Skip to main content

Golnaz Fakhari is an Iranian-Canadian writer and entrepreneur who is based in Vancouver.

Let’s take a stroll back through history. It’s 1906 and a woman, with intelligent eyes and a heart filled with hope, has opened the first school for girls in Tehran. Her name is Bibi Khanoom Astarabadi; she is the author of one of the first known books written by an Iranian woman, which was used for years by early feminists and women’s rights activists in the region; and she has turned one of the rooms in her spacious house into a classroom and called it the School for Maidens.

The name alone sparked outrage among the traditionally conservative and religious society. “The word maiden means a virgin, and virginity is sensual. We can’t allow this school to continue working,” said Seyed Ali Shooshtari, a well-known cleric in town at the time. Astarabadi had to fight tooth and nail to keep the school open for the next two years, keeping it alive only when she agreed to drop the word maiden and promise not to accept girls older than 6. This was not the first act of defiance by an Iranian woman who knew education was crucial in her pursuit of independence, but it was a tipping point for women’s rights.

It is important more than ever to understand how far Iranian women have come to get where they are today. Since the beginning of widespread protests in Iran in September, as a result of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police for wearing what was considered an “improper hijab,” the rights of Iranian women have been in the spotlight once more.

The opening of the school for maidens coincided with the Constitutional Revolution of Iran, which started as a sporadic movement in the late 1800s, reached its peak in 1905, and resulted in the establishment of the first parliament in the country in 1906. While women’s roles were strictly dictated by traditional values, intertwined with religious beliefs, women from different classes aided the movement in many ways. In some regions, they came to the streets to fight alongside men; they were at the forefront of civil protests led by the clergy; urban women from higher classes founded underground organizations, where they would educate themselves about the latest news and strategies.

But it soon became obvious that women’s dreams of changing their fates were nothing but a mirage. The first constitutional law was drafted after the establishment of parliament; based on sharia law, it ignored women’s most basic rights, and pushed them back to where the society believed they belonged – behind closed doors and shielded by men.

For the next seven decades, women didn’t waver in their pursuit of freedom. If the first wave of women’s rights activists focused on education, publishing newsletters and organizing small intellectual gatherings away from prying eyes, the second-generation activists who surfaced during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who came to power after the fall of the Qajar dynasty in 1925, relied on the education they were now able to receive, and their goals changed from basic rights to equality. Some major steps were taken to enable women to take up more prominent public roles, and even though a decree was signed by Reza Shah in 1936 that outlawed the traditional hijab – seen as a victory by many, and a treason by many others – the constitutional law remained untouched, and thus, women’s rights continued to be ignored.

Women were granted the right to vote in 1963 under the second Pahlavi, Mohammad Reza Shah. This decision quickly received backlash from religious leaders and conservatives. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic Revolution of 1979, wrote a telegram to Mohammad Reza Shah in protest of this decree, and in a passionate speech a few months after the law was passed, he said that “allowing women to participate in the election would only spread corruption and prostitution in society.”

Still, women didn’t stop pursuing their rights, and by the early 1970s, they had found their way into politics, economics and the arts, and the prospect of securing better roles in society was stronger than ever. But the last Shah of Iran was adamant to bring modernity and industrial expansion to the country, and in his hastiness, he forgot how religious beliefs and traditional values were deeply rooted within the core of the nation. Shi’i leaders opposed such changes, as they believed they would undermine their authority. The White Revolution – an aggressive modernization program and set of reforms undertaken by Mohammad Reza Shah that upended the traditional and rural economics – was the start of the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, and with it, the rights of women were once again blown up into oblivion.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 promised to bring equality and justice for everyone, and to uplift the underprivileged who hadn’t benefited from the rich land they lived on. More than 40 years have passed, and the only beneficiaries of such abundance have been the Islamic Republic and its most loyal allies.

Less than a month after the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered women to wear the “proper” Islamic hijab to their workplaces. Outraged and confused, women took to the streets to protest against the order. Most of these women had spent months aiding the revolution, hoping that this new chapter in history would be more inclusive. It is rather unsettling to understand how feminists and women’s rights activists failed to predict this turn of events, especially when Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers had openly opposed women’s empowerment and involvement in society for more than a decade.

