Iran's female agents of change

Iran is adopting an ambiguous approach to women: encouraging them to get an education then making it difficult to pursue careers.

Mahtab Keramati, 37, an Iranian actress and a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
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Sara Reyhani is a dancer. Today, she can hardly perform in her country, where most forms of dance, which the Islamic Republic calls "rhythmic movement", are officially forbidden. Her recent performances have been subject to strict censorship, but she says that five years ago, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was president, she was able to dance in public without fearing any interference from the "moral police", a force that was set up to enforce Islamic social mores and steer people towards "right" behaviour. Iran has a female population of about 34 million, out of which only about 11 per cent are employed, an extraordinarily low figure given that 63 per cent of Iranian college students are women. That high figure is due, in part, to the country's Islamic government actively encouraging women to become educated, convincing even traditional rural families that it is safe to send their daughters away from home to study. This represents one of the biggest social shifts since the 1979 revolution. It is perhaps not surprising that in last year's post-election protests there were so many women in the crowds. They are better educated, more confident and more politically aware than those of previous generations. Indeed, it was a woman, 27-year-old Neda Agha Soltan, who became an icon for the "green" movement when she was shot in the street, dying as the world watched in horror. The Iran of today is a more challenging place for women than it was a few years ago. During his time in power, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, has made it more difficult for women to assert themselves, despite his promise five years ago to relax state controls over people's personal affairs. Outdated laws limiting women's rights and curbing social freedoms have not been changed. "We must respect the censorial restrictions. Otherwise, the show is cancelled instantly," explains Reyhani, 30, at her modern apartment in north Tehran. "But restrictions stimulate creativity. And that is interesting, at least for a certain amount of time. "I always insist that I am a dancer when I am in my home country. When performing abroad, I always emphasise that I am an Iranian. I am proud to be an Iranian dancer." Reyhani, who performs mainly in a modern style, does not earn much, but it is not about the money. "Dancing gives me what we, Iranian women, are missing the most: confidence. We know how to cover ourselves perfectly, but when it comes to knowing our body and knowing ourselves, we are complete strangers." Dr Minoo Mohraz is one example of the many women who are breaking down barriers to establish themselves in their chosen field. Iran's foremost Aids specialist, she earned the respect of some of Iran's top clerics, and is playing a key role in changing attitudes in the country towards career women. The energetic 64-year-old, who is a director and professor at the University of Tehran's HIV/Aids Institute, was the first woman to research HIV/Aids infection in Iran and to challenge the country's social taboos - emphasising the importance of safe sex to prevent the virus from spreading. "To me, women and men are equal. Despite the fact that a lot of Iranian women today still believe they are subordinate to men," she says in an interview at her clinic at Tehran's Imam Khomeini hospital. Haleh and Ghazale Amir Ebrahimi, aged 28 and 32 respectively, believe the constraints upon women are more cultural than anything else. The two unmarried sisters are the only female professional polo players in Iran. "Our freedom doesn't depend as much on the Islamic republic's laws, as it does on tradition," says Ghazale. "The rules don't say the girl has to marry at the age of 20 and not continue university, but that is what society expects from us because of tradition." Mahtab Keramati, 39, the celebrated actress and Unicef goodwill ambassador, agrees. "After my divorce, Iranians started to treat me differently. It was my work that saved me from those bad times and through which I slowly managed to change people's minds regarding divorcées, and tell them I am still me," she says. Dardaneh Davari is a 35-year-old who specialises in strategic management. Over the past 10 years, she has been running Dorsa, her own management consulting firm. Davari says she has faced her share of discrimination working in a male-dominated environment. "Once I was in a meeting with a minister, who looked me up and down, then sent me home without even giving me an opportunity to say anything. Ah, there were many like him," she sighs. "Those incidents are not really important. They don't hurt me." Davari says it was easier to be a woman in business a few years ago, when Khatami, a progressive who advocated tolerance and freedom of speech and civil society, was president. She is dressed in a loose-fitting black tunic, trousers and casual shoes, her long hair covered with a red scarf, the only piece of clothing that makes her stand out. "Today it is very common that the government officials do not understand my language. Not because I am woman, but because I am a modern person with open views. A few years ago it was much easier." But there are upsides. "In some ways being a young woman in business is very good for my career. At first contact, my femininity helps me, because people choose to work with me because working with a woman is a rare opportunity in Iran," she says. "Of course you have to know what you're doing, too." In some professions, Iran's strict laws are a major issue when it comes to progressing. "I think at this point all sportswomen in Iran are facing difficult times," says Ziba Soleimani, aged 45, who is Iran's leading female karate champion as well as a swimming, running, shooting and fitness coach. "The 'covering' rule, which the [Iranian] karate federation and the government impose upon us, prevents us from competing in the main international contests," she adds. Yasaman Nikzad Khalili, 28, the youngest gallery owner in Iran, belongs to a new generation of career women. Khalili, whose red painted nails and red Converse shoes seem like an overt anti-government statement in a country where western fashion is practically forbidden. Khalili, who opened the Nikzad Gallery with the funds saved from the sales of her first solo painting exhibitions, aims to use the venture to support other young Iranian artists. She is also an assistant professor at the Academy of Fine Arts. Her work has won her several national competitions in poetry and painting. "I wouldn't succeed without the support of my family. For young people in Iran, it is a very difficult time to achieve anything," explains Khalili. Despite the fact that Khalili and many other women are not internationally well known for challenging the norms of traditional Iranian society, their everyday lives illustrate the changes the country is undergoing. And despite restrictions, they are hopeful that the women's movement will gain momentum, and many believe this new "army" of educated women will have a huge social impact in the future. As Dr Mohraz sums it up: "Sometimes educated women approach me to express respect. I tell them they can live the way they wish as well, that they carry enough courage in their hearts."