Women’s Rights in Iran: Fighting for Equality in Health


SEATTLE — Throughout the 1960s, women in Iran fought for gender equality, establishing multiple women’s organizations and associations. These organizations were officially acknowledged professional units by the state and carried a wide range of visions for women’s rights in Iran. These organizations saw success through policy changes which came to be known as the White Revolution, encompassing but not limited to:

  • An increase in women’s access to education and allowing female graduates to serve in education and the health corps.
  • The Family Protection Law was passed, raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, placing stricter conditions on polygamous marriages and providing women with more safeguards during divorce, including custody rights.
  • An increased number of women in positions of power.

The success of the White Revolution brought 333 women into local councils and 24 women into Parliament by the end of 1978, an effective move toward achieving gender equality and an impressive victory for women’s rights in Iran. Unfortunately, these hard-fought freedoms were not set in stone.

One Step Back: Increases in Inequality

The collapse of the Shah government in 1979 saw Ayatollah Khomeini appointed religious and political leader for life. Once in power, Khomeini began immediate work to oppose and oppress the women’s movement and women’s rights in Iran. Khomeini called for women to “dress properly” which meant in “forced veil”. Secular women who opposed the “forced veil” were fired from their jobs and all women judges were dismissed.

Khomeini rolled back protections for women in marriage and divorce, stripping custody rights away from women and lowering the minimum age of marriage to 13. A once growing co-ed educational and professional sphere was now on the decline as women were barred from studying many fields and entering specific careers. The full segregation of men and women in the public sphere became commonplace, causing women to retreat more into the home.

The Consequences of Inequality on Health

Placing an importance on the physical, mental and social health of women is key to the economic and social success of developing societies. To universally promote health, hygiene and sanitation across the globe, the health of women must be at the forefront.

A research study published in the International Journal for Equity in Health in 2016 looked closely at the social and economic disparities between men and women in Iran and their relationship to health disparities between genders. In Iran, women are a “high-risk population” due to the inequitable distribution of economic opportunity and health resources. The gender discrimination creates a health gap in Iranian society where women specifically must shoulder the burden of:

  • Disease (approximately 20 percent of women between ages 15-54 suffer from at least one chronic disease)
  • Maternal and infant mortality rates
  • Family violence
  • Unequal job opportunities leading to increased rates of poverty
  • Stress and depression due to social isolation in the home

The Good News: Improving Health and Women’s Rights in Iran

As global pressures and the realization that gender equality is the only way to achieve modernization for a developing nation continue to spread across the globe, women’s rights in Iran also continue to move forward. As women receive access to economic and educational opportunities and resources, their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing also increase, creating stronger societies.

While the road toward gender equality is still a long one in Iran, creeping change has begun to take hold. Today, Iranian women hold professional positions in a much more diverse range of fields despite the stagnant rate at which women participate in the professional workforce (12.1 percent).

Furthermore, Iranian women’s participation in education has surpassed that of their modern male counterparts. In 1999, 57 percent of students entering universities were women, with over 20 percent of employed women holding graduate level degrees, compared to 7 percent of employed men.

These small but notable increases in the educational and professional participation of women have also brought significant health increases:

  • In 1960, the average life expectancy for women was 44.15. In 2012, that number went up to 75.75 years.
  • The maternal mortality rate dropped from 83 to 23 per 100,000 births between 1990 and 2013.

The fight for women’s rights in Iran is not over, and Iranian women still face very real challenges to their physical, mental and social health. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS is high among Iranian women, and depression is the number one disease affecting Iranian women. But as Iranian women continue to participate in the professional and educational sphere, their overall health will continue to improve, resulting in more progress and an increased quality of life for the republic.

– Kelilani Johnson

Photo: Flickr


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