The Changing Role Of Women In Iran Thousands of Iranians continue to protest the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For the first time, women played a visible role in the campaign. Now, women are involved in demonstrations on both sides of the political divide.
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The Changing Role Of Women In Iran

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The Changing Role Of Women In Iran

The Changing Role Of Women In Iran

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A fourth consecutive day of massive demonstrations in Iran today following the disputed presidential election last week.

Most of the protesters support Hossein Mousavi, the main opposition candidate, who charges that incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rigged the results. The persistent protests represent a major challenge for the government, the president and the supreme ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini.

In several respects, this year women's issues played a bigger part in the campaign than ever before in Iran. Now women are taking an active role in the tumultuous events that have followed.

Today we explore what that may mean and what's at stake for Iranian women right now. We'd especially like to hear from Iranian listeners today, our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, war from the vantage point of the field kitchen: cooking history. But first, women in Iran.

Farnaz Fassihi covered the presidential campaign, the election and now the aftermath for the Wall Street Journal and joins us today from her office in Tehran. And it's good of you to be with us.

Ms. FARNAZ FASSIHI (Wall Street Journal): Hi, Neal, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And we want to focus on women in the campaign and the aftermath, but first bring us up to date on the protests today. What is there important about what happened today that we should know about?

Ms. FASSIHI: Well, the turnout was massive. I think they're comparing to Monday's rally, but the mood was very grim and solemn because this was supposed to be a commemoration of people who have been killed this week. I think the official count is somewhere near 15 protestors have lost their lives.

So protestors today were wearing black. They were holding up signs of condolences and handing flowers to the police officers and marching very quietly.

CONAN: Is there any sign that this is going to let up?

Ms. FASSIHI: There is no sign this is going to let up. Almost every day at the protest, there's whispering and, you know, information passed about where the next protest will be held. Tomorrow is Friday, the customary Friday prayers will be held. Ayatollah Khomeini is supposed to address the sermon, and the reformist candidate, Mr. Karoubi has called for supporters to march to the Friday prayer with him.

And on Saturday, an association of clerics has called for a demonstration. They've said that they are going to lead the crowd for another massive rally on Saturday in support of Mr. Mousavi.

CONAN: And Farnaz Fassihi, let me ask you one question. Why are so many of the signs that we see at these demonstrations printed in English?

Ms. FASSIHI: I think this is for the demonstrators to try to communicate to the world. I think everybody is very aware here that all eyes are on Iran. And I think in light of the recent clampdown on international press and our, you know, inability to really cover these rallies properly, they are trying to get their message across in case the images or the videos are captured.

CONAN: Let's get on to our main focus and that's the role of women. And we do see many women attending these protest demonstrations.

Ms. FASSIHI: Absolutely. Women played a very active role in the campaign of reformist candidates, both Mr. Karoubi and Mr. Mousavi. You know, a group of women activists, both secular and religious, got together and formed an association during the election campaign days and came up with a list of demands they had from the candidates.

And interestingly, for the first time in the 30-year history of presidential elections here, all the candidates, including Mr. Ahmadinejad, were competing for female votes. They had female advisors, they were meeting with women groups to ask what their demands are, and in fact, they were competing with one another on how many female Cabinet posts they were going to name and female ambassadors and top management posts.

CONAN: Well, we had also read in some of your stories that Mr. Ahmadinejad, during the last four years, had cracked down on women's-rights activists and indeed had introduced legislation that a lot of women, and not just women's-rights activists, saw as pernicious.

Ms. FASSIHI: Absolutely. The four-year administration of Mr. Ahmadinejad is regarded by many women groups as not a happy time for women's rights. He does not have any female Cabinet members in his government, and as you mentioned, two legislations were introduced in his parliament that would severely curb the rights of women.

One was for men to be able to take a second wife, you know, pretty easily, and the other one was to impose a tax on a woman's dowry. Both those legislations were dropped thanks to women activist groups.

CONAN: And while we should remember that all of the candidates for president were allowed to run by the Guardian Council, there were people who were not allowed to run. Nevertheless, Mr. Mousavi had a very different attitude and indeed campaigned with his wife, one of the best-known women in Iran.

Ms. FASSIHI: That was definitely a first also in this election, among many firsts. Mr. Mousavi almost immediately involved his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, in his campaign. She went everywhere with him. She spoke at campaigns. She even held her own election campaign rallies.

