Iran War On Women: President Ahmadinejad Accused of Being Too "Soft" on Women

The United States in an election year is a country of political paradoxes. For example, Mitt Romney and President Obama have engaged one another indirectly in snide remarks on elitism and wealth, yet, both are Harvard educated, with collective wealth that certainly puts them above average Americans. As another example, the recent U.S. political debate on contraception was met with a congressional inquiry, in which the expert panel was entirely composed of men.

While America seems to mass produce this kind of such nonsense, Iran's Ali Motahari wins the prize for political paradox of 2012. While non-Iranians have likely not heard of him, Motahari is a religiously conservative member of Iran’s parliament. Despite his near total obscurity, Motahari made a surprising statement yesterday, saying that the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's views on women are so lax that: “They have actually allowed sexual provocation ... and now they should think of opening nightclubs and cabarets." 

The source of his indignation? The fact that Iranian women are occasionally: “wearing (in public) pants, and coats that don’t cover the knees.” He vociferously condemned the government for not doing enough to tackle this evidently pernicious issue.

At first glance, Motahari’s statement is most ironic. Ahmadinejad is currently the political head of a country that consistently represses the rights of women. The President has said that he wants to ensure that women can only wear ‘government approved clothes’ outdoors of doors. He presides over a country with a morality police, forcing women to wear hijabs and ‘modest’ clothes. In 2008, Ahmadinejad sought to enact a law that gave Iranian men the right to marry a second wife without their current wife’s approval. He also wanted to tax the dowry customarily given as a financial safety net to women upon marriage. In short, Ahmadinejad is hardly the Iranian incarnation of the ‘swinging sixties’ or the Suffragette movement.

Despite his misogynist credentials, however, Ahmadinejad is now deemed too soft on women by hard-line conservatives. would almost be comical, if it weren't so tragic.

Anyone who has visited Iran knows that – especially in the major cities – Iranian women bend the rules on dress as they seek to to express their femininity and independence. A large proportion of Iranian women have attained higher education, and the number of women working in major professions is growing. The state therefore attempts to control its highly educated female population by periodically cracking down hard on them, especially in summer when the cloying heat makes it difficult for women to wear the heavy garments required by the state.

This outburst by Motahari is yet another example of the deep divisions within Iran and – more specifically – another hint of the catastrophic breakdown in relations between the President and Ayatollah Khameini. There are fears that as Khameini seeks to abolish the Presidency after the upcoming election, Iran will face more restrictions on women and their rights. 

Iran is certainly not the worst offender in the region when it comes to its women-rights record. Nevertheless, as political tensions rise and conservatives feel bolder, it is highly likely that pressure will be brought to bear on the government to enact more laws obliging Iranian women to completely conform to the theocracy’s fashion diktats. 

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Will Birch

Specialising in Maghreb affairs, William has lived and traveled throughout the MENA region.

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