By Sarvnaz Chitsaz and Soona Samsami
Fundamentalist Views on Women
Throughout the world, women still suffer from discrimination and oppression, for no reason other than their gender. In essence, the plight and suffering of women is the same for all of us. Today, major issues such as peace, social and economic development, and the spread of democracy have become unavoidably entangled with the issues of women.
Despite its defiance, the male-dominated regime is retreating step by step. Yet at the same time, a reactionary, violent and suppressive force called fundamentalism is emerging. Misogynous in character, fundamentalism or religious fanaticism, best represented by Khomeini and his successors in Iran, is threatening all the achievements of the civilized world, particularly those of women. Under the banner of Islam, the fundamentalists are denying the equality of women and men.
Islamic fundamentalism establishes its thesis on the differences between the sexes and the conclusion that the male is superior, and hence, the female is a slave at his service. A parliamentarian in Iran is on record as saying, "Women must accept the reality of men dominating them, and the world must recognize the fact that men are superior." Ultimately, the fundamentalists do not believe women are human. One of the Iranian regime’s key ideologues says: "Women and men are equal in their humane essence, but they are two different forms of humans, with two different sets of attributes and two different psyches..."
From the fundamentalist mullahs’ perspective, sexual vice and virtue are the principal criteria for evaluation of women. The most ignoble and unforgivable of all sins is sexual wrongdoing. Piety, chastity and decency are measured by sex-related yardsticks, and seldom applied to political and social realms. Fundamentalism conceives of woman as sinister and satanic; she is the embodiment of sin and seduction. She must not step beyond her house, lest her presence in society breed sin. She must stay at home, serving her husband’s carnal desires; if she fails to comply, she is compelling her man to commit sin outside the home.
The top officials of the fundamentalist regime in Iran emphasize that it is the "sacred" responsibility of a woman to serve her husband and take care of the household. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the mullahs’ "supreme leader," has declared that "women’s first job is to be a wife and mother." Khamenei dismissed the notion of women’s equal participation in social life in July 1997 as "negative, primitive and childish."
When Mohammad Khatami became president in May 1997, there were optimistic predictions that changes were on the way. Despite all the propaganda, Mullah Khatami and his administration’s deeds point to the fact that mullahs’ "moderation" is nothing but a mirage. Khatami is just as committed to the medieval system of Velayat-Faqih that Khomeini founded. His administration is no different than previous governments, and rests on the same basis of fanatic fundamentalism. In that context, his views on women come as no surprise. Speaking to Salaam newspaper on May 11, 1997, just days before his election, Khatami declared: "One of the West’s biggest mistakes was the emancipation of women, which destroyed the family... Staying at home does not mean being pushed to the sidelines... We must not think that social activity means working outside the home. Housekeeping is among the most important of tasks."
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami’s predecessor, who currently heads the powerful Council to Determine State Exigencies, is on record as declaring unequivocally that women are inferior and must be treated differently under the law: "Justice does not mean that all laws must be the same for men and women... The difference in the stature, vitality, voice, development, muscular quality, and physical strength of men and women shows that men are stronger and more capable in all fields... Men’s brains are larger... Men incline toward reasoning and rationalism while women basically tend to be emotional. These differences affect the delegation of responsibilities, duties and rights."
Mullah Mohammad Yazdi, the Head of the Judiciary, also emphasizes the subservience of women: "If kneeling before God were not obligatory, wives should have knelt before their husbands." He also said: "A woman is wholly the possession of her husband, and her public life is conditional upon her husband’s consent."
These blatantly prejudiced views shed light on how discriminatory legislation against women has been proposed, adopted, and enforced in Iran since 1979. All the existing laws in Iran, which deal with the rights of women, arise from the stereotyped presumption that men are endowed with the right to dominate women. A man can divorce his wife freely and has the right to retain custody of their children. Article 105 of the Civil Code stipulates: "In the relationship between husband and wife, heading the family is characteristic of the husband." The Islamic Council of Guardians decreed that "a woman does not have the right to leave her home without her husband’s permission, even to attend her father’s funeral."
