Women’s Struggles in Iran: A Step Towards Creating Democracy and Women’s Leadership

 Malihe Maghazei[1]؛


Since the 1970s, the role of women as human capital in the process of development and leadership of society has gradually become one of the main concerns of gender studies. Also is one of the characteristics and indicators of the democratic system and is at the heart of the empowerment theory. This theory believes that to achieve gender equality, women should have equal access to all social and political fields including welfare, awareness, resources, participation, control, and power. In fact, “one of the main indicators of sustainable development is the empowerment of women in the national decision-making process.”[2] The empowerment approach causes the growth of women’s capacities and potential capabilities for the transformation of patriarchal structures. In the process of empowerment, women show their agency and overcome the obstacles to their growth. In other words, empowerment is an approach to improve women’s ability to change the unequal gender structure, so that they achieve a level of personal development that allows them to make choices based on their desires and strengthens civil society and political participation in the macro-level decision making. Public participation has a broad concept and is at the heart of democracy, and in fact, it is one of the main indicators of political development.[3] The expansion of civil society is the basis for improving the skills of women to obtain leadership and high levels of management in society. Civil society is a plural phenomenon and includes economy, politics, culture, and society, and also includes civil activities of community members, independent trade unions, social and political institutions, and organizations that convey the views of the society’s members to the ruling political system. In civil society, women’s empowerment is a symbol of legitimacy. The experiences of developed countries show that the participation of women at different management levels has led to the growth and progress of these societies in various dimensions. In recent decades, in many countries, the participation of women in decision-making areas has increased, but in general, the number of women in leadership of societies is still very small compared to men. In less developed countries, including Iran, the active presence of women in leadership positions is very low. One of the main factors of this small presence is the patriarchal social, cultural, and legal structure and negative views and prejudices towards women. This structure, which is based on the belief in the inherent and unchangeable characteristics of women and men, assigns different duties to women and gives priority to the presence of men in the leadership of society. The set of these beliefs, which is known as the glass ceiling, prevents competent women from reaching high levels of decision-making positions.

Women’s Struggles in Iran before the Revolution of 1979

Iranian women have always participated in different social and national movements, especially during the past hundred years, in parallel with the struggles against limitations and gender discrimination. But at the same time, their activities have been affected by the general conditions of the society and have had different and even contradictory consequences, and in some historical periods, their conditions returned to the past.

The struggles of Iranian women in the modern period go back to the brave activities of Fatemeh Borghani Qazvini, known as Tahereh Qorat Al-Ain (1281-1316 AH) against gender inequalities. In her poems, she dealt with topics such as criticism of women’s inferiority and veiling.  She played an effective role in increasing women’s awareness. During this period, middle and upper-class urban women participated in a protest against the government, the most important of which were the Bread Riot[4], the Tobacco uprising [5], and the Constitutional Revolution.[6] Even in some cases, including the Bread Riot, women led the protest. According to some historians, the Bread Riot and the Tobacco movement provided the ground for the Constitutional Revolution, and in turn, the Constitutional Revolution paved the way for the expansion of struggles against gender discrimination.

During the political developments of the Constitutional Revolution, numerous women’s organizations were formed.[7] Their aims were defending the Constitutional Revolution, eliminating oppression, and gaining women’s human rights.[8] However, in the Constitutional Law (1285 AH), women were not given the right to vote and they did not enjoy basic rights (such as marriage and divorce laws and child custody). Nevertheless, some women activists continued their struggle against gender discrimination after the Constitutional Revolution. Active women of this period were either constitutionalists or from elite, educated, intellectual, and nationalist families.  One of the main activities of women in this period was the establishment of European-style girls’ schools[9] and women’s publications (with a focus on women’s education). [10] At this time, intellectuals and constitutionalist men and women, including Parvin Etesami, Mirzadeh Eshghi, Malek al-Sho’ra Bahar, Iraj Mirza, Aref Qazvini, Abolqasem Lahoti, etc., defended the rights of women and called for the removal of veiling, education, women’s right to vote, elimination of women’s in family laws and expanding of women’s participation in economic and political activities.[11] Another activity of women in this period was writing petitions to the second, and third parliament (from 1286 to 1293 AH). Although these petitions were mostly individual complaints, it shows that petitioners were familiar with the concept of citizenship status. The first dimensions of the citizen include a wide range of civil, political, and social rights. A citizen demands the protection of his/her rights from legal authorities while following the law. Individual concerns are intertwined with the interests of the whole society. Citizenship rights are defined as the accessible political boundaries for individuals, and through recognition and strengthening of citizenship and self-respect, a person strengthens other identities. The existence of these characteristics and commonality in the petitions of Iranian women to the parliament in this period shows their general understanding of the concept of citizenship and demanding this status for themselves.[12]

