Behind the veil, Iran's women as ambitious as we are
Despite the best efforts of hard-liners to silence them, female voices are leading the charge for revolutionary change, says Carol Hunt
A friend recently returned from Tehran and commented on the number of veiled young women in that city with bandages across their noses. Had they been beaten by bullying husbands or fathers? Or hit while being hauled into prison by the ever vigilant 'morality police'?
Neither of the above. Incredibly, Iran is now considered a 'nose-job' nation. Plastic surgery clinics are full of women aged 18-25 who say that if due to the nations' restrictive dress codes, they are only allowed to show their faces, then they are going to make sure that those faces are as perfect as possible. Beauty salons thrive in the northern part of Iran where women can, quite literally, throw off their restraints and talk grooming and politics. "Iranian women are intelligent, sexy and self-confident," said a therapist. "The rest of the world doesn't perceive this. Instead it thinks of the oppressive image of a woman in a chador."
At home, Iranian women watch American soap operas and news programmes on illegal, but easily available, satellite dishes. They are adept at accessing the internet, blogging and twittering to an increasingly attentive outside world.
Behind the veil, Iran's women are independent, educated, ambitious and dynamic. Females make up 65 per cent of university students, but institutionalised misogyny means that they form only 15 per cent of the workforce. Even though Iranian women can drive, vote, work alongside men and run for public office, they still do not have equal divorce, child-custody or inheritance rights. In court, a woman's word carries only half the weight of a man's, and since the hard-line resurgence in 2004 and the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a woman can still receive 74 lashes for going out in public without a hijab.
But the laws introduced since the revolution, though denying women many basic rights, also laid the groundwork for a powerful and educated women's lobby. To implement their policy of separation of the sexes, the government built new schools and universities, while better transport systems enabled conservative and rural women to attend these new institutions where they were exposed to modern, feminist ideals.
Mandatory, pre-marital sex education, introduced in 1993 in order to control birth rates, meant that women learned how to take charge of their own bodies and avoid pregnancy. Today, Iranian women are determined to confront Iran's patriarchal theocracy and this has been cited as the main reason why supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been forced to "make a show" of examining the results of last week's allegedly fraudulent election.
Professor Janet Afary, author of Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, says that the country is moving inexorably towards a "sexual revolution" and recent events would seem to support her prophecy.
Last September, furious Iranian women managed to halt a bill that would have allowed men to take additional wives without the consent of their first wife. The ironically titled "Family Protection Law", if passed, would have reinforced and facilitated such "cultural traditions" as polygamy, temporary marriage and men's privileged position with regard to divorce.
Two months ago the Guardian Council -- the body that monitors and decides on the candidates allowed to stand for election -- was forced to make a ruling that opened the doors for women to run for the presidency. This cast down an earlier ruling that "women lack the intellectual capacity and understanding" to be candidates.
Forty-two women promptly signed up as presidential candidates -- none were accepted.
The famous One Million Signatures Campaign, which aims to end discriminatory laws against women in Iran, provides legal training to men and women who then travel across the country to promote the campaign and talk to women about their rights and the need for legal reform. Even Zahra Eshragi, the granddaughter of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, signed the petition.
Many of their members have been harassed and arrested for peacefully campaigning, but they continue to pressurise the government.
And, as I write, women -- with and without chadors -- are in the frontline of the protests against the results of this month's election, which they say was "stolen" from them in order to "keep them in their place".
Women's rights have been, possibly for the first time since the revolution, widely discussed on national Iranian television, in newspapers, on the internet and in public squares, despite the best efforts of hard-liners to remove women from public and political spheres.
Sussan Tahmasebi, one of Iran's leading women's rights activists said: "Candidates (in this election) have moved beyond vague slogans that emphasise the high cultural and religious value placed on women, to addressing specifically the demands voiced by women activists. This shift demonstrates the importance and vitality of the Iranian women's movement and, in particular, the achievements of the One Million Signatures Campaign".
This growing support for equal rights in Iran was evident in 2007, when a Gallup Poll showed that nearly nine in 10 Iranians agreed that, in general, women should be guaranteed the same legal rights as men. Three in four agreed that women should be allowed to hold leadership positions in the cabinet and national council and also hold any job outside the home that they were qualified for.
As Shahla Lahji, Iran's first female publisher, said: "It's not just the girls that are changing, boys are changing too".
So even supporters of Sharia Law knew that they had to be seen to support women's equality to stand a chance in the polls.
Ahmadinejad's opponent in this election -- the former hard-liner Mir-Hossein Mousavi -- attempted to garner liberal votes by campaigning with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, fellow painter and university professor. His election posters showed the couple hand in hand, an astonishing image for an Islamic country.
On the campaign trail, Rahnavard's speeches in favour of greater women's rights enhanced the appeal of her quietly spoken husband.
It's been called the "Zahra factor", as Ms Rahnavard was quoted saying that "getting rid of discrimination and demanding civil rights is the number one priority for women in Iran".
In 2000 Rahnavard, though a supporter of the veil as a symbol of emancipation rather than oppression (something which many Iranian women do not agree), led a successful campaign for women to wear colours other than the decreed all-black costume.
Today, it's not just the Audrey Hepburn look-alikes in their coloured scarves and designer sunglasses who are protesting in the streets, they have been joined by their chador-wearing conservative sisters, as they demand that their voices be heard and their votes counted. Former Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi said: "We are a nation bursting with female ability. We are a nation blessed with hard-working women desperate to make a contribution, but one hobbled by legalised prejudice and social bigotry. Now, more than ever, the women of Iran need our support".
And in this post-election chaos the country certainly seems to be behind these extraordinary women.
As one protester put it: "This is between the people and the government. This time it is all of Iran. This is a historic moment."