She definitely energized the crowd, particularly the young people and women. And one of the chants that became very popular during the campaigns was that Mousavi, Rahnavard, equality of men and women.

So you know, the younger generation kind of saw this couple, who were on equal terms. They were addressing the public together, and they were very affectionate towards one another. You know, local media had even called her the Michelle Obama of Iran.

CONAN: And there's a great deal at stake in whatever happens at the end of this process, whatever that may be, but is there something special at stake for women in Iran?

Ms. FASSIHI: What's at stake here is, you know, more women's rights, more rights for women. Women-rights activists have been trying to reform the existing Islamic laws pertaining to inheritance laws, to custody rights of children, to marriage and divorce laws. And their efforts, you know, have been made very difficult during this administration.

So there was hope for a little while that perhaps with a more-reformist-minded, liberal-minded president, they may have an easier time persuading the parliament. And of course with Mr. Ahmadinejad's re-election now, you know, it may take a backtrack.

CONAN: And more-liberal is a relative thing.

Ms. FASSIHI: Exactly.

CONAN: In any case, let's bring another voice into the conversation. Azadeh Moaveni has been reporting on Iran and women's issues for a decade. She's a former Time magazine correspondent for Iran and the author of "Lipstick Jihad." She's now a contributor to Time magazine and joins us today from her home in Cambridge, England, and it's good of you to be with us.

Ms. AZADEH MOAVENI (Reporter, Time Magazine; Author, "Lipstick Jihad"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And we read that 60 percent of those attending university in Iran are women, that there is more than 75 percent of women in Iran who are literate. This does not necessarily accord with our maybe half-baked ideas about women's roles in Iran.

Ms. MOAVENI: No, no, I think that the perception of women in Iran in the West is still very much this caricature of the repressed woman who is veiled and kept at home. Whereas in Iran, at least, and Iran is in this way very unique in the Middle East, Iran is a country where women are very educated.

Like you mentioned, 60 percent of university students are women, very sophisticated, and despite 30 years of Islamic rule still play a very vibrant role in Iranian society.

Women authors top bestseller lists. Female directors have had the highest-grossing films of the last decade, for example. And it's because they're so active in society that their status before the law, and especially the disdain with which the Ahmadinejad government has treated them, I think, has been so outrageous and is why we're seeing women play such a public and important role in these protests.

CONAN: And the role particularly of Mr. Mousavi's wife - but she's identified, I think, as the first female university professor in Iran.

Ms. MOAVENI: I'm not certain if she's the first university professor, but I think she certainly embodies women's ambitions in Iran, this notion that - you know, and she represents the fact that women are being educated in these record numbers and also their ambitions. Because for most women who go to college in Iran, they come out with a degree but don't necessarily find any career opportunities that are commensurate with what they expect.

They often don't get to positions in management, and they come out feeling incredibly frustrated, because there is enough space for them to become educated and to expect more, to play a greater role in their society, but then the feeling on the actual opportunities that they have is so low.

CONAN: We want to talk with our Iranian listeners today, 800-989-8255. Email us, And let's begin with Yasiman(ph), who joins us from Minneapolis.

YASIMAN (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead please.

YASIMAN: Thank you for having me on the air. I believe this is a significant moment in the history of Iran. Simply the ability to hear the voice of young Iranians, which happen to form 70-plus percent of the population and a significant segment of that being the young Iranian women - and this regardless of the outcome, this is going to be a major step in the evolution of Iranian women's rights going forward.

If Ahmadinejad wins this election, there is going to be significant force trying to hold the Iranian women's rights back. That ultimately is going to cause uprise, and if he doesn't, and if Mousavi wins, the expectation of Iranian women is going to go up every day by wanting more equality in every aspect of their socio-economical life.

CONAN: Let's ask Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal. Do you think that's right?

Ms. FASSIHI: I think that's a pretty accurate assessment in terms of, you know, legal women - improving the legal rights of women here. But I do think that even during Ahmadinejad's government, we have to remember that women are still very active. As Azadeh points out, they're in universities, they're doctors, they're professionals but perhaps excelling into top management posts, such as being ambassadors or, you know, directors or CEOs. That has not been as easy.

