When we speak about equality, gender bias is a recurring topic prevailing in many nations across the globe. Often, these issues are nuanced, steeped in social, cultural, and political complexities. One such nation grappling with gender issues is Iran. Under its present government, Iran's gender problem is not merely a domestic concern; it's an issue that reverberates across the globe.
At the heart of the problem lies a persistent lack of representation for women in the Iranian political system. Women's absence from key decision-making roles belies the fact that they make up around half of the population. This level of under-representation is problematic because a government that does not reflect its people's demographic diversity is less likely to understand or meet the varied needs of its constituents. In nearly 45 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran, only 78 women have won a total of 111 seats in various terms in their parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly or Iranian Majles, though even from that tiny number, the Guardian Council has disqualified several of the candidates. There are currently 16 women in the Majles.
Moreover, Iranian legislation has often been found wanting regarding gender equality. As per the Global Gender Gap Index report by the World Economic Forum, Iran ranks low, indicating the existence of substantial gender disparities. A predominant factor contributing to this is the discriminatory laws against women, such as those related to marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, which heavily favour men. In February 2023, Iran was expelled from the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a rebuke that felt earned. Why, after all, should Iran sit on this body while it actively cracking down on a women’s rights movement at home?
One of the most potent symbols of Iran's gender problem is the compulsory hijab law. Despite Iran being a country where religion plays a prominent role, this law has been a source of controversy, not least because it infringes on the fundamental rights of women to express themselves freely. Notably, campaigns like "White Wednesdays" have emerged, where women protest against this forced dress code. These acts of defiance underline a stark gender problem that goes beyond politics and enters the realm of personal autonomy and human rights.
However, it's not all bleak. Iranian women are increasingly vocal in demanding their rights and challenging the status quo. Many have excelled in various fields such as education, science, and arts, demonstrating resilience despite the socio-political barriers. Education levels among women in Iran are notably high, with women outnumbering men in universities – a potential catalyst for positive change.
Yet, the unfortunate reality remains: the progress made at the individual level is not mirrored at the systemic level. The government's persistent failure to recognise and remedy gender disparities perpetuates an environment that marginalises and disenfranchises women. The gender problem, therefore, lies squarely with the government, its discriminatory laws, and its reluctance to empower women politically.
The international community's role in addressing this issue cannot be overstated. Gender inequality in Iran should not be viewed as an isolated issue but rather part of the broader struggle for women's rights worldwide. By applying diplomatic pressure, advocating for change within the UN framework, and supporting civil society movements in Iran, global actors can contribute to alleviating this gender problem.
The voices of Iranian women demanding equality are growing louder, their protests more frequent, their dissatisfaction more apparent. The Iranian government would be well-advised to take these signs as an impetus for comprehensive reform, not only for women's rights but also for the progress of Iran as a nation.
The future of Iran can – and should – be one where men and women stand side by side in all aspects of life, including governance. It's high time the government not only hears but truly listens to the voices of its women. Ultimately, a country that respects and promotes gender equality is undoubtedly a stronger and more prosperous one.