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Discrimination Against Women Under Iranian Law

BY:Mehrangiz Kar

Friday 12 December 2008, by admin

In the last decade of Mohammad Reza Shah’s rule, the legal and social situation improved dramatically for Iranian women. They gained the right to choose, and be chosen. They gained the right to judge. Family law was amended, and family courts were established. As a result, men could no longer divorce their wives without having a court ruling in their favor. Women’s access to seek divorce increased. The child custody law was changed so the court maintained custody and would grant it to the parent deemed the most suitable. Before the monarchy was overthrown by the Islamic revolution, women had enjoyed the right to choose their own attire for over 40 years. Those who wanted to cover themselves could so choose, and those who did not, could wear whatever they pleased. Separation of the sexes was not practiced except in mosques and religious places. In professional environments, universities, recreational, and other places, the two sexes intermingled. So, the Islamic government’s forced veiling, and invasion of privacy of women after the revolution, was not acceptable under the legal provisions of the time.

As soon as the revolution succeeded, women’s rights were attacked in the name of Islam. The topics immediately discussed were: a) forced veiling, b) barring women judges from presiding in courts, and c) annulling the amendments that gave rights to women in family law. These discussions were carried out to put pressure on the public to eventually change the law. The effort started with the issuance of fatwas, which are edicts by a recognized religious authority in Islam. Below, we will see how the rights of Iranian women were violated.

Women’s Rights in Post-Revolution Iran

In the Iranian constitution, Islam is the sole source of legislation. In such a political system, it is virtually impossible for legislation to be based on international principles of human rights or women’s rights. Article 4 of the Iranian Constitution assures, “all laws and regulations including civil, criminal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, or otherwise, must be based on Islamic principle.†This is not the only limitation of legislation in Iran. There is also ambiguity in how Islamic principles are defined. The hardliners have used, and will use, this ambiguity to convert their radical interpretation of Islam to laws that are against the equality of men and women. Hence, the Iranian laws contain discrimination against women.

In the first decade of the revolution, legislation seriously degraded women’s rights. But from the second decade onward, due to internal and external pressures, some improvements were made in the existing radical laws. However, these improvements are nowhere close to reflecting the social realities of Iran. In present day Iran, more than 65% of the university students are women. With the everyday developments of technology, Iranian women are now more than ever able to send their messages to the rest of the world. At present, the Iranian women’s movement has been recognized by the world, and activists have started to establish a dialogue with members of like-minded movements outside of Iran. Many exiled Iranian women, who work in academia, have started to intellectually and financially help Iranian women activists inside of Iran, and emphasize the sameness of women’s rights and human rights. In the past few years, women organized to request more equal rights. However, this movement has faced the violent retort of the Iranian government. Overall, since the beginning of the revolution, equal rights for Iranian women has faced a number of challenges, some of which are described below.

Islamic Dress Code – Hijab

For women in Iran, choice of clothing is regulated. All women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are required to wear the hijab.1 The penalty for those who do not comply is imprisonment or considerable fine.2 Even though hijab has been defined as modest covering of the women, it has been three decades since the morals police have been arresting people as bad hijab,3 and yet there is not a single woman in Iran who does not wear hijab. The morals police have caused problems for women who wore any form of makeup or showed any of their hair. From the beginning of the revolution, this trouble was expanded to include people who wore bright and vibrant colored outfits instead of black, grey, navy blue and dark brown or other accepted dark colors. The universities refused to allow entry to female students who wore sunglasses or wore bright colored pants. In the past winter, the morals police cracked down on women who wore boots over, rather than under, their pants. These examples are noteworthy because, according to the law, women are to abide by the hijab as described in the shari’a. In the Iranian Codes, there is no crime specified as bad hijab, but women are still arrested and punished for it. Not only is the law lacking in descriptive definition of what is allowed and what is punishable, the actions of the morals police are also illegal since they are not done in response to a law.

Rights of Love

The application of shari’a makes it possible for the government to control the private sphere of citizen’s lives, and their personal interactions. Choice of spouse is regulated by law. The father and paternal grandfather are allowed to marry off their children or grand children before they’ve reached legal age for marriage.4 Currently the age at which a girl can be legally wedded is 13, but according to Article 1041 of the Civil Code, even before the girls turns 13, the father and the paternal grandfather can have her married.