CONAN: What we call in this country the glass ceiling.

Ms. FASSIHI: Exactly.

CONAN: Yasiman, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

YASIMAN: Yes, thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about what's at stake for women in Iran as massive protests continue in that country. We'd especially like to hear from Iranians in our audience today. Again the phone number, 800-989-8255. You can also reach us by email. That address is Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We still don't know what last week's election and the ongoing protests mean for the future of Iran, but it's clear that many Iranian women found a new public voice through the campaign, now in protests and counter-protests.

Images coming out of Tehran show women in head scarves taking part in, even leading, demonstrations. So what does that mean? What's at stake for Iranian women right now? We especially want to hear from Iranian listeners today. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us,, and you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Farnaz Fassihi. She's in Iran, reporting for the Wall Street Journal. And Azadeh Moaveni, who covered Iran for Time magazine and wrote the book "Lipstick Jihad." And Farnaz Fassihi, let me ask you, would it be a mistake to suggest that the concerns of educated women in Tehran are identical with those who live throughout the country?

Ms. FASSIHI: I'm sorry, in Iran or in Tehran?

CONAN: In Iran. In other words, we see these people taking part in protests in Tehran, the capital, and we know that many of them are well-educated, and is that - are their concerns identical to the concerns of women throughout the country?

Ms. FASSIHI: I think so. I think that the concerns of women around the country are pretty much, you know, universal. They want better rights, and you know, better living conditions and more rights within family laws and, you know, workplace.

One of the things that has happened after the Islamic revolution is a lot of conservative families sent their daughters to universities because they felt it was a safer environment because they had to be covered, and men and women were segregated.

Therefore, even in conservative families, even in provinces and rural areas, women became, by default, much more educated. And now that they are active in society, of course they demand their rights.

CONAN: And the general economic situation in Iran, which has not been good, as you suggest, women are especially frustrated.

Ms. FASSIHI: Yes, absolutely, yes. It's more difficult for women to find jobs. It's very difficult for single women or divorced women who have children and have families to be gainfully employed. So I think, you know, as Azadeh pointed out, they can get educated, but then coming out of the university and finding lucrative jobs or jobs that support them are very difficult.

CONAN: All right, Farnaz Fassihi, we know you're very busy, and we appreciate your taking the time to be with us this evening. We'll let you get back to work.

Ms. FASSIHI: Thank you very much, Neal. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Farnaz Fassihi, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Tehran, covering today's demonstrations in the aftermath of the presidential election last Friday.

We're going to continue with Azadeh Moaveni, the author of "Lipstick Jihad," former Time magazine correspondent for Iran. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to Sharzad(ph), Sharzad with us from San Francisco, and I hope I'm pronouncing that name properly.

Ms. SHARZAD (Caller): Yes, Neal, you pronounce it really well. Hello, and thank you for taking my call. First of all, I wanted to start by saying that I have a lot of respect for the Iranian women in Iran who, for the past 30 years, despite all the restrictions against them, they have fought to be well-represented in many different professions, in the universities, and they have many accomplishments.

But my question is that for Azadeh. At this time, do you get a sense from Iranian women in general, I don't talk about women activists, from the women in general, do they have a clear vision of what is it they are after? What is it they are looking for?

I understand, obviously, you know, they don't want to be covered. It is their right to dress up as they please, and they should have their idea to hold their boyfriend's hand. I'm not talking about this. I'm talking about more substantial things.

Do they realize that, you know, in order to change their rights, the women's rights in Iran, we need more representation of women in legislatures? We need more civil servants, more women who are civil servants. Do you get a sense of that, and could you comment on that, please?

Ms. MOAVENI: My sense has been, certainly, that women do have a very specific sense of what they're looking for, the kind of change that, like you mentioned, is perhaps more substantive than just what they can wear and changing the dress code.

I think that, like Farnaz mentioned earlier, women are very concerned with a set of codes in the legal system that are very discriminatory - and this affects women across the board, young and old, rural and urban. Blood money, which is compensation that needs to be paid under Islamic law to a victim's family, for example, is half that of a woman's - what a woman is entitled to as a victim is half that of a man.

To this day, divorce laws are very discriminatory. It can be very entangling for a woman to get out of a bad or an abusive marriage. Her husband is still able to revoke her right to travel. Child-custody laws, while improved, are still not where they need to be.