During the period of Reza Shah’s reign (1304-1320 AH), most of the independent women’s associations and publications were closed, even those which supported the Pahlavi monarchy.[13] But improving the position of women was part of the modernization policy of the government. The establishment of women’s association with the support and control of the government, headed by Shams Pahlavi was in this direction. During this period, as part of the country’s modernization program, the government took many measures regarding civil law reforms and women’s status[14] and their participation in social, political, and economic fields. Public schools for boys and girls were established for free and became mandatory, and many women of the upper and middle classes became literate and entered the university and worked in various professions. In 1314, removing the veil became mandatory, and women had to appear without veiling in public, educational centers, and offices. However, there are different and even conflicting opinions about Reza Shah’s modernization policy. At the beginning of his rule, many intellectuals and writers supported his programs and reforms, but gradually some distanced themselves from him and went into isolation, some migrated and some seriously opposed him. However, despite this disparity of views regarding Reza Shah’s reign, there is some consensus about the overall progress and improvement of women’s conditions during this period.

After the dismissal of Reza Shah and his son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s accession to the throne in 1320 AH, some important changes were made in social conditions. In the context of relative freedom, at the time, women gained new rights including voluntary clothing. In this situation, a new chapter began for various associations and institutions, including the revival of independent women’s organizations, some of which were affiliated with political parties. This situation was not durable and in the last two decades of the Pahlavi reign, government policy moved towards authoritarianism, and many independent parties and associations were not allowed to operate, but still, writers and poets in their works addressed gender inequality. During this period, some members of political organizations moved abroad and some started their activities underground and some took up armed activities and women were present in all these activities. But during this period, some intellectuals and members of political groups did not give priority to the issue of gender inequality and prioritized political activities against the Shah’s regime. But the activities and efforts of women’s associations, expansion of the middle class, increasing the number of professional women, sending students abroad, the writings of poets and writers (including Forough Farrokhzad and Simin Daneshvar), and the opening of many professions for women and their active presence in the decision-making positions (including parliament representation, ambassador, minister, and professorship) prepared the ground for gender law reforms for women, including women’s right to vote (to be elected and vote) and the Family Support Act ( Qanoon e- Hemaayat e- Khaanevadeh), although there was still a long way to gender equality.[15]

After the Revolution of 1979/1357AH

Millions of women from all classes of society participated in the Revolution of 1357 hoping for better conditions and more freedoms. But it didn’t take long for them to realize that their hopes were illusory. Two weeks after the victory of the 1357 Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini requested the Ministry of Justice to cancel the Family Support law, but its implementation was postponed 1359, when the parliament approved mandatory veiling. In the same year, many university courses[16] and some jobs, including a judge, were gradually removed for women. Women were restricted from attending men’s stadiums, they were denied from many sports, solo singing, and releasing music albums. In many places, gender disintegration is applied including in streets, educational centers, work environments, buses, religious ceremonies, beauty salons, celebrations, etc. Although some university courses were opened again for women in the 1990s and some of these laws were slightly adjusted (including the marriage age for girls became 13, which was reduced from 18 to 9 years after the revolution ). And for the first time after the Islamic Revolution, a female ambassador was appointed, but the presence of women in high governmental positions has not yet exceeded more than 3%, and many deprivations and gender discrimination are still intact including exclusion from many jobs such as being a judge. Women are barred from attending most of the high decision-making positions, including the presidency, the Assembly of Experts, the Guardian Council, the Supreme Court, the Expediency Assessment Council, and other major decision-making positions, although it is not clearly and publicly mentioned in the law.[17]

