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The Condition of Women in Iran1

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am greatly honoured to be the guest of Amnesty International and addressing such a very distinguished assembly here to-night. I feel not only honoured, but also deeply indebted to Amnesty for allowing me to be the voice of my wretched compatriots for a few minutes and for lending that voice an attentive ear.

To-night I could have talked about our writers and poets who have been reduced to silence; I could have talked about our journalists who may die for having published a cartoon vaguely resembling Khomeini; I could have talked about Iranian children, who in war-time are sent to walk over mine fields, and in peace-time are being brain-washed in schools. I could have talked about the religious apartheid in my country, where a red blood stamp on non-Muslim work permits has replaced the «yellow star». I could have talked about the callous disregard of the actual regime in Iran for human life, or its organised terrorist activities, or its State official hostage taking. I could have talked about the recent unrest and the recent executions in Iran, and the desperation of the homeless who once supported the Islamic Republic. I could have talked about so many other groups: our teachers, our physicians — so many other topics: — music for example, even sport — each one of them worthy of Amnesty International's attention. What a wide and tragic range of choice! If I have finally opted to talk about the condition of women, it is because not only women are present in all these categories and fields, but because they have been singled-out as a group and put under an unbearable pressure.

 

Now before elaborating on this topic I think it is only fair to quote Imam Ghazzaly — an 11 century theologian — known no doubt to all those familiar with Islamic history.

What you are going to hear is a short extract from an essay entitled: "About the Calamity and the Catastrophe of Beholding Women"! The essay is longish, but I presume these few lines will do nicely to give you a sort of avant-goût!

Imam says:

"Beware that the veil or the mask does not suffice to make a woman harmless — on the contrary, if they (the women) put on white chadors, or wear their masks coquettishly, they only heighten the desire and quicken the lust!… What is worse, they may thus appear even prettier than they actually are. Hence, it is religiously prohibited and forbidden for women to clad themselves in clean and fashionable chadors. Any woman who does so is sinful, and any man — be it her husband, brother, or father — who let her do so, shares her sins… Do not even behold the veil of a woman, because that too excites lust. It is imperative to avoid looking at women's clothing, smelling their sweet perfumes, hearing their pleasing voices. It is also incumbent to avoid, at all costs, sending or receiving messages to or from them; passing through passages that they may pass through, even though you may not see them. For wherever there is beauty, there is the seed of lasciviousness and evil thoughts… Beware that corruption springs from nothing more readily than from sitting in a place or in a gathering where there are women present."

 

I said it is fair to start my talk with this passage, because I wanted the gentlemen present here today to know that they are committing sin after sin by merely being here, looking at me and hearing me. I hardly think you can smell me — I am wearing Shalimar Guerlain, in case you are interested — but not smelling me does not lessen the burden of your guilt!

Ghazzaly died about nine centuries ago, in isolation, a different man, having second thoughts about his works. Nonetheless, he left behind his earlier teachings to be picked up by Khomeini and other mullahs in our time.

Not that Khomeini needed any specific example to follow — his religious convictions offered him ample opportunities and more than an adequate number of excuses to humiliate women. More over, he was so very resourceful himself, so terribly imaginative in finding ways and means to belittle females.

Khomeini not only imposed the hejab, but also issued orders to ministries, offices, hotels, restaurants, shops, public and private enterprises not to serve, accept or deal with women without veil. He asked the trigger-happy members of Hezbollah (The Party of God) to give "spontaneous" demonstrations against women who refused to wear the Islamic chador. By Khomeini's initiative Kanoon e Tazirat was founded, which literally means "The Centre of Reproof"! This centre dishes out the appropriate portions of punishments for felonies and offences, which are not specifically dealt with in existing Islamic laws.

On 29 of June 1983 Kanoon e Tazirat decreed that:

Any "open defiance of hejab and appearance in public without it is punishable by 74 lashes." (Note to Article 102).

Khomeini saw to it that different groups called Sarollah (The Revenge of God), Jondollah (The Army of God) and Khaharan-e-Zainab (Zainab's Sisters) patrol the city constantly to stop and punish the women who dared to defy this act. By the way, such culprits need not be taken to any court. I quote:

"Since the crime is self-evident, the punishment will be immediate"!

Out of the three groups I mentioned, namely: The Revenge of God, The Army of God and Zainab's Sisters, this last one, with that rather homely appellation, is dreaded by women much more than the other two hair-raising ferocious-sounding names. This group is reputed to be particularly zealous in carrying out the mullahs' orders. Just one example: The Sisters do not stop at supervising the proper attirement of women; they have also taken it upon themselves to cleanse the faces of those who have ventured to paint themselves slightly. The only snag about it is that they rub the colour off with hankies full of broken glass and bits of razor blades. At least in one particular case that I know of, the face of a 17 year old girl, a very pretty one, has been cut all over by Khaharan-e-Zainab, even though she was not wearing any rouge, lipstick or any other sort of make-up for that matter. The only explanation they later gave the poor mother of the girl was, "It is not holy to be so beautiful. Your daughter, woman, is the creation of the Devil!"