I think that women do have a sense of how they need to make inroads in these areas, but it's been very tough. And women who have been in the reformist parliaments that we've had in the last 10 years have also found it very difficult to make any progress because, ultimately, Islamic law is very fluid. There's argumentation for both sides, and they've found that it's difficult to try and enshrine these universal laws or this universal concept of a woman's status under an Islamic system. So that's really the entanglement.

CONAN: Sharzad, thank you.

SHARZAD: Yes, thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Okay, bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Hassan(ph), Hassan with us from Ann Arbor.

HASSAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

HASSAN: Okay, thank you for taking my call. My comment isn't so much about the woman's right, and I just want to make a comment about that. I do applaud you for fighting and trying to get as much equal rights as you can get back in Iran.

I've been here for 30 years. My whole family's been here for about 30 years. I've got three sisters. When my father passed away, we put aside the Iranian law of giving them half the size of the inheritance of the boys, and we divided that exactly in the number of portions of brothers and sisters we were.

So putting that aside, though, I wanted to make a comment about the elections in Iran. Based on the polls that Washington Post did right before the election, I have a feeling that there is a small number of people that are trying to overtake this election, even though I may not be with them or think like Ahmadinejad does, but I have a feeling that Ahmadinejad won the election fair and square. And this election is just people trying to take it over by force, by filling the streets and doing the kind of things they're doing right now. (unintelligible).

CONAN: And Hassan is referring to a poll that was written about in the Washington Post that was conducted about three weeks before the election that showed Mr. Ahmadinejad with - an opinion poll with an advantage of roughly two to one.

Some people have questioned the methodology of that poll. But anyway, Azadeh Moaveni, I wonder if you have any response.

Ms. MOAVENI: Well, I mean, as someone who lived in Iran under the Ahmadinejad tenure and suffered double-digit inflation, crackdowns on satellite dishes and what women wore, the economy unraveling to the point where housing prices in some parts of the country were going up 200 percent.

I mean, the Ahmadinejad tenure was so painful for middle-class Iranians, for Iranians of a working-class background. I think that this kind of record of failure is so stark that it's somewhat inconceivable that after having gouged the economy and sort of sent the police back into people's private lives, which is something that Iranians have made clear in the past 10 years as something they despise, that they're willing to vote for leaders who won't do this, I think it inconceivable that he would have won with such a wide margin.

I mean, I think that's what we have to look at and think about as questionable here is with a record of failure this wide and this widely accepted, you've only had to spend time in Iran. It's unimaginable that the margin could be this wide.

CONAN: Hassan?

HASSAN: It's exactly the parallel we had here with the Bush tenure. Remember after the first four years, we had - it wasn't conceivable that Bush was going to be re-elected, but it did. See, I agree with you with the hard times everyone had back in Iran during the Ahmadinejad tenure, but that doesn't mean that he didn't win the election. The same thing happened here after Bush was re-elected, I think. That was it.

CONAN: All right, Hassan, thanks very much for the call.

HASSAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Ashkan(ph), and again I hope I'm pronouncing that properly, from Charlotte.

ASHKAN (Caller): Hi, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

ASHKAN: I just wanted to make a couple of comments. I'm very proud of the Iranian women who are out there asking for their rights. They've been oppressed for 30 years, and now my family in Tehran would be - the other members of the apartment that they live in - get up on the roof every night, call Allahu Akbar, God is great, and majority of friends that I know over there and all the friends that we have in Charlotte here, they're proud of what's happening.

Again, they have been oppressed for 30 years, an incredibly intelligent sector of the society, and they are asking for their rights.

CONAN: Azadeh Moaveni, the 30 years that Askhan refers to, of course - that's since the overthrow of the Shah - and I wonder, under his rule there were more rights for women. Where women right's associated with the previous regime? Where they considered by some in the Islamic movement counterrevolutionary?

Ms. MOAVENI: Well, certainly that was part of the opposition to the Shah. In very traditional quarters it was felt that he was imposing too much Westernization and that sort of Western style of feminism on a population that was still very traditional. Billboards of women in bikinis and this sort of the thing was very much, you know, perceived as offensive by Iran at the time. It was a country that was still, at that moment, very much traditional, religious, and found this very offensive.