There are inequalities in punishments for similar crimes. While in most cases harsher punishments are issued for women, their credibility as witnesses and inheritance rights are half those of men. Article 115 of the Constitution specifically excludes women from the presidency. The law also excludes them from appointment to judgeships. Yazdi, the Head of the Judiciary, commented on December 15, 1986: "No matter at what stage of knowledge, virtue, perfection, and prudence a woman is, she does not have the right to rule... Even if a righteous accredited woman possesses all qualifications, she cannot assume a leadership position nor can she pass judgment, because she is a woman." In the words of another Iranian official, women are "immature" and need "guardians."
The fundamentalists look at the world and the hereafter through sex-tinted glasses. Throughout history, they have fabricated their own fantasies and moral lessons and attributed them to the Prophet Mohammad. I wish to emphasize that I address these issues as a Muslim woman. In my view, fundamentalism clearly runs counter to Islamic thinking. There is no Quranic justification whatsoever for denying women the right to lead, to rule or to judge. On the contrary, Islam and the Quran hold men and women equally responsible before God. Thus, their equality in leadership and social responsibility is also stressed on various occasions.
Contrary to all of Khatami’s attempts to put a positive spin on the mullahs’ misogynist treatment of women for international consumption, his cabinet does not include even one woman. The appointment of a woman, Massoumeh Ebtekar, as deputy for environmental protection, was supposed to reflect "moderation" and Khatami’s attention to women’s rights. But this woman vice president is no "moderate," and is notorious as a staunch advocate of suppressing women’s rights. As a Spokesperson for the hostage-takers who captured the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, she once told an ABC Television correspondent that she was personally willing to take a gun and kill the hostages. (The New York Times, January 28, 1998). In an interview with Die Tageszeitung on October 18, Ebtekar defended discrimination against women and medieval punishments, like stoning. In response to a question on stoning to death, Ebtekar said: "One should take the psychological and legal affairs of the society into consideration as well. If family rules and regulations are broken, it would result in many complex, grave consequences for all of the society."
In response to a question about revoking laws such as the one stipulating that women need their husbands’ written permission to travel, she replied: "Man is responsible for the financial affairs of the family and for seeing that members of the family are not harmed. Thus, a woman needs her husband’s permission to make a trip. Otherwise, due to problems that would arise, a rift would come between them."
Actually, it is this distorted, misogynous interpretation of Islam that provides the Iranian law and government with the basis for its sermonizing on the inferiority and subservience of women, encouraging more violence against them. As head of the Revolutionary Cultural Council, Khatami officially refused to commit the regime to the international convention banning discrimination against women – the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Not surprisingly, the plight of women has not improved since he took office, despite the barrage of propaganda purporting otherwise. Official statistics released on July 4 indicate that the dropout rate for girls in rural districts is 90 percent. During the 1995-96 school year, 54,829 girls left school before graduating, 65 percent of whom were from the country.
Abrar newspaper reported that women living in urban areas make up just 9.5 percent of the workforce; in rural areas this pitiful figure drops to 8.8 percent. In an international study comparing the workforce conditions for women around the world, Iran was rated 108th out of a field of 110. Khatami’s advisor on women’s affairs, Zahra Shoja’i, acknowledged in remarks reported by Islamic Republic News Agency on May 8 that even highly qualified women are discriminated against in employment in government offices: "Some officials are of the opinion that men have more of a role in running the family, so they favor the men." In the same conversation, Shoja’i referred to the chador as "the superior national dress of the women of Iran."
New legislation to segregate health care, currently under consideration in the parliament, underscores the misogynist outlook of the mullahs. The plan, which Iranian medical professionals are doing their best to fight, will limit Iran’s women even further from health care facilities. On April 11, 1998 prior to this latest controversy, Revolutionary Guards and agents from the Intelligence Ministry attacked a gathering of 1,800 protesting physicians in Tehran. A group of the professionals, including a number of women doctors, were beaten and dragged off to unknown locations.
