a major issue of debate. With the victory of the Socialist Revolution in 1917, which ended the domination of Czarist Russia over Iran, a new wave of activism for women's rights began. Many women and intellectuals, influenced by socialist thinking, joined the movement.

The advances brought about by the Constitutional Revolution were short- lived, however. The British conspired to foil the movement. Eventually, a coup by Reza Khan reestablished despotism, which plagued Iran for the next two decades. Many democratic associations and institutions withered away.

Women Under the Pahlavi Dictatorships

Reza Khan assumed power through a coup d'état supported by the British in 1920. He declared himself shah of Iran in 1925. Reza Khan's goal of ending the tribal system and establishing a strong central government was backed by the colonialist governments. The gradual transformation of Iran's economic structure into a capitalist system, required the growth of an urban consumer population and supply of cheap labor.

To achieve these goals, Reza Khan embarked upon "compulsory unveiling" of women. He disbanded all women's associations and assemblies, and in 1935 created a Women's Council, headed by his daughter, Shams. There was a tremendous backlash among the public to the measures. Many Women, who had actively participated in the social and political arena during the Constitutional Revolution, defied the "compulsory unveiling" and were thus forced back into their homes and out of the social sphere.

There were 3,467 female students in Iran when Reza Khan took over in 1925. That number dropped to 1,710 in 1930. It stood at 2,599 in 1935, the year "compulsory unveiling" was put into effect. During the Second World War and the occupation of Iran by the Allies in 1941, Reza Khan was removed from power. The shackles of his 20-year dictatorship were temporarily loosened, and the "compulsory unveiling" was done away with. Immediately, in the same year, the number of women students doubled to 5,816, reflecting the extent to which Reza Khan's rule had retarded the activities of women in society.

Between 1942 and 1953, the circumstances both of the Second World War and Iran's domestic situation created a relatively open environment, offering Iranian women a golden opportunity to initiate activities within the Iranian political landscape. Although the administration of the late Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, the only democratic government in contemporary Iran, was cut short, women made major gains during his rule. In 1952, women finally won the right to vote in the Municipal Councils. A new Social Insurance Code was ratified in 1953, which gave women equal rights with men and introduced maternity benefits and leave, and disability allowances for women, even though married.

In striving to consolidate his rule after the coup that overthrew the popular government of Dr. Mossadeq in 1953, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi dissolved the various women's organizations and established the Organization of Iranian Women, appointing his sister, Ashraf, a notoriously corrupt woman, as its head.

In the 1960s, the shah intensified the political repression throughout the society, particularly targeting women. SAVAK, the notorious secret police, was given a free rein. Through a number of superficial and purely formalistic reforms, including the land reform and voting rights for women, the shah tried to champion the women's cause. In truth, however, all the elections during his reign were sham. In 1963, the shah allowed a few women loyal to the court to enter the parliament.

Simultaneously, women entered the work force as cheap laborers, to better serve the interests of the ruling elite. To expedite their entry, the first Family Protection Law modified the absolute right of men to divorce in 1967. In 1975, the second Family Protection Law gave women equal rights in divorce, custody of children and marriage settlements, and granted limited rights of guardianship; it raised the age of marriage for girls to eighteen, recognized women's equal rights with men to hinder their partners from undesirable occupations, and subjected polygamy to certain restrictions.

Taken as a whole, however, these reforms did little to make women equal partners in society. Actually, they were inevitable, given the general level of awareness in Iranian society, which had been opened to western influences both by the presence of thousands of foreign, especially American, civil and military personnel and the extensive travel abroad among the well-to-do and the Iranian intelligentsia. For the vast majority of Iranians, however, particularly the deprived strata of society and women in the rural areas, little had changed. While the shah claimed that Iran was at the gateway to the "great civilization," the following figures depict the real plight of women under his regime. In 1976, only 26% of women living in urban areas and 3.4% of women in rural areas were literate, as opposed to 49.1% and 13.7% for men. In the same year, 23% of men were unemployed. This compared to 87.5% of women. In the cities, where there was one doctor for every 2,000 men, there was one doctor for every 8,000 women. In rural areas, this became one doctor for every 20,000 men and every 55,000 women.

