Women walking in the streets of Iran

Anthropology: Tracing the Evolution of Iranian Women’s Rights

For the past few days, women’s rights have been taken to the forefront. From the fate of the Afghan women under Taliban rule to the Texas Abortion Law, there is always a war waged against women by patriarchy. In this blog, we’ll explore the rights of Iranian women in their country.

In Iran, the rights of women have shifted based on the form of government that rules the country. Adding to this, the attitudes towards women’s rights to self-determination and freedom have never been constant. Different ages and different governments have given rise to a series of mandates that have affected women’s rights, from dress codes to voting rights.

Since the early 20th century, the rights and legal status of women in Iran have changed. This can be especially seen in the last few systems of governments that ruled the country. From the late 1800s to the early 20th century, the Qajar Dynasty ruled over the country. During this period, women were extremely isolated. They weren’t engaged in politics or any other public domain. Their economic contribution was merely limited to their own households. But when the Pahlavi dynasty ruled Iran from 1925 to 1979, women’s rights saw a new light. The leaders of Iran wanted the country to evolve into a more modern, European-style country. But this was easier said than done in most cases. Only the elite class, which was less than half the population of the country, adopted the modern approach regarding women’s rights. However, after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, these freedoms were restricted.


The history of Iran is basically divided into three parts: the pre-Islamic, post-Islamic and the modern period. While little is generally known about the country’s pre-Islamic period, its recorded history begins in 530 B.C, with the Achaemenid Empire.

The Achaemenid Empire

When the Achaemenids ruled the country, historical accounts show that women had the right to participate in civic affairs. However, this participation was rather limited and was regarded as unusual by the general population. Historians state that Persian men and women did work together to handle public affairs of the state. They also took part in public ceremonies together.

The Persian Constitutional Revolution

During the rule of the Qajar Dynasty and the beginning of the Iranian Revolution, Iranian women were considered second-class citizens. Their basic rights were extremely limited, such as the right to obtain an education or inheritance. Tribal and nomadic groups like the Bakhtiari, Kurds and Qashqai permitted their women to interact with men only to a certain extent. Some of them also regarded polygamy and Mu’ta (Shia temporary marriage) as unwelcome.

Pioneers of the fight for women’s rights
Pioneers of the fight for women’s rights. Credit@ Iranica

Iranian women played a prominent role in the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911.) The public affairs section saw the participation of women in large numbers. They held important positions in schools, journalism and associations that thrived from 1911 to 1924. Some of the prominent Iranian women who pushed the revolution forward include Bibi Khatoon Astarabadi, Mohtaram Eskandari, Noor-ol-Hoda Mangeneh, Qamar ol-Molouk Vaziri and Sediqeh Dowlatabadi.

With the arrival of the 20th century, many educated Persian women were interested in writing and journalism. In 1907, Danesh became the first specialized journal that focused on women’s issues. Later on, many other journals were published in Tehran that addressed women’s issues. When the constitutionalists were defeated and Reza Shah consolidated power (1925 to 1941), it spelled doom for women’s groups and journals. But this was also when the state implemented certain reforms like mass education and paid employment. Reza Shah also introduced his policy of Kashf-e-Hijab, the controversial policy that banned the wearing of the hijab in public. Overall, women lost most of their rights during Reza Shah’s reign. The right to express themselves and dissent was squashed.  

The Pahlavi era

Reza Shah
Reza Shah. credit@ Pinterest

The Pahlavi era began in 1925, when the Qajar dynasty was overthrown by Reza Shah, the military commander. That same year, Reza Shah was declared as the Sha of Iran. The societal structure and the status of Iranian women started to improve a decade later when the Shah visited Turkey. The Turkish leader, Atatürk, was leading his country with a modern, Westernized approach which impressed Reza Shah. Upon his return from Turkey, he gave a speech in which he expressed his extreme delight over women becoming aware of their rights and entitlement. Reza Shah’s White Revolution also aided to improve the legal rights of women.

Islamic Republic

Iranian Women and the Revolution

Iranian women during the Revolution
Iranian women during the Revolution. Credit@ The Times of Israel

In 1977, with the emergence of the Iranian Revolution, many women in metropolitan cities joined the protests and marched, clad in chadors. Needless to say, women played a major role in the success of the revolution which was encouraged by the revolutionary leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. The Iranian women wearing the chador during the protests also holds significance. Since the first Pahlavi Shah banned wearing the hijab in public, women decided to show their support towards Khomeini by wearing the chador. According to them, this was the best way to voice their support without actually being vocal.

Khomeini’s era

While women did protest against the Shah and in favor of Khomeini, things took a turn with the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. Women’s roles and rights became limited. According to Khomeini, the most important roles women could pursue were those of raising large families and tending to household duties. With Khomeini’s limited thinking came the closing of childcare centers, women’s centers and the banning of family planning initiatives. Women’s work became restricted to only certain fields, like teaching and midwifery.

Khamenei’s era

With Khomeini’s death, women in Iran began to pressurize the government to grant them more rights. Ali Khamenei, who ruled the country after Khomeini, had a more liberal approach when it came to women’s issues. He helped in the general advancement of women. Women’s centers were reopened and many laws which were repealed after the revocation of the Family Protection Laws were restored.

In the Iranian presidential election of May 1997, a majority of Iranian women voted for Mohammed Khatami. Khatami, a reformist cleric, promised more political freedom. His rise to power enabled the women in Iran to become bolder in demanding their rights, expressing ideas and criticisms.