A New Chapter in the Women’s Rights Struggles, Civil society, and a Step Towards Democracy

The experience of years of efforts and participation in national movements and the fight against gender inequality prepared the women of Iran to continue to resist patriarchal thinking, laws, and culture. At first, they organized a large demonstration against the repeal of the Family Support Law and mandatory veiling in March 1357 with the support of some men. And after that, they have used every opportunity to express their goals. For example, in the years 1376 to 1379, the number of women’s non-governmental organizations increased from 67 to 480, and women’s magazines made a major contribution to women’s awareness by reflecting the needs and desires of women. Poets including Simin Behbahani (1304-1392),  writers, translators, and researchers questioned the state system and patriarchal culture, and even based on historical pieces of evidence, historians challenged Islamic laws. Dissertations of women’s studies students and other social sciences and humanities dealt with different dimensions of gender. In addition, due to the gradual increase in women’s literacy and education in various specialized fields in the entire society, including in the city and the countryside, and the growth of information technology, satellite channels, facilitating travel to different countries, and as a result of the expansion of interactions with different cultures, women’s awareness has increased. In fact, unlike in the past, when struggles against gender discrimination were limited to the middle and upper educated classes, now, all classes are trying to eliminate inequalities. In other words, As a result of various ups and downs in the history of women’s protests, in addition to the quantitative expansion, the quality of the struggle has become deeper and more complex. In other words, today, women have broadened their goals, strategies, and tactics. Women, as always, since the victory of the revolution in 1357 until now, participated in national protests such as the Green movement in 1388 and the protests of 1396 and 1398. In addition, since the 1370s, a multi-dimensional cultural trend has been formed, one of the main concerns which are gender inequality, and the necessity of women’s presence in the leadership of society or macro decision-making positions. This trend includes various activities such as protest music, social movies, story writing, and conceptual art. The topics discussed in these cultural works are aimed at the government’s gender inequality methods (including the government’s emphasis on issues such as having many children, the normalization of polygamy, gender segregation, and the superiority of men), and also at the old aspect of culture including traditional taboos and patriarchal customs such as virginity, and violence against girls and women, men’s betrayal and honor killings.[18]   These efforts have had a great impact on different strata of women and increased their active social roles. As Anthony Giddens says action does not simply mean a set of actions, but activism is a set of rationalization of actions and interactions between actors and continuous reflective monitoring of the process of actions. This concept of action is seen in the activism of Iranian women’s daily life. In mass movements, including protests by teachers, nurses, workers, and retirees, sometimes women become the spokesperson of the group. Also, in some cases, due to the suppression of large-scale protests, women show unorganized, semi-organized and individual resistance and stay away from the conventional protest movements’ methods such as street demonstrations, public meetings, and associations. They take civil disobedience actions, such as not participating in elections, resisting mandatory veiling, playing music, and dancing in the streets and subways, despite warnings, being arrested and imprisoned. Giddens emphasizes human agency in the framework of existing social structures and considers everyday life as a platform for the manifestation of the existential fields of individual identity.[19] Today, in addition to all methods mentioned above, women’s daily resistance is considered a part of the women’s movement.[20] In fact, unlike in the past, when women’s demands were considered secondary by some intellectuals, the demands of women in different dimensions have turned them into a strong force in society, and they have become a part of the democratization process. In other words, Iranian women with a strong historical memory of struggles are capable of taking great steps towards the establishment and strengthening of democracy in Iran. In the course of these resistances, which reflect the common pain and suffering of women, solidarity will gradually emerge in all classes of women. This solidarity, which is moving towards democracy and civil liberties, can reduce various inequalities, including ethnic, racial, religious inferiority, and different sexual orientations, and finally remove patriarchal laws. It should be said that democracy is not a sudden event, but a multi-dimensional process during which people get ready to live in this system. In such a society, women’s leadership becomes possible, because throughout history they have been imposed under various family inequalities, gender stereotypes, and the rule of patriarchal culture, and now they are still under these oppressions and discriminations. Therefore, their capacities have not been used and their talents have not been fruitful. Finally, the elimination of gender inequalities manifests and flourishes the potential abilities of women in leading society.