It has occurred to me more than once, that their god is quite incapable of producing anything lovely.

 

I have been talking to you for almost six or seven minutes now and I have only dealt with the plight of compulsory hejab for women in Iran. I believe I am justified in elaborating so long on this single issue. Not only because the chador has become a mobile, a portable prison, for women in my country, nor even for the fact that the freedom of choosing ones clothing is, no doubt, among the most preliminary freedoms, but also because of some very bizarre and curious reasons put forward and ruthlessly applied to prove its vital necessity.

Surely, you have heard Mr. Bani-Sadr's explanation on this matter. He was – May I remind you – the first president of Khomeini's regime. He offered us the famous theory of those mysterious rays coming out of women's hair, like so many Red-Indian arrows I suppose, if not poisonous, certainly containing enough tickling material to draw a few giggles even from an unticklish man. Hence, he stood firm that the hair of women should remain unseen.

Other mullahs did not stop at that. They said no part of a woman's body should ever be exposed to men; and to make this irreversible, they quoted from the holy book: "Women must cover their adornments." You heard me correctly: adornments. Unbelievably adornments extend from the ear lobes down to the toenails! Therefore, they maintained that a woman has to become an amorphous mass in order to let men live in peace. They take all men to be mullahs, in other words unbalanced sex maniacs!

 

I have not finished with chador yet — for I have one very good reason to talk about it a bit longer — and that is, the imposition of hejab united women in Iran in an unprecedented way, and was the cause of the first vast and organised opposition to Khomeini and his regime.

If Mary Ann Cross, better known as George Eliot, is right in saying that: "The happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history", then one can easily assume that the Persian women, prior to 1979 Revolution, were among the very happy females. They indeed did not have much of a history of their own. Up to 1906 — the date of our Constitutional Revolution — they lived very much in the shadow of their men. When the constitutional reforms started, our women were almost coaxed, particularly by our writers and poets, into accepting a certain amount of liberty and participating in a limited way in public life.

Between 1906 and 1979, they were offered certain opportunities without fighting for them or even demanding them. This, of course, does not mean that Iranian women were not conscious of their rights and did not feel the urge for obtaining the due liberties and freedoms, but as it happened, the modernisation of the country in that span of time, went in the direction, which was beneficial to women.

In those 70 years or so, we were presented with a number of gifts. The most significant ones are access to education; abolishment of the veil (that famous veil again!); the right to vote; curbing of the unequivocal male right for divorce and custody of children; possibility to ask for abortion; banning of polygamy; the right of maintenance after divorce. By 1979, not only the way was paved for women to enter public and political scenes, but also they were already massively active in many different fields.

All these rights and achievements, however, melted away and evaporated into thin air within a few months of Khomeiny's accession to power. Women were told in no ambiguous terms that they were unequal to men in the eyes of the law and inferior to them in every domain.

All ecclesiastics voiced this opinion triumphantly, and showered us with citations from Koran, prophet and Imams about the shortcomings of, I quote: "the God given nature of woman." So much so, that they left no room for any doubt whatsoever, that an Islamic state and a theocratic government as such, was incompatible with emancipation of women and indeed with democracy itself.

To back up those 14-century-old quotations, some mullahs offered their up-to-date explanation of women's uselessness. Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Islamic Parliament at the time and the actual President of the Islamic Republic, came out with this stupendous observation:

 

"The so-called emancipated women of the world haven't had the slightest impact on the destiny of their countries, be it political or otherwise ...Where women are apparently in charge, they are nothing but the mouthpieces of their husbands."

 

It is not a bit surprising that Hashemi Rafsanjani does not know Persian History and has never heard of at least two powerful Queens who ruled that great Empire, centuries before the notion of emancipated women existed. Then he is talking of our time, not of bygone days. He is most probably referring to people like Mrs. Ghandi (had you, by the way, ever heard of Mr. Ghandi — not Mahatma, the other one? I had not!), or Mrs. Thatcher. (Frankly, can you imagine her as the mouthpiece of Denis Thatcher?)

 

Going back to George Eliot's saying, one concludes that the history of Persian women started with Khomeini.