Despite the appearance of calm on the surface, dramatic developments began in the mid-1960s that ultimately culminated in the overthrow of the shah's regime in February 1979. On the political front, most genuine opposition parties were eliminated, and the traditionally reformist parties, which worked exclusively within the system, were by and large forced into acquiescence. Others became discredited by their collusion with the royal court. Consequently, aside from government-controlled outlets, women had no forum in which to address their concerns or engage in any kind of political activity. This situation led Iranian intellectuals to break from the traditionally reformist parties and espouse a more militant approach to political struggle. Two major opposition currents emerged, which set the tone in the subsequent decade for political activity by the Iranian intelligentsia and youth.

The first, the Marxists, included a spectrum of widely divergent and sometimes contradictory political viewpoints, from the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party to the Organization of the Iranian People's Fedayeen Guerrillas (OPIFG),(16) an independent Iranian group which took up armed struggle against the shah in 1970.

The second was the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, (PMOI) formed by three Tehran University graduates. Shiite Muslims, the Mojahedin founders and other senior members began their campaign in 1965 with six years of research into various aspects of Islamic teaching.(17) They produced a treatise on the nature of existence, history, man and economics, and presented their own interpretation of Islam's holy book, the Quran, of Nahj ol-Balagha,(18) and of prevailing political issues.

The Mojahedin were distinguished from all other religiously-oriented groups and circles of the time, among other things, by their dramatically different approach to the question of women's rights. Citing the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet and the Shiite Imams, the Mojahedin underscored Islam's egalitarian treatment of women and rejected gender- based discrimination. This was very appealing to intellectuals and the youth, but more importantly to women brought up in Muslim families. Despite the difficulties of life underground, many women joined the Mojahedin. Within two years after the release from jail of its leaders and most members in 1979, the Mojahedin emerged as a vast organization with tremendous resources.

In the late 1960s, increases in the price of oil had brought an infusion of billions of petro-dollars into the Iranian economy. The shah began preparations for opulent celebrations marking the 2,500-year anniversary of monarchic rule in Iran. These coincided with the start of armed resistance by the Mojahedin and other secular underground opposition groups. This movement was especially difficult for women to join, particularly those sympathetic to the Mojahedin. On the one hand, women had to overcome prevailing taboos, such as leaving politics and revolution to men. On the other, in many families, the only acceptable realm of activity for young women was school. Anything beyond this limited realm- let alone joining a clandestine movement and beginning a life underground - brought shame for the family.

At the time, the sprawling SAVAK network made it impossible for clandestine groups to recruit in large numbers. Moreover, the movement was in its infancy, which, added to the complexities of underground struggle, meant that in the early years, only veteran men with long experience underground could stand in the front-line of struggle. At this stage, women played more of a support role for the professional activists. They provided logistical support and through contacts with other families, collected financial assistance for the clandestine cells. In fact, women could do these jobs more efficiently than men, because the SAVAK was less sensitive to them.

In 1971 and 1972, following the arrest of the leaders and most members of the Mojahedin, the mothers, sisters and women sympathizers of the organization staged demonstrations in Tehran, Mashad, Qom and other cities to protest the prevailing repression. These activities were unprecedented at the height of the shah's dictatorial rule. The Iranian people learned of a leading movement espousing a modern Islam, and seeking the overthrow of the shah and establishment of democracy in Iran. The legacy and ideals of the Mojahedin spread through a vast sector of Iranian society, attracting many new members among the younger generation. Despite the extensive executions from 1971 to 1977, support for the Mojahedin continued to grow.

In those days, women carried on their activities away from the public eye. They demonstrated their commitment to their own rights and to those of their nation through their defiance behind the tall walls of Evin and other prisons, where they were tortured alongside their male colleagues. At the time, the prospects for victory seemed distant, and the shah looked invincible.

One of the most active women in the Mojahedin in the early years was Fatemeh Amini. She was a 31-year-old teacher and a graduate of the University of Mashad. Fatemeh had begun her political activities in 1963 and became a member of the Mojahedin in 1970. She married one of her colleagues in the Resistance, who was arrested a year later and imprisoned. Before going underground, Fatemeh was active publicly. She had extensive contacts with the network of Mojahedin families and knew many of the sympathizers. She was also the contact for the movement with Mojahedin members who were in prison.

She was eventually arrested at a meeting point and tortured by SAVAK to force her confession. She endured the tortures for five and a half months, but did not utter a word. As the result of repeated whippings with electrical cables and burning, she became paralyzed, eventually dying under torture.