Reports from inside Iran reveal that the mullahs’ regime has also intensified its attacks on the population, particularly against women and youths, and harassment in the streets by the so-called "Hezbollahi" (Party of God) mercenaries is on the rise. Agence France Presse reported on November 30, 1997 that "Iranian security forces arrested a large number of women for improper veiling or attire that was not compatible with Islamic regulations." The AFP correspondent witnessed police forcing many young women into patrol cars in northern Tehran. About ten young women, some of whom were wearing colorful head scarves and light make-up, were witnessed in a police vehicle in Vanak’s shopping mall.
Such incidents shed light on the circumstances of girls and women in Iran. Even a brief glance reveals the catastrophic consequences of their abuse and exploitation at the hands of the fundamentalists.
Sale of Girl Children
Girl children suffer the worst conditions in Iran today. According to the clerical regime’s rules and regulations, a girl child can virtually be bought and sold with the consent of her male guardian. Article 1041 of the Civil Code provides that ‘Marriage before puberty (nine full lunar years for girls) is prohibited. Marriage contracted before reaching puberty with the permission of the guardian is valid provided that the interests of the ward are duly observed."
It has become common practice to sell or force very young girls to marry much older husbands, giving rise to all sorts of social ills. Adineh magazine wrote in summer 1991: "An 11-year-old girl was married off to a 27-year-old man. The father, who had seven daughters, received $300 for his consent. The morning after the marriage ceremonies, the girl was taken to hospital suffering from severe lacerations to her genitals."
The state-controlled daily, Ressalat, reported on December 15, 1991, that due to extreme poverty and the absence of the most basic facilities, the deprived people of northern Khorassan sell their young girls for as little as $33. The buyers, mostly from Gonabad, take the girls away and put them to work on farms and in
workshops. In the impoverished province of Sistan-Baluchistan (southeastern Iran), girls eight - ten years old are sold by their drug-addicted parents for $4. Children are routinely abused in the labor force, and girls as young as four are used in the brick manufacturing, carpet weaving, textile and clothing industries.
According to the penal code, a nine-year-old girl can be punished as an adult by flogging, execution and even stoning. Given the arbitrary punishments and the virtual lack of due process of law, large numbers of children have been executed, in many cases without being officially charged or even having their identities established.
Rape of Female Prisoners
In a report on November 22, 1994, the United Nations Special Rapportuer on violence against women said "the public stoning and lashing of women serves to institutionalize violence against women. The Special Rapportuer has received many allegations of such violent punishments being inflicted on women in the Islamic Republic of Iran."
According to a special "religious decree" issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, virgin women prisoners must be raped before execution to prevent their going to heaven. A Guard conducts the rape the night before their murder. The next day, the religious judge at the prison issues a marriage certificate and sends it to the victim’s family, along with a box of sweets.
Tens of thousands of women have been subjected to cruel torture and execution. One method is particularly revealing: the Revolutionary Guards fire a single bullet into the womb of women political prisoners, leaving them to bleed to death in a slow process of excruciating pain. Even pregnant women are not spared, and hundreds have been executed with their unborn children. Many defenseless women prisoners are held in what are euphemistically referred to as "residential quarters" in prisons, where the Guards systematically rape them in order to totally destroy them.
In an eyewitness report, Amnesty International revealed how the small children of many young women in Evin Prison are viciously abused. Witness Helmut Szimkus, a German engineer, told Amnesty International they are kept "because they are an asset to the prison authorities for gaining confessions." Szimkus, who was released after serving a lengthy sentence in an Iranian prison, said he witnessed several cases where Iranian children were tortured in the presence of their parents. "One time these guys [torturers] raped a nine-year-old girl. The parents had to watch. The father shook and rattled so badly that he could no longer sign the espionage confession they put before him."