A great issue was made out of the massive participation of women in those interminable pro-Khomeini demonstrations all over the world. True — women were present in thousands in those marches, but they had come out with their colleagues, with those who shared their ideological beliefs, or even as curious individuals— but certainly not as a united group. It was after the revolution that they had to become unified, because they were being addressed as a separate category, a marginal bunch, a handful of inferior human beings.

I regret the fact that not even a fraction of the publicity bestowed upon those notorious pro-Khomeini marches was ever given to women's demonstration, when they were entirely on their own, against the enforcement of chador and against the gang of mullahs. I was in Tehran at the time; and I assure you that such a solidarity in any single group, I had never witnessed before, and am yet to see. It certainly was unique in the history of Iranian women, or rather as I hinted earlier, the beginning of their history — a very sad, but a very courageous beginning, I must add.

 

Women have been under pressure ever since. This pressure, however, has not been a constant upward curve, but a zigzag path with its difficulties. The reason for the down-tides has not been due, as you may well imagine, to the lack of desire of the clergy to crush women, but owing to the sophisticated society they had usurped, where women played a vital role and could not be dispensed with over-night. None-the-less, the mullahs have done their level best to reduce them to mere housekeepers wherever possible: No woman is ever seen on sports grounds, any woman judge or solicitor in court. The activities of women physicians and teachers are restricted to women patients and girls schools. Mixed primary and secondary educational institutes have been turned into boys' schools or simply closed down.

Mullahs are unanimous in saying that women are borne simply to be married and bear children, and all they expect is for women to remain chaste prior to marriage and become loving wives afterwards. Their chastity should not be stained by the slightest knowledge of sexual relationship or even the anatomy of the opposite sex; and their devotion to their husbands should be such that they accept willingly to go to any length in giving them all sorts of possible and impossible physical pleasure on the nuptial night and there after. Don't you find the leap enormous, considering the short notice and bearing in mind that a girl under Islamic laws and the clergy's orders is marriageable at the age of nine?

One comes across so many contradictions in the Islamic Republic that one more or one less does not make much of a difference. Take the question of prostitution for example. They hang publicly the prostitutes, but highly encourage the temporary marriage, which is an institutionalised prostitution. The other day I heard on a French TV that a man was arrested in Iran because he had married 57 wives with eight different birth certificates. He was caught because he had gone to ask for the hand of a woman whom he had already married and just forgotten about. He was arrested not because some one thought that 57 wives were excessive — he could have had many more in temporary marriages – but because fake identity cards are not tolerated in that regime.

 

It is never without a profound sense of shame and horror that I refer to the Retaliation or Retribution law of the Islamic Republic. This barbaric bill, which has taken us back to the "blood wars" of the dark ages, illustrates the nature of Tehran's regime better than any other single act carried out so far by that government. Please spare me the pain of going into it in detail here and now. The English translation of this terrifying bill exists however, and all those who care about the safeguard of civilisation must read it, and must do something to stop it. No human being has the right to remain indifferent when justice — this most cherished and valuable achievement of civilised societies — is replaced by vengeance in its most primitive and cruel form.

About 36 articles in this bill (and just as many notes) deal only with women who have deviated from the path of chastity. The punishments vary according to the sexual crimes they have committed. They include shaving of the head, banishment from home, public flogging, or stoning to death. Any husband who finds his wife in bed with another man has the right to kill her on the spot and go free. If later the woman is proved innocent, her male guardians (father, brother, uncle) can also kill the murderer, but they must pay his family half the blood price prescribed by the Islamic judge — because a woman, dead or alive, is only worth half a man.

You have heard of scores of women being publicly humiliated by being whipped. You have heard of pregnant women having been hanged. You have heard of women put in jail with their small children, shot dead or stoned to death. One of the last lapidating of a woman took place in the city of Ghom. You might be interested to know, that this woman received a hundred lashes before being stoned.

According to the society for Human Rights attached to a group opposed to the actual regime in Iran, out of every 100 women taken into custody, 31 have been shot, hanged or died under torture. Out of every 100 men, 27 suffered the same fate. We are, it seems, almost equal to men only in front of firing squads.

 

I was talking on the 'phone with a woman friend of mine the other day and asked her anxiously how things were in Tehran for her. She answered: "As General Foche once said: my centre is giving way, my right is in retreat, situation excellent I shall attack!"

The women of my country are brave and courageous, and I have no doubt that they shall fight the insufferable regime of mullahs as best as they can. I also know that they feel embittered and neglected by the world — no one seems to care much about what happens to them. That is why I am most grateful to you to-day, for wanting to know, for caring. I thank you very much.

 

 

1This lecture was given at the invitation of Amnesty International within the framework of its Annual General Meeting, Los-Angeles, U.S.A. — 25-28 June 1992.