Winds of change

Print edition : August 26, 2005

Iranian women line up to vote in the presidential run-off election. - VAHID SALEMI/AP

IRAN is a country of many contradictions, its strict Islamic lifestyle, ordained by the clergy, is tempered by the strong strain of Sufism that infuses life in Iran. The contradictions tend to add to the distorted impressions that prevail in the Western media about the country.

The reforms of the past decade have wrought many changes in Iranian life. Iranian women are no longer cloistered in their homes; they participate in many spheres of public life. The official dress code prescribes the chador for women, but the younger generation wear a short coat called a monteau. A brightly coloured monteau with rolled up blue jeans is the height of fashion in Iran. Even in the black hejab, Iranian women walk with confidence.

Women's organisations have been demanding the right to live a productive life with dignity and respect and participation in all social, economic and political spheres. But women are apprehensive that the first changes the new government makes will hit their freedoms. As Nasreen, a lawyer who works with a women's organisation, said: "Maybe the monteau will become black, instead of coloured. We can live with that. But I don't want to see a major reversal of the reforms."

The Centre for Women's Participation is attached to the President's office and its head, Zahra Shojai, enjoys the status of adviser to the President. Zahra Shojai explained that women had made some progress in recent years, although there were many things still to be done. The Centre makes recommendations to the government on all laws pertaining to women. More than two million women were involved in productive, economic activities. The religious leaders have been receptive to changes to suit the modern times, Zahra Shojai said, and the minimum age of marriage for girls was raised from nine to 15 years. Women have also got the right to initiate a divorce and it is the courts that decide on the custody of children.

Iran has a thriving industry for cosmetic surgery. Men and women, young and old are willing to undergo surgery for a tuck here and a nip there, though nose jobs are the most popular procedures. Magazines carry advertisements for beauty treatment and surgery. Unlike other countries where middle-aged women will disappear for some weeks to undergo cosmetic surgery, in Iran it is a procedure to be flaunted. The latest mode for young boys and girls is to be seen in public places, sporting a strip of sticking plaster across the bridge of their nose, which announces that they have had a nose job.

The clergy in Iran has supported two government programmes - the literacy programme and the family planning programme - making a success of both. Iran has the most effective and successful family planning programme. Aside from bringing down the birth rate, the family welfare programme has reduced infant, child and maternal mortality rates significantly. In 1976, literacy rates for men and women in Iran were 59 per cent and 35.5 per cent. But a strong literacy movement has resulted in 82 per cent literacy among women and 89 per cent for men.

The family planning programme was wound up after the Islamic Revolution saw in it an unwarranted Western influence. Women were encouraged to have large families and government subsidies acted as an incentive to have more children. The sudden increase in the population led to a rethinking of policy: between 1976 and 1986 the population went up from 34 million to 49 million. The large population became an obstacle for the development agenda as the war with Iraq had left the economy in a vulnerable state, with vastly depleted foreign exchange reserves and a seriously affected oil production. Iran adopted a pragmatic religious and political approach to population control.

In December 1989, the family planning programme was revived with the support of religious leaders. Population growth dropped from 3.2 per cent to 1.2 per cent by 2001.

Mohamed Abdel-Ahad of the United Nations Population Fund said: "The decline is attributed to a high degree of political commitment, support from the religious leaders together with widespread availability of family planning information and services through an efficient public health care system."

The family planning programme is part of the primary health care delivery system, which provides free contraceptives. Pre-marriage counselling has been made compulsory under the law. Marriages in Iran cannot be registered unless the couple have attended counselling sessions.

Significantly for a Muslim country, sterilisation techniques are accepted forms of birth control. Reversal of vasectomy is also available and has a success rate of 80 per cent. The leaders of Iran have shown that it can take difficult decisions, reversing old traditions in matters that are beneficial to the people.

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