The social environment imbedded in the misogynous views, laws and policies of the fundamentalist regime naturally spawns corruption, making it increasingly difficult for women to survive. Women bear the brunt of the economic difficulties and social barriers and restrictions. Large numbers of deprived women have been forced into prostitution or become addicted to drugs. Meanwhile, the clerical regime, touting Islam, claims to accord "divine respect" to women.
"It is appalling. Never has prostitution been so rampant. But everything is done behind the veil," Mahin, a 47-year old female Iranian jurist purged by the mullahs, told Helen Kami, the French journalist for Elle magazine who visited Iran in January 1997. Kami writes: "Prostitutes regularly roam Gandhi Street in north Tehran. At 5 p.m., we go to Istanbuli Street, also in north Tehran. The cab drivers, looking for wealthy or foreign patrons, are driving slowly. In exchange for only $1 (500 Tomans), they can provide you with girls, alcoholic beverages, heroin and hashish."
Many more of the social consequences of the mullahs’ rule date back to the destructive, meaningless Iran-Iraq war, dragged on by Khomeini’s regime for eight years. In this case, too, women and children suffered most. Since it was very difficult for a widow to provide for herself and raise a family in Iran’s highly patriarchal society, multitudes turned to prostitution as the only means of survival. According to the Associated Press of July 21, 1989, the arrest of a war widow for prostitution touched off a national scandal, because the woman had prostituted herself as a last resort to feed her family.
Ressalat, a state-controlled newspaper, reported on July 3, 1991: "Three large brothels were discovered and shut down in Tehran in the past month alone. Thirty-eight women were arrested. Most of the arrested women said during interrogation that they had turned to prostitution as a result of poverty."
Unemployment and skyrocketing prices make it impossible for millions of Iranians to get married and raise a family. At a seminar on the difficulties of getting married, Ayatollah Haeri Shirazi proposed in January 1997 that authorities promote an unofficial, temporary marriage called sigheh, that can last less than 24 hours and be repeated as many times as desired. This form of exploitation of women has become very widespread, and legitimizes sexual relations with very young girls. Quoting Mahin, the Iranian jurist, the Elle magazine reporter wrote in January 1997 about the life of a 9-year-old girl whose destitute parents arranged for her to be a sigheh. The man visits his temporary "wife" every weekend at her father’s house, for which privilege he pays her father about $12 per visit.
Not surprisingly, AIDS is spreading in Iran at an alarming rate. Despite the serious health and social problems this poses, little is being done to address the crisis.
Stoning in Iran: A Medieval Atrocity Conducted In Modern Times
The desperate women forced into prostitution, as a direct result of the regime’s policies, have to endure very harsh punishments, including public flogging and death by stoning. In one case, a religious judge convicted 17 members of an alleged prostitution ring. Among them were 14 brothers and sisters from a single family. Ten women and one man were stoned to death, two women and another man were hanged.
At least seven individuals have been stoned to death in public since Khatami’s election. On August 12, Agence France Presse reported that a 20-year-old woman who had been stoned "came to life" in the hospital morgue. The unidentified woman had been condemned to stoning by Boukan’s Islamic court. After the verdict of stoning to death was carried out, the coroner confirmed her death, but she began to breathe at the morgue.
The penalty for fornication, under articles 100 and 102 of the penal code, is only flogging for the unmarried male offender, but stoning to death for the unmarried female offender. Adulterers may be stoned to death, irrespective of their gender, but a man is buried up to his waist, and a woman up to her neck. Article 119 stipulates that the stones should not be so large as to kill the victim quickly, nor too small to cause severe injury.
Caught in a vicious cycle of social humiliation and coercion, economic dependence, family insecurity, fear for their children’s lives as well as their own, shame, lack of confidence, daily harassment for "improper veiling," insults, and sexual abuse, Iranian women lead a bleak life. Feelings of despair and helplessness cast dark shadows over the lives of many, giving rise to a growing trend of suicide. A study in 1992 showed that twice as many women commit suicide as men.
