This document, the second in a series on gender and society in Iran, will address the public debate that arose following a November 2012 draft bill aimed at restricting Iranian women from leaving the country.
According to the original draft bill, single women up to age 40 would be required to present authorization from a guardian or a judge in order to receive a passport to leave Iran (currently, this restriction applies only to girls age 18 or younger). Despite public criticism of the draft bill, in December 2012 the regime further toughened it by stipulating that any single woman, regardless of age, would be have to meet this requirement. However, in February 2013 the regime bowed to public pressure and removed the bill from its agenda altogether.
The draft bill sparked widespread criticism, mainly from women inside and outside Iran, who claimed that the regime was oppressing its female citizens and attempting to increase its oversight of them.
Conversely, Majlis Judicial and Legal Committee Chairman Allahyar Malekshahi criticized the fact that the bill had become a matter of public debate before its approval by the Majlis, warning that this talk constituted "fodder for the [anti-regime] propaganda of the defenders of human rights."
This document will review the debate surrounding the bill: both the claims of its proponents in the government and Majlis and the public criticism against it.
Supporters Of The Draft Bill
The draft bill was cosponsored the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, the Women's Faction (a bloc of female Majlis members), and the Center for Women and Family Affairs in the President's Office, who claimed that it was essential. Zahra Sajadi, an advisor to President Ahmadinejad and deputy head of the Center for Women and Family Affairs, said that "according to Islam, age 40 is the time when a person's mind ripens." Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee spokesman Mehdi Davatgari told the daily Sharq: "Our honor does not permit our women to deal with matters of corruption. From bitter experience, we know that if you enter a hotel in Istanbul, you discover what Iranian girls are engaged in." Laleh Eftekhari, spokeswoman for the Women's Faction in the Majlis, said that the faction supported the bill provided that it would apply only to women trying to leave the country for "unclear purposes," regardless of age. She said that "in recent years, restrictions on women leaving the country have been lifted, and some of them abused this and created problems for the regime."
Regime Distances Itself From The Bill
Following the public and media criticism of the bill, the Majlis and government blamed each other for promoting it. Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy spokesman Hossein Naghavi Hosseini said that the government had submitted the proposal to the Majlis, and that the committee had discussed it with a government representative in attendance. The government, on the other hand, claimed that the draft bill submitted to the Majlis did not include a specific reference to women, but rather sought to restrict departure from the country for various categories of people, including criminals and citizens wanted for questioning by the authorities, and to fine anyone who presents false documents in applying for a passport.
Iranian woman leaving the country (image: Siasat-e Roz, December 21, 2012)
Public Opposition To The Draft Bill
Iranian human rights activists criticized the regime's oppression of women and called the bill "legislative violence," claiming that it would tighten the restriction on women in Iranian society. After the regime made the bill even stricter by removing the age limit, these activists objected that this was the exact opposite of what they desired, which was to withdraw the bill altogether, and also revoke the existing law banning married women from leaving the country without the signed consent of their husbands.
As part of widespread media and public activity against the bill, protest conferences were held in Iran and articles were published attacking it. Opponents claimed that it was meant to prevent women from discovering the free world and distancing themselves from the soaring corruption in Iran, and that it meant a return to the culture of the jahiliyya (i.e. the pre-Islamic age), which considered women mere sexual objects. They dismissed the regime's claims that the bill would reduce the involvement of Iranian women in prostitution abroad, pointing out that many legal guardians in Iran prostitute their own daughters, and that the draft bill ignores the pride that Iranian women have brought the country through their scientific achievements.
The following are excerpts from statements by human rights activists against the draft bill.
Public Activists: The Proposal Constitutes Legislative Violence Against Women
In an interview with the daily Rooz, Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi defined the bill as "legislative violence against Iranian women," and added that, "these days, there is no sign on the horizon of a move to amend laws that discriminate against women in Iran." Human rights activist Touran Valimorad called the bill the worst offense to Iranian women in the past year. Former Majlis member Elaheh Koulaei, who is close to the reformists, called on the Majlis to dismiss the "shameful draft bill," calling it part of the increasing restrictions on women's freedom in Iran which stem from "the patriarchal view that a woman must always be controlled by a man, be it her father, husband or guardian."
