Women’s Inequality Is Built Into the Laws and Constitution of Iran

An Iranian woman walks through a bazaar in Tehran on Jan. 25, 2023. The country has been rocked by protests since the Sept. 16 death of Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd who had been arrested for allegedly breaching the country’s strict dress code for women. (Atta Kenare / AFP via Getty Images)

Protests currently taking place in Iran may finally be the tipping point for the next Iranian revolution. And as the protests’ slogan, “Women, life, freedom,” makes clear, feminism has played a central role in bringing this movement forward. According to Nobel Peace Prize winner and Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, “It’s the women who will open the gate to democracy in Iran.”

Control over women was a key part of the platform of the Islamist regime that officially took power in 1979, and their laws remain in effect today—for now.

Some of the most egregious laws on the books are:

  • Iranian laws set a woman’s worth as half that of a man. If a woman is killed, only half the diya (blood money) is owed.

  • It takes two women’s testimonies in court to equal one man’s.

  • A woman must have her father’s or paternal grandfather’s permission to marry if she has not been married before.

  • Girls 13 and older are considered to be of marriage age; younger girls can be married off with judicial and paternal approval.

  • A woman is prohibited from working, obtaining a passport or traveling outside of Iran without her husband’s consent (or her father’s consent if she is single).

  • A woman is required to perform her spousal “duties” (satisfy her husband’s sexual demands) in order to receive monetary support from her husband.

  • While men can seek divorce at any time, a woman can apply for a divorce only under limited circumstances (for instance, if her husband is addicted to drugs or incarcerated).

  • Polygamy is permitted; additionally, men may take an unlimited number of temporary wives.

  • Fathers are the sole legal guardians of their children; in their absence, guardianship transfers to the paternal grandfather.

  • The criminal justice system sets the age of maturity (when one can be held responsible for a crime) at age 9 for girls, age 15 for boys.

  • Extramarital sex is a criminal act; reporting sexual assault can lead to a survivor’s arrest if authorities determine she was not coerced.

  • A women not wearing a hijab in public is subject to fines and up to two months’ imprisonment; women’s rights activists are tried under morality and national security laws with far harsher sentences.

This piece was excerpted from an article in the Winter 2023 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

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Pardis Mahdavi, PhD, is director of Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. She is the former acting dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and previously served as professor and chair of anthropology, director of the Pacific Basin Institute and Dean of Women at Pomona College. She has authored five books, one edited volume and numerous journal and news articles and been a fellow at the Social Sciences Research Council, the American Council on Learned Societies, Google Ideas and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.