‘Half of Men’: The Legacy of Iran’s Gender Apartheid

The “Iran Rising” exhibit at George Mason University tells “the story of an entire nation’s hope, resilience, unity, and courage in the face of an evil regime that has stolen their country but will not be allowed to steal their dreams.” (GMU)

Vibrant Iranian protest art—part of the “Iran Rising” exhibit at George Mason University (GMU)—lined the gallery walls: images of Iranian women with outstretched arms, defiantly cutting their hair or raising a fist.

The art display set the tone for the Feb. 16 symposium, “Can Iranian Women Change the World? Revolution, Reconciliation and Reclaiming Iran,” sponsored by the Gender and Policy Center at GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government in Arlington, Va. Inspired by ongoing events in the wake of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death last September in the custody of Iranian morality police for the alleged crime of wearing her hijab improperly, the Mason panel considered cultural and historical aspects of Iranian women’s role in leading the charge for revolutionary change.

“When we talk about women being underrepresented and women being denied their rightful place in society and politics, there is no more apt place about which to discuss that than Iran in the world today,” said panelist Cameron Khansarinia, policy director of National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI). “For the past five months, Iranian women have been at the forefront of what many are calling the first women-led revolution in the world. The slogan of this revolution is quite clear and quite descriptive… Woman, Life, Freedom.”

Gender Apartheid

Women inside Iran, Khansarinia said, “refer to the Islamic Republic as a gender apartheid state. We have separate taxis, separate subway cars and separate parts of parks, for example, for women and men in Iran. Of course, this is often almost laughably described as a way to protect women, but we all know that really it’s a way to limit women, to limit their presence in the public space.”

Cameron Khansarinia, Sousan Abadian and Bonnie Stabile. (Courtesy)

The recent poisonings of close to 1,000 schoolgirls in Iran may have been carried out as part of this “gender apartheid regime,” said Khansarinia, as a “biological and psychological [act of] war against … young girls in Iran” in retribution for their participation and leadership in wide-scale protests.  

In addition to these tactics, 17 women journalists have been arrested and over 500 protesters, including dozens of women have been killed. Among the thousands detained, some women reported threats of sexual assault by Iranian authorities and multiple cases of rape of protesters by security forces have been documented

We have separate taxis, separate subway cars and separate parts of parks … for women and men in Iran. … We all know that really it’s a way to limit women, to limit their presence in the public space.

Cameron Khansarinia

“Take the Headscarf or You Take One in the Head”

“In Iran,” Khansarinia continued “we have a totalitarian state attempting first and foremost to control women, to control their bodies, to control the clothes that … they’re forced to wear.”

After the revolution in 1979, with the ascent of the Islamic state, women were told, “Either you take the headscarf or you take one in the head.” 

At that time “revolutionary thugs marched to the streets of Tehran and other cities, beating women” and forcing them to wear the hijab, he said.

Before the revolution, when women could exercise more autonomous choice, one might find “on the same street, in the same shop, in the same taxi, in the same subway car, a woman wearing no head covering, a woman wearing a light hijab and a woman wearing a full black all-encompassing chador,” Khansarinia said.

Women ‘Worth Half of Men’

“The existence of a gender apartheid in Iran for the past 44 years has a variety of legal manifestations, the first of which is that constitutionally in Iran, legally, statutorily … women are worth half of men. This is in the law. This is not just exaggeration,” Khansarinia said in an observation validated by the Middle East Institute among other sources.

“In a court of law in Iran,” he continued, “it takes two female witnesses to equal the testimony of one male witness. … When the father passes away, the son receives statutorily twice the amount of inheritance that his sister receives because he’s worth twice that of his sister” in the eyes of the law.

Panelist Sousan Abadian, a Fulbright fellow with a Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard and author of Generative Cultural Renewal, a book about resources for ending female genital mutilation, considers her perspective as informed by “thousands of years” of history. “So I’m not looking at what’s happening in Iran just [in the] past four decades or even 100 years, but as someone who’s looked at collective trauma” in populations globally.

Abadian, who came to the U.S. from Iran when she was 5 years old, said,” We had a culture [in Iran] that was pre-Islamic” “that honored women’s life and freedom. So for me, the slogan is really about Iran reclaiming itself, and the battle in Iran right now from my perspective is millennia old. It’s a battle of the people trying to rebalance its value of women.”

A History of Queens and Female Warriors

“Before… traditional, ancient Iranian culture always held women in high esteem,” Abadian said.

And Khansarinian noted that “in our history, Iranian women have changed the world. They’ve changed the direction of the country. We’ve had miraculously powerful and constructive queens in Iran’s history. Some of the greatest heroes in our national epic—the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings—are people like Gordafarid, famous female warriors. That’s our culture. That’s who we are as Iranians, and that’s actually a lot of what Iranians are trying to say in their slogans… in addition to Women, Life, Freedom. … It’s one of the subtitles of our conversation today, Iranians are trying to reclaim their country.”

Breaking Through the Trauma

“This regime and lots of peoples who’ve been traumatized,” Abadian said, “lose trust in people being there for them, they lose trust in god, whatever god they believe there is, and they lose trust in themselves that they can make change. So the fact that Iran is actually mobilizing to make a change shows that it’s kind of breaking through the trauma, and now we have to reconnect and show that we can be there for them in a way that the international community can be there for them.”

As Iran eventually renews itself, said Abadian, her hope is that “we do it in a way that reduces the trauma footprint, and part of that is bringing women into primary roles because women… bring nonviolence,” which has been demonstrated to be among “the most successful forms of resistance.”  

The fact that Iran is actually mobilizing to make a change shows that it’s kind of breaking through the trauma, and now we have to reconnect and show that we can be there for them in a way that the international community can be there for them.

Sousan Abadian

Talking About a Revolution

The Iranian people, said Khansarinia, are “not asking for reforms. They don’t want slight changes. They don’t just want to be able to choose whether or not to wear the hijab. They want to get rid of the Islamic Republic. What’s happening in Iran is not a movement for reform. … It’s not a movement just for equality for women. It is a revolution. The slogans that they’re chanting could not be more clear. … They want a fundamental political change in Iran.”

Women are uniquely well-suited to bring about that change, according to Abadian. “I cannot imagine that Iran isn’t going to transform at some point,” she said, and “that new system, it’s going to be a pluralistic system where everyone is allowed to be as they are. … I guess my hope is that we break down silos between those who are Islamic and those who are not, and I think for Iran to progress we’re going to have to bring everyone, as many people as we can with us. … Women are really powerful because we do break through these silos much more easily and we connect on many levels,” including the fundamental “level of relationships and children.”

Acknowledging women’s traditional roles of caregiving, Abadian said that “we have to have ways to support women … in all the basic ways, so the elders are taken care of, their children are taken care of, so they can get out in the streets, they can actually, you know, participate.”

Watch the entire talk here:

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Bonnie Stabile, Ph.D., is associate professor and associate dean for student and academic affairs at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, where she founded and directs the Gender and Policy Center. You can follow her on Twitter @bstabile1.