Women under 40 are forbidden from leaving (image: Khabaronline.ir, December 10, 2012)
Human Rights Activist: The Proposal Is A Failure Of The Establishment In The Face Of The Human Desire For Freedom And Dignity
Women's rights activist Leila Asadi, who lives outside Iran, criticized the draft bill in a December 25, 2012 article on the website Jahan-e Zan, which is associated with the women's struggle in Iran. She wrote: "Some time ago it was reported that in Saudi Arabia the customs authorities have a system that sends an automatic text message to [a woman's] husband or father when she leaves the country... Saudi men, therefore, no longer need to worry about their women leaving the country without permission because they are notified by text message...
"It has been nearly a month since the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Iran approved the new draft bill... and forwarded it to the Majlis for debate... [with the support] of the Women's Faction and the Center for Women and Family Affairs at the Presidency. A short time later, following objections to the bill, Shahla Mirgolo Bayat, deputy head of the Women's Faction in the Majlis, [suddenly] criticized it and said that these restrictions should not apply to all single women, but only to women who leave the country for unclear purposes – without, of course, specifying what 'unclear purposes' meant. But then the Majlis National Security Committee – ignoring criticism from legal experts and social activists – dropped the 'age 40' clause from the bill so that single women of any age would have to present authorization from a guardian or judge to receive a passport.
"The Iranian government, which has failed in many areas, is now [finally] fulfilling its task of enforcing social order, but it is directing [its efforts] against women instead of [fighting] the moral and financial corruption which is leading [our] society towards collapse…
"We [women] went through the stage of [gender] segregation in schools and universities. With this latest draft bill, we have become minors whose legal decisions are made no only made by our fathers, brothers, and husbands, but also by the regime, which has and will [continue to] put all its efforts behind preventing any deviation or improper or immoral behavior on our part. According to this view, we women are nothing...
"If this proposal is ratified, it will reflect the societal reality that we see more and more [clearly] every day, and indicate the failure of [Iranian] law to contend with the human [need] for happiness, equality, freedom and dignity... These increasingly restrictive political moves indicate that the government, like a dying man desperately trying to raise his head, is trying to show that only it is the deciding force for its citizens, which of course include women. [This is] despite all the social ills [that require addressing], such as the rising age of marriage, the rise in the divorce rate and extramarital sexual relations, the spread of AIDS, and illegal abortions...
To leave the country, you must be a man (image: Patira.in, December 4, 2012)
"[The regime believes that] if women [want] to leave Iran so that they can break the hidden barriers inside and outside of themselves, they must be prevented from leaving [and forced to] submit to the existing social order, even at the price of defining them as minors until age 40."
Women's Rights Activists: The Regime Wants To Bring Women Back To The Jahiliyya Era
On December 17, 2012, Iranian women's rights activists held a conference in Tehran on the issue of the draft bill. After female Majlis members who were invited to attend the conference failed to arrive, the activists issued a communiqué accusing them of shirking their duty to respond to the public's criticism. The communiqué stated: "This meeting was supposed to be attended by members of the Women's Faction of the Majlis who would answer questions by opponents of the draft bill... However, [after receiving an invitation,] Majlis Women's Faction head Fatemeh Rahbar announced in an official letter that the members of her Faction would not be attending, with the excuse that they had another meeting [to attend]. Unfortunately, it seems that not only do Majlis members submit strange and bizarre anti-women draft bills on a daily basis, but they also avoid answering the countless questions that these draft bills evoke in society."
Speaking against the bill at the conference, activist Touran Valimorad said: "If women are denied the [status of beings capable of rational] thought, it means they lack the ability to distinguish right from wrong, and that they are no more than sexual objects. The reasoning behind this bill is from pre-Islamic Jahiliyya culture, and its purpose is apparently to revert to that culture."
Activist Shahindokht Mowlaverdi said: "We were expecting amendments to the [existing] passport law regarding married women, including the removal of the stipulation that they can leave the country only with their husbands' consent. Unfortunately, this expectation was not met. On the contrary – another stipulation was added, [namely] that single women leaving the country would require the consent of their fathers. This, while our society has advanced and even [the public] did not expect these changes."