A young woman is allowed – as long as she is still a virgin – to marry with the permission of her father, grandfather, or the court. If a woman marries without the required permission, a court will nullify the marriage, regardless of the age of the couple.5 Marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is not allowed.6 The marriage of an Iranian woman with a man of foreign nationality is only allowed with the permission of the government.7

A man can divorce his wife anytime he pleases,8 but the mere desire to do so is not enough for a woman to divorce her husband.9 A man may marry up to four wives10 and can have as many wives as he wants under temporary marriage. When it comes to sexual satisfaction in marriage, women, by law, are always required to meet the sexual needs of their husbands. Women’s psychological needs and readiness are not taken into account by the law makers. Consequently, women’s sexual satisfaction as the most private sphere of their existence, is controlled by the governing regime.11 Women who do not tend to their husbands’ needs, according to these laws, can be punished with severe fines and the maintenance paid to them by the husband is forfeited.12

Under Iranian Law, free sexual relationships are considered crimes and are severely punished.13 The punishment for a man or woman found guilty of adultery is 100 lashes.14 Adultery may even be punished by death when a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are involved, in which case the man is condemned to death.15 In cases of adultery where the man and woman are married, their punishment is death by stoning.16 Women’s romantic and sexual preferences are severely limited by law. By bestowing upon men the right to have multiple partners, the regime has legalized women’s disadvantage and has brought gender relations under its legal control. Such advantages for men inflict the severest of damages to a woman’s feelings since she is under constant fear that a second wife can at any time enter her life. Such lives are devoid of any sense of security.

Homosexuality is considered a crime, and those who commit homosexual acts will be severely punished. If two women who are not related to each other are found naked under a cover, they are to be punished by lashing.17 Lesbianism or participating in a lesbian act is punishable by a 100 lashes, and if the act is repeated up to four times, the accused can be condemned to death.18

A man and a woman, who socialize with one another, without sexual relations occurring, may be punished by seventy-four lashes.19 This crime is called fe’l-e haram or a “forbidden [taboo] act,†and can even include something as simple as hand shaking. Women attending private parties are scrutinized to determine whether they are dressed “correctly.â€

In conclusion, we have looked at only a few of the many examples of how the Islamic Penal Code violates the private sphere and the rights of women to love. From this summary, we can see that women’s private lives, their preferences, and their convictions are invaded and violated by government agencies more than those of men in Iran. The most important part is that, by law, women are not granted the right to enjoy sexual relations. In fact, the law is close to legitimizing rape in domestic life.

Family Law

Iranian Family Law changed significantly after the revolutions. Currently in Iran, the age of maturity for a girl is 9 years old, and for a boy, it is 15 years old.20 For marriage, a girl must be 13, and a boy must be 15. If they are younger, marriage is contingent on the approval of their guardians (vali).21 Immediately after the revolution, the age of marriage that had been raised in 1968 to eighteen years for girls under the Shah, was decreased to 9. Finally, in 2002, it was raised to 13 years old. Meanwhile, the law does not reflect the social realities in Iran. The Iranian census reports that the average age of the girls at the time of marriage to be 24 and older. Hence, the law and society are not on the same level. As mentioned above, boys older than 15, may freely choose their wives, whereas women older than 18 are allowed to choose their spouses as long as they are virgins. The legality of their marriage is also contingent on their father’s or the paternal grandfather’s approval.22 The husband is designated the head of the household by law.23 A woman is legally obliged to be obedient to her husband.24 A woman cannot leave the country without her husband’s approval.25 A man may take more than one wife.26 A man may prohibit his wife from employment.27 A man has undisputed and unequivocal rights to divorce his wife.28 In cases of divorce, the legal custody of the child is with the mother up to the age of seven, and thereafter is determined by the court.29 The management and supervision of the affairs of children below the age of 18 is by their father or paternal grandfather, and the mother has no legal say in the matter.30 Should the father pass away, the guardianship lies with the paternal grandfather, not with the mother.31 A daughter’s inheritance is only half that of a son’s.32 Departure from the country for children below the age of 18 is possible only with the approval of the father or the paternal grandfather—the mother has no legal say in the matter.33 Citizenship of the children is that of the child’s father.34 A Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman in Iran, and the children of such marriage are considered Muslim. But a non-Muslim man does not have the right to marry a Muslim woman unless he has converted to Islam before his marriage.35

The portion of the wife from inheritance is very limited. Women will get only a quarter of the furniture and liquid assets of the deceased spouse, such as money, trees or building, if there are no children, and if there are children, her portion is reduced to one-eighth. The inheritance does not include land or farms, which are known as immovable property. If a man has more than one wife, the portion of the wives, the one-eighth, is divided equally between them.36 Furthermore, if the man and wife have no other inheriting parties, the man inherits all of his wife’s properties and assets, but the woman will inherit only her designated quarter of her husband’s property, as mentioned above, and the rest will be given to the government.37 An example of this inheritance law in action is that Iranian women own only one percent of all farm land in Iran, which is a very small percentage given the number of women who work in rural communities.

