Starting at Home, Iran’s Women Fight for Rights
TEHRAN – In a year of marriage, Razieh Qassemi, 19, says she was beaten repeatedly by her husband and his father. Her husband, she says, is addicted to methamphetamine and has threatened to marry another woman to “torture” her.
Rather than endure the abuse, Ms. Qassemi took a step that might never have occurred to an earlier generation of Iranian women: she filed for divorce.
Women’s rights advocates say Iranian women are displaying a growing determination to achieve equal status in this conservative Muslim theocracy, where male supremacy is still enscribed in the legal code. One in five marriages now end in divorce, according to government data, a fourfold increase in the past 15 years.
And it is not just women from the wealthy, Westernized elites. The family court building in Vanak Square here is filled with women, like Ms. Qassemi, who are not privileged. Women from lower classes and even the religious are among those marching up and down the stairs to fight for divorces and custody of their children.
Increasing educational levels and the information revolution have contributed to creating a generation of women determined to gain more control over their lives, rights advocates say.
Confronted with new cultural and legal restrictions after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, some young women turned to higher education as a way to get away from home, postpone marriage and earn social respect, advocates say. Religious women, who had refused to sit in classes with men, returned to universities after they were resegregated.
Today, more than 60 percent of university students are women, compared with just over 30 percent in 1982, even though classes are no longer segregated.
Even for those women for whom college is not an option, the Internet and satellite television have opened windows into the lives of women in the West. “Satellite
has shown an alternative way of being,” said Syma Sayah, a feminist involved in social work in Tehran. “Women see that it is possible to be treated equally with men.”
Another sign of changing attitudes is the increasing popularity of books, movies and documentaries that explore sex discrimination, rights advocates say.
“Women do not have a proper status in society,” said Mahnaz Mohammadi, a filmmaker. “Films are supposed to be a mirror of reality, and we make films to change the status quo.”
In a recent movie, “All Women Are Angels,” a comedy that was at the top of the box office for weeks, a judge rejects the divorce plea of a woman who walked out on her husband when she found him with another woman.
Even men are taking up women’s issues and are critical of traditional marriage arrangements. Mehrdad Oskouei, another filmmaker, has won more than a dozen international awards for “The Other Side of Burka,” a documentary about women on the impoverished and traditional southern island of Qeshm who are committing suicide in increasing numbers because they have no other way out of their marriages.
“How can divorce help a woman in southern parts of the country when she has to return after divorce to her father’s home who will make her even more miserable than her husband?” said Fatimeh Sadeghi, a former political science professor fired for her writing on women’s rights.
Janet Afary, a professor of Middle East and women’s studies at Purdue University and the author of “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran,” says the country is moving inexorably toward a “sexual revolution.