That said, women did have much more equitable legal status under the Shah. But I think as Farnaz pointed out, what's important to sort of look at and to complicate that picture is that a very small margin of women in a way benefited from that, middle class or upper class Westernized urban women. Whereas, the wider (unintelligible) of the country, where women were from traditional backgrounds, parents didn't send their young girls to school, women weren't going to college. And it was really what the Islamic Revolution, that kind of opportunity, that kind of educational opportunity was made available to really the rest of the country. And that's why, I think, today you have women in these numbers protesting for greater rights.

CONAN: And obviously - and Askhan, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ASKHAN: May I disagree respectfully with the lady?

CONAN: Go ahead.

ASKHAN: Although I totally agree that the numbers are overwhelming - and I'm happy for that - but the basic human rights - basic human rights are absolutely taken away. Women are degraded in our society back in Iran, and it shouldn't be that way. It really shouldn't be that way. And giving some sort of a glory to the present dictators in Iran is unfair and unjust.

CONAN: I'm not sure that that's what she was saying.

ASKHAN: Well, I mean, you know...

CONAN: Why don't we let her speak for herself?

ASKHAN: Okay. Sure.

Ms. MOAVENI: I really don't think that the Islamic Republic intended to empower its women. And I think that women have taken the lead in this. I think they're the ones who have gone to college, that they're the ones who've achieved this level of education and participation in society themselves.

I think certainly this Islamic government has made clear that it prefers women to be this traditional model of the woman and stay at home and care for a family. I think that the progress that we've seen is not something that's been sponsored from above.


CONAN: Askhan, thank you.

ASKHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. We're talking about women in Iran and what's at stake in the tumultuous events that have happened since the Iranian presidential election last week.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And our guest, to identify her again, is Azadeh Moaveni, former Time magazine correspondent in Iran, now a contributor to Time magazine, author of "Lipstick Jihad." She's with us today from her home in Cambridge, England.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Azar(ph) in Cincinnati.

AZAR (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

AZAR: Good afternoon.

CONAN: And to you.

AZAR: (Unintelligible) it may not be exactly the subject that you're talking about, but it is the most relevant to that subject. I am from previous generation, previous - before revolution generation. And I have been university professor before I came to United States.

And what I want to add to whatever this beautiful discussion is, is that we have not gained anything new. We are not asking for anything new. We women in Iran, they had every freedom and power that you can imagine. They have been CEO of the banks. They have been professor at the university. And then I came to United States and I started attending more of the universities in (unintelligible).

I told them that they have more professors, women professors in Iran that was - that you have here. However, during this revolution, there have been women - they were the mostly dispowered and dishonored than anybody else.

And what they are asking is for whatever they always had for years and years and years in my conscious culture. We had queens that many years ago, that were ruling over this country. So we women want whatever that we had previous to this revolution. That's all we are asking.

CONAN: Azar, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

AZAR: You're most welcome, sir.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can ask Azadeh Moaveni. Given what you've said, the numbers of women going to university, the educational level amongst women in Iran, why now? Why not four years ago? Why not eight years ago?

Ms. MOAVENI: I think that what we've seen in the last four years has been such a truly egregious sort of backpedaling in women's rights. I think that's why we have women at the forefront of these protests in a way that we didn't have in 1999 or in 2003, when there were the biggest protests or the biggest youth or student protests we've had since the revolution before the protest of last week.

The last four years under Ahmadinejad have been catastrophic for women. I think we're going to be conscious of how things have been rolled back, things had devolved to the point where you couldn't put in a Google search that included the word woman, for example. All of these online journals and women's Web sites were blocked and filtered.

The government unveiled this plan to deal with the marriage crisis. Young people are very strapped financially and it's hard to get married, and so the government schemed for this, which it called semi-independent marriage, essentially was a route for young men to be able to secure legal and piously sanctioned sex while denying women any of the legal rights or the social status that would come with being properly married.

When I think of the last four years, women - and we're talking about these educated women who would never conceive of the fact that they couldn't even type their gender into Google and be able to get search results, are finding that they're being demeaned even at this level.

CONAN: Azadeh Moaveni, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. MOAVENI: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Azadeh Moaveni, author of "Lipstick Jihad," a former Time magazine correspondent for Iran, with us today from her home in Cambridge, England.

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