Fatemeh Amini was not the only woman who overcame the many impediments in the path of women's activism. Mehrnoosh Ebrahimi, a member of the Fedayeen guerrillas, was the first woman killed in an armed confrontation with the shah's SAVAK, in September 1971. Marzieh Ahmadi Oskou'i was another prominent female Fedayeen member. Behjat Tiftakchi and Zahra Goudarzi, two women members of the Mojahedin, were executed by the SAVAK.

The most prominent woman member of the Resistance at the time was Ashraf Rabi'i (Rajavi).(19) A physics major at Sharif University of Technology, Ashraf began her activities in 1970. She escaped SAVAK's surveillance many times. Her first husband, also a Mojahedin member, was executed by the shah's regime. On several occasions, when detained by the security forces, Ashraf was able to convince them of her innocence and escape. She traveled from city to city, setting up many clandestine cells. Finally, she was seriously wounded in an explosion in her hideout in Qazvin, enabling the SAVAK to arrest her. She was taken to Evin Prison and tortured. Her nose was broken and one of her eardrums permanently damaged from being slapped around. She remained in prison until the advent of the February 1979 revolution, when along with the last group of political prisoners, she was released 10 days before Khomeini entered Tehran.

In the last years of the shah's rule, when the people could no longer tolerate the court's corruption and pervasive repression, the armed resistance demonstrated the vulnerability of the ruling regime. The democratic movement exploded, and nothing could stand in its way. When the shah's regime began to unravel in 1978, the families of political prisoners, especially the Mojahedin and their supporters, were the first to stage street demonstrations whose main demand was the freedom of political prisoners. The international environment and election of a new administration in the United States contributed to this trend. All across the country, demonstrations and protests erupted, and millions poured into the streets. Not surprisingly, women led the way. The cries of the pioneering women of the early seventies echoed across the years, to be taken up by millions of Iranian women.

On September 8, 1978, the shah's army opened fire on a peaceful march in Jaleh Square in Tehran, killing hundreds of innocent demonstrators, many of them women. The massacre only fueled their anger and strengthened their resolve. Women in massive numbers joined the men in the streets. The families of the Mojahedin prisoners and martyrs played an instrumental role in organizing the anti-shah protests, sit-ins and gatherings. In the months that followed, the shah and his "great civilization" were buried under the chants of "death to the shah." The old order was rejected for all time, and a new era began. The anti-monarchic revolution of February 1979 tapped the tremendous potential and capabilities of Iran's women, generating great expectations among them for the future.


1.William Morgan Shuster, The Strangling of Persia, (Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1987), pp. 191-192.

2. Ibid.

3. Abdul-Hossein Nahid, Zanan-e Iran dar Jonbesh-e Mashruteh (Iranian Women in the Constitutional Movement), (Germany: Navid Publications, 1989), pp. 8 -9.

4. Ibid, p. 7

. 5. Ibrahim Teymouri, Tahrim-e Tanbakoo, Avalin Moqavemat-e Manfi dar Iran (The Tobacco Boycott, the First Passive Resistance in Iran),

6. Nahid, op. cit., p. 42.

7. Qanoon (Law), London: August 1890.

8. Ibid.

9. Edalat (Justice), 16 December 1906, No. 27.

10. Ahmad Kasravi, Tarikh-e Mashruteh Iran (History of Constitutionalism in Iran), (Tehran: Amir Kabir Publications, 1984), 4th ed.

11. Shuster, op. cit., p. 193.

12. Kasravi, op. cit., p. 61.

13. M. Pavlovich, et al, Seh Maqaleh dar Bareh Enqelab-e Mashruteh Iran, (Three Articles on Iran's Constitutional Revolution), Houshiar Trans., p. 55.

14. Ibid.

15. Shuster, op. cit., p. 198.

16. Mohammad Mohaddessin, Islamic Fundamentalism, The New Global Threat, (Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1993), pp. 195 -196.

17. Ibid.

18. Nahj ol-Balagha (The Road to Eloquence) is a compilation of sermons, letters, and sayings of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shiite Imam.

19. After her release from prison, Ashraf Rabi'i (Rajavi) became one of the most senior women in the Mojahedin and was a parliamentary candidate in 1980. She married Massoud Rajavi in summer 1980, who was also released from prison with the last group of political prisoners. Ashraf Rajavi was slain on February 8, 1982, when members of the Guards Corps attacked her residence in northern Tehran, along with 18 other Mojahedin, including Moussa Khiabani, second in command of the Mojahein and Massoud Rajavi's deputy inside Iran. She left behind a son, Mostafa, who is now 14.

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