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How Independent Are Women in Iran? (Part 1)

How Independent Are Women in Iran? (Part 1)

When it comes to the topic of the independence of women in Iran, there are some mixed feelings. While many would disagree, some believe that women have a rather independent way to their day to day life in Iran. Although I personally believe that the world has a long way to go to reach complete equality between the genders, it’s unfair to disregard the existing progress that women around the world and specifically in Iran have made. What is certain is that an Iranian woman would have to fight longer and harder to get what a European or Northern American woman already enjoys when it comes to liberty and independence, but that neither discourages nor sets back a large number of the ladies of my land.

So we decided to kick off our first collaboration with the topic of “Independence of Women in Iran”, speaking from a general perspective, yet letting our personal experiences guide the storylines. What we truly appreciate is feedback and any questions you’d want answered parallel to the theme of this collaboration. We would be extremely excited to include your questions in our posts.

What was the most challenging aspect of being a young woman in Iran?
Matin: I’ve always been very outgoing and just loved to spend my free time out with my friends. I think something that bugged me the most during my teenage years was the strict curfew I had, or the fact that I wasn’t allowed to go out with my friends to certain public places. This obviously did not apply to my cousin who was a guy around my age. 
I kind of understand that my parents were really just concerned about my safety rather than having the mentality of keeping their daughter indoors. Because things totally changed when we moved to Tokyo a few years later. They were a lot more assured of my safety in Japan and therefore I did not have the limitations I had back in Tehran. But in general I still find my parents very easy going. I could see a lot of other girls had it much harder, even well after their teenage years. 

Niloufar: I had the same problem. My parents had to be convinced that where I was going was safe and I would have to be home at a certain hour, not necessarily before sunset, but at a decent hour. Now that I’m older I understand their worries and I don’t think I’ll allow my future daughter to be out too late or go just about anywhere. The funny thing is I never got particularly upset if my parents would pick me up after a late class or a get together at a friends’ house, but I remember wishing I would have a bit more freedom. But in my case, it didn’t go on for very long since I moved out of my parents’ house at 18 and then moved to Germany at 24. So I didn’t give them much of an opportunity to be worried about me as an adult.

Let's talk about safety. How safe do you feel as a woman in Iran?
Matin: I feel generally safe in Iran as a woman. There have been times that I've felt very intimidated or unsafe but it has never been enough to cause any limitations. There has been certain countries in which I've felt a lot safer, but I personally I think  we take safety very much for granted in Iran. I've only started realizing that once my foreign family and friends told me how things were back at their end of the world. I can go out very early in the morning and come back home well after sunset without feeling stressed. But like I said harassment exists and of course anything could happen no matter how careful you are. If I keep myself constantly worried of all the things that might happen to me, then I might as well sit back at home. 

Niloufar: I have to be honest with you here. Being a woman everywhere has its cons when it comes to general physical safety. And Iran is no different. There’s always the catcalling in some lower parts of the cities, and I can sternly say it has nothing to do with what you’re wearing. A lady in a chador can get the same wolf whistles as a girl in a shorter manteu and jeans. I got rid of that bother when I moved to Germany. There was a certain sense of security in Germany. I never felt afraid, uncomfortable or the need to be aware of my surroundings. I would walk home at 3 am from a student party and not think twice. However, all good things come to an end. I am currently residing in America - Miami, Florida to be more specific - where catcalling and wolf-whistling is something I experience every day. In my first week, I had a guy try to grab my leg, missing as I dodged away and he yanked my bag. What to me was extremely bizarre was that it happened right before Super Bowl started and everyone was on the streets trying to find a bar to watch the game, at Miami Beach (a rather nicer part of Southern Florida), in broad daylight, and not one person twitched. They just stood there and stared. In Iran, if that would happen, there would be no bystanders. The abuser would be chased, or at least verbally attacked, someone would ask if you are ok. But not here. Also in Iran, street harassment is not considered as an “ok” thing. Those who do commit the embarrassing act of catcalling know that what they're doing is quite lame. They wouldn’t proudly yell some sexist phrase across the street in a -not to sound classist- upper middle class part of a bigger city.