Islamic Republic of Iran has never created a balance between the right of a man to divorce, and the right of a woman to divorce. Nonetheless, a few measures were introduced so that women are able to improve their domestic rights. One such action was that marriage conditions have been published in marriage certificates. These conditions have been in place since the beginning of Islam. Marriage conditions allow women to request certain rights, such as the right to divorce, before the marriage takes place. If the man agrees to them, then the woman is entitled to request a divorce from a court whenever she chooses. There are women who convince their fiancées to accept all or some of the conditions. In this manner, they obtain better terms once the marriage is ending. Under no circumstances can such conditions replace the law, and will never be a permanent status since many men will not agree to all the conditions. One more act that the Iranian government has taken is that the mehriyeh38 (dowry) will be calculated with accordance to the inflation in the country, a decision that greatly benefits women. Another act is that a woman who is divorced by her husband has gained the right to receive an amount called ojrat’ul mesl39 (compensation) from her husband. The amount of this money is to be decided by the court expert working on the case. All in all, a man has unlimited power to divorce, and a woman has a conditional right to divorce that must be proven to court. In most cases, to be able to divorce, a woman renounces all of her financial benefits to obtain the man’s acceptance and sometimes even pays out of pocket too. Hence, it must be said that, for as long as the balance between the rights to divorce is not created, none of the decisions that the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken will help women feel more secure in the long run.

Criminal Law

In the case of a murder, the blood money of a Muslim woman is half that of the Muslim man. In a similar case, the blood money of a non-Muslim woman is also half that of the non-Muslim man. In such cases, if the family of the murdered woman insists on qisas (retribution), then they are obliged to pay half of the blood money to either the murderer or his family.40 This is the most obvious and outrageous case of discrimination that has entered the Iranian law through the extremist religious opinion. There are marjas41 who do not subscribe to this point of view42) and believe that this law is amendable yet radical forces are unwilling to budge. One such marjas, Ayatollah Sane’i says “… there is no racial discrimination in Islamic laws, and the black and the white are equal. Nor is there sexism and discrimination on the grounds of nationality.†43

In most cases, the testimony of women is not sufficient in a court of law.44 In some cases, the testimony of two women is the same as that of one man.45 Most of the time, the fine (diyah) for a woman’s lost limb is half that of a man.46 Women are tried as adults after the age of 9, whereas men are tried as adults once they reach the age of 15.47 When a father or paternal grandfather murders his child or grandchild, the perpetrator does not face the death penalty and may be asked to pay only blood money, which may be waved by the court all together. However, if a mother kills her children, and is proven guilty, then she will be subject to the law and punished accordingly, which means she will get the death penalty.48 What this means, is that from the perspective of lawmakers, who are all Islamic extremists, fathers and paternal grandfathers are not only full guardians and responsible for the personal and financial affairs of their children and grand children, they also own the lives of those children and can spare those lives at their discretion.

Discrimination in Employment

Officers of the Court

Women cannot serve as judges issuing the final verdict on a legal matter.49 For years, following the revolution, women were completely removed from judicial bodies as officers of the court. Later, due to women’s demand, and their excitement in attending law schools, laws were passed to grant women judicial standing and the right to serve as counselors, but women are still not allowed to issue and sign the final verdict. So, within the last 30 years, the Islamic Republic has backed down on many issues regarding women working as officers of the court. However, women have not yet achieved the rights they had before the revolution.

Governance Positions

Women cannot become president.50 While the higher positions are supposedly gender neutral, the fundamental law (constitution) requires one to be an Islamic jurist or source of emulation (Marja’), so in practice, women cannot participate in top-level political governance.51 These conditions run counter to Iranian women’s interests and the demands many Iranian women are increasingly articulating. However, according to articles in chapter six of the Iranian constitution, women are not prevented from nominating themselves to become members of parliament or entering parliament through elections. Collective and individual protests, for example, against legal discrimination, are on the rise. These protests are the main impulse behind the emergence of new and more egalitarian interpretations of Islamic law by Muslim scholars, such as Ayatollah Sane’i, who works outside of the state’s official religious opinions.

