50 years of women's voting rights in Iran
50 years ago, in 1963, Iranian women secured the right to vote. Fahimeh Farsaei looks back at five decades of progress and setbacks for the women's movement there.
In 1963, women in Iran got the right to vote. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi allowed women to vote as one part of a broader reform programme to modernise the country. Women's voting rights in particular were granted in late January by way of a national referendum. Initially, the majority of Iranians stood behind the reform agenda known as the White Revolution.
In mid-1963, there was heavy opposition to implementation of the reform, and Iran's spiritual elites were bitterly against the White Revolution. It was this context that propelled the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, who would go on to lead his own revolution. After anti-government protests were violently quashed, the outspoken critic Khomeini was banished to years of exile.
During the nearly four decades of Shah Pahlavi's rule from 1941 to 1979, Iranian women fought for and secured many rights, including the right to custody of their children and an increase to the minimum age at which girls could be married to 18. They also gained the right to divorce and to have abortions, while limitations were placed on men's right to polygamy.
Female Iranians were also represented in politics, including in a few very prominent positions. Farokhroo Parsa (pictured) and Mahnaz Afkhami were two ministers loyal to the regime who advocated for women's issues. On 8 May 1980, shortly after the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, Parsa was executed. Afkhami still lives in exile in the United States.
Female artists like the author Simin Daneshvar (1921–2012) achieved fame around the world. Her works repeatedly topped bestseller lists. Forough Farrokhzad (1934–1967, pictured here) became one of the most significant representatives of twentieth-century Iranian modernism in poetry and film.
The shah was overthrown in February 1979 – an event in which women played a decisive role. Soon after, Iran's progressive laws on women were repealed. Divorce and custody rights were curtailed. Girls could once more be married off at the age of nine, and polygamy was allowed without restrictions.
Despite facing legal inequality, many Iranian women have sought to exercise freedoms, including in the workplace. Some have forged careers in traditionally male-dominated occupations. These days, women can be seen driving taxis or long-distance trucks. They become teachers, doctors, police officers, members of parliament and presidential advisers.
Iran's women and young people played a decisive role in the 1997 and 2001 presidential elections that brought the reformer Mohammad Khatami to power. After his first victory, he relaxed the strict laws governing a woman's right to establish organisations and clubs for other women.
The name Shirin Ebadi is inextricably linked to Iran's women's liberation movement. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her political work. Ebadi has lived in exile in England since the end of 2009. The lawyer and activist is an icon to many in her native country and beyond.
2006 brought an initiative promoting the legal equality of Iranian women in which 1 million supporters' signatures were sought. Later and in connection with the 2009 presidential election, the activists behind the campaign joined forces with male supporters to form what they called the Green Movement.
The Green Movement supported the reform-minded Mir-Hossein Mousavi in his election bid against incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, the latter was re-elected in a hotly disputed poll that unleashed weeks of protests. Demonstrators filled Tehran's streets carrying signs with slogans that read "Where is my vote?"
Many people died during clashes between the demonstrators and security forces. Student Neda Agha Soltan became an international symbol of the atrocities committed. A mobile phone camera captured her death after she was shot on 20 June 2009. The video was swiftly posted on the Internet, drawing global attention. She remains an icon of the resistance movement.
After the election in 2009, the situation for Iranian women became more difficult. Many activists had to leave the country; many others are still in prison, including lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. In 2012, she and filmmaker Jafar Panahi were honoured in absentia by the European Parliament with its Sakharov Prize.
Iran's next presidential election is scheduled for June 2013. Women's rights advocates throughout the country have signaled that they're optimistic about the outcome. They want to use the vote as an opportunity to make concrete demands relating to their rights.