Iranian women wear protective masks to prevent contracting a coronavirus, as they walk at Grand Bazaar in Tehran, Iran February…
FILE - Iranian women wear masks to prevent against the coronavirus as they walk at Grand Bazaar in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 20, 2020. (West Asia News Agency/Nazanin Tabatabaee via Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Iranian rights activists based in Iran and in exile have marked International Women’s Day by drawing attention to some of the main hardships facing women in the Islamic republic, including violence directed at them by men and deepening unemployment in a coronavirus-hit economy.  

“As a woman who grew up in the Islamic republic, I’m very much accustomed to the regime’s assaults, humiliations and insults,” said Iran-based dissident Narges Mohammadi in a video message sent to VOA Persian and aired in a special Monday program about International Women’s Day. “But I object to the way the regime has treated me recently. Why did male police assault and rough me up? I’ve repeatedly asked officials to send me a written response, but they have not done so,” she said.   

Mohammadi, a 48-year-old journalist and human rights advocate, had been released in October from five years of imprisonment in Iran after years of campaigning by international rights activists demanding an end to what they described as her unjust and cruel detention. In an August message to VOA, her France-based husband, Taghi Rahmani, said Mohammadi needed specialized medical care outside prison for a lung disease and weakened immune system, as well as for beatings that she apparently sustained during a prison transfer in December 2019.  

London-based rights group Amnesty International has said Iranian authorities assaulted Mohammadi as they transferred her to a prison in the northwestern city of Zanjan from Tehran’s Evin prison, where she had been incarcerated since her May 2015 arrest. Video recordings posted on social media have shown other female Iranian rights activists suffering public assaults by ultraconservative men in the Islamist-ruled nation in recent years.  

Domestic violence against women also is a serious problem in Iran, according to Iranian cultural studies researcher Leily Nikounzar, a PhD candidate at Belgian university KU Leuven. Speaking to the VOA Persian program, she cited Iran’s welfare organization as saying phone calls to its psychological counseling center doubled this past year compared to previous years, with many of those calls being domestic violence-related.  

“Consider that when members of a family stay at home and in a confined space for days and months [due to coronavirus lockdowns] and face other pressures such as unemployment, stress, illness and death, domestic violence will increase,” Nikounzar said.  

Iranian women’s rights activist and journalist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, who lives in Los Angeles, told the VOA show that Iran lacks a developed “Me Too” social movement to fight against such violence and sexual harassment against women. Since its 2006 founding by American survivor Tarana Burke, activists around the world have adopted the “Me Too” movement slogan to highlight sexual violence cases and help survivors in their own countries.    

“Iran’s ‘Me Too’ movement lacks maturity compared to the U.S. version,” Abbasgholizadeh said. “It is a very angry Iranian movement that is unable to offer empowerment, clinical advice and other tools to help assaulted or raped women to overcome their trauma.”  

Iranian Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Masoumeh Ebtkekar downplayed domestic violence and other forms of violence against women in her country as “not high” in remarks to a regional forum last month. She also asserted that Iran was in a “better position” than other countries dealing with such problems.  

But in a statement issued Monday, the U.N. Human Rights Office said a report to be presented to the Human Rights Council the next day highlights “serious concerns” about domestic violence in Iran. While noting some positive steps such as an Iranian law against acid attacks, it said the report by U.N. Special Rapporteur Javaid Rehman will press Tehran to do more, such as making improvements to an anti-violence bill awaiting parliamentary approval.  

Iran is one of only a few countries that have not signed a 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.  

Another hardship facing Iranian women is high unemployment exacerbated by the pandemic that began affecting Iran early last year. In another interview for Monday’s VOA program, Berlin-based Iranian political activist and former industrial economics student Mahdieh Golroo said about 70% of those laid off from Iran’s workforce since the pandemic began have been women.  

“Importantly, that 70% estimate is for the proportion of women who lost official jobs rather unofficial ones,” Golroo said. “Iranian housewives who work in villages, women who work as street vendors and those who produce goods at home -- many of them also lost their jobs due to the coronavirus and they are not included in this statistic.”  

The Islamic republic’s poor record on women’s rights prompted a defiant message from a mother and her daughter whom it has jailed since April 2019 for campaigning against its forced public veiling of women. In the poetic audio recording sent to VOA Persian from inside Qarchak women’s prison in southern Tehran, Monireh Arabshahi and her daughter Yasaman Aryani denounced what they called the “patriarchy and misogyny” of Iran’s Islamist rulers and vowed to stand firm against their “cruelty and belittlement.”

“I am that Phoenix who will rise from her ashes,” the message said, before concluding with an International Women’s Day greeting to their homeland and the world.  

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly rendered  Leily Nikounzar's first name. VOA regrets the error.