Wind of Change

A recent ongoing campaign known as Change for Equality was founded by Iranian women’s rights activists, scholars, and feminists to end all legal gender discrimination in Iranian laws. The campaign is based on the 2004 Moroccan law reform and enjoys national (non-governmental) and international support.52 In spite of the internal and international support, the governmental agencies in Iran have reacted violently to the campaign. So far, over fifty of the campaign managers have been summoned, arrested and imprisoned, and in many cases they have been charged with action against national security. One of the ways that the government has responded to the popularity of the campaign is by filtering the internet. The government also trained a group of police women, whose main responsibility is to attack women’s gatherings and disperse the crowd. The Islamic Republic officials also sought to change the Majlis by allowing hardline women, who oppose any kind of change, to be on the ballot for the 7th Majlis(2004-2008).53


In general, filled with all this discriminations, Iranian law has effectively legalized violence against women. This violence is implemented in many different ways but is encouraged by the legislature. Women being worth half men in blood money under the law encourages physical violence against women since, even in the worst case scenario or if a man were to kill his wife, the family of the woman would have to pay half of a Muslim man’s blood money to obtain proper retribution for their loved one’s murder. Women are obliged to tend to their husband’s sexual needs under the law, which encourages sexual violence against women. Women not being an equal party to the possession of family assets and property under the law encourages financial abuse against women. Hijab being enforced on women by law subjects women to political violence. Women cannot enter important arenas of authority such as becoming president and this is a form of violence against women’s political partnership in society.

In spite of the overwhelming participation of women in the women rights movement and their demands to have more equal rights, even the most minuscule change in Iranian law has been rejected by fundamentalists who have monopolized the Islamic legal interpretations and resist any reforms.

End Notes:

1. Literally meaning covering or concealing, hijab generally refers to the modest covering of the Muslim women.

2. See the relevant section under article 638 of the Islamic penal code.

3. Literally meaning poorly covered, bad hijab is a term used by the Iranian government to refer to those who, in their opinion, do not adhere to the government’s dress code for women.

4. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1041.

5. See Iranian Civil Code, Articles 1043 and 1044.

6. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1059.

7. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1060.

8. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1133.

9. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1130.

10. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 942.

11. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1106 and 1108.

12. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1106 and 1108.

13. See Iranian Criminal Code, Article 63.

14. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 88.

15. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 82.

16. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 83.

17. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 134.

18. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 131.

19. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 638.

20. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1210 note 1.

21. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1041, which was amended (reformed) in July 2002 by majma’e tashkhis-e maslahat-e nezam or the Expediency Council.

22. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1043.

23. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1105.

24. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1108.

25. See the Immigration and Passport Regulation of Iran, ratified 1971.

26. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 942.

27. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1117.

28. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1133.

29. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1169.

30. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1181, this is the concept of Guardianship.

31. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1181 and 1183.

32. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 907.

33. See Immigration and Passport Regulations of Iran, ratified 1971.

34. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 976.

35. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 1059.

36. See Iranian Civil Code, Articles 946, 947, and 948. Article 946 of the Code says that women are to only inherit from the “moveable property†and “buildings and trees.†Article 947 of the Code says that “the wife inherits the price of the building and trees and not their corpus.â€

37. See Iranian Civil Code, Article 949.
38. Mehriyeh is the nuptial gift or the marriage settlement given to the woman by her husband-to-be. Mehriyeh is in place so that if a woman were to divorce her husband, since she inherits so little from him, she will still have some money to be able to start a new life. The woman can request the mehiryeh at any time during the marriage and the man is obliged to give it to her.

39. Ojrat’ul Mesl is in effect marriage compensation. In early 1990s, the Majlis expanded the interpretation of Article 336 of the Civil Code (the rights of men to be paid in exchange for work they did) and recognized a financial right for married women who claim to be paid money to provide domestic work during their marriage.

40. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Articles 209, 213 and 300.

41. Marja is a clergy who is source of emulation for a Shi’a Muslim.
42. Grand Ayatollah Sane’I, aka Ayatollah Haj Sheikh Yousof Sane’i, is one of those Marjas who believes that Iranian law should be amended to create more equality between men and women. One of the cases on which he puts a great deal of emphasis is the unequal amount of blood money for men and women. For more information on Grand Ayatollah Sane’i, visit www.feqh.org or his personal website, available at http://www.saanei.org/index.php?lang=en.

43. For this quote and more information regarding Ayatollah Sane’i’s point of view in this matter, see the women’s right section of his Persian website http://www.saanei.org/page.php?pg=zanan&lang=fa.

44. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 137.

45. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 74-75.

46. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 301.

47. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 49.

48. See Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 220.

49. The Law Governing the Appointment of Judges, ratified 1982.

50. See Article 115 of the constitution.

51. The Islamic jurists have not as yet accepted that a woman can become an independent jurist. Now, many women have come close to becoming a jurist and being able to issue an edict, but they have always been limited to the sphere of women’s activity and not applicable to the generality of people. Most recently, some jurists have spoken of the possibility of women ascending the religious hierarchy, but they have been a negligible minority whose views have not been accepted by the majority of the jurists.

52. For more information see the campaign’s website available at http://www.change4equality.net/english/.
53. In order for someone’s name to be put on any election ballot in Iran, Majlis, Presidency and Assembly of Experts alike, his or her qualification must be approved by the Guardian Council.

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