Mahboube Hoseinzadeh, a 39-year-old journalist, is on the front lines of the women’s rights movement in Iran, a theocratic society dominated by men.
In 2007, she was jailed twice in Tehran’s Evin Prison with other activists for mounting a campaign, the One Million Signatures movement, which tried to raise public awareness about the need for equal treatment of the country’s 40 million women.
Just this April, she lost her job at an Iranian women’s magazine, Zanan-e Emrooz, which means Women of Today in Persian, after the magazine ran an article on the increasing practice of young Iranian couples living together outside of marriage.
The country’s Media Supervisory Board summarily shut down the publication, and since then, Ms. Hoseinzadeh said she and the other staff members have been waiting to see if the publication’s editor in chief can convince the authorities to reopen her employer.
So it was with joy, tinged with skepticism, that Ms. Hoseinzadeh and her colleagues learned earlier this month of their country’s historic nuclear deal with the West, which boosted hope of a further opening of Iranian society, including, perhaps, better rights for women.
“When they reached a deal, I couldn’t stop crying,’’ Ms. Hoseinzadeh said in a Skype interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition. “During these heavy and inhuman sanctions, ordinary Iranian people have suffered a lot because of a shortage of medicine and rising prices.”
But on whether the deal will improve her plight and women like her, Ms. Hoseinzadeh said: “I think it is a little soon to predict.’’
Compared with Western countries, women in Iran lead sharply restricted lives, although not as restricted as in some Arab Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, where they are forbidden to drive. In Persian Iran, women can drive, but they can’t attend public sporting events, and are largely shut out of the country’s male-dominated power structure.
Unemployment among women in Iran is about 20 percent, according to estimates by the World Bank, and many have jobs on the black market. When Ms. Hoseinzadeh walks the streets of Tehran, she wears the hijab, the head scarf, because it is the law.
If she doesn’t, she said passersby will eventually remind her. If she ignores them and is caught by the country’s roving religious police, she will be arrested, she said.
“When they reached a deal, I couldn't stop crying. During these heavy and inhuman sanctions, ordinary Iranian people have suffered a lot because of a shortage of medicine and rising prices.”
But amid what to Westerners would seem like severe repression, Iranian women are slowly making gains in the country, where the median age is just 29 years old.
More than 50 percent of students at Iranian universities are women, according to several media reports. The push hearkens back to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war when men went to war and women assumed more responsibility at home.
“Iran is among the countries with a higher percentage of women in tertiary education compared to men,” according to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report.
So after the West imposed economic sanctions on Iran, women were the first to suffer, activists inside Iran and some living abroad said.
“Especially in a more conservative society you have push-backs on women first at times of economic hardship,” said Sussan Tahmasebi, a Iranian women’s activist living in New York.
Ms. Tahmasebi moved to the United States in 2010, she said, to join her family. She co-founded the International Civil Society Action Network, an organization supporting women’s rights in her home region.
The ebb and flow of Iranian politics has directly affected the advancement of women in the country. Under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was president from 2005 to 2013, the cause was dealt a setback, as repression from the government and western sanctions took hold.
In 2011, 36 Iranian universities banned women from taking 77 different academic majors, causing the nation’s female student population to fall to 50 percent from 65 percent, according to an article last September in Borgen Magazine, a U.S. publication that focuses on global poverty issues.
But under Mr. Ahmadinejad’s successor, the more moderate Hassan Rohani, there appears to be the potential for more progress.
Mr. Rohani appointed Shahindokht Molaverdi to his cabinet as vice president for women and family affairs. She is highest-ranking woman in the Iranian government. So far, there have been no women named as government ministers.
But Ms. Molaverdi’s fighting a lonely battle in the male-dominated cabinet, Ms. Tahmasebi said.
“She is alone in her position, and she is not getting the kind of support that her predecessors got from men in the cabinet,” she said. “And a vice president doesn’t have the same power as a (full) minister because she doesn’t have a ministry at her disposal.”
The democratically elected Iranian parliament, or Majlis, is subservient to the appointed Assembly of Experts, which elects the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, the highest ranking political and religious figure in Iran.
Within the 290-member parliament, there are nine women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a group that compiles statistics on legislative bodies.
Mr. Rohani, the president, has also appointed women as local governors in Iranian provinces where women are in the minority.
The plight of Iranian women could improve, however, if the recently signed nuclear accord leads to a lessening of tensions, and economic sanctions, which could boost their economic chances. In times of economic stress, women tend to lose out in the workplace.
Mr. Rohani appointed Shahindokht Molaverdi to his cabinet as vice president for women and family affairs. She is the highest-ranking woman in the Iranian government. So far, there have been no women named as government ministers.
“Whenever there is pressure on the economy, men are the ones in charge of the family’s income and so the government favors them over women,” said Parvin Javadi, an Iranian woman who is an independent researcher in political science in Berlin.
Ms. Javadi, who is married to an Iranian medical researcher working at a Berlin hospital, has been living in Germany since 2005. They have one child together. She called the nuclear deal “great news’’ but said she is a realist about its potential to change life quickly for women.
“The new nuclear deal is a great step forward and will help economically, but I don’t think it will have an effect on women’s social and legal struggle,” Ms. Javadi said. “Women have been fighting for their rights for more than 120 years in Iran.
“This fight will continue and will be tough – with or without a deal.”
But women in Iran are becoming increasingly assertive about pushing for equal rights outside the male-dominated power structure.
Ms. Javadi said that Iran’s divorce rate, roughly 20 percent, has been rising, regardless of whether a conservative or liberal government is in power. Women in Iran have access to modern world through the Internet, satellite TV and most speak a foreign language.
“Most women in Iran can afford to separate from their husbands even today, because either they are economically independent on their own, or they have support from their family,” Ms. Javadi said.
But some Iranian women fear the nuclear deal will elicit a backlash from the country’s conservative leaders.
“It is true that most of the human rights activists are not so optimistic about the new deal and think that the improved relations with the western world will give the government more freedom to oppress its internal opponents,” said Homa Maddah, an Iranian woman who moved recently to Bonn, Germany, to pursue a doctorate in development studies.
Ms. Hoseinzadeh, the journalist who is waiting for her magazine to reopen, said she is hoping for legal changes that could solidify the rights of women in her country.
“I think first of all we need some legal guarantees from the government to ensure that our social activities won’t end in prison or courts,” she said in the interview. “I hope no other country in the world will have our devastating and bitter experience of sanctions.”
Video: 100 Years of Beauty in Iran.
Franziska Scheven is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Allison Williams is deputy editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition and contributed reporting. To contact the author: email@example.com