Was there anything you wanted to do or be but couldn’t due to your gender? 
Matin: Hmmm…perhaps not for myself, but I had a friend who was really into football and I could see how much it hurt her to not be able to go to the stadium to watch the game. I guess my interests were already “feminine” enough for the society to accept. But that was just me, I’m sure it wasn’t the case for everyone. For example, I’m pretty sure my parents wouldn’t really be ok with me traveling alone, but it was not something I cared for. In general, I’ve always been a fighter. I always fought for the things that I considered my right. Some girls just give up when they get a negative response the first 3 times. It was never the case for me. I would be insisting so much, that everyone would just get tired and let me do what I wanted. 

Niloufar: For me it was more of a cultural thing. I didn’t particularly enjoy seeing how easier it was for guys (even male cousins) to bring their girlfriends to meet their parents and even other relatives and girls mostly had to be more conservative about dating. I didn’t appreciate the fact that some girls my age (still to this day) allowed their parents and men force them into accepting that a girl needs to remain “pure” and “untouched”, or having a boyfriend would mean you’ll lose an opportunity of meeting a real man to marry. But I guess that is an issue that is deeply rooted in the culture and although the government adds fuel to the fire, it can’t be solely held responsible for the phenomenon. I dated, in Iran and out. But somehow I never introduced a boyfriend to my parents, except for my now husband. And when I did, my parents knew I was serious about him as a boyfriend.

What's the positive part of being a woman in Iran? 
Matin: Positive! I don’t really know if this is anything positive, but I feel like the Iranian society puts a lot less pressure on girls than boys. Boys are under pressure to prove themselves worthy. Their role in the society is completely assumed as the provider. They must be able to provide for their own family without relying on their wives. So a lot of times, they have to do things for money or social status rather than their own interest. 
I personally started working at the age of 18 as an English teacher which was considered really early. I remember my parents were very supportive and proud but at the same time a bit worried that people might think I’m under some financial pressure. I had my dad reminding quite a few times that I should feel perfectly fine to ask him for money whenever I need. Being underpaid didn’t help much either. In my surroundings there was always this idea that I should just be focusing on my studies. 
So while I worked at a job I truly loved, there was really no pressure. I had the luxury to quit my job any time I want and my family was more than happy to pay for me. I never had to prove myself independent. I was lucky enough to try different things and do what I love without worrying about my savings. This comfort obviously helped with me having the time to really figure out what I wanted to do, which lead me to where I am now. And I’m in a happy place. 

Niloufar: The first thing that comes to mind is not being forced to go to military service. That’s a luxury. But you can argue “what about those girls who would like to go to military service? What happens to their crushed dreams?”
I have to agree with you about society putting pressure on boys more than girls when it comes to providing. However I’m assuming this is the case for many Capitalistic societies. I think it’s got more to do with a cultural and economic aspect. Girls whose parents can’t afford to have their children not earning money don't have the luxury of finding what they like and what path to take in life. They have to get to it; start working at whatever age they can alongside their studies. I guess we had the luxury of being daughters to parents who could afford that kind of comfortable life. Not every Iranian daughter is as lucky. I actually had a colleague whose father (a respectable man, with a highly respected job, although I’ll refrain from mentioning his occupation since I don’t want to offend others working in that field) told her that she needs to either find a full time job or start thinking about marriage (we shall dedicate a whole post on marriage in Iran since it requires some explanation) because he couldn’t afford to have her living with them and not earning enough money. It’s quite sad really, but the economy wasn’t doing that well at the time this happened. Now it’s very different.
I somehow managed to make this into a very negative response. I apologise. It’s just frustrating to see that the women’s movement isn’t going at a pace as it should be. I mean women in Iran were allowed to vote from the very start. When women in England for example were struggling with the law regarding inheritance and owning land, Iranian women didn’t have to worry about fighting for what was theirs after the death of a parent. There is no gender pay gap in Iran, something many find amusing. You get paid by how qualified you are and how much time you put in your work. Your gender does not play a role, even if other criteria do. We still have a long way to go to reach complete equality, as does the rest of the world, but at least we are moving. And the pace? I’m hopeful that it will speed up.

Do you see a wave of change (positive or negative) in women's independence and their role in society in Iran? 
Matin: Oh certainly! The Iranian society has been changing so rapidly during the past decades that it’s been hard to keep up with everything. I definitely think things for women have gotten a lot easier. Perhaps the law hasn’t changed much, but the society has shifted dramatically. You see a lot of independent women working and reaching success. Higher education for girls nowadays is almost a must and I can witness a lot of financial independence as well. A decade ago, it would only be women fighting for their rights, but now we actually see men supporting their independence and confessing to their influence in the society. 

