The Role of Women and Women Empowerment in Iran

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Table of Contents

  • Expectations Of Women in Iran 
  • Myths
  • Conclusion

An anthropological research published in the European Journal of Archaeology in 1998, which analysed 5000 to 8000 year old graves reveals and confirms the nagging suspicion modern day society had all along- that the inklings of gender inequality had taken root long ago, possibly entrenched even back before prehistoric times, before written records emerged. During this period of time, humans were abandoning their nomadic existence, in favour of settling down and forming a society. The roles in which men and women partake during these periods of time had solidified myths and preconceived notions about both sexes, which played out for several millennials, until the modernisation of society revolutionised and challenged such a social complexity.

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In this paper, I will be focusing on the lives of Iranian women, how society expectations and being subjected to the patriarchal paradigm had influenced their way of life, and thus their role in society. I will also draw parallels to other societies similar to Iran, comparing their similarities in ideologies of women and their roles they present in society, all the while raising and dispelling myths about women than had festered through countless generations of biases against them. Finally, I will present as a whole, the role women in Iran now have to integrate as part of their identity, and thus the impact not just on them but society in general.

Expectations Of Women in Iran 

Present day Iran was quite unlike its past, whereby women’s rights were on an upwards trajectory, with both men and women striving for equal rights. Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which brought about not only seismic changes to the Iranian society in general, but also completely halted progress to any movement associated with women’s rights, Iran used to be a modernised, far-sighted society, a nation on the cusp of granting rights equivalent to those enjoyed by most societies today. Women were allowed to go to school, attend work, and enjoy all the privileges men have. However, after the Islamic Revolution occurred, which gave rise to a new supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, decreed laws that subjected women once again to a patriarchal paradigm, extinguishing all the activists movements countless generations of Iranian women had fought for. He established laws that limited women in many areas, such as clothing, appearance, and overall living standards. For example, the wearing of a veil to cover all parts of the body except the hands and face was mandatory out in public, not for the women’s sake, but to “maintain modesty and privacy for males”. The purpose of the dull, black veil serves as (supposedly) both as a deterrent from the prying eyes of men, musking all the colours and vibrance a girl could emanate from her looks, and considered as “beautiful” under Iranian customs, as a girl subservient to Iranian law was taken as one submissive in nature, and therefore desirable in the eyes of men. The dehumanisation of women by robbing them of free will to express themselves through clothing cannot be ignored, and have to be understood with the context that men were the puppet masters, stringing their beliefs of ideal women to their own accord. Women having to be weighed down with their hijabs were to accommodate the expectations of men, and not a voluntary choice of belief that could have been interpreted otherwise( e.g. that beauty did not need to be flaunted, which was the original concept behind the scarf).

After the Islamic Revolution, the idea behind gender difference became quite significant. Revolutionary laws that supported giving women equal rights as men were abolished, as it contradicted the Sharia, religious laws that were derived from the religious perceptions of Islam. In its place, new laws were imposed that depicted women’s domesticity based on Motahari’s

It is not unlike the nature of Iranian women, especially those influenced either by Western Culture or experienced the grace period of freedom before the Revolution, to rebel and spark protests out on the streets, with the frequent act of defiance being not wearing the veil in public, but to no avail. The government had repeatedly cracked down on such cases, throwing them into jail for a demonstration of equal rights, enforcing harsh punishments on “repeated offenders” who refused to abide by the law. Such cases are not unheard of, but oftentimes than not these women tend to abandon their approach, as the stress of societal scrutiny and even family grievance for the actions committed becomes too much for anyone to bear. Thus, many women chose to confirm to the repressive customs designed by men and suffer in silence, presenting themselves neatly in a way only men find appropriate, in the process losing even the simple freedom of one’s expression through clothing, slowly dissolving one’s personal identity. As such, we can see that the expectations of women had been deeply entrenched in the society, and that the cultural practice of valuing men over women had been going on for some time now.