Women didn’t just protest against the compulsory hijab, which would only be the start of systematic misogyny. They chanted for equality and freedom of choice. But the radical Islamists brutally oppressed these protests. Women were cursed at, beaten and sexually harassed in public. In cities such as Tehran, revolutionaries would stick a tack on the forehead of any woman who dared not to wear the hijab and humiliate them by calling them derogatory names. Overnight, women who had been good enough to support the revolution became an invisible segment of the society; they were once again pushed behind closed doors and shielded by men.

While revolutionaries celebrated their victory and the new regime purged the country of anyone who went against their ideological values, social and political activism went underground yet again. A dark era had begun for women’s rights, and it would take another decade for the new wave of activists to be able to resurface. The start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 put everything on hold, and any discussion about women’s rights was out of the question as the rhetoric of national integrity and patriotism dominated every other concept. Any demand for rights and freedom of choice was met with an outcry that “our youth are not giving their lives so you could walk around naked.” (The same rhetoric is being used today, as the religious and governing forces accuse female freedom fighters of disobedience against God’s will, and their desire for “my body, my choice,” a display of moral corruption.)

The fourth generation of women’s rights activists gained momentum in the early 1990s. The war had ended, and the country was in ruins and in an economic crisis. Under the “economy first” policy of the postwar era, women were once again welcomed back into society to help rebuild the country. The “reform era” of 1997 to 2005 created an illusion of true groundbreaking changes in women’s rights, as it gave more space to women to take part in public sectors and industries, including journalism. But these changes could never be sustained, not when the only ideology that mattered was the religious codes of the sharia law and the supreme leader’s decrees. While women attended prestigious schools and gained world-class education, they were being harassed and arrested for how they dressed in public, weren’t allowed to go to football stadiums, weren’t allowed to ride bicycles, had to have their spouse’s permission to exit the country, didn’t have maternal rights if they divorced, weren’t allowed to sing or dance in public … the list is endless. The reform era deceived women’s rights activists into believing that their advocacy had resulted in fundamental changes.

Under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was directly endorsed by Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, political and social activism slowed down yet again. The infamous “morality police” started work soon after Mr. Ahmadinejad came to office. Gender segregation, discrimination in workplaces, new family-planning policies that focused on the role of women as “wives and mothers,” early retirement policies for women, alongside the systematic misogyny embedded in the core of the regime, riled up women’s rights activists against the government. Furthermore, the increasing corruption in the economy, especially in the governing section, created the foundations of nationwide protests in 2009. The Green Movement was mostly driven by reformists and it focused on bringing back the pre-Ahmadinejad era. But the heavy oppression after the movement failed didn’t allow much room for activism of any kind whatsoever.

By 2017, a movement now known as the Girls of Enghelab Street was on the rise. On Dec. 27 of that year, a young woman, wearing dark modest attire and a long ponytail, stood on top of a utility box located on Enghelab Street, in the heart of Tehran, and raised a white scarf on a stick up in the air. Vida Movahedi, who landed in jail after her act, inspired women around the country to see that the only way to protest against an unjust regulation is to remove it from their daily lives. In 2022, women are burning their headscarves as the symbol of a four-decade-long discrimination.

Women’s rights in Iran have certainly come a long way, and although it has always been brutalized by the clergy and religious values, it has pushed through layers of patriarchy, sexism and violence to find a firm footing. The reaction of the governing body hasn’t changed that much, and while women were called prostitutes for pursuing education in the late 1800s, in 2022 they are still being stigmatized as outcasts and their moralities questioned because of their pursuit of freedom.

What has changed, however, is the solidarity that has shaped the recent protests. Iranian women were mostly alone in their pursuit of freedom in the past, and now, the whole nation – and even the whole world – is chanting “woman, life, freedom” in support.

In March, 1979, women chanted, “At the dawn of freedom, where is the rights of women?” Today, on the streets of Iran, women and men are raising their fists up in the air and shouting “woman, life, freedom” in Iran’s first women-led and women-centric protest, which will surely leave a long-lasting mark in history.

You can never go backward. You can’t take away the literacy of an educated person or remove the desire to be independent from someone who has tasted freedom. Iranian women have already fought for decades for freedom and equality; they aren’t going to stop now.