Another activist, Ashraf Geramizadegan, added: "When the draft bill was proposed, I remembered that before the [Islamic] revolution and during the constitutional revolution [1905-1911], women could not participate or vote in the elections, because they were placed, along with the insane, [in the category of] those with no voting rights. [Only] after the law was changed were they allowed to vote. Now, with this bill, we are going back to the time when women were viewed as... mentally incompetent. This is a return to the past, which is saddening."
Women's rights activist Azam Haji Abbasi said: "Violence is not just beating and cursing... Preventing women from being issued a passport constitutes legislative violence against them. [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini once said in a speech... 'Why should we object to women travelling [abroad]?' Why does the Majlis today want to ratify a draft bill against women travelling?"
The Tehran conference in protest of the law proposal (image: Iran-emrooz.net, December 18, 2012)
Women's Rights Activists: Law Proposers Don't Know How Many Legal Guardians In Iran Are Prostituting Their Own Daughters
Women's rights activist Rezvan Moghaddam, who lives outside Iran, published an article on February 1, 2013 on the website feministschool.com, which is associated with the women's struggle in Iran: "Any reasonable reader asks himself why these 'honorable' men [who submitted the draft bill] do not visit scientific centers, universities, and research institutes to see for themselves the honor that Iranian women bring [to the country]. How can they not see, for example, 33-year-old Doctor of Mathematics Maryam Mirzakhani, a young assistant at Princeton University, who was named one of the top 10 leading minds in North America and has been called 'a groundbreaker,' as well as many other outstanding Iranian women specializing in various fields?
"Statements by some Majlis members cause any decent reader to wonder whether there is any logic to be found in them. How can the Iranian man's honor depend only on the clothes a woman wears, where she goes, who she associates with, where she works, or where she studies? Why don't [the men] put their honor to good use by [addressing] poverty, high cost of living, bribery, theft, and corruption, which exist in abundance? Is there no answer to all these insults directed at Iranian women and at men who object to gender discrimination?...
"In addition, one must ask whether a guardian's consent would solve the problem of women working in 'shameful jobs' in hotels where men visit, and thus preserve their honor. The men [who believe this] apparently don't know how many 'guardians' [in Iran] are prostituting their own daughters. Can this unequal and offensive draft bill be ratified based on shallow justifications, to deny the right of over 38 million Iranian women... to travel abroad, especially to holy sites, merely because a few women [work] 'in an Istanbul hotel'?" 
*Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 ISNA (Iran), December 10, 2012.
 The head of the Women's Faction in the Majlis, Fatemeh Rahbar, explained that the bill had been dismissed because an inquiry had revealed that only few women commit transgressions during their stay abroad. Fars (Iran), February 20, 2013.
 ILNA (Iran), December 19, 2012.
 ISNA (Iran), December 7, 2012.
 Sharq (Iran), January 15, 2013.
 ISNA (Iran), November 27, 2012. In an interview with the daily Etemad, the deputy head of the Women's Faction, Shahla Mirgolo Bayat, likewise said that "the Women's Faction has no problem with this draft bill," and explained that, alongside women who leave the country for known purposes, others depart for unclear purposes and create problems for Iranian society." Etemad (Iran), November 28, 2012.
 ISNA (Iran), December 17, 2012.
 Dolat.ir, December 19, 2012. Fatemeh Bodaghi, a legal advisor to the president, and Maryam Mojtahadzadeh, head of the Center for Women and Family Affairs, said that restricting women under age 40 from leaving the country contravenes civil law and did not appear in the draft bill submitted by the government to the Majlis. ISNA (Iran), December 17, 2012.
 Roozonline.com, November 26, 2012.
 Khabaronline.ir, March 31, 2013.
 Etemad.ir, November 26, 2012.
 Jahanezan.wordpress.com, December 25, 2012.
 Feministschool.com, January 3, 2013.
 Feministschool.com, January 3, 2013.
 Feministschool.com, February 1, 2013.