On October 15, Hamid Baeidinejad, the Iranian ambassador to the United Kingdom, tweeted a picture of two Iranian women flying a passenger jet between Tehran and Mashhad: Neshat Jahandari, the pilot, and Forouz Firouzi, the copilot. They flew the Iran Air plane carrying 160 passengers from Tehran to Mashhad and 171 passengers on the way back. It was the first time that an all-women pilot crew flew a passenger plane over the skies of Iran.
“Two female pilots fly in confidence a Tehran-Mashhad passenger flight in Iran,” tweeted the ambassador in an effort to project a modern and progressive image of Iran. His tweet was real enough, but it was an act of public relations, mostly meant for the benefit of foreign observers, since the image of gender equality is not one that the Islamic Republic necessarily wants to project about itself.
Iran is the land of wonders. The Iranian police are against women riding bicycles or motorbikes, and yet women can pilot passenger planes.
Recently, after the police refused to issue licenses for women motorbike riders, a resident of Isfahan complained to Iran’s Administrative Court of Justice. The court ruled that no law prevents women from obtaining a license to ride motorbikes, that the right to ride motorcycles is not gender-dependent and that the police must issue licenses for women.
There are religious extremists in Iran who are even against women riding bicycles in cities. They cite a 2016 response from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the question: “Are women allowed to cycle in the streets providing sharia rules are observed?” Khamenei’s reply was that it was prohibited for women to cycle “in public places” when they are “exposed to the eyes” of anyone other than close relatives. No “ifs” or “buts” about it.
Religiously-conservative members of Iranian society oppose any significant social or political role for Iranian women. And yet Iranians, including women, go about their lives as the times and circumstances require, but they pay a steep price for defying official bans and limitations.
It was only a few days ago, on October 10, following pressure from the International Football Federation (FIFA), that Iranian women were able to buy tickets for a World Cup qualifying game and enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium without having to disguise themselves as men. The government tried its best to take the joy out of this victory. Among other things, women’s stands were fenced off from the rest of the stadium with metal bars and many women were denied tickets even though seats remained empty throughout the game. Nevertheless, it was an achievement for Iranian women — albeit an achievement that could not have happened without pressure from FIFA and its threat of suspending Iran from international football competitions.
Less than a month earlier, on September 2, a young Iranian woman who became known as the “Blue Girl” set herself on fire and died tragically after she got into trouble with Iranian law enforcement and the judiciary for trying to get into the stadium to watch a football game.
Iranian women have been paying a heavy price to claim their legal rights when most restrictions on them, such as the ban on their entry to sports stadiums, have no basis in law and are imposed on them only because certain religious authorities and ayatollahs in Qom demand them, citing Ayatollah Khamenei to give their misogynistic views legitimacy.