A woman votes in the Iranian election.
A woman votes in the Iranian election. credit@ NBC New York

Some of the country’s strongest advocates for women’s rights emerged during the Sixth Parliament. All of the eleven female lawmakers in the 270-seat Majlis attempted to change some of the conservative laws of Iran. However, during the elections for the Seventh Majlis, the all-male council banned all these women from running for office. Only the most conservative women were permitted to run. Many of the reformist laws passed by the Sixth Majlis were retracted by the Seventh Majlis.

In 2019, in the month of October, an amendment to the nationality law was passed by the Iranian Guardian Council. According to the amendment, women who were married to men with a foreign nationality had the right to confer their nationality to their children.

Khatami era

When Mohammad Khatami was the President of Iran (1997 to 2005), he helped to increase the educational opportunities for Iranian women. While Khatami did have the notion that women’s place was in their homes, he didn’t attempt to ban women from public life. Noting the large number of women enrolled in higher education, he called for the creation of majors and specialisms in universities for women. In addition to this, the quota system was also introduced.

Due to the advancements made by the Khatami presidency, women gained a lot in the education sector. This was especially the case with women who pursued teaching positions in higher education. Women professors at university held almost half of the assistant professorships, which was nearly twice the number of ten years before.

Voting rights of Iranian women

A majority of the initiatives regarding Iranian women’s rights began in the Pahlavi era, with the White Revolution in 1962. The revolution led to the empowerment of women by Asadollah Alam, the Prime Minister. Women were granted voting rights, albeit limited ones, to vote in local elections. This law was opposed vehemently by Khomeini, who believed that such power for women was similar to prostitution. Khomeini actively led protests against the voting rights of Iranian women, which ultimately led to the revoking of the law.

Since the revocation of their voting rights, women were banned from participating in a referendum held during the White Revolution. However, the then Minister of Agriculture, suggested that leaders of the women’s movement set up voting booths for voicing their suggestions. While their votes weren’t counted, the large number of women voting moved Reza Shah to grant women the right to vote. During his reign, Reza Shah elected women to the parliament and also appointed women to serve in the Senate.

Wearing the hijab

Before the formation of the foundation of the Islamic Republic, it wasn’t mandatory for Iranian women to wear a veil. Reza Shah also banned the use of the veil in public in 1935. And due to this law, a large number of Iranian women have become confined to their homes. For them, going out without a hijab was equal to being naked. As a result, women’s dependency on others grew during the Shah’s rule, as they needed them to run errands.

Iranian women in hijabs
Iranian women in hijabs. credit@ Daily Mail

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 in Iran, wearing a hijab in public places has been strictly enforced. Women who did not adhere to this rule have faced various forms of punishment, ranging from fines to imprisonment. Towards the end of 2017, the government of Iran declared that women who refuse to wear the hijab would have to attend mandatory Islamic education classes. While this is viewed as an improvement, the police are still known to target activists who campaign against the mandatory wearing of the hijab.

Marriage and divorce

During the White Revolution, Reza Shah implemented the Family Protection Laws. These were a series of laws that included a women’s right to divorce. The minimum age for marriage was raised for all. Polygamy was curtailed, meaning that spousal consent was mandatory before a man legally marries a second wife. The laws also granted women in Iran the right to end their marriage if they were unhappy. Women had the right to keep custody of their children. And under certain circumstances, such as rape, women have the right to an abortion. Marriage laws in the country continue to fluctuate and be difficult, mainly due to the role of family in Islamic societies.

Originally, the divorce law in Iran was based on the general Sharia law, which gave men the right to end a marriage any time they wished. In 1967, this law was modified by the Family Protection Act. It gave Iranian women more rights regarding divorce. Private divorces were made illegal. In the present day, divorce can be attained by both women and men. Who gets custody of the children is determined by the judge.


Students at school in Tehran
Students at school in Tehran. credit@ Refinery

The first school for Persian girls was founded in 1907, by the activist and writer, Bibi Khatoon Astarabadi. At this school, women studied subjects like geography, history, law, calculus, cooking and religion. When twelve women enrolled in Tehran University in 1936, it marked the entry of Iranian women into university education in the country.

With the Iranian Revolution in 1979 came social changes that aided more women to enroll in universities. But while women’s education has been on the rise in Iran, it is not without criticism from Iran’s conservative groups. And despite the advancement in women’s education, there have been several setbacks. In 2012, it was found that around 36 universities in Iran barred women from 77 fields of study. This was seen as an attempt by the parliament to curtail women’s enrollment in higher education.

Women’s rights activists in Iran determine that education is one of the keys for the development for women and society. Their argument is that in order to raise better sons for Iran, women needed to be educated.

Women’s health in Iran

The Iranian parliament passed a law approving abortions in 2005 under certain circumstances. The abortions are legal when performed before four months, when the mother’s life is at risk, or if the fetus is growing abnormally or is nonviable. With support from the UN Population Fund, the Iranian government undertook family planning and literacy initiatives.

In the modern era, health workers, women social activists and non-government organizations have stressed the importance of women’s health. They lay emphasis on the importance of blood tests, regular check-ups, mammography and pap-smears.

In 2014, the Iranian parliament banned permanent methods of contraception. In an attempt to increase population, Khamenei called for the ban of vasectomies and tubal ligation. Modern reports show that Iranian women have limited access to affordable and modern contraception.


Since the advent of science and technology, Iranian women are more informed about current trends and global feminism. Their engagement in tools and mechanisms created by UN gender projects is increasing. Recent years have seen an increase in investment of the Iranian government in women’s organizations and activist initiatives. These programs seek to empower Iranian women and teach them skills to make them more independent. However, the state also curbs women’s rights activists’ travels abroad. Despite many of the anti-feminist laws passed by the Iranian government, there is a rising generation of educated young women in the country.

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