Another study in 1993 stated, "lower class women complain that the major problem is feeding their family... The problem is somewhat different for middle-class women. Psychologists say the reason for suicides of most women in this class is deprivation of individual freedoms. Lack of jobs or financial support for widows is the next reason for suicide. Iranian widows or divorcees have no source of income. When society doesn’t provide employment opportunities, such women must remarry, turn to prostitution or commit suicide."
A confidential report to the regime’s parliament on September 2, 1992, said the sudden surge in the rate of suicide among women across Iran was due in part to the pressures exerted on the wives of Revolutionary Guards and soldiers who had served in the Iran-Iraq war, who suffer from psychological disorders. The report pointed out that the most severely affected men were those who spent time at the front when they were teenagers, where they had killed or captured scores of people or witnessed sexual intercourse with animals. Many women suicides pointed to the psychological imbalance of their husbands as the sole reason for their decision to kill themselves.
The report added that girl children as young as ten, instead of spending their days playing with other children, were being forced to marry men three to four times their age. Meanwhile as "married women," they are banned from attending school. Zan-e-Rouz, a woman’s magazine, wrote on Feb. 26, 1994, that a 14-year-old high school girl died after setting herself on fire to avoid marrying a 42-year-old man. Reuters reported on July 12, 1994, that "A 14-year-old Iranian girl, set to wed a man of 50 in an arranged marriage, burned herself to death."
Women in Leadership: Key to Change
What can be done to change this cycle of misery, humiliation and suffering for women in Iran and elsewhere? What is the greatest problem for women, the great deprivation, which overshadows the rest?
The systems based on gender discrimination strip women of their dignity and most elementary rights; therefore, women should direct their energies at eradicating such values and consequent systems. If the phenomenon of fundamentalism is to be uprooted, women must be involved. Today, the grave responsibility of forming a united international front against fundamentalism must be bestowed upon women. This is their historic mandate, because they have the most at stake.
This is a lesson learned through the blood, sweat and tears of the women of the Iranian Resistance. Just as misogyny is the driving force of Khomeini-style fundamentalism, Iranian women have become the driving force of the Resistance against the religious, terrorist dictatorship of the mullahs. Today, after more than a decade and a half of resistance, Iran’s women have taken on the responsibilities of leadership at the highest levels, thanks to the efforts of Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian Resistance’s President-elect.
As Mrs. Rajavi emphasizes, before all else, women must prepare the ground for uprooting gender oppression by engaging in political and social activism. Along the same lines, women must take on the responsibilities of political and social leadership. In the movement for equality, at least 50 percent of the positions of responsibility must be occupied by women. Fifty percent of the members of the Iranian Resistance’s parliament are women. The general command of the National Liberation Army of Iran, the Resistance’s military arm, an all-volunteer, modern armored army, is essentially made up of women. The leadership council of the People’s Mojahedin, the pivotal organization in the movement, consists entirely of women.
Some might think that such leadership is the last stage of equality. I contend, however, that it is a cornerstone to equality. But the leadership of women can only be achieved by intertwining the movement for equality with a pervasive progressive political movement. Nothing can be achieved by a women versus men confrontation.
It should be also underscored that "women’s rights are human rights." These rights encompass all the individual and social freedoms cited in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which women are the masters of their own bodies and feelings.
In a word, women’s activism is the most effective means of fighting fundamentalism. Women must be included in decision-making and political power so that they can implement their will and play their role as leaders of society.
Authors: Sarvnaz Chitsaz is currently the chairwoman of the National Council of Resistance of Iran’s Committe on Women. Prior to her appointment, she was the NCR’s U.S. Representative. Soona Samsami is the US Representative of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Published by The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
Donna M. Hughes, firstname.lastname@example.org