Iranian women have long been involved in protest in Iran, and they are involved too in the new cycle of protest erupted across more than 70 cities and towns in the country

5 min read
Foto: Flickr/ Amir Farshad Ebrahimi

The recent cycle of protest in Iran – the largest wave since the 2009 Green Protests – has given rise to much speculation about the actors involved, their demands, and the government’s response(s). The protests, which began in late December 2017 and continued into January, erupted across more than 70 cities and towns in Iran, and as such were more geographically expansive than the 2009 Green Protests. Whereas the Green protests were triggered by what was seen as a rigged presidential election (which brought about a second presidential term for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), the present spate of protests was triggered by the rising cost of food and services, although slogans heard around the country also included calls for the downfall of the regime. What was common to both waves of protest was the broad participation of women.

Iranian women have long been involved in protest in Iran, and during the 1978-79 revolution could be seen as backers of an Islamist political order (with the vast majority of such women wearing the long black chador), or of a more liberal or left-wing alternative. Protests by liberal and left-wing women erupted in March 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini announced that he preferred to see all Iranian women in hijab, and preferably in the traditional chador. By early 1981, hijab had become the law, and the combination of the war with Iraq, the hostage crisis, and an intense period of institutional Islamization coupled with extreme repression of any and all dissidence made it all but impossible for women to protest. Instead, they waited for an opportunity to engage in novel forms of action, which came about after the end of the war in 1988 and Khomeini’s death in 1989. In the early 1990s, a group of women writers and publishers began to explore an egalitarian, emancipatory, and women-friendly form of Islam, which feminist scholars in the diaspora called “Islamic feminism”.  The newspaper Zanan and the women’s studies journal Farzaneh, which began to appear in the early 1990s, represented this new intellectual trend.  

Two other developments were occurring in the 1990s, which helped transform Iran’s female population into one of the most educated and enlightened in the Middle East and North Africa region. First, young women took advantage of public schooling to increase their educational attainment and postpone marriage. Second, the availability of free contraception enabled married women to control childbearing and decrease family size. The result was that by the academic year 2000-01, women’s university enrollments exceeded those of men, and the total fertility rate had declined dramatically, falling to replacement by the end of the decade. These developments triggered women’s interest in political participation, with an unprecedented 15 women elected to the Islamic Republic’s Fifth parliament (1996-2000), and 13 in the Sixth parliament (2001-2005); both included outspoken reform-oriented women’s rights advocates with ties to the growing women’s movement in civil society. Indeed, women’s votes were crucial to the election of the reformist Sixth parliament and the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2004). When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced plans to shut down a number of non-governmental organizations following his election to the presidency, women took to the streets for the first time since 1979. That protest in 2005 was, in a sense, the dress rehearsal for the far more vast Green protests of June 2009 that followed Ahmadinejad’s unexpected re-election, where women and men appeared on the streets with green ribbons and signs that read “Where is my Vote?”  

In the years that followed, that is, during the Ahmadinejad era (2005-2013) and the present era of the reformist Hassan Rouhani, who won a second term in June 2017, Iranian women continued to improve their educational attainment even further, take control over their bodies, travel, and defiantly resist the hijab law in creative ways. By 2015, the singulate mean age at marriage for women was 24 (compared with 27 for men), as more women extended their schooling or entered the work force. In 2015, fully 56% of university-aged women were enrolled in institutions of higher education, and 68% of science students were women. In addition, Iranian women made up 35% of civil service employees. As seen in the table below, access to healthcare, including reproductive health, is strong, as is social provisioning for families. (Government covers both maternity and paternity leaves.)

Maternal mortality ratio (per 100,000 live births)


Total fertility rate


Antenatal care coverage, at least one visit (%)


Births attended by skilled health personnel (%)


Contraceptive prevalence, any method (% of married or in-union women aged 15–49)


Length of paid maternity leave (calendar days)


Percent of wages paid during maternity leave


Length of paid paternity leave (calendar days)


Percent of wages paid during paternity leave


However, women’s labor force participation (FLFP), political presence, and involvement in decision-making positions are very low, while their unemployment rate (26.5% for urban women) is more than twice that of men. The rate of FLFP is just 18%; women’s parliamentary representation has ranged over the decades from between 2 and 5 percent; and the female share of the category “l
egislators, senior officials, and managers” is just 15 percent[1]. Official statistics as well as international data show that over the past decade, women constituted between 20 and 24 percent of university teaching staff, proportions that are lower than, for example, those of Algeria (38% female), Tunisia (42%), and Turkey (40%). What is more, unlike Morocco and Tunisia, which have vocal and visible women’s rights organizations that have been able to influence legal and policy reforms, the Iranian authorities do not permit independent civil society organizing, and the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1990s and first half of the new century was repressed during the Ahmadinejad years and has yet to reinvigorate itself.

The persistence of poverty, the problem of drug addiction, high rates of unemployment, ever-growing income inequality, and the many social restrictions that remain have long been sources of societal dissatisfaction. The cycle of protest will continue, as will women’s involvement in it, until the regime reforms itself, its policies, and its legal frameworks. 


[1] All data from the World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report, 2015 

Read the Italian version of this article