Updated: Jan 9, 2020
The captain of the Iranian women's football team was banned from travelling by her husband - but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Niloufar Ardalan (L) during a friendly match between Berlin at the Ararat stadium in Tehran, Iran Photo: AP
Throughout their lives, Iranian women are forced to navigate a web of restrictions, imposed by law and custom. Every aspect of their existence – from how they must dress in public, to the subjects they can study at university and the jobs they are allowed to do in the workplace – is closely regulated.
An example was highlighted, when a female football star in Iran was banned from travelling to an international tournament by her husband. He refused to sign papers allowing her to renew her passport, meaning she was unable to play in the Asian Cup.
The system is not necessarily finished with a woman even after she dies. If death should come in the form of a tragic accident, then her family will receive only half the legal compensation that would be due for the loss of a man.
But there is also good news. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, Iranian women are allowed to drive and to move with relative freedom. There are no restrictions on female primary or secondary education – and at university level, women now comprise the majority of students.
However, certain universities ban female students from studying specific subjects, usually those concerning engineering and technology. In general terms, the trend has been towards imposing more restrictions and increasing the number of subjects that are closed to women, although the practice varies from one university to the next.
Meanwhile, women who venture outdoors must wear a headscarf, known as the “rusari”, and a long overcoat, known as the “manteau”; alternatively, they can wear a black cloak known as the “chador”. These are legal requirements, punishable by fines or imprisonment for repeat offenders.
A woman wearing a chador on the streets of Tehran
How strictly the law is enforced depends on many factors. Partly, it is down to where you happen to live: in affluent north Tehran, women tend to push back their “rusaris” to reveal an abundance of hair. Their "manteaus" are multi-coloured and stylishly nipped in at the waist. In conservative rural Iran, however, drab black “chadors” are the norm.
How women are allowed to dress also depends on which political faction happens to be in power. If hardliners are in the ascendancy, it might be wise to conceal every whisp of hair on the streets of Tehran; if reformers are in office, you might try wearing your rusari so far back as to render it almost invisible. The unspoken rules can change from month to month.
Women are generally accepted in the workplace in Iran - although, once again, there are restrictions. Under Article 1117 of the Civil Code, an Iranian man can ban his wife from working if he believes this would be “incompatible with the interests of the family or with his or his wife’s dignity”.
The most striking element of this law is that a man can stop his wife from working if he thinks this would damage his own dignity.
Fortunately, this seems to be rare: there is no doubt that Iranian women make up a considerable – and probably increasing – minority of the workforce.
As in higher education, however, certain roles are closed to them. Over the summer, the Iranian Central Bank advertised various positions intended for university graduates. All of these adverts stated whether the job in question was open to men and women – or to men alone.
Of the 47 vacancies, 36 were “men only” and 11 were available to both genders. The logic behind the distinction was unclear. For some reason, men and women can join the “statistics” section of the Central Bank – but the “accounting” department is men only.
Women can apply for a post in the “administration of education” department, but not in “public administration”. A woman can be accepted by the “medical administration” section, yet only men are entrusted with “IT management”.
This erratic approach extends into the world of politics. Women are allowed to run for parliament and the 290-seat House currently has nine female members (a mere three per cent of the total). President Hassan Rouhani has made an important gesture by appointing a handful of female ministers: the most senior, Masoumeh Ebtekar, serves as one of Iran’s 12 vice-presidents.
But every time a woman has tried to run for president, she has always been turned down by the Guardian Council, a powerful committee of old men which vets all candidates for public office.
So Iranian women must contend with countless ceilings – some made of glass, and others of the very visible firmament of the law itself.