Niloufar: I actually had a discussion with my husband about this right before starting this collaboration. He was confused as to how a feminist Iranian who cannot bear gender inequality would be ready to defend the status of women in Iran in these posts. He found it incomprehensible that women would need the permission of their husbands (and not their fathers) to obtain a passport and laws that don’t necessarily make it easy to be an independent woman in Iran. What I wanted him and now my readers to understand is that we aren’t defending or condemning the status of women or the law, but merely describing how women have managed to either get around the obstacles, prohibitions and barriers and in some cases manage to break, demolish or modify them.  
Being an independent woman in Iran isn’t impossible even though it’s not as easy. An Iranian girl has it a lot harder than, say, a German girl. But I’m a firm believer of “that who wants something and works for it, deservingly achieves it”.
Going back to the topic of a wave of change, I am extremely optimistic about it. I’ve seen how parents have shifted from being extremely picky about where their kids are allowed to work (as a part time, side job to their studies) to coming to an understanding that the job they take as a student does not define their whole future career. I’m so excited to see teenage girls and female students in their early twenties working in stores and restaurants without feeling embarrassed as they would have when I was in that age period. I was lucky due to the fact that I knew English and I had “Student of English Literature and Linguistics” in my resume backing up my applications for language learning institutes. I can’t with a hundred percent certainty say that my parents would've been completely comfortable if I wanted to work in a shop or a restaurant. They were happy I could have a prestigious job while I was earning a university degree. But as I said, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the changes in people’s perceptions and how building your own future has become a value.

We can’t have a discussion about independence of women in Iran and not touch up on the topic of hijab. As two girls living inside Iran where hijab is not a choice in public as well as having the experience of living outside of Iran’s borders where you had a choice, what are your views on this matter? How has it been liberating or restricting? 
Matin: Although I personally wear the scarf, I’ve always believed and supported freedom of choice in clothing anywhere in the world. I guess it also avoids people pretending to be something they’re not, which involves in having too many faces and easily lying about everything. I personally felt more comfortable overseas when I knew the women wearing it were doing it willingly and I also had more freedom in how and at what level I wanted to dress modestly. It never made a difference to me, but it always feels nicer to know people are their true selves. After all clothing defines so much of our character and personality and even though Iranian women have been very fierce in presenting themselves despite the limitations, I always wonder how things would be once they could make a choice in wearing the hijab.

Niloufar: I don’t believe in wearing the hijab personally, yet I have utter and total respect for those who willingly do and have a logic supporting it. I have an aunt who is the strongest woman I know and has had her fair share of fighting for her beliefs. She’s a firm believer of the hijab who fasts, prays and studies (not merely reads) the Quran. However, all she does is for herself. Her daughters are girls just like me. Free to think for themselves and dress as they please. They have never been forced into anything religious and my aunt believes that her hijab is her personal choice and no one can condemn her for her choice as long as she doesn’t condemn anyone (including her own daughters who naturally she feels responsible for) for their choice. This aunt of mine who is the apple of my eye (and calls me the apple of hers too) is extremely excited about our wedding celebration in Germany this coming summer. Yet last time I was in Iran she asked me something that gave me goosebumps and tore my heart. She pulled me aside and asked “would you be embarrassed if I wore my headscarf at your wedding in front of your European in-laws?”
It hurt me to know that a woman who has managed to keep her beliefs to herself without judging others would think that I as her niece with different views would feel embarrassed in front of people from a completely different culture. Thankfully my in-laws are used to diverse cultures (my husband is German-Spanish) and they have spent most of their life in Köln, a city known for its diversity and openness where many hijab-wearing Turkish women reside and work. So for them, a muslim woman practicing her right to freedom of religion and a choice to how she dresses is not a new sight to see and comprehend.
Unfortunately having no choice in that particular part of religion makes it harder for both sides; those who believe in the hijab and don it with commitment find themselves justifying their choice and those who don’t believe in it find it as an obstacle, a punishment and a resentment towards those who do.

So there you have it folks. A brief introduction with a pinch of personal experiences on the independence of women in Iran. And that was only the first part. Be sure to keep an eye out for the second part on Matin's blog very soon.
We would also love to read your feedback and your experiences. Let us know if you have different experiences to the topics discussed. Let’s extend and expand this Persian Parley!

Persian Parley; A Series Dedicated to Iranian Women's Take on Life