Besides Iran, another society that favours men over women is India. According to Independent, less than 30 percent of Indian women are currently deployed in the workforce as compared to 80 percent of Indian men. The conspicuous gap between men and women in India’s workforce also calls to question the social stigma against women that had been persistent for a long time, the expectations that women are not nearly as capable as men, and therefore deserves lesser chances and opportunities to work. Such an unfounded bias could simply be a subset of other equally unfair and unjustified prejudice targeted women due to biological differences between male and female, and that the fact that their ability to bear children is reason enough for them to devote their entire life to looking after children at home. Societal attitudes that prefer early marriages and become a stay-at-home mother influences the limited job prospects women could find in the workforce. Technical, high-paying jobs are preferred, if not reserved, to be taken by men even if a woman proves that she has the skills to outperform a male counterpart. Hence, the suppression of women’s freedom to find jobs, support herself and become independent in India mirrors the expectations of women in Iran, which robs most of their freedom and personal identity.

In both cases, the expectations of women in society oftentimes dehumanize them, confining them to an ideal bubble of how a woman should hold herself, assumptions created by societal expectations. Forced neither to be heard or seen, women in these societies continue to lose their sense of identity each day, submissive to the gratification of men.


As established above, the highly misogynistic culture of Iranian society tends to focus fundamentally on the myths women are subjected to on a daily basis. It shaped their laws, their customs, and the overall unbalanced paradigm of gender bias. Distinctions between men and women appears to be empirically grounded in some cases, while others appear to be socially constructed. Nevertheless, women in Iran continue to struggle with being perceived as inferior to men in many aspects, and only good for bearing children in extreme cases.

Myths in Iran largely revolves around the belief that women are weaker than men, less smart than them, and besides their ability to have kids, are nowhere near as competent as men in life. These falsified beliefs are held widely by the majority of the community in Iran. Thoroughly spoken myths about women stretches as far as small talk, e.g “ Why are you crying like a girl?”. Such myths frames the way women are perceived in society, planting the idea that women cannot stand up for themselves in everybody’s head, implicitly suggesting their inability to be independent and thus need a man to be “whole”.

In the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, the writer observes how easily her Iranian students identify with the main victim of the book. The protagonist Mr Humbert describes in thorough detail the slow and delicate processes he took to enslave Lolita as his own, how he initially steals her attention with treats and doing her favours, which over time progressively evolved into a greater hunger for her body, defiling and in the process destroying the innocence of a thirteen year old girl. When Lolita begged for him to stop, he ignores her screams of outrage, continuing to do as he pleases to satisfy himself. Nights passed by as her sobs dissolved bit by bit, slowly disappearing into a dreadful silence as she accepts her unavoidable predicament. In this book, we see an individual completely losing her identity due to another person’s desire, and thus we will never know what Lolita would have become if Humbert had not touched her. Even the name “Lolita” is a nickname made up by her perpetrator, a distorted illusion of what Humbert what her to be, with no intentions of preserving her true identity. This draws a similar comparison to the Iranian women who were studying this book, whose voices are also being silenced thanks to all the myths shrouding their true selves. Likewise, up to the foreseeable future, generations of women will be weighed down by myths imposed upon them, and continue to struggle finding their voices and own self identity in life if all the women do not band together and fight for their own rights. Intimidation by force can only go so far - if women in Iran truly want to rid themselves of the myths clouding the minds of the citizens for decades, they will need to step up and prove themselves otherwise, harmonised as one, demanding for change. Over time, then people's mindset may change.


It is undeniable that Iran's society is wrought with prejudice and sexism against women. Ever since the Islamic Revolution, society had backpedalled almost all the way back to square one; the rights that women are robbed of not only affect them, but also ruins any chances Iran's society has advancing forward. The bias stems not only from the view of one man, but also the assumptions fed to Iranians about how men and women should behave as children, which becomes deeply imprinted in their subconscious after they grow up. Men are likened as the sole breadwinner of the family, women to the child- bearer, the caretaker. As the word of a woman stands less and less against a man's, the people of Iran must ask themselves this: Is this right? Are they losing out as the other half of the population remains stuck at home, unable to unleash their potential to contribute? That’s a question everyone in Iran has to consider. Lay to rest their senseless arguments about how women are lesser compared to men, however deeply ingrained it is in their mind, and we may actually see change brought upon the system.

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