The Iranian women’s movement has experienced many ups and downs during a century and a half, but it has continued to resist by adopting different methods against gender discrimination depending on different social and political conditions. . Women have expanded the scope of this movement by gaining empowerment in various fields, despite many obstacles and severe government repression. The variety of resistance methods and the participation of different social classes and ethnic groups in this movement have made it pluralistic. Also, the range of goals of this movement has become deeper and wider than in the past by giving human dignity to women, and it calls for participation in all social, political, and economic levels side by side with men. In fact, by challenging the stereotypes of “femininity” and “masculinity”, this movement tries to break the glass ceiling and go beyond the traditional, cultural, family, and governmental duties. The destination of this journey is clear: gender equality and women’s leadership.

Selected Sources:

Abtahi, Safi Nazalsadat “Empowerment of women and political participation in Iran: a case study: Islamic Republic period”, [ Tavaanmand sazi Zanaan va Mushaarekat in Iran: Mutaae’leh Moredi, Jomhoori Islami Iran], Politics Quarterly, second year, number 7, fall 2014, 65-82.

Abrahamian, Arvand. Iran Between Two Revolutions, [Iran bein e- dou Enqelaab], translated by Gul Mohammadi, Tehran: Ney Publishing House, 1387.

Abaadian, Hossein and Zohra Safari. “Social and Cultural Demands of Women in the Constitutional Period until Reza Shah’s reign”, [ Mutaalebaat e- Ejtemaie va Farhangi dar doureh Mashrouteh taa Saltanat e- Reza Shah],  Tehran: Imam Kkhmaini International Daaneshgaah Historical Essays,  No. 2,  fall and winter 2013, 1-19.

Afary, Janet. Women’s Semi-Secret Associations in the Constitutional Movement, [ Anjoman hay e -makhvi Zanaan dar doureh Jonbesh e- Masrouteh], translated by Dr. Javad Yousefian, Tehran: Nashe- Banu, 1377/1996.

Bamdad, Badr ul-Muluk. From Darkness to Light: Women’s Emancipation in Iran. Translatedfrom the Persian andEdited by F.R.C. Bagley, Mazda Pub., 2013.

Cohen, J. “ Changing Paradigms of Citizenships and the exclusiveness of the Demos”, International Sociology, No.3, 1999.

Cronin, Stephanie and Morteza Saqibfar. Reza Shah and the Formation of Modern Iran [ Reza shah va sheklgiri Iran e-Modern], Tehran: Jami Publishing House, 2012.

E’zaam Qudsi, Hasan. My Memories or a Hundred Years of History of Iran, [Khaateraat e- Man ya Taarikh e- Sad Saleh Iran] Tehran: Karang, 1379.

Fashihi, Simin. “Citizenship Rights in the Petitions of Women in the Constitutional Era (the second and third periods of the National Assembly)”,  History of Iran [ Tarikh e-Iran], Fall 2019

Galston, William. Liberal Purposes, Goods, virtues, and Duties State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society: Outline of Structuration. California: California University Press, 1984.

Jalali, Iraj. “Investigation of the Role of Women in the Establishment of New schools and the Education of Girls During the Period of Constitutionalism”, Moscow: Scientific-Research Quarterly, No. 66, Winter 2019.

Kar, Mehrangis. Women’s Political Rights in Iran. [ Hooqoq e- Siasi Zanaan e-Iran] , Roushangaraan va Mutaale’at Zanaan, 1376/1994.

Khaaleghi, Zahra. Voices of Kindness: Memorial of Qamar Al-Molouk Vazir, [ Avaayeh Mehrabani], Tehran: Donayeh Madar Publishicashing House, 1997.

Management and Planning Organization. Quarter-Century report on the performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran system (1356-1381), 1381/2002.

Kadirzadeh, Omid and Fatemeh Rezazadeh. “Study of women’s lived experience and understanding of participation in civil institutions,” Sociology of Social Institutions, 6(14), 2018, 63-96.

Malai and et. “A meta-analysis on the identification of barriers to promotion to management levels in Iran’s government organizations”, Career and Organizational Consulting Quarterly, No. 42, Spring 2019, 199-224.

Ministry of Science, Research and Technology – Higher Education Research and Planning Institute. “Summary of the report on the investigation and analysis of women’s access to higher educationand its consequences”, fall 2013.

Mohammadi Asl, Abbas. Gender and Participation, Tehran: Roshangan Publications, 1382.

Mozafari, P. “ Carving a Space for Female solo Singing in Post-Revolution”, In K. Laachir (ed), Resistance in Contemporary Middle Eastern Cultures: Literature, Cinema, and Music, New York: Routledge, 2003.

Pocok, J. “The Ideal of Citizenship since Classical Times” in Theorizing Citizenship, R. Beiner (ed) Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Shadi talab, Jaleh. “Women’s Social Participation”, [ Musharekat e- Ejtemaie Zanaan], Women’s Research, Volume 1, Year 3, Number 7, Fall 141-176, 1381.

Said, Edward. Representation of Intellectuals. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

Semati, Mehdi.  Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with Globalization and the Islamic State. London:  Newyork: Routledge, 2008.

Touhidi, Nayreh. “Women’s Daily Struggles is Also Part of the Iranian Women’s Movement”, “Mobarezaat e- Rouzmareh Zanaan Ham Bakhshi az Jonbesh Zanaan e –Iran ast.} 2016 https://per.euronews.com/2016/03/08/iran-international-womens-day

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[1]. Independent scholar

[2] . Abtahi, 1394 AH.

[3] . Shadi Talab, 1384 AH, 384, 52.

4. In this period, due to drought and hoarding of grain and food by the statesmen and the rich, the price of food including bread increased leding to famine.  People faced these conditions, protested, but this crisis intensified until a few thousand women blocked the way of Naseruddin Shah’s carriage as he was returning from hunting and strongly asked him to end this unfavorable situation. But this issue was not resolved and the Shah ordered the suppression of these women. Therefore, the protests continued until Mirza Musa Wazir, The minister, who was one of the causes of this crisis, was dismissed and these affairs were entrusted to Malik al-Tajjar, as a result of which these protests ended.

5.  The tobacco uprising in the year 1890  AD led by Haj Mirzai Shirazi to the monopoly of tobacco by the British merchant named Gerald Talbot, it is known Regis Agreement. Women actively participated in this movement, whose goal was to abolish the Regis Agreement.

6. . The situation of the country had become very critical at the end of Naser al-Din Shah’s period. With the rise of Muzaffaruddin Shah  to the throne, the increase of Russian and British influence on customs, poverty, injustice and tyranny had put a lot of pressure on the people. With the increase of these pressures and the rise of awareness of Iranians as a result of traveling to Europe and observing modern educational institutions and new ideas and professions, they demand the rule of law, freedom and the foundations of the national government and by publication of newspapers and critical writings. They opposed to the influence of foreign powers, the tyranny and oppression of the Qajar kings and demanded the establishment of a courthouse, an accountable political system and a constitution and the establishment of a parliament. Muzaffaruddin Shah had to give in to these demands. The court of justice was established and the parliamentary elections were held in 1285, and the Islamic constitutional law was established based on the laws of Belgium and France.

7. As an example, we can mention Women’s Freedom Association, Gheibi Women’s Association, Watan Women’s Association, Women’s Union, and Women’s Hemat Association.

8. Sanasarian, 42-46, some women’s associations that were secret started an armed struggle to defend the constitution. Even some women appreared in men’s clothes in the resistance. The great authors of constitutionalism, including Ahmad Kasravi, Fereydon Adamiat, Yahya Doulatabadi, Nazim al-Islam Kermani and Morgan Schuster, in their works refered to the secret organizations of women in this period.

9.  In establishing schools, women rbenefited from the support of some institutions and influential figures, including men in their familiestheir families ( Jalali 1389,46), but they faced the opposition of many clerics and traditional people in this regard. But gradually after a few years, the government supported the establishment of girls’ schools to some extent ( Although not as many as boys’ schools). However, the establishmet of girls schools by intellectuals and educated women continued ( Jalali 1389,54, Aza,Qudsi 1342, 262).

10. Four years after the Constitutional Revolution, the first women’s magazine called Danesh was published, and two years later Shekoofeh newspapern started working. Another journal called Zabane e- Zanan was established by Sediqeh Oulatabadi in 1298. This journal first was published by weekly and then became weekly, in which criticized veiling and discussed about political issues and womne’s rights.

11. The first half of the 19th/14th century, who for the first time performed without a hijab in 1303, a decade before Reza Shah’s decree to remove veiling at the Grand Hotel in Tehran. This was the first time that a female singer without veiling appeared in front of men and women in Iran. Qamar first read a poem by Iraj Mirza and then she performed the famous song Murgh Sahar (a poem by Malek al-Shaara Bahar), which was later sung by several male and female singers.

12.  Fasihi, 1389, 149-151, Cohhen, J. Galston, William, 1999, 221-224.  

13.. Out of the seven women’s periodicals that were published during the Constitutional period, two publications, under the titles of Alam Nasvan and Nasvan Watan-Khod, continued their work, and in the years 1304 to 1310, three new publications were started, the first one in 1304 was called Namah Nesvan Sharq, In Bandar Anzali, with the aim of informing women, and another one, amonther one a monthly magazine  began its work in 1306, the called peik e sa’aadat nesvan. In the head of the article of the first issue of this magazine, its purpose was written as follows: “This magazine has equipped itself for social struggle and hopes to take quick steps towards the advancement and and civil rights of women”. Also, of the 26 women’s associations that were formed in the post-constitutional era, in 1304, only the Jamiat Nesvan e- vatankhah in Tehran and the Peik Sa’aadat remained active. In this situation, only the Jamiat Nesvan e- vatankhah could continue its effort  fforts by holding lectures, demonstrations and open letters for ten years. This association in 1310 AH was closed by the government and its members were arrested.

14.According to the new civil laws, the minimum marriage age for girls, which previously had no limit, was set at 15 years, men were also obliged to register  their marriages, and in 1317 a new law was enacted, according to which men were forced to provide a certificate that shows they do not have sexually transmitted diseases.

15. With the efforts of  women who were in high legislative positions, such as Mehranadi Manouchehrian, on March 12, 1341,  some women got the right to vote (to elect and be elected) , also to be elected in state and provincial associations. Since 1342, from the fourth term in women were elected in the parliament. This law was opposed by many clerics, including Ruhollah Khomeini. Also, the Family Support Law was approved in 1346 and completed in 1353. This law includes the restriction of polygamy for men, the right to divorce for women, the right to custody of children for women, the raising of the minimum marriage age for girls and boys (girls 18 years old and boys 20 years old), and even freedom of abortion. Motorcycle and bicycle riding and the relative freedom of women’s travel and their presence in men’s sports stadiums were also free.

16. Out of 108 mathematics and computer sciences, women were allowed to study in 43 fields.

17. Mehrangis Kar, 1376.

18.  Female directors include Pooran Derakhshande, Rakhshan Bani Etamed, Niki Karimi, Manijeh Hekmat, Tahmineh Milani, Marzieh Broumand and Tina Pakrovan.

19. Giddens 1984.

20. Nayereh